Ambitious vision for Scotland, and ‘beautiful dream’ of independence to follow

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Newsnet.scot presents First Minister Nicola sturgeon’s party conference speech today in full, as a service to readers. Chasing her first election victory as FM, and way ahead in the polls, Sturgeon set out to paint her vision for the Scottish Government’s next five years, addressing issues of Parliamentary powers, the economy, health, education, poverty and Scotland’s constitutional future.

Nicola Sturgeon MSP
Nicola Sturgeon MSP

By Nicola Sturgeon

I start today on a sad note. Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days Scotland has ever known. Even now, there are simply no words to express our horror and our sadness at what happened in Dunblane Primary School on the thirteenth of March 1996.

All we can do is tell those who lost loved ones, those who suffered injury and those whose lives changed forever that day, that we have not forgotten. You are in our thoughts and in our hearts – and you always will be.

Friends, It’s hard to believe that twelve months have passed since the SNP last met here in Glasgow. We resolved then to go out and make political history on Scotland’s behalf. And we did exactly that.

We won all but three seats across our country. And we painted red Clydeside a bright, golden yellow. We redefined what is possible in elections. And we have been shaking the foundations of the Westminster establishment ever since. Now, we stand just weeks from another defining election.

An election to our own, national parliament. An election that will set the direction for our country for the next five years and into a new decade. Today I will speak simply and directly to the people of Scotland.

I will ask you to elect us to be your government for a third consecutive term. And I will ask you to choose me as your First Minister. I will ask you to place your trust in me – and in my party – to lead our country. And in return I promise you this: We will strive as hard as we can, each and every day – in how we campaign and in how we govern – to earn and to re-earn the trust that you place in us.

SUPPORT

The SNP will never take your support for granted. And that sets us apart from our opponents in this election. Labour and the Tories have decided already that you’ll choose the SNP to be your government. They see their’s as simply a battle for second place. When Scottish Labour’s leader was asked if her party would come second in May, she answered boldly and confidently. She said ‘Yes’!

Now, we can laugh. But it is serious. Labour doesn’t believe it is going to be in government – so it makes no effort to put forward a credible programme for government. That is simply not good enough for our country. A party that doesn’t take itself seriously as a party of government does not deserve to be taken seriously by you, the people of Scotland. Indeed, Labour’s position is now so weakened that the Tories have been tempted to make bold – some might say reckless – claims about their own prospects.

The Tories now say they want to be the main opposition in Scotland. Yes, that’s right. The party that is stripping vital support from the disabled, the vulnerable and the working poor. The party of the bedroom tax. The party that is attacking trade union freedoms. The party that in Scotland wants to bring back prescription charges for the sick and tax university education. That party wants you to give them a bigger role in the Scottish Parliament. Well, I don’t believe for a second that you will do that. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people across our country know this to be true.

Scotland doesn’t need a Tory opposition. Scotland needs a strong and determined opposition to the Tories.My message to you today is clear. The other parties can battle over the runners up spot if they want to. We – the SNP – are standing to be your government. And I am standing to be your First Minister. And with the other parties not preparing for government, the responsibility on us to do so is even greater.

It places a responsibility on our shoulders to set out what we will do with the precious opportunity we seek.  That is what I will do today. I will set out what you can expect from a new SNP government. What you can expect from me as your First Minister. First, if you place your trust in us you will get a government that will always fight Scotland’s corner. Be in no doubt – our loyalty and our allegiance is first, last and always to Scotland, not to party bosses in Westminster.

You know how vital it is to have a strong Scottish Government that will always stand up and protect Scotland’s interests. We’ve been reminded of that just recently. During the referendum, the Westminster parties promised that Scotland would get new powers. It was a promise made freely and unconditionally. But when it came to delivering these new powers, the Tory Treasury tried to extract its pound of flesh. The Treasury tried to cut Scotland’s budget by £7 billion in return for the powers we were promised. It was a blatant and shameful attempt to renege on the vow they made to Scotland. But we said no.

John Swinney – our outstanding Deputy First Minister – stood firm. John Swinney said no to a £7 billion cut. And he said no to a £3 billion cut. The SNP saw off the Tory Treasury. Or as we say in Glasgow – we gubbed them.

Thanks to John Swinney, these powers will now come to Scotland without a single penny being lost to Scotland’s budget. That is standing up for Scotland and it is what the SNP will always do. Scotland’s voice needs to be heard on the big issues that will shape our future. And while so many of these issues remain in the control of Westminster, we need leaders who can make our voice heard on the UK stage.

imagesOf course, there will be different opinions in Scotland. Not everyone will agree with me – I know and respect that. But, as First Minister, it is my job to stand up for Scotland. To speak up for what I believe to be right for our country. That is why I say that Scotland’s place in Europe should not – and must not – become the casualty of a bitter and twisted Tory feud. Our place in Europe matters; It matters for the economic opportunities it gives us. And for the social protections it guarantees – protections that the Tories will rip up in an instant if given the chance. And let’s never forget that it was the Tories – backed by Labour – who told us we would be thrown out of the EU if we dared to vote for independence.

For them to take us now to the brink of an exit is not just irresponsible – it is staggeringly hypocritical. And to take us through that exit door against our will would be democratically indefensible.

Just as on Europe, Scotland’s voice needs to be heard on Trident too. The decision on the renewal of Trident is one of the most important and far reaching that this Westminster parliament will take. With Labour hopelessly divided, it will be down to us to make the practical and principled case against a new generation of nuclear weapons. And we – the SNP – will make that case with passion and with conviction.

My view could not be clearer. To spend £167 thousand million pounds on weapons of mass destruction would be immoral. And that is why SNP MPs – each and every one – will vote against the renewal of Trident. The SNP will always be stronger for Scotland and we will make Scotland’s voice heard. But if you re-elect us on May 5th our most important responsibility will be to build on the progress of the last nine years to make this country even stronger.

Today, I will set out the priorities that we will pursue over the next five years if you re-elect us to be your government. We will reform our precious NHS to make it truly fit for the future. And we will keep our NHS firmly in public hands – that is a guarantee.

We will support our businesses, large and small, to innovate, export and expand – so that they in turn help us tackle poverty and raise your living standards. We will work every single day to build a world class education system that gives all of our young people the best start in life. And we will protect free access to our universities. For as long as the SNP is in charge, there will be no tuition fees in Scotland.

We will use our new powers – responsibly but boldly – to make our country fairer and wealthier. And we will start by keeping our promise to abolish the bedroom tax. The decisions we take over the next five years will equip our country for the challenges of the next decade and beyond.

So we will be bold and ambitious – and we will build on strong foundations.

HEALTH

Take our NHS. When our political opponents criticise the NHS in Scotland, consider this. In England, under the Tories, the NHS is being privatised and doctors have been forced to go on strike. In Wales, under Labour, the NHS is in crisis. You know, if you need a knee replacement operation in Scotland, you’ll wait an average of 80 days. In Wales, under Labour, you will wait an average of 222 days.

So let me say this – politely but firmly – when it comes to health, we will take no lessons from Labour or from the Tories. Our NHS is delivering some of the best and fastest care anywhere in the UK. That is a tribute to our doctors, nurses, porters, auxiliaries, administrators – to everyone who works in our NHS and we thank them for it.

Unknown-1But we won’t rest on our laurels. Over the next 20 years, the number of people in Scotland aged over 75 will almost double. The increase will be equivalent to the populations of Aberdeen and Dundee combined. That will have profound implications for our health and social care services.

That’s why we have a clear plan for the future, based on these four commitments. I promise you today that the NHS resource budget will rise in real terms in each and every year of the next parliament. But more money alone will not equip our NHS for the future – it needs reform as well.

We must increase capacity for the growing number of routine operations that an ageing population will need. So I also promise today that over the next parliament, there will be five new elective treatment centres – in Edinburgh, Livingston, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen.

New investment of £200m – delivering hospital care more quickly to those who need it. Keeping people out of hospital, living independently in their own homes, is also vital. So I promise too that, in every single year of the next parliament, we will invest an increasing share of the NHS budget in primary, community and social care services.

And last, but by no means least, we will redouble our efforts to reduce deaths from the big killer diseases, like cancer. Next week, we will launch our new Cancer Strategy. It will set out 50 different actions that will help prevent cancer, diagnose people more quickly and deliver even better care and treatment.

The fact is too many people still suffer the heartache of losing loved ones years before they should because of cancer. It doesn’t have to be this way. With new treatments and developing technologies like radiotherapy, we can help more and more people beat cancer.

That is why I am delighted to announce today that over the next parliament we will invest an extra £50 million in radiotherapy services – it will buy new, state of the art equipment and employ an additional 100 radiotherapy specialists to work in our cancer centres. Vital investment to help save lives and keep families together for longer.

EDUCATION

Securing the future of our NHS is one of our most important responsibilities. So too is education. Nothing motivates me more than the desire to give every young person the same chances in life that I had. That means giving them the best education.

Our plan to do that starts in the early years. I promise today that by the end of the next parliament the SNP will double the provision of free early years education and childcare. We will make sure it is flexible and high quality – to meet the needs of children and parents alike.

And today I make this additional commitment. In the last parliament, we delivered free school meals for primaries 1 – 3, benefitting 135,000 children and saving families £380 a year for each child.

Today I can announce, that when we expand early years education to include full day provision, we will extend entitlement to free meals to 2, 3 and 4 year olds in our nurseries too. We will make sure that our youngest children get access to a healthy nutritious meal that improves their capacity to learn – without the stigma of means testing. We will also step up our work to close the gap in attainment in our schools.

Our new National Improvement Framework will deliver a revolution in school transparency – giving parents and the public more information than ever before about the progress of their children and the performance of our schools.

And to make sure progress is accelerated, we will invest extra resources where they are needed most. The Scottish Attainment Fund is already delivering support to more than 300 primary schools in the most deprived parts of our country. And in the budget two weeks ago, John Swinney doubled the Attainment Fund to more than £50m a year.

But I can announce today that we will go further and expand significantly its scope and scale. Last week, I announced progressive changes to local taxation that will raise an extra £100m a year. I said that this money would go to schools and it will.

It will see the reach of our Attainment Fund extend to every part of Scotland. The money will be allocated according to the number of children in each primary school and in the first three years of each secondary school that meet the eligibility criteria for free school meals, And it will go direct to headteachers.

It will mean they can invest in extra teachers, classroom assistants, equipment or additional learning support. And it means that over the next parliament, we will commit – over and above existing budgets – an extra three quarters of a billion pounds to raise the attainment of the most disadvantaged young people in our country.

ECONOMY

Opportunity for all – that is the defining principle of the government I lead. A strong education system is the foundation of a strong economy. And a strong economy is essential to all of us.

 

Today, in Scotland, we have higher employment than the rest of the U.K. We have faster productivity growth. And we have had the longest period of economic growth since devolution. One of the things our economy depends on is fast, reliable and future proofed digital infrastructure. Our Digital Scotland programme is already scheduled to deliver broadband to 95% of premises across the country by the end of next year.

The 5% not covered will be in some of the hardest to reach parts of rural Scotland. But in the digital age, it’s simply not acceptable any longer for anyone to be left behind.

So I can announce today that over the next parliament we will deliver superfast digital broadband – not to 95% – but to 100% of premises across Scotland. A growing economy underpins everything we do. But a fairer society where everyone gets the chance to contribute is also essential. That’s why inclusive growth is at the heart of our economic strategy.

And it’s why we are determined to tackle low pay and lift people out of poverty. Scotland already has a higher proportion of workers paid the living wage than any other nation in the UK. And I’m proud to tell you today that from October – thanks to the budget decisions we have taken – the living wage will be paid to social care workers across our country.

LIVING WAGE

But we will go further. When I became First Minister, there were just 78 accredited living wage employers in Scotland. I set the ambition of increasing that to 500 by the end of this parliament. I’m pleased to report today that this target was met last week.We now have 500 living wage accredited employers across our country.

So, now, I am going to double the target. My pledge today is that, by autumn next year, Scotland will have at least 1000 accredited living wage employers. Economic success benefitting the many, not just the few. That is our aim. Over these past nine years we have used the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament to make Scotland better. We will use our new powers to do that too.

We’ve already pledged to improve Carers’ Allowance and abolish the bedroom tax. And we’ve set out plans to establish a new Social Security Agency to administer new welfare powers. And that matters – because the less reliant Scotland has to be on Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work & Pensions, the better.

Today, I want to outline how we will also use new powers to help tackle child poverty. The Sure Start Maternity Grant makes a payment of £500 to low income families on the birth of a child. It helps parents meet the essential costs of looking after a new baby. And it helps to protect babies born into low income households, in the very first day of their lives, from some of the disadvantages of poverty.

Not surprisingly, one of the first things the Tories did in 2010 was cut it. It now applies to first born children only. So, I can announce today that we will replace the Sure Start Maternity Grant with a new and expanded Maternity and Early Years Allowance – targeted at our lowest income families. The payment at birth for a first child will increase from £500 to £600. And we will put back what the Tories took away.

We will restore payments – of £300 each – for second and subsequent children. But we also recognise that the disadvantages of poverty affect children, not just at birth, but at other key stages of their young lives as well. If we are going to close the poverty gap later in life, we need to do more to level the playing field in the early years. So we will also make payments of £250 to help meet the additional costs low income parents face at two further stages in their child’s lives – when they start nursery and again when they start school.

NEW POWERS

Helping children get the best possible start in life. That is how the SNP will use our Parliament’s new powers. From April next year, the Scottish Parliament will also be responsible for setting income tax rates. I promise you today that we will use these new powers fairly and responsibly. We are determined to make this country fairer – but to do that, we also need Scotland to be an attractive place to live, work and do business.

Next leader of the Opposition?
Next leader of the Opposition?

So let me set out some key principles that will guide us. Firstly, we will never forget that every decision we take on tax has to be paid for by you, the hard working people of this country. Secondly, we will not raise the basic rate of income tax. I don’t think there’s anything left wing about a competition over who can tax ordinary people the most.

Taxing the lowest paid more doesn’t tackle austerity – it simply passes the burden of Tory austerity to the shoulders of those who can least afford it and that is not fair. So it would be wrong at this time to raise taxes on the lower paid. But, given the circumstances we face right now, it would also be wrong to give big tax cuts to the better off as George Osborne is planning to do.

We will not do that – our choice will be to invest more in our public services instead. We will set out our detailed plans for income tax after next week’s budget.

But I promise you this today.  The decisions we take will be reasonable and balanced. They will be fair to all taxpayers, they will be fair to our economy and they will be fair to our public services – because that is what you have a right to expect from your party of government.

What defines the SNP, more than anything, is our ambition for Scotland. Ambition for our economy. For our NHS. Ambition for our education system. And for the opportunities we give to our young people. It is also our ambition that drives our belief that Scotland should be an independent country.

DREAMS

One of my heroes is Eleanor Roosevelt – the former First Lady of the United States, who was also a great feminist and human rights advocate. Eleanor Roosevelt once said that ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams’.

Our dream is for Scotland to become independent. To be in the driving seat of our own destiny. To shape our own future. And, on the basis of equality with our family across the British Isles and our friends across the globe, to play our part in building a better world. That is a beautiful dream. And we believe in it.

But the former First Lady also said this – ‘It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan’.

We should listen to those words of wisdom. We will not achieve our dream of independence just by wishing that the outcome of the referendum had been different. Or wishing that we could do it all again next week. We will achieve independence only when we persuade a majority of our fellow citizens that it is the best future for our country.

Our success will depend on the strength of our arguments and the clarity of our vision. It will mean convincing the people of this country that independence is right – not for yesterday’s world – but for the complex, challenging and increasingly interdependent world that we live in today. And right also for the world that our children will inherit and live in tomorrow.

Making and winning that case is our challenge – and our opportunity. That is why I can tell you today that this summer the SNP will embark on a new initiative to build support for independence. It will not be an attempt to browbeat anyone. I know that many across Scotland support the union as strongly as we do independence – I respect that.

But I also know that many wanted to be persuaded in 2014 – but ultimately didn’t find our arguments compelling enough. So we will listen to what you have to say. We will hear your concerns and address your questions – and in the process, we will be prepared to challenge some of our own answers. And, patiently and respectfully, we will seek to convince you that independence really does offer the best future for Scotland.

A future shaped, not by perpetual Tory governments that we don’t vote for, but by our own choices and our own endeavours. That is how we will turn the 45% of September 2014 into a strong and positive majority for independence.

Friends, it is the greatest privilege imaginable to lead this country. A country that in the last few years has grown immeasurably in confidence and self belief. A country that walks taller, thinks bolder and aims higher. To be given a clear mandate to lead this nation for the next five years will be a precious opportunity.

If you give me that opportunity, I promise that I will seize it with both hands. I won’t always get everything right – but I will work every single day to make our economy stronger, our NHS even better and our schools world class. I will aim to make this country a place that others look to for inspiration.

Even if you don’t always agree with me, I’ll strive to be a First Minister you have confidence in and to lead a government you can be proud of. Over these next few weeks, I will put forward the ideas that will let us build on the strong foundations that we have laid, together, over these past nine years.