Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, defended her party’s eight years in power as she unveiled plans to standardise school testing, step up jobs competition with other parts of the UK and extend a home-buying programme.
The first minister published the final programme for government before next May’s Scottish elections by promising to tackle under-achievement by children in the poorest parts of the country, with a national testing system for pupils aged up to 14, focusing on numeracy and literacy, and a new school improvement framework.
She said her programme was “ambitious and reforming”. It “demonstrates how enduring values – a belief in enterprise, a faith in the value of education, a commitment to fairness and solidarity, and a passion for democratic engagement – can be applied to make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous country.”
Her schools strategy, underpinned by a previously announced £100m attainment fund to help children in deprived areas, drew fire from opposition leaders who said Sturgeon’s Scottish National party had been in power for eight years and had presided over a slump in literacy and numeracy, as well as cuts in spending.
Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, said the first minister’s speech was an admission of failure and that the government’s record “should shame us as a nation”.
There was now a 21% gap between the richer and poorer primary pupils in writing and a 24% gap in numeracy, Dugdale said, with nearly half of the most deprived children moving to secondary school unable to read or write properly.
Pointing to a 5% real-terms cut in education spending since 2010, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said: “I only wish that this single-minded purpose [to improve attainment] had come about a little earlier than eight long years after the SNP took sole control over the Scottish government.”
Sturgeon said she would introduce a new social security bill to use Scotland’s limited new powers to change UK welfare policy by scrapping the bedroom tax as soon as possible and protect disability payments.
Promising to publish more detail later this year, Sturgeon said: “The new powers proposed in the Scotland bill fall far short of what we would need to fully mitigate the harm caused by UK government policies. [However,] … we will use these new powers to help those who need it most.”
She hinted that there could be a constitutional row with the UK government over her administration’s future budgets under the new Scotland bill because the Treasury was signalling in private that Edinburgh’s direct funding could be cut.
Sources close to Sturgeon said the Treasury was proposing the replacment of the direct grant for capital investment with borrowing powers, which could be seen to increase the Scottish government’s budget flexibility but would also add to its long-term debts.
Following the early resignation of Sir Stephen House, Scotland’s chief constable, after a string of controversies, there would also be an overhaul of Police Scotland’s governance and the accountability of the next chief constable to local communities, Sturgeon said.
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said that was not far-reaching enough given the scale of the crisis facing Police Scotland. “This government is denying reality. The reality is that Police Scotland is on its knees,” he told parliament. “We need an inquiry into the operations of Police Scotland. It needs to change before it gets any worse.”
In a speech peppered with previously announced policies and spending commitments, Sturgeon pledged to significantly step up spending on job creation and business investment to compete against other areas of the UK, with “investment hubs” to be set up in London, Dublin and Brussels to draw companies to Scotland.
In a move likely to alarm councils in northern England already worried by Scotland’s financial muscle, Sturgeon said: “We intend to make Scotland the best place to do business in the UK. We intend to become the real northern powerhouse.”
After disclosing her government had already surpassed a target to build 30,000 affordable new homes in 2015, Sturgeon said there would be a new rural housing fund and the provision of another £195m over the next three years to help new home buyers to get homes and builders to build them.
Sturgeon’s programme for the final year of this parliament listed eight new bills which included criminalising revenge porn by introducing a new offence of posting private sexual images of former partners, which is already in force in England and Wales.
Another bill will confirm the next Scottish parliament will sit for five years rather than four to avoid clashing with the UK general election in 2020. The current parliament was set for five years to avoid clashing with this year’s UK election. There will also be a budget bill, legislation to strengthen lobbying legislation and a bill to allow rent controls on private landlords.
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