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Looking to the future

July 15, 2020 2:54 PM
By Stuart Smith

The next Scottish Parliament election on 6 May 2021 will be a major test for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. With some recent polls suggesting increased support for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom the stakes could not be higher.

We opposed Brexit and oppose Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. Another independence referendum would be a massive distraction from sorting out the problems Scotland faces.

We must continue to make the passionate and emotional case for a reformed United Kingdom. People want to vote for success, for hope of a better future and for people who aspire to make a difference. We need to show how using the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament will enable Scotland to be better, fairer and greener with more power to local communities.

In 2017 the First Minister declared that education was her "top priority", but Scottish schools have declined in international rankings and the Scottish Government has failed to meet its own targets for the provision of nursery places. The damage done to our education system will reduce the opportunities available to our children and hold our country back.

The Liberal Democrats long campaigned for a penny on Income Tax for education. We should actually make Education & Training the top priority for government once again. Education & Training is our way to a high-wage, high-skill economy where inequality becomes largely a thing of the past.

We could give more power to schools and colleges, local school clusters and councils to come up with new ideas that meet local needs and help raise attainment. It must also meet the needs of those that may need training later in life to cope with changing needs in the workplace. Training is not just needed by those in school or just entering the job market, it's increasingly needed by those in their thirties, forties and fifties who need to learn new skills. In an environment where the UK Government is talking of increased public spending, we could use Barnet consequentials to increase school and further education budgets, recruit more teachers, trainers and support staff. Scotland used to legitimately claim to have one of the best education systems in the world. We need to recover that reputation and improve on it.

The pandemic has shown how our society pushes stress and risk onto the shoulders of those who find it harder to bear. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for reform of mental health provision, so it is treated with the same urgency as physical health. Holyrood must also make a massive investment in new social rented housing to end homelessness and ensure that everyone lives in the home they need. We should simplify and speed up the programme to insulate every home in Scotland, cut carbon emissions and end fuel poverty.

It is worth remembering that different parts of Scotland have very different needs. Simplistic top-down solutions don't work. The SNP have centralised power into their own hands. We could give real power to councils to design local services for the needs of their communities and make it easier for local people to hold their councils to account. In a country with a historically low rate for creation of new businesses we should recreate genuinely local enterprise companies, local banks and investment funds so that entrepreneurs are supported properly in every part of Scotland. At the same time, we could use the power of the public procurement system to give advantages to suppliers that treat their staff fairly, pay their suppliers promptly and work towards meeting the Paris Climate change goals.

Investment in infrastructure is vital to help us recover from the pandemic and meet climate change targets, but investment levels remain inadequate across the UK. The SNP has not yet re-opened a single new railway line that was not at the planning stage when they came to office in 2007. The next Scottish Government needs to make major investment in rail electrification and hydrogen-powered trains, extend the rail network and design the next Scotrail franchise to make it more attractive to passengers and a better deal for the public purse. In Edinburgh and Lothian, the publicly owned bus service has increased passenger numbers whilst numbers fall across the rest of the country. Provision of bus services is too important to be left to the private sector. Public transport investment and active travel should have priority over new and wider roads. All those changes could be made with the existing powers of the Parliament.

Credit where credit is due. The Scottish Government did succeed in protecting Scotland's NHS during the first months of the pandemic, but at a real cost in the lives of the vulnerable residents of care homes. It is to this SNP Governments' shame that 46% of all Covid-19 deaths occurred in a care home. It is easy to get lost in statistics and forget the real grief and loss in every case. The connections between the NHS and social care must be improved and the Joint Integrated Health and Social Care Boards must integrate fully. We need to give social care staff the same levels of respect, training and remuneration as their NHS colleagues. That is all within our grasp while using the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Imagine how much better things would be if the Scottish Government had made ideas like these their actual priority rather than the pursuit of independence supported by the rallying cry of "well, at least it's not as bad as England'.

Our next Parliament must aspire to more. Its potential to do so makes the failures of the SNP even more devastating. We can make the difference. With absolute control over huge areas of government and legislative competence and the ability to set income tax rates for Scottish Taxpayers, the Scottish Government could make a real difference and deliver a future a fairer, greener Scotland in the United Kingdom.