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Sturgeon plans free childcare boost

New SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has put ambitious plans for a massive extension of free childcare at the heart of her campaign to win the next Scottish elections.

Ms Sturgeon - who becomes Scotland's first female first minister in four days time - promised to almost double the amount of care parents can receive for their youngsters at no cost.

She made the pledge in her first conference speech since succeeding Alex Salmond as SNP leader.

She used the address to set out some of her key commitments for the 2016 Holyrood elections, but with the Westminster general election now less than six months away, she hinted that the SNP could hold the balance of power at Westminster.

In those circumstances Ms Sturgeon said her party would "never ever" do a deal with the Conservatives if they failed to win an overall majority in the UK Parliament.

But she said a deal with Labour could be possible - if they would agree to deliver "real powers" for the Scottish Parliament, bring an end to austerity cuts and scrap the Trident nuclear missile system on the River Clyde.

She also appealed to supporters of other parties to back the SNP in May's general election, in a bid to force Westminster leaders to deliver on the vow they made of substantial new powers for Holyrood in the run-up to the referendum.

She said the referendum campaign had " revitalised this country" and added: " We will not let Westminster drag us back to business as usual."

Ms Sturgeon added: "T he only language Westminster really understands is that of power.

"So let them hear this message from all around our country. Power over Scotland no longer rests in the corridors of Westminster.

"In Scotland, today, power rests with the Scottish people - and that is where it will stay."

The new SNP leader continued: " The first test of that new democratic order is the general election next May.

"Be under no illusion - if we vote for Westminster parties, they will go back to business as usual.

"The promise of more powers will evaporate. The vow will be broken.

"It was the power of our votes that forced them to make that vow. And it is only the power of our votes that will force them to keep it."

Ms Sturgeon called on Scots to come together in the Westminster election "not as Yes voters or as No voters, but as one united country".

She said: "I speak to everyone across our land who wants to see the promise of a powerhouse Scottish Parliament delivered.

"Let us come together, this time, as one Scotland.

"Lend us - Scotland's Party - your support."

She urged people: "V ote SNP and the message we will carry to Westminster on your behalf is this.

"Scotland's interests will not be sidelined. Not now, not ever.

"We demand real powers for our Parliament. And Scotland will not settle for anything less."

Ms Sturgeon added: " A vote for the SNP next May will mean that Scotland can't be taken for granted again."

In that election she said the "odds on a hung parliament shorten every day".

She told the conference: " Scotland could well hold the balance of power in a Westminster parliament with no overall majority."

Ms Sturgeon said: "If that happens, I promise our country this.

"You won't need to have voted Labour to keep the Tories out, because that's what we'll do.

"My pledge to Scotland today is simple - the SNP will never, ever, put the Tories into government."

While she ruled out any prospect of the SNP supporting the Conservatives in power, she said a deal with Ed Miliband's party could be a possibility.

" Think about how much more we could win for Scotland from a Westminster Labour government if they had to depend on SNP votes," Ms Sturgeon said.

"They'd have to deliver real powers for our parliament.

"They'd have to rethink the endless austerity that impoverishes our children.

" They'd have to think again about putting a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons on the River Clyde."

Wh ile the 2015 general election will be Ms Sturgeon's first electoral test as SNP leader, she used her conference speech to make clear some of her priorities for the Holyrood elections the following year.

The SNP had similarly promised a transformation of free childcare if Scotland became independent, putting a pledge on this at the heart of the Scottish Government's white paper.

Opponents criticised the plan then, saying devolution meant the SNP already had the power to improve childcare.

Today Ms Sturgeon said: " We didn't win the referendum, but I am determined that we will make progress.

"With the powers we have now, we will push forward."

Youngsters aged three and four in Scotland, as well as some more vulnerable two-year-olds, already receive 16 hours a week of free childcare, with Ms Sturgeon saying this was " more hours of childcare than in any other part of the UK .

But she added: "S o important is good quality, extensive childcare to the school performance and life chances of young people, that we will go further still.

"I pledge today that our 2016 manifesto will set out an ambitious plan to increase childcare provision.

"By the end of the next parliament, my commitment is that all three and four-year-olds and all eligible two-years-olds will receive, not 16 hours, but 30 hours of free childcare each week."

Such a policy would cost about £400,000 a year by the time it is fully implemented, with "major capital investment" also required in nurseries.

Ms Sturgeon said she wanted this building work to be "one of our biggest infrastructure projects for the next parliament".

The former Scottish health secretary said the NHS would also be a priority in her government, as she vowed its budget would "rise in real terms for each and every year of the next parliament" if the SNP wins power again in 2016.

She also pledged a scheme which cuts business rates for smaller businesses would be extended until 2020 if she is voted in as first minister in 2016.

"I intend to lead our party to victory in the 2016 Scottish election," Ms Sturgeon declared.

The new SNP leader will reveal her first programme for government to Holyrood in less than two weeks time, saying this would set out the "legislation and policies that will shape our priorities until the next election".

She told the conference: " At its heart will be radical action on land reform, empowering communities, raising attainment in our schools and tackling some of the deep injustices in our society, like domestic abuse and gender inequality."

She identified low pay as an issue that "needs to be addressed" as she announced all Scottish Government contracts from now on would make payment of the living wage a priority.

The Scottish Government already pays its staff and all those working in the NHS the living wage, but Ms Sturgeon said some sub-contracted cleaners working in its offices earned less that this.

"We wanted to put that right," she said.

" So I am pleased be able to confirm today that the Scottish Government has struck a deal with its cleaning contractor, Mitie. That deal will see all 117 staff who are currently paid below the living wage brought up to that level by the end of this year.

"And in future, although we cannot mandate it in law, each and every new Scottish Government contract will have payment of the living wage as a central priority."

Ms Sturgeon said that making her first speech as SNP leader was "the proudest moment of my life".

She told party activists: " It is a privilege and I thank you for the trust you have placed in me."

While she said the UK's first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher had " divided society" she said she wanted to do the opposite.

"I want to unite this country in a national endeavour to give every child - no matter their background - the best opportunity in life," she declared.

Ms Sturgeon paid tribute to her predecessor, Alex Salmond, who formally departs government next week.

Mr Salmond, who watched her address from the conference platform, was given a standing ovation by the audience as she said he had been an "outstanding first minister" whose leadership had "made a real difference to the lives of millions of Scots".

Ms Sturgeon, who was the SNP depute leader for 10 years and has been Scottish Deputy First Minister for seven years, said Mr Salmond had been a "constant support, friend and mentor to me".

She added: "He is a hero of our movement. And a champion of her nation."

A spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party said: "We are pleased that Nicola Sturgeon has finally recognised that her Government needs to take action now on improving childcare, protecting the NHS and introducing a Living Wage. It's just a shame that for the last three years her Government said this wasn't possible without independence."

He added: "Nicola Sturgeon claims she doesn't want a Tory Government. What this makes clear is that if you want a Labour Government and Labour policies like an energy price freeze, increased minimum wage and making sure the most well off pay their fair share with a 50p tax rate then you have to vote Labour. Every vote for the SNP is a vote to help elect David Cameron."

Meanwhile Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: "If Nicola Sturgeon maintains this bitter tone, her tenure is going to be a very tiresome one.

"She has to get over it - the SNP lost the referendum - and that's it.

"It's also puzzling to see the SNP commit to things that were supposedly only possible in the utopia of a separate state.

"Once the showing off at conference has finished, the public will expect the new First Minister to drop the issue of separation, stop preening herself and start running the country."

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