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Nicola Sturgeon vows more cash for NHS and carers in 'can do' Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon set out her vision for a "can do Scotland" with a promise of extra cash for the NHS and more money for carers.

The First Minister also vowed there would improvements to nursery care if her SNP is voted back into power in next May's Holyrood elections and "put her neck on the line" on efforts to close the educational divide between rich and poor.

Closing that gap is at the hearts of the Scottish Government's agenda, she told the SNP conference in Aberdeen.

Ms Sturgeon said: "It matters so much to me that I've done something politicians don't often do.

"I've put my own neck on the line.

"If I'm standing here seeking re-election five years from now I want to be judged on the progress we make."

In the Scottish elections next May Ms Sturgeon will, for the first time, ask the public to back her to be the nation's first minister.

Taking on the job last November was the "biggest honour" of her life, she said.

If the SNP is voted into government for a record third time at Holyrood, she pledged an extra £200 million for the NHS to create a new network of elective treatment centres.

The Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank is already home to a specialist unit carrying out procedures such as hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery.

It would be expanded, with five new centres set up in Edinburgh, Livingstone, Dundee, Inverness and in Aberdeen.

Ms Sturgeon hailed that as "real action" from the SNP government "making our NHS fit for the future".

There was also a promise to carers, with the SNP leader saying she would use new powers over welfare that are coming to Holyrood as part of the Scotland Bill to increase the amount of cash they receive.

If her party wins in May she said the SNP will publish a Scottish Social Security Bill in the first year of the new parliament, setting out how it would use the "limited new welfare powers".

She told the conference: "I can confirm one of the specific commitments that the Bill will include.

"The contribution carers make to our society is priceless. But the support they receive in the form of carers' allowance is the lowest of all working age benefits.

"That is simply not fair.

"That is why I'm delighted to announce today that when our government gets the power to do so we will begin to increase carers allowance so that it is paid at the same level as jobseekers' allowance."

That policy, which will cost £40 million a year, will provide carers with an extra £600 a year, she said.

The SNP also proposes to "substantially increase" the number of qualified teachers working in nurseries, with the First Minister pledging that by 2018 every nursery in Scotland's most deprived areas will have an additional qualified teacher or childcare graduate.

The SNP has already committed to expanding free nursery care for vulnerable two year olds and all three and four year olds to 30 hours a week.

Ms Sturgeon revealed today that "as we expand the hours of childcare that children are entitled to we will also increase the flexibility of it".

She added: "Over the next parliament we will ensure that parents can opt to take their available hours of childcare to better suit their working patterns. They will, increasingly, be able to take them as full day sessions as well as half days. And they will have the right to spread those hours over the summer holidays as well as term time."

The First Minister stated: "Our flagship infrastructure project will be a revolution in early years education and childcare."

She told the conference - the largest the SNP has ever staged - that she wanted the "motto of our country to be can do Scotland".

Ms Sturgeon added: "Labour and the Tories - Scotland's can't do parties - will hate it.

"But it's the spirit that will make this country the powerhouse we know it can be."

With the Scottish Parliament elections taking place in less than seven months time, the SNP leader insisted her party should be judged on its record.

Opposition politicians have criticised the Scottish Government, highlighting cuts to college places, problems within Police Scotland and NHS waiting times

But Ms Sturgeon insisted waiting times are shorter with more staff working in the health service than when the SNP came to power in 2007,

She also cited free university education - which she vowed to protect - increased numbers of modern apprenticeships, increases in free childcare, free prescriptions and recorded crime at a 41 year low.

The SNP leader told the conference: "That is our record. We should shout it from the rooftops.

"When our opponents say they want to put it at the heart of the election, let us say 'bring it on'."

Ms Sturgeon told the conference: "Next May, we will seek a historic third term in office. A nd, for the first time, I will look you, the Scottish people in the eye and ask you to choose me as your First Minister."

She promised voters: "I won't ask you to vote SNP, or re-elect me as your First Minister, just because the opposition is not up to the job.

"I intend to prove to you that we are the best government, with the best people and the best ideas, to lead this country, confidently, into the next decade".

She added: " Over these next few months - as we prepare to seek re-election - I won't pretend that we are perfect. Or that I am perfect.

"But I will promise this. We will always strive to be the best that we can be.

"And we will serve this country with imagination, courage, humility and always to the very best of our abilities."

While her party is for the moment focused on the Holyrood elections, there were cheers from the audience when the First Minister said: "Independence is the best future for Scotland."

The time for another referendum would be "when there is clear evidence that opinion has changed and that independence has become the choice of a majority of people in Scotland".

She continued: "Independence matters and we will never waver in our commitment to it. B ut what we say about jobs, schools and hospitals matters just as much to people across Scotland."

The new powers that are being devolved in the wake of last year's independence referendum do "not even come close to honouring the vow that was made to the Scottish people," Ms Sturgeon said.

Conservative MPs have voted down "amendment after amendment" to the Scotland Bill "against the views of the vast majority of Scotland's MPs".

The First Minister said: "T he Prime Minister's attitude to Scotland betrays the worst characteristics of his government - arrogant, patrician and out of touch. Pig-headed some might say."

She warned David Cameron: " Ignore Scotland at your peril. Know that people are watching and listening.

"And remember this: It is not you who will decide the future of Scotland. It will be the people of Scotland who decide the future of our country."

She also hit out at Labour, saying while she had held " high hopes" for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership he has so far failed to change his party and is " allowing Labour to change him".

Pressure from the SNP "forced" Labour's U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter, she said, as she hit out at the party's " incoherent position on Trident that shows how unfit they are to govern".

Ms Sturgeon challenged Labour to make its position on the nuclear deterrent plain, saying: " A party that can't be crystal clear about its position on an issue as fundamental as nuclear weapons doesn't deserve support - not from those who oppose Trident and not from those who support it either.

"Labour will have to decide what side it is on. B ecause I know what side we are on. The renewal of Trident is unjustified. It is unaffordable. It is immoral.

"Be in no doubt. The SNP will stand against Trident - today, tomorrow and always."

At the same time as she said the Conservatives were " shifting sharply to the right" she claimed that " the only place Labour is going is deeper and deeper into the political wilderness".

In contrast she said the SNP is a " left of centre social democratic party, standing up for the values, interests and aspirations of mainstream Scotland".

The First Minister said: "W hen people look at the SNP they don't just see left or right, they see above all else a party that always seeks to do the right thing for Scotland."

She used her speech to make clear the SNP's opposition to UK air strikes in Syria, insisting: " The risk is that they will simply add to the already unimaginable human suffering.

"What is needed is not more bombing, but a renewed and intensive diplomatic initiative, led by the UN, to seek a lasting resolution of the conflict and defeat the horror that is Isis.

" It is for these reasons that the SNP will oppose UK air strikes on Syria."

She said Europe needed to work together to tackle the humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict in Syria, which has seen millions of people flee their homes.

Ms Sturgeon added: " At a time when sovereign countries need to work together to resolve issues of such magnitude, the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU seems even more misguided."

She spoke of her " despair at the failure of leadership of a Prime Minister pandering to eurosceptics in his party, but unable to articulate clearly and precisely what it is he is seeking to renegotiate".

The SNP leader added: " David Cameron might play fast and loose with our place in Europe. But be in no doubt - the SNP will campaign positively for Scotland and the UK to stay in the European Union."

Scottish Labour public services spokeswoman Jackie Baillie commented on the speech and said: "After eight years, Nicola Sturgeon says that the SNP should be judged on their record. We welcome that and it is exactly what we will do. We want people across Scotland to have the world beating public services that they deserve, but the truth is that under the SNP standards in our schools have been slipping and our NHS is struggling.

"The gap between the richest and the rest in our schools has persisted and, despite what the First Minister says, Scotland has the lowest proportion of university entrants from state schools anywhere in the UK, at the same time as bursaries and grants have been cut. That's not surprising, given that you are twice as likely to get an A in your Highers if you are from a well off background.

"Last winter, our hospitals saw long waits at A and E and last week, before winter bites, nearly one in four patients at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital waited over four hours to be seen at Accident and Emergency. We welcome any investment that will support our NHS, but the SNP Scottish Government have lagged behind even the Tories in investing in our health service since 2010."

Ms Baillie said: "The SNP are starting to make the same mistakes Labour used to in Government - people will judge the SNP on their own experiences of schools and hospitals, not the First Minister's rhetoric."

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: "Nicola Sturgeon appears to have been unsure in this speech whether to attack Conservative plans or steal them. Her announcement on the carers allowance was announced by Ruth Davidson two weeks ago. Her plan for childcare is something the Scottish Conservatives have been demanding action on for months.

"This new deal for carers is an example of how new powers coming to Scotland can be used positively - and it's now incumbent on the SNP to say how they are going to use the many other tax and welfare policies that are coming to Holyrood to benefit Scotland."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "In all the bluster from the First Minster about being a government proud of it's record it is very telling what she opted to omit from her speech today.

"Class sizes up, a crisis in GP numbers, college places slashed, climate change targets missed, 1,000 fewer hospital beds, under-funding in mental healthcare and, of course, Police Scotland.

"The SNP have had eight years in government to get it right. Today, the First Minister failed in her responsibility to set out how she would get to grips with these challenges.

"The message is clear. Despite a new leader, there is no change from this SNP Government. People in Scotland can have and deserve better."


From Belfast Telegraph