In the last in our series of party leader interviews Political Correspondent STEWART PATERSON met with SNP leader NICOLA STURGEON on the campaign trail in Govan to ask questions on a range of issues including the education attainment gap, child poverty rates, drug deaths and why the council tax hasn’t been scrapped.

Stewart Paterson: “You said previously, closing the poverty related attainment gap was one of your top priorities, if not the top priority. Has that been a success or a failure?”

Nicola Sturgeon: “I think it’s been work in progress and the progress is good progress, particularly in Glasgow we are seeing many more young people leave school with qualifications and good qualifications and we have seen the attainment gap narrow. I think that is a credit to teachers, parents and kids across the city and yes, I would say there is good progress.

“Is it job competed? No, we would have made more progress had Covid not disrupted everything over the past year and therefore going into the new parliament it remains the key priority because so much of what else we want to do as a country is founded on the quality of education we give people.

Glasgow Times:

“The attainment fund of £750 million in the last parliament, we are increasing that to £1bn in the next parliament. We’ve recruited more than 3000 extra teachers in the last parliament, we’ve got a commitment to three and a half thousand more teachers and classroom assistants. We’ve also doubled early years education, which in a city like Glasgow is a huge, huge step forward and we’ve got plans to extend that even further to one and two year-olds but also to build the wraparound childcare system. So there’s lots of progress made and lots still to do and the choice people have is who do they trust to carry that forward.”

SP: “I think you said, it might have been before you were First Minister, still Deputy, that children from the most deprived areas do half as well as those from the least deprived.

“The latest Glasgow figures show 38% of pupils from the most deprived areas get three or more highers whereas it’s 78% for those in the least deprived. Is that the sort of progress you were hoping for?”

 NS: “You’ll be able to cite different statistics and some of them will show more progress and I don’t deny it, if I was sitting here and saying it’s job done that would be one thing. I’m not. But we have made progress. The Director of Education in this city would be the first to talk about the progress that has been made.

“We are going in the right direction. We are going firmly right direction. I see that in my own constituency in Glasgow with some of the excellent schools delivering real improvement in the quality of education and I don’t shy away from that. If I didn’t think there was more to do then I wouldn’t be standing again with the passion that I am because I do believe that we are on the right track and we’ve got to keep that going.

Glasgow Times:

“One of the things and it applies to education and it applies to health and every single area of responsibility is who do people have confidence in to take us forward in building that progress. The other parties are vying to be the opposition. The country needs a government that is serious about government and taking the decisions and making the investments in driving forward the progress we’ve seen.”

SP: “Child Poverty was a similar priority you had at the start of your term and also the SNP’s time in government.  Has there been progress there, given that there’s, in some parts of Glasgow, there can be 50% of kids still living in poverty?”

NS: “Through the Scottish Government action, yes there’s been progress and here I will make no apology for pointing out the restrictions and constraints on what we can do. Child poverty, and your right, the extent of child poverty varies in different parts of the country and even within Glasgow it varies form one part to another, so I’m talking here in terms of overall national statistics, child poverty is far too high but Scotland has the lowest child poverty rates of all the UK nations and we’ve  taken and these are not my words,  it’s how child poverty campaign groups have described  it, we’ve taken the game changing action of  establishing the Scottish Child Payment. That is up and running, it will extend over the next parliament and we’ll double the value of it over the next parliament to lift children out of poverty.

Glasgow Times:

“But as we do things like that, we are seeing cuts to welfare at a UK level that are plunging more kids into poverty, so it is a very stark example of how we have one hand tied behind our backs and the action that we are taking is helping to tackle child poverty is being neutralized and undermined by the action another government is taking.”

SP: “I’d like to ask you about drug deaths. I know you’ve been asked a lot about it recently. Why did it take so many people to die before you took the action you took earlier this year?”

NS: “I don’t think that’s the right way to characterize it. I’ve used terminology to try to just not be defensive about this because I think it’s really important, particularly when it’s something so serious, that people like me don’t dig our heels in and pretend that everything is as it should be.

“But it’s not the case that people had to die before we took action. We have been taking action, we have been making interventions to try to turn around the drugs deaths situations but we can’t look at the number and conclude that what we’re doing is enough or necessarily that it’s all the right things and that’s why I’ve been pretty open about the need to do more and do different things.

“I could sit here and talk about some of the factors behind the particularly high drug deaths in Scotland in terms of the demographic and the ageing cohort. I could sit here and talk about the limited powers and the inability to do somethings that would make a difference, like safe consumption rooms, but instead we are choosing to say what can we do, what more can we do, with the powers we have. So, the appointment of Angela Constance as dedicated minister, the dedicated funding for the next parliament, the work to make sure we are supporting community organisations, expanding rehab but not just expanding residential rehab, making sure there’s the right aftercare for people. The work that was already underway through the Drugs Death Task Force to deliver much faster access to treatment, all of that is about making sure we are not just giving this the focus it demands but doing the things the experts, and those particularly with lived experience, say make the biggest difference.”

SP: “Five years ago the Alcohol and Drugs Partnerships budget was cut by 25%, at the same time drug deaths went up, that latest year, by 15%. Since then, it’s trebled. Was that a mistake at the time? Do you recognise that as an error?

NS: “The health boards were asked to fund that from within their own resources. We are putting more money in now. It would be, and I know why the opposition do this and I don’t think it’s illegitimate, but yes, we can sit here and say certain things are the cause of this. In reality the drugs deaths situation is complex and multi-faceted and resourcing is a key part of it.

“There’s lots of decisions that we have had to take over the last decade because of austerity imposed upon us and forced upon us. I wish we hadn’t had to take any of the austerity driven decisions and there will be some of those with hindsight I wish we had done differently but we face up to these things and we are making the funding commitment for the next parliament that goes way beyond I think what anybody asked us to do. We decided to make this very strong commitment to make sure the measures that were being taken have the financial backing behind them.”

SP: “It’s likely you are going to win another eight seats in Glasgow if the polls are to be believed...

NS: “I don’t, let’s not…

SP: “If the polls are to be believed. That’s what people are thinking.”

NS: “Well, since this is a verbatim transcript, I don’t take that for granted. I think any politician who assumes the outcome of an election probably doesn’t deserve to win that election. I’ve campaigned as you know, because you’ve been covering many of these election campaigns, that I’ve campaigned here, in Govan, for more than 20 years and never taken a single election for granted and I never will.”

Glasgow Times:

SP: “What would you say to SNP supporters who might be thinking of voting for another party with their second vote, while voting SNP in the constituency?

NS: “If you want an SNP government, you’ve got to vote for an SNP government. The electoral system for Holyrood is designed in a way that results are always on a knife edge. Who wins, who loses who comes first, second, third. Whether the governing party has a majority or not. It’s very fine margins and if you want an SNP government re-elected with the ability to get on and get things done, then vote SNP. To vote in any election for a party other than the one you want to see elected is not a good thing to do because you are putting on the line the chances of the outcome you want to see happen.”

Glasgow Times:

SP: “I wanted to ask you about council tax. There’s been leaflets going through the doors saying in Scotland it’s £500 being saved on their bills compared to England but 14 years ago the plan was to scrap the council tax but that’s not happened.

NS: “Because we haven’t managed to build the majority and consensus for what…

SP: “Even between 2011 and 2016 when you had a majority?

NS: “Well, we fought a manifesto in 2011 with commitments to continue the freeze on council tax and that’s what people elected us on. It’s very easy for parties to say they don’t want the council tax, and apart from the Tories all parties I think don’t want the council tax. But when it comes to big reforms like that, the more consensus you can build the better.

“What parties are less willing to say it what they want to replace the council tax with, so that consensus breaks down. We have frozen the council tax for many years we have been in government, there’s a freeze on the council tax this year, average council tax rates are the £500 lower than the equivalent in England and we will continue to try, in the next parliament, to find a consensus, not for the abolition of the council tax because that exists, but for what replaces the council tax and that is the tougher thing to do.”

SP: “What would like to replace it with?”

NS: “We’ve had a longstanding policy in favour of local income tax. We’ve not managed to build consensus around that, so we’ve tried to be open minded about a system that would command majority support and we’ll try to do that. In the meantime, though, we’ll try to act in a way that doesn’t have council tax being a burden on people, particularly during times of economic difficulty.

“When we were first elected in 2007, remember Labour had presided over 60% increases in the council tax. In this city, if memory serves me correctly, the council tax had gone up by 100% in the years leading up to that. So we stabilized that, we froze the council tax. Relatively in terms of people’s incomes, council tax is a much smaller bill that they are being asked to pay and we will try to find the consensus to move on from that to a system that people think is appropriate.”

SP: “Finally, why should people, particularly in Glasgow, vote SNP at this election?”

NS: “All over the country but particularly in Glasgow. Glasgow is my home it’s where I represent, the southside of Glasgow and it’s a privilege to do that and I hope to continue to do that.

“What I’m saying to people in all parts of Scotland is vote SNP firstly to continue with the strong leadership the country needs to get us through the rest of the pandemic. We’re not out of it yet and we need to have a First Minister and a Government that is serious about steering us through and is focused on steering us through.

Glasgow Times:

“And vote SNP because I think we put forward the boldest, most transformative manifesto to kickstart and drive recovery and when the crisis is over to give people the choice of independence and I think a majority of people in Glasgow want Scotland to become independent and want that choice. The other parties, certainly Labour, the Tories and Liberals, they think politicians should decide Scotland’s future. We think the people should decide the future.”