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Event report: Candidates talk health, finance, education and the environment

Event report: Candidates talk health, finance, education and the environment

Holyrood gathered representatives from across the parties to take part in hustings ahead of the election on 6 May. The events took a closer look at health, finance, education and the environment.

Health hustings, in association with BMA Scotland

 Recovery was the key theme of the health hustings following the disruption and devastation inflicted on the NHS and social care by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ahead of the debate, Dr Lewis Morrison, chair of BMA Scotland, put the focus on staff welfare and called for “clear plans” to widen access to the profession in the future.

On to the discussion and a recent BMA survey, which found 65 per cent of doctors felt politicians didn’t value them or the services they provide, was put to the candidates. The SNP’s Emma Harper said it was “critical” to restore trust, adding that her party would “continue to work and collaborate” with professionals going forward.

Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Scottish Liberal Democrats said it was “small wonder that healthcare professionals don’t trust politicians”. He believes it is easy to thank the NHS but called for action through dedicated in-house mental health support for staff and addressing workplace bullying cultures.

The conversation moved on to addressing staff shortages, which Donald Cameron, of the Scottish Conservatives, said was “an issue across every discipline” in the health service. He said his party would increase medical school training places and increase flexibility to allow nurses and doctors the time to train and qualify in different disciplines.

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie said she was “distressed” by the extent to which she was hearing about people planning to retire early because of the pressures they have experienced during the pandemic. “That creates a critical capacity issue for the NHS that is going to happen sooner rather than later,” she said.

Baillie also said that staff should be valued through pay and flexible working arrangements should be offered to those planning on retiring, so their expertise can be kept within the NHS.

“We have to act now,” Alison Johnstone of the Scottish Greens said. She continued: “We need to make this an attractive career. As we’re talking about various parts of our work being automated, that’s not going to happen when it comes to podiatry or nursing. These are fabulous caring professions. They are really meaningful careers, so they should be well-paid and valued.”

Finance hustings, an association with Scottish Financial Enterprise

The role of the financial service sector in economic recovery dominated Holyrood’s finance hustings. As Scottish Financial Enterprise’s CEO Sandy Begbie said at the start, the sector has supported businesses over the last year, including helping to put government schemes in place. “But as we know, many businesses are now going to have to experience very challenging times over the next few years to recover that position and financial services will be there to support them,” he added.

There was a great deal of agreement about recovery being the focus of the next parliament. The SNP’s Kate Forbes said this needed to be a “national endeavour” which would involve investment in infrastructure and a reshaping of the economy. She said: “It’s going to be a very different experience for some sectors than for others. Some sectors will have changed beyond all recognition and, bluntly, there’s probably no return to the way things used to be.”

Murdo Fraser, of the Scottish Conservatives, agreed: “Our key message in this election is there needs to be an unrelenting focus on recovery from COVID. Recovery of our economy, a recovery of our public services.” He called for more local input on economic development and a fresh focus on exports.

Candidates were also in agreement about reskilling the workforce. Labour’s Daniel Johnson said: “The steps that we take for reskilling are hugely important. We’ve got a package of over a billion pounds as part of our jobs recovery programme that includes retraining, reskilling and a jobs guarantee.”

Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine added: “We need every individual to have the opportunity to achieve their particular potential, and we will put that at the heart of recovery: action to prevent a job crisis, job guarantee for young people and new graduate training and internships.”

The undercurrent of the debate was ensuring a green recovery as Scotland moves to net-zero. Scottish Green co-leader Lorna Slater said: “We want to see a financial services sector that works responsibly to promote small and socially responsible businesses and cooperatives, and plays its part in securing a socially just transition.”

Education hustings

On to our education hustings, where party representatives were asked about the key issues and where the priorities should lie in the next parliament.

Closing the poverty-related attainment gap has been a policy focus for the Scottish Government and Nicola Sturgeon, who called it her “sacred responsibility”. Their success in doing so has been debated and the matter was put to candidates, with Clare Adamson asked what the SNP would do to make sure it is “properly closed” in the next government.

She cited free school meals, wraparound childcare and increasing the Scottish Child Payment, but argued the SNP was doing this with their “hands tied” behind their back. “We are doing our best,” Adamson said. “But there is absolutely no doubt if we had full powers over these issues in an independent Scotland, we could do far more, quicker, to tackle the attainment gap.”

Scottish Labour’s Michael Marra was critical of the SNP’s education record as he responded to the points raised by Adamson, accusing her of “abdicating responsibility”. He said: “This Scottish Government, one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the world, could do so much more to actually make a difference to people’s lives.” 

The future of exams was also on the agenda and Jamie Greene of the Scottish Conservatives said the argument on this issue had become “polarised” and “political”. “This should be an academic-led debate,” he said. “I’m very open minded as to what the outcome of that is but what I would like it to be is subject to proper scrutiny and analysis.”

Ross Greer, of the Scottish Greens, said the exam system had remained “fundamentally unchanged” for more than a century. He added: “What we have at the moment is not a system where through high stakes end of term exams, we’re accurately assessing a pupil’s ability in or knowledge of a particular subject. They’re being assessed on their ability to complete an exam under that very artificial setting.”

Beatrice Wishart, a Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate, said: “Reforming the SQA and Education Scotland would be a first step and the wider discussion as to whether there should be exams at all has to be across all society because it’s such a major change… It’s a very big discussion but teachers have to be at the heart of that, and academics.”

Environment hustings

“In the last parliament, we set world-leading emissions reduction targets in the Climate Change Act. Now, this parliament is about the action and delivering them,” said the SNP’s Gillian Martin in her opening remarks. It set the scene for a discussion on what Scotland needs to do to meets its climate ambitions.

“It’s a really exciting election because it’s the first election where the climate emergency has really been centre stage. But ironically, it’s also the last election before it’s too late,” added Mark Ruskell of the Greens.

Indeed, a green recovery needs to be a focus of session six of the parliament. Integral to that is creating green jobs, a commitment to which all parties have signed up.

Liz Smith, of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “The green recovery, for me, is an absolute top priority and that means ensuring that the jobs of the future, which are going to be so important, are green jobs. I think the investment has to be targeted at these green jobs, but also in terms of the infrastructure development.”

As Lib Dem Molly Nolan said, “every area of our transition will create these jobs” as long as investment is behind it. That also means investing in skills. Nolan added: “Making sure that we are taking people with us and training people up to be ready to take on these new green jobs is going to be crucial.”

Labour’s Sarah Boyack pointed to a need to bolster supply chains. She said: “Where is the infrastructure coming from? At the moment, we’re importing it from China or Indonesia… there’s a carbon emissions issue about importing our kit for renewables. We want to invest in Scottish supply chains, developing on companies like BiFab.”

Ruskell added that, in building back from COVID, it was important to have conditions attached to government support. He pointed to the French government’s offer to aviation as an example, where Air France is being asked to withdraw domestic flights.

But there will be tough decisions ahead for the next parliament as environmental needs are balanced with economic and social policies.  

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