If Thatcher could give students a fair grant in the 1980s, why can’t Holyrood do the same today?

Every Scot knows cutting the attainment gap is key if we want to end the kind of poverty which is handed down from generation-to-generation.  

Nicola Sturgeon says that at the end of her next term in Government she wants  to be judged by her record on attainment. That’s right, after nine years of failing Scotland’s most deprived families she wants a second chance.  

In addition to teacher training being cut by almost 30% (report, 29/03/16) we now have 4,000 fewer teachers under the SNP. We have redundancies in universities and colleges.  We have 140,000 fewer college students. We have cuts to the education budget of every single council in Scotland. That’s their record.

I run one of Scotland’s top university engineering programmes. Studying with us is a huge opportunity. Even with reduced entry standards, it is still hard to fill the places we’ve reserved for students from poor backgrounds because the attainment gap in our schools is so wide.

Even so, getting in to university is just the first hurdle.

The SNP have cut the bursary for the poorest students by a quarter to just £1,750 per year. The cheapest accommodation for term-time only will cost double that. Education is only free in Scotland if you can afford it.

To go to university today the poorest students, more often than not, must work and/or take on huge debt. I have students from the most deprived parts of Scotland  who work in casinos and nightclubs and still make it into classes at 9am.

There are others, however, who can’t work long hours and study at the same time. They will leave university with nothing.  A zero hours contract in a bar, cafe or supermarket to help make ends meet becomes their career. 

That’s why I agree with Kezia Dugdale that it’s time to ask Scots that can afford it to pay a little more tax and invest that money in education. After all, if Thatcher could give me a fair grant in the 1980s, why can’t Holyrood offer students the same today?

The SNP miss their own bed blocking target.

Nobody in Scotland can be surprised that the SNP’s merger of health and social care comes with a financial “black hole”. With both the NHS and social care being underfunded, merging these two public services can hardly be expected to resolve the problems they face.

As it stands, around 5 Scots die each week in our hospitals waiting on our underfunded councils to provide a care package. These plans can be complex, but can also be as trivial as fitting a handrail on someone’s bath at home.

The social care bottleneck consumes NHS resources and leads to “bed blocking”.   To be fair to the SNP’s Health Secretary, Shona Robison, she said cutting the number of people stuck in hospital waiting for a care package to be arranged is an “absolute key priority” for the Scottish government. Indeed, she committed £100m to solving the problem (a few months earlier £5m was claimed to be enough).

On the 25th of February in a BBC interview Ms Robison said: “I want over the course of this year to eradicate delayed discharge out of the system and I am absolutely determined to do that.”

Indeed, the seriousness of the issue led to Ms Robison invoking Nicola Sturgeon’s name a few weeks earlier: “In presenting the Government’s programme for the year ahead, the First Minister made it clear that addressing delayed discharge is one of our key priorities and it is one to which I give my personal commitment.”

How have they done? Rather than eradicating bed blocking, the SNP reduced it by just 12% – Scots spent 580,919 days in hospital needlessly during 2015. Meanwhile in the community our care workers are often not even paid the living wage and home visits last just 15 short minutes.  What ever happened to treating people with dignity?

It’s clear that the SNP are failing and continuing to underfund health and social care can’t be the solution. I hope that in the coming election campaign we see bolder solutions to tackling this problem and realism about the funding it needs.




SNP makes the unfair council tax a wee bit less unfair.

In 2004 John Swinney said he’d “axe” the council tax. In 2007 Nicola Sturgeon said the “hated” council tax was beyond reform. In 2007 and 2011 Alex Salmond said in the SNP’s manifestos he’d “scrap” the council tax.

After 9 years in government, 5 of them with a commanding majority, Nicola Sturgeon has now decided to keep the council tax with minor modifications based on Tory proposals. The council tax will remain regressive, but a system of means tested benefits and increases in the higher bands will make it slightly less unfair.

These changes introduce many anomalies. Kezia Dugdale has said that as she earns £60,000 and lives in a Band D property she will pay nothing extra, but is willing to do so. Conversely, a hardworking family living on just above average income in a Band E property will see their council tax increase by over £100 per year.

These changes will raise an extra £100m next year. That is great, but looks a little insubstantial compared to the £400m of cuts forced on councils by the SNP. What the SNP  is offering is not nearly enough to deliver the transformation in public services Scotland needs, it will simply help manage the decline.

As ever, the SNP are trying to perpetuate the myth that we can have more teachers and less potholes by timidly tinkering with our revenue raising powers.   We can’t.