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Where do the Scottish parties stand on the big issues in 2021?

The Scottish elections this year could decide the fate of the United Kingdom. But what will the parties do on the big issues of the day? We asked them…

The next Scottish Parliament will face rebuilding the country from the Covid-19 crisis against a background of constitutional squabbles.

While some powers are reserved by the UK Government in Westminster, key areas such as housing, the environment, transport and the economy are devolved to the politicians in Holyrood.

The SNP and Greens want Scotland to become independent from the rest of the UK, while Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives back the union. But all will be expected to take bold action that will help the country emerge from the pandemic stronger.

The Big Issue asked each main party what they plan to do about the key areas for the country: housing, poverty, employment and the environment, then asked the experts to rate the party pledges. You can find the candidates’ manifestos in full at the end of the article. 

What are the Scottish parties offering on housing?

Scotland has some of the highest levels of homelessness in the country. 

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In March, Alison Watson, director of charity Shelter Scotland,told MSPs that those providing homelessness support in the country were “struggling to cope”, something which had been made worse by the pandemic. 

This is what the party leaders said when we asked them about what they would do to tackle the emergency. 

In Scottish Labour’s manifesto 

  • Build 200,000 zero-carbon social homes over next decade
  • Reform the law to take back land for social housing
  • Supporting people to own their own home, specifically young people and first-time buyers
  • End rough sleeping within the next five years

Key quote

“We want to set up a new housing agency that looks to acquire land across the country,” Scottish Labour leader Anas Sawar told the Big Issue. 

“It looks to make sure we have 120,000 socially rented homes. It also looks to regulate rent at the same time to make sure there’s no one going too far exploiting anyone.”

What do the experts say? 

Dr Steph Grohmann, Leverhulme early career fellow at the Centre for Homeless and Inclusion Health, said: “200,000 homes sounds very impressive but the devil is always in the detail.

“What is a “fair” rent and how does this tackle the problem of mortgage lenders effectively dictating the rent to landlords?”

In the Scottish National Party’s manifesto 

  • Invest an additional £50m to end homelessness
  • Create “20-minute neighbourhoods” in communities
  • Begin work on a minimum income guarantee which would give extra support to those who need it

Key quote

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said: “We’ll help councils take action to ensure social housing is used for people who want to live and work in their communities rather than second homes.”

What do the experts say? 

“Scotland’s pandemic response in the area of homelessness has been exemplary, but much remains to be done,” Grohmann said. 

“Replacing night shelters with short term emergency accommodation is a step in the right direction, especially since Covid-19 has demonstrated how hazardous shelter accommodation can be for individuals and the public.”

In the Scottish Green’s manifesto

  • £500 million to hit house building targets and increase home energy efficiency for all to grade C by 2030
  • Zero-carbon heating for all homes by 2040
  • Green heat grants for 500,000 households to replace fossil fuel boilers by 2030
  • Ban on new fossil fuel boilers for all buildings from 2028
  • Create rent regulator and ban evictions in winter
  • Build 120,000 homes by 2032, 70 per cent for social rent, and create better public housing for elderly people
  • Requirement on private housebuilders to create affordable housing

Key quote

“We need to look at the causes of homelessness,” Scottish Green leader Lorna Slater told The Big Issue. “Renting in Scotland is far too expensive and insecure. Which is why the Scottish Greens propose a new deal for renters. We would ban winter evictions and make all grounds for eviction discretion discretionary. We would review the effectiveness of the first tier tribunal service and establish a new private rented sector regulator which could recommend reforms.”

What do the experts say? 

Commenting on the Greens’ plans, Grohmann explained: “Similar to the SNP, the Greens propose to resolve the problems caused by a financialised welfare model and commodified housing through regulatory intervention in the private rental market.

“While curbs on excessive rents and exploitative conditions are certainly to be welcomed, placing responsibility for providing affordable housing on the shoulders of private landlords will do little to resolve the underlying problem: lack of publicly owned social housing stock.”

In the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ manifesto

  • Build 60,000 affordable homes over the next five years with 40,000 for social rent 
  • Introduce help to renovate loan scheme to bring empty properties back into use 
  • Force the sale of derelict sites and use the land for house building 
  • Follow Housing First and rapid housing principles with new council duties to end homelessness

Key quote

“Liberal Democrats will build 60,000 affordable homes over the next five years with 40,000 for social rent,” Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie told The Big Issue.

What do the experts say?

Grohmann said: “As with some of the other parties, an absolute number of houses pledged is far less interesting than the question of who builds them and who has access to them.

“The problems caused by privatising housing will not be resolved with more investment in private housing, but only with a strong commitment to public ownership.”

In the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto

  • Use devolved powers to target “specific” groups receiving £20 per week Universal Credit increase, to “create distinctive ‘Scottish approach’ to social security”
  • Introduce Compulsory Sales Orders for long-term empty properties

Key quote

“We want to eradicate rough sleeping by 2026,” said Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservatives leader.

“Scottish Conservatives will also put forward plans for a national housing first programme to give people a settled home to then allow them to engage with other support agencies.” 

What do the experts say? 

“Under UK Conservative governments, rough sleeping has more than doubled in the past 10 years, so it will be interesting to see how the Scottish Conservatives plan to eradicate it in just five,” said Grohmann. 

“A commitment to continuing Scotland’s existing Housing First approach is certainly commendable, but as those working with people experiencing homelessness know, being affected by multiple aspects of marginalisation and (health) inequity can make resettlement challenging for some.”

How will Scottish parties tackle poverty?

Scotland went into the Covid-19 pandemic with “unacceptably high levels of poverty”, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) charity. 

This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with more people losing their jobs and risking falling into destitution. 

This is something the party leaders acknowledge and have pledged to fix. 

In Scottish Labour’s manifesto 

  • Double Scottish child payment by end of 2022
  • Abolish council tax and replace it with a “fairer” system
  • Give every young person free access to transport this summer
  • Create a £500 retraining grant for unemployed or furloughed people, plus an extra £750 in income support for unemployed people in training

Key quote

“I want us to devolve employment law. So we can have a floor set across the UK and have a race to the top on pay and workers’ rights here in Scotland and across the UK.”

What do the experts say?

“The Scottish Labour manifesto refers to child poverty five times in 116 pages, which is rather less than might be expected from a Party which traditionally made this a central priority,” Professor Stephen Sinclair, from the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit, told The Big Issue.

Their proposals (doubling the Scottish Child Payment, Basic Income trials, a guaranteed Minimum Income Standard) show the consensus that now exists in Scotland around several anti-poverty measures. Hopefully, Labour’s proposal to replace Council Tax with something which better reflects ability to pay will also become a reform upon which all parties can agree.”

In the Scottish National Party’s manifesto 

  • Universal free school meals for all primary school children
  • Free laptop or tablet plus free internet for every pupil
  • 100,000 more affordable homes
  • End council tax for under-22s

Key quote

“We will double investment in our parental employment support programme, use our powers to require businesses with government contracts to pay staff the real living wage, and support a new living hours accreditation scheme to help drive out insecure work.”

What do the experts say?

“The SNP government has admirable ambitions – such as those in the 2017 Child Poverty Act – but these are not matched by delivery. Even before the COVID pandemic child poverty was increasing, and all the indicators are that this trend will accelerate,” Professor Sinclair said.

“Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are right to say that it is not possible to meet the national child poverty targets using social security alone. Therefore SNP plans to invest in employment skills training and take steps to improve job security and increase earnings are therefore necessary and welcome.

“The proposal to create a minimum income guarantee, as recommend by the Social Renewal Advisory Board, makes a statement that no one in Scotland should fall below a decent living standard. Its implications for UK social security benefits are complicated. However, such a guarantee would be a welcome affirmation of citizens’ rights.”

In the Scottish Green’s manifesto

  • Fund local authorities to give out grants which will mitigate the impact of the benefit cap
  • Ask UK government to end two-child limit with Scottish Government to foot the bill
  • Introduce a Universal Basic Income pilot by taking the necessary powers from Westminster or, if this is denied, fund smaller scale pilots

Key quote

“We need to tackle the root of the problem of low pay and insecure work.”

What do the experts say?

“The Green Party’s proposals identify and address the main causes of poverty: low wages (due to a lack of regular hours as well as low pay), high household costs (such as those associated with school and the ‘poverty premium’ of additional expenses, such as for fuel and financial services), and inadequate social security protection,” Professor Sinclair said.

“Their bolder proposal is a Universal Basic Income pilot. This could be an element in the Green Party’s longer term aim to transform society and shift to a ‘wellbeing economy’. However, it is a very expensive and complicated way to reduce poverty compared to more immediate practical reforms.”

In the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ manifesto

  • Double the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week
  • Develop a Universal Basic Income
  • Make Universal Credit £20 increase permanent

Key quote

“We will direct support in schools to the poorest pupils to help close the poverty related attainment gap.”

What do the experts say?

“Their aspiration to reduce the gap in education attainment between pupils from higher and lower income backgrounds is welcome,” Professor Sinclair said. 

“However, their proposed measures fail to address some of the factors which underlie these inequalities. These include neglecting children from gypsy and traveller communities and those with experience of the care system, and the role of private education in maintaining educational advantages and preserving privilege.”

In the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto

  • Free school lunches and breakfasts for all children in primary school
  • Increase the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week
  • Use devolved powers to target “specific” groups receiving £20 per week Universal Credit increase, to “create distinctive ‘Scottish approach’ to social security”

Key quote

“By taking people back into work and providing better jobs, we will lift individuals and families out of poverty.”

What do the experts say?

“Conservatives have always insisted that work is the best route out of poverty, which is a half-truth at best,” Professor Sinclair said.

“Hopefully, Conservatives policy will also reflect the fact that the jobs most likely to reduce poverty are in the health and social care sectors (mainly held by women) rather than the kind of infrastructure investment that provide good photo-opps for politicians.

“While they are talking to the UK government, the Scottish Conservatives should also demand that they abolish the two child limit and benefit cap – two of the most misguided and harmful welfare reforms in recent years.”

What will Scottish parties do about the climate crisis?

Proponents have argued the Scottish Government has been ahead of the game when tackling the climate crisis. 

The SNP claims that it has introduced “the most ambitious legal framework for emissions reduction in the world” while in Government. 

Ahead of the COP26 global climate summit set to be held in Glasgow in November, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland must continue to lead the way. 

So what will the parties do to tackle the effects of the emergency?

In Scottish Labour’s manifesto 

  • Boost the energy efficiency of Scotland’s buildings to grade C
  • Ensure the transition to net zero is fair for all
  • Help more low and middle income households buy electric cars over the next two years with interest-free loans and create more charging points, fast
  • Increase active travel spending to get more people walking and cycling
  • Decarbonise Scotland’s railways within 15 years and make it faster to travel Scotland by train than by car

Key quote

“We will bring public transport into public ownership, and then also give free transport so we can have more routes, more diverse routes, and more people using public transport rather than carbon emitting vehicles.”

What do the experts say?

“Planting new trees, and emphasising the potential of COP26 as a longer-term, global solution for tackling the climate emergency are just two of the highlights [of the Scottish Labour manifesto],” Scott McGrane, University of Strathclyde Chancellor’s Fellow and environmental expert.

“The pledge to retrofit every home to have an energy efficiency grade C is an easy win, but perhaps lacks the ambition of other parties around improving home efficiency. An increase in charging points across the country (especially in rural areas) is crucial to amplifying the number of people taking up electric vehicles. While the policies around public transport are ambitious, there’s a significant question around funding for such schemes – including the development of electrified and non-fossil fuel public transport systems as a long-term and cost-effective strategy.”

In the Scottish National Party’s manifesto 

  • Decarbonise heating for one million homes by 2030 
  • Increase the Climate Justice Fund to £24m over four years
  • Introduce deposit return scheme for single use drinks containers next year
  • Increase woodland creation targets up to 18,000 hectares per year by 2025
  • £100m for green jobs fund 

Key quote

“We’ll make sure that Scotland’s transition to becoming a net zero nation is a just transition, making sure that people and communities are not left behind as jobs and industries change, but are able to benefit from new opportunities coming from the low carbon economy.”

What do the experts say?

“The policies put forth for this election campaign continue to be progressive, and will undoubtedly be attractive to young voters who are increasingly conscious to the climate crisis,” Dr Scott McGrane said.

“How to incentivise people to use alternative modes of transport will be an interesting challenge for the SNP moving forward with massive investment required in infrastructure for electric vehicles or bolstering the public transport offerings to be a reliable and cost-effective alternative.

In the Scottish Green’s manifesto

  • End use of single-use and non-essential plastics by 2025
  • Support development of green hydrogen
  • Invest in marine renewable energy
  • Pressure Westminster to stop support of oil and gas industry
  • Ban importation of shale and fracked gas to Scotland
  • Ensure a just transition to net-zero
  • Create international research hub at Grangemouth
  • Create low emission zones in areas breaching air quality limits
  • Frequent flyer levy, excluding domestic flights in Highlands and Islands

Key quote

“Absolutely everything we do must be focused on securing our survival, starting with the transition from oil and gas now.”

What do the experts say?

“The Scottish Greens have some excellent policies on environmental issues, but you need to scratch beneath the surface of this video and its dramatic contextualising statements to uncover them,” said Dr McGrane.

“For example: phasing out single use and non-essential plastics by 2025, investment in marine renewables, introducing a just transition for key fossil-fuel sites (Grangemouth and Mossmorran) that can provide retraining for critical workers at both of these sites, introduction of low emission zones in key urban centres where air quality limits are frequently breached. The restoration of peatlands and forests provide a route-map for large-scale carbon sequestration that can significantly contribute to achieving net zero while restoring ecosystem integrity in parts of rural Scotland.

“It’s unsurprising to see the Scottish Greens double down on the significance of green issues within this election, highlighting both global and local issues associated with the ongoing climate crisis.

In the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ manifesto

  • Double efforts to end fuel poverty
  • More investment into skilling to ensure just transition to net-zero
  • New national parks and woodlands
  • Introduce frequent flyer levy, including exemptions for Highlands and Islands flyers
  • Restore peatlands
  • Enhance energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprints of older homes

Key quote

“We will use hydrogen technologies to heat homes and power public transport. We will open more railway lines and instal a network of charging points.”

What do the experts say?

“While the pledge from the Liberal Democrats is a little light on details, they make some of the correct noises,” Dr McGrane said.

“Their commitment to opening more railway lines may yield some benefit to remote or rural towns or villages, but rather than focusing on opening new lines, electrifying the existing network will have a great impact on the environment. Installing a network of charging points is essential to incentivise the uptake of electric vehicles and dissuade large elements of the population from continued reliance of diesel or petrol vehicles.”

In the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto

  • Restore peatland to 20,000 hectares by 2024-25
  • Create third national park for Scotland in Galloway
  • £25 million to remove pollution such as plastic from the ocean
  • Accelerate a circular economy bill
  • Support UK Government’s North Sea efforts to invest £16 billion in transition to net-zero and keep 40,000 jobs safe

Key quote

“We want to introduce a circular economy bill to make it easier for people to recycle and reuse and we’d also introduce a nature bill to protect one in nine species in Scotland that’s under threat of extinction, extend the national parks in Scotland by creating a third one in Galloway, introducing more tree planting.”

What do the experts say?

“The development of green jobs in conjunction with existing businesses is an important part of the post-Covid-19 recovery strategy and something that will be welcomed,” Dr McGrane said. “Prioritising a Circular Economy bill that seeks to reduce resource consumption and enhance recycling is bold, and will be welcome by both communities and businesses alike, though such a bold policy is likely to require substantial investment and it is unclear how such a proposal would be funded.

“Given the Conservative party’s activities in the UK regarding shale mining via fracking, and the development of new coal mining facilities, it will be interesting to see how the Scottish Conservatives aim to continue the progressive strategy of prohibiting such activities in Scotland, while such activities continue to receive support in Westminster.”

How will the Scottish parties tackle post-Covid unemployment?

Scotland’s unemployment rate in the three months to January 2021 was 4.4 per cent, which was 0.9 per cent higher than the same period of 2020. 

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland’s economy has been battered by repeated lockdowns due to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Here’s what the party leaders said they would do to keep people in their jobs and create more in the years ahead. 

In Scottish Labour’s manifesto 

  • Guaranteed job in the public sector for six months for long-term unemployed, every unemployed person under 25, unemployed disabled people
  • £500 retraining grant for unemployed or furloughed people plus £750 income support for unemployed people in training
  • Encourage people to use town centre businesses with £75 for every adult in Scotland to use in non-food retail

Key quote

“We have launched the most ambitious, boldest job creation scheme in the history of the Scottish Parliament. I’m not shy about the price tag: 1.2 billion pounds, so we can create over 170,000 jobs across the country.”

What do the experts say?

“It’s good to see some financial calculations associated with these pledges,” said Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow.

“As with many of the others, the challenge is to work with employers so they know about these opportunities and can take advantage of them. Identifying particular groups who have found the labour market hard (young people, workers with disabilities) can be effective, but needs careful implementation so as not to further exclude e.g. workers who are only slightly older than the target group.”

In the Scottish National Party’s manifesto 

  • £10 million for businesses to pilot a four-day week and measure the benefits
  • An extra £500 million to help people reskill 
  • £25 million to help the tourism industry recover
  • A four per cent pay increase for NHS staff
  • £100 million for green jobs creation
  • Invest an additional £500m to support new jobs and reskill people for the jobs of the future

Key quote

“Ifwe can assure that once we open up, we don’t need to lock down again, then that will give our economy and employment and our economy a real boost.”

What do the experts say?

“Moving beyond crisis measures is clearly going to be crucial before we know how badly particular areas of the labour market have been affected; especially hospitality and retail,” Professor Simms said. “These are sectors that employ a lot of young people so it’s great to see them firmly on the policy agenda. It’s going to be really important to engage employers to make sure they are on board to deliver these policies effectively.”

In the Scottish Green’s manifesto

  • At least £7.5bn in public investment to create over 100,000 green jobs
  • Make worker or union representation mandatory on boards for companies with £5m+ turnover
  • Boost apprenticeships and introduce requirement to pay the living wage at a minimum
  • Ban “precarious” work contracts
  • Require companies pay the real living wage
  • Support national transition to a four-day week ensuring no lost pay

Key quote

“The Scottish Greens will invest in a green recovery that will directly create at least 100,000 quality jobs in renewable energy public transport, restoring nature and retrofitting homes to make them warm and efficient.”

What do the experts say?

“Building green jobs is a real opportunity for Scotland and the UK more generally,| Professor Simms said. “The challenge here is investing in skills and training to help existing and future workers adapt to these new opportunities. Job security is also a really important issue for workers in flexible jobs. It needs to be done so that those who welcome flexibility don’t lose it.”

In the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ manifesto

  • Paid small business internships for 2,000 graduates
  • Audits to ensure disabled people and those from ethnic minorities are paid fairly
  • Prioritise Scottish workers in the manufacturing of wind turbines
  • Make more jobs available to people in rural areas
  • Investment in reskilling to ensure transition to net-zero is just
  • £5,000 training bonds to help people who want to switch careers

Key quote

Liberal Democrats will fix the post-Covid employment crisis by putting recovery first. That means a youth job guarantee employing thousands of people to decarbonise our homes.”

What do the experts say?

“Any jobs guarantee needs to ensure that employers are on board because these are policies that are ultimately delivered by them,” Professor Simms said. “It’s great to see small businesses on the agenda because the Scottish labour market is highly dependent on them. But getting the message out and supporting them with expertise to apply to these kinds of schemes can be quite a challenge and needs real impetus to deliver.”

In the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto

  • Prioritise tackling unemployment in the next Scottish Parliament
  • 200,000 new jobs in railways, roads and broadband 
  • Right to Retrain fund for every adult worth £500 each per year
  • Support UK Government’s North Sea efforts to invest £16 billion in transition to net-zero and keep 40,000 jobs safe
  • New company owned by the Government for disabled people to get work experience

Key quote

“We support the introduction of job security councils, which looks at people who may lose their job – in, for example, the oil and gas sector – to take their skills and their training into another sector that could utilise them,” Ross said.

What do the experts say?

“Given how variable the impact of this crisis has been on different sectors, there can be a lot of sense in taking a sectoral approach to skills, training and recovery but it’s not clear whether there’s funding attached to this proposal,” Professor Simms said. “Retraining grants can help, and it’s important to make sure they can be used flexibly but I note that although it’s not to be sneezed at, £500 doesn’t go far when it comes to paying for skills and education.”

You can read the SNP’s manifesto in full here

You can read Scottish Labour’s manifesto in full here

You can read the Scottish Greens’ manifesto in full here

You can read the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ manifesto in full here

You can read the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto in full here

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