Jackie Baillie’s final stand-in performance at FMQs saw a microcosm of what we can expect the main battleground will be in Scotland during the 2015 and 2016 elections. That focus is on the poor and more generally the Left of Centre political block. The method used to demonstrate this was fuel poverty.
In light of new figures, which indicate a 4% increase in fuel poverty this year, Baillie asked why the SNP Government was ‘abandoning poor people’ and forcing them to make the choice between “heating and eating”. She pointed out that the increase means that over 1 million homes in Scotland are now suffering from fuel poverty and that is after the Scottish Government had amended the methodology to calculate the figures. Baillie concluded her questioning by accusing the Scottish Government of a “lack of ambition” in this area and stating that it is not good enough for the First Minister to simply blame Westminster and compare Scotland to England.
In a series of measured responses, Sturgeon accepted that fuel poverty had increased, which in a fuel rich country, is “simply unacceptable”. She went on to highlight the raft of funding – £300 million since 2009 – the Scottish Government had allocated to the issue and the fact that the figures indicate that fuel poverty levels would have been higher without the government’s energy efficiency support programmes.
Sturgeon continued by calling on Labour – a call that was ignored – to go further than their promised price freeze and support the SNPs position of removing the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) from bills altogether. Finishing with Baillie, Sturgeon rejected Labour’s accusations and accused them of creating the market conditions that have allowed this situation to develop.
In another confident performance, Ruth Davidson asked whether the First Minister shared her predecessors’ position that falling teacher numbers does not matter when teacher-pupil ratios were increasing. This came after new figures indicate that the number of school teachers in Scotland has dropped for the seventh consecutive year at a time when the teacher-pupil ratio was increasing.
The First Minister conceded that the drop in teacher levels were “disappointing” before pointing out that the picture was far more complicated than the headline figures suggest. Delving into those figures, Sturgeon highlighted that the number of primary school teachers had increased, just not enough to keep up with demand. Likewise, secondary school teacher-pupil ratios had improved against a backdrop of decreased demand.
Davidson finished her questioning by calling on the Scottish Government to embrace radical reform such as that being undertaken across England and Wales. In response Sturgeon pointed out that the government has embraced radical reform to education by pointing towards the Curriculum of Excellence.
Willie Rennie used his questions to seek assurances from the Government about its contingency plans following an Audit Scotland report that Revenue Scotland is behind in its recruitment and IT systems installation and testing ahead of the public body going live in April. Sturgeon took the opportunity to update parliament on the situation, which nullified Rennie’s line of questioning from the off.