“Unbelievable – with her Government imploding at home and every public service entering the 2020s in a worse state than even a year ago, Nicola Sturgeon travels to Brussels to bang on yet again about independence. She really is tone deaf to the priorities of Scotland” – Jackson Carlaw, Twitter, February 10, 2020


DESPITE the distraction of Brexit imposed by Westminster, the SNP Government in 2019 increased police, teacher and NHS staff numbers. Recorded crime is at near record lows while the clear-up rate is at a near record high. Healthwise, 2019 was the first full year of minimum alcohol pricing which has successfully cut alcohol purchases – despite Tory obstruction. A&E waiting times are the best in the UK while GP numbers are far better than in England. The proportion young people in education or employment is higher than in the UK as a whole.

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IS “every public service in a worse state than even a year ago”? It is not always possible to get full statistics for the calendar year 2020 or the financial year 2018-19, as in many instances the data is yet to be compiled or published. That alone invalidates Carlaw’s rather sweeping claim (“every public service”). However, we can present the latest data available in the various categories.

It shows the SNP Government has been taking major policy initiatives in policing, health, and education – usually in contrast to Westminster where the preoccupation with Brexit has frozen decision-making for four years. And in every case these Holyrood initiatives have had positive effects. There is room for debate on what policies to pursue, of course, but the charge that the SNP Government is not “doing the day job” because of preoccupation with constitutional matters is exploded by the evidence.

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HOW is the Scottish Government tackling crime? The latest police numbers for Scotland were published on September 30, 2019. There were 17,256 full-time equivalent (FTE) police officers in Scotland as of that date. This is an increase of 1022 FTE police officers (+6.3%) from the 16,234 FTE police officers recorded on March 31, 2007. In the 12 months to September 2019, police officer numbers increased by 108 FTE officers (+0.6%). On police numbers, Carlaw is demonstrably wrong.

Most violent crime is associated with excess consumption of alcohol. As is well known, the SNP Government has introduced a minimum unit price for alcohol in Scotland – despite original opposition from the Conservatives at Holyrood, including Carlaw. Minimum pricing came into effect in 2019. NHS research published in January 2020 found that the volume of pure alcohol sold per person dropped from 7.4 to 7.1 litres in the first 12 months of minimum pricing – a fall of 3.6%. In England and Wales – where minimum pricing was not implemented – the volume rose from 6.3 to 6.5 litres. Again, this is concrete proof the Scottish Government has taken concrete measures to reduce both alcoholism and alcohol-related violent crime.

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THE latest recorded crime data for Scotland was published in September 2019, covering 2017-18 and 2018-19. Overall, this period saw recorded crime at one of the lowest levels since 1974. Crimes of dishonesty (ie theft) are at their third lowest level since 1971. In the data period, crimes of fire-raising and vandalism decreased by 6% from 51,322 to 47,997 – the lowest level seen since 1976. Civil offences decreased by 6% from 264,027 to 247,791, including motor vehicle offences which decreased by 8% from 127,015 to 117,105.

Most significantly, police clear-up rate of crimes for 2017-18 and 2018-19 increased by 1.5 percentage points, from 49.5% to 51.0% (ie a majority of recorded incidents). Police Scotland cleared up an additional 89 crimes per week on average compared to the year before. The clear-up level is now at one of the highest levels since as far back as 1976.

Measuring crimes recorded per 1000 of the population, the crime rate in Scotland fell from 2007-08 (when the first SNP administration was elected) to 2018-19. Numbers decreased from 83 crimes per 1000 to 45 crimes per 1000 by 2018/19. However, there are yearly variations. It is only fair to point out that the overall number of recorded crimes in Scotland rose by 1% between 2017-18 and 2018-19 – crimes involving violence rose as did sexual assaults. But it is important to analyse the data carefully.

For instance, while the number of homicide cases recorded rose statistically by 2%, this in fact represented only one case. Total homicides actually rose from 59 to 60. This is obviously regrettable but hardly indicative of a trend. Even at 60, this was the third lowest number of recorded homicide cases for a single 12-month period since 1976, after 59 cases were recorded in each of 2015-16 and 2017-18.

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HEALTHCARE is a labour-intensive sector at a time when a growing elderly population is putting maximum pressure across the UK and Western world. If the charge is that the SNP Government has been ignoring this general crisis, the facts suggest otherwise.

The national workforce survey for September 2019 shows that NHS Scotland’s staffing levels are at a record high, up by over 14,300 FTE – an 11.3% increase between September 2006 and September 2019; numbers of consultants are at a record high, up 51.4%; numbers of qualified nurses and midwives have increased 6.7%; numbers of staff in the social care workforce have risen by 1.2% since 2017, the highest level recorded since reports began. Note also that NHS staffing per head in Scotland is higher than NHS England. This has been achieved in part by raising NHS spending from circa 6% of Scottish GDP to 8%.


PERHAPS the most serious choke point in health service delivery lies at the nexus of primary care (the GP service), A&E facilities at hospitals, and the ability of hospitals to free up beds. Pressure on GPs (more elderly patients) is pushing up demand at A&E while causing many GPs to retire early or reduce working hours; pressure on hospital beds is making it difficult to move seriously ill patients out of A&E; and more elderly patients are blocking beds in hospital wards rather than being sent home, because of insufficient social care staff. This is a universal set of problems across the UK nations (and in other countries).

The test here is how the Scottish Government is responding. In December 2019, the SNP Government published a new integrated workforce plan for health and social care. Note that unlike England, the Scottish Government has already moved to integrate the management and funding of health and social care, starting in 2014. As a result, the Scottish Government has already expanded the health and social care workforce – for example, delivering 100 more GP specialist training places and 500 more health visitors. And 33 more GP speciality training places were filled in 2019 compared to 2018 – the year Carlaw implies nothing was happening.

In future, the new integrated health and care system is on track to deliver: access to pharmacist support for all GP practices by 2021; 250 community link workers in GP surgeries by 2021; 2600 more nursing and midwifery training places by 2021; 500 additional advanced nurse practitioners trained by 2021; and 800 additional mental health workers in A&E departments and GP practices. In addition, a new GP contract was introduced in 2018, which reduces individual GP workload (to increase staff retention).

All of this indicates that Carlaw’s charge that the FM is “tone deaf” to priorities is far-fetched. But what of results in Scotland? The following chart shows the Scottish Government has been more successful than Westminster at protecting GP numbers, which are more per 100,000 of the population north of the border.

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ASSESSING health outcomes is complicated. Waiting times are an important benchmark but they are about process rather than health quality. Nevertheless, in the 12 months to December 2019, the number of A&E patients who were seen within four hours (the key test) was at its highest level in any year since 2012. More than 1.5 million patients were treated within four hours, despite a significant increase in A&E demand. In December 2019 itself (when winter demand peaks) the four-hour target was met in 80% of cases compared with under 70% for the rest of the United Kingdom. That hardly suggests the Scottish Government is uniquely failing to deliver, as Carlaw claims.

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IN Scotland in 2019, teacher numbers rose over the year to 52,247 – up 288 on 2018. Pupil numbers were also up, leaving the pupil:teacher ratio for 2019 the same as in 2017 and 2018, at 13.6. This compares well with the UK figure of 16.4. This is hardly indicative of any lack of action by the Scottish Government. The SNP Government has also responded to concerns over attainment issues by investing an additional £500 million in spending in targeted schools where pupil performance is poorest.


ASSESSING educational quality by looking at exam attainment results in school is highly subjective. An alternative method of assessing the quality of a national education system in the round is to look at what happens to young people after age 16. The latest figures (published August 2019) show that the proportion of 16-19 year olds in Scotland participating in education, training or employment between April 2018 and March 2019 was 91.6%. This is better than the UK figure of 88.5%.

Alternatively, on can look at youth unemployment rates. A poorer educational system, all things being equal, should result in higher youth unemployment. In the 12 months till September 2019, the unemployment rate in Scotland for young people aged 16-24 years was 9.1% – a drop on the previous year. For the UK, the figure was higher, 11.4 %. Again, if outcomes are the benchmark, the Scottish educational system is superior to England for the majority of young people.

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Another obvious benchmark is the proportion of secondary pupils completing six years of secondary education. This has risen from 55% in 2010 to 63% in 2019. The percentage of leavers from Scottish state schools going on to university or further education was 56% in 2007-08 to 68% in 2017-18 – an impressive two thirds of school leavers going into advanced education. Scotland has more graduate educated citizens (aged 25-64) than Sweden, Finland, Denmark or Norway.


SCOTLAND’S public services are under pressure from Westminster austerity, an aging population, and the historic legacy of poor diet and alcoholism. But they are anything but broken. Rather, Scotland’s 561,000 public sector workers are in the forefront of tacking these social ills.


THE only thing worse than a year ago is Carlaw’s grasp of the facts.

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