Nicola Sturgeon defended the SNP’s Holyrood record during her visit to the isles following criticism from campaign group Wir Shetland.
The First Minister was helping launch the election bid by Danus Skene, who is now fully on the campaign trail after recovering from his bout of ill health.
Wir Shetland said it was boycotting Ms Sturgeon’s visit after highlighting concerns about ferry subsidy cuts and a “stealth underfunding” of SIC services.
The group says that a 2008 arrangement with Cosla for the allocation of government funding led to “systematic underfunding” in remote communities.
It claims Shetland’s education system has been underfunded by around £10 million per annum since that year, forcing the SIC to cut services or dip into its reserves to cover the shortfall.
Ms Sturgeon, who was speaking during a tour of the Lerwick Brewery, said the she had a listening ear, although funding arrangements for councils were made in conjunction with Cosla.
She also defended agricultural minister Richard Lochhead over his involvement in the CAP payment debacle, which has seen some farmers and crofters wait for months for payments following the introduction of a troublesome £178 million computer software system.
“We allocate funding based on an agreed formula with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We’re always open to listening to representations about how that can be improved, and if that’s a case made to me today by people across Shetland – and I’ll be in Orkney tomorrow – then that’s something that we’ll listen to. But we don’t unilaterally decide how funding is allocated. We do that in partnership with Cosla.”
Wir Shetland has also argued against a £5 million cash cut in SIC annual funding while Holyrood received a cash increase from Westminster.
But Ms Sturgeon insisted Holyrood’s budget has been cut “in real terms” every year since the current UK government had been in office.
“We’ve tried to treat local authorities fairly. I don’t pretend that this is not a difficult time for local authorities, as it is for other public sector organisations. But we’ve tried to treat local authorities fairly. We’ve also taken steps to transfer funding from the National Health Service into social care because we recognise that in island communities as well as other communities across Scotland that that is important.
“So we’ll continue trying to deal with the budgetary situation we face as fairly as we can for local authorities generally and island communities in particular.”
Ms Sturgeon, who was accompanied on her visit by transport minister Derek Mackay, also defended the SNP’s record on ferry fares, and highlighted a freeze in ferry fares. Wir Shetland had argued Shetland and Orkney ferry subsidies had been cut by 14 per cent, while Clyde and Hebridean subsidies had risen by 41 per cent in the same period.
“We want to make sure we do give the Northern Isles the benefit of our investment in ferries,” said Ms Sturgeon.
“There has been a lengthy debate about RET and because of the distances involved, particularly with Shetland, RET could increase some ferry fares which is not what anyone wants to see. We’re investing as a government much more in ferries than has ever been the case. I’ve got the transport minister here with me. This week we’ve just announced freezing of ferry fares, and we’ll continue to discuss with both Shetland and Orkney councils how we can build on that and make sure that we are improving transport links to and from the islands, because that’s crucial in terms of what we are talking about more generally in supporting the island economies.”
Her visit came just days after agriculture minister Richard Lochhead visited the isles to offer reassurances to farmers and crofters over the delayed CAP payments.
So, does the First Minister still have confidence in Mr Lochhead?
“Yes I do. Absolutely. We’re working hard to get CAP payments to farmers. We are continuing to see payments go out through the core scheme every day, literally. But we’ve also put in place the Scottish government loan scheme so any farmer who didn’t have the initial payment by the end of March will get a payment through that. I myself met with the NFU a couple of weeks before parliament dissolved for the election. While I understand their concerns, they were very positive about the steps that the Scottish government we’re taking. We continue to do everything we can do to get the payments to farmers.”