Scottish parliament leaders debate

Fact check: the BBC Scottish leaders debate

The leaders of Scotland’s main political parties took part in the first televised debate ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election on 6 May.

The debate involved First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie, and the Scottish Greens’ co-leader Lorna Slater.

The debate, broadcast by the BBC, took in many of the issues which are likely to define the election campaign in the coming weeks, including the constitution, education, the NHS, and climate change.

Ferret Fact Service looked at some of the claims made by the leaders during the debate.

Nicola Sturgeon

“ spending more on health per head than the rest of the UK”.


Across the UK as a whole healthcare spending accounts for one quarter of total public expenditure. Proportionally, Scotland spends the least on health out of all the UK nations. In England, 25 per cent (£136.6bn) of public spending went on healthcare in 2019-20. In Wales it was 23 per cent (£13.7bn), Northern Ireland 22 per cent (£5bn), and in Scotland it was 21 per cent (£8bn). 

On a per person basis, Scotland spends the second smallest amount on healthcare of the four UK nations. In 2019-20 Northern Ireland spent the most at £2,616, followed by Wales (£2,546) then Scotland (£2,507) and England (£2,427).

If the comparison is made with the rest of the UK combined, the Scottish healthcare spending figure is higher. Stripping Scottish healthcare spending out of the UK total, gives an average per capita figure of £2,437. That is £53 per person lower than the Scottish figure.

As these figures, compiled by the UK Treasury, cover the 12 months to the end of March 2020, they do not take account of the significant sums each nation spent on its health service in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Scottish Government, for example, allocated an additional £448m for health services and an extra £155m for social care when it revised its 2020-21 budget last June. The health budget was increased by a further £2.3bn in September.

The impact on per capita spending, and how that compares with spending in the other UK nations, will not become clear until the full year’s figures have been assessed.

A spokesperson for the SNP noted that Sturgeon’s claim was based on the 2019-20 figures.

Ferret Fact Service Verdict: Half True

It is misleading to say that Scotland spends more on health per head than the rest of the UK. When the other three nations are taken together as a single entity Scotland does have a higher per capita health spend than the rest of the UK. When each nation is viewed separately Scotland spends the second lowest amount on health.

This claim is half true.

Douglas Ross

“You promised in three manifestos to reform council tax. Why are people still paying council tax?”


In its 2007 election manifesto the SNP said it would “scrap the council tax and introduce a fairer system based on ability to pay”.

The party said it would replace council tax with a local income tax, which would be set at 3p on the pound. Its aim was that the same rate would apply for basic and higher rate taxpayers.

The Alex Salmond-led minority SNP government that was sworn in following the 2007 Holyrood election did not scrap council tax. The plan won the backing of local authority group Cosla in 2008, but was dropped by then finance minister John Swinney in February 2009. Swinney told parliament the decision was taken after failing to win the support of Labour and the Conservatives. He also noted that a £500m reduction in Scotland’s settlement from Westminster meant it would “not be wise” to introduce the change.

In its 2011 manifesto the party pledged to “consult with others” to come up with a fairer system to replace council tax. It said it would put that system “to the people at the next election, by which time Scotland will have more powers over income tax”.

The SNP also said it would work with local authorities to ensure council tax payments would be frozen throughout the five-year parliamentary term.

The SNP formed a majority government after the 2011 election. Along with Cosla the government established the Commission on Local Tax Reform in 2014. That commission, which consulted widely, reported in 2015 that “the current system of council tax must end”.

The commission suggested a number of alternatives, but said its predominant view was that “any reform of local tax has to include recurrent tax on domestic property”. It added that “if it could be proved feasible” that should be broadened to include income as well.

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Council tax remained frozen at 2007 levels throughout the term of the 2011-16 parliament.

In its 2016 manifesto the SNP proposed a number of changes to the way council tax operates. These included

  • Reforming local tax so “an additional £500m” could be provided directly to headteachers to invest in schools
  • Changing how the rates for council tax bands E, F, G and H were calculated so people in these bands paid more
  • Consulting with councils on devolving a portion of the revenue raised through income tax so “the contribution individuals make to the delivery of local services is more closely tied to their earnings”

The party also pledged to freeze council tax for a ninth consecutive year to April 2017. From that point it said annual increases would be capped at three per cent.

Following the 2016 election the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the minority SNP government’s proposal to increase the top four council tax bands. That change was implemented in April 2017 at which point the council tax freeze was lifted. Then finance secretary Derek Mackay said changes to the top four bands would raise £100m to be spent on education

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

The SNP did promise to reform council tax in three separate manifestos. In 2007 the proposal was to scrap council tax altogether, but that plan was dropped in part because it failed to win the backing of opposition parties. By 2016 the SNP said it would introduce changes to the way council tax operates. Some reforms have been introduced but not on the scale initially promised and the people of Scotland are still paying council tax.

Mostly True

Anas Sarwar

“On 25,000 occasions during this pandemic, one of our fellow citizens has built up the courage, picked up the phone, called a crisis mental health service and the call has gone unanswered”.


During the debate, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar attacked the Scottish Government over mental health services during the pandemic.

This came from a freedom of information request by his party which revealed the number of answered and abandoned calls to Scotland’s mental health crisis support line. 

The data covers the period from 1 March 2020, nine days before the Covid-19 outbreak was designated as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, up to 17 February 2021.

From the start of the pandemic, 11 March, until 17 February, it shows that 93,772 calls were made to the NHS 24 mental health hub. Of these 68,883 were answered, while 24,889 were abandoned by the caller.

The NHS 24 helpline’s mental health hub can help if someone is “in mental distress”. In emergency situations, people are urged to contact 999.

This data does not tell us how quickly the person calling the line abandoned the call. A proportion may call the number and hang up before an operator could answer. However it still represents more than a quarter of calls to the number not being answered by an operator. 

Ferret Fact Service verdict: True

The claim that 25,000 calls had not been answered by the NHS 24 mental health hub is accurate, and is based on a freedom of information release. We don’t know how many of these calls were due to a delay in answering or because the person contacting the service abandoned the call quickly before it could be answered. But it is correct to say that all these calls “went unanswered”.

This claim is True

Willie Rennie

“Nicola, you had an opportunity to take control of social security powers but you handed them back to Westminster. You delayed the implementation of it by years”.


Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie took aim at the Scottish Government’s use of powers relating to social security. He suggested that powers over the issue were handed back to Westminster.

Under the Scotland Act 2016 the Scottish Government was handed a host of new powers which had previously been reserved to Westminster. This was based on the recommendations of the Smith Commission, set up to discuss further devolution of powers after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Part of this devolution of power included the ability to legislate on areas of social security.

Eleven benefits were devolved to Scotland, including ill health and disability benefits, carers allowances, funeral expenses, winter fuel payments, housing payments and some powers relating to Universal Credit. The Scottish Government was also given the power to create new benefits and top up existing ones.

This required the Scottish Government to set up its own social security system, which began making payments in 2018. Payments for the carer’s allowance supplement, for low-income families with children in school and nursery, funeral expenses, the young carers’ grant, and job start grants were implemented from 2018.

However, the government was criticised for delaying the rollout of devolved benefits in certain areas. Social security minister Shirley-Anne Somerville announced in February 2019 that the full implementation would be delayed.

The Scottish Government was to take responsibility for the remaining benefits from April 2020.

Power over claims for all disability and carers assistance was to be rolled out by the end of 2021. Scotland’s replacement for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) meant no-one would face Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) reassessment for disability benefits.

However, the process of transferring people from the DWP to Scotland’s social security system would not be complete until 2024, she said. The SNP had pledged the benefit roll-out would be complete by the end of the current parliament in 2021.

The planned introduction of disability benefits that were due within the coming year were halted, and continue to be delivered by the UK Government.

A report by Audit Scotland found setting up the social security system had been a “significant challenge” and the Scottish Government had “found delivering on its initial commitments harder than expected”.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Half True

Willie Rennie’s claim that the Scottish Government delayed the implementation of social security “by years” is partly accurate. The Scottish Government has yet to fully rollout the new powers devolved in the Scotland Act 2016. But it has made progress in rolling out some benefits, while setting up the infrastructure to transfer the remaining administration from Westminster.

This claim is half true.

Lorna Slater

We stopped evictions during the pandemic, and during our budget negotiations we won pandemic support payments for some of Scotland’s poorest families.”


Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater was keen to point out the impact her party had in supporting those in poverty during the pandemic.

She claimed the Scottish Greens were instrumental in stopping evictions during the pandemic, and that its negotiations with the SNP led to support payments to the poorest families during Covid-19.

A temporary ban was put in place on the enforcement of eviction orders in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act. It was extended in January 2021.

The First Minister credited the part of the Scottish Greens in the development of the eviction ban, and the extension was revealed in answer to a question from Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer.

The legislation was brought forward by the SNP government, but it appears the Scottish Greens had some measure of impact in pressuring the government.

The SNP requires support from other parties to pass its budget as it does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament.

This enables the Scottish Greens to influence the spending priorities in the budget.

Finance secretary Kate Forbes acknowledged these discussions with the Greens in a letter confirming support for the budget. She said: “Following our discussion we have agreed that the £100m I announced in February will be used to provide a Pandemic Support Payment to support people, in particular families, on low incomes.”

This amounted to £130 to approximately 500,000 households in receipt of council tax reduction, and two payments of £100 each to families of children who receive free school meals.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Lorna Slater’s claim that the Greens “stopped evictions” and “won” pandemic support for poor families is largely accurate. It is clear that the Greens exerted pressure on the Scottish Government over evictions during that pandemic, although it was ultimately the SNP government which enacted the ban. The payments for poor families in the budget were a direct result of negotiations by the Scottish Greens.

Mostly True

Photo thanks to iStock/jax10289.

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