BBC debate

Fact check: the final BBC Scottish leaders’ debate

Scottish party leaders’ took to the stage for the final debate before the Holyrood election on 6 May.

Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar and Willie Rennie faced off for the fourth time in the BBC debate. Patrick Harvie has appeared in three debates and his Scottish Greens’ co-leader Lorna Slater appeared once.

Ferret Fact Service has fact-checked each of the debates, which were hosted on BBC, STV and Channel 4.

As before, we looked at a claim from each party representative.

Nicola Sturgeon

I have said consistently all along, sometimes to criticism from people on my own side of the argument, that I would not countenance an illegal referendum.


First Minister Nicola Sturgeon began speaking about the possibility of holding a second independence referendum in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote.

The day after the vote she said that because just 38 per cent of Scottish voters had wanted to leave the EU against 52 per cent in the UK as a whole it was a “statement of the obvious that a second referendum must be on the table, and it is on the table”.

In order to legally hold a referendum the Scottish Government requires the UK Government to grant a section 30 order. That is because the Scotland Act 1998 states that the “union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” is a reserved matter. A section 30 order, which was granted for the 2014 referendum, would temporarily transfer powers from Westminster to Holyrood to oversee the poll.

In March 2017 Sturgeon told delegates at the SNP conference that “there will be an independence referendum” and that she intended to seek a “fair, legal and agreed” poll. Later that month MSPs voted in favour of asking the UK Government to grant a section 30 order. Sturgeon accordingly wrote to then Prime Minister Theresa May to make the request but was rebuffed. In December 2019 she asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson the same question, but was again rebuffed.

After Johnson’s refusal to grant the section 30 order, Sturgeon said there was a “cast-iron democratic mandate” for another vote but asked SNP supporters to be patient because it “must be legal and legitimate”.

At the start of this year the SNP released its roadmap to a referendum “that is beyond legal challenge” and made its intention to hold a referendum one of the pledges in its 2021 manifesto. It has said it will again seek a section 30 order from Westminster in order to hold that vote.

The roadmap, which was written by constitution secretary Mike Russell, states that “the SNP Scottish Government continues to maintain that a referendum must be beyond legal challenge to ensure legitimacy and acceptance at home and abroad”.

In March, the SNP Government published a draft referendum bill, which it will use to pave the way for a vote should the request for a section 30 order be refused. Questions remain over whether that law would be legally binding in a UK context and the Court of Session has indicated that proceeding without a section 30 order would likely lead to a legal challenge from the UK Government. In its roadmap, the SNP states that “such a legal challenge would be vigorously opposed by an SNP Scottish Government”.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly made it clear that any referendum on Scottish independence would have to be “legal and legitimate”. If a request for a section 30 order was rejected the SNP has indicated it would pass legislation to allow it to hold a referendum without Westminster’s say so. It is not known at this stage whether that legislation would be considered legally binding in a UK context.

Mostly True

Douglas Ross

The UK government have supported more than a million jobs here in Scotland through the furlough and self-employed income support scheme.


The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, otherwise known as the furlough scheme, was introduced by the UK Government in April 2020 as a means of preventing mass redundancies in the wake of the pandemic. It applies across all four nations of the UK and is administered by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

The scheme enables businesses to continue paying a proportion of the wages of employees who have been unable to work because of the pandemic. Staff are entitled to 80 per cent of their normal pay, capped at £2,500 a month. The scheme is expected to run until the end of September this year.

A similar scheme was also introduced for the self-employed.

Figures compiled by HMRC show that as of the end of January 2021, 4.9 million people were on furlough across the UK. Of that total, 373,000 were based in Scotland.

As of 15 March, the total number of jobs that had been supported at the scheme since launch stood at 11.4 million. Of that, 892,200 were based in Scotland.

The UK Government has so far made three grants to people applying for support via the self-employed scheme. HMRC’s figures show that the first grant was claimed by 157,000 people in Scotland, the second was claimed by 142,000 and the third by 131,000.

That means that, in total, 430,000 Scottish grants have been made via the self-employed scheme. However, as it was possible for individuals to claim all three grants that total includes the same people being counted more than once. HMRC’s figures show that 122,000 people received all three grants.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: True

The furlough and self-employed support schemes were put in place by the UK Government. Official figures show that 892,200 Scottish workers have been supported by the furlough scheme since launch, while 157,000 were covered by the first self-employed scheme, bringing the number of people supported to just over a million.

This claim is True

Anas Sarwar

tripled the cuts which came from Westminster, and handed them down to local government. £1bn of cuts.


In an exchange with the First Minister, Labour leader Anas Sarwar took aim at cuts to local government, which he said went further than those imposed on the Scottish Government by Westminster. 

He suggested that Nicola Sturgeon’s government had cut local government by three times the amount that its budget had been cut. 

Financing for local government is complex. The Scottish Government pays the General Resource Grant and ring-fences Specific Revenue Grants to local authorities directly. Business rates, for example, are collected by local authorities then go centrally into a pool, is then re-distributed. Each council keeps revenues gained through council tax. 

Research by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) found that the Scottish Government’s revenue budget reduced by £870.4m between 2013-14 and 2018-19, this was a 2.8 per cent reduction. 

The revenue budget is the amount of money available to cover day-to-day spending, such as staff wages.

The local government revenue budget decreased at a “much faster rate” by £810m over the same period, a 7.5 per cent reduction. The local government budget decreased by 4.7 percentage points more than the Scottish Government’s. 

Scottish Labour also cited a report from Audit Scotland, which found that between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the Scottish Government revenue budget fell by 1.65 per cent, while revenue funding to councils reduced by 6.92 per cent over the same period.

The “£1bn of cuts” part of the claim is backed up by research from economics group Fraser of Allander Institute, But this refers to a slightly different timescale which found that the local government settlement declined by around 9.5 per cent since between 2010-11 and 2017-18, “equivalent to around £1bn in real terms”.

The most recent SPICe report found that the gap between “funding changes for local government and the Scottish Government was beginning to narrow”.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

The Scottish Government funding for local authorities was reduced by more than its revenue budget was decreased. However there are competing figures for how much more and it depends what timescale is used. The Fraser of Allander Institute found that the real terms decrease in funding between 2010-11 and 2017-18 was around £1bn.

Mostly True

Patrick Harvie

A year into the global pandemic we’ve just come through, there were still care homes being rated as poor on basic infection prevention and control measures.


The Care Inspectorate is a non-departmental public body set up by the Scottish Government to scrutinise the quality of care in Scotland. It is responsible for inspecting care homes and, after every inspection, it publishes a report detailing its findings. These reports evaluate homes across a range of areas, with performance graded according to a six-point scale that ranges from unsatisfactory through to excellent.

The Care Inspectorate has published 24 care home reports in the past four weeks. In those reports it found four care homes to be weak on infection control practices. Weak is its second lowest scoring.

Ranfurly Care Home in Johnstone was assessed as weak because cleaning schedules were not robust and staff had to walk along corridors to dispose of PPE. Clashfarquhar House in Stonehaven was scored as weak because, among other things, “staff were not consistently adhering to cleaning schedules and the system for auditing these did not pick this up”.

Benholm Nursing Home in Forfar was rated weak in part because of weaknesses in hand hygiene. For St Anne’s Care Home in Musselburgh the Care Inspectorate found that residents’ healthcare needs were being met but were “compromised by poor infection prevention and control practice”.

It also issued reports on a number of homes recently found to be weak on infection control but had improved after being asked to take immediate action. Lornebank Care Centre in Hamilton, for example, had been issued with a letter of serious concern after an unannounced visit at the beginning of April identified issues with infection prevention and control practices.

A follow-up report found the home’s performance to now be adequate, which is one point higher than weak on the six-point scale.

Ferret Fact Service verdict: Mostly True

Recent reports by the Care Inspectorate show that a number of care homes across Scotland were rated as ‘weak’ on basic infection prevention and control practices in April. This is the body’s second-lowest rating on a six-point scoring system, but the system does not include the term ‘poor’.

Mostly True

Willie Rennie

We have a 20 per cent vacancy in the social care sector.


During part of the debate on the care sector, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie made a claim about vacancies in the social care sector. 

He argued that the sector was underfunded, resulting in a 20 per cent vacancy level. 

The Scottish Liberal Democrats told Ferret Fact Service that the claim came from the GMB union. A report from the union cites an article in The Times newspaper from April 2020, which states “turnover is rapid and vacancies were already running at 20 per cent”. 

This quote appears to refer to the whole of the UK, rather than Scotland, although Rennie did not specify where he was referring to. 

The latest data from Scottish Social Services Council says that across the social services sector the percentage of whole time equivalent vacancies as a proportion of the whole workforce was about 6 percent in 2019. For care homes, housing support and care at home, which are often defined as ‘social care’, the average was about a 6.5 per cent vacancy rate.

In England, Skills for Care estimated that 7.3 per cent of the roles in adult social care were vacant in 2019-20, equal to approximately 112,000 vacancies.

Ferret Fact Service could not find evidence of a current 20 per cent rate of social care vacancies in Scotland. 

Ferret Fact Service verdict: False

The Scottish Lib Dems leader’s claim does not appear to be backed up by the evidence. Latest figures for what is often defined as the social care sector in Scotland show a vacancy rate of around 6.5 per cent in Scotland. 

This claim is false

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