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Sarwar: we can't wait for indyref to tackle inequality

People cannot afford to wait until after the independence referendum for action to tackle inequality, Labour's deputy leader said.

Anas Sarwar claimed the SNP Government in Edinburgh was focused on the constitutional ballot and only offered people "sticking plasters" for the problems they are facing.

He raised the issue in a speech in Glasgow, where he also said Labour had to set out its own vision for Scotland.

Mr Sarwar told the audience at the moment "sadly the only change on offer is how you vote in the referendum ballot paper at the end of October next year, if that's when it is".

He said: "That's not the only change that should be on offer. People can't afford to wait.

"We still face huge challenges in our country. I don't think it's acceptable we ignore the inequalities that are happening today because the only change on offer is a constitutional one."

He said in Scotland "some have become trapped in the belief that change only means constitutional change".

With this focus on next year's independence referendum, he said there were "constant battles about constitutional politics".

Instead, the Labour deputy argued: "We need to set out what kind of Scotland we want to live in, rather than constantly argue about what powers are where."

He said there must be a vision for Scotland "that doesn't include the use of sticking plasters until after the independence referendum".

He highlighted health and education as two areas where he claimed the SNP was failing to deliver, raising problems with poor life expectancy and lower levels of educational achievement in the poorest parts of the country.

While Scotland has free personal care for the elderly, Mr Sarwar said: "50% of people in parts of my constituency won't even live long enough to get free personal care."

The SNP also abolished the graduate endowment, making university education free for Scots studying in their home country.

But the Glasgow Central MP said that in 2011 only 2.5% of pupils from the most deprived areas got three As at Higher level.

While he said the SNP administration "use the language of social justice as building blocks for a referendum", he claimed the Nationalists failed to use the "principles of social justice to build a fairer Scotland now".

Mr Sarwar continued his attack on the SNP, saying the party's "number one economic priority is to cut corporation tax like Ireland".

But he said Ireland now charged patients for overnight hospital stays and had twice the level of unemployment than in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sarwar claimed: "It is simply not credible to suggest you can have Scandinavian levels of public services while having Irish levels of taxation.

"Cutting business taxes means either cutting vital public services to make up the deficit or asking workers to shoulder more of the burden."

He said a key speech by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on social justice last year had failed to mention redistribution of wealth.

Mr Sarwar asked: "How can you talk about social justice without talking about wealth redistribution? Yet it was a speech bereft of it."

The reason for that, he suggested was "redistribution is one of the strongest arguments in favour of the United Kingdom".

He added: "The redistribution of wealth from the rich parts to the poor. A belief in the principle of sharing and belonging.

"The recognition that we have shared rights but also shared responsibilities.

"That our responsibility to others doesn't stop at the bottom of our street, at the end of our town or even at a line on the map somewhere between Gretna and Carlisle.

"We have obligations to our friends and neighbours right across the United Kingdom."

Mr Sarwar also used his speech to hit out at the "political immorality" of companies such as on-line retailer Amazon being given public cash.

Amazon's sites in Fife and Edinburgh were awarded £4.3 million in Scottish Enterprise regional selective assistance grants and training awards, and another £6.3 million in construction grants through the Scottish Enterprise Property Support Scheme.

The company's public policy director Andrew Cecil was hauled before MPs, along with executives from Starbucks and Google, in November to explain how these firms managed to pay little or no corporation tax on their UK operations.

Mr Sarwar said today that "every government should rightly check and ensure any company that recives a government grant pays their fair share of tax and is not tax dodging".

He said: "When companies like Amazon avoid paying their share, how is that company rewarded?

"Not with scorn and public condemnation but with millions of pounds in government grants. And not so much as 'would you please pay your workers the living wage?' or 'please pay your taxes'."

He said that meant "the money of factory workers and nurses, care assistants and binmen up and down the country being used to lure companies who then go out of their way to avoid paying their fair share".

Mr Sarwar blasted: "That is not just economic immorality on the part of the company, it is political immorality on the part of Government for rewarding such behaviour."

The SNP's Annabelle Ewing hit back at the Labour deputy leader and said: "Mr Sarwar now wants to roll back the frontiers of the welfare state by abandoning free personal care - but there wasn't a single word in this speech about Labour's support for wasting up to £100 billion on Trident nuclear weapons.

"This is the sort of hypocrisy that comes from copying the Tories."

Ms Ewing, a member of Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee, continued: "Mr Sarwar's comments come after the 13 years of the last Labour government during which inequality in the UK actually increased - the Westminster system has had every opportunity under all kinds of government to tackle poverty, and has failed Scotland. The UK is now the fourth most unequal country in the developed world.

"In opposing universal benefits such as free personal care and bus travel for elderly people, free university tuition for young people and no prescription charges - while supporting wasting billions on Trident - Labour want to impose a Westminster policy agenda on Scotland, which underlines the dangers and damage of a No vote in the referendum.

"Labour and the other Westminster parties want to roll back the achievements of the Scottish Parliament.

"The only way to build on these achievements and have the strong economy and fair society that we all want - and ensure that Scotland always gets the governments we vote for - is to vote Yes for independence in the referendum."

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