Kate Forbes has hammered home her belief that economic growth is crucial to delivering the Scottish Government’s “social justice” aims, including tackling child poverty and homelessness, in an exclusive interview with The Herald.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for the Economy and Gaelic meanwhile claimed “Labour’s conspiracy of silence on Brexit is essentially conceding the damage that has been done to the Scottish economy”.

Lorna Slater, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, said in an interview with The Herald on Sunday in 2022 that economic growth was an area where her party had “a fundamentally different position to the Scottish Government”.

In the spring, when Humza Yousaf was still first minister, the SNP scrapped its Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens, thereby ending the parties’ formal cooperation under this deal.

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Asked if she disagreed with Ms Slater’s comment on economic growth, Ms Forbes said: “Economic growth was an excluded area from the Bute House Agreement for the very reason that the SNP does believe in the importance of economic growth and economic growth is essential but not sufficient to deal with all of our aims and objectives so it cannot be ignored or dismissed but equally you can’t depend on it alone - that is where evidence-based government policy is also required, for example around the Scottish child payment, or whatever it is.”

Ms Forbes added: “But the way to deliver growth is of course if every business and enterprise and organisation is growing and creating success and households feel that they’re able to make ends meet through well-paid, secure jobs - then bringing those two together that’s essentially what economic growth is when you boil it all down. It’s the fact that individuals, households and businesses and third-sector organisations are all prospering, that’s what ultimately delivers national economic growth. And I don’t think anyone could disagree with the importance of households being able to make ends meet and businesses prospering.”

Asked what she saw as different in terms of policy on the business and economic front with John Swinney having become First Minister and her own appointments, Ms Forbes said: “Economic growth is unashamedly one of John Swinney’s four top objectives.”

On whether she saw it as difficult to balance maximising economic growth with social justice, Ms Forbes replied: “No, it is not difficult to balance at all. I have never seen even an iota of difference in our desire for resilient public services, for eradicating child poverty, for protecting our environment, and our economic objectives, for the very simple reason that we can’t achieve those objectives without economic growth. So when I look at our mission to eradicate child poverty, clearly we are investing substantially in the Scottish child payment. That investment comes through progressive taxation because of a growing and thriving economy but it can’t happen without the creation of well-paid, secure jobs, and that is where a growing economy creates the jobs.”

She added: “In terms of every single one of our public services, their resilience requires us to be generating public revenue that comes from businesses doing well, bluntly, and we are then able to reinvest that. So all of the Government’s social justice aims and objectives, from ending homelessness to ending poverty to dealing with the health inequalities that come from poverty, all of those can only be resolved in partnership with economic growth, and there is no path to resolving them without a thriving and prosperous economy. So I see no difference and I think those who create a difference do so by jeopardising their core aims.”

Ms Forbes said she was surprised by Labour’s position on Brexit. Labour has ruled out the UK rejoining the European single market.

Asked if she was surprised by Labour’s stance, the Deputy First Minister said: “I am actually and I think it speaks to the disconnect between Labour in Scotland and Labour across the rest of the UK. It is quite clear that Labour are more interested in this election in winning Tory votes than they are, in my view, in winning Scottish votes because they are trying to talk about the importance of Scottish votes and yet ignoring the fact that a majority in Scotland voted to Remain.

“And that for me feels like a total disconnect. And the risk is that in an election Labour talk a lot about the importance of Scotland, form a government, forget about Scotland, which is often the pattern we have seen in previous UK governments, and I think their position on Brexit speaks to that.”

Ms Forbes added: “Labour’s conspiracy of silence on Brexit is essentially conceding the damage that has been done to the Scottish economy.,,The Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that our suggestion that re-entering the European Union might contribute ..£30 billion [a year] to UK coffers is not unreasonably high. In other words, the prize of being in the single market and the prize of burden-free trade with Europe is enormous.

“We know that inflation has been stubbornly high, although it is clearly now starting to fall. We know that the cost of living hit people hard. And that is in part driven by higher food bills as a result of Brexit. Businesses have suffered, particularly small businesses that were reliant on exporting to the European Union have suffered. And the level of waste for example at the border for our food and drink exports and seafood, for example…And that’s before you start talking about the challenges with recruitment due to the ending of freedom of movement. You know we are a small nation – population of five million people – we are reliant on being outward-looking and internationalist. Brexit pulls up the drawbridge, it locks us down basically and it is knocking money off households and also off the economy.”

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Ms Forbes also took issue with the stances of the Conservatives and Labour on immigration generally, contending that this limited the Scottish economy’s potential greatly.

She said: “The Tories and Labour’s approach to immigration is a massive hurdle in Scotland achieving its full ambitions when it comes to our economy, and that is essentially paraphrasing countless businesses I have spoken to who would say that… I think too that across the world the more that our ugly rhetoric is ramped up against immigration under a Conservative or Labour government, the less inclined people will be to move here because they feel they are not welcome.”

Ms Forbes added: “We have had proposals on the table – for example our rural workers’ visa. And I have constituents that may not support the SNP, may not support independence but are absolutely incensed at the inability of the UK Government to progress with the rural workers’ visa and other visa proposals that would really contribute to Scotland’s economy. You know…our labour market is still very tight. We know that unemployment is still extremely low and therefore, you know, we can have a lot of conversations about our skills and education and so on but at the end of the day you end up recycling skills where we want to actually be expanding our population to meet the growth ambitions of businesses, sectors and certain industries in Scotland.”

Asked about her stance on new oil and gas developments, Ms Forbes highlighted her belief that it should be decided on a case by case basis whether or not these are approved.

Such decisions are a reserved, rather than devolved, matter. Labour has announced plans for a ban on new North Sea developments.

Ms Forbes said: “I think that a lot has changed in the last few years, with the invasion of Ukraine, the geopolitical instability and the fact that energy prices are too high. So in July of this year, an average energy bill is still £300 higher than it was in 2021 so it is really tough. And I think that we need to look at our policy for oil and gas through that lens. I understand people would really like a soundbite of whether you are for or agin something. I do agree with the [Scottish] Government’s approach that, whilst we can’t issue licences for new oil and gas, we need to consider every application on a case by case basis.”

She added: “The alternative is to ignore the evidence and, on one hand you would just be issuing a blank cheque like the Tories do on hundreds of new oil and gas licences. On the other hand, you take Labour’s approach, which has already resulted in investment decisions in the north-east being pulled. So I just don’t think these complicated and complex issues can be reduced neatly to one glib soundbite and our approach is to take it on a case by case basis.

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“That will mean that there are some applications that don’t meet the climate compatibility test and those choices will have to be made but they will need to be weighed up alongside what it means for our energy security needs and for our energy bills so, for example, where there is a high level of export, that calls into question the role it will play in terms of meeting our local domestic needs but where that does underpin our domestic need you have to cross that bridge when you get to it.”