KATE Forbes has been accused of ignoring public concerns over health and education by saying independence will “dominate” the SNP’s four-day conference this weekend.

The Finance Secretary was also criticised after quibbling about terminology and talking about the electricity grid when asked about Scotland’s finances under independence.

“Our rich natural assets can be used to feed hungry children in Scotland,” she said.

Opposition parties said voters would be “tearing their hair out” at her sense of priorities and her “copout” answer on the economics of leaving the Union.

The SNP’s 87th annual national conference opens online this afternoon and runs until Nicola Sturgeon’s closing speech on Monday.

Interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, Ms Forbes was asked to what extent the push for a second referendum would dominate the proceedings.

She said: “Independence will always dominate discussions at SNP conferences as you will imagine, because we believe that Scotland's future is best served and best delivered in Scotland's hands and that means that ultimately, we believe that the people in Scotland should have a say over their future.”

She was then asked how Scotland would pay its way under independence.

Host Martin Geissler said: “Back in 2014 oil money was baked into the figures, it provided one of the fairly substantial foundations of your prospectus.

“Where’s the money going to come from this time round?” 

Ms Forbes replied: “Well, Scotland, right now has great talent, great natural resources and great potential.”

Mr Geissler interjected: “And a great big budget deficit.”

Mr Forbes then quibbled over the difference between an actual deficit under independence and a notional budget deficit within the current constitutional settlement.

According to the Scottish Government’s own figures, the GERS report published in August, Scotland’s notional deficit in 2020/21 was 22.4 per cent of GDP including a geographical share of North Sea revenue, compared to 14.2% of GDP for the UK.

In the year prior to the pandemic, the respective figures were 8.8% and 2.6%.

Ms Forbes said: “Remember I balance my budget every year. So I only spend on an annual basis what I raise or receive, which is totally at odds with nearly every other government around the world. Of course you cannot have a deficit if you cannot borrow for day-to-day spending.

“What you're talking about is a notional deficit where 72% of the tax figures are UK Government tax figures, and 40% of the spending figures are UK Government figures.

“So if you've got a problem with the notional deficit, I would suggest the problem is with the status quo and not with the potential future that Scotland might have.”

The SNP’s own Sustainable Growth Commission in 2018 accepted the GERS figures provide the best estimate for the starting deficit of an independent Scotland.

Asked if she would borrow, hike taxes or cut services in response to the deficit, Ms Forbes again argued about terminology and talked about the electricity grid.

She said: “Again, I fundamentally dispute your premise. You're basing that on largely UK Government figures in terms of how we are governed right now.

“I want Scotland to ensure it can thrive in the future. I want to ensure that our rich natural assets can be used to feed hungry children in Scotland.

“Right now Scotland has 40% of the UK’s renewable energy potential. We've got 25% of Europe's wave and tidal potential. But energy is reserved, the grid is reserved. 

“We can ensure that we help the renewable industry to prosper and thrive, but we really need all the powers over the grid.”

Asked if she agreed the economic case for independence had changed substantially since 2014, and whether that case was stronger or weaker, Ms Forbes said: “I think the starting position has changed, as it has for so many countries.

“You look at the UK’s deficit this year during Covid, nobody would have imagined that the UK would have one of the highest deficits in Europe.

“The key though is they have the powers to manage that, to invest in economic growth, to manage all of their finances to ensure that they’re sustainable.

“The difference between Scotland and all these other countries when it comes to our economic future is that the macroeconomic levers, the macro fiscal levers, all rest with the UK Government.

“Now that means that we are relying on the UK Government to make economic decisions that are in Scotland’s best interests, but we see that time and time again not coming to fruition.

“You take oil and gas. We know that oil and gas is already diversifying into renewables, but to do that effectively they really need to invest in the carbon, capture and storage facility in the North East. That’s a UK Government decision, and they chose to invest in the North of England instead.”

Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “Kate Forbes’s admission that independence is to dominate the SNP conference will have the Scottish people tearing their hair out. 

“The public want the SNP to focus on fixing an NHS in crisis, a declining education system, job security and Scotland’s drugs death shame.

“But, as ever with her party and government, the priority is plotting to break up the UK, rather than putting right their numerous policy failures.

“Kate Forbes also failed to answer how her party would deal with Scotland’s enormous budget deficit in the event of independence. It’s a total cop out to talk of the deficit being ‘notional’.

“The Scottish people deserve to know how she’d make the sums add up - would it be by enormous public spending cuts, eye-watering tax rises or a combination of both?”   

Labour MSP Daniel Johnson said: “The Finance Secretary’s interview this morning was a masterclass in SNP incompetence.

“Kate Forbes had no answers on the falling support for independence and no answers over the economic havoc that separation would cause.

“On the day that SNP conference opens, this shows a party out of ideas and focused only on spin and denial.

“While the SNP rattle their sabres and peddle economic fairy tales, Scottish Labour will continue to focus on you, your family and our national recovery.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP said: “It is depressingly obvious that the SNP cares more about pushing another independence referendum than your parent's operation, your partner's job, or your child's education.

“The Finance Secretary says the coming days will be dominated by independence. 

“That’s the story of the last fourteen years and the impact of that ministerial distraction can be seen in every corner of our public services.

“It is time they started focusing on the real issues Scotland is facing now because more talk of independence isn’t what’s needed for the NHS staff on the brink of burnout or the young people waiting years for mental health treatment.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats will get on with putting forward fresh ideas to bring new hope to Scotland for our health and the climate emergency."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of the anti-independence Scotland in Union group, said: “Kate Forbes is in denial about the scale of the financial challenge which would face a separate Scotland. She needs to be honest with voters – what taxes would she increase and what public services would she cut?

“Together across the UK we can use the strength of our collective economy and the pound to ensure that no community is left behind as we build a recovery for everyone.

“So rather than divide the people of Scotland and introduce turbo-charged austerity, as part of the UK we can spend more on hospitals and schools here.”