THE three candidates vying to replace Nicola Sturgeon faced an uncomfortable night in Edinburgh as they faced the public for the first time during the leadership contest.

Humza Yousaf was forced to open with an apology to a man with Parkinson's told he would need to wait three to six years for a knee operation. 

He also apologised for the two delayed, over budget Calmac ferries, with the former transport and island minister saying the Scottish Government had to take “collective responsibility.”


The three also faced difficult questions on the Deposit Return Scheme. Leigh Payne, a former SNP council candidate who runs the Shoogle Spirits craft gin business in Glasgow, asked the three how could she be expected to “support something that will cost my family business so much money that we may have to close.”

Replying, Kate Forbes blasted her cabinet colleague, Lorna Slater, saying that the government needed to have “competence” to deliver policy.

Ash Regan compared the recycling scheme to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill that saw her quit as a minister. She said the SNP had been “failing to listen to the public over issues.”

The audience of around 100 in the stunning Mansfield Traquair for the BBC debate, was split between Yes and No voters, with those supporting independence divided between backers of the three candidates and those yet to decide. 

It was the first TV debate where the candidates faced an audience. It was also the first hustings of the entire campaign where the three were quizzed by people who hadn’t voted for the SNP. 

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The first question from the wife of a man waiting for years for an operation. She asked the three what they would say to people "spending their life savings on private surgery because of the length of the NHS waiting list in Scotland," 

“Firstly, can I apologise to you because you shouldn't have to wait that length of time for your operation," Mr Yousaf, the Health Secretary said. "But what I would say, and I know this is a hard message, that the Covid pandemic that has lasted for the last three years has been the biggest shock that our NHS has faced, not just here in Scotland, but right across the world. 

“But what I can give you an absolute promise is that not just myself as health secretary, but the entire government is focused on reducing those waiting lists.”

He said waiting lists had been cut, but that the government needed to go further. 

“That's why I am a proponent of progressive taxation. That's why I believe people who can earn the most often like government politicians, we should pay the most, because that allows us to invest, for example, 2324 a billion pounds extra”

Ms Forbes said the wait was unacceptable, “because one of the founding principles of the NHS, which we all love, is that treatment should be free at the point of need. And that has not been your experience.”

“And I think amidst the clamour of a leadership election like this, there's a reminder that there's a lot more that unites us as a nation as a party than divides us not least ensuring that our NHS is fit for purpose as we go into the next few decades.”

She said the NHS was “a lot safer and healthier under the SNP than it might be elsewhere” but that there was “also great appetite across the country for reform.” 

“And we shouldn't be shy of discussing the need for reform in order to ensure that our NHS is prepared and not just for the next year but it's still providing treatment free at the point of need in the next few decades.”

“I think the problem is that we're not supporting the staff well enough, I think we've got into a situation, probably not through being malicious, where we're setting key performance indicators, we set targets, and then we're putting more and more and more pressure on to our staff. 

“And the problem is, we are not going to turn this around with a manager-led solution. More targets isn't going to help anything. More pressure on the staff isn't gonna get us out of this situation.”

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Asked about DRS, Ms Regan said the scheme needed to be paused. “We can't be putting too many burdens on small businesses, which is not to say that I don't think that DRS is a good idea. 

“In principle, I think we all know we've got to be recycling. So what I'm saying is, we need to look again at this, we need to involve small businesses, who can come and talk to us about where this needs change, get it right, and then implement it.”

Ms Forbes said the Scottish Government would be unable to properly invest in public services without small businesses “creating the wealth and employing people.” 

“So my point would be that it's not enough to have good policies, you have to have the competence to deliver them and deliver them well. 

“That is key when it comes to good government.”

“It's not to discredit the policy, it's to ensure that it can be delivered. And whether it's your business or the businesses in my Highland constituency, they say, ‘we believe in environmental sustainability, we want to invest in our future but give us some space, give us the answers and then we'll completely back it.’

“And that would be my approach, not just to the deposit return scheme. But indeed, every policy.”

Asked what he thought of Ms Slater’s handling of the DRS, Mr Yousaf said “As a valued colleague, I'm not going to sit here and slag off other colleagues within the government.”

“I think small businesses, be that craft gin makers or craft breweries should be excluded. And we can review that after the year or whatever, but they should be excluded. 

“Because, let's be honest, when you and I walk out in the street here and the broken glass that litters our streets, on our beaches, it's not the craft brewer. It's not the craft gin maker. It's the Pepsis, it's the Coca Colas. 

“And I don't think we should let the big players off the hook.”

He said there was no sense in pausing the scheme. 

Ms Payne said she had tried to speak to Ms Slater but that “she just doesn't seem to want to engage with us.”

Mr Yousaf and Ms Forbes then clashed after he was asked why he thought she would take the party to the right 

“I was simply saying that I believe we should build on our progressive agenda.” 

He said the Finance Secretary was trying to let “big business off the hook” by calling for a pause to the scheme.

Ms Forbes said it was “perfectly progressive to represent small businesses because small businesses are indeed the backbone of our Scottish economy.”

“That is not a lurch to the right, that is pretty desperate spin,” she added.

In her answer, Ms Regan said it was another example of the SNP government having some distance from the priorities of the public. She pointed to the row around the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

“That was a policy where there was many people that were trying to advise the government and explain to them where there were conflicts with the equality law and so on, and where there might be risks to women and girls, myself included.

“But it wasn't just me, it was lots of people that were trying to do that. And every turn, we were all told that there are concerns were not valid, I think was the phrase that was used. 

“So we can't we can't do that. We have to listen public. We are all here, because we are elected by the public. 

“The Parliament works for the people of Scotland, not the other way around. So if we are not able to make the case for the public and take them with us, then we need to think about that and we need to reset on our priorities.”

Quizzed on the ferries, Mr Yousaf admitted that the wait was “unacceptable.” 

He added: “We've got to put our hands up where we've not delivered. So there's plenty of areas I could rattle off where we have delivered, but on 801, 802, on those two ferries, we've let our island communities down. It's not acceptable. 

“And of course, the whole of government has to take that absolute collective responsibility.

“What we have to make sure if I'm first minister, because I know, and having been minister for the islands as well, that these are not just nice to have, these are an absolute lifeline.”

"These ferries are lifeline to Island communities.”

Asked about independence, all three said they believed Scotland could leave the UK within five years.

Mr Yousaf said he believes “it can be,” while Ms Forbes said: “Yes. I think it starts with us making the case that I talked about before.”

Ms Regan said: “I believe if I’m first minister, Scotland will become independent within five years.”

Both Ms Regan and Ms Forbes, when asked by an audience member, said they were not in favour of a confirmatory referendum to approve a final deal on independence. Mr Yousaf indicated he was not fully against the idea.