ITV leaders’ debate: First Minister hints public sector pay freeze may come to an end

Nicola Sturgeon last night suggested she will lift the public sector pay freeze she has come under fire for enforcing.

During a televised general election debate on ITV, The First Minister hinted that the 1% cap could be ditched north of the border.

She has been criticised for not intervening to scrap the below inflation cap in recent weeks.

During the two-hour show, broadcast from Salford, the SNP leader said: “As the First Minister of Scotland, I know there is a real issue about the sustainability or unsustainability of the public sector pay cap, we must address wages in the public sector as well.”

Ms Sturgeon, who will unveil her party’s manifesto next week, also raised concern about “obscene” levels of poverty among children, calling for an end to the freeze on working age benefits.

She added: “Social security cuts are penalising the poorest in our society, many of them working.

“Let’s bring some decency back to the social security system of this country.”

Last week at Holyrood, a non-binding Labour motion calling for the public sector pay cap to be lifted for nurses was defeated after the SNP and Conservatives voted against it.

Anas Sarwar, Labour’s health spokesman, said: “No one will be fooled by Nicola Sturgeon’s posturing. She says the pay cap is unsustainable in a TV studio and votes to sustain it in the Scottish Parliament.”

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said staying in the European single market was the best long-term economic plan as it would protect jobs and wages.

The prime time election debate, the first televised event in the current campaign, took place without Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The ITV event instead saw Ms Sturgeon lock horns with Mr Farron, Ukip’s Paul Nuttall, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas. The Prime Minister has refused to take part in TV debates and Labour leader Mr Corbyn said he would not participate without his main rival.

The broadcaster refused to “empty chair” the two politicians as ITV said the stage will have “the right number of podiums for leaders who attend on the night”.

Ms Wood challenged Mrs May over her decision to miss the debate, using her opening statement to say: “You may be too scared to come here tonight, for your U-turns to be highlighted, for your cruel policies to be exposed.

“You want this election to only be about Brexit because that means you avoid talking about the real issues like the NHS, the economy and the cuts you have made to our public services.

“That’s weak leadership – weak and unstable.”

Mr Farron said he was determined to stop the return of a “heartless Conservative government”.

He warned: “Theresa May, backed by Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, is going for an extreme Brexit deal that will damage our future for generations.”

Mr Nuttall, who frequently referred to reducing immigration as a way of answering multiple questions, twice incorrectly called Ms Wood “Natalie” during proceedings.

He also said there were “simply too many people coming to the country” and claimed the equivalent of the population of Newcastle was added to the UK population last year.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Public services are under pressure. That’s not the fault of migrants. That is the fault of the austerity agenda pursued by the Tories.”