Skip to main content

09/11/15 14:22

NIDOS Conference on Inequality

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
9 November 2015

This is a timely and very important conference. Over the summer, Scotland became one of the first countries in the world to pledge to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

And in doing that, we made a dual commitment. We pledged to tackle poverty and inequality at home in Scotland, and we also promised to help developing countries to grow in a fair and sustainable manner.

That’s why I welcome so strongly the fact that this conference addresses the national and international dimensions to poverty and inequality. Both are vitally important and both often throw up similar challenges - challenges that might be different in scale but very similar in terms of the nature of them.

They are also interlinked. After all, Scotland cannot act with credibility overseas, if we are blind to inequality here at home. And our ambitions for a fairer Scotland are undermined, without global action to tackle poverty, promote prosperity and to tackle climate change.

So today I want to talk in turn about those national and international elements. And I want to begin each section by referring to a significant anniversary.

This year marks the centenary of the Glasgow rent strikes. Those strikes asserted the right of tenants to be protected from exploitative rent rises during wartime. Mary Barbour organised groups of women – Mary Barbour’s army, as they were known - to drive away sheriff officers who tried to evict tenants.

The 1915 protests culminated in a mass demonstration on 17 November and that anniversary will be marked next week. And the rent strikers won a famous victory. They forced the UK Government of the day to legislate to impose rent caps.

Now, it’s interesting to reflect on something. Those protests were a hard-fought campaign about the fundamental right to decent housing and decent lives. It’s hard to believe that – exactly 100 years later - the Scottish Government is having to spend in the region of £35 million a year to ensure that nobody in Scotland faces eviction as a result of the bedroom tax that was of course introduced by the UK Government.

It’s a startling reminder of the fact that the cause of social justice is never won permanently – it needs to be argued afresh in every single generation. I think it’s appropriate and important that those of us in this generation take inspiration from the work of Mary Barbour and her colleagues one hundred years ago.

There are many other examples of that perhaps unfortunate truth that we need to keep fighting the social justice battle. Perhaps the most obvious in the here and now is tax credit cuts. If all of the UK government’s proposed tax credit changes are implemented, which I very much hope they won’t be, then around 200,000 families with children in Scotland – families with children already on very low incomes, which is why they are claiming tax credits in the first place, stand to lose an average of approximately £3000 a year.

More than ¾ of the families who receive tax credits have at least one person within that family who is working. These cuts are targeted at working people on low incomes and the children they are working to support. I think they therefore hurt many of the people we should be seeking to help.

Now, if tax credit cuts are implemented – and I very much hope they won’t be – the Scottish Government will have the opportunity to use new welfare powers coming to the Scottish Parliament to protect those on low incomes.

Just as we have with the bedroom tax, and with cuts to council tax benefit, we will seek to implement progressive and affordable policies to counter the consequences of the UK Government’s actions.

But I think it’s far better that we seek not to mitigate but to stop cuts happening in the first place. That will be our first priority over the weeks ahead.

I also think that while the proposals in the Scotland Bill are welcome and they go further than was originally anticipate, I think it would be far better if all responsibility for welfare and social security were taken in the Scottish Parliament rather than at Westminster because then we could take our own decisions based on our own priorities and values, and be accountable and responsible for them.

That backdrop of the tax credit cuts is relevant to my wider message on domestic policy this morning. The Scottish Government is determined to show that there is a better way– one which supports those on low incomes rather than penalises them.

I’m going to touch briefly on three areas which will be crucial to doing that – welfare powers, the living wage and housing.

We are currently negotiating the transfer of new welfare powers to Scotland. If delivered, and I hope they will be albeit they don’t go as far as I would want, we will use this opportunity to introduce a Scottish Social Security Bill in the first year of the new parliament.

We can already confirm some key measures which we intend to put in place.

We will also improve the benefits system for disabled people with long-term health conditions and their carers. For example, the Carers Allowance will be increased to match the level of unemployment benefit.

We also intend to replace the current work programme, which in its current form fails abysmally when it comes to helping people into work. And we will use the new flexibilities within Universal Credit to offer people more choice in how they manage their money.

Overall, we can and we will seek to use this ability to the maximum to start to develop a Scottish social security system which includes key improvements, is better suited to Scotland’s needs, and which – perhaps most importantly of all – has the dignity of individuals at its very heart.

Alongside that work, we also need to do more to tackle in-work poverty.

At present, more than half of the children in poverty in Scotland, are in households where at least one person works. So we need to make sure that work truly is a route out of poverty. We’re often told that work is a route out of poverty but for too many people across the country right now that will not be their experience of working and indeed of working exceptionally hard.

I’ll come onto pay levels in a moment, but one part of the solution is to enable part-time workers to work more hours. Scotland currently has the third highest rate of part-time employment in the OECD.

And so increased provision of early learning and care – especially flexible provision – is central to any sustained attempt to tackle poverty in the long term. It’s also, as well as a route into work for parents of course, a way to help all children to have the best possible start in life. In my view, it’s the most important and significant thing we can do to tackle some of the inequalities that start very early in the life of a child.

We also need to ensure that as people go into work that work pays. Steps such as opposing the tax credit changes are really important to that. So too is moving further and faster towards a high productivity, high wage economy.

Encouraging the living wage – the real living wage – is crucial here. When I became First Minister, almost exactly a year ago, I set a target for 150 companies to become accredited living wage employers by the end of 2015. We’ve already reached almost 400. We’ve set a new target of 500 by March next year.

Those employers aren’t signing up purely out of altruism – although they have a sense of social responsibility. Many of them are persuaded by the evidence that a living wage can help reduce staff turnover and boost productivity. They know that it sends a clear signal about their values - to their staff, their peers, and their customers. And they recognise that it is good for their employees, good for the society they belong to, and good for their own bottom line as businesses.

The final point I want to make about tackling poverty within Scotland returns me to where I started – the cost of housing.

Before housing costs are taken into account, 290,000 people in Scotland are classed as being in poverty. After housing costs, the figure rises from 290,000 to 420,000.

There is a tendency from governments, perhaps also the Scottish Government down the years, to use the figure for measuring poverty as the one that is calculated before housing costs. I think we should absolutely look at the figure after housing costs because people need to be housed and that is the meaningful measure of poverty.

You can’t have a meaningful anti-poverty strategy, unless you have an ambitious policy for affordable housing.

That's why we’re introducing legislation this year to cap excessive private rent increases, and to give private tenants more security, while also recognising landlords' rights.

And are well on course to deliver our pledge of 30,000 affordable homes during this Parliament. That’s a record level since devolution. One of our key commitments for the next parliament is to increase this still further, and deliver 50,000 affordable homes in the next 5 years.

Housing is as fundamental to tackling poverty now, as it was when the Glasgow rent strikes took place a century ago. And so this government is determined to ensure that we deliver the quality affordable homes that people need.

The second anniversary I want to mention is one that we marked last week. It’s now ten years since the Scottish Government and the Malawian Government signed a co-operation agreement.

One of the great things about our international development work – which the partnership with Malawi pioneered – is the extent to which it uses third sector organisations. Several of you are represented here today.

In the last ten years, the organisations involved in our partnership with Malawi have delivered some outstanding results. You’ve helped to quadruple the number of medical graduates from Malawi’s only public medical school. They have helped save the lives of thousands of mothers and their babies through maternal healthcare projects. They have brought better access to energy to over 80,000 Malawians.

The partnership with Malawi is just one element of our international development work. We fund scholarships in Pakistan which have enabled women to study for Masters degrees, and children to continue their school education. We have helped tens of thousands of farmers in Tanzania and Zambia.

And two years ago we became the second nation in the world to be designated as a fair trade nation. It means that national government, our local authorities and educational institutions all promote trade which offers a decent, sustainable living to producers in the developing world.

We also seek to play a very important and leading role in tackling and adapting to climate change. That’s the final point I want to talk about, since it’s a major theme of this conference, and we are now less than a month away from the Paris conference.

Scotland led the way in developing many of the key technologies of the industrial revolution. And as a country which has benefitted significantly from carbon emissions, we now have a moral obligation to act on climate change. We want to help lead the world into the low-carbon era, just as we helped to lead the world into the industrial revolution.

That’s why Scotland has the toughest statutory targets in the world for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We have cut our emissions by well over a third since 1990, and reduced total energy consumption by more than an eighth.

We are also world leaders in green technology. Glasgow is one of the major centres in Europe for offshore renewable research.

Because it’s an area of such strength, low-carbon technology already employs almost 45,000 people in Scotland. It’s a good indication of the fact that for Scotland, the move to a greener future is a massive economic opportunity, as well as being an overwhelming moral imperative.

And as we work to seize that opportunity, and to address climate change, we are recognising our obligations to developing nations.

There’s a huge injustice associated with climate change – which is that the countries that are most affected by it, are usually those who have done least to cause it.

That’s why in 2012 Scotland became the first government in the world to establish a Climate Justice Fund.

The Fund has been helping communities affected by climate change in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Rwanda – for example by improving their access to clean water, and educating and empowering women. That enables them to play a leading role in organising their local communities.

It’s small fund, in terms of the scale of the global challenge. But it’s an important statement, from a nation which is determined to play its part.

Next month, leaders from around the world will meet in Paris to agree a new climate treaty. The new pledges we are seeing from over 150 countries, covering 90% of global emissions, represent a big step forward. But we will need to work hard to raise ambitions even further, in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius or less.

Scotland will do everything we can to promote that outcome. It’s crucial to securing sustainable prosperity here in Scotland and around the world.

As an indication of that – and this is the point I want to leave you with – it’s maybe worth considering what has happened in Europe this year. The massive displacement of people as a result of the civil war in Syria is heart-rending – it is vital that Scotland and the UK play a full part in welcoming refugees. And Scotland will welcome around a third of refugees that come to the UK before Christmas.

But it’s worth thinking about the massive impact all of this has had – even on a continent as wealthy as Europe. And when we consider that, we should remember that the movement of people we have seen this year –primarily from one country - is dwarfed by the possible implications of climate change. Drought, crop failure and rising sea-levels could force many more people from around the world to leave their homelands.

It’s a good example of why tackling climate change - and encouraging peace and prosperity overseas - isn’t altruism. It’s enlightened self-interest. Scotland – like all developed nations - will be a wealthier, happier, healthier and more secure nation if we play a full part in tackling global challenges. They don’t go away if we bury our head in the sand and pretend they are for somebody else to deal with it. We all have a responsibility to come together to find solutions to these challenges.

But we know that to do that, we need to work in partnership – with other nations, and with local government and third sector organisations here in Scotland.

That’s why I’m delighted to see so many people here today. You, and the organisations you represent, are central to our work to address poverty, promote international development and tackle climate change. And if we work successfully together, we can play a significant part, in creating a fairer Scotland and a fairer world.