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25/05/16 13:57

Priorities speech - Taking Scotland Forward

First Minister
Scottish Parliament

Today, I will set out the priorities that will guide this Government over the next five years. They have one central ambition at their heart: to make real and lasting progress towards true equality of opportunity for all. By the end of this session, through the action that we take to improve our most life-changing public services—education, health, social care and social security—we intend to ensure that many more people get the opportunities and the support that they need to fulfil their potential.

Greater equality of opportunity will make a real difference to the lives of those who suffer disadvantage, but it will do so much more than that. It will boost our economy and enhance the quality of life of all of us. It will help to create not just a fairer nation but one that is wealthier, healthier and happier.

Before the election, I said that our manifesto was my job application—I am pleased that it proved to be a successful one—but it was also a comprehensive plan of action for the next five years. Now, it is our blueprint for delivery.

Today, I will set out the overarching priorities of this Government and how we will set about achieving them. I will set out our plans for the long term but also the immediate actions that we will take now to reform and transform Scotland.

Our priorities are clear. We must continue to grow an economy that is strong, sustainable, fair and inclusive. We must put local communities more in charge of the decisions that shape their lives. We must use the new powers of our Parliament as best we can to help grow our economy and tackle inequality. We must drive forward reform of our public services to make them fit for the challenges of tomorrow as well as of today. We must support and empower our teachers, colleges and universities to deliver an education system that gives all young people the chance to reach their potential and achieve their ambitions.

We know that inequality has its roots well outside school and we must do more—much more—to tackle it at source. However, we must also aim for our schools to be places where young people can overcome inequality and succeed, regardless of their background.

Whatever our differences, I firmly believe that the aspiration of this Government for a wealthier, fairer and more equal Scotland is shared across the chamber. There is no doubt that this is a Parliament with the ability to be bold and progressive in how we achieve that vision. I will do everything that I can to harness that consensus.

We will draw on successful ideas from around the world and, as I will indicate in some of the announcements that I will make today, we will also take forward good ideas from across the chamber if we believe that they can help achieve our goals.

As I have already made clear, the defining mission of this Government will be education. That is because we want every child to have a fair chance in life and because we know that a good education is the foundation of that. However, we also know that ensuring equality of opportunity for young people starts well before the school years and extends far beyond the school gates. We will therefore introduce a range of new policies targeted at the early years.

Within a year from now, every child born in Scotland will receive a baby box—a box of essential items to help level the playing field in the very first days of their life. That simple but—I think—very powerful idea originated in Finland and has been a huge success. It provides practical help for parents. It also helps to reduce infant mortality and improve child health, partly because it encourages early contact between new mothers and health visitors. However, the baby box does more than that. It symbolises the fair and equal start that we want for all children. That is why we will be very proud to introduce it here in Scotland.

We will also use new social security powers to introduce a maternity and early years allowance to give financial support to low-income parents—initially, when a child is born, then when the child starts nursery and again when they start school. It will be targeted help to reduce inequality at key stages of a young life.

Over the next two years, we will recruit 500 more health visitors to help improve child health and wellbeing.

We will also transform childcare. By the end of the next session of Parliament, the availability of flexible, high-quality and state-funded early years education and childcare will be doubled to 30 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds.

Children eligible for extended early years provision will also benefit from free meals—like children in primaries 1 to 3 already do. By 2018, every nursery in our most deprived areas will have an additional qualified teacher or childcare graduate. That will be a key early step in ensuring the quality, as well as the quantity, of expanded childcare.

There is no doubt that the expansion of childcare will be our most important infrastructure project of this session of Parliament. It will help parents—particularly mothers—into work and it will be a transformational investment in the life chances of our children.

The support that we give children in their earliest years will complement and contribute to our efforts to further improve school education. I believe that Scotland has a good education system. We have great schools and great teachers. We have a new curriculum, record exam passes and more young people leaving school to go on to positive destinations. We will never talk down what we have, but we are determined to do even better. It is simply not acceptable that school leavers from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in Scotland—if we look at highers as just one measurement—do half as well as school leavers from the most affluent areas.

Our aim is to ensure that Scotland’s education system delivers excellence for all. Our manifesto set out a range of reforms to help us achieve that aim.

We will shortly begin discussions to develop a new, fair and transparent funding formula for schools to ensure that resources go where they are needed most. We will expand our attainment fund and invest an additional £750 million over this session of Parliament that will be specifically targeted at closing the attainment gap. From next April, £100 million a year of that money will go directly to headteachers, so that they—not councils or central Government—can decide how best to use it to deliver improvements in their schools.

We will undertake work to empower teachers and parents, within a framework of national policy and inspection, to drive more of the decisions that shape the lives of their schools. We will implement the new national improvement framework, including new standardised assessments that will help to inform teacher judgment. By ensuring that we have reliable data, the improvement framework will enable us—for the first time—to accurately measure the attainment gap and set precise and transparent targets for closing it.

The reforms that we plan are substantial. Before the summer holidays, John Swinney will publish a draft delivery plan setting out more of the detail, timescales and next steps of our plans to close the attainment gap. It will build on the discussions that he is already having with teachers, parents, local government and trade unions and will provide the basis for further consultation.

I stress that point about consultation. I want our work to close the attainment gap to be the mission not just of this Government nor even of this Parliament but of the country as a whole. I want it to be guided by the best possible evidence from around the world, which is why I announced yesterday that I will establish an international council of education advisers.

I also want it to be built, as far as possible, on consensus. To that end, I confirm today that, over the next few months, we will convene a major summit on school reform and raising attainment, which will bring together all the key stakeholders in education to look at what each of us can do to help to raise attainment and how collectively we can drive that work forward. We will invite party leaders and education spokespeople to attend.

We will work hard to build consensus and partnership. However, what we will not do is to allow the search for consensus to result in inertia or in the lowest common denominator for action. We intend to be bold and to move forward with purpose and with pace. We have a precious opportunity, over the next five years, to make real and lasting improvements for the benefit of this and future generations, and we are absolutely determined to seize that opportunity.

Giving young people the best school education is about equipping them for the rest of their lives, so we are also determined to extend the opportunities that are open to young people later in life. We will deliver an additional 5,000 apprenticeships in highly skilled careers, taking the total number of apprenticeships to 30,000 by 2020. We will work with schools to inspire more young people—boys and, especially, girls—into science, engineering and technology.

We will use our new powers, when we have them, to introduce a jobs grant to help young people aged 16 to 24 who have been unemployed for six months or more to move into and remain in work. We will maintain the number of full-time equivalent college places and continue to focus on the skills and training that help young people into work.

We will widen access to university. By 2030, we aim to ensure that 20 per cent of Scotland-domiciled university entrants come from our 20 per cent most deprived communities. University education will remain free of tuition fees—front-door or back-door—for as long as the Scottish National Party is in government. [Applause.]

I know from my own personal experience that free tuition is essential to supporting working-class young people into university. However, I also know that although it is essential, it is not sufficient. We must also break down the other barriers—financial, cultural and institutional—that mean that young people from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university than their more affluent peers. Therefore, over the summer, we will appoint a commissioner for fair access to drive the change that will be needed in our universities and colleges and to ensure that the recommendations of the widening access commission are implemented in full.

The target that we are setting is clear: a child born today in one of our most deprived communities must, by the time that they leave school, have the same chance of getting to university as a child of the same ability from one of the most well-off parts of our country. That is a fundamental part of what I mean by a fair and equal society.

Our young people are fundamental to our future as a country. However, the ambition that we are showing in education will be matched in other areas of our responsibility too.

We will protect the police budget in real terms and we will strengthen the accountability and improve the community focus of policing.

We will improve how female offenders are treated, with greater use of community sentencing and support and more use of local custody units.

We will also step up our work to tackle violence against women and girls, and we will legislate to create a new offence of domestic abuse.

We will ensure that at least 50,000 affordable homes are delivered over this session of Parliament, including at least 35,000 for social rent—and if we can go further than that, we will.

Those new houses will help to ensure that individuals and families across this country have access to good, affordable homes, but the houses will also deliver economic benefits. Their construction will support around 14,000 FTE jobs a year and generate around £1.8 billion in economic activity.

We will also introduce a warm homes bill, making use of existing powers to tackle fuel poverty and new powers over energy efficiency.

We will continue to take action across a range of fronts to tackle poverty and inequality. We will shortly publish a fairer Scotland action plan, and we will also implement all of the recommendations of the independent poverty adviser and commence the socioeconomic duty contained in the Equality Act 2010. Over the next few weeks, I will also reappoint an independent poverty adviser. We will introduce early legislation for a 50:50 gender balance on our public boards.

During this session of Parliament, we will assume important new responsibilities over social security. We will introduce a social security bill in the first year of this session and we will start work to establish a new Scottish social security agency.

We will use our new powers to put dignity and respect back at the heart of our social security system. We will abolish the bedroom tax; we will make changes to how universal credit can be paid; we will extend winter fuel payments to families with severely disabled children; and we will restore entitlement to housing support for 18 to 21-year-olds in our country. We will end, once and for all, the degrading Department for Work and Pensions approach to disability assessments and we will ensure that disability payments are not reduced or means tested.

We will increase carers allowance, and I can announce today that we will consider the introduction of a young carers allowance to provide extra support for young people with significant caring responsibilities. That proposal was in the Green Party manifesto—I think that it has real merit, and we will now ask our carer advisory groups for their views on how to take it forward.

Our new responsibilities will give us the chance to develop a social security system that respects the dignity of individuals as human beings. Rather than stigmatising those with disabilities or those who cannot find work, we will value their potential and help them to contribute to society.

I turn to health and care. We will continue as a Government to take forward a major programme of investment and reform. Over this session of Parliament, revenue spending on our national health service will rise by £500 million more than inflation. That means that, by the next election, the NHS revenue budget will be almost £2 billion higher than it is now.

However, we will not just increase what we spend; we will also change how we spend it. For example, there is a growing awareness of the importance of expanding mental health services. We will put in place a 10-year strategy to improve mental health and mental health services, which will be backed by an additional £150 million of resources over five years. Our action will include the recruitment of more mental health link workers in local communities, where they will work alongside general practitioners and other health professionals. That work will be led by a new, dedicated Minister for Mental Health—a key ask in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

We will continue to adapt services for an ageing population. We know, for example, that the incidence of cancer is likely to increase as people live longer, so we will invest £100 million in a new cancer strategy to improve survival rates and reduce inequalities. We will invest £200 million in new elective treatment centres to meet increased demand for procedures such as hip and knee replacements and cataract removals. By increasing capacity for planned procedures, those centres will ease pressure on emergency care.

The integration of health and social care, which took effect last month, is the most radical reform in healthcare in Scotland since the foundation of the NHS. Helping people to live independently for as long as possible requires expanded community and social care services. That is why we will support integrated health and social care partnerships with an additional £1.3 billion of investment over the next five years.

We will take forward our work to transform primary care, delivering a community health service with a new GP contract; increased numbers of GPs and nurses working in the community; and new, multidisciplinary hubs. We will also explore other initiatives to relieve the pressure on our family doctors. All GP practices will have access to an enhanced pharmacist, and we will examine a proposal in the Labour manifesto to extend the minor ailments service to make it a universal service that is available in all pharmacies.

We all know that better primary care, provided by a range of expert health professionals, will become ever more important in the years and decades ahead. We are determined to make the decisions in this session of Parliament that will ensure that we have a health service that is fit for the needs of the next generation.

As the way in which we deliver healthcare changes, we will ensure that the structures of our NHS, and the relationships between local government and our NHS, reflect rather than inhibit those changes.

World-class universal public services are part of our vision for this country. However, those services need to be paid for and underpinned by a strong economy, just as a strong economy is enabled by world-class public services. Supporting the economy has always been important to this Government, but with new powers over income tax it will become even more so. For the first time, there will be a direct link in Scotland between the number of people in work and paying tax and the revenues that we have to invest in our public services.

We are fortunate that Scotland has strong economic foundations. For example, just yesterday the Ernst & Young annual report showed that 2015 was a record year for inward investment in Scotland. However, we also know that we face significant challenges. My appointment of a dedicated economy secretary is recognition of those challenges. The difficulties in the North Sea oil and gas sector during the past 18 months have undoubtedly slowed growth and affected levels of employment. We see evidence of that again today with the announcement from Shell. That is why, in the months ahead, the Government will remain very focused on doing everything that we can to support the oil and gas sector.

Although the productivity of our economy has improved relative to that in the rest of the UK, we know that it is still a long way behind the productivity of European neighbours such as Germany and Sweden. Innovation is crucial to improving our productivity, which is why we are investing £120 million in new innovation centres to bring together businesses and academics to develop ideas and products in some of the key growth sectors of the future. We will continue and expand that approach. We will launch an annual innovation prize and we will invite the Council of Economic Advisers to propose specific actions to boost productivity through innovation. Through the can do forum, we will do more to encourage entrepreneurship. We will build on the success of initiatives such as the encouraging dynamic growth entrepreneurs—EDGE—fund and Entrepreneurial-Spark, and we will encourage even more people in Scotland to establish and grow the world-class companies of tomorrow.

Over the summer, we will carry out an end-to-end review of the roles, responsibilities and relationships of our enterprise, development and skills agencies, covering the full functions of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, to ensure that our public agencies are delivering the joined-up support that our young people, universities, colleges and businesses need. Scotland has had great success in attracting investment and in helping companies to innovate, export and expand. We have real strength in depth in our universities and a record of achievement in our skills agencies, but now is not a time to rest on our laurels; now is the time to ensure that we drive greater innovation and improve our productivity.

We will, of course, also continue to invest in the infrastructure that businesses need. Top of the list will be superfast broadband. In 2012, just 42 per cent of premises across Scotland had access to fibre broadband; now, the figure is above 85 per cent, but that is not good enough. By 2021, we intend to reach 100 per cent of premises across the country. That investment will improve productivity across Scotland and transform the connectivity of businesses in remote and rural areas. We will set out our detailed timetable for achieving that over the next few months.

Our investment in broadband is just one of the ways in which we will boost the rural economy. We will work to resolve the difficulties in the common agricultural policy payment system. Fergus Ewing will update Parliament on that work next week. We will also continue to support our food and drink industry, which has achieved such great success in recent years. We will maintain the road equivalent tariff scheme and support lifeline ferry routes and air links, and we will continue to support smaller businesses, which are the lifeblood of our economy. In next year’s budget, we will extend the small business bonus, which has already saved small businesses £1 billion, by increasing the relief threshold and lifting 100,000 properties out of business rates altogether.

Our focus on the economy will go hand in hand with our commitment to promoting equality. We will use the Parliament’s new tax powers fairly and progressively. We will protect those on low and middle incomes but generate extra revenue for public services by asking higher-rate taxpayers to forego a tax cut. We will also make local tax more progressive and ask those in the most expensive houses to contribute more.

We will also continue to promote fair work. There are now 500 accredited living wage employers across the country. We will increase that to 1,000 by autumn of next year. Over the summer, we will publish a labour market strategy, which will build on the work done by the fair work convention. Through the Scottish business pledge, we will encourage more companies to adopt good employment and business practices, such as gender equality, the living wage and worker involvement. Let us be very clear that, in a highly competitive global marketplace, Scotland’s economic success will be based on the excellence of our people and our products. We will succeed, not through low wages but through high skills and high quality.

Finally, in promoting sustainable growth, we will continue our transition to a low-carbon economy. Since 1990, we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 38 per cent. We are on course to meet our current target of a 42 per cent reduction by 2020. However, we must be bolder. We will legislate to establish a new and more testing target for 2020—one of reducing actual Scottish emissions by at least 50 per cent. We will look for support across the Parliament for the bold and sometimes controversial actions that we will need to take to meet that target. In doing that, we will not just live up to our moral obligations but seize a massive economic opportunity. The low carbon and renewable energy sector already employs 21,500 people; a tougher target gives us an even greater incentive to develop clean energy, promote energy efficiency and move to a more circular economy.

The final theme that I want to touch on today is empowerment and democratic accountability. In this Parliament we will work constructively to improve the way in which Government is held to account. I have already made some proposals that seek to do just that. More broadly, we will seek to empower individuals and communities across our country. For example, at a time when the United Kingdom Government is—disgracefully—still considering repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, we will take a different approach. We will work with civic Scotland to establish an agreed set of social and economic rights for all Scotland’s citizens. By valuing and strengthening human rights, we can empower citizens and encourage better government.

We will devolve more power to local communities. We will work with local authorities to review their roles and responsibilities and get more powers into the hands of communities. As a first step, over the course of this parliamentary session, we will increase participatory budgeting across local authorities to at least 1 per cent of all council spending. We will also introduce an islands bill to give new powers to our island communities, and we will continue our work to get more land into community ownership and make land ownership more transparent.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which was passed at the end of the last parliamentary session, provides a strong basis for taking forward our land reform agenda, and I confirm today that over the summer we will progress our commitment to introduce a mandatory public register of controlling interests in landowners.

As members will expect, we will also continue to build the case for Scotland to become an independent nation—a position that is backed by a majority of members of the Scottish Parliament across this chamber. Of course, we know that Scotland will become independent only if and when a majority of the people are persuaded of our case. We also know that our job is to govern at all times for all the people of this country. That is what we will always strive to do.

As part of that, we will seek to build alliances across party boundaries. I believe that there is a clear progressive majority in this Parliament. Where there is cross-party opposition to unfair or regressive Westminster policies, such as continued austerity, the renewal of Trident or attempts to undermine human and trade union rights, we will work with other parties to maximise Parliament’s influence and make Parliament’s voice heard. As I look ahead to the debate that we will have tomorrow, I can say that defending Scotland’s place in the European Union is a key early priority in demonstrating that progressive majority.

The priorities that we pursue over the next five years will shape Scotland for the next generation and beyond. The proposals that I have outlined today have at their heart a faith in social justice—a belief that we will prosper as a nation and succeed as a society if we encourage every person’s potential and respect every person’s dignity. Only by empowering individuals will we achieve our shared ambition for a fairer and more prosperous nation.

The priorities that I have outlined today are designed to do just that. Our young people must know that if they work hard they will have a fair chance to achieve their dreams. Workers must be paid a decent wage for a decent day’s work. People who rely on social security must be valued for their potential contribution to society. Entrepreneurs and business owners must get the support that they need for their businesses to grow. Older people must be helped to live as independently as possibly. All our citizens must know that their rights are valued and protected and that they will have a say in the decisions that affect them and their communities.

That sense of empowerment—for individuals, for families, for communities and for our country as a whole—is what we will seek to build over the next five years. By doing that, we can make lasting progress towards true equality of opportunity for all. I look forward to working across Parliament to achieve that goal.