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17/01/16 13:00

Unite Scotland Conference

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
January 17, 2016

I warmly welcome Unite Scotland’s decision to convene this policy conference. I’m sure that the discussions taking place this weekend will be of great value to your members - and also to political parties as we approach the Scottish elections in May.

Clydebank is a highly appropriate venue for this conference. It’s a location which - as your conference programme points out – has a long association with the union movement.

Jimmy Reid was a councillor for Clydebank and worked in the John Brown shipyard just up the river from here.

The Upper Clyde Shipworkers work-in which he and others led here in 1971 and 72 is unquestionably, in my view, the finest achievement of Scotland’s post war union movement. It asserted the fundamental right of individuals to work, and it did so through a peaceful, positive protest which inspired people at home and around the world.

And that’s relevant to the first thing I want to talk about today. Because of the breadth of issues being considered at this conference, my remarks will range quite widely – they will cover the ways in which the Scottish Government is promoting fair work, tackling inequality and supporting public services.

But I want to start with an issue which is directly relevant to that UCS work-in and which should be of concern, not just to everyone in this room, but to every working-age person in Scotland.

Tomorrow, the Further Powers Committee of the Scottish Parliament will publish its report on the UK Government's Trade Union Bill - or anti Trade Union Bill, to be more accurate.

And next week, the Parliament will debate the Bill. That vote – which will take place on the same day as a debate in the Welsh Assembly – gives us a further chance to express the Scottish Parliament’s overwhelming opposition to a Bill that is nothing short of a full frontal attack on the rights and freedoms of trade unionists.

It is, in my view, an attack on basic human rights.

It's a measure which I don't believe would ever have been proposed, let alone passed, in the Scottish Parliament. In fact, the last time the Parliament debated the bill, we voted against it by 104 votes to 14.

That's why I believe so strongly that powers over trade union and employment law should be lie with the Scottish Parliament and not with Westminster.

The measures contained in the bill – for example on curbing facility time and the abolition of check-off and the imposition of ballot thresholds on unions that don't apply to politicians - simply aren’t justified, either morally or by the reality of our industrial relations. That latter point is true across the UK, but it’s particularly true in Scotland - days lost due to strike action in Scotland have declined by 84% since 2007.

So there is no justification for this bill - none whatsoever.

That's why the Scottish Government will oppose the trade union bill vigorously and vehemently. We will continue to argue against it at every opportunity in Westminster.

But in addition to opposing it UK wide, we will also argue for Scotland to be exempted from its provisions. And if the Bill becomes law, we will not co-operate with its implementation.

For example, the Scottish Government - for as long as we lead it - will never employ agency workers to undermine a strike. We will do everything we possibly can to defeat and frustrate the bill.

The Trade Union Bill represents a view of the world that I don't recognise and that wider Scottish society has no sympathy for. It’s one which sees unions as enemies, rather than as what you really are - partners for progress.

So the Scottish government will oppose this Bill tooth and nail.

And we will take a fundamentally different path - one where the value of trade unions to creating healthier, happier and safer workplaces and a fairer society is recognised and celebrated.

In the coming weeks, the Fair Work Convention will publish its blueprint for more progressive workplace practices – the Fair Work Framework.

The Convention – which was created in large part because of the initiative of the STUC - brings together employers, unions and government to promote fair work.

And it’s an important part of a broader approach which recognises that an economy where workers are treated fairly will be an economy that is more productive and competitive as a result.

That why we introduced the Scottish Business Pledge, which asks employers to commit to good workplace policies. The pledge now has 185 signatories.

Don't get me wrong - there is still a long way to go to entrench the best and most progressive workplace practices and make them commonplace across the country. But we are making progress.

A good example of progress is on the living wage. We now have more than 430 accredited living wage employers in Scotland. In fact, Scotland has a higher proportion of people being paid the living wage than any part of the UK outside of London and the south east.

But we need to do more. There is still almost 20% of the workforce in Scotland paid below the living wage - and many of them are concentrated in a few sectors, like social care, catering and retail.

Of course, it's vital that governments lead by example. I'm proud to say that the Scottish government is the first in the UK to, itself, become a living wage employer.

And last October we published guidance which makes it clear that fair work, including payment of the living wage, should be taken into account in public sector procurement decisions. We have also issued guidance making clear the total unacceptability in any civilised society of the practice of blacklisting.

All of this shows how we can use the influence and purchasing power of the public sector to lead by example.

Another issue where we are determined to lead by example is gender balance.

We are currently leading a 5050 by 2020 campaign to encourage the public, third and private sectors to commit to gender equality in the boardroom. At the moment, over 90% of public sector boards have made a commitment to work towards gender balance on their boards by 2020.

However, that commitment to boardroom equality is part of a much broader campaign to promote true gender equality in the workplace.

We know that there is much more to do. For example the gender pay gap has reduced in Scotland in recent years, but the fact that it still exists at all is a disgrace.

One way to challenge that gap is to shine a light on it - to force employers to face up to it and set out how they are going to address it.

That’s why, in the public sector in Scotland, organisations with more than 150 employees are required to make statements on gender pay gaps.

However we believe that those requirements should be strengthened. That’s why on Friday, the government laid regulations in the Scottish Parliament. If approved, they will require all public authorities with more than 20 employees to report on their pay.

The regulations go further than elsewhere in the UK and are a further recognition that the gender pay gap has no place in a modern and equal society. The Scottish Government, and the wider public sector, must lead by example in its elimination – just as we intend to lead by example in promoting fair work.

The key point in all of this is that progressive workplace practices are morally right - but they are also in the best interests of employers.

And of course our commitment to fair work is just one part of our commitment to a fairer society.

Later this week, our independent poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, will publish her first report.

I'm sure she will give us valuable guidance on the key changes we need to make to tackle intergenerational poverty.

I'm proud that the Scottish Government is investing more than £100m every year to mitigate the impact of Tory welfare cuts. I'm proud that here in Scotland, unlike in England and Wales, no one has to the pay the bedroom tax - because we have made money available to make sure that's the case.

But tackling poverty long term is about more than just the mitigation of welfare cuts. It is about giving people higher wages through the living wage. It is about expanding affordable housing.

And it is about giving young people the best start in life. That’s why closing the attainment gap in our schools is such an important priority. It’s also why we plan, by 2020, to double the amount of free childcare made available to 3 and 4 year olds, and disadvantaged 2 year olds. That will play a major part in tackling poverty, giving children the best possible start in life, and encouraging more mothers and carers into work.

Tackling poverty also means having quality public services, like the NHS.

The NHS faces big challenges - mainly because of the ageing population. But we are determined to protect it.

It has a record budget and record numbers of people working in it. We'll invest an additional half a billion pounds in it next year and, unlike in England, we'll keep it firmly in the public sector.

This hospital is a testament to the efficiency and effectiveness of public sector care.

Established - very controversially - as a private sector hospital in 1994, it was taken over by the public sector in 2002. Last year, it performed 20,000 operations. It’s a major reason why – for almost all of the commonest types of elective procedure, such as knee replacements and cataract removals – Scotland has the shortest waiting times in the UK.

In fact, it has been such a success, that we will invest £200 million over the next 5 years to establish 5 other specialist centres across Scotland. It means that anybody waiting for an elective procedure - a knee replacement, say - will know that their treatment isn't going to be delayed because their ward or their surgeon is needed for an emergency. They’ll go to a dedicated ward which provides expert, scheduled, specialist care.

This Golden Jubilee Hospital is an example of one trend we will see in healthcare over the coming years – as more and more people need elective surgery in specialised units.

The other trend we will see is that more people will require care and support in the home – help which enables them to manage long-term conditions and to live as independently as possible.

That’s why the integration of health and social care is so essential - in fact, it’s one of the most significant healthcare reforms in Scotland since the establishment of the NHS. And it’s why in the budget we announced that in the coming year an additional £250 million - £250m over and above core council budgets - will be invested in social care.

Of course, all of this work has been consistently undermined over the last 5 years by the severity of the UK Government’s austerity measures. We will continue to argue that the UK Government’s cuts are unjustifiable and counter-productive. It is possible to have sound public finances without cutting so deeply, and without disproportionately affecting women, disabled people and those on low incomes.

As one part of that – we will continue to argue against the decision of the UK Government to spend more than £150 billion on Trident nuclear weapons.

My position on Trident is long held. It’s not a party political game, it’s something I have believed in all my adult life.

But I also know that for some people the nuclear base at Faslane is where they work - and that for Unite the abolition of Trident must be matched by a programme of diversification and alternative employment. That is the position the Scottish Parliament supported in November, and that is the position I will advocate.

Renewing Trident, according to the Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, would cost around £167bn over its lifetime. That’s an incredibly high cost at a time of deep cutbacks. It’s money which could and should be available for genuine priorities – for example, education, health and conventional defence equipment and personnel.

I began my remarks this morning by commenting on the timing of this first ever policy conference.

I want to end on that note as well. The next few months provide an opportunity for all of us to propose and debate policies which will create a fairer and more prosperous country. I welcome that opportunity.

And in all of this work, we see unions as important partners in economic and social progress. That’s why we will continue to work with you to ensure that economic growth benefits people and communities across Scotland. It’s why I’m delighted to be here today. I wish all of you, all the best, for a very successful conference.