Constitution, External Affairs and Culture: FM letter to Cabinet Secretary

First Minister Humza Yousaf sets out agreed priorities on how the 2023-2024 commitments in the Policy Prospectus will be delivered

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Dear Angus,  

 Thank you for your commitment to the people of Scotland in your role as Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture. I look forward to continuing to work together to deliver real, tangible improvements in the lives of the people of Scotland.  

 We, as a country, have faced incredible challenges over recent years. We are still recovering from the impact of the COVID pandemic. War continues in Europe, and the impact of Brexit and the cost of living crisis have combined to create some of the most challenging economic conditions in living memory. Alongside this we face the twin crises of climate change and nature loss, which are global threats of existential proportions.

As a Government, we must be unapologetic about supporting those who need help the most. We will collectively deliver on the promises we have made in our Policy Prospectus and use the priorities it sets out to drive our decision-making, our accountability to parliament and our engagement with partners and the people of Scotland. This will mean that we will need to make tough decisions to ensure that every pound we spend and invest is targeted in such a way that it reaches those that need it most and delivers maximum value.

Our aims as a Government  

To ensure we maintain a laser focus on delivery for the people of Scotland we have set out three critical and interdependent missions in our policy prospectus Equality, opportunity, community: New Leadership – a fresh start for the period between now and March 2026. These will be underpinned by our refreshed National Performance Framework and our shared policy priorities set out in the Bute House Agreement. These three outcomes are: 

  •  Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm. Continuing to tackle poverty in all its forms to improve the life chances of people across Scotland.
  • A fair, green and growing economy Delivering a wellbeing economy through harnessing the skills and ingenuity of our people and seizing the economic and social opportunities from meeting our net zero targets.
  • Prioritising our public services. Creating, investing in, and maintaining sustainable public services, to ensure the people of Scotland can access modern, effective, and timely services when they need to.

These missions will define our work as a government. You and I have agreed an ambitious range of constitution, external affairs, and culture outcomes that you will deliver over the next three years. We also have a collective responsibility across Cabinet to deliver all of the objectives we have set out in our policy prospectus to succeed in our missions.  

Throughout all this, you should ensure you are contributing to Scotland's National Outcomes. Our National Outcomes describe our shared priorities, including the need to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and allow all in Scotland to live free from discrimination.

Having agreed this range of longer-term outcomes, I now ask you to consider what this looks like in terms of outcomes and delivery actions over the next year.

 Objectives for your portfolio for 2023/24 

As Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs, and Culture, the work of your portfolio is key to achieving these missions. It is imperative that we continue to build the case for an independent Scotland within the EU, make the case for the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament to be protected and enhanced, work with the culture sector to increase resilience and sustainability, and ensure international work supports delivery of domestic policy, and continues to project the values we aim to espouse on the global stage. I welcomed our recent discussion of the priorities for your portfolio for the remainder of this parliamentary term (listed in Annex A).

For this financial year we have agreed that you will deliver on the following outcomes:  

  • The people of Scotland will be provided with further information on the opportunities of independence, including through the publications from the Building a New Scotland series', working closely with the Minister for Independence.
  • Work with Ministerial colleagues across portfolios to protect our policy and legislative programmes and to protect the powers of the Scottish Parliament from further encroachment by the UK Government and the consequent undermining of devolution seen since 2016. 
  • Publish our Culture Action Plan Refresh which will set out the next steps in delivering the aims and ambitions of the 2020 Culture Strategy, and complete initial actions to mitigate the impacts of Covid, Brexit and the rising costs of living and operating that have, in combination, created significant challenges for the sector.
  • Collaborate with Ministerial colleagues across Government to mainstream culture in policy making. This will recognise the transformational power of culture as a medium to contribute to the achievement of the Government’s key priorities.
  • Deliver the World Cycling Championships, showcasing Scotland at its best and the part it plays on the global stage.
  • Launch new international development programmes with our partner countries (Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda), which will:
  • champion a feminist approach to development, by ensuring all of our overseas development spend and work contributes to gender equality, and advances the rights of women and girls.
  • launch a new Women and Girls Fund, co-developed with women and girls, to advance gender equality and empower women and girls
  • develop new programming with our partner countries that will help them to build stronger health systems and tackle the world’s leading cause of death and disability - non-communicable diseases – aiming to both improve service delivery and to increase political and financial commitment
  • develop new programming with our partner countries that support inclusive education with a focus on advancing access to education for the most marginalised, particularly girls and learners with additional support needs, leading to improved access, retention and outcomes.
  • Establish Scotland’s profile in key target regions as a potential major green hydrogen producer for international markets, build relationships that will support future trade opportunities, promoted regional hydrogen cooperation with Scotland’s near northern neighbours and communicated the advantages of green hydrogen imports from northern Europe to continental European partners.
  • Publish an action-oriented International Strategy that will set out the outcomes the Scottish Government will seek to achieve through international engagement up to May 2026, by effectively prioritising our international work.
  • Build a truly international network of Scottish Connections by implementing our recently published Framework, focussing in year one on developing a strong digital presence, targeted ministerial and official events, the launch of an advisory group, and development of a new fund.
  • Press for the UK’s early return to the Horizon Europe research programme by making the strongest possible case to the UK Government, enumerating the full range of benefits which would accrue for Scotland and the UK as a whole, and by ensuring that academic and research voices in Scotland, working with their UK and international counterparts, articulate clearly the opportunities and benefits which a return to Horizon Europe would provide.
  • Seek improvements to the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, by identifying with stakeholders those issues where changes would do most to improve outcomes for Scottish people and businesses, preparing the ground for the 2025 review and pursuing energetically with the UK Government improvements which could be made in the meantime.   
  • Continue to align with the vital safeguards and high standards Scotland benefitted from as part of the European Union, by resisting, where possible, attempts by the UK Government in the context of the Retained EU law Bill to legislate for lower standards and by providing the Scottish Parliament and others with a full picture of progress.  

A number of commitments that support the achievement of these outcomes have been identified as part of the priorities set out in our policy prospectus. These will not be the only areas of work to contribute, but are some of the key levers we have to deliver the outcomes set out above. I expect impact and improvement to be key considerations as you deliver these priorities and I expect you to bring forward suggestions for where we may achieve better outcomes if you think there are additional or alternative options. I would also like you to consider the opportunity for public service reform within your portfolio and the efficiency of the institutions and public bodies you have responsibility for to deliver better outcomes for Scotland.  

Responsibility for financial sustainability

 As we take action together to carefully manage the Scottish Budget to deliver these priorities, you must work within your portfolio to drive efficiency and reform, and identify measures that can be taken to create additional flexibility within the wider Budget and deliver a balanced outturn against agreed envelopes.

We must prioritise, to ensure that we use our finite resources in the most effective way. That prioritisation work is significant, but it will also be demanding, and will require us to make hard decisions. I know you will be guided by our commitment to support those who need the most help and prioritise resources to the policies and programmes which make the biggest difference to our three core missions.  

Collaborative working with partners

It is important to recognise this work cannot be achieved in isolation. It requires collaboration with key partners: Local Government, business (including small businesses), communities and third sector partners, among others.  I believe, as I know you do, that the participation of, and collaboration with, these key partners is essential. I ask you to continue to ensure you listen to their ideas, their views, and their lived experience, take into account potential impacts – as well as benefits - on them and put them at the centre of our work. You will also work closely with our colleagues and partners in the Scottish Green Party, to ensure a continued, positive and productive relationship via the Bute House Agreement.  

Our Policy Prospectus set out our commitment to resetting important relationships. As well as resetting the relationship with business, our commitment to resetting the relationship with local authorities and working collaboratively with Local Government is central to the delivery of many of the things we have committed to achieve. I ask you to work with your colleagues to support the Deputy First Minister in building on the constructive progress already made in developing our relationship with Local Government. I would also particularly encourage you to work closely with the business community to ensure that policies and how they are delivered takes account of potential impacts on businesses and considers opportunities for businesses, especially small businesses, to benefit from our policies and spend.

Collaborative working across Cabinet 

It is your responsibility to engage, timeously and appropriately, with your Cabinet colleagues and their junior Ministers as we seek to deliver on these objectives. In addition to those objectives laid out above, you are also expected and required to work on cross-cutting government objectives, which will contribute to our priority outcomes. These include, but are not limited to, the transition to Net Zero; work to meet our child poverty targets; Keeping The Promise; and the incorporation of human rights treaties into Scots law, as far as possible within devolved competence. I know you will also continue to work closely with the Minister for Independence to provide the people of Scotland the information they need to make an informed choice about whether Scotland should become an independent country. 

In considering what issues to bring to Cabinet, I want you to prioritise those issues which most clearly support the delivery of our three core missions and therefore most significantly engage the collective responsibility of this Government.  This will ensure that Cabinet is focused on long term delivery, on the most critical issues of policy and on what matters most to the people of Scotland [1].

Cabinet Sub-Committees and Ministerial Working Groups also play a key role in ensuring leadership and accountability of cross cutting issues to support delivery of our three core missions.  They are critical for providing a space for oversight on delivery of our commitments thereby helping us to maintain our outcomes focus.  I expect all members of the Cabinet Sub-Committees to play a proactive role in them, recognising that there will be a number of challenging decisions to be taken by the Cabinet Sub-Committees in the coming months.

Planning and accountability for delivery

I ask that you ensure that thorough, evidence-based and financially assessed delivery plans are in place for these commitments, to support the ongoing and effective monitoring of progress and impact. This plan should contain baseline performance measures for each commitment and highlight which commitments you are prioritising for early implementation, alongside related timelines, dependencies and assumptions. It will be my expectation that this articulates your agreed programme for the year ahead, with outcomes which represent best value for money for the resources you have at your disposal and that they demonstrate your balanced portfolio budget. This will in turn allow the Deputy First Minister and I to ensure all portfolios deliver within our overall budget the prioritised set of outcomes we are seeking.

I have asked the Deputy First Minister to consider these plans from all portfolios and to join me in six monthly discussions with you on progress against out agreed objectives. The Deputy First Minister will be in touch separately with you around reporting arrangements as part of her role in co-ordinating cross government delivery.

I look forward to working with you to deliver on our shared ambitions for Scotland.

Yours sincerely, 

First Minister 

Constitution, External Affairs and Culture policy portfolio outcomes to be achieved by 2026 as set out in Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership – a fresh start

  • Build the case for a socially just, independent Scotland within the European Union.
  • Give the people of Scotland the information they need to make an informed choice about whether Scotland should become an independent country.
  • Protect continued alignment with the vital safeguards and high standards Scotland benefitted from as part of the European Union.
  • Make the democratic case for the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament to be protected and enhanced, including through the power to decide Scotland’s future.
  • Launch new international development programmes with our focus countries partnering with them to tackle non-communicable diseases, to support inclusive education for those who have additional support needs, and to advance the rights of women and girls.
  • Build a truly international network of Scottish Connections by implementing our Diaspora Strategy, published on 11 April.
  • Press for the UK’s early return to the Horizon Europe research programme.
  • Seek improvements to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement that materially improve outcomes for Scottish people and business.
  • Support and promoted the culture sector and those who work in it, both at home and internationally, with a specific focus on measures to increase its sustainability and resilience.
  • Clearly demonstrate the integral part that the Scottish cultural sector plays in the lives of people across Scotland and how it contributes to the wider work of government.
  • Successfully deliver major events that contributed to Scotland’s economy and promoted Scotland on the world stage.

Further guidance on collective responsibility and Cabinet business can be found in Section 2 of the Scottish Ministerial Code


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