It’s really wonderful to be here. We were talking just before I came in about how wonderful it is to be here and connecting with people, as opposed to just on screens as we have been over the past couple of years. Sometimes it’s not until you’ve been back at something like this that you realise just how much it’s been missed over the past couple of years. I remember the last Gathering, which I’m told was February 2020. Back then, being here, Covid of course was already with us and I remember thinking it was something serious and it was going to have an impact on us. But back then, no-one, including myself would have believed that two, almost two and a half years on, it would still be with us. Albeit the very worst of it is now behind us. It’s been a two-year period that none of us could have anticipated. It has been unbelievably difficult and challenging for everybody across the country, particularly those who have suffered illness and bereavement. But I just wanted to say thank you to everybody because all of you have been doing so much in your personal and professional lives to help us. And what a pleasure it is to be back here with you today.
This event is really important. It’s always a fantastic opportunity to discuss and address some of the key issues that your sector is facing. It’s an opportunity for me, on behalf of not just the Government but of the country, to highlight the incredible contribution that you and your thousands of colleagues across the country make to communities in every single corner of Scotland.
The importance of that contribution, as I’ve just been reflecting on, has probably never been more important, nor visible and appreciated by people, than over the past couple of years.
During that time, SCVO, and the wider sector have been absolutely at the forefront in helping the country deal with the many challenges of the pandemic.
Across the country, all of you have done an incredible job – in so many different ways, whether that’s been delivering food and medicine, reaching out to those who would’ve been suffering loneliness and isolation, helping people with mental health challenges or supporting the vaccination programme.
And I’m always really conscious when speaking to audiences who have contributed is so many that you’ve done all this, while dealing with the anxieties, stresses and pressures that we’ve all faced personally over the course of the pandemic. So I want to say formally today, from the bottom of my heart, a massive thank you to each and every one of you and to everyone across the voluntary and third sector for the amazing contribution, commitment and dedication shown.
There’s no doubt your efforts have been crucial in helping us to get where we are just now, not quite out of COVID but in a much, better, stronger and more normal position than has been the case.
That contribution will continue to be vital, as we seek to rebuild and recover from the experiences we have had.
I also understand that your sector – like the country as a whole - is facing some really significant challenges right now. This is not an easy time for anybody and it’s important for me and Government to recognise that. And while we can’t magic away all of the challenges we are facing, it’s important to make very clear our commitment to working with you to navigate our way through the period that lies ahead.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Scottish Government published its spending review for the period ahead. Not budgets, these will come on an annual basis as normal. But we looked ahead at the overall position and sent out the review.
It was a difficult exercise and it poses difficult challenges for the period that lies ahead. My responsibility, and my Government’s responsibility, is to allocate the resources that we have available to us, to meet in the best possible way – as far as we can – the priorities we set. Priorities I expect will be shared by many people in this room. But the overall budget that we have to allocate overall is very, very challenge. As a result of decisions, taken unfortunately elsewhere – the Scottish Government’s budget this year has been cut by more than 5% in real terms. We’re looking at a period where funding will be very constrained, by about 2%. At a time, of course, where inflation is closer to 10%. In the UK right now, largely due to the cost of Brexit, inflation is much higher than is in many other countries.
We have to deal with that reality, and we have to do it as fairly as we can. The Scottish Government is already investing to mitigate some of the worst impacts of UK Government policies – like the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.
These are all of the constraints that we work within. But I want to give you a message today that we will work with the sector to deliver as strongly as we can to support the services you deliver on a day-to-day basis. We will also continue to work as hard as we can to deliver the fairness and with as much certainty as possible.
I often hear at this event and from the sector on a regular basis the desire and demand for multi-year funding settlements. We recognise the importance of that.
As far as we can, as we often don’t have multi-year funding settlements ourselves, we want to deliver fairness and stability.
You may have heard yesterday my views on independence. And that’s a debate for the other day. But one of the reasons is that we can be more in charge ourselves of the decisions that drive and determine the size of our budget. And not be so reliant on decisions taken elsewhere.
But we have a responsibility that I take very seriously to ensure we’re working in partnership with the sector to make sure we are delivering on the priorities and challenges we face.
There’s no bigger challenge we face than the cost of living crisis.
It is already affecting people everywhere – but we know it is hitting hardest those who were already most in need.
That’s why we continue to call on the UK Government to do much more to help and to use their powers to deliver a comprehensive package of support. But it’s also why at the same time, we’re so determined to use every lever at our disposal to take action and deliver as much help as possible..
We’ve already taken decisions to increase benefits that lie within Social Security Scotland by 6%, rather than the 3% UK benefits are increasing by, to get more help to those who need it most.
We have also introduced the Scottish Child Payment, a really significant move to try to lift children out of poverty. And in response to the pressures people are facing right now, have already doubled that payment to £20 a week. And we plan to increase it again over the course of this year.
We’re providing help to people and three quarters of the households in Scotland with council tax this year. And we’re taking a number of other measures to try to help people, many of those in partnership with the third sector.
Many of those are things the sector is closely associated with. For example, we’ve extended our Fuel Insecurity Fund, which is administered by third sector partners - the Fuel Bank Foundation, Advice Direct Scotland and the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations.
And are seeking to invest in and will continue to support money, welfare and debt advice services – provided by organisations like Citizens Advice Scotland and One Parent Families Scotland.
All of these measures are intended to do as much as we can to help people with the pressures they are facing right now.
But they will also help with our longer term objective, which is to tackle, reduce and ultimately eradicate child poverty in Scotland.
In March, we published our second plan to tackle child poverty.
It sets out a range of actions, with the Scottish Child Payment very much at its heart.
Scotland, for all the challenges we face, is a rich country. Child poverty isn’t something we can accept and that’s why we have made tackling that one of our top priorities. Even within the constrained funding situation, we will seek to make sure that all of the decisions we take will help to deal with that problem.
These are some of the priorities we are working to. But we can’t do any of it without the support of the third and voluntary sector, which is so important to everything we do.
The pandemic has showed just how important this sector is and we therefore need to rethink and continue to focus on how best we support you in the work you do.
I see literally every day, examples that illustrate that the sector is often so much better placed to understand, adapt and respond to the needs of individuals and communities.
In the past, and this has been longstanding, government has had a tendency to overlook your expertise and capabilities.
It’s a diverse sector with many organisations and responsibilities. But too often, governments have looked to third sector organisations as a last resort. Not as a key part of addressing challenges and building solutions.
That in my view needs to change and we have an opportunity now to do that.
Learning from all of the experience of the pandemic, we need to ensure that you and the sector become not the last resort but the first resort.
Across all of the issues we are dealing with, some which I have mentioned today and others I haven’t, this sector is instrumental in supporting people but also building the kind of country we want to be. We should think of a “third sector first approach, not third sector last”.
There are no short of difficulties and challenges facing all countries just now. But as we come out the pandemic and grapple with some of the implications of that, and the war in Ukraine, and rising cost of energy and cost of living, it gives us an opportunity to think intently about our priorities and objectives, And about the type of country we want to rebuild and become. What matters most to us.
I want to see us grasp that opportunity and I know that the third sector is absolutely critical to building the type of Scotland I want to see. And I’m sure that you want to see as well.
We have tough times ahead, but we also have that opportunity.
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