National Economic Forum: Deputy First Minister’s speech - 16 June 2021

Opening remarks by Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for COVID Recovery John Swinney delivered virtually at the National Economic Forum on 16 June 2021.

Thank you very much First Minister, and it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to say a few words at the start of this National Economic Forum, and to welcome the fact that it represents a sustained engagement between the government and the business community that’s now stretched back over 25 different occasions, and I think that constancy of engagement is an illustration of the importance we attach to ensuring that we hear and understand the perspectives of the business community and that we reflect those priorities in the choices and the difficult decision that we have to arrive at.

And of course, as the First Minister has just said, there has been no period of greater, more difficult decisions than the period of the last 15 months for all of us within Scotland, whether we were running a business or Ministers within the Scottish Government, or wrestling with the family heartbreak of the loss of loved ones during COVID.

So, this is an opportunity for us to continue our dialogue as we build our way out of the challenges of COVID and start to structure the recovery that is essential for our country. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to explain a little bit about what I will be taking forward in my role as Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for COVID Recovery.

The First Minister asked me to take on this particular role to make sure that, in essence, the Government’s approach to COVID recovery could be broad, and effective, and inclusive.

That it would bring together all aspects of Government, and be cohesive and to demonstrate the type of urgency and impact that is required to make sure the country is able to rebuild out of COVID, and over the course of the last few weeks since the Government was re-elected and I was appointed to this role, I have taken great care to work with my Ministerial colleagues to make sure that we are all working closely together to make sure that we design a recovery that is that broad and inclusive approach that the First Minister has requested of me.

We’ve engaged a lot as a Government over the course of the last 12 months on different and challenging issues around the way in which we address the consequences of COVID, and a lot of the thinking that has come into the debate around about the Government’s priorities from the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery that was led by Benny Higgins, or the Social Renewal Advisory Board, or the work of the Citizen’s Assembly of Scotland, has given us a really strong sense of the type of recovery people in Scotland want to see.

And, if we look through some of that evidence and that information, the people of Scotland have said to us that they want our recovery to be ambitious and transformational, to achieve financial security for all, to support the health and wellbeing of our population, to promote the equality and strength of rights, to support economic development, to address the harm caused by COVID-19, and to recognise the value of time and social connections – a very personal reflection from citizens about the loss of social connection in the course of the last 15 months or so.

So we’ve looked very carefully at all of that feedback from the people of Scotland, from the consultation exercises that we have engaged in, and have started to design the steps and the interventions that are necessary to make sure that we build a successful recovery from COVID – that we seize the opportunity of the difficulties created by COVID to essentially reset our economy and our society, in tackling some of the big and fundamental questions that lie in front of us.

The challenge of achieving net-zero as a nation; the challenge of ensuring that individuals have purposeful and valuable employment that enables them to deliver financial security for their families; that we are able to create a strong and competitive platform for our business community, where digital platforms and digital opportunities are used to the full; that we invest in the skills that are required to ensure that we are meeting the needs of individuals and the needs of the economy in the current period, and with the challenges of new sectors and new opportunities that present themselves to Scotland.

So what I’m trying to do within Government is to make sure that I bring together all of these different themes  - make sure that they add up into a cohesive and effective proposition that is put to the people of Scotland, and that guides the activities that we take forward to strengthen our recovery from COVID.

At the heart of that has to be a very effective dialogue with the business community, because if we look at some of the challenges that we face about the creation of meaningful and valuable employment opportunities that deliver financial security for families – which is a crucial route by which we will tackle poverty in our society – the business community has to be supported to enable us to achieve those objectives.

So finding the necessary approaches to invest in skills training, of ensuring that we are able to support businesses to be able to train staff - existing staff and new staff – to be able to adapt to new opportunities within the economy, is crucial to ensure that we are successful in our recovery strategy.

And, in that respect, we have to listen very carefully to what the business community says to us, and we need to work in partnership with our educational institutions to ensure that they are providing the various skills training and skills development opportunities that will meet the needs of the economy today, and of course the First Minister has set out some of the very early measures we’re taking in that respect, to make sure that that can be possible.

So, in a whole variety of areas – whether it’s about the transition to net zero; or the greater use of digital applications and the utilisation of digital opportunities for business development purposes; or whether it’s about the development of skills to ensure that we are able to tackle the underlying poverty within our society and provide better hopes and better opportunities for individuals – in all of these areas, we are going to have to engage purposefully with the business community on these questions.

I’ve been delighted, over the course of the last few weeks since the election, to be able to engage with my Ministerial colleagues – principally with Kate Forbes as the Economy Secretary, Shirley-Anne Somerville as the Education Secretary, Shona Robison as the Social Justice and Local Government Secretary, and Michael Matheson with the Net Zero responsibilities – with the business community on how we take forward many of these priorities and these opportunities.

What this will flow into will be a series of policy approaches that the Government takes, and you are seeing already that the First Minister has gone through in some detail the effect of the hundred days commitments that we are currently taking forward and implementing – and good progress is being made in implementing those commitments – and the hundred days programme will flow into the Programme for Government, which will set out many of the aspects of the approach to COVID recovery that we intend to take, and will structure many of the priorities that we will take forward in the forthcoming Parliamentary session.

But at the heart of all of that must be a determination on the part of the Government – which I assure you about today – of our willingness to engage with the business community, and to ensure that that work is undertaken effectively.

So I look forward, with my colleagues, to working with you. I give you the assurance that my role is to make sure that Government works cohesively together, that we meet all of our policy priorities and objectives across all of the different areas of Government activity, and right at the heart of that must be the delivery of a successful economic recovery from COVID – and that is what the Government is determined to do in partnership with you, and with other partners around the country. I look forward to engaging on these questions in the question and answer session today, and my colleagues will engage in the workshop sections in the course of the day.

So thank you very much for engaging with us, and I look forward to our further discussions. Thank you.


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