Just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined that I would be standing here as First Minister, setting out the policy priorities and indeed the defining missions of the Government that I lead.
Being First Minister is not without its challenges it’s fair to say, but not withstanding that it is - of course - the honour of my life, and in my very first speech to this Chamber after the result was announced, I made it clear that the people of Scotland’s priorities will - of course - be my priorities too.
I have been clear from the outset, that I intend on governing in the interests of the whole of Scotland, and I hope that today’s Policy Prospectus that has been published is a demonstration of that.
In setting out our course for the next three years, we are acknowledging - as we must - that Scotland faces genuinely difficult challenges.
Our economy and our public services are still recovering from a global pandemic.
We are in the midst of a cost crisis, made worse by the UK Government’s economic mismanagement, which is harming people and hurting businesses right across the country.
We need to play our part in addressing the global crises of climate change and nature loss.
And we are also – and this is worth stressing - facing the most difficult public spending environment that this devolved parliament has clearly ever seen.
The inflationary shocks created by a hard Brexit, a global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, disastrous decisions taken as part of the UK Government’s mini-budget, they have all placed great pressure on the public finances. Our ability to deal with that pressure is being constrained by UK Government spending decisions, and a lack of borrowing powers.
In fact the cost to Scotland of not being independent has never been clearer.
UK living standards have stagnated for 15 years.
Indeed the fall in living standards this year and the next is expected to be the largest on record.
According to the IMF the UK is to be amongst the worst performing of any major economy this year.
And the disastrous impact of Brexit is biting hard.
As a result, we are having to make tough decisions about our priorities.
I will be unapologetic about making those difficult decisions, to ensure we free up money and we free up resource to target it to those who are in the greatest need.
Where we can go even further within the constrains of devolution, and where we can go further, I absolutely will.
But for all the significant challenges we face – and they are significant - we also know that we can build on the important successes.
Scotland currently outperforms the UK on unemployment rate with the unemployment rate for men over 16 at the lowest on record.
NHS waiting times and our court backlogs are improving following the pandemic.
Despite the public spending climate, we have expanded free childcare provision, and introduced the game-changing Scottish Child Payment.
And of course Scotland continues to have a highly skilled workforce, world-class universities and colleges, and huge potential in some of the key economic sectors of the future.
The Scottish Government is today publishing their policy prospectus – “New Leadership, A Fresh Start for Scotland” - which will set out how this Government – the Government I lead – will address our challenges, build on our successes of the past but also capitalise on our strengths.
It sets out the key aims, the key deliverables we intend to achieve in each Cabinet Secretary’s portfolio – working constructively with our Green party colleagues. Throughout the next three years we will report routinely, regularly and transparently on our performance against these aims and against these outcomes.
The report also emphasises that this Government’s work will be defined by three distinct and interdependent missions.
Those missions – centred on the principles of equality, opportunity and community – require us to tackle poverty; to build a fair, green and indeed a growing economy; and to improve our public services. They will be central to our efforts, over the next three years, to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.
The first mission – based on equality – is that we will continue to tackle poverty in all of its forms, and that we will substantially reduce child poverty in particular. An immediate focus, inevitably, will be on protecting people as far as we possibly can from the harm inflicted by the UK Government policies and the ongoing cost of living crisis.
That means that we will often choose to target spending, so that it will benefit those who need it most.
That’s one reason why the very first action I undertook as First Minister, was to increase the Fuel Insecurity Fund to £30 million.
Over the next three years we will also invest a further £1.3 billion in the Scottish Child Payment.
We will further develop our social security system and ensure it continues to treat people with dignity, fairness and respect.
We will expand the provision of free school meals.
We will reduce the number of children who go into care, and we’ll keep our promise to those who are care experienced.
We will work to ensure that drug deaths reduce over the next three years.
And we recognize just how crucial housing is to our aspirations for a fairer country.
We will continue to work with local government to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation.
Subject to the will of this parliament, we will legislate to secure a new deal for tenants, and to introduce duties to prevent homelessness.
We will invest to make homes and buildings greener. And we will continue to deliver affordable homes - the majority of which will be for social rent – in all parts of our country.
We will also publish an action plan for housing in remote, rural and island areas. I can confirm today that this plan will include up to £25 million from our affordable homes budget to allow suitable properties, including empty houses, to be purchased or long-leased, and turned into affordable homes for key workers and others.
We will also engage with the public to explore how best we can use our existing taxation powers to deliver the most progressive taxation system in the UK, and achieve the Government’s three key missions, which I talk to today.
Scotland is a wealthy country, but that wealth is not distributed evenly.
To tackle poverty we need to be even bolder on taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.
That is why I will convene an anti-poverty summit, inviting experts, academics, anti-poverty campaigners, those with lived experience, and I will also invite opposition colleagues, as I believe tackling poverty is a shared priority for all of us.
We will continue to support equality, inclusion and human rights too. We will implement more of the recommendations of the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls.
Presiding Officer, I take great pride in being the first First Minister from an ethnic minority background. I know my rights are very much interdependent on the rights of others. The Government I lead will not only protect the rights of minorities, where possible we will advance them, particularly for those that are the most marginalized in our society.
During the parliamentary term, we will bring forward a Human Rights Bill to incorporate - within the limits of our devolved competence - international standards on economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
That is in stark contrast to a UK Government that pursues divisive immigration policies, and risks denying sanctuary to people during their hour of need, we will continue to support those who come to Scotland fleeing war and fleeing persecution.
We will also continue to support the many thousands of people who have come from Ukraine during the last year. For as long as Scotland is their home, they will be welcomed here and they will be supported.
Presiding Officer, through these actions, and many more, we will make significant progress towards making Scotland a fairer country during the next three years.
However we know that our ambition to make Scotland fairer, must go hand in hand with our work to make Scotland more prosperous. That is why our second national mission is based on the principle of opportunity – using all of the powers we have, to their maximum effect, to support economic growth for a purpose: to help businesses and trade to thrive and to maximise the opportunity for a fair green economy.
A crucial part of this, is about making a just transition to net zero.
We will take the workers of the North East – and indeed the whole of Scotland - with us on our just transition journey.
We will harness the huge potential of the green economy in Scotland. The Scotwind programme on its own, for example, offers the potential of £28 billion of supply chain work based in Scotland. Our renewable energy resources will also help us to develop a new hydrogen sector – which is why a focus for the next three years, is to lay the foundations for a hydrogen supply chain in Scotland.
We will also continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Through policies such as our investment in new tech scaler hubs, we hope to make Scotland one of the leading nations in Europe for business start-ups. We will also develop centres of excellence for sectors such as green technologies, health & life sciences, digital industries and advanced manufacturing.
And as we do this, we will seek to support economic growth and ensure that wealth is far more evenly distributed. So we will continue to invest in skills– so that people are able to take advantage of new opportunities. And we will encourage growth in every part of Scotland, by working with local and regional partners.
In setting out our plans for the economy, I also want to make a broader point about the government’s relationship with our business community.
Presiding Officer, I am the proud son of a business owner. In fact, just this month my dad’s business turned 40 years old, and despite our family efforts to the contrary Mr Yousaf Snr has no plans to retire just yet.
But businesses, and small businesses in particular, are the backbone of our economy and Government support for business is essential for the delivery of a wellbeing economy.
We need businesses to grow to create the good, well-paying jobs that will enable us reinvest in initiatives to eradicate poverty. We also rely on businesses - and their workers - to pay the taxes that our public services rely on.
That’s why there has never been a conflict, to my mind, between supporting our economy to grow, in line with our net-zero ambitions, and introducing policies - such as progressive taxation – which enables us to reduce poverty. Both go hand-in-hand as part of that wellbeing economy many of us support.
We also need some government regulation of business.
The business community itself recognises that an unrestricted market is incompatible with the wellbeing of our people, our communities and our environment.
But the balance here needs to be right.
A number of business organisations have expressed concern in recent months about the balance that the Scottish Government has been striking. In fact, they have called for a ‘re-set’ of the relationship between business and Government.
I am happy to start that re-set today. And I want to do so, by confirming three specific steps.
The first relates to the Deposit Return Scheme.
I remain committed to this Scheme as a way to increase recycling, to reduce litter on our streets and on our beaches and help achieve our net zero ambitions.
But we recognise the uncertainty that continues to be created as a result of the UK Government delaying the decision to exclude the scheme from the Internal Market Act. We had hoped for a decision on that this week – but it has not come.
At the same time, I – and the Circular Economy Minister - have heard the concerns of business, particularly about the scheme’s readiness for launch this August.
As a result, we will now delay the launch of the scheme to the 1st of March 2024. This provides 10 months for businesses to get ready.
We will use that additional time to work with businesses, and Circularity Scotland, to address concerns with the scheme and ensure a successful launch next year.
We have also developed a package of measures to simplify and de-risk the scheme, and to support small businesses and hospitality in particular.
The Circular Economy Minister will provide further details to Parliament this week on this package, of the new timetable, and our engagement with the UK Government over the critical decisions now that we need them to make to allow the scheme to proceed in terms of that exemption of the Internal Market Act.
The second step relates to the Scottish Government’s consultation on restrictions to alcohol advertising. The aim of this consultation - to reduce the harm caused by alcohol to children – is not just admirable but it is one I support wholeheartedly.
But it is clear that some of the proposals have caused real concern to an industry which is already facing challenges on multiple fronts.
I have therefore instructed my officials to take these ideas back to the drawing board, work with the industry, and crucially with public health stakeholders, to agree a new set of proposals.
I believe that all of us want to reduce the harm caused by alcohol, particularly to young people - but without undermining Scotland’s world class drinks industry or tourism sector. I am hopeful that by taking a fresh look at this issue, we can find a way forward which achieves both of these crucial aims.
Finally, I have written to key business representative groups, and asked them to engage in urgent discussions with the Scottish Government to agree a New Deal for Scottish Businesses.
These discussions will be chaired jointly by the Cabinet Secretary for the Wellbeing Economy and a representative from the business sector. The discussions will explore, among other things, how government can better support our businesses and communities using the policy levers we do have - including Non-Domestic Rates.
I have asked the co-chairs to report back to me with initial thoughts this summer.
These three steps will all, I trust, be welcomed individually by Scotland’s business community. But I hope that collectively, they also send a broader signal about this Government’s approach to business.
This Government knows that Scotland can only be successful, if our businesses are successful.
And so as First Minister, my door will always be open to you.
We might not always agree - but I will always give you a fair hearing. And I will seek to address your concerns wherever possible. All three of the missions that I am setting out today, depend on a thriving business sector in Scotland. So the Government I lead will do everything we can, to help you to prosper.
The third and last of our missions, which is based on community, is to focus on the delivery of key public services – for example the NHS and social care, schools and childcare, the police and justice, and public transport.
The NHS in the last three years has faced the greatest challenge in its 74 year existence. Its staff have performed magnificently in the face of the pandemic.
We will invest in the NHS to help it recover from the pandemic - so that over the next three years, waiting lists will fall, the outcomes for cancer treatment will improve.
We will continue to support primary care, we’ll invest more in general practices particularly in the most disadvantaged areas in the country. We will also improve mental health and welfare support, we’ll secure better access to NHS dentistry.
We are also committed to improving social care services, and reducing delayed discharges.
I know well the workforce challenges that the adult social care sector in particular faces.
That is why I will commit to a timetable that sets out how this Government will get to £12 an hour for adult social care workers. While we are not able to afford to do this absolutely immediately, I want to send a signal to the sector that we are absolutely serious about improving pay, about improving terms and conditions for those who care for our most vulnerable.
A key way of improving consistency of care is through the National Care Service in a way that commands consensus amongst our key partners – including the trade unions, and including local government. Yesterday I confirmed that we would ask Parliament for an extension to the scrutiny process for the legislation, to help us to build that consensus.
The aim of the national care service legislation – ensuring that consistently high standards for care across the country – is one which attracts wide support. My hope is that by taking slightly more time to agree a way forward, we can ensure that that we agree and achieve that aim.
We will also continue to ensure that staff in our health and care services are valued and that they are fairly paid. As things stand, Scotland is the only part of the UK, where no NHS worker has gone on strike during the last year. That is something I am proud of and I’m grateful for. The Scottish Government will soon be entering into talks with junior doctors, in the hope of arriving at a fair settlement for them.
As well as supporting our NHS and care services, we will also continue to invest in other key public services.
In the justice system, the backlog of court cases caused by the pandemic is already decreasing. It will continue to fall during the next three years. And we will continue to implement important improvements in our justice system – such as better handling of cases involving sexual offences.
We will improve childcare for school age children. I’ll accelerate the expansion of childcare for 1 and 2 year olds.
We will continue to focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap in schools – while raising attainment for all. We will improve experiences and outcomes for children, for young people and their families who use that additional support for learning.
And as part of our efforts to improve school education, we will increase the availability of internationally comparable data on Scotland’s education performance. Scotland already participates in the widely-respected PISA studies. We will also now apply to rejoin two other major international statistics systems - Trends in International Maths and Science, and Progress in International Reading Literacy.
We will also make our public transport system more accessible, we’ll make it more available, we’ll make it more affordable. As an important part of that, I can confirm today that the 6-month pilot to remove peak-time fares from Scotrail services will start in October of this year. The evidence from this pilot – and our wider Fair Fares review – will allow us to bring forward further targeted measures, from next year onwards, to ensure that the costs of transport are more fairly shared.
As part of that commitment to Active Travel, we will also increase our investment to deliver more places where people can walk, where they can wheel and cycle safely for day-to-day journeys.
We will double the charge point network for electric vehicles to at least 6,000, and increase the number of zero-emission buses on Scotland’s roads. And we will deliver six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network.
The final point that I want to highlight here is that local government is a vital partner in delivering the services that all of us rely on. We intend to agree and implement a New Deal for Local Government to help us to work together more effectively.
Part of that is about giving local authorities far more discretion on sources of funding. As we have previously confirmed, subject to Parliament’s approval, we will legislate to give councils the power to apply a local visitor levy on overnight stays.
And we launched a consultation yesterday on measures which will give local authorities additional powers to increase the rate of Council Tax on second and empty homes. The consultation also seeks views on altering the thresholds for self-catering accommodation to qualify for non-domestic rates.
This consultation has come about as a result of effective joint working between the Scottish Government and local government.
And I hope it demonstrates to local authorities that we see them as an essential partner, in helping to achieve our ambitions for Scotland in the years to come.
In conclusion, Presiding Officer, when I was elected as party leader, I promised that I would never pretend that government is easy – it is not – and I would not offer empty promises in the face of difficult challenges.
The document we are publishing today sets out our determination to honour that commitment.
It is built on the idea of working in partnership - with business, with trade unions, with local government, with our third sector, and with our Green colleagues in government.
It recognises the financial constraints we operate under, and is realistic about the social, economic and environmental challenges we face.
But that realism is balanced by optimism about our ability to meet those challenges.
Scotland is a land of opportunity, I am very proud of that. I’m proud to be a product of that. My grandparents came to this country in the 1960s, barely speaking English, little in their pockets. Despite the challenges they faced, and at times hostility due to their background, they overcame those barriers and provided a life for their children and grandchildren I will forever be grateful for.
It is my responsibility as First Minister to ensure every family in Scotland has equality of opportunity, regardless of their background or where they live.
I am optimistic that we can achieve that equality of opportunity- and the three missions I have set out today, which will determine the priorities of my government for the rest of this parliamentary session – will help us to achieve it.
Together, they will help us to deliver focused, affordable and ambitious measures which protect our environment, promote business prosperity, and improve people’s well-being and reduce poverty. They will ensure that the actions we take over the next three years, stand Scotland in good stead for the next decade. And they will use our present - very significant - strengths, to deliver a fresh start for Scotland.
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