Programme for Government 2023 to 2024: First Minister's speech

First Minister's statement to the Scottish Parliament on the Programme for Government, 5 September 2023.

Presiding Officer,

I have often talked about my paternal grandfather, Muhammad Yousaf, over the last few months. I have commented on his journey from Pakistan to Pollokshields, where he first lived upon arrival to this country.

What I haven’t spoken about is the difficult circumstances that followed shortly after he arrived here in Scotland, in a country where he could barely speak the language and he had little to his name.

Unfortunately, five years after arriving in Scotland, my grandmother, Muhammad Yousaf’s wife, died at the age of 33. Leaving my grandfather having to raise five children. He got remarried, but was left with five devastated children, including my father, and my uncle, one of his children, still a baby.

My grandfather went on to become a successful small business owner, and although he has now passed away, his wife, my step-gran, still to this day works in the convenience store in Mayfield, she tells me Daniel Johnson is one to pop in on occasion. 

I mention his story Presiding Officer, because there is no way that my grandfather, all those decades ago, could have supported his five children and have been a successful small business owner if it wasn’t for the support of society and of the state.

At a time when he really needed it, the government was there to support him financially.

That in turn helped to unleash his entrepreneurial spirit and over the decades he created jobs and contributed significantly to society, not least through the taxes that he paid.

There is no doubt in my mind that economic growth goes hand-in-hand with tackling poverty, as it did for my grandfather all those years ago.

The Programme for Government I am publishing today is unashamedly anti-poverty and pro-growth.

And it has a focus on supporting women - who are disproportionately affected by the pressures of modern life - including through expanding our childcare offer.

Presiding Officer,

When I became First Minister, I promised I would lead a government for the whole country.

In this chamber, we must never forget that while we will disagree – sometimes, and quite rightly, passionately - there is more that unites us than divides us.

Over the last two years, the SNP and Scottish Green parties have successfully worked together to build a greener, fairer Scotland.

In a world full of uncertainty, people rightly expect their elected representatives to work together constructively – and that is exactly what we have done.

So to all the parties represented in this chamber, I repeat the offer I made upon becoming First Minister.

You will sometimes disagree with things we do.

But when you can, work with us. You will find that my door is always open.

I have already shown my willingness to work with others in recent months but we should also remember the words of the late David McLetchie.

He warned about “worshipping the false god of consensus”.

In that vein, the government I lead will not simply coalesce around the lowest common denominator.

For the good of society, for our future, for our children - where we need to - we will pick a side.

And in particular, while other political parties are abdicating their responsibilities to tackle the climate emergency, we will be unapologetic in taking the action needed to ensure a sustainable future for our children and planet.

Presiding Officer,

This programme is an opportunity to be explicit about the driving mission of this government. So let me make it abundantly clear, we are a government who will maximise every single lever at our disposal to tackle the scourge of poverty in our country.

We have adopted progressive tax and spending policies to face those challenges. I will never shy away from the belief that those who earn the most should pay the most.

But let me be equally clear, without any equivocation, we also need to support economic growth. Not for its own sake but so we can tackle poverty and improve our public services.

The unfortunate reality is the Scottish Government is currently operating with one hand tied behind our back.

Scotland has had no control over the fallout from the UK Government’s disastrous mini-budget, or Brexit, or over a decade of austerity – however we still have to deal with the devastating consequences of those actions.

To give just one example: in the last five years we have spent more than £700 million in countering the impact of Westminster welfare cuts alone.

That’s why this government will never stop believing that decisions about Scotland, should not be made by a government based in Westminster, but by the people of Scotland.

Independent countries comparable to Scotland are wealthier and fairer than the UK. With our abundant resources, the question we must ask ourselves is why not Scotland?

In proposing the case for independence we will set out a positive vision for Scotland’s future. And there is much to be positive about.

Scotland’s economy already performs better than most parts of the UK, we have world-class universities and colleges, and significant strengths and potential in many of the key economic sectors of the future.

Today’s programme sets out how we will build on these strengths, to make people’s lives better.

Presiding Officer, tackling poverty is deeply personal to me. Growing up in the Islamic faith, I was always taught that you are not a true Muslim if you have a full stomach while your neighbour goes to bed hungry.

Tackling poverty isn’t straightforward - given the restrictions of devolution – especially in the face of a cost-of-living crisis and  challenging budget settlements.  But it is absolutely essential.

Whether it is faith, your humanism, an ingrained sense of social justice, we must all surely unite in saying that in 2023, with the abundance of wealth we have as a society, it is morally indefensible that people in our country, frankly our planet, go to sleep hungry.

So, my first announcement today is this: that by February we will remove income thresholds for our Best Start Foods programme, meaning a further 20,000 pregnant mothers and children will benefit from financial support for milk and healthy food.  That is a further demonstration of this government giving our children the best possible start.

And we will invest more than £400 million in the Scottish Child Payment, to help more than 300,000 children across the country.

For many families the payment – worth £25 per child per week – ensures food is on the table, or the heating is on at home. We can already see the benefits of the policy now. But its true legacy will last for a lifetime.

Through this government’s actions an estimated 90,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. That is the difference this government’s actions have made.

The Scottish Child Payment is part of a total investment of more than £5 billion in Scottish Government social security payments, which supports more than 1.2 million people the length and breadth of Scotland. I can confirm funding will increase by almost £1 billion in the year ahead, and we will continue to explore what more we can be done to tackle poverty during the budget process.

We have also convened an Expert Group to look at how we can make progress towards a minimum income guarantee.

And today I am calling on the UK Government to use their reserved powers to establish an Essentials Guarantee - to ensure the value of the Universal Credit payment is always sufficient for people to afford essential items such as food, transport and energy.

In addition to these actions, we will continue to reduce some of the costs that affect households across the country.

Presiding Officer,

This government has led the way in the provision of universal Free School Meals for primary school children.

I can confirm that, working with councils, we will roll out universal free school meals for all pupils in primaries six and seven, starting with those children in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment.

From October, we are introducing a pilot project to remove peak fares on ScotRail services.

In addition we recognise housing costs are a key factor in determining people’s standard of living.

During the cost-of-living crisis, this government took prompt action to introduce emergency rent caps for most private tenants, and to introduce additional protections against eviction. We have now laid regulations to ensure those measures will remain in place until 31 March next year.

We will also introduce a Housing Bill to introduce long-term rent controls and new tenant rights, and to establish new duties for the prevention of homelessness.

We will continue to work to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation. We will invest £750 million to support the delivery of affordable homes, and meet our target of securing 110,000 affordable homes by 2032.

Ten percent of those homes will be located in rural and island communities because we know those communities are facing housing challenges.

But we also know those communities are not passive. We see in the likes of the Arran Development Trust, the Mull and Iona Community Trust and Staffin Community Trust real ambition in supporting new housing.

We have been working with local government, business, the third sector and - crucially - local communities to publish an action plan for housing in rural and island areas later this year.

We have established a £25 million fund to provide homes for key workers in rural areas. Across Scotland, we will invest £60 million this year to acquire empty properties for use as affordable homes.


Following consultation, I can confirm we will also enable councils to apply a premium on council tax rates for second homes - a demonstration of our desire to empower local government to tackle the challenges they face.

And we will introduce a Cladding Remediation Bill and ask this parliament be given the powers to introduce a levy in Scotland mirroring the UK Government’s Building Safety Levy for England.

Presiding Officer, the protection of, and where possible the advancement of, rights is a collective obligation for each and event single one of us.

I have spoken about the racism and islamophobia I have and continued to face, many others in this parliament have spoken about the bigotry, homophobia, ableism, or misogyny they have been on the receiving end of.

As part of our mission to promote equality, we will improve human rights protections through our Human Rights Bill.

There are those in this Parliament who have said recently we concentrate too much on social policy.

Presiding Officer, it is our job – every MSP’s job - to help protect marginalised communities from the hatred that is far too pervasive in our society. And a population that has its rights protected is one that can thrive.  It’s not just good for society that it is; it is good for our economy too.  

Finally we recognise that helping people into good, fairly-paid work is also a key part of tackling poverty. We will work with local authorities and employers to help people who face barriers to starting or re-starting work.

And we will support care leavers into employment. This is just one of the ways in which we will work to keep our Promise to those with experience of care. I will also personally convene a dedicated Cabinet Sub Committee for The Promise - we will not let those with care experience down.

Presiding Officer, this government also recognises the crucial role of childcare, in helping parents to return to work – benefitting not just them, but the wider economy.

The Scottish Government has expanded ELC to 1,140 hours a year for all three and four year olds, and around a quarter of all two year olds.

I am pleased to announce we will go further.

Firstly, we will provide funding in six early adopter council areas to increase access to childcare from nine months old through to the end of primary school.

Secondly, we will accelerate the next phase in our expansion of childcare for families with two-year-olds, reaching thousands more families.

Thirdly, we will give parents and carers more scope to manage their childcare so it meets their specific needs. Some parents may want to use a mix of provision, and may find arranging and keeping track of their childcare stressful. So we will simplify that process - enabling parents to have more control over their childcare choices. 

Fourth, we will support efforts to recruit and retain more childminders, with an aim to recruit a thousand more childminders by the end of this parliament.

And fifth, we know one of the biggest challenges the sector faces is recruitment. So I can confirm today we will provide funding so staff in the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector, who deliver funded early learning and childcare, are paid a minimum of £12 an hour from April of next year.

High quality early education and childcare is a perfect example of a policy that is both anti-poverty and pro-growth. I am proud that Scotland has the most generous childcare offer in the UK, and I am committed to ensuring we stay ahead and provide families with the crucial support they need.

Presiding Officer, one of my earliest actions as First Minister was to develop a new and stronger relationship with business, so we can work together to create jobs and opportunities.

In the year ahead we will implement the recommendations made by the New Deal for Business Group.

Where we can, we will also work with the UK Government to support growth. In fact, I wrote to the UK Government just yesterday to request discussions on this very issue.

One idea I am keen to explore with them is a recommendation in the recent report from the Hunter Foundation – about using tax incentives and wider economic policy to support investment in key sectors such as renewables.

Scotland has long been a nation of innovation and invention. But for all the excellent success we have had, we also have to be honest, we haven’t always managed to retain that entrepreneurial talent, and the jobs that they create, here in Scotland.

So, this Programme for Government sets out a £15 million plan to support innovation and entrepreneurship.

It includes increased support for Scottish EDGE and the Scottish Ecosystem Fund; continued work to implement Mark Logan’s excellent review of our technology ecosystem; a blueprint to make our colleges and universities stronger bases for entrepreneurs; and a programme to deliver the recommendations of Ana Stewart’s equally excellent report on supporting women into enterprise.

We will also work to attract international investment and promote exports.

And we will support small businesses – for example we will work with local government and our enterprise agencies to transform the support we provide them.

We’ll work with business organisations to help small businesses improve their productivity.

And we will build on the work of the New Deal for Business Group – for example in considering improvements to the non-domestic rates system.

These early actions demonstrate our determination to listen and to act, as we build a new relationship with business to support economic growth for a purpose.

In the year ahead we will continue investment in important infrastructure, including of course continued investment in the construction of six new ferries by 2026. And alongside our record investment in active travel, we’ll reopen the Levenmouth rail line, electrify the Glasgow to Barrhead line and open a new rail station at East Linton.

We are, of course, committed to improving the A96 - including dualling the road from Inverness to Nairn, with a Nairn bypass.

And, let me be crystal clear Presiding Officer: this government, my government, will dual the A9 from Inverness to Perth.

I can confirm today we have launched the procurement for the Tomatin to Moy section as the next step in that work. 

Presiding Officer,

We are also helping the rural economy. In the coming year we will help to create a new framework for rural support through the Agriculture Bill.

We will promote our food and drink industry, and we will press the UK Government to honour its obligations to our fishing sector. 

When it comes to Scotland’s land, it is clear too much of our land is in the hands of too few. Our Land Reform Bill will make land ownership more transparent and will also give communities more opportunities to own land. We will step up to the challenge. We will seek to be bold and radical, and we will continue to develop proposals for crofting law reform.

We will continue to support Scotland’s thriving tourism sector and to promote major events.

And we will publish further details of our future support for culture in the forthcoming budget. The sector should be assured that this Government values the role of culture not just for the substantial economic impact it has, but also for the incredible joy that it brings people in Scotland and right around the world.

The final part of our economic plans I want to talk about is also one of the most important.

You only need to look at the United States or to the European Union, to see the way in which ambitious government and state support for green industries is helping to create new jobs.

The inactivity of the UK Government risks us falling behind in an increasingly competitive race.

So the Scottish Government is taking action to boost green industries with the limited powers that we do have. One important area where I can announce change is through the consenting processes for renewable technologies.

We will agree a sector deal with the onshore wind industry to half the consenting time for new section 36 wind farms. And, as part of this deal, we will maximise the benefits onshore wind can create for local communities and for Scotland’s economy.

We will also streamline offshore wind consenting processes and continue to implement our Hydrogen Action Plan.

But I continue to appeal to the UK Government, which holds the substantial levers over tax and financial incentives, to use these powers to unleash and accelerate the renewables potential of our country. Our economy, indeed our planet, deserves better than Westminster inertia. 

We will also take forward work on a Green Industrial Strategy.

We will consult on a Heat in Buildings Bill, and we will continue to promote a circular economy.

We will publish our final energy strategy and just transition plan.

We will continue to protect and enhance our natural environment.

And crucially we will continue to show global leadership in international climate discussions.

Presiding Officer, as well as the enormous economic opportunity created by climate action – there is an overwhelming moral imperative.

The terrifying impacts of climate change are not something to worry about in the distant future – they are here today.

In that context, some of the actions of the Westminster parties over this summer – such as the UK Government’s reluctance to support onshore wind, its commitment to more than 100 new oil and gas licences, and Labour’s u-turn on low emission zones - are as baffling as they are dangerous.

The Scottish Government will take a responsible approach and show climate leadership.

Tackling the climate crisis will be hard.

But in the long run, doing nothing – or even worse acting far too slowly - is the more expensive choice.

It is a choice that will see far more lives lost on our planet. And it’s a choice for which we would rightly never be forgiven, by our children or our grandchildren.

Presiding Officer, this programme also sets out how we will support strong and high quality public services.

The National Health Service is already making progress in recovering from the pandemic. We have the best performing accident and emergency departments in the UK, and in the last year, the number of people waiting more than 18 months for treatment has almost halved. We will work with health boards to reduce waiting lists further in the year ahead.

A fourth national treatment centre will open in Forth Valley in the coming year, and the centre at the Golden Jubilee Hospital will increase our capacity.

And we will continue to work with local authorities on the introduction of the national care service.

Presiding Officer, during the summer I spent a considerable amount of time hearing directly from people - from all walks of life, from across the country - about the challenges they are struggling with.

One group, who are inspirational, is the Purple Poncho Players. A theatrical group made up of disabled people who put on gripping performances which challenge governments and all of us in society to confront the uncomfortable truth of life as a disabled person in Scotland.

I heard very moving testimony from them, the Glasgow Disability Alliance and others who have been affected by the closure of the Independent Living Fund - which assists disabled people with especially complex needs to get the support they need in order to live independent lives.

I am therefore pleased to announce today I will reopen the Independent Living Fund in the next financial year, with an initial investment of up to £9 million.

In the year ahead, we will also improve access to GP services, and we will launch the National Centre for Remote and Rural Health and Care.

We will also publish a new delivery plan for mental health and wellbeing.

We will continue with our mission to reduce drug deaths, and we will invest in Alcohol and Drug Partnerships. Recent drugs death figures show we are heading in the right direction, but no more than that.

The scale of the challenge in front of us requires us to take radical approaches. These approaches must be grounded in the evidence of what works. That is why we will support a proposal to establish a Safer Drug Consumption Facility, and argue for drug law reform.

In light of the latest Home Office Select Committee report, I would urge the UK Government to listen to the evidence and either support a Safer Drug Consumption Facility or at least devolve the power to us, so we can more easily take that bold action required.

We are also reviewing the responses to the alcohol marketing consultation. We will always support jobs and the economy, we will also work with the industry where appropriate, but be in no doubt we will take further action to reduce alcohol harm and particularly to protect children from its ill-effects.

Talking of children, Presiding Officer, I hear too often about how common vaping is amongst our young people. In the next year, we will take action to reduce vaping and particularly amongst children.

The government will also consult on curbing the sale of disposable single use vapes, including consulting on an outright ban.

Presiding Officer, this government also recognises the vital importance of supporting our health and care workforce.

Scotland is, and remains, the only part of the UK where there has been no industrial action in the health service.

That’s because we never questioned the motivations of our workforce in seeking higher pay in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, and we were prepared to face up to some very challenging negotiations. We worked with unions on deals which benefit patients and staff. As a result, we have ensured NHS Scotland staff remain the best paid anywhere in the UK.

And I am pleased to confirm that today I will fulfil a promise I made to social care staff before becoming First Minister.

We will provide funding to enable an increase of pay of social care workers in direct care roles, so that they can be paid at least £12 an hour. For those on full-time contracts, this could lead to a pay increase from April of up to £2,000 a year.

This increase of over 10% values our social care staff, helps them to support their families, and also helps us to recruit and retain staff. It is good for individual employees, for our social care services, and for our society as a whole.

Presiding Officer, another issue close to my heart as First Minister, as a husband and father is miscarriage.

I have spoken before about the personal loss and trauma my wife Nadia and I have faced through multiple miscarriages. It’s a health issue that society is now more open about, but I think is still less talked-about than it maybe should be.

I know how that sense of loss, regardless of when it happens during a pregnancy, is certainly one that stays with you for life.

Each loss Nadia and I have suffered has been difficult, and there is no doubt in my mind that we can better support those who experience miscarriage.

The Programme for Government today outlines how we will continue to improve care and support for miscarriage, including ensuring women do not have to wait until a third miscarriage to receive tailored support. We will also work to improve access to progesterone prescriptions and secure separate spaces in hospitals within maternity wards for women who suffer a miscarriage.

I am also pleased to say that later this month we will launch a Certificate and Memorial Book of Pregnancy and Baby Loss Prior to 24 Weeks. And I want to thank and pay tribute to my predecessor for the work she has done on this particular issue.

Presiding Officer, this government will also continue to support our schools and promote excellence in education. We will introduce an Education Bill to establish a new qualifications body in Scotland, and to create an independent education inspectorate.

We will set out our plans for reforming our education and skills bodies, and we will deliver the pay deal we have reached with our teachers.

We will continue our work to widen access to university. This work is now seeing record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds - around 5,600 in the latest official statistics - enter our universities.

We will also rejoin key international education studies. We will continue to focus on closing the attainment gap, and improve outcomes for young people with additional support needs.

We will continue to support equality and diversity in schools – for example through our Anti-Racism in Education Programme, and by promoting a decolonised curriculum.  

We will invest in our police, fire and justice services too.

The introduction of body-worn cameras is a priority for the police and for this government – so we will start introducing that technology next year.

We have already reduced the backlog of cases in our justice system by over a third, and aim to end the backlog in summary cases during 2024.

We will invest in prisons while and with community justice partners to reduce reoffending and create safer communities.

We will continue to focus on ensuring victims and witnesses of crime are at the heart of our justice system.

Presiding Officer, we live in times when the rights of women in many parts of the world are regressing. It is important that governments who believe passionately in taking a stand against misogyny - including state and institutional misogyny - stand up and be counted.

That is why we will work with Gillian McKay to support her bill for safe access zones for abortion. It simply cannot be right that women feel in any way impeded in accessing healthcare.

And we will bring forward legislation to criminalise misogynistic abuse, following the public consultation on Baroness Helena Kennedy’s report into the issue.

Presiding Officer, just before I close, I want to expand on that point.

The “me too” movement, Reclaim the Night marches, and the response to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have instigated a movement of women sharing their stories – about everyday sexism, about harassment, about the tragic and violent crime women are too often subjected to.

The steps the Scottish Government is taking to criminalise misogynistic abuse and improve our criminal justice system, are in part a response to that - but they cannot be the only response. There’s a much bigger responsibility on our society as a whole, and particularly on all men to create a positive change.

Men, all of us, myself of course included, need to do more than simply call out negative male behaviour.

We need to tackle what is often called ‘toxic masculinity’ - which harms men and boys as well as of course women and girls - and build a society where men feel confident in taking a stand against misogyny.

But to do so we must also promote the positive - and highlight to boys and men the benefits that positive masculinity can provide for their everyday lives. How it can build respectful healthier relationships with their partners, families, with colleagues and society, and also lead to better mental health and wellbeing for men and boys.

The Scottish Government doesn’t have all the answers on this and cannot take it on alone – but it’s a challenge we will return to. As First Minister I’m committed to leading on this issue in my own actions and those of the government I lead.

Presiding officer,

At the start of this statement, I made it clear the Scottish Government will always be on the side of the people we serve.

Scotland is – certainly should be – a land of opportunity.

But I know it doesn’t always feel like that to people bearing the brunt of a Westminster cost-of-living crisis, to families living in poverty, to struggling businesses, to those who still face consequences of discrimination and inequality. I get that.

That’s why this Programme for Government tackles poverty and inequality head on.

As part of our work to create opportunities and build strong communities, in the year ahead

  • We will help more than 300,000 children with more than £1,000 a year through the Scottish Child payment
  • We will increase social security spending by almost £1 billion.
  • We will expand free school meals
  • We will widen access to financial advice
  • We will help more new parents buy healthy food
  • We will help disabled people with the most complex needs, so that they can live independent lives
  • We will safeguard the rights of tenants.
  • We will promote payment of the living wage
  • We will increase the pay of childcare and social care staff
  • And we will expand high quality childcare.

We will do all of this – first and foremost because it is the right thing to do.

But also, as I know well from my own family history, because providing people with support and security helps them to contribute to society and to create opportunities for others.

This Programme for Government sets out how we will work with partners to tackle poverty, to promote growth, to strengthen the public services we all depend on.

The people of Scotland should be left in absolutely no doubt whatsoever: the Scottish Government is on their side.

This Programme for Government  shows how we will make progress towards a fairer, wealthier and greener Scotland, and I’m delight Presiding Officer to commend it to this Parliament.

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