Thank you, Andrew. I want to thank SCVO for inviting me.
I’m delighted to be here at the Gathering – because this is always a brilliant event. It’s a great opportunity to discuss the key issues facing our third sector – but also to celebrate the contribution that you make to life across Scotland.
That’s why my overriding message this morning is both clear and simple, and that is just a very big 'thank you' for what you do. The support, services and opportunities you provide make a massive difference to individuals and communities the length and breadth of the country.
You get a sense of that from the various stalls and displays outside. They highlight just some of the excellent work voluntary organisations are doing, across the country.
And I’m delighted to be joined on this panel by some of the people contributing to that work.
Under Anna’s leadership, SCVO continues to provide vital support to Scotland’s voluntary organisations. Through initiatives like the ‘I Love Charity’ campaign – it also helps to raise awareness of the work that you do.
Chris is at the forefront of a sector which now comprises over 5,000 social enterprises. Last September, I was honoured to welcome delegates to Edinburgh – for the Social Enterprise World Forum – really cementing Scotland’s global leadership in the area of social enterprise. It’s very clear that – in addition to helping communities throughout the country – the sector really does have that international recognition.
And of course, Stephanie leads a charity that works to improve the lives of people with cerebral palsy. As part of that, Bobath Scotland is playing, and has for some considerable time, played a huge role – not just in improving lives but also of course in the integration of health and social care.
That is actually a good example of the fact that – on virtually all of the Scottish Government’s policy priorities – we are working in partnership with the third sector.
If you take employability, our Community Jobs Scotland programme has created employment and training opportunities for more than 8,000 people.
We’re also working together to promote volunteering. The National Volunteering Outcomes Framework will be published in the next few months.
And of course, your expertise continues to be a huge asset, as we both design and deliver Scotland’s new social security system.
For example, the third sector is strongly represented on our Advisory Group for Disability and Carers Benefits. Its advice is helping to guide and inform the decisions we take.
Now, it’s still early days – but there are already signs that that that work is making a difference to people’s lives.
Last year – shortly after the new social security agency made its first payment – I received a message from a carer. She wrote:
"I just received my carers allowance supplement and I’m not ashamed to say I had a wee cry to myself. This is the first time I’ve been thanked for what I do and not questioned."
Those words have really stayed with me. They underline the importance of the work we are doing. And they make all of us I hope all the more determined to build a system that values people – a system that’s not punitive, that doesn’t make people feel guilty for claiming benefits that they are entitled to, but instead one that has dignity, fairness and respect at its very heart. And we couldn’t be doing that without the contribution, the expertise and the advice of the third sector.
Of course, that approach does stand in stark contrast to the one that is taken by the UK Government.
I know that – last Friday – SCVO held an event with Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. His report – published in November last year – was a damning indictment of the UK Government’s spending and welfare cuts. It stated that ‘British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and callous approach’.
I think that underlines the importance and the sense of responsibility we have in Scotland to continue to do everything possible to mitigate the worst impacts of that kind of agenda. Policies, for example, such as the bedroom tax which we are mitigating. The work to introduce a more progressive system of income tax, to better enable us to protect funding for public services.
We know it’s not possible to mitigate all of the impacts of these cuts and policies, and we know that the impact of them are still felt in Scotland. They present all of us with big challenges. And of course, all of these challenges are made worse by the other big challenge all of us face right now, which is the looming prospect of Brexit.
Leaving the EU will have a major impact on every aspect of our economy, and our society. But as all of you know, there will be very specific implications for the third sector.
That’s why – last year – we established the Brexit Stakeholder Engagement Fund. It has now provided support for eleven different projects, that have been led by third sector organisations. Each has looked at the impact of Brexit on specific groups – such as rural communities, or children and young people.
I want to thank everyone who has been involved. The projects are now reporting on their findings. And there are a number of common themes emerging.
For example, funding is clearly a major concern. At the moment, our third sector benefits significantly from EU funds. We will lose access to almost all of these, under Brexit. As yet the UK Government has failed to provide any detail on future funding arrangements.
Earlier this month, the Scottish Government joined with you in calling for clarity on this issue, and we will continue to do that until we have an assurance that that funding will be fully replaced.
Another subject that’s been widely raised throughout this work is the status of EU nationals living here in Scotland. There are 200,000 people from outside the UK but from other EU member states who have chosen to make this country their home. They make an enormous contribution to our public services, our economy, and of course, our voluntary sector.
So the potential loss of freedom of movement, which remember is our ability to travel and to work and study and live in other European countries, just as it is about the right of other EU nationals to come here. The loss of that freedom is a huge concern. That’s why we continue to make the case that Scotland needs the power to tailor its own immigration policy – to suit our needs and priorities, because we know that without inward migration our working age population over the next few years might actually decline, which will result in less revenues to fund our public services.
And it’s that concern that leads me to warmly applaud initiatives like SCVO’s ‘EU-are-Valued’ campaign. It is helping us to send the message to EU nationals in this country – that you are welcome here, and that your presence and contribution is valued, and that we want you to stay here.
The potential loss of freedom of movement has big implications for Scotland. But of course, it’s just one of many rights and protections which Brexit puts at risk.
That’s a danger which the Scottish Government fully recognises – and it’s one which we want to mitigate. I think our aspiration collectively as a country should be to remain a world leader on human rights protections.
That’s why our revised national performance framework includes the protection of human rights as one of our key national outcomes.
And it’s why we are establishing a national taskforce – to take forward a key recommendation of the Advisory Council on Human Rights Leadership. It will look at how we can embed UN and other international human rights treaties into a statutory framework here in Scotland.
That’s another important way in which – despite Brexit - we are aiming to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. I believe very strongly that is one of the fundamental responsibilities, of any government anywhere. And of course, as we seek to meet that responsibility, the expertise and the leadership of the third sector is invaluable and will continue to be a huge source of strength.
Protecting, enhancing and defending human rights is really at the very core of what all of you do.
Every day – right across the country – you help to ensure that people can live free from fear and discrimination. You help to tackle the social and economic disadvantages that harms and undermines people’s health and wellbeing. And you work to ensure that everybody in our country gets the opportunities and the support that they deserve.
That’s why the Scottish Government so highly values the work that the third sector does. And it’s while we recognise the challenges that you face, and we will continue to work as closely as we can with you to address and overcome these challenges, because together we can continue to improve the lives of people across the country – and build the stronger, fairer country that we all want to see.
So thank you very much for listening, and I look forward to our discussions.
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