STUC Annual Congress: First Minister’s speech – 17 April 2023

Statement given by First Minister Humza Yousaf at the STUC Annual Congress on Monday 17 April 2023.

Thank you, President, thank you, Pauline, for such a kind introduction.  It is genuinely a pleasure to be here at what I consider to be amongst friends.

This is actually the first major external event that I’ve spoken at as First Minister.

I cannot think of a more important place to do that, than the STUC Annual Congress.

I also struggle to think of a more magnificent setting than the Dundee’s Caird Hall. 

And before going any further, I wanted to personally acknowledge some very sad news that we heard last week, about a stalwart of your movement, Bob Gillespie.  Bob was, of course, the print union leader who took on Robert Maxwell.  He was a powerful, a tireless voice for workers.  And I know that his passing will be mourned by the people in this hall, and across the country. But he is an inspiration, his activism and his inspiration, for many, many trade union activists, reps, right up and down the country and for future generations to come.

Can I also take this moment to congratulate – once again – our winners – Fadzai, Ken, William and, indeed, Sue.

Their individual achievements are fantastic, but they exemplify the great work being done by trade union reps all across the country.

I particularly welcome the fact that one of the awards is themed around equality - and that we have such a diverse group of winners here today. It’s another reminder of that commitment to equality which runs through the trade union movement.

And that’s something that has been important in my life.

In my remarks today, I will, of course, talk about the Scottish Government’s approach to working with trade unions – and our shared priorities.

But, if you don’t mind, from the outset, I wanted to explain to you the reasons why I feel a strong personal affinity and affection for the trade union movement, and what it means to me.

I touched upon some of this during the trade union hustings that we had, that was chaired by Roz, during that leadership contest. But I thought I would maybe expand upon it today, if you’ll indulge me for just a moment.

As has already been referenced, I am very proud of being Scotland’s first ever First Minister from an ethnic minority background.

I am also – in fact – the first Muslim leader of any western government.

And I am proud of that message that it sends to, I hope, other young Muslims and young people of colour, about the kind of country we are.

And I know it’s important for young people from minority backgrounds to see somebody like them rise to the highest office in the land.

That matters to me, too, because being Muslim in Scotland hasn’t always been easy.

I grew up in the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks – a time when Islamophobia and racism became an all-too-familiar part of my life.

As a teenager, you’re already quite self-conscious, as you can imagine, trying to find your feet in the world – but I found this incredibly difficult to deal with.

I was questioned about my loyalty to this country.

I was made to feel, at times, like I didn’t belong here in Scotland, the only country I have ever called home. 

That is an experience that will stay with me for my whole life. But I’ll tell you what else I remember – and that’s the people who stood in solidarity with people like me.

The STUC and the trade union movement were there by our side at every single march, at every single rally, at every single demonstration against racism and Islamophobia - and I applaud you for that.

Working people the length and breadth of Scotland gave up their time to support people like me, like us.

They made our fight, their fight.

And they made it clear to me – and everyone – that the voices of hate and intolerance were not welcome here in Scotland.

That was one of the experiences that inspired me to get into politics.

I saw just how much of a difference you can make when we come together collectively to stand in solidarity, and demand real change.

And to me, that is the essence of what the whole trade union movement is about.

Offer someone your hand today when they need support, and in return they will offer you theirs on the day when you may need it.

It’s no exaggeration to say at all that I don’t think I’d be standing here today, as First Minister of Scotland, if the trade union movement had not helped me through those incredible dark days in my life.

I won’t forget that. 

And as First Minister, if invited, I will proudly join you at this year’s St Andrew’s Day anti-racism march and rally – and I will repay some of that love and support that you offered to me when I needed it most.


The work that you do on anti-racism is, of course, particularly important. But that contribution you make is far wider than that.

In every part of this country, you are at the very forefront of standing up for the rights of workers and, indeed, for the most vulnerable.

You help to ensure safer, fairer, more productive workplaces. 

And by doing so, you help to improve businesses, you help to strengthen our public services. 

I’ve seen the difference you’ve made throughout my time in government.

As was referenced by Pauline, in each of the roles that I’ve had in Government, I’m proud to have very worked closely with our trade unions. When I was Transport Minister, working with the RMT and ASLEF; the likes of the Scottish Police Federation and the Prison Officers’ Association when I was Justice Secretary; to the myriad of excellent health trade unions that I’ve worked with most recently as Health Secretary.

We’ve not, unsurprisingly, agreed on everything.  But I have always appreciated the constructive and open-minded attitude that you’ve brought to our discussions, the willingness to compromise – and that has always, of course, been a two-way street. 

And I hope that anyone who has worked with me over the years in those various roles would say that I have very much taken the same approach.

The recent NHS pay deal, I hope, is a really good example of what we’ve been able to achieve together.

The negotiations were tough. We wouldn’t expect anything other than that, but we engaged constructively, and reached and found a compromise.

And, as a result, Agenda for Change staff remain the best paid in the UK.  And we have agreed the most ambitious reform of Agenda for Change since its very inception.

And, of course, Scotland is the only part of the UK where not a single NHS worker went on strike during this very difficult winter.

But I’m also well aware that – in other sectors – there will be more difficult discussions ahead.

The pressures on the Scottish Government’s fixed budget – and our lack of borrowing powers – will make that undoubtedly inevitable.

But my pledge to you is a very simple one – under my leadership, as First Minister, we will continue to engage meaningfully with our trade unions, in that spirit of compromise. 

And we will do everything we can, in our gift, to deliver fair pay and conditions for our public sector.

I don’t need to tell you, delegates, that our approach stands in very stark contrast to UK Government’s.

Their open hostility to trade unions – and their disregard for industrial relations – could not be clearer.

And perhaps the ultimate example of this is their abominable anti-strike legislation.

By enabling employers to issue work notices, that legislation attacks the basic right of workers to withdraw their labour.

Look, it may well inconvenience me politically when folk do choose to go on strike, but I will defend with every breath I have, your right to go on strike.

The Scottish Government is utterly opposed to this Bill.

If the UK Government aren’t willing to withdraw it, then we have made the case – and I will, as First Minister, make the case – very forcefully, that this should not apply in Scotland.

However, if the UK Government are hellbent on applying this anti-strike legislation to Scotland, then my position could not be clearer.

Be in no doubt, the Scottish Government will never issue or enforce a single work notice. We will continue to do everything we can to oppose this disgraceful, abhorrent legislation. It has no place here in Scotland.

The key difference here is that we see our trade unions, not as opponents, but as essential partners.  

We value the role that you play in our society. We recognise your importance in helping Scotland meet some of the greatest challenges of our time.

Tomorrow, in the Parliament, I will be setting out the Government’s priorities for addressing those challenges over the next few years.

Today, I want to touch briefly on some of the areas which are a particular priority for both of us. 

I’ll start with our efforts to tackle poverty.

For over a decade now, the Scottish Government has done all we can to mitigate the impact of UK Government austerity.

We have also taken significant action to break the cycle of poverty in this country – through measures like the Scottish Child Payment. 

Tackling poverty – and supporting people through the cost of living crisis – remains an utmost priority for the Government that I lead.

And I am determined to ensure that we use all of the powers that we have to the maximum effect and all of the resources at our disposal.

That’s why, on becoming First Minister, the very first action I took was to triple our Fuel Insecurity Fund to £30 million.  The fund helps people who are at risk of having to ration their energy use, or are, indeed, at risk of self-disconnecting.

It’s also why I have committed to convening an Anti-Poverty Summit, with representatives from all across our society.

As, of course, as a leading voice for social justice, the STUC, I hope, will be part of that Summit – in fact, you’ll be central to it.

And I look forward to discussing with you, what more we can do together to address the roots causes of poverty in our country.

That brings me to the second priority I want to talk about. 

The continuing recovery and reform of our public services is essential to building a more equal society.

I’ll be saying more about our approach to the NHS and other public services tomorrow.

But I do want to say something today about the biggest reform that we are undertaking – that’s the creation of the National Care Service.

On this issue, I believe there is a lot of agreement on principle – that standards and work conditions in social care absolutely need to improve.

But I also appreciate the concerns that you have raised, particularly regarding local staffing and local contracts.

And I have listened to those concerns.

 As a result, the Scottish Government has today confirmed that we will be seeking a further extension to the Bill’s initial scrutiny period.

 And I have instructed the new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Michael Matheson, and indeed the new Minister for Social Care, Maree Todd, to engage closely with trade unions on the very issues that you have raised.

I am confident that by taking that little bit more time, we will be able to reach a compromise – where staff remain locally employed, with local co-design and delivery of services, but within a national framework.

Clearly, that framework will need to ensure quality and consistency of care.  It will need, and will have at its heart, fair work principles and sectoral bargaining.  And it will need to promote ethical commissioning.  The outcome of all this cannot be more care provider profits ending up in the Cayman Islands. 

So, rather than rushing it, I am determined to get the National Care Service absolutely right.

The largest public sector reform on this scale was the creation of our National Health Service.

That process wasn’t straightforward either.

But if we listen, if we work together, and listen to one another, I believe we can achieve a similarly historic transformation for social care.

There’s one last point that I want to make about public services – it links to the final priority I want to highlight. Our approach to public sector reform will have fair work principles, as I’ve said, at its very heart.

I’ve made it clear that one of my key priorities as First Minister will be to build that wellbeing economy.  

That aim goes hand in hand to ensure a just transition to net zero.

And quite simply we can’t make that just transition – and have a wellbeing economy – without fair work, without taking workers with us.

So, under my leadership, the Scottish Government will continue to promote fair work – as an employer and through our own policies.

We’ve already shown our commitment to doing that.

 Since 2019, the Scottish Government has attached Fair Work First criteria to £4 billion of public sector investment.

We’re now building on that. For any public sector grants awarded on or after 1st  July this year, the recipient will have to pay at least the real Living Wage. They will also need to provide workers – individually and collectively – with an effective voice.

That commitment to fair work is also underpinning our approach to public sector pay.

 I mentioned earlier the NHS public sector pay deal.

This has only been made possible by the hard decisions in our most recent budget.

By raising taxes on those who earn more, we’ve been able to allocate an extra £1 billion to our NHS.

In doing so, we’ve demonstrated, very clearly, this Government’s priorities.

However, on progressive taxation, let me say unequivocally, that I think there is scope for us to go even further.  

Taxes are, of course, set in budgets – so I cannot make any announcements today.

But I was very interested in the report on this subject, which the STUC published at the tail end of last year.  And I am very keen to make an early start in exploring the various different options.

So I can announce that – from today – the Scottish Government will be consulting on giving new powers to local authorities, which would allow them to increase council tax on second homes and empty homes.  We are also seeking views on whether councils should have the power to set tax thresholds for self-catering accommodation.

Among other things, these changes could potentially help to free up property in rural areas – an issue of particular importance for maintaining and retaining and recruiting key workers to rural, remote and island Scotland. 

As such, they give another indication of where our priorities lie.

And I look forward to hearing the STUC’S response to the proposals, over the coming weeks.

In conclusion, I’ve spoken today about some of the issues on which we will be working closely now and in the future.

I want to close by saying something about that wider approach I will take as First Minister of the Government that I lead.

During my party’s recent leadership contest, I stood on a very clear commitment to progressive politics. 

Of course in that battle of ideas, I won, and as First Minister I now intend to take the case to the entire country.

Because one thing is abundantly clear – the need for progressive politics, the need for a healthy trade union movement, has never been greater than it is now.

In the UK today, the whole Westminster system seems to be lurching to the right – to a reactionary, and sometimes downright nasty, style of politics, a race to the very bottom.

Because it shouldn’t be hard to say that people, working people need help and support during a cost of living crisis – yet we have a Conservative Government which relishes taking them on in a fight, and trying to sack those who go on strike for better pay.

It shouldn’t be hard to say that desperate people, migrants, refugees, arriving on our shores, including women and children, should be offered sanctuary and safety – but, instead, they are used as a political football and treated inhumanely.

It shouldn’t be hard to say that transgender people – who suffer some of the worst discrimination of any members of our society – should be offered solidarity, acceptance and love, yet, instead, they are scapegoated and marginalised.

And it shouldn’t be hard to point out the immense damage that a hard Brexit has done and is doing to both our economy and our public services – but instead, many of those who were at one point the fiercest Remainers are now engaged in a conspiracy of silence and too frightened to speak up.

As your First Minister, I pledge that I will always – always – speak out on what I believe to be right.

I will never lurch to the right in the hope it gives me an easier life.

I won’t wait and see what my political opponents do or say in a situation before deciding how to react.

And I will always speak up for that fairer, greener, more progressive Scotland that I believe we all want to see, and that I also believe is supported by the majority of those living in Scotland.

I know that the STUC, and our broader trade union movement will be at the forefront in helping to achieve that aim. 

So I am absolutely delighted to have had this chance to speak with you, engage with you. This is the first of many engagements I have in my time as First Minister.

I want to thank you, once again, all for the incredible work you do on behalf of all the employees across the country that you represent. 

I want to thank you for the contribution that you make to Scotland.

I want to thank you from Humza, the teenager, who was facing Islamophobia and racism in some of his darkest days. Thank you for the solidarity that you gave and you have given me over the years.

And I look forward to working with all of you, even more closely, in the months and years to come.

Thank you.


Back to top