Programme for Government 2014-15

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th November 2014.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

It is an honour for me to present, for the first time as First Minister, the Government’s programme for the year ahead.

I pledged last week that I would be First Minister for all of Scotland. It follows that this programme is for all of Scotland.

Of course, it is no secret that I support independence passionately and want to see substantial new powers transferred to this Parliament. We will find out tomorrow whether the Smith commission will recommend proposals that meet the pre-referendum vow of the Westminster parties to deliver a powerhouse Scottish Parliament.

One thing is certain: this Parliament and this Government will use any new powers wisely, to improve the lives of the people whom we serve. Indeed, one early commitment that I want to make today is this: if the necessary powers are transferred in good time to this Parliament, the Government will bring forward legislation to extend the franchise and allow all 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish election.

The debate about more powers will continue, and rightly so. However, that debate is not the focus of my statement today. Instead, the clear focus of this programme for government is on how we use our existing powers fully, creatively and constructively, in the interests of all those whom we serve.

This is a legislative and policy programme for one year. It proposes 12 new bills and a range of policy interventions. It builds on the strong foundations of this Government and sets out a number of longer-term priorities. It aims to build a sense of shared endeavour about how we create a wealthier and more equal society, and it is founded on three key priorities: participation, prosperity and fairness.

Let me start with participation. In the past year, we have seen engagement in politics in this country on a scale that is unprecedented in the recent history of these islands. That did not happen because the referendum created something new; it happened because the referendum spoke to something enduring—that is, the shared desire to build a better country. We need to find new ways of harnessing that democratic energy, not just in the great constitutional questions of our time but in the day-to-day decisions that are made by and for our communities.

I intend that my Government will lead by example. The Cabinet will hold more public discussions, meeting outside Edinburgh more often, and, in the first of what will be regular Facebook sessions, I will be taking questions from the public online later this evening. I intend that we will be an open and accessible Government.

We all know that fostering a sense of participation is about much more than consulting. It is also about handing decision-making powers back to communities. I want to ensure that more of the money that we spend is directed by communities themselves—by the individuals and organisations who know best how to harness the energy of local people. I therefore announce that we will establish a new empowering communities fund. Encompassing our existing people and communities fund, the new fund will have an additional £10 million to allocate next year—more than doubling the existing resource—and will be available directly to communities.

We will also take forward our manifesto commitment to establish an independent commission to examine fairer alternatives to the current system of council tax. We will establish the commission in partnership with local authorities, through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and we invite all political parties to be involved in it. I hope that all political parties will accept that invitation. It is my intention that the commission will start its work in early 2015 and report by the autumn. The council tax freeze will, as promised by the Government, remain in place for the duration of this Parliament.

Our commitment to empowerment must reach every part of Scotland. Last week, I appointed a minister with specific responsibility for the islands. Today, I can announce that we will reconvene the island areas working group to draw up an implementation plan for devolution of powers to our islands, taking account of the powers that we hold now and any that are forthcoming as a result of the Smith process. We will then consult on the contents of an islands bill to give effect to our commitments.

The Government also intends to embark on a radical programme of land reform. Scotland’s land must be an asset that benefits the many, not the few. Next week, we will publish a policy statement on land rights and responsibilities and will begin consultation on a range of proposals to be included in our proposed land reform bill. The bill will be part of a wider programme of reform and, before its introduction, we will set out our response to all 62 of the land reform review group’s recommendations.

It is intended that the following key proposals will be among those to be included in the bill. First, we propose powers for ministers to intervene where the scale of land ownership or the conduct of a landlord is acting as a barrier to sustainable development. Secondly, we propose the establishment of a Scottish land reform commission. Thirdly, we propose measures to improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership and make information on land, its value and its ownership more readily available in one place. Fourthly, we propose action to ensure that charities that hold large areas of land are under an obligation to engage with local communities. Finally, we propose the removal of business rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates. Those exemptions were put in place by the Tories in 1994 to protect the interests of major landowners, and ending the exemptions will help the Government to more than treble the Scottish land fund from £3 million this year to £10 million a year from 2016. That will help us to ensure that we meet our target of having 1 million acres of land in community ownership by 2020.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was undoubtedly one of the landmark pieces of legislation of our first parliamentary session. However, land reform remains unfinished business. The proposals that I am announcing today will take us on the next stage of that journey and be of benefit to communities across Scotland.

I will mention one further piece of legislation that will support democratic participation—the proposed community charge debt bill. The bill will finally end collection of debts from non-payment of the poll tax 21 years after the abolition of that tax. The referendum inspired tens of thousands of people to register to vote. Many of them had not voted for decades; some had never voted before. Significant numbers had left the electoral register to avoid the poll tax and had rejoined this year to vote for the powers that would have allowed us to end the bedroom tax. I do not want people to fear being on the electoral register because of decades-old debts from discredited legislation. The bill will help to avoid that and ensure that everyone’s voice continues to be heard.

This Government will foster a sense of democratic renewal and community empowerment. We want everyone to feel that they have a part to play in creating a fairer and more prosperous country. We know that a strong economy is essential to our success, and we have much to be positive about. The value of our international exports has grown by nearly a third and inward investment is at a 16-year high. Our employment rate is higher than that in the United Kingdom, unemployment and inactivity rates are lower, and female employment is at near-record levels. Those things have not happened by chance. The Government has worked with businesses, trade unions, colleges, universities and others to promote innovation and skills. With our enterprise agencies, we have led more than 60 overseas visits with a strong trade focus, and in a tough economic climate we have created the most competitive business tax regime in the UK. This year, our package of rates reliefs will help companies to the tune of £600 million, and the small business bonus alone will help two out of every five business properties.

I can confirm today that the small business bonus will continue for the rest of this Parliament and, if we are re-elected in 2016, it will continue for the entire duration of the next Parliament as well.

I also announce an additional initiative to help small and medium-sized businesses in the house construction sector. In the next financial year, we will add £30 million to the £100 million allocated to the help to buy scheme. The additional funding will specifically support house building and purchases in smaller developments.

We will also take action to support innovation. In particular, we will establish a Scottish business development bank. The bank will work directly with small and medium-sized enterprises and the financial markets to support the high-growth businesses that Scotland needs.

Of course, the biggest investment that we can ever make in Scotland’s future is in our people. It is well understood that a strong economy is essential to a fair society. We need to recognise that the reverse is true, too: a fair society also supports a strong economy.

Businesses are more likely to succeed if their customers and employees are happy, healthy, well educated and well paid. We are one of the richest countries in the developed world, but tens of thousands are dependent on food banks and a fifth of our population lives in poverty. What is even more shocking is that, as a result of United Kingdom welfare cuts, poverty levels in Scotland are rising again for the first time in a decade. We need significant new powers over welfare and wealth creation. However, even under existing powers, we will do all that we can to reverse the rise in poverty.

We will allocate more than £100 million in the coming year to mitigate the consequences of welfare cuts, including £35 million to ensure that no one faces eviction as a result of the bedroom tax. I also intend to appoint an independent adviser on poverty and inequality. The adviser will have the power to make recommendations to the Government and, crucially, to hold us to account—for example, by reporting publicly on any instances where Government actions risk increasing rather than reducing poverty.

A key priority of my Government in the coming year will be to continue to tackle in-work poverty. Almost 60 per cent of children in poverty live in a working household. That is a scandal. We need to ensure that work lifts people out of poverty rather than locking them into it.

My Government will continue to lead by example. We already pay everyone who works for us or the national health service at least the living wage and, although we cannot mandate it in law, each and every relevant Government contract that is let from now on will have payment of the living wage as a central priority.

In the next year, we will also step up our actions to promote the living wage across the private sector and the wider public sector. I will convene a living wage summit with business leaders to encourage them to sign up to the living wage and to consider what further support Government can reasonably offer. We will also publish statutory guidance for the wider public sector on how the living wage and other workforce matters should be taken into account in public contracts.

Furthermore, I announce that we will increase funding for the Poverty Alliance from £80,000 to £280,000, to allow it to scale up its work on the living wage accreditation scheme. To date, 70 companies are signed up to the scheme. With the additional funding, I am setting a target for that to increase to at least 150 companies by the end of 2015.

We will also establish a fair work convention. The convention will prioritise the promotion of the living wage, but it will have a wider role, too. It will champion a partnership approach between Government, business, the trade unions, the third sector and local government. Such an approach recognises that sustainable growth has a social dimension and that fairness supports and underpins long-term prosperity.

In support of that approach, we will develop a Scottish business pledge, which will invite companies to commit to extend payment of the living wage, involve their local communities and invest in youth training and employment, for example. In return, they will be offered a package of tailored support on skills, innovation and exports, to help them grow and prosper.

Part of the Scottish business pledge will also involve a commitment to advance further gender equality. On that front, this Government leads by example. Our Cabinet is one of only three in the industrialised world to have a 50:50 gender balance—a move that was hailed on Friday by the United Nations as an example for others to emulate.

However, across the wider public sector, 36 per cent of board members and 19 per cent of board chairs are women, so there is much more to do. This Parliament does not yet have the power to legislate for gender quotas. I hope that that will change in the near future, but in the meantime I intend to launch—early next year—a partnership for change pledge that will be called “50:50 by 2020”. It will challenge all private, public and third sector bodies to achieve gender balance on their boards by 2020, and it will do so by demonstrating that, as well as being a matter of basic equality and social justice, a fair gender balance leads to better decision making and stronger businesses.

Leadership on boards is just one way to address the pay gap and to shatter the glass ceiling. We now have a record number of women in work, but a pay gap still exists, underemployment is higher in women, and women are still underrepresented in senior positions and in some careers—for example, engineering.

That is one reason why we will continue our major expansion of childcare. Our focus in the coming year will be on delivery and take-up of our pledge that, from August next year, 27 per cent of two-year-olds, as well as all three and four-year-olds, will receive 16 hours a week of childcare. In the coming year we will also start planning to ensure that, if we are re-elected, this Government can deliver our commitment to almost double the number of hours of free childcare that will be provided from 16 hours to 30 hours per week by the end of the next session of Parliament.

A greater level of good-quality and affordable childcare is one of the best investments that we can make in Scotland’s future. It will provide parents—especially mothers—with greater opportunities for work, and it will ensure that we provide all of Scotland’s children with the best possible start in life. Support for young people has to continue from infancy right through to adulthood.

Against every main measurement, Scottish school education is getting better. We are well advanced in implementing curriculum for excellence; we have record exam results; we have a record number of school leavers in work, education or training; and we have in the past seven years halted our decline in the PISA—programme for international student assessment—international league tables.

However, we need to do more—much more—to ensure that all pupils, regardless of their background, have an equal opportunity to succeed. In the next year, our forthcoming education bill will give new rights to children who have additional support needs. We will make it a priority to improve the educational outcomes of pupils in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland through initiatives such as the raising attainment for all programme, which already covers more than 150 schools.

In the next year, Education Scotland will appoint in every local authority an attainment adviser who will support local action to improve attainment. I can also confirm that we will introduce a new literacy and numeracy campaign—read, write, count—that will benefit all children in primary 1 to 3, but which will have a specific focus on schools and parents in our most deprived communities.

Taken together, those measures represent a targeted approach to attainment that will help children across Scotland—especially those in our disadvantaged areas.

One of this Government’s proudest achievements is the restoration of free higher education. For students from the poorest households, free tuition is backed by a minimum income guarantee of £7,500. The proportion of entrants to higher education from our most deprived areas is now at its highest-ever level, but I do not think that we are yet doing well enough. We still have a situation in which the most deprived fifth of our communities supply only one seventh of our university undergraduates. Therefore, we will in the coming year double funding for the impact for access fund, which encourages more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university.

However, I want us to be bolder in our aspirations. I am setting the Government and our universities the challenging long-term target of eradicating inequality in access to higher education. I want us to determine now that by the time a child who is born today in one of our most deprived communities leaves school, he or she will have the same chance of going to university as a child who is born in one of our least deprived communities. That means that we would expect at least 20 per cent of university entrants to come from the most deprived 20 per cent of the population.

That target will be challenging and will require concerted action over a number of years, but it is an essential part of the long-term challenge of addressing inequality. I will establish in the early part of next year a commission on widening access to advise on the clear milestones that we should set along the way, and the practical steps that we will take to meet that ambition.

We will also, in the next year, introduce a higher education governance bill, which will ensure that the governing bodies of our universities are transparent, democratic and accountable.

Of course, our work in higher education is matched by a broader commitment to lifelong learning. We have made a major investment in our college estate, and we have significantly increased modern apprenticeships provision. In 2007, 16,000 modern apprenticeships were available a year; this year, there will be more than 25,000, and I can confirm that from now on we will be working towards a target of 30,000 modern apprenticeships a year by 2020. We will also implement the recommendations of the commission on developing Scotland’s young workforce to create better opportunities for young people and a stronger talent pool for our businesses.

Without access to high-quality free education, I would never have had a chance to pursue my chosen career. It is therefore a personal mission of mine that other people will have the same chance. However, it is more than a personal mission—it is a national imperative. Our people are our greatest resource, and we must ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, race or background, has the opportunity to flourish and the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Over the next year, we will also work hard to protect and improve the public services that are the bedrock of any fair and prosperous society. As a former health secretary—but also as a citizen of this country—I know how much the national health service means to everyone across our country. In the draft budget, we increased funding for the NHS by £80 million more than had been planned. I confirm today that we will increase the NHS’s revenue budget by more than the rate of inflation for the remainder of this session of Parliament, and that if we are re-elected in 2016 we will ensure real-terms rises in the revenue budget for every year of the next session of Parliament, too. I challenge all parties today to match that commitment so that, regardless of who wins the next Scottish election, our NHS knows that it can plan ahead with a degree of certainty about its budget. That is the least it can expect from all of us, from all across the Parliament chamber.

Our NHS does a wonderful job. However, we know that it also faces challenges, The Government will not shy away from acknowledging and addressing them. One of the biggest challenges right now is the problem of delayed discharges. Delayed discharges today are significantly lower than they were in 2006, but as we saw from figures that were published yesterday, they are rising again. Every patient who is delayed in hospital is being let down by the system.

However, delayed discharges fail other patients, too. Every bed that is occupied by someone who could be better cared for elsewhere is a bed that is not available for someone who has acute care needs. That affects the time that people spend in accident and emergency departments and the length of time they wait for operations. I therefore announce that we will invest an additional £5 million to tackle the issue, which will be matched by our partners in NHS boards and local government to make a total of £15 million extra investment. I also confirm that addressing delayed discharges will be a top priority for this Government in the months ahead, and that the Cabinet will monitor performance weekly throughout the winter.

Over the next year, we will also focus on delivery of the long-term sustainable solution to delayed discharge: health and social care integration. This latest step in our ambitious programme of public service reform is arguably the biggest change to delivery of health and social care services since the establishment of the NHS in 1948, so ensuring a successful transition will be a key objective for the Government over the next 12 months.

We will also take steps to improve care provision and public health. Our public health bill will strengthen our ability to reduce the attractiveness and availability of tobacco products and e-cigarettes, it will place a duty of candour on health professionals, and it will ensure that courts have the power to deal with the small number of cases in which people who rely on health or social care services have suffered from ill treatment and neglect.

In the light of “The Vale of Leven Hospital Inquiry Report”, which was published on Monday, I can also announce that we will legislate in the coming year to give the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate the power to order closure of hospital wards on the ground of patient safety. [Applause.] That will ensure delivery of one of Lord MacLean’s key recommendations. I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Government and the NHS, to say today to all those who have been affected how sorry I am for the failures that occurred at the Vale of Leven hospital and the appalling loss of life that they caused.

Alongside formal care provision, Scotland also has an unsung army of unpaid carers—many of them are older people who are caring for adult children or spouses. Carers save our health and social services an estimated £10 billion every year. To be quite frank, without them and the contribution that they make, our formal care services could not function. We have invested almost £114 million a year on support for carers since we came into office, thereby providing much-needed short breaks and offering advice and assistance to those who need it.

In the coming year, we will extend that support through a carers bill. The bill will not just give carers support; it will also give them a say. It will ensure that they are involved in planning and delivery of the services that affect them. We will also progress our Mental Health (Scotland) Bill, which has already been introduced to Parliament.

Last, on health, yesterday I met Gordon Aikman, who is so bravely campaigning for better care for people with motor neurone disease. One of the issues that Gordon and I discussed yesterday was social care charging. I want to make very clear today my expectation that no terminally ill person who is in the last six months of their life should be charged for care. I also advise Parliament that if new local government guidance to that effect is not adhered to, my Government will not hesitate to legislate to ensure that it is.

We, as a Government, will also support safer communities. Figures that were published yesterday show that crime is now at a 40-year low. We will maintain an extra 1,000 police officers in our communities and we will legislate to end automatic early release for serious and sexual offenders.

We will also introduce a community justice bill to transfer responsibility for community justice services to the 32 community planning partnerships and will, in so doing, help our efforts to further reduce reoffending.

I can also signal today that we intend to step up our action against domestic abuse. Approximately one adult in seven reports having been a victim of domestic abuse at some point in their life, and 80 per cent of cases that are reported to the police involve a male perpetrator and a female victim. We will not have true gender equality in our country as long as so many women suffer abuse.

Last week, Police Scotland launched pilot programmes in Ayrshire and Aberdeen to strengthen women’s right to request information about previous abusive behaviour of a partner. They will take a decision as soon as is feasible about roll-out of that approach—known as Clare’s law—to the rest of the country. In the coming year, we will also consult on the introduction of a new specific criminal offence of committing domestic abuse, and on new legislation to tackle the issue of revenge porn.

We will also bring together leading experts to discuss how best to prevent abuse. We are determined to take concerted action on an issue that affects far too many lives in our country, and we aim by doing so to change the attitudes and behaviours that cause abuse, and to provide much better support for victims.

A budget bill, a fatal accident inquiries bill, a succession bill and a harbours bill will complete our legislative programme for the year ahead.

However, the final bill that I want to talk about this afternoon is one that I know will command cross-party support. Current figures show that at least 55 individuals in Scotland in the past year could have been victims of human trafficking—people who have been captured for forced labour, domestic servitude or prostitution. Our intention to introduce a human trafficking and exploitation bill has commanded wide support from organisations including Amnesty International and Migrant Help, and from many MSPs, in particular Jenny Marra. The bill will be introduced shortly and will clarify the rights of the victims of trafficking and strengthen our ability to help victims and bring offenders to justice.

I decided to close with that example partly because it will be an extremely important piece of legislation, but also because I think that it demonstrates that much of this programme for government can and should command cross-party support. We differ across the chamber in how we seek to improve Scotland; sometimes we will disagree fiercely, but we all share the same fundamental desire for a fairer and more prosperous country. Donald Dewar said at this Parliament’s opening:

“This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”

I hope that I have given an indication today of how the Government that I lead will carry itself: in a way that is open, listening, accessible and decentralising, and with the strongest focus on growing our economy, protecting public services, tackling inequality and empowering communities. I am proud to commend this programme for government to Parliament today. [Applause.]

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