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I am pleased to speak tonight about the positive changes that voluntary sector and other third sector organisations have helped to bring about in Scotland since 1999. As an MSP since then, I know at first hand that those organisations have been important partners to the Scottish Parliament, because they have challenged, persuaded and influenced us to take action. Kenneth Gibson also made that point.
The organisations have provided a wonderful example of how partnerships and collective strength can help to identify the changes that need to be made. Additionally, the third sector often gives a voice to people who do not want or feel unable to engage with public bodies or the Scottish Parliament.
The variety of the 20 campaigns that are covered by the book is a testament in itself. The campaigns show how our Parliament, by looking outwards to civic society, has become a leader. For example—this is not in the book, but it is a good example—Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to introduce protection for mums and babies with a breastfeeding law, which came about due to my members’ bill and with the involvement of charities and the third sector.
Other examples, which are in the book, are that we were the second legislature of a European country to introduce legislation on smoke-free public places, and we brought justice and compensation to workers and their families who have been devastated by exposure to asbestos.
The partnership has been one of the successes of our devolved Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has become a world leader in the way in which it works with the voluntary sector, and much of our policy and legislation is based on its input.
This week, Aberlour Child Care Trust—Scotland’s children’s charity—is here in the Parliament. I note Aberlour’s conviction in pushing for the eradication of child poverty. It reminds us that we have the power to achieve that by making bold commitments to prioritise child wellbeing in our economic policies.
Third sector charities contribute almost as much to the Scottish economy as whisky and tourism. In North Lanarkshire, the sector employs nearly 5,000 paid staff and spends more than £171 million. It is particularly active in social services, culture, recreation, sport and community development.
The SCVO’s book celebrates the positive partnership and results that have been achieved between charities and the Scottish Parliament. I was delighted to provide a quote on the campaign for free school meals; I fully supported the campaign from session 1 and I co-sponsored Frances Curran’s bill in the second session. However, although I welcome free school meals in P1 to P3 very much, I remind the Government that children in Scotland still rely on charities, with many going hungry during school holidays. It is sad that many children going into P4 have to revert from nutritious school meals to cheap bread pieces, for example, for their lunches. I strongly urge the Scottish Government to follow up on the initial promise to roll out free school meals to all primary children.
Sadly, our initial success in reducing child poverty in Scotland has reversed somewhat, and we must all focus our efforts on the targets that were set in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will comment on that when she responds to the debate. I have no doubt that the third sector will keep up the pressure and co-ordinate campaigns to give a voice to those who are most affected by falling living standards.
Another area in which third sector organisations have shaped debates and policy development has been service provision for women and girls who experience violence. One of the earliest debates in the Parliament made clear that we would resource women-specific services and invest in organisations such as Women’s Aid to give a voice to women and girls.
Although I celebrate the successes of the third sector tonight, I also take the opportunity to highlight the challenges that it faces. As a provider of services to local authorities, the sector is affected by shrinking public sector budgets. The possible loss of other vital funding streams could put charities under extreme financial pressure. I encourage all members to read the book and to celebrate the work of all our charities, volunteers and third sector organisations, and once again, I congratulate Margaret Mitchell.