Scottish Government: First Minister’s Priorities for Scotland

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Statement by First Minister John Swinney to the Scottish Parliament on 22 May 2024.

Presiding Officer,

I welcome this opportunity to set out the approach I intend to take in leading the Scottish Government.

I want to take forward measures that will help people and their families to get on in life, and to enable the people of Scotland to live happier, healthier lives.

One of the benefits of long service in this Parliament is that I have witnessed this Parliament when it is functioning at its very best.

That happens when we work constructively together.

At the beginning of my period as First Minister, let me make it clear to Parliament that I will work with any party that comes forward with ideas about how we can make our country a better place to live.

A good idea is a good idea – and I make it clear to all parties, and to all members of parliament, that the Government will engage positively in considering ideas from all sources.

I may have been out of Ministerial office for the last year, but I am no stranger to Government. I therefore want to build on the record of the government over the last 17 years, which has changed Scotland for the better.

Our task today is to look to the future. That future should be built on the foundations of working day in, day out for the people we serve.

Since this Government took office, economic growth per head, and productivity, have been stronger in Scotland than the UK.

Scotland has had the best-performing A&E core units in the UK for nine years.

NHS funding has more than doubled and we have the highest number of GPs per head in the UK.

On housing, since we were elected, Scotland has seen over 40% more affordable homes delivered per head of population than in England, and over 70% more than in Wales.

When we took office, renewable technologies generated the equivalent of 20.2% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption. Since then, this has soared to an astonishing 113%.

The number of schools in ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ condition has increased, from just over 60% to more than 90%, and we are seeing record levels of literacy and numeracy at primary school level.

Since we took office, the amount of free childcare available to parents has increased from 412.5 hours to 1140 hours, and we have extended that to eligible two-year-olds.

Recorded crime has fallen by around 40% to one of its lowest levels in half a century.

And this year – using our limited social security powers – measures like the Scottish Child Payment are helping to keep an estimated 100,000 children in Scotland out of relative poverty.

I would be the first to accept that there are challenges to overcome for the Government. But a substantial discussion of how we take forward the agenda to improve the lives of people in Scotland must start with an acknowledgement of the improvements that have already been made.

Presiding Officer,

In setting out my approach to Government, I am acutely aware of the economic and fiscal realities we face.

If we are to make progress, I hope – and believe – that we can find consensus on this.

And in that spirit of consensus, let me put on record my strong agreement with recent statements made by members of the Labour party.

Earlier this year the Welsh Finance Minister described the decisions taken in this year’s budget in Wales as the “starkest and most painful” since devolution.

I absolutely sympathise with that situation.

There is a developing consensus on where responsibility for those funding decisions ultimately lies.

In a broadcast interview on Sunday, the Shadow Health Secretary was asked to explain the performance of the NHS in Wales, and he replied:

“…all roads do lead to Westminster because even though this is devolved, decisions taken in Westminster have an impact on the NHS across the whole country.”

The comment demonstrates the source of the significant financial challenges that we face. The prolonged era of austerity delivered by the UK Government over the last 14 years is having a profound effect on the fiscal context in which we are operating.

An additional factor that shapes the economic and fiscal context we have to navigate is Brexit.

The National Institute for Economic and Social Research suggests that compared to EU membership, the UK economy was 2.5 per cent smaller in 2023.

On that basis, £69 billion could have been wiped from national income in 2023, which equates to £28 billion of tax revenue across the UK.

So, with the same level of borrowing and taxation, that means without Brexit, devolved spending power for vital public services such as the NHS could have been £1.6 billion higher than today.

I recognise it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to deliver public services in Scotland, and the importance of Parliament scrutinising our record and our plans.

But as we wrestle with these challenges, I hope we will also see some recognition from across this chamber that the context within which we work is significantly affected by UK Government austerity and the damage of Brexit.

In my view, there is a very simple answer to that challenge.

And that is for Scotland to be able to chart her own course economically and to make the best decisions on our own terms. For me that would involve re-joining the European Union as an independent country and making our own economic decisions.

Making that argument will be at the heart of my Government’s agenda.

Those opportunities and powers are however not at our disposal today, so we must take forward our priorities in the current economic and fiscal context.

The Finance Secretary will update Parliament on our expectations of the financial position, but I can say to Parliament today that the cumulative effect of the high inflation we have experienced, austerity, and Brexit is placing enormous financial pressure on the resources available to the Government – and will have an effect on the priorities we can deliver.

With that important context, today, I will outline the four priorities that will guide my government’s decisions on policy and budget; the four priorities around which I will work to secure cross-party support, for the good of the people of Scotland.

My first priority is to eradicate child poverty.

Not tackle. Not reduce. But eradicate child poverty.

This will be the single most important objective of my Government and my Cabinet.

Because child poverty stunts the progress of any nation and stands in the way of both social justice and economic growth.

My cabinet will do everything in our power – including listening to and working with Members from across this chamber – to achieve our aim.

The Scottish Child Payment is a significant step forward. It is one of the most impactful measures in the effort to eradicate child poverty, but I recognise we need to do more.

Last week, I confirmed the opening of a £1.5 million fund to support councils in removing school meal debt from families across the country.

This will help ensure no child is penalised because their families struggled to pay for school meals during a cost-of-living crisis.

The Government recognises that one of the most effective ways of tackling child poverty is by enabling parents and carers to enter sustainable employment.

We will look to deliver further measures that will support families to enter the labour market, through training and educational opportunities, through employability support, through access to childcare and through access to other public services that can assist in this effort.

The second of my priorities is to grow Scotland’s economy.

From tourism, to finance and technology, to food and drink exports – we will work to create growth, create jobs and maximise the huge economic opportunities that lie ahead.

Scotland’s creative industries are another vital contributor to the economic growth of the country. That’s why we are growing investment in culture and screen by £100 million over the coming years.

Ensuring there are more opportunities to not only participate in the arts, but for Scotland to reap the economic rewards of the creativity of our nation.

We will work with partners to remove obstacles to the delivery of economic opportunities in Scotland.

We will go all out to encourage investment in Scotland and the huge potential that we have here, including in renewable energy, where we can lead the world.

We will strengthen the support for innovation that has been anchored by the investment in the Techscaler programme, and in the package of entrepreneurship measures that were set out by the Deputy First Minister on Monday.

Partnership working will be key to help our businesses boost profitability and create jobs which will, in turn, help our people live happier and healthier lives with higher living standards.

The Government will encourage close alignment between the work of our Universities and business, to maximise the economic possibilities from the outstanding research base in Scotland.

In modern Scotland, it should not be a struggle to find fair work or to raise a family.

So for me, and for my government, eradicating child poverty and boosting economic growth, go hand in hand.

I am pleased therefore to announce the next steps we are taking in our drive to eradicate child poverty.

Over the next two years, we will invest £16 million to tackle poverty and help families, by expanding access to childcare services with six Early Adopter Community projects.

This investment will support low-income families to enter and sustain employment, with funding targeted at those who are most at risk of living in poverty.

This investment will enable us to work with local authorities and communities to better understand what it takes to design and deliver local childcare systems that support families with children, from nine months to the end of primary school.

We are already delivering innovative school age childcare services through our Early Adopter projects in Glasgow, Inverclyde, Clackmannanshire and Dundee, and families are already seeing the benefits of that.

Today, I am announcing that this new funding will be available to expand that work and to learn more about what childcare should look like for younger children, including in new communities in Fife and Shetland.

This will ensure children, parents and providers play an important role in designing childcare services that work for them.

It will contribute to the eradication of child poverty and support economic growth by helping parents and carers move into, or stay in work, through access to affordable childcare.

Growing the economy will also be achieved through the third of my key priorities: tackling the climate emergency by investing in green energy and infrastructure.

The threat posed by the climate emergency – and the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss – is real and present, but so is the opportunity to successfully reach net zero and beyond.

The recent significant investments made by Sumitomo and Haventus are illustrations of the investments the Government is determined to attract to Scotland.

We will align the capacity generated by our vibrant entrepreneurial nation, with our world-leading academic and research institutions, our valuable natural resources and our businesses and communities in a shared agenda to deliver Net Zero.

According to Office for National Statistics estimates, in 2022, Scotland’s renewable energy sector generated £13 billion in turnover and supported over 25,000 full-time equivalent jobs across Scotland.

Analysis shows that, with the right support, the number of low carbon energy production jobs is estimated to rise to 77,000 by 2050.

And Supply Chain Development Statements forecast £25 billion of investment is possible across the supply chain from ScotWind projects alone.

In a modern, prosperous Scotland, we must invest in tackling the climate emergency in a way that creates jobs and brings local businesses and communities with us on that journey.

Eradicating child poverty, growing the economy and tackling the climate emergency all link together to support my fourth key priority to improve Scotland’s public services – not as a cost, but as a vital investment in our future health, equality and prosperity.

The Government will focus on supporting the National Health Service to recover from the significant disruption from Covid.

We will work with our local authority partners through the Verity House agreement across a range of policy areas – including to continue to improve educational performance and to deliver sustainable social care by reducing delayed discharge.

We will work with partners to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system to deliver better for victims. And we will engage constructively to expand housing supply to meet the needs of the population and tackle homelessness.

I will set out how my government and my cabinet will take practical steps to deliver in these four areas of priority when I present my Programme for Government before the summer recess.

Cross-government work on my four priorities has been underway since I took office and the actions my Cabinet will take to deliver on these priorities will be submitted to Parliament for debate before the summer recess.

And the Programme for Government will be central to a wider range of decision-making that will happen before the summer on key issues on energy, on oil and gas, on reform of the health service and on taxation. Action will be set out on each, tackling the challenges facing Scotland today.

As set out to the Finance and Public Administration Committee, in June, we will also publish the Medium-Term Financial Strategy – alongside a revised tax strategy and Infrastructure Investment Plan pipeline, setting out the position on the public finances – which will contain critical information on the challenges we face in the public finances and the actions this Government is taking to address them.

That timing ensures that our Programme for Government and Fiscal Strategy are developed in lockstep with strategies and approaches aligned.

But it also ensures we respect, and give time to, the vital role of the Scottish Fiscal Commission in developing their Fiscal Forecasts.

Quite simply, it is good governance.

Presiding Officer,

There are many strengths in our country today. We have a talented population. We have abundant natural resources. We have dedicated public servants working hard to support our communities.

But we are also operating in a very challenging financial and economic context.

It is in that reality that my Government will offer leadership to the country and a willingness to work collaboratively in Parliament to chart a way forward.

My Government does not command a majority in this Parliament. We will only be able to tackle the challenges we face if we are able to win the support of others.

On this first occasion when I set out the priorities of my Government, I set out my willingness to co-operate beyond the Government with other parties to deliver for our people.

I want my country to do well. I know that others in this Chamber across all parties want Scotland to do well too. I offer to bring Parliament together on a shared agenda to make our country better.

I invite Parliament to work with me on that journey.


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