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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 5, 2023


Programme for Government 2023-24

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Humza Yousaf on the programme for government 2023-24. The First Minister’s statement will be followed by a debate, so there should be no interventions or interruptions during the statement.


The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I have often talked about my paternal grandfather, Muhammad Yousaf, over the past few months. I have commented on his journey from Pakistan to Pollokshields, where he first lived upon arrival in this country. What I have not spoken about is the difficult circumstances that followed shortly after he arrived here in Scotland, in a country where he could barely speak the language and had little to his name. Unfortunately, five years after arriving in Scotland, my grandmother, Muhammad Yousaf’s wife, died at the age of 33, leaving my grandfather having to raise five children. He remarried but was left with five devastated children, including my father and my uncle, who was still a young baby.

My grandfather went on to become a successful small business owner, and although he has now passed away, his wife, my step-gran, still to this day works in the convenience store in Mayfield, and she tells me that Daniel Johnson is wont to pop in on occasion.

I mention my grandfather’s story because there is no way that, all those decades ago, he could have supported his five children and been a successful small business owner if it had not been for the support of society and the state. At a time when he really needed it, the Government was there to support him financially. That in turn helped to unleash his entrepreneurial spirit, and over the decades he created jobs and contributed significantly to society, not least through the taxes that he paid.

There is no doubt in my mind that economic growth goes hand in hand with tackling poverty, as it did for my grandfather all those years ago. The programme for government that I am publishing today is unashamedly anti-poverty and pro-growth, and it has a focus on supporting women—who are disproportionately affected by the pressures of modern life—including through expanding our childcare offer.

When I became First Minister, I promised that I would lead a Government for the whole country. In this chamber, we must never forget that although we disagree—sometimes, quite rightly, passionately—there is far more that unites us than divides us. Over the past two years, the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party have successfully worked together to build a greener, fairer Scotland. In a world full of uncertainty, people rightly expect their elected representatives to work together constructively, and that is exactly what we have done.

So, to all the parties represented in this chamber, I repeat the offer that I made on becoming First Minister. You will sometimes disagree with things that we do, but, when you can, work with us. You will find that my door is always open. I have already shown my willingness to work with others in recent months.

However, we should remember the words of the late David McLetchie, who warned about

“worshipping the false god of consensus”.—[Official Report, 9 June 1999; c 376.]

In that vein, the Government that I lead will not simply coalesce around the lowest common denominator. For the good of society, for our future and for our children, where we need to pick a side, we will. In particular, while other political parties are abdicating their responsibilities to tackle the climate emergency, we will be unapologetic in taking the action needed to ensure a sustainable future for our children and our planet.

This programme is an opportunity to be explicit about the driving mission of the Government. Let me make it abundantly clear: we are a Government that will maximise every single lever at our disposal to tackle the scourge of poverty in our country. We have adopted progressive tax and spending policies to face those challenges, and I will never shy away from the belief that those who earn the most should pay the most. However, let me be equally clear and say without equivocation that we also need to support economic growth, not for its own sake but so that we can tackle poverty and improve our public services.

The unfortunate reality is that the Scottish Government is operating with one hand tied behind its back. Scotland has had no control over the fallout from the United Kingdom Government’s disastrous mini-budget or Brexit or more than a decade of austerity, but we still have to deal with the devastating consequences of those actions. To give just one example, in the past five years, we have spent more than £700 million in countering the impact of Westminster welfare cuts alone. That is why this Government will never stop believing that decisions about Scotland should not be made by a Government that is based in Westminster, but by the people of Scotland. [Interruption.]

Thank you. I remind members that there should be no interventions or interruptions of any kind during the statement.

The First Minister

Independent countries that are comparable to Scotland are wealthier and fairer than the UK. With our abundant resources, the question that we must ask ourselves is, why not Scotland? In proposing the case for independence, we will set out a positive vision for Scotland’s future, and there is much to be positive about. Scotland’s economy already performs better than that of most parts of the UK. We have world-class universities and colleges and significant strengths and potential in many of the key economic sectors of the future. Today’s programme sets out how we will build on those strengths to make people’s lives better.

Tackling poverty is deeply personal to me. Growing up in the Islamic faith, I was taught that one of the core beliefs of that faith is that you are not a true Muslim if you have a full stomach while your neighbour goes to bed hungry. Tackling poverty is not straightforward, especially given the restrictions of devolution and in the face of a cost of living crisis and a challenging budget settlement. However, it is absolutely essential. Whether it is from faith, humanism or an ingrained sense of social justice, we must all surely unite in saying that, in 2023, with the abundance of wealth that we have as a society, it is morally indefensible that people in our country and on our planet go to sleep hungry. My first announcement today is therefore this: by February, we will remove income thresholds for our best start foods programme, which will mean that a further 20,000 pregnant mothers and children will benefit from financial support for milk and healthy food. That is a further demonstration of this Government giving our children the best possible start.

We will also invest more than £400 million in the Scottish child payment to help more than 300,000 children across the country. For many families, the payment, which is worth £25 per child per week, ensures that food is on the table or that the heating is on at home. We can already see the benefits of that policy, but its true legacy will last a lifetime. Through this Government’s actions, an estimated 90,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. That is the difference that this Government is making.

The Scottish child payment is part of a total investment of more than £5 billion in Scottish Government social security payments, which support more than 1.2 million people. I can confirm that the funding will increase by almost £1 billion in the year ahead, and we will continue to explore what more can be done to tackle poverty during the budget process.

We have also convened an expert group to look at how we can make progress towards a minimum income guarantee. Today, I am calling on the UK Government to use reserved powers to establish an essentials guarantee to ensure that the value of the universal credit payment is always sufficient for people to afford essential items such as food, transport and energy.

In addition to those actions, we will continue to reduce some of the costs that affect households across the country.

This Government has led the way in the provision of universal free school meals for primary school children. I can confirm that, working with councils, we will roll out universal free school meals for all pupils in primary 6 and primary 7, starting with those children who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment.

From October, we are introducing a pilot project to remove peak fares on ScotRail services. In addition, we recognise that housing costs are a key factor in determining people’s standard of living. During the cost of living crisis, this Government took prompt action to introduce emergency rent caps for most private tenants and to introduce additional protections against eviction. We have now laid regulations to ensure that those measures will remain in place until 31 March next year.

We will also introduce a housing bill to introduce long-term rent controls and new tenants’ rights, and to establish new duties for the prevention of homelessness. We will continue to work to reduce the number of people who are living in temporary accommodation. We will invest £750 million to support the delivery of affordable homes and to meet our target of securing 110,000 affordable homes by 2032. Of those homes, 10 per cent will be located in our rural and island communities, because we know that those communities are facing significant housing challenges.

We also know, however, that those communities are not passive. We see in the likes of the Arran Development Trust, Mull and Iona Community Trust and Staffin Community Trust real ambition in supporting new housing. We have been working with local government, business, the third sector and—crucially—local communities to publish an action plan for housing in rural and island areas later this year.

We have established a £25 million fund to provide homes for key workers in rural areas. Across Scotland, we will invest £60 million this year to acquire empty properties for use as affordable homes. I can confirm that, following consultation, we will also enable councils to apply a premium on council tax rates for second homes—a demonstration of our desire to empower local government to tackle the challenges that it faces

We will introduce a cladding remediation bill and ask that this Parliament be given the powers to introduce a levy in Scotland that mirrors the UK Government’s building safety levy for England.

The protection of and, where possible, the advancement of rights is a collective obligation on each and every single one of us. I have spoken about the racism and Islamophobia that I have faced and continue to face. Many others in this Parliament have spoken about the bigotry, homophobia, ableism or misogyny that they have been on the receiving end of. As part of our mission to promote equality and eradicate hatred, we will improve human rights protections through our human rights bill.

There are those in this Parliament who have said recently that we concentrate far too much on social policy. However, it is our job—and every MSP’s job—to help protect marginalised communities from the hatred that is far too pervasive in society. A population that has its rights protected is one that can thrive. That is good not only for society but for our economy, too.

Finally, on the theme of equality, we recognise that helping people into good, fairly paid work is also a key part of tackling poverty. We will work with local authorities and employers to help people who face barriers to starting or restarting work and we will support care leavers into employment. That is just one of the ways in which we will work to keep our Promise to those with experience of care. I will also personally convene a dedicated Cabinet sub-committee for the Promise. We will not let those with care experience down.

This Government also recognises the crucial role of childcare in helping parents to return to work, which benefits not just the parents themselves but the wider economy. The Scottish Government has expanded early learning and childcare to 1,140 hours a year for all three and four-year-olds, and for around a quarter of all two-year-olds.

I am pleased to announce that we will go further. First, we will provide funding in six early-adopter council areas to increase access to childcare from when children are aged nine months through to the end of their time at primary school. Secondly, we will accelerate the next phase in our expansion of childcare for families with two-year-olds—reaching thousands more families. Thirdly, we will give parents and carers more scope to manage their childcare so that it meets their specific needs. Some parents may want to use a mix of provision, and may find arranging and keeping track of their childcare stressful. We will simplify that process to enable parents to use digital means in order to have more control over their childcare choices. Fourthly, we will support efforts to recruit and retain more childminders; we aim to recruit a thousand more childminders by the end of this parliamentary session. Finally, we know that recruitment is one of the biggest challenges that the sector faces. I confirm today that we will provide funding so that staff in the private, voluntary and independent sector who deliver funded early learning and childcare are paid a minimum of £12 an hour from April 2024.

High-quality early education and childcare is a perfect example of a policy that is both anti-poverty and pro-growth. I am proud that Scotland has the most generous childcare offer in the UK and I am committed to ensuring that we stay at the forefront of that and provide families with the crucial support that they need.

One of my earliest actions as First Minister was to develop a new and stronger relationship with business, so that we can work together to create jobs and opportunities. In the year ahead, we will implement the recommendations made by the new deal for business group. Where we can, we will also work with the UK Government to support growth. I wrote to the UK Government yesterday to request discussions on that very issue. One idea that I am keen to explore with the UK Government is a recommendation in the recent report from the Hunter Foundation about using tax incentives and wider economic policy to support investment in key sectors such as renewables.

Scotland has long been a nation of innovation and invention. However, for all the excellent success that we have had, we also have to be honest and recognise that we have not always managed to retain in Scotland that entrepreneurial talent and the jobs that it creates. Our programme for government sets out a £15 million plan to support innovation and entrepreneurship. It includes increased support for Scottish EDGE and the Scottish ecosystem fund; continued work to implement Mark Logan’s review of our technology ecosystem; a blueprint to make our colleges and universities stronger bases for entrepreneurs; and a programme to deliver the recommendations of Ana Stewart’s equally excellent report on supporting women into enterprise.

We will also work to attract international investment and promote exports. We will support small businesses; for example, we will work with local government and our enterprise agencies to transform the support that we provide to them. We will work with business organisations to help small businesses to improve their productivity. We will build on the work of the new deal for business group by considering improvements to the non-domestic rates system. Those early actions demonstrate our determination to listen and act as we build a new relationship with business to support economic growth for a purpose.

In the year ahead, we will also invest in the construction of six new ferries by 2026. Alongside our record investment in active travel, we will reopen the Levenmouth rail line, electrify the Glasgow to Barrhead line and open a new rail station at East Linton.

We are, of course, committed to improving the A96, including dualling the road from Inverness to Nairn, with a Nairn bypass. Let me be crystal clear, Presiding Officer: my Government will dual the A9 from Inverness to Perth. I confirm today that we have launched the procurement for the Tomatin to Moy section as the next step in that work.

We are also helping the rural economy. In the coming year, we will help to create a new framework for rural support through the agriculture bill. We will promote our food and drink industry and we will press the UK Government to honour its obligations to our fishing sector.

When it comes to Scotland’s land, it is clear that too much of our land is in the hands of too few. Our land reform bill will make land ownership more transparent and will give communities more opportunities to own their land. We will step up to the challenge and seek to be bold and radical, and we will continue to develop proposals for crofting law reform.

We will continue to support Scotland’s thriving tourism sector and promote major events. We will publish further details of our future support for culture in the forthcoming budget. The sector should be assured that this Government values the role of culture not just for the substantial economic impact that it has but also for the incredible joy that it brings to people in Scotland and around the world.

The final part of our economic plans that I want to talk about is also one of the most important. We need only to look at the United States or the European Union to see the way in which ambitious Government and state support for green industries is helping to create new jobs. The inactivity of the United Kingdom Government puts us at risk of falling behind in an increasingly competitive race, so the Scottish Government is taking action, with the limited powers that we have, to boost green industries.

One important area where I can announce change is in the consenting processes for renewable technologies. We will agree a sector deal with the onshore wind industry to halve the consenting time for new section 36 wind farms. As part of that deal, we will maximise the benefits that onshore wind can create for local communities and for Scotland’s economy. We will also streamline offshore wind consenting processes and continue to implement our hydrogen action plan.

I continue to appeal to the UK Government, which holds the substantial levers over tax and financial incentives, to use those powers to unleash and accelerate the renewables potential of our country. Our economy and, indeed, our planet deserve better than Westminster inertia.

We will also take forward our work on a green industrial strategy. We will consult on a heat in buildings bill, and we will continue to promote a circular economy. We will publish our final energy strategy and just transition plan, and we will continue to protect and enhance our natural environment. Crucially, we will continue to show global leadership in international climate discussions.

As well as the enormous economic opportunity created by climate action, there is also an overwhelming moral imperative. The terrifying impacts of climate change are not something to worry about in the distant future—they are here today. In that context, some of the actions of the Westminster parties over this summer, such as the UK Government’s reluctance to support onshore wind, its commitment to more than 100 new oil and gas licences and Labour’s U-turn on low emission zones are as baffling as they are dangerous. The Scottish Government will take a responsible approach and show climate leadership.

Tackling the climate crisis will be hard, but in the long run, doing nothing—or even worse, acting far too slowly—is the more expensive choice. It is a choice that will see far more lives lost on our planet, and a choice for which we would rightly never be forgiven by our children or our grandchildren.

The programme also sets out how we will support strong and high-quality public services. The national health service is already making progress in recovering from the pandemic. We have the best-performing accident and emergency departments in the UK, and in the past year, the number of people waiting more than 18 months for treatment has almost halved. We will work with health boards to reduce waiting lists further in the year ahead. A fourth national treatment centre will open in Forth Valley in the coming year, and the centre at the Golden Jubilee hospital will increase our capacity. We will continue to work with local authorities on the introduction of the national care service.

During the summer, I spent a considerable amount of time hearing directly from people from all walks of life across the country about the challenges that they struggle with. One such group, which is inspirational, is the Purple Poncho Players, which is a theatrical group made up of disabled people who put on gripping performances that challenge Governments and everyone in society to confront the uncomfortable truth of life as a disabled person in Scotland. I heard very moving testimony from them, the Glasgow Disability Alliance and others who have been affected by the closure of the independent living fund, which was designed to assist disabled people with especially complex needs to get the support that they need in order to live independent lives. I am therefore pleased to announce today that I will reopen the independent living fund in the next financial year, with an initial investment of up to £9 million.

In the year ahead, we will also improve access to general practitioner services, and we will launch the national centre for remote and rural health and care. We will publish a new delivery plan for mental health and wellbeing. We will continue with our mission to reduce drug deaths, and we will invest in alcohol and drug partnerships. Recent drug deaths figures show that we are heading in the right direction but no more than that. The scale of the challenge in front of us requires us to take radical approaches. Those approaches must be grounded in the evidence of what works. That is why we will support a proposal to establish a safer drug consumption facility and argue for drugs law reform. In the light of the latest Home Office select committee report, I urge the UK Government to listen to the evidence and either support a safer drug consumption facility or at least devolve the power to us, so that we can more easily take the bold action that is required.

We are also reviewing the responses to the alcohol marketing consultation. We will always support jobs and the economy, and we will work with the industry where appropriate, but be in no doubt that we will take further action to reduce alcohol harm and particularly to protect children from its ill effects.

Talking of children, I hear too often about how common vaping is among our young people. In the next year, we will take action to reduce vaping, particularly among children. I am pleased to announce that the Government will also consult on curbing the sale of disposable single-use vapes, including consulting on an outright ban.

The Government recognises the vital importance of supporting our health and care workforce. Scotland remains the only part of the UK in which there has been no industrial action in the health service. That is because we never questioned the motivations of our workforce in seeking higher pay in the midst of a cost of living crisis and we were prepared to face up to some very challenging negotiations. We worked with unions and agreed deals that benefit patients and staff. As a result, we have ensured that NHS Scotland staff remain the best paid anywhere in the UK.

I am pleased to confirm that, today, I will fulfil a promise that I made to social care staff before I became First Minister. We will provide funding to enable an increase in the pay of social care workers in direct care roles so that they can be paid at least £12 an hour. For those on full-time contracts, that could lead to a pay increase from April of up to £2,000 a year. That increase of over 10 per cent values our social care staff, helps them to support their families and helps us to recruit and retain staff. It is good for individual employees, our social care services and our society as a whole.

Another issue that is close to my heart, as First Minister and as a husband and a father, is miscarriage. I have spoken before about the personal loss and trauma that my wife, Nadia, and I have faced through multiple miscarriages. That is a health issue that society is now more open about, but it is still less talked about than it maybe should be. I know how the sense of loss, regardless of when it happens during a pregnancy, is one that stays with people for life. Each loss that Nadia and I have suffered has been difficult, and there is no doubt in my mind that we can better support those who experience miscarriage.

The programme for government outlines how we will continue to improve care and support for miscarriage, including by ensuring that women do not have to wait until a third miscarriage to receive tailored support. It will also help to provide access to progesterone prescriptions and secure separate spaces in hospitals within maternity wards for women who suffer a miscarriage.

I am also pleased to say that, later this month, we will launch a certificate and memorial book of pregnancy and baby loss prior to 24 weeks. I thank and pay tribute to my predecessor for the work that she has done on that particular issue.

The Government will continue to support our schools and promote excellence in education. We will introduce an education bill to establish a new qualifications body in Scotland and to create an independent education inspectorate. We will set out plans for reforming our education and skills bodies, and we will deliver the pay deal that we have reached with our teachers.

We will continue our work to widen access to university. That work is now seeing record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds—around 5,600 in the latest official statistics—enter our universities.

We will rejoin key international education studies. We will continue to focus on closing the attainment gap and improving outcomes for young people with additional support needs. We will continue to support equality and diversity in schools—for example, through our anti-racism in education programme and by promoting a decolonised curriculum.

We will invest in our police, fire and justice services. Body-worn cameras are a priority for the police and for the Government, so we will start to introduce that technology next year.

We have already reduced the backlog of cases in our justice system by more than a third, and we will aim to end the backlog in summary cases in 2024. We will invest in our prisons while working with community justice partners to reduce reoffending and create safer communities. We will continue to focus on ensuring that victims and witnesses of crime are at the heart of our justice system.

We live in times when the rights of women in many parts of the world are regressing. It is important for Governments that believe passionately in taking a stand against misogyny—including state and institutional misogyny—to stand up and be counted. That is why we will work with Gillian Mackay to support her bill to ensure safe access for abortion. It simply cannot be right that women should feel in any way impeded from accessing healthcare. We will also bring forward legislation to criminalise misogynistic abuse, following the public consultation on Baroness Kennedy’s report on the issue.

Before I close, I will expand on that point. The #MeToo movement, the reclaim the night marches and the response to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have instigated a movement of women sharing their stories about everyday sexism, harassment and the tragic and violent crimes that women are too often subjected to. The steps that the Scottish Government is taking to criminalise misogynistic abuse and improve our criminal justice system are in part a response to that, but they cannot be the only response. There is a much bigger responsibility on our society as a whole—and particularly on all men—to create a positive change.

Men—all of us, including me—need to do more than simply call out negative male behaviour. We need to tackle what is often called toxic masculinity, which harms men and boys as well as women and girls, and we must build a society where men feel confident in taking a stand against misogyny. To do so, we must promote the positive and highlight to boys and men the benefits of positive masculinity for their everyday lives—how it can mean building respectful and healthier relationships with partners, families, colleagues and society and how it can lead to better mental health and wellbeing for men and boys.

The Scottish Government does not have all the answers on that and cannot take it on alone, but it is a challenge that we will return to. As First Minister, I am committed to leading on the issue in my actions and in those of the Government that I lead.

At the start of my statement, I made it clear that the Scottish Government will always be on the side of the people we serve. Scotland is and certainly should be a land of opportunity, but I know that it does not always feel like that to people who are bearing the brunt of the Westminster cost of living crisis, to families who are living in poverty, to struggling businesses and to those who still face the consequences of discrimination and inequality. I get that.

That is why the programme for government tackles poverty and inequality head on, as part of our work to create opportunities and build strong communities. In the year ahead, we will help more than 300,000 children with more than £1,000 a year through the Scottish child payment; we will increase social security spending by almost £1 billion; we will expand free school meal provision; we will widen access to financial advice; we will help more parents to buy healthy food; we will help disabled people with the most complex needs, so that they can live independent lives; we will safeguard tenants’ rights; we will promote payment of the living wage; we will increase the pay of childcare and social care staff; and we will expand high-quality childcare.

We will do all of that first and foremost because it is the right thing to do but also because, as I know from my family history, providing people with support and security helps them to contribute to society and to create opportunities for others.

The programme for government sets out how we will work with partners to tackle poverty, promote growth and strengthen the public services that we all depend on. The people of Scotland should be left in absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the Scottish Government is on their side. The programme for government shows how we will make progress towards a fairer, wealthier and greener Scotland, and I am delighted to commend it to Parliament.