Q&A: Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Communties, Social Security and Equalities
"One of the biggest challenges is to ensure the safe, smooth and efficient transfer of social security powers to Scotland"
Angela Constance - Image credit: Alex Aitcheson/Holyrood
Previously the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Angela Constance was appointed to the communities, social security and equalities brief in May, where she will have responsibility for overseeing the transfer of devolved social security powers to Scotland.
When you get that call amid a reshuffle to go and see the FM, does it feel nerve-wracking?
Angela Constance: I don’t think I’d say nerve-wracking but there is a sense of anticipation, and I suppose that would be the best way to describe it. Being able to serve in government is one of the biggest privileges of my life and I’ve really enjoyed all of the positions I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in.
How does it feel being asked to leave a brief that you have fully immersed yourself in and take on another?
AC: One of the many reasons I was delighted to be given the CSSE portfolio was that it’s carrying on a lot of the same priorities and having responsibility for services and policies that affect people every day. In education, that meant schools, colleges, universities and childcare – now it means building new social security services that people rely on and ensuring we meet our commitment to deliver 50,000 new homes for Scotland. It means working closely with local government that delivers all kinds of services people depend on. Above all, it means tackling poverty and continuing our work to make sure all Scots are treated fairly and have equality of opportunity, and that is exactly what has driven me in both portfolios.
Was there a work in progress that you felt particularly concerned about leaving behind?
AC: I certainly wasn’t concerned about leaving anything in the hands of John Swinney – he’s an incredibly capable man who I know shares the same ambitions for Scotland’s children and young people. I’ve always been passionate about giving children the best start in life and as a former social worker, the comprehensive review of Child Protection Services was a piece of work very close to my heart. For me, an important part of tackling the attainment gap will be our aim to eradicate child poverty which is why I’m delighted the Child Poverty Bill I will take through Parliament next year will put tackling child poverty in legislation for the first time. Giving children a better start in life and more opportunities as they grow up is essential to creating a fairer Scotland.
Is there any portfolio that you would have least liked?
AC: Genuinely, no. I would have considered myself lucky to be offered the chance to serve in any of the cabinet positions.
What lessons can you apply from your old portfolio to your new one?
AC: All of the jobs I’ve done have shown me how hard people on the front line are working to improve lives for people across Scotland – and I don’t just mean my jobs in government. The work that I did before in social work and the people I’ve met as a constituency MSP have consistently shown me how important the decisions we make as a government are, and the positive impact that this can have on people’s lives.
What are the biggest challenges facing your new brief?
AC: One of the biggest challenges is to ensure the safe, smooth and efficient transfer of social security powers to Scotland and to deliver our new social security delivery agency to do that. That’s potentially the largest transfer of powers since devolution and it’s vital we consult widely – as we are just now – to ensure that we are delivering what those who use these benefits want. So, that’s challenging, but also hugely exciting, as it gives us the opportunity to change things for the better.
The relationship between the Scottish Government and local government is quite raw just now following funding cuts and moves towards local government restructuring, how do you intend to rebuild that relationship for the good of communities?
AC: In every corner of Scotland, I want to reinvigorate local government. Local authorities are responsible for many key services which affect our daily lives and maintaining high quality public services is crucial so it will remain important that we continue to work closely with councils. Central to that will be how we can bring real decision-making closer to local communities. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience in local authorities of this kind of local democracy which is why we will be listening closely to that while being ambitious for real change that puts local people at the heart of decisions.
Equalities has become a hallmark of this government, particularly gender equality, how will you progress that agenda?
AC: I am pleased that you think so and we will certainly be working hard across government to keep that reputation. I strongly believe that no one should be treated unfairly, suffer injustices or be denied opportunities because of their race or ethnicity, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or religion.
That is why we have set out an ambitious set of commitments for working to improve equality in Scotland. We will continue to drive forward our work on gender equality, giving focus to employment, income and to improving women’s representation through legislation requiring gender balance on public boards and our 50/50 by 2020 commitment. We will also establish an advisory council on women and girls to help us on our journey to realising women’s equality, including advising on issues such as how we address persistent occupational segregation.
We will also want to ensure our gender recognition law is in line with international best practice so I will be taking that forward. Importantly, through our Race Framework and our Disability Action Plan, both of which are cross-government strategies – we want to reduce the inequalities and barriers that are still in place in our society.
You have an opportunity with new powers to shape a whole new approach to welfare, what are your guiding principles?
AC: I have been very clear that social security in Scotland will be guided by one vision – that social security is an investment in all of us and will be there for all of us if we need it. I am determined to have a social security system that has dignity, fairness and respect at its heart and will improve the experience of people who apply for the benefits that will be delivered by the Scottish Government.
Will leaving the EU put Scotland’s work on equalities at risk?
AC: Leaving the EU would be a significant setback for equality. EU law currently provides a robust framework of guarantees, through the prohibition of discrimination in a range of areas. We will do all that we can with the powers that we have to maintain these protections and continue to advance equality and equality of opportunity in Scotland. Leaving the EU also sends a deeply negative message to those EU nationals that have made Scotland their home so I want to reiterate the message of the FM and make clear to these EU nationals that Scotland is your home, you are welcome here, and your contribution is valued.
Have you ever been made to feel less equal to someone else?
AC: I don’t know if it’s fair to say I was “made to feel less equal” than someone else, but I definitely remember feeling different from some of my friends at certain times. For example, free school meals – I remember even as a child feeling different because I had the green ticket for a free school dinner. But free school meals and school clothing grants were a lifeline to me and my family and I’m really proud that the Scottish Government introduced free school meals for all kids in P1-P3, as well as my role in protecting school clothing grants for any family who needs them.
Growing up, what kind of community did you belong to and how did that help shape the person you became?
AC: I grew up in the community I represent today and I can’t tell you how much of a privilege that is. But I’ve spoken before about my dad’s experience of long-term unemployment in the 1980s and how hard it was and we were by no means the only family suffering like that at that time. He did eventually return to work but the impact of unemployment on individuals, families and communities is imprinted on me still, so tackling unemployment and poverty will, for me, always be very personal commitments.
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