Nicola Sturgeon: we must keep focused on moving forward with our domestic agenda
In a year dominated by Brexit the government has been equally focussed on issues at home.
There have been new measures to improve health, boost the economy and increase attainment in our schools.
We have pushed forward with our efforts to achieve a fairer and more equal society, and continued to make the case for Scotland and the UK to remain inside the European single market and customs union.
As you would expect, many of the most significant developments and achievements relate to legislation that will make a positive difference to the lives of people across Scotland being passed and implemented.
One of the most significant days over the past year, indeed the past few years, was on 1 May. That was the date Scotland implemented a 50p minimum price for a unit of alcohol.
Originally approved by the Scottish Parliament in 2012, it took longer than we would have liked to introduce. But the delays caused by the legal challenge did not shake our belief that minimum unit pricing will save lives.
It is a genuinely world-leading piece of legislation, which other countries are now looking to emulate. It will help us start to tackle the harm caused by some of the strongest and cheapest alcohol and I look forward to seeing its positive impact in the years ahead.
We also experienced the passing of the landmark Social Security Act, Scotland’s first piece of social security legislation. The introduction of the first Scottish benefits will take place in the coming year and we are determined to build a system that operates with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart.
This government has also injected fairness into the new Scottish income tax system by introducing a more progressive approach to taxation.
The new Scottish Starter Rate and the increase in the UK-wide Personal Allowance means the 1.8 million Scottish taxpayers earning less than £33,000 in 2018-19 will pay less income tax than they did in 2017-18. Those on higher earnings will contribute slightly more which will raise additional revenue for our vital public services and enable us to invest in our NHS.
In education, this year we have already made progress towards closing the attainment gap – a significant challenge that this government is determined to tackle.
We have agreed funding of almost one billion pounds each year for a huge expansion of early learning and childcare, and £120 million has been invested in the Pupil Equity Fund – giving schools the power to make decisions on how they can raise attainment in a way that meets their specific needs and circumstances.
We are seeing positive early results from this investment and a real commitment from parents, teachers and local authorities to transform our education system in the interests of young people.
Meanwhile, the latest figures show a record number of people from Scotland’s poorest communities have gained a place at university – that is hard evidence of the transformative change we are already seeing when it comes to attainment.
That work is taking place against the backdrop of the hugely successful Year of Young People which has seen young people’s voices strengthened and their influence on the choices politicians make extended. Across the country, groups of inspiring young people have put themselves at the heart of our decision making and I believe the country will be better for it.
The Year of Young People still has some months to run – I am looking forward to further activity to enhance the voice of young people and celebrate the contribution they make to the communities and our country as a whole.
Meanwhile, building the economy and giving Scottish firms the opportunity to expand is another one of this government’s top priorities.
Over the last 12 months, we have taken the first steps to establish a Scottish National Investment Bank and a National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland. By promoting inclusive growth and helping manufacturing businesses to become world leaders in innovation both of these developments will provide great benefits to the Scottish economy,
Boosting Scottish business was at the forefront of my mind when I visited China in April to promote exports and encourage inward investment. China is now one of the world’s largest economies and the potential benefits of strengthening that relationship are clear to see.
During my visit, I also promoted the cultural and educational links between our two countries – something I hope will continue to grow.
While business is key to Scotland’s success, and we are focusing on internationalisation and driving increased productivity to grow our economy and make the country an even better place to live, work and study, those efforts are of course threatened by the UK Government’s determination to leave the European Union, including the single market and customs union.
Brexit will remain front and centre of political events as we move towards 29 March next year – the date when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.
The Scottish Government has consistently made the case that Scotland’s future is best served within the EU – as voted for by the majority of people across Scotland. Failing that, it is vitally important that we remain inside the single market and customs union.
‘Scotland’s Place in Europe: People, Jobs and Investment’ – published in January – clearly set out the costs we will pay for leaving the European Union.
I will continue to push for further clarity from the UK Government on its Brexit plans, amid the growing concerns that we could be headed for the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit which would see us crash out of the EU with no agreement at all in place.
That would be disastrous for jobs, investment and living standards, and we should all be concerned that it is even remotely a serious prospect.
We have seen reports recently that household bills have already soared as a result of Brexit, even though we haven’t yet left the EU. Meanwhile, doctors’ leaders have warned of the real threat to the NHS when it comes to issues like access to medicines, retaining staff and investment in research.
So, with only a short time left until the crucial October European Council meeting and only a few more after that until the UK leaves the EU, people and businesses across Scotland should know what to expect from Brexit.
The failure of the UK Government over the last year to show any respect and understanding for the devolution settlement in the Brexit process is a source of huge concern to parties across the Scottish Parliament. I sincerely hope that as we move into a new parliamentary year we will see some recognition from the UK Government of the necessity of working with the devolved governments and parliaments.
However, this government will not allow Brexit to throw us off course and will continue to work hard to deliver on our commitments, including investment in and reform of the NHS, the development of a low carbon economy and new climate change legislation, improving women’s rights and equalities, tackling hate crime and delivering new infrastructure from roads and cycle routes to 100 per cent broadband.
I look forward to presenting a new Programme for Government this September with full details on how we plan to make Scotland an even fairer and more prosperous nation in the year ahead.