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Top table - an interview with Angela Constance

Top table - an interview with Angela Constance

Angela Constance is clearly taking her responsibility for the employment of young people seriously. In fact, it is obvious within seconds of walking in the door as she greets me with: “Hello, oh I’m glad to see that Holyrood is keeping youth employment up.”

Apart from causing my embarrassment, the introduction sums up neatly the job facing the newly promoted Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Female Employment. Given the scale of the challenges facing women and young people during the recession, she does not have time to waste.

Youth unemployment is above 50 per cent in much of Europe and while Scotland has been saved from the same degree of joblessness, youth unemployment in Glasgow is still at around 27 per cent, with Edinburgh’s sitting at just over 18 per cent.

Things have got so bad that German Chancellor Angela Merkel described youth unemployment as the greatest crisis facing Europe, warning that the fallout from the economic crisis is at risk of creating a ‘lost generation.’ But while the problem is undeniable, it is hard to imagine a UK politician coming out with a similar statement. Constance is speaking to me before rushing off to Edinburgh Zoo, to do a Q&A with young people on apprenticeships – one of the ways the Scottish Government is trying to improve the still shaky transition between school and work. Is youth employment as high a priority in Britain as it is for Merkel?

“It most certainly is in Scotland, and I am on record as saying that boosting youth employment and reducing youth unemployment is one of the biggest national challenges we face in this country. You can’t claim to be serious about the future of your economy, or the future of your country, without being really serious about the employment prospects of young people. I am conscious that youth unemployment is a product of economic down turn – a product of the recession – and you see it rise very quickly in every recession and it takes a long time to drag it back down. But at the same time, there are systemic, structural reasons for youth unemployment as well – and that is one of the reasons why we have got the Wood Commission to focus on how we develop Scotland’s young workforce. I often quote that a time of economic growth – like in 2006 and 07 – youth unemployment peaked at 14 per cent. Our ambitions have to be far, far greater than that – my ambitions are not to return to pre-recession youth employment levels, we have to have far greater aspirations.”

These are lofty aims, even if it is hard to imagine anyone arguing that a 14 per cent unemployment rate during one of the biggest booms in Britain’s history was acceptable for any group. The problem for Constance – and as young people know all too well – is that Scotland and the UK are no longer enjoying boom years. Things are pretty bleak for young people – is it just a matter of getting on with it and waiting, or hoping, for things to pick up?

“Well, there are a lot of things we are doing to really get to grips with the systemic and structural causes of youth unemployment and there is a lot we are doing to promote economic growth across Scotland. A lot of the work we have done in terms of Curriculum for Excellence is aimed at that and even the work we have done in early years is important. So starting with our work in early years, through to Curriculum for Excellence, the modernisation of career services is important, the modernisation of colleges, ensuring that our education provision has a far more direct link with the needs of the economy – all of that is crucial in improving the transition between the world of education and the world of work. Through the Wood Commission we are looking to take a platform of reforms to the next stage.”

She continues: “Now, in Scotland we are fortunate, we’ve got world-class higher education. But European countries that do well by their young people in a time of economic growth and in economic difficulty all have well established, highly regarded, vocational educational and training systems. Now you can’t just import these systems, you have got to build your own – you have got to lay your own foundations – because this is about building a new Scotland, but you can learn from other countries and that is what we are seeking to do via the Wood Commission.”

It is becoming familiar to hear pro-Yes politicians talk of a ‘new Scotland’, does this mean the answer to unemployment is in independence?

“It is a frustration for me that while we have control over education and skills in Scotland, we don’t have all the economic levers we need at our disposal. We don’t have control over employment services, because with integration with skills and personal employment services – by which I mean the Job Centre Plus – we could be doing far, far more for young people. In fact, for anyone who is seeking work.”

Constance wants to bring youth unemployment down to below pre-crash levels – a big ambition –

and seems to have a real determination to get to grips with the issue. Her upbringing, in a West Lothian mining town, has obviously shaped her views and she has first-hand experience of what unemployment can mean.

“My teenage years were in the 1980s and unemployment was running at one in four in the early 80s. Now that is not just a statistic for me – my dad was one of those one in four men in West Lothian without work. He worked as a machine operator in construction and mining but for two years of his adult life – and my teenage years – he went through a period of unemployment. Two years is a long period. So I know what unemployment does to communities and to families, and it is really poignant for me to be employment minister, because tackling unemployment in all its forms is not just a political commitment for me – I would describe it as personal. It is something I feel really strongly about.”

The period has taken on a special status in Scotland’s political history – Constance calls Thatcher a ‘nationalist recruiting sergeant’ for much of the SNP and the description seems apt. In a recent TV referendum debate, Nicola Sturgeon mentioned that she had joined the CND before the SNP. But to Constance, it was the cause of independence – the chance to take control of what she calls the levers affecting her community’s lives – that drew her in.

“I don’t come from a politically active family, so although I had been interested in politics from a young age, no one encouraged me to become a politician. I was always instinctively pro-independence, for me, that was just the normal thing to aspire to and I wanted to be part of that generation for change, I wanted to be part of building a new Scotland. But I was always very clear that although I was politically active from my teenage years onwards, I wanted to have a career before being a full-time elected politician.

“I have early memories,” she smiles, “primary school memories, of the 1979 referendum and yes, I was always instinctively opposed to nuclear weapons – I have never been a supporter of weapons of mass destruction, but I have always been pro-independence. Though I didn’t join the SNP until I was 18 and about to go to university. But definitely, my West Lothian background and upbringing as a teenager very much enforced those instinctive inclinations towards independence.”

She continues: “I suppose now, in my new role, what is equally as poignant to me – as well as my father’s experience of unemployment – is my mother’s experience of employment. I look at her life journey and she had better qualifications than my father, but apart from when he was unemployed, he always had a better paid job. Her career would have been greatly affected by having children and she had lots of part-time work when we were little.”

Constance watched her mother study to gain qualifications from the local college in order to get into office work.

“I saw my mother work most of her life, struggle with childcare, struggle with things like flexible working. She actually, predominantly, worked in caring or nursing work and I saw the impact that had on her own health, so I like to think that my own family experience means that I am well versed in the reality of life and the wide range of employment issues that affect women and young people.”

The sorts of issues that Constance experienced in her upbringing run across Scottish society – they cannot be tackled by one department of government alone.

“There are huge, huge synergies between my portfolio and every other one in the government. There is an obvious synergy with education and the work being done by Michael Russell, there is an obvious synergy with John Swinney and the economic and financial brief. Then there is a synergy with Shona Robison and her equality agenda, and the National Health Service is one of the biggest employers, so there it plays a key role with regard to the role of young people and women. So there isn’t another minister that I don’t have an overlap with because we know the impact that unemployment, and particularly long-term unemployment, can have on someone’s life chances. We know that appropriately paid work should be the passport from poverty. We know how unemployment can hurt the confidence of an individual, and affect their physical and mental wellbeing, we know that periods of unemployment when people are young increase their chances of unemployment throughout life, and that doesn’t just affect the individual but it has an impact on the whole of society – not just them and their family.”

The thing is, we have known this stuff for a long time and yet young people still suffer. Meanwhile, women still do not have full equality with men in employment – despite the fact that politicians have been claiming it as one of their priorities for decades. Why has the move towards equality for women been so slow? And what benefits would greater equality between mean and women bring to society – beyond the obvious fact it is fair?

“Well, I suppose I’m really trying to focus far more on the future than on the past. But the nub of the issue is that growing the economy and tackling inequality are two sides of the same coin. We have a unified purpose as a government of promoting sustainable economic growth, but that has to be underpinned by the golden rules of solidarity and cohesion. Women make up 52 per cent of the population and they need to be part of our wider economic future. And I say this as a former social worker, which is a predominantly female profession, although the institutions I worked in, in terms of clientele and staff, were overwhelmingly male.

“I have experienced that from both ends, being in a profession that is predominantly female but also being a woman in a male-dominated working environment,” she laughs – “I suppose that has equipped me well for political life, so it is just as well. But you can’t be serious about growing your economy without also being serious about economic aspiration and the needs and interests of women and young people.”

As Constance points out, women are still underrepresented in government, even if her promotion – alongside Shona Robison, who is now Cabinet Secretary for the Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights – has brought the proportion up, so that 40 per cent of the cabinet is female.

Alex Salmond announced the promotions during his speech at the recent SNP conference in Aberdeen. He hailed the move as proof of the Government’s “commitment to equality, to pensioners and to helping the young people of Scotland into the workplace,” claiming it showed “we practice what we preach.”

But while the hall, packed full of party members, was delighted by the decision, others called it political tokenism. Particularly, given that women have been slower than men to move towards Yes, they are a group which the SNP is keen to target. Constance is obviously an effective politician, but does she find the claims that she was used as bait to help fish for votes frustrating?

“I think the First Minister was actually crystal clear by saying that he could lead by example and appoint on merit. He cited examples from both my track record and Shona Robison’s and said that you can appoint on merit and reach that 40 per cent membership of women in the cabinet – or on a company board – and I think it sends out a really positive message about Scotland, about the country and the society that we seek. My experience, in terms of people who have spoken to me about my recent appointment, is that they have been really excited about it, and they see it as a huge step forward. You know, people like the idea that women and young people are represented around the table at cabinet and I like to think that women and young children will have a strong voice at the top level of the Scottish Government and at the top of Scottish politics.”

It does seem a bit sad that the first reaction of some, upon hearing that two women had been promoted to the cabinet, was to assume that it was a vote winner – with the implicit assumption that they did not deserve it.

Female politicians are criticised on their looks – men are not. I ask her about a recent PMQs when Ed Miliband packed the front bench with women – to an uncomfortable extent – in order to land a political blow on David Cameron over his ‘woman problem’. The reference brings a wry smile from Constance, though she seems unwilling to go on the attack. But women are obviously treated differently in politics – how much does this type of behaviour damage their importance as political agents in their own right?

“I think our society, and the world, look at men and women through a different lens and you are absolutely right – there is an ongoing commentary about how women look, particularly in politics. Now I know some of those issues will be experienced by women in other professions but if you are in the public gaze then the way that the whole of society looks at women, the way it perceives women, will be reflected in some of the narratives that are written around women politicians. It is representative of a wider problem.”

It seems unfair of critics to question Constance’s promotion, given that her background has given her real world experience of the problems that normal people experience – something that media-savvy male politicians across the political spectrum are often accused of lacking.

“I had a few positions, but my longest job before I was elected to parliament in 2007 was as a social worker – a mental health officer – at the state hospital at Carstairs – I was there for six years. Prior to that, I worked at three Scottish prisons – Glenochil, Friarton and Perth Prison – and as a prison social worker. I also did some work with adults in the community with learning difficulties before I went into criminal justice and forensic mental health.”

She continues: “I have a lot of experience of working in environments that have been predominantly male and I have seen how the dynamic changes culturally when you bring more women in. My first job as a social worker was in the local prison in 1998. There was a time when only male prison officers worked in male prisons and I will always remember my first boss telling me about the angst that some people had about the idea of female workers coming in to work in a male prison, and at the end of the day, the world did not end, but it did change the dynamic for the better. I know, in terms of the work the Scottish Government is doing to increase the number of apprentices, and from speaking with different people, how young people can bring an enthusiasm and a freshness of approach to the world of work.”

And so what difference will greater representation of women make, do they do politics differently to men? A special women’s cabinet is being held in the summer – with critics also labelling this, like Constance’s promotion, a means of attracting female votes. Will these new female voices echo through the policies drawn up around the cabinet table? Or is the assumption the two sexes somehow think differently not sexist in itself?

“It is a really important signal and a great opportunity to bring together not just the four cabinet secretaries but all the other women ministers and various other stakeholders. It should be really interesting to have an all women cabinet meet with an all women audience. As a local campaigner in my own patch, from engaging with local women and organising events for women as part of the build up to the referendum, we have had really productive meetings and engagements. Now I know it will be challenging – women are as capable of asking searching and demanding questions as men are. My experience is that women have appreciated the opportunity to discuss things and almost to remove it from a partisan political frame, and to be in environments where they are able to contribute, where they are able to talk about the things that are important, to give their views, to ask questions and to have the time and space to get considered answers in return.”

These ideas are all part of a drive to give women more decision-making power – more power over their own lives. Constance is on a mission to improve the quality and quantity of female employment – but to what extent will jobs address the wider problems facing women in society? Can higher salaries help address an issue like domestic abuse, by giving a woman more options?

As ever, Constance’s background informs her answer, “I don’t want to oversimplify this – obviously the work I have done in my career has given me an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and it is an abuse of power, by men over women. There is cross-party support within the Scottish Parliament for taking a gendered approach, and we recognise that it is a disparity of power. But we need to be careful about the assumptions we make because we can look at the statistics and generalise, but we need to be conscious that women in very productive, well paid careers can still be victims of domestic violence. I suppose, for me, what it comes down to is that I don’t want women to be corralled into making choices about whether they work or stay at home with their children, I don’t want them to be corralled into making particular careers – I want the choice to be theirs. So it is my job to break down barriers in the economy and the workplace, education and the world of work and also within government.”

She continues: “We need to get more women into politics at every level and that is an issue for other professions too, in sectors like ICT and digital industries. I come from a background as a social worker – and I will always value the work that women are traditionally attracted to, and I will fiercely defend it, for example, I think that work in childcare is some of the most productive and valuable work that a person can be involved in and I would like to see more men involved in it. I get very angry when the significance of that work is underplayed because, rest assured, anyone who has children or works with them in any way will know how skilled and important that work is. But what I want to see is barriers removed – not children corralled into career choices, but aware of the choices – so that they can take up opportunities in key areas of economic growth and ICT and digital technology is about the future, it is a profession that can offer well paid opportunities – the average salary is 50 per cent above the national average. Also the type of work – because it involves technology – means that it is open to flexible working, it can be done at any time, anywhere. Yet over the past decade or so, the proportion of women and young people in that sector has gone down by half – the proportion of young people has gone from 29 per cent to 14 per cent, 30 per cent of women in the workforce down to 17 per cent. This is a key growth area where it is estimated that we will need 11,000 new entrants into the labour market every year – so there is a huge opportunity there and we need to ensure that children and young people can get access to the right education, skills and training opportunities so that if they so wish they can take advantage of jobs, such as in ICT.”

Constance points to recent figures, demonstrating that the pay gap between men and women in Scotland has dropped from 8.4 per cent to 7.6 per cent, while the UK pay gap is actually increasing, having risen from around 9.5 per cent up to ten.

But like youth unemployment, beating targets is not enough: “There is progress, but there is also still a pay gap and I reiterate – my ambition is not to outperform the UK, we have got to have higher ambitions than that, rather than just comparing ourselves to our nearest friend and neighbour. But getting more women into industries like ICT and also science, technology, engineering and maths will help us go some way towards closing it. That is why issues around the differences between the types of work that men and women do, as well as their experiences in the work place, is so important, and it is an opportunity that I relish.”

She continues: “Now there is no doubt we have made tremendous progress – my life is very different from my mother’s in terms of my career, the jobs I have had, in terms of benefiting from higher education, I have had a much more privileged life than my mother does and I think that is testimony to the progress that women have made, but also to the determination and the sacrifice of women like my mother who were absolutely determined that irrespective of background, their children would get opportunity. But I am also under no illusions – just because I have had a better life than my mother, there are still women out there struggling to take their place in the world of work and it would be the height of conceit to think that just because I have done alright, there is no reason that other people can’t and I see that as a big part of my job. We have travelled some distance, but we still have a way to go yet. There is a big national prize out there for us if we can have young people and women freed up by having access to a range of choices that will allow them to reach their full potential and allow them to take their rightful place in the world of work. Our economy and our country will benefit from that in ways – from where we are sitting now – that are currently quite hard to imagine. But we need big ambitions.”

At this point, the new Cabinet Secretary is due to travel to the zoo for her meeting with the apprentices. But before leaving, she remembers the need to keep employment up, checking: “Is there anything else you need to ask me? I don’t want you to get in trouble with your boss…”

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