Nicola Sturgeon's focus on an inclusive Scotland
Inclusion was the key theme of Nicola Sturgeon’s closing speech at the SNP conference and an ongoing concern in the shaping of Scotland’s new devolved powers
Poverty - Image credit: Holyrood
If ‘education, education, education’ was the slogan of New Labour in the last years of the 20th century, ‘inclusion, inclusion, inclusion’ could be the watchword of the SNP government today.
It has been heard repeatedly in relation to the economy, with the term ‘inclusive growth’ something of a slogan, and it featured in Nicola Sturgeon’s two speeches that bookended the recent SNP conference.
Sturgeon’s opening speech concentrated on Brexit, setting the party in contrast to the Conservatives and including the announcement that the Scottish Government’s white paper on a second independence referendum would be published last week.
The second speech focused more on Scottish domestic issues, the party’s dominance over Labour, the SNP’s vision for the country and announcements of new Scottish Government policies.
In her opening speech, Sturgeon referred to inclusion in the context of the party’s work to build a “better, fairer Scotland”.
She was even more explicit about the inclusion theme in her closing speech, telling delegates: “If you remember just one word from my speech today, I want it to be this one. It begins with an ‘I’. No, not that one! Not yet.
“The word I want you to remember is this - inclusion. Inclusion is the guiding principle for everything we do. It encapsulates what we stand for as a party and it describes the kind of country we want Scotland to be.
“An inclusive country. A country where everyone has the opportunity to contribute to a better future and to share in the benefits of that better future.
“A country which works for those who value the security they currently have and for those who yearn for change.
“A country where we value people for the contribution they make. Not one where we will ever judge them on their country of birth or the colour of their passport.
“That is the inclusive Scotland we are working to build. And I’m proud of the progress we’ve made.”
While the reference to valuing people for their contribution, not where they come from, repeated in almost exactly the same words in both speeches, was certainly intended as a dig at the UK Government’s immigration policy in the context of Brexit, inclusion in general is also the area of notable difference between the UK and Scottish governments and a thread running through much of current Scottish Government policy.
Although Brexit prompted Sturgeon’s focus on one aspect of inclusion, her speech was not simply about the EU debacle.
Two key policy announcements related to inclusion on different matters: a review of the care system for children and changes to the free childcare places.
The latter would allow parents to choose a nursery or childminder themselves and have the Scottish Government funding follow the child.
These policy announcements were perhaps fewer and lower key than in some other speeches, with no long lists of million-pound new spends, but the review of the care system for looked-after children, the first such wholesale review of its kind, has been enthusiastically greeted by those affected.
After the speech, care-experienced young people waved pink hearts in response and Harry O’Neill, a member of Who Cares? Scotland, writing on the organisation’s website, said: “It is impossible to put into words how elated I am that not only were our voices heard, action is now being taken to change and rebuild the broken care system.”
It is in areas like this that Holyrood and Westminster most diverge.
Westminster is scrapping the 2010 Child Poverty Act and changing the definition of poverty to mean lack of social mobility, rather than lack of income.
Speaking at a fringe event on abolishing child poverty at the SNP conference, Hanna McCulloch of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) referred to the UK Government “defining child poverty out of existence.”
In stark contrast, the Scottish Government is now consulting on a new child poverty bill and on how best to use Scotland’s new devolved social security powers, with a target of abolishing child poverty completely by 2030.
While the post-Brexit debate rumbles on and the prospect of another independence referendum hangs in the air, it is in inclusion, equality and the eradication of poverty that most of the future work of the Scottish Government lies, whether that relates to education, housing, jobs, food or heat.
And this is a key turning point, with new powers that come with the Scotland Act giving Scotland greater opportunity to shape its welfare policies in ways it so chooses.
Speaking at the SNP conference fringe event on child poverty, Equalities Secretary Angela Constance called devolution of the benefits budget “the biggest change in the history of devolution”.
But as Tony Blair found with his education and public sector reform ambitions, the test for the Scottish Government will be not in its good intentions, but in delivery.
At the same fringe event, Constance noted: “If eradicating child poverty was easy, we would have done it by now.”
There are suggestions coming in from various voices as to what some of the actions should be.
Sturgeon’s speech was delivered at an apposite time, coming as it did at the beginning of Challenge Poverty Week, seven days of events aimed at challenging stereotypes of poverty, highlighting what is being done to address it and raising awareness.
Last week, Nourish Scotland published a report on children and food poverty commissioned by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Tam Baillie, in which children gave their views on food insecurity.
The report summarises the research findings of a study where children’s views were gathered on food poverty, their experiences, concerns and suggestions.
The title of the report, ‘Living is More Important than Just Surviving’, came from a comment by one child on the use of foodbanks.
Following its publication, Baillie called on the Scottish Government to top-up child benefit to eradicate child food poverty.
He said: “We know that almost one in five children in Scotland are living in relative poverty and charities report that a third of people depending on foodbanks are children.
“This can only harm children’s physical and mental wellbeing. Unless their basic need to be well nourished is met, we cannot expect children to concentrate at school or on other activities.”
Scottish Labour held a roundtable on poverty in the Scottish Parliament as part of Challenge Poverty Week.
That event, chaired by Labour MSP and spokesperson for social justice Pauline McNeill, was attended by the Scottish Government’s anti-poverty tsar, Naomi Eisenstadt.
It brought together experts from academia and the third and public sectors, including Barnardo’s, SCVO, SFHA, Shelter, CPAG, Poverty Alliance, Oxfam and Inclusion Scotland, to discuss where we are now in terms of tackling poverty and where we go from here.
Eisenstadt praised the Scottish Government for its commitment to the issue and commented that “even having this discussion is so astounding and such a privilege”, contrasting with the situation in England, where she lives.
Earlier this year, Eisenstadt gave the Scottish Government her twelve-point list of recommendations, which included expansion of the living wage, after-school free childcare hours, careful use of the new devolved benefits powers and abolishing council tax.
Among the issues discussed at the roundtable were the Child Poverty Bill proposed by the Scottish Government, childcare, devolved welfare powers, benefits sanctions and employability, and foodbanks.
One suggested key aim is to be able to abolish foodbanks. Councillor Matt Kerr of Glasgow City Council mentioned the humiliation people feel using a foodbank and highlighted that they are currently acting as a sort of surrogate welfare state.
“We’re handing the welfare state over to voluntarism, and that’s what the welfare state was designed to eliminate,” he said.
Ewan Gurr, of foodbank charity The Trussell Trust, quoted William Beveridge, founder of the welfare state, saying: “Adventure came not from the half-starved, but those well fed enough to feel ambition.”
Benefits sanctions were raised and Kerr maintained the message sanctions send to young people is that the state doesn’t value them.
Gurr commented: “We used to sanction foreign dictators, now we sanction poor people. We used to give yellow cards to footballers, now we use it as an early warning system. We need to get the language sorted out.”
He also brought up the issue of period poverty, not just in terms of sanitary products, but also pain relief, noting that we don’t like to talk about it, but we have to.
Wealth inheritance was another topic that was mentioned. When you have wealth and pass it down through generations, it puts you in a different world from those that don’t have it, McNeill said.
Childcare too was discussed, with a difference still between what the Scottish Government is offering and the recommendations in Eisenstadt’s recommendations, which included out-of-hours childcare for primary school aged children.
It appears nobody is under any illusions as to the enormity of the task. Amending the benefits system is both complex and potentially expensive. CPAG estimates that to add £5 onto child benefit would cost in the region of £256m.
At the SNP conference child poverty fringe, Angela Constance commented that she knows she can’t fix all the inequality with control of just 15 per cent of the benefits budget, but “even as a rabid Nat” she’ll not demur from trying.
One key question raised at the roundtable, though, was how much the Scottish Government is willing to invest and how it will reconcile that with its commitment not to raise income tax. That may well be a further test of the ‘I’ word.
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