Nicola Sturgeon takes a look back at the last year
The First Minister writes exclusively for Holyrood on the last year in Scottish politics
Nicola Sturgeon - image credit: David Anderson
Looking back over the past 12 months, I believe we can be incredibly proud of the progress we have made. At the same time, however, my focus is very much on the future as we continue to drive the improvements and positive change that can make Scotland a better place for everyone who lives here.
The introduction of the baby box, with all newborns in Scotland and their parents receiving a box of essential items to help with the first six months, is a tangible symbol of the Scottish Government’s overriding commitment to improve outcomes for our young people, raising attainment and reducing inequalities.
Not only will the baby box cut the cost of providing for a child in the early stages of life, it also can help improve infant health and support parents. This is one of a range of measures we have introduced to give more children the best possible start in life – including providing free vitamins and healthy start vouchers for free milk, fruit and vegetables to pregnant women and low-income families with young children.
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The importance of early years development simply cannot be overstated, which is why my government is putting so much emphasis on doing all we can to improve the life chances of youngsters across Scotland.
In doing so, we want to help close the gap which sees too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds lag behind when it comes to health, educational achievement and employment. This is about laying the foundations for future generations, with the aim of helping deliver a healthier, fairer and more successful country.
We have already expanded free, high-quality childcare provision to 600 hours a year for all three and four-year-olds and extended it to two-year-olds from low-income households, saving families up to £2,500 per child per year. By the end of this parliament, we will double that provision to 1,140 hours.
On educational standards and attainment, we have made progress but understand there is more to do. Earlier in the summer John Swinney announced bold plans for school reform, aimed at delivering excellence and equity by raising the bar for all – no matter where a child comes from – while keeping up the momentum in terms of closing the attainment gap.
Of course, I cannot reflect on the past year, or look forward to the challenges to come, without considering the shadow that Brexit and the UK Government’s muddled negotiating position is casting on Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Leaving the European single market and customs union threatens to be hugely damaging to jobs, investment and living standards. The Westminster government’s position papers that have been published so far on issues including future customs arrangements and the Irish border have done nothing to lessen those concerns.
The UK Government has of course confirmed that the EU Withdrawal Bill will require the Scottish Parliament’s legislative consent – and we have made clear that, as currently drafted, there is no way we can recommend to MSPs that they endorse it.
That is because the current proposals are a blatant power grab that threaten the very foundations of the devolved settlement. They would see powers over wholly devolved policy areas, including areas like agriculture and fishing, repatriated from Brussels to Westminster instead of Holyrood. We will continue to have discussions on the bill with UK ministers but they should be in no doubt about how seriously we view this issue.
It is also imperative that Scotland’s voice is heard in the Brexit negotiation process, and we will continue to press to have Scottish representation in the talks as they progress, along with a similar direct role for all of the devolved nations.
Back on the domestic front, improving the health of people is a top priority for any government. Therefore, it is significant that in this past year we have started to shift extra resources into primary care, as part of a commitment to increase spending in primary care and GP services by £500m.
With more than 14,000 cancer cases a year where obesity and poor diet are a significant risk factor, we will take targeted action and this autumn will consult on a new diet and obesity strategy. There is no quick fix and it’s important we take the time to get our approach right.
Over the last year, significant progress has been made in the complex process of establishing a new social security system for Scotland – one that is underpinned by dignity, fairness and respect and will play a key role in tackling inequalities. While it is important to remember that the bulk of powers over welfare policy remain at Westminster, once devolved, the new social security powers will include 11 benefits that pay out £2.8bn a year to 1.4 million people. It’s those people that our new system must work for.
Crime levels continue to fall and Scotland has become a safer place. Yet we strive for greater progress, not least as inequality continues to influence the likelihood of someone being a victim of crime or being drawn into offending. The Justice Secretary recently unveiled an ambitious new strategy to create fairer and more resilient communities across Scotland. Our decisive shift in approach to youth justice, intervening earlier and providing multi-agency support, has seen huge falls in youth offending and we continue to draw lessons from that success.
Scotland already has some of the strongest rights for homeless people anywhere in the world. This has led to falling homelessness levels in recent years – despite challenges such as the UK Government’s welfare cuts and benefit cap.
However, we still want to do more. We are committed to delivering 50,000 more affordable homes across Scotland by 2021, with 35,000 available for social rent. And as a priority, we are addressing homelessness for people with more complex needs, who may be rough sleeping and for whom simply providing accommodation is not always enough, as well as ensuring temporary accommodation helps address the needs of homeless households. We will continue to work with partners to effect change, tackling underlying causes to try and prevent problems developing.
Our status as a climate change leader has been reinforced through our new plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90 per cent by 2050. We are also currently consulting on a Climate Change Bill to raise further our ambitious and already world-leading emissions reduction targets.
In the coming year, we will help communities cut carbon emissions by reopening the Climate Challenge Fund. This commitment builds on the £86m investment in more than 600 communities since 2008.
We have recently seen the completion of two major Scottish infrastructure projects: the Queensferry Crossing and the M8/M73/M74 upgrade. The Queensferry Crossing is not only a stunning piece of Scottish engineering, complementing the Forth and Forth Road bridges, once it opens to traffic it will also provide a vital transport connection for many years to come.
We anticipate we will quickly see the economic benefit of the half a billion pound Motorways Improvement Project. These significant upgrades to the central Scotland motorway network will improve connections for business and road users alike.
Meanwhile, work is well under way on both the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and the dualling of the A9, meaning more than 250km of new roads will have been completed in the last ten years, a total investment of £2.81bn.
Our £428m Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme has meant more than 750,000 homes and businesses can now connect to fibre broadband. More than 90 per cent of Scotland is now connected to superfast broadband, and we are committed to universal coverage nationwide by 2021.
In the year ahead, the firm focus of my government will continue to be on creating a fairer and more prosperous nation, where everyone has the chance to flourish. We are making good progress, but there is much more we want to achieve on the journey to make Scotland the very best it can be.