Laying the foundations for an inclusive, tolerant, outward-looking society

I’m just home from the SNP’s annual conference. We were delighted to welcome more than 3000 delegates to Glasgow’s SECC – giving a welcome boost to the city’s economy.

But I’m not surprised that it was so busy – we live in very interesting political times.

We spent a lot of time discussing how to mitigate the economic uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote.

More than ever, we need to let other countries know that Scotland is open for business.

That’s why I announced plans to significantly step up Scotland’s overseas presence – doubling the number of Scottish Development International staff in Europe, new trade envoys to represent Scotland abroad and a new trade and investment hub in Berlin.

We didn’t create this Brexit uncertainty – and Scotland didn’t vote for it – but we have a duty to manage it.

Amidst all this turmoil, one thing becoming clear is the difference between our vision of a fairer, outward-looking Scotland, and the increasingly xenophobic, insular vision being pursued by the Tories.

Some of the language emanating from the Tory conference – attacks on foreign students and doctors, and demands to ‘name and shame’ companies which employ foreign workers – was abhorrent.

But it’s not just the attacks on foreigners. It’s the way in which the disabled and sick are treated with mistrust and suspicion when trying to access social security.

Or those seeking help to get into employment are often humiliated.

The hard right are very much in control of the Tory government.

By contrast, the SNP vision is one of inclusion – making sure that everyone who lives here is able to contribute to society and share in the benefits too.

That inclusion theme ran through many of the announcements we made this weekend.

Like the ‘baby box’, which will see every new baby receive a box full of essential items.

This is an initiative borrowed from Finland, where it’s credited with reducing infant mortality.

We’ll be rolling these out from January, and every new born will receive one from next summer.

And there’s also the revolution in childcare provision that we’re implementing.

Access to flexible, good quality childcare doesn’t just help young kids – it also broadens the employment opportunities for their parents.

Over this Parliament, we will double the amount of state funded early years education for all three and four year olds, and the most disadvantaged two year olds.

The next step is to ensure that it is available when and where parents need it.

So I’ve announced radical proposals to make childcare more flexible. Parents will be able to choose a nursery or childminder that suits – and ask their council to fund it.

Alternatively, they could receive the funding in a special childcare account, and then use it to directly purchase a suitable place.

The system works well for many parents right now – but just adding in that bit of flexibility will help ensure that the benefits of this ambitious policy can reach everybody.

But there’s another group of people for whom I don’t think any government can ever do enough.

I’ve recently been spending time with young people who have grown up in care.

Many young people who grow up in care go on to do great things.

But only six per cent of people who grow up in care go on to university. Almost half will suffer mental health issues. Half the adult prison population will have had experience of care.

And someone who has been in care is twenty times more likely to be dead by the time they are 25 than someone who hasn’t.

No one could look at those heart-breaking statistics and not believe that we as a society need to do more.

So I’m going to do what these young people have asked me to do – listen to their experiences, and make the care system better.

I’ve announced an independent, root-and-branch review of the care system. Crucially it’ll be driven by those who have experience of care themselves.

Finally, I set out plans to further reform Scotland’s NHS. We want to see more care in the community – away from hospitals – so an extra £500 million will be going into GP services and health centres by the end of this parliament.

That means 11 per cent of the frontline NHS budget will be spent on primary care – a landmark commitment which GPs called for.

I don’t pretend that all of Scotland’s challenges can be addressed overnight. But I know about the kind of inclusive, tolerant, outward-looking society I want Scotland to be – and I’m determined to lay the foundations now to make that vision a reality.

This article first appeared in the Evening Times.