Social justice is not just in my job title. It’s in my DNA.
It’s why I went into social work, it’s why I went into politics and it’s why I joined the SNP, because I know independence is vital to achieving a fair and equal society for us all.
And it is social justice which is one of the starkest contrasts between the Scottish Government and the Tories at Westminster.
The tale of two governments is there for people to see.
Look at their callous attacks on the most vulnerable, the poorest, working families – and compare to the progressive positive polices of the SNP, through our manifesto for a fourth term, and through the SNP Scottish Government’s Programme for Government.
It can be summed up simply. They don’t care. We do.
During the pandemic, we were quick to provide an unprecedented level of support to keep people and communities safe and provided £1 billion for support for food, crisis grants, housing support, third sector, combatting loneliness, and to support our local authorities.
We made sure people were still able access free school meals throughout the holidays.
Now we have the commitment of extending free lunches to all primary children, and to introduce breakfast clubs.
Unlike the Tories, we weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to make sure children got that support.
Unlike the Tories, we didn’t have to be shamed into it by the fantastic campaigning of Marcus Rashford. We did this willingly because it’s the right thing to do.
And unlike the Tories who scrapped child poverty targets and the child poverty unit, we established a Poverty and Inequality Commission and are doing all we can to tackle child poverty head on.
The Scottish Government has introduced the Best Start Grant, Best Start Foods, the Child Winter Heating Payment for families with a severely disabled child, and of course the game changing Scottish Child Payment.
The Tories have given us the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the five week wait for the failing Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, and the odious cap on children and subsequent abhorrent rape clause.
The Scottish Government are providing a package of support that sees low income families receive over £5000 of additional support in the early years of a child’s life.
Scotland is the only part of the UK with this level of support and a dedicated payment to support low income families currently for children under 6, then under 16 by the end of next year.
Our manifesto committed to double that payment to £20 in this parliamentary term. Four times the amount originally called for to tackle child poverty.
And delegates, we will do this as soon as possible. Unlike the opposition, who only talk about doubling the Scottish Child Payment, it is this SNP Government that will actually deliver the money into the hands of families in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the Tories are getting ready to rip further essential support from the poorest families in just three weeks.
In recognition that Universal Credit is not enough to live on, the Chancellor admitted he was increasing it, and I quote, “to strengthen the safety net”.
Yet it was under his government’s watch that the safety net was weakened. He only raised it as he knew more people would need to rely on benefits during the pandemic and the amount was not enough to live on.
The Chancellor admitted, and again I quote, “to benefit our most vulnerable households”.
Yet they are no less vulnerable now than they were then, if anything with the impact of Brexit and the pandemic they are more so.
But in 23 days, despite the stacks of evidence showing that across the UK millions will be impacted, hundreds of thousands will be pushed into poverty – 60,000 in Scotland, including 20,000 children – the Tories are pressing ahead with the biggest reduction to a basic rate of social security since the modern welfare state began, more than 70 years ago.
And for those who want us to mitigate every cut the Tories make, I say this – give us the powers to do so.
To bring about a socially just Scotland, we need independence and we need the SNP.
The Conservatives in Westminster and Holyrood don’t want to make our country a greener, better, fairer, place for us to live and work. The SNP do.
Labour will wring their hands but don’t want us to have the powers to make the changes we want to see.
Despite their manifesto in May saying they wanted the Parliament to have powers over employment, in June, they refused to join us in sending a letter to the UK Government to urge them to do just that.
I want our national Parliament to have the powers to tackle the drivers of child poverty.
I want our Parliament to be able to raise the minimum wage to the real living wage and stop insecure employment.
I want our Parliament to have the full powers over social security to tackle inequality and treat people with respect and dignity.
I want us to have the normal borrowing powers of any country.
Which is why we need independence.
And I believe people will look at what we can do with the powers of a normal independent nation and realise that is how we can create a fairer, more equal, stronger Scotland
That was the mission of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which I had the privilege of leading along with Neil Gray.
Our aim was to deliver a route map to a fair independent Scotland that values and cares for everyone who lives here.
A way of highlighting what more we can do with full powers to build on the progressive policies of the Scottish Government.
So let me now turn to those progressive policies and how we are leading the way forward using the limited powers we do have.
Annually, we invest around £2 billion to support low income households with nearly £1 billion of that to families.
Scotland is the only part of the UK which has a dedicated payment to tackle child poverty head on – with our Scottish Child Payment already delivering for 108,000 children under 6, and we are on track to roll out to under 16s by the end of next year.
But we decided not to wait till then to support families. We have taken unprecedented action by introducing Bridging Payments.
That means, this year and next we will pay an annual £520 – the same amount as Scottish Child Payment to provide immediate support to around 145,000 children and young people of school age.
Alongside Scottish Child Payment, that’s an investment in our poorest children of £145 million this year. Both a significant intervention and clear action right now.
Another bold and radical area of action is establishing a Minimum Income Guarantee, which has the potential of transforming poverty and inequality to ensure everyone has enough to live a dignified life.
I’ve already established an expert group and we had our first meeting to start the process.
That is not all we are doing.
Following our election win in May, we have hit the ground running with our aspirations for a fairer, greener, more equal society. We have a raft of measures to tackle poverty and supporting our most vulnerable.
Anyone that has been the victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence must be able to get access to the services we need at the time they need it.
I am appalled that we even need such services in the second decade of the 21st century, and especially that we saw need increase during the lockdown.
But we will always stand up for women and girls and tackle violence against them.
That’s why on top of support we provided in the pandemic, we provided a further £5 million in July to support frontline organisations to deal with that increased demand.
And the first round of the £100 million we will invest in this area was announced in August by my colleague Equalities and Older People Minister, Christina McKelvie.
Another immediate action we took was to lay the legislation to ensure our unpaid carers, who we already pay an additional £230 twice a year, get a double payment this Christmas.
This replicates what we did last year in recognition that unpaid carers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
My portfolio colleague, Social Security Minister Ben Macpherson, is now taking this bill through parliament.
We have also transformed the way low income parents get additional support to buy healthy food whilst pregnant and for children under three.
We took over this benefit from the UK Government and made it work better for people, introducing a simple and easy to use prepaid card that can be used online and in shops.
One of our first actions on returning to government was to increase the amount of Best Start Food payments and our next step is to increase the eligibility to reach more people – doubling our investment in this benefit.
And in the future, we have many more plans.
Our new carers assistance and disability benefits will all be introduced in this term, new and more improved benefits than the UK version they replace.
With the Scottish Parliament’s new devolved powers over social security, we have had the opportunity to make benefits work better for people.
Some of the benefits we will replace need transformational changes. One of these is the Cold Weather Payment which is a payment of £25, but which is only paid if the weather reaches zero degrees and stays there for a full week.
It’s not a case of making this fit for purpose – it’s time to do something altogether better.
Therefore, we will bring stability and security to this payment by introducing a new annual £50 Winter Heating Payment specifically for low income households currently eligible for Cold Weather Payments.
This will be an investment of £20 million every year to support 400,000 eligible households who will no longer have to hope it becomes cold enough for long enough to get help with their fuel bills.
And we will introduce another brand new benefit too.
The Care Experienced Grant of £200 a year to support young care experienced people between the ages of 16 and 26.
A decade of support for around 50,000 young people who don’t have support that so many take for granted as they start higher education, enter the workplace, or seek to start their first home.
Having a home that is warm, affordable and in the location you want it to be is vital.
That is why since we were elected in 2007, we have invested heavily to create affordable housing across the country.
We can be incredibly proud of our record of delivering more than 102,000 affordable homes since then, with 71,000 for social rent.
In the past four years, this government delivered over 75% more affordable homes per head of population than in both England and Wales – and over nine times more social rented properties per head of population than England.
That is an incredible achievement.
And we are continuing with our ambitions in housing which we know can tackle poverty and inequalities, can support our climate change and decarbonisation targets, support up to 15,000 jobs a year and sustainable economic growth, and of course, provide homes to thousands.
Through our deal with the Scottish Green Party, we have increased our initial 100,000 target and are now committed to delivering 110,000 affordable homes by 2032, of which at least 70% will be available for social rent and 10% will be in our remote, rural and island communities.
We will also bring forward a new and strengthened deal for tenants and continue with our plans to eradicate rough sleeping and homelessness.
Martin Luther King Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
It is that principle that drives the SNP Scottish Government. The actions that I set out are just a few examples of the work being carried out in my social justice portfolio.
They are more than providing practical help to those who need it most. They are an expression of our values and of the fairer more equal society we want to create.
And when it comes to the next independence referendum, we can ask the people of Scotland: what do you want for your country?
Who do you trust to deliver social justice, social security and our social contract, as we look to recover from Covid and support all the people of our country?
A callous Tory Westminster government led by Boris Johnson and his cronies?
Or an SNP Government with the full powers of a normal nation to bring about the independent, progressive, stronger, greener and fairer country we all seek.