Speech to STUC Annual Congress

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Congratulations once again to all of this year’s prize winners. 

It is truly inspiring to hear of the work led by trade union members across Scotland.

Last year was the first time I had the privilege of addressing you as First Minister and of presenting those awards.

On a personal level, I want to say a sincere thank you for the positive, constructive role that all of Scotland’s Trade Unions have shown in your dealings with the SNP government. You have been critical friends and constructive allies.

As First Minister it has been an absolute privilege to work alongside not just Grahame and his team, but all of Scotland’s trade unions to make Scotland a stronger, fairer and better country.

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since we met at Ayr Racecourse, on the eve of a general election that produced seismic shifts in UK politics.

This year, I address you once again in the run-up to an election – an election just as important.

In fact, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is the most important Scottish election since the Scottish Parliament was established.

That’s because, as Grahame has reminded us all, the Scottish Parliament is about to have significant new responsibilities. New powers that Scotland’s trade union movement played a key role in securing.

So all of us have a duty to make sure these powers are put to best use for the people of Scotland.

I’m going to talk a bit more about the SNP’s ambitions and aspirations for the months and years ahead in a moment – but first I think it’s worth reflecting on the last 12 months.

At a UK level, we face a completely different political landscape. A majority Tory government pushing through some of the most right-wing policies we have seen in decades.

However, there is also now a large block of SNP MPs who are resolutely opposed to the Tory government.

And working in partnership with other progressive parties, with trade unions and civil society, we have shown that the Tories can be beaten.

On a range of issues – from scrapping the Human Rights Act, to cutting tax credits for working families and cuts to disability benefits – a concerted chorus of opposition has forced David Cameron’s government into retreat.

The more time goes on – and particularly as the Conservative Party tears itself apart over the issue of Europe – that Tory majority is looking increasingly fragile.

And you have my absolute commitment today that the SNP – both in Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament – will continue to stand up to the Tories at every opportunity.

While the UK government views trade unions as opponents, the Scottish Government views you as partners.

And I believe that the partnership we have in Scotland leads to much better outcomes for all of us.

When Ferguson’s shipyard was threatened with closure, many gave it little chance of survival.

The Scottish Government set up a task force, with trade unions playing a pivotal role.

Two years on, Ferguson’s has not only survived, but is now winning orders – including public contracts – and there are plans for the workforce to increase tenfold

The shipyard is also – and I’m particularly pleased about this – taking on new apprentices, an investment both in the future of the yard and in our young people.

More recently, another task force – the Scottish Steel Task Force – succeeded in finding a buyer for the two threatened steel plants at Dalzell and Clydebridge.

Throughout that process we worked closely with Community Union.

We made a vow to those workers that we would leave no stone unturned – and we didn’t.

In other areas we have continued challenges. In the Oil and Gas sector, the input of the trade unions on the Energy Jobs Taskforce has been vital and I’m particularly pleased that we have been able to create a forum where employers and employees can openly discuss their concerns and find ways to work together to protect our North Sea industry for the future.

Our experience shows that when government, industry and trade unions work together we can achieve real results.

That approach could not be more different to that taken by the Tories. There is no starker reminder of the contempt in which the Tory government holds the Trade Union movement than their Trade Union Bill.

Now, the SNP and the STUC don’t agree on absolutely everything – and I recognise that – but I will always value a strong, vibrant trade union movement that challenges government to do more and to do it better,

So we’ll continue to work with unions – to disrupt this anti-trade union bill and do everything in our power to block it.

And we won’t just argue for Scotland to be exempted from the Bill – we will oppose it across the whole of the UK

But let me be absolutely clear – it would be an outrage if the ability of the Scottish government to work constructively with trade unions was curtailed by the ideology of the Tories.

If the SNP is returned as the government next month we will take every possible step to support trade unions to continue to do your job and to properly represent your members.

We will discuss options with the STUC including setting up a fund to support Trade Union modernisation, to optimise trade union work and to retain and enhance the role of trade unions in our public life.

Delegates, I cannot stand here today and pledge to undo all of the damage that the Tories are doing.

But I can promise that the SNP Government stands four-square with you in your opposition to this bill – and we will do absolutely everything we can to stand up for workers’ rights.

And when it comes to protecting workers’ rights there is one further action we will take.

An SNP government will continue to argue for Scotland and the UK to remain members of the EU.

The EU is far from perfect and there is much we would change, but the protections the EU offers us from an unfettered Tory government are essential.

So we’ll campaign strongly to retain our membership of the EU, and I hope we will have the support of the STUC in doing so.

And before I turn to this election – there is one further area where we will continue to challenge this Tory government and where I hope we will continue to have your support.

My opposition to Trident is not a party political game, it’s something I have believed in all my adult life. For me Trident is morally wrong.

But I also recognise that for some people, the nuclear base at Faslane is where they work – and that the abolition of Trident must be matched by a programme of diversification and alternative employment.

Alongside the moral argument, of course, is a more practical financial argument.

Renewing Trident would cost around £167 billion over its lifetime. That is, in my view, an obscenely and unacceptably high cost.

It is money which could and should be available for genuine priorities – for education, health and conventional defences.

That is the position the Scottish Parliament supported last November, and that is the position I will advocate through the next Parliament.

This election is, as I have said, vitally important.

In Grahame’s election message he issued a timely reminder to all parties to use our new powers not for short term gain, but to tackle the long term challenges we face in Scotland – and I could not agree more.

We did not argue for the new powers to use them in search of one day’s headlines – we argued for them so we could address the poverty and worklessness that has blighted some of our communities for far too long.

Tomorrow I will publish our manifesto for this election.

It will set out an ambitious, transforming and reforming plan for government. It will set out how we will deliver fair tax and tackle the poverty that affects some of our children from birth. It will set out how we will improve attainment, encourage individual ambition and social responsibility, support people into work and provide those who can’t work or who have retired with the dignity and respect they are entitled to.

It will set out our proposal to publish a Fairer Scotland Action Plan, bringing together all of our actions to tackle poverty and inequalities. The Action Plan will be informed by the recommendations of the Poverty Adviser – which we will implement in full – and the Fair Work Convention, where Trade Unions have played such an important part.

Our focus will be on tackling the root causes of poverty and deprivation – not just on mitigating the cuts imposed by a Westminster government.

It will mean transformational childcare, reforming our NHS and investing in housing and communities.

We also recognise that while government has the responsibility to lead and drive change, eradicating poverty cannot be done by government alone. We need to harness the efforts of all of society – including the public, private and third sectors – to work towards the common goal of an equal and prosperous country.

That is why, as soon as we have the powers to do so, we will commence the socio-economic duty contained in the Equalities Act 2010 to require all public bodies to evaluate their policies against the duty to reduce inequalities.

We will also re-appoint an Independent Adviser on Poverty and Inequality and establish a Poverty and Inequality Commission to provide expert advice to ministers on how to tackle poverty and measure and monitor the progress made across all portfolios and all parts of Scotland.

We’ll take a cross-government approach using health, education and our economic powers to drive change in Scotland.

But I particularly want to talk today about how we will use our new powers in relation to social security and employability, to create opportunity and empower individuals.

The Tory Government’s Work and Work Choice Programmes have failed unemployed and disabled people.

The drive to extract private profit from providing skills and opportunities for work has distorted the programme, as has the decision to cut funding for employment support services – which means that the money to be transferred to Scotland alongside these new powers will be almost 90% less than had been expected.

In fact, it is likely that just £7 million will be transferred from the UK government to Scotland to support these services instead of the estimated £54million.

However, we are determined that we will not allow those who need help to get into work to pay the price of the UK government’s cuts and bad decisions.

So we’ll invest an additional £20 million a year – over and above the funding that is transferred from Westminster – to ensure that those who need to be supported into employment get that support.

To ensure continuity, transitional arrangements will be in place for one year from April next year.

We will then deliver new services from 2018 to provide effective support for those who face the most significant barriers to finding and sustaining employment.

The services will be nationally designed, but delivered locally, to reflect local circumstances and meet local need. And just like we will do with social security, we will ensure the principles of fairness, dignity and respect are at the heart of our new employability support services.

The Tories’ mishandling of employability support over the last few years is damning enough.

But as we have seen recently their approach to disability benefits and disability assessments has been even worse.

At all times, it seems that the Tories’ only guiding principle has been to save money.

With new powers coming to the Scottish Parliament around disability benefits, I will be proud to take a different course.

Let me be absolutely clear that under an SNP Government there will be no DWP target led assessments of those in need of disability benefits

Earlier this year I announced the creation of a new Scottish Social Security Agency.

Its ethos will be very different to that pursued by the UK Government – it will be guided by the principles of dignity and respect.

When the SNP manifesto is published tomorrow, you will see several clear pledges.

There will be clear timescales for assessments and decisions, a transparent appeals process, and no means-testing for disability benefits.

We’ll reform assessment procedures – to ensure they work for service users, and we will stop the revolving door of assessments and related stress and anxiety for those with long-term illnesses, disabilities or conditions.

We’ll introduce long-term awards for existing long-term conditions that are unlikely to change, and ensure people get the right level of award as time goes on. And we will fast track those who have terminal illnesses.

Finally, a new Disability Benefits Assessment Commission will provide recommendations and guidance eligibility criteria, on how often assessments should be carried out, and on what conditions should be given automatic or lifetime awards.

In Scotland we will show that there is another way, a better way, a fairer way.

Our Social Security system and our approach to Fair Work are a key part of our belief that a competitive economy is also an inclusive economy.

The STUC have been at the heart of the development of Fair Work in Scotland.

And in the next parliamentary term, with your support, I hope we can make a real leap forward in fair work practices.

In our first 100 days we’ll bring forward a new Labour Market Strategy, informed by the work of the independent Fair Work Convention.

A key part of that strategy will to be to continue our work on rolling out the living wage and generating more, better paid jobs.

A higher proportion of the workforce in Scotland are already paid the living wage – the real living wage, not George Osborne’s pretend living wage – than any other nation in the UK.

And I’m delighted that the living wage will be paid to social care workers from October.

This will benefit around 40,000 people – and I can think of few groups of people who deserve a pay rise more than our care workers.

But in the next Parliament we want to go further. Our manifesto will set a new target of doubling – to 1000 – the number of accredited Living Wage employers by autumn next year.

Improving low pay will also help us to tackle gender inequality – a key personal priority of mine – as too many women are in low paid jobs.

Another important step in breaking down gender barriers is ensuring that where there is discrimination there is access to justice. So with the transfer of powers over Employment Tribunals to Scotland, I can confirm that an SNP Government will abolish fees for Employment Tribunals, ensuring that employees have a fair opportunity to have their case heard.

And while many local authorities have taken action to deliver equal pay, some continue to lag behind. A re-elected SNP Government will look to apply penalties to councils that do not honour their obligation to deliver equal pay

We will continue to do everything that we possibly can to ensure that public procurement supports good workplace practices and that companies that engage in unacceptable workplace practices – like blacklisting, exploitative use of zero-hours contracts or tax evasion – do not benefit from public procurement.

Before I finish, I want to mention one further area where we will use our new powers. We have long argued, with your support, against the absurd position that sees public sector operators from other countries able to bid to run public rail services in Scotland, but our own public sector unable to do so.

One of the recommendations of the Smith Commission was that Holyrood should have the power to change that. We will continue to have to tender services – it will not be within our gift to change that. But our manifesto will make clear that a re-elected SNP government will use new powers to change the law to ensure that in future a Scottish public sector body will be able to bid to run Scotland’s railways.

To the people here for the Calmac campaign today, I can promise we will continue to work with you to protect our lifeline ferry services, because the communities that are served by these services absolutely rely on them. They are some of the most important services we provide in this country and I understand the passion that is demonstrated for them.

Congress, working with Scotland’s Trade Unions has been an immense privilege not just over the last 16 months but over the last nine years.

You are a core part of our public life and a central part of Scottish democracy.

In the next two weeks each and every one of you will have the chance to make your own personal choice as to who should form the next government and who should be the next First Minister.

Today I’ve given you a flavour of what you can expect from an SNP government in the next Parliament – I hope over the last 16 months, I’ve shown you the kind of committed and determined First Minister that you will have in me.

And if I have the honour of being returned as First Minister in just over two weeks’ time, my door will always be open to Scotland’s trade union movement.

Together, we can continue to shape a better future for Scotland for everybody who lives and works here.