The new Parliamentary term has had a busy start.
Our return to Holyrood has been accompanied by some encouraging economic figures. Not only is Scotland seeing higher economic growth and higher economic productivity than the UK, but our jobs market is also faring well – unemployment has never been lower, and employment has never been higher.
In my last column I touched on our Programme for Government, due to be published later that day.
I promised that our plans for this session would be bold and ambitious, and I’m pleased to see that they have received an overwhelmingly positive response – not just here at home, but outwith Scotland as well.
As well as taking forward our radical new measures to give parents and teachers a greater say in how their schools are run, we’ll continue to set the agenda on environmental measures with new Low Emission Zones in our cities, and phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars by 2032.
I was also delighted to announce that Free Personal Care – which has been one of devolution’s great success stories – will be extended to those under 65 who need it.
This follows a long-running campaign by Amanda Kopel, the widow of Dundee United legend Frank Kopel.
We must also be bold when it comes to new ideas – that’s why we are supporting work to test the feasibility of a Citizen’s Basic Income, and providing access to sanitary products for students in schools, colleges and universities to fight 'period poverty.'
Today I want to focus on one particular issue, which has been the cause of heated political debate over the last couple of weeks.
Making pay fairer is something I’ve been personally committed to as First Minister.
For instance, we’ve been working hard to increase uptake of the real Living Wage in Scotland – not only is it now paid across the public sector, but we are also encouraging good practice in the private sector with our Living Wage Accreditation Scheme.
As a result, a higher proportion of people are paid at least the living wage in Scotland than any other nation in the UK.
But more generally, pay restraint has been a big issue for families across the UK over the last few years.
I read a fairly damning statistic a while back that the UK was currently experiencing the longest period of wage stagnation since the Second World War.
Many of you reading this will work in our public sector – or will have a close family member who does.
Our public sector workers have had their pay rises capped for seven years.
This has been difficult – but it has helped ensure that, in Scotland, we have been able to maintain our policy of no compulsory redundancies across our public sector.
Bluntly, we have been able to keep more people in work by having pay restraint.
It has also enabled us to target pay increases to those on the lowest salaries.
But as I’ve acknowledged, with inflation now increasing and living costs on the rise – as well as continued social security cuts coming from Westminster – this pay cap is unsustainable.
That’s why I announced before the election that we intend to lift the 1 per cent pay cap.
So far the Scottish Government is the only government in the UK to have given such a firm commitment.
You may have heard Theresa May’s sudden announcement last week that police and prison officers in England and Wales were to receive increases slightly bigger than the pay cap.
The ink on this announcement was barely dry before the unions were pointing out that these increases did not go far enough. The Chancellor is not providing any extra cash to fund these increases – they would come from within existing police and prison services budgets.
Meanwhile in Wales, the Labour Government have said they will only increase the pay of its NHS staff if the Tories at Westminster give them the money to do so.
The SNP Government will take a different approach.
We will work in partnership with unions, with workers and with pay review bodies to secure a deal that lifts the 1 per cent cap and rewards our workers for the work they do – and is also sustainable and affordable for taxpayers.
And we will call on the Chancellor to loosen the purse strings too.
Scotland now has increased tax powers – and we will consider carefully how to use them. But these powers remain limited and much of our budget is determined by Westminster – so the decisions the Chancellor takes continue to have a direct impact on the affordability of policies we want to pursue here in Scotland.
The hard work of our nurses, our teachers and our policemen has helped ensure that Scotland has the best-performing NHS in the UK, our exam passes have hit historic levels, and recorded crime in Scotland is at a 42-year low.
They deserve all the support we can give them – that’s why I’m personally committed to ensuring they get the fairest possible pay settlement. I hope the UK government is too.
This article originally appeared in the Evening Times.
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