The debate is important for our Parliament. Like many of my colleagues across the Parliament, I want to focus on how the Parliament can foster economic growth, not as a means to an end in itself but as a means of encouraging our constituents to reach their potential and reap the financial rewards.
I start on a positive note. I think that members of all parties accept the principle of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and that in that regard the Government’s commitment to promoting the living wage in the private sector is worth while and ought to be commended. We know that more than 400,000 Scots are paid less than the living wage. Around 51,000 of those people live in Central Scotland, the region that I represent. A living wage would mean, on average, an annual wage rise of more than £2,600 for every one of those people who is in a full-time position.
I know that I am not the only parliamentarian who has heard from employees and employers about the benefits of the living wage, not just for the workforce, which receives more equitable wages, but for employers. Research from the Poverty Alliance suggests that there is a direct correlation between the living wage being paid and a 25 per cent fall in absenteeism, that there is a positive impact on recruitment and retention and that some 80 per cent of employers think that paying a living wage enhanced the quality of staff’s work. The cabinet secretary acknowledged that in his speech. We know that the economic benefits of the living wage are impressive. Staff who receive the pay increase are likely to spend the money in their communities and on the businesses on which we rely for our economy to prosper.
However, the Government’s record on the living wage is not perfect. It is true that the Scottish Government is a living wage employer; it is rightly praised for that. However, many of the less glamorous jobs in the Scottish Government’s offices are outsourced to private sector companies, who are under no obligation to pay our cleaners, janitors or kitchen staff the living wage, despite it being something that the people for whom they cater and clean take for granted.
Scottish Labour has in the past introduced proposals in Parliament calling on the Scottish Government to rectify that situation. The proposals, which were supported by trade unions and charities alike across civic Scotland, demanded that the Government use its powers over procurement to promote the living wage in the private sector. However, the Government rejected them, in contrast to the stated aim of its motion: the desire to build a better, fairer Scotland in which our growing economy is used to improve the condition of the low paid.
I am pleased to speak in support of Jackie Baillie’s amendment. It reiterates our values and priorities, nowhere more so than in the last line, which states:
“the foundation of Scotland’s economic strategy must be a successful education policy and that therefore tackling educational inequality must not only be a political priority but also a spending priority.”
Our new leader Kezia Dugdale has spoken eloquently in the chamber and outside it about the need to ensure that our schools are world-class centres of learning, and she has argued strongly that we should not settle for standards remaining “satisfactory”.
I will take this opportunity to talk about school leavers, and to challenge once again the Scottish Government’s position on further education. As someone who went from high school to college and then on to university, I can personally attest to the importance of our college sector in preparing young people either for work or, as in my case, for higher education.
We know that it is predominantly people from less affluent backgrounds who go to colleges. With that in mind, it is difficult to understand how the Government can claim to be pursuing an economic strategy
“characterised by inclusive growth and opportunities for all”,
given that there are now 140,000 fewer Scots going to college than when the Government took office. As John Pentland and Mark Griffin said, we need to do more in that area to tackle the attainment gap, which the Government views as a priority.
As members know, I am passionate about seeking equality for disabled people in our society. It is for that reason that I submitted a freedom of information request last month to all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities asking for the number of staff that they employ in schools who are specifically trained to support pupils with additional support needs. I found that the number of those staff members had declined in 22 of the 32 authorities, representing an overall drop from 3,363 in 2012 to 2,963 in 2014 across Scotland. I urge the Scottish Government to investigate the matter urgently as part of its overall growth strategy. How can we as legislators hope to maximise the economic and societal potential of some of our most vulnerable people when, as they increase in number, we cut the specialist support that is available to them?
The Scottish children’s services coalition has already warned that the cuts to support staff could lead to the prospect of
“a lost generation of young people”.
We can add to that the fact that children who are identified as having additional support needs disproportionately come from lower-income families and areas of high deprivation. We must remove barriers, and not allow them to stay up.
I have previously called on the Government to use the public sector socioeconomic duty to properly scrutinise the legislation that it makes. I believe that the area that I have just highlighted is a perfect example of where the Government could use that duty.
Before I moved to my new position in the Scottish Labour finance team, I was the party’s spokesperson for women’s employment. It would therefore be remiss of me not to at least touch on the issue of how we can better encourage growth with maximum societal benefits by opening up metaphorical doors for women.
The fact that, in the 2012 flagship modern apprenticeship programme, 98 per cent of construction apprentices were male and 97 per cent of childcare apprentices were female has often been brought up in the chamber, and rightly so. It goes to show what can happen if care is not taken to maximise the potential of everyone in our society.
There is little doubt that Scotland’s jobs of the future lie in the STEM sector, as other members have mentioned. It is no secret that the levels of occupational segregation in that corner of the economy are staggering. Last year, only 68 engineering apprentices were female. In 2015, the Government’s “Maximising Economic Opportunities for Women in Scotland” report demonstrated that 73 per cent of female STEM graduates did not work in their respective fields after graduation.
A few months ago, I said:
“It used to be that advances in science and technology liberated women, but now they have the potential to hold them back.”—[Official Report, 2 June 2015; c 42.]
I never followed up by saying—as in retrospect I should have done—that the situation would also hold back our economic growth and aspirations for inclusive growth and opportunities for all.
Few members in the chamber would oppose economic growth, but economic growth for the sake of it is a rather hollow ambition. The Government has taken some encouraging steps in its Scottish economic strategy to broaden the spectrum of beneficiaries of growth in Scotland, but we believe that it must be bolder.
Our Parliament has significant powers over procurement and other areas that have yet to be utilised. We have full control over all matters concerning education, and as the Opposition it is our responsibility to say that the Government has thus far failed to use those powers to promote opportunities for all. The Scottish Government should not have to come out and tell us what its political priorities are: those should be evident in its budget and legislation. At the moment, they simply are not.