In a keynote address at the Scottish Women’s Convention in Glasgow today, the Depute Leader of the Scottish National Party and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out “six gains of independence” for women – focusing on childcare, the minimum wage, equalities issues, pensions, benefits, and economic opportunities.
In her speech, Ms Sturgeon, who was scheduled to hold a debate with Shadow Scottish Secretary, Labour MP Margaret Curran, said:
I want to start by thanking the Scottish Women’s Convention for organising this fantastic event today and for inviting me to take part.
In the time available to me today, I’m going to do four things.
Firstly, I will set out in very straightforward terms what independence means and the nature of the choice we will make in September.
Second, I will demonstrate that Scotland can more than afford to be independent.
Thirdly, I will give you some examples of how we could use the powers of independence to benefit women.
And, lastly, I will set out some of the consequences for Scotland of voting No and continuing to be governed by Westminster.
Independence means – in short – that decisions about Scotland will be taken here in Scotland. It means that our Parliament will have responsibility for all aspects of our national life and not just those matters devolved to it by Westminster. Decisions about the economy, welfare, taxation and whether or not we spend billions maintaining weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde, will be taken here in Scotland and not at Westminster.
And that principle – that decisions about Scotland are best taken in Scotland – has already been proven to work. We already take our own decisions on health, education and justice, and I’m sure that most people would agree that this has brought real benefits.
For example, it is only because we can take our own decisions on health that we have able to protect our NHS from the privatisation it is being subjected to in England. It’s why we are able to guarantee free personal care for our elderly and free access to medicines for the sick.
And it’s only because we take our own decisions on education, that we are able to ensure that access to university is based on the ability to learn not the ability to pay.
Independence will extend these benefits to all other areas of government activity.
Independence also means that we will no longer have to put up with being governed at Westminster by parties that we have overwhelmingly rejected at the ballot box – as we are now and have been for more than half of my entire life. Instead, the government of Scotland will reflect the views of its people.
That’s what you are voting for if you vote Yes.
A No vote means that decisions about Scotland’s future will continue to be taken at Westminster.
Decisions on taxation, on welfare, on replacing Trident, on staying in the EU – will be out of our hands and in the hands of others.
So those in summary are the two futures Scotland faces.
One in which we take responsibility and decide our own future.
And one in which we wait for things to happen to us and can only mitigate the worst effects of decisions that we do not endorse.
As we contemplate the two futures that open up to us after the referendum, I firmly believe that it is the need to control our own destiny and be in a position to provide security for individuals, for families and for future generations that lies at the heart of this debate.
Which leads me on to the next point I want to make.
Scotland has got what it takes to be independent.
Scotland can be ‘a successful, independent country’ – these are not my words; these are actual words used by David Cameron.
Our white paper – Scotland’s Future – sets out clearly the relative strengths of Scotland’s economy and current financial position compared to the rest of the UK.
An independent Scotland would be the 8th richest country in the OECD.
Even without North Sea oil and gas, our economic output per head is virtually identical to that of the UK as a whole. With oil and gas it is considerably larger.
So oil and gas is a huge bonus. But the Scottish economy also has key strengths in growth sectors like food and drink, energy, creative industries, tourism and life sciences. Per head of population we have more top universities than any other country in the world.
We perform strongly as a location for inward investment and we have a strong financial services industry.
Looking at our public finances, in each of the last 32 years, we have contributed more tax per head of population than the UK as whole.
And I would ask you to remember that fact when you hear those on the other side of the debate say – as I am sure you will today – that Scotland has higher levels of public spending than the UK. We do – and for some good reasons – but the higher tax we generate per head is greater.
Let me illustrate that point – in the last year we have figures for, spending per head in Scotland was £1200 higher than UK average. But the tax we generated per head – because of the strengths of our economy – was £1700 per head higher.
So don’t let anyone tell you that Scotland is subsidised, or that we rely on largesse from London to support our public services. Our public services, pensions, benefits and tax credits are paid for by the taxes we pay. That is the situation now and it will be the situation after independence. The difference is that, with independence, we get access to all of our own resources and not just the proportion Westminster decides we should have.
And that matters – when you take tax and spending together, over the last five years Scotland’s public finances have been stronger than the UK as a whole by a total of £12.6 billion – almost £2,400 per head.
If we had been independent, that is money that would have been available to us – we could have used it to reduce our borrowing or invest more in public services, or perhaps a bit of both. But because we weren’t independent, that money flowed straight to the Treasury.
We can’t undo the past, but we can avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.
And, as the White Paper sets out, at the point of independence in 2016, Scotland’s estimated financial position will continue to be healthier than the UK’s as a whole.
That will be a strong starting point for an independent Scotland. A solid foundation to build on.
But the real benefit of independence is about what it allows us to build. It is about the future and how well equipped we want to be to face up to the challenges of the future and create the kind of country we want to live in.
Like other countries – including the UK – we face some big challenges.
I believe that the need to meet these challenges provides one of the strongest arguments for independence.
The challenges we face – like constrained public finances, a legacy of debt and a working population that is not growing fast enough – are not arguments against independence. They are products of the status quo. They are reasons, not to keep things as they are, but to do things differently.
And that brings me to my third point. What are the benefits of voting Yes, of being in charge of our own affairs and making our own decisions.
Obviously, the policies that will be pursued in an independent Scotland will depend on the governments we vote for. We won’t always have an SNP government. Indeed, if I was a Labour voter, the prospect of having a Scottish Labour government – able to follow its own heart and values, instead of having to design its policies for middle England – would be very appealing.
But let me set out, by reference to the policies of the current Scottish Government, just six of the benefits – for everyone, but particularly for women – that we could secure by voting Yes.
Firstly, a transformation in childcare.
You will know that in Scotland’s Future we set out an ambitious plan to transform childcare. This is not just about improving the early education of our children, or helping families, important as these aspects are. It also an important economic policy.
If we can raise female participation in the labour market to levels achieved in, for example, Sweden then, as well as a boost to general economic performance, we will raise an extra £700 million per year in tax revenue.
With devolution we have been able to increase the amount of childcare available – we announced a further extension just a couple of weeks ago. But with independence we can go beyond this, and deliver our ambitious plan for the provision of free universal childcare for all children aged 1-5 – a policy that when fully implemented would save families up to £4,600 per child per year.
Let me be crystal clear why independence is required to deliver this transformation for Scotland’s children, women and families, and our economy.
At the moment Scotland receives a fixed budget from Westminster. We would not receive the increased tax revenues from more women in the workforce unless Westminster decides we should.
So the costs of providing increase childcare with devolution would have to be met from within a fixed budget – by cutting other services.
With independence, the costs can be met initially by making different decisions on defence, as we propose, and then because these increased tax revenues stay in Scotland and can be used to fund the policy for the long term. It stands to reason that if the tax revenues, as would be the case now, flow to the Treasury, we cannot ensure that they will be invested in sustaining childcare. In fact, as things stand, they are more likely to be spent on sustaining nuclear weapons on the Clyde.
This is a social and economic transformation that, as a matter of fact, can only be achieved when we have access to all of Scotland’s resources. And that’s why we need independence to deliver it in full.
Secondly, we can take action to ensure that the lowest paid are treated fairly and that work is a route out of poverty. This is not something we should accept as a given, but the fact is that many women work in low paid jobs. What we do with the minimum wage therefore really matters to the standard of living of women and their children. With independence, we can guarantee that the minimum wage will rise at least in line with inflation every year and not leave that to the whim of the government of the day.
If the minimum wage had increased by inflation over the past five years, the lowest paid would be £600 a year better off than they are now. That’s been the cost to the lowest paid of not taking these decisions ourselves.
Thirdly, with independence, responsibility for equalities legislation will pass to the Scottish Parliament.
Why does that matter? Well it will let us tackle, more effectively, the deep seated gender inequalities that still hold women back. The inequalities that mean the glass ceiling – while it might have some big cracks in it – is still firmly in place.
Let me give two examples of where we could do things differently.
With independence, we – and not Westminster – would be responsible for implementing the Equal Pay Act.
Margaret made a speech last week in which she asked how, if Scotland was independent, we would close the scandalous 32% pay gap that still exists between men and women. It is a legitimate question – and with independence we will have governments with the power to put in place a firm plan to implement the Act within a defined timescale.
But the bigger question is this? Why on earth is it that, under the Westminster system, 44 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed – it was passed in the same year I was born – we still have a massive pay gap?
That is a failure of the current system. It’s not a reason to vote against independence – it’s a reason to vote for it and give ourselves the power to succeed where Westminster has failed.
And then there’s women’s representation on company and public boards. We are still under-represented in the governance of companies and public authorities. A stronger voice for women at the top tables will help ensure that the policies that flow from these boards challenge inequality rather than perpetuate it. So, with responsibility for equalities, we would take action, backed by legislation if necessary, to ensure that a clear target – I would argue at least 40% – of places on boards were occupied by women.
Fourthly, we could make sure the retirement age reflects Scottish circumstances.
Just a few years ago, women could expect to retire at 60. By 2020, the retirement age for women will be 66. An increase of 6 years in just a decade.
And, as things stand, young women entering the workforce today will likely to have to work until they are 70.
Now, of course, we are all living longer – these things can’t stand still.
But are the rapid increases being imposed by Westminster right for Scotland? Are they right for our nurses, auxiliaries, schoolteachers, classroom assistants – people, very often women, doing hard, demanding work?
It’s nothing to be proud of – and we are working hard to change it – but life expectancy in Scotland is still lower than it is elsewhere.
So, surely, it is far better for decisions about the retirement age to be taken here, in Scotland, where our distinctive circumstances can be properly taken into account.
Our taxes already pay for our pensions and will continue to do so with independence. But also having the power to decide when we get our pension – and ensure that its value is protected – would be of enormous benefit to women.
Fifthly, independence for Scotland will allow us to protect the independence of women in the benefits system.
Universal Credit is being introduced by the UK government as part of their so-called welfare reforms and will replace payments like working tax credit and child tax credit. Under Westminster’s plans it will be paid in a single household payment.
That will mean, in many cases, it will go to the man of the house. It’s like going back in time to the ‘male breadwinner’ notion of society and, in some households, it could lead to real hardship for women and children. Women – if they are the second earner in a house – will also lose their ‘earnings disregard’, the amount they are allowed to earn before losing benefit.
We would reverse those changes, protect the right of individuals to receive payments in their own right and make sure women have the same incentives to work as men – all moves that will benefit women in particular.
Lastly, independence will enable us to create more opportunities here in Scotland. Our economic policy is about making Scotland an attractive place to do business, so that we can create more jobs and opportunities and enable our young people to stay here.
I’ve lost count of the number of women I’ve spoken to over the years with children – and grandchildren – living outside of Scotland, not because they want to, but because they can’t get a job here.
Giving ourselves control of the economic levers that other countries take for granted will help us level the playing field with places like London and create more opportunities here.
So these are just some of the tangible benefits that can flow from putting ourselves in charge of our own destiny.
The last point I want to cover is what will happen if we vote No.
Because the vote in September is a choice between two futures.
A couple of weeks ago, the Chancellor, George Osborne, laid out quite starkly what the choice of a No vote would mean. He said:
“We’ve got to make more cuts. £17 billion this coming year. £20 billion next year. And over £25 billion further across the two years after. That’s more than £60 billion in total…”
That’s what lies ahead if we vote No.
Our welfare state is going to continue to be dismantled before our eyes.
The Westminster cuts we know about already could – according to the Child Poverty Action Group – push an additional 100,000 children into poverty.
100,000 more children. We already have too many kids in poverty – one is too many. How can we, in all conscience, accept a situation where a government we don’t vote for imposes policies that sentences 100,000 more of our children to a life of poverty?
One of the additional cuts George Osborne has talked about is removing housing benefit from under 25s – whether or not they have children. That, in itself, would affect 20,000 kids in Scotland, putting them instantly at risk of homelessness.
Now, Margaret will say the answer to all of this is a Labour government in Westminster.
But the fact is we have no guarantee of getting a Labour government. How many times in the past has Scotland voted Labour and ended up with the Tories?
And we have no guarantee that, even if we do get a Labour government, it would do things all that differently.
On welfare all we seem to hear from Labour is that they would be even tougher.
The only way we can ensure that we get the governments we vote for – governments that will protect our NHS, our welfare state, our universal benefits – is to be independent.
Margaret will also say that voting Yes would be turning our backs on people in England who are also suffering from the Tory cuts.
I say that a better way to express our solidarity is to show that it doesn’t have to be like this, that there is a better way.
So, that’s the choice we face. To put ourselves in the driving seat of our own destiny – with all the benefits that can bring for women, families, children and our future security – or leave the big decisions in the hands of others.
We might not get this chance again. I hope we seize it with both hands by voting Yes.