Conference, it is always a privilege to address you. Thank you for having me.
They say a week is a long time in politics, conference, this last year, has felt, like a lifetime. Not least, because we’ve had three Prime Ministers and Four Chancellors in that time – all of them out of touch, and none of them delivering for the people of Scotland – but because we’ve had enough pain and poverty, forced on our communities, to last, a lifetime.
12 months ago, when I addressed you last, I warned that urgent and bold action from both Government’s was needed to tackle the Cost of Living Crisis, as households budgets were stretched, people were increasingly struggling to make ends meet, and many were having to make difficult, sometimes impossible choices to heat or eat. As the months have passed since, energy bills have soared as energy giants have raked it in, food prices have rocketed as frontline staff have struggled, and the ability to maintain a decent, even a basic standard of living, has got harder and harder for people up and down this country.
I spoke then of our plan to save households hundreds of pounds, to protect them from this misery and to help people on the lowest incomes, through targeted support.
It was a plan that would have made work pay, saved people money on transport and reduced housing costs. But, as I am finding with everything bold and helpful suggestion we make, it was a plan that this SNP Green Government refused to listen to.
Instead, they copied the Tories.
They lined the pockets of people on the highest incomes without protecting those who really needed it. They claimed our plan was too complex and too hard to do. But that’s the thing with governing, it is hard and it is complex. We know that. So either, they can’t do the hard stuff, or they wont do the hard stuff. Either way, I’m tired of their excuses, and so are the people of Scotland.
We were disheartened by their unwillingness to listen, they keep telling us they’re all ears, they’ll work with us, they keep telling us to work together in the interests of the people of Scotland, but they never do. We were not deterred.
Conference as foodbank use continued to rise, as community halls opened their doors as warm spaces so people could escape the bitter cold of their own homes, and as disabled people told us they could no longer afford to charge essential medical equipment. We had another plan. Our fully costed Cost of Living Plan would have saved households in Scotland around £1000 this year.
We’d have reduced transport costs with half price rail fares, capped bus fares – with the money for local authorities to do it – and an online fuel checker so that drivers could avoid rip off petrol prices.
We would have put more money in the Scottish Welfare Fund giving local authorities the resources they need to support struggling households, and we would have given every household a £100 water rebate, more money in their pockets to help them get by, instead of sitting in Scottish Waters reserves.
We’d have established a business hardship fund to support businesses with rising prices– in turn protecting jobs. And, we would have increased funding to third sector organisations supporting people to balance their budgets. The third sector stepped up during Covid and the cost of living crisis, as they always do, we’d have recognised that and supported their invaluable work.
Conference, once again, we were ready with a plan, and the SNP and Green Government ignored it.
Whilst we were planning to help people, they were refusing to stick to their promise to double carer’s allowance supplement, rolling out an adult disability payment that looks little different to the undignified DWP one it replaced and introducing a Winter Heating Payment that actually took money out of people’s pockets, and will have less of an impact on fuel poverty than the one it replaced – oh, and as I address you today hundreds of thousands of households across Scotland still haven’t received a penny of that because the Government’s incompetence botched its delivery. The SNPs Winter Heating Payment is fast becoming the Scottish Summer Payment. You couldn’t make it up.
Comrades, the SNP aren’t just failing to act – they’re squandering the opportunities of devolution that should empower us to do things differently.
All because they will not work with others to get the job done. Their intentions may be good, but they must now admit they cannot back them up with delivery. They cannot get the job done.
Conference, they might have given up on the day job, but I can assure you, we have not.
Labour will keep finding solutions for the people of Scotland, and we will keep fighting, for the Government to implement them.
As they botch their own policies, and the Tories botch everything, more people are struggling. More people can’t make ends meet. And guess what, more people are falling into debt. And neither government is doing what it takes to save them. Things are so bad that people are not just borrowing for luxuries – they now have no option but to borrow to cover the bare essentials.
Money advisors working up and down the country in our communities, trying desperately to save people from destitution, are telling us they’re going to bed at night with the same money and debt worries they’re advising their clients about too.
The situation is dire.
Debt causes financial instability, homelessness and mental ill health. It leaves people stressed, drained, and overwhelmed. And it doesn’t just have an impact on people’s own resources and resilience, supporting people to tackle debt has an impact on the state and advice organisations too – it costs money to help people cope with debt! Which is ironic when we know that a lot of the debt people face is owed to public bodies, and that that debt is currently pursued in a much more aggressive way than private sector debt. Friends, we have to act. Not in months to come, after several working groups and strategies and experience panels later. Not after more cans go down too many more roads. Now. Before it’s too late.
It is not morally or economically sensible for the state to aggressively pursue debt, or to cost itself money as a result of the way it is doing it! We also know that it doesn’t really work – so much of the debt owed to public bodies is never recovered. So we face the ludicrous situation, where we charge people, they get into debt, we aggressively pursue it, they get ill and stressed and we don’t get the money owed anyway. It’s bonkers conference and only the Tories and SNP could consider it acceptable. We don’t. Conference, this is a personal debt crisis like we’ve never seen before. We cannot let it go on, and we won’t.
As each day passes, and this toxic Tory Government are embroiled in one scandal after the next, and the incompetent SNP Green Government give up the ghost, it falls again to us, the Labour Party, to step up and step in with a plan.
That is why we are calling for a package of measures that would help people get out and stay out of debt, and we’re looking at legislation to bring public debt collection across Scotland in line with private sector debt collection. Our measures would review and update debt management and recovery to address things like the minimum protected balance – which is the amount of money Sheriff Officers allow a person to keep before making deductions for public debt like Council Tax debt when their bank account or wages are arrested.
The Coronavirus Act 2022 set this at just £1000, far below the amount people need to live on! Reducing people to less than what they need for a basic standard of living is unfair and counterproductive – we should help people get out of debt and stay out of it, not make it worse.
We also think it’s unfair that public bodies can reclaim debt from payments given to disabled people and carer’s to recognise the additional costs they face – that’s why we will work with council leaders to explore removing disability and carers payments out of the minimum protected balance. We can’t give people on one hand and then take it away with the other!
Public debt enforcement should not push people into more hardship. The good news is though, many councils have already started to do things differently and yes, you guessed it, many of them are Labour Led councils, delivering yet again, for people they represent.
They’ve put pre-action protocols in which guarantee that people get all the information they need about the repayment plan they have, the money they owe and their rights, as well as signposting to advice and support. Basic and simple stuff that is improving lives across the country - we would encourage all local authorities to follow suit. And in South Lanarkshire where Labour are in power, they’ve wiped school meal debt, meaning families no longer have that hanging over them.
Conference, the need for money and debt advice has never been more important but the sector is currently over subscribed and under resourced. Waiting lists are growing, and lifeline services are threatened. We cannot let these lifelines go to the wall and we wouldn’t. Our plan would invest in them because, investing in them isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s financially worth too! For every £1 spent, £5 is returned to local communities. That opportunity cannot be wasted by further reductions in investment. We can see that, so why can’t the Government?
We have plans to help people, not a list of excuses to dither and delay. And conference, it’s not just here in Scotland that we are leading the way. My colleagues at the Shadow Department for Work and Pensions have been busy developing plans to reform job centres and employment services to help more people into work through training, coaching and support delivered in communities, to give disabled people a guarantee of support from Access to Work before they take the leap from benefits to work, to protect the financial independence of women in the social security system, and to overhaul the Tory Universal Credit System.
Conference, unlike the Tories, we won’t abandon the people who need us most. We were built by workers, for change. And Conference, unlike the SNP Green Government, we don’t just have good intentions, we have good ideas, good plans and good, no, brilliant, people, to deliver them.
Up and down this country, in Councils, in Holyrood and in Westminster, we are ready, willing and more than able to get the job done. Labour really is the only party with a plan to give people the life we all aspire to, one where we can all contribute to our communities and our country. A life where we have security and know that we’ll not just get by, we’ll get on. A life where we don’t just live, we thrive.
No one else can do it. We’ve seen that clear as day. The SNP have well spun lines, but the reality is they are lazy, and incompetent – and the Tories are callous and heartless.
Conference, only Labour can do this and our record proves it.
It was our ground-breaking Labour policies on tax credits and taxation, social security benefits, Sure Start, early intervention on literacy and numeracy, and Social Inclusion Partnerships that reduced Child Poverty in Scotland. It was Barbara Castle who brought in the Equal Pay Act to address women’s poverty. It was our government that created the NHS and the welfare state to tackle the ills of then. And it will be our Party who do it all again because, unlike the SNP, we’re not out of ideas – we’re brimming with them.
And Scotland needs new ideas – it needs a braveness to be bold and ambitious and a willingness to act. It needs a Government that leads, one that unifies and one that does the detail! Conference, it needs a Labour Government in both of its parliaments. Conference, I said earlier that a week is a long time in politics – when I first sat down to write this speech I would not have predicted that Nicola Sturgeon would have resigned by the time I got to give it.
Regardless of our differences, leading as a woman today, is hard. I, like I imagine most women in politics will, wholeheartedly relate to her comments about the brutality of public office and the toll it takes on your private life. Nicola Sturgeon took that on and I hope will have inspired other women too.
I thank her for doing so, pay tribute to her for it and wish her well for the future. Whoever takes over as her successor has a monumental task on their hands. People across Scotland are struggling. Poverty is rife, the health service is on its knees and the cost of living crisis is tougher than ever.
Whoever it is, I hope they are ready to hit the ground running, because there can be no time wasted in fixing things. It’s what the people of Scotland need and it’s what they deserve. Our country, now more than ever, needs politics and politicians focussed on delivering the change Scotland needs, to make it the land of opportunity for everyone, that we all want it to be and know it can be.
Scottish Labour will fight day in day out to do that, to win the confidence of the public - and be the change that Scotland needs. Labour has fought the hard times before, and we will do it again.
Conference, there is so much potential to act, so much potential to change lives but they’re wasting it – we can’t afford that, we can’t afford for the powers of the Scottish parliament to be wasted.
Labour wouldn’t allow the opportunities of devolution to be lost. We’d use the powers we have properly and squeeze every ounce of potential from them. We wouldn’t waste Scotland’s powers, we’d use them. And we’re doing it already. The work of Scottish Labour’s Child Poverty Commission, which I co- chair with Chris Birt of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is bringing together the best minds in Scotland to find solutions, and make recommendations on how our powers could be used to tackle deep rooted-systematic inequality, end child poverty.
Conference, devolution gave us the power to create a Scotland that leaves behind no one or nothing but inequality itself - a Scotland that can be a Land of Opportunity for everyone; regardless of race, background, disability, gender, sexuality or any of the other characteristics that make us all unique. That legacy cannot be squandered.
Defeating poverty and inequality, lifting us all up, is not just our aim, it is an obligation that our generation owes to the next and we won’t settle for anything less – Labour has lifted millions out of poverty before, and we can do it again.
Conference, comrades, our time has come. Scotland needs hope. Scotland needs change. Scotland needs Labour. And with our hard work, Scotland will have Labour again.