It’s the start of a new year and so a good time to look forward to new opportunities.
2017 will mark the 10th anniversary of the SNP's election as the Scottish Government.
Much progress has been made in the last ten years - but there is much more still to do. We are determined to build on our record and make our country one of the fairest, healthiest and most prosperous places to live.
It is essential that we make real and lasting progress towards tackling inequality and creating equal opportunities for all. We know that inequality has its roots early in life and we must do more - much more - to tackle it at source.
Just over a week ago, I launched the pilot scheme for one of our key manifesto pledges – the introduction of a baby box. The baby box will provide essential items to help level the playing field in the very first days of life, with practical assistance for parents, whilst also encouraging the engagement with health services that can help improve child and maternal health.
The baby box is just one example of a number of policies that will help deliver a fair and equal start for our children. Such support will continue right through children's early years with our pledge to double the number of free hours of early learning and childcare to more than 1100 hours by the end of this Parliament - children born in 2017 will be some of the very first to benefit.
These policies are central to the Scottish Government’s defining priority - to close the gap in achievement between young people in our most and least deprived areas – and they will complement the £120 million in additional funding we will give to schools over this parliament to make even further progress in achieving this.
Supporting high quality public services is not just about education – it is our driving ambition in health and social care too. This year we will continue to deliver record investment in our NHS, and ensure a larger share of its frontline budget is delivered to mental health, primary care, and social care. Included within our increased NHS funding is over £100 million to be directed to new health and social care authorities, to deliver on our commitment to pay the Living Wage to all adult social care workers.
We will also reach major milestones this year in delivering ambitious and significant infrastructure projects which will benefit communities across all of Scotland. We will see the completion of the electrification of the rail line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, final progress on the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, further work on the dualling of the A9 and the completion of the largest infrastructure project in recent history – the Queensferry Crossing.
We are delivering progressive policies in every area of daily life and I am looking forward to the further progress we’ll make in 2017.
However, the progress we make towards our country’s prosperity is under constant threat due to the damaging impact of decisions of hard right Tories at Westminster and we are starting the year as we ended it – with a number of questions the UK Government cannot provide answers to in relation to Brexit.
In my last column of 2016, I highlighted the Scottish Government paper which outlined our proposals to protect Scotland’s place in the Single Market.
Despite my suggestion of a new years’ resolution for the Prime Minister to protect the rights of EU citizens living and working here, we have yet to hear of any plan or proposal from the UK Government on this, or indeed any other element of what the futile refrain that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ will actually mean in practice. Indeed, the UK Government’s former chief representative in the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, acknowledged this in his resignation letter just last week.
Underlying signals are however pointing towards the UK leaving the EU Single Market - the world’s biggest free trade area. This so called ‘hard Brexit’ poses a serious threat to jobs and living standards not just in Scotland but across the entire UK. Here, it risks the loss of up to 80,000 jobs and an average wage cut of around £2,000 annually. Overall, the loss of our membership of the Single Market is estimated to cost our economy more than £11 billion a year by 2030.
As we approach the triggering of Article 50, I am clear Scotland can’t just sit back and accept the economic disaster which the Tories plan to inflict on the country, and the consequent damage that it could do to our vital public services. Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and this year the Scottish Government will continue to do all we can to protect Scotland's vital interests.