28 April 2015

S4M-13023 Scotland’s Future Employability Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-13023, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on Scotland’s future employability services. I call the cabinet secretary to speak to and move the motion.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

It is interesting that, on the broad sweep of policy, we can make common cause with our colleagues in the Labour Party. I very much welcome that. I see words in the amendment that the Government might pick at and so on but, when we put the people of Scotland who have the category of problems that we are debating into the mix, it is right and proper that we try to build consensus, and I will try to do that.

We should think about labels. Quite a lot of labels have been kicking around in the debate. We talk about young people and disabled people although, funnily enough, we have not talked about old people. I speak as the third-oldest person in the debate. I will be 70 next year, although someone recently told me that I will be a very young 70, so maybe I am both young and old simultaneously—I simply do not know.

There are a number of groups that we have not talked about. Richard Simpson, Siobhan McMahon and my colleague Nigel Don talked about people who suffer degrees of mental ill health. As well as people with mental ill health, we have people who are recovering from addictions, people who have come out of the criminal justice system, people who have literacy and numeracy problems and people who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with modern technology, perhaps because of disability or a lack of access. There is a wide range of issues.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: we are talking not about categories but about individuals. We will solve the problems that face us in this area of public policy one person at a time and we must ensure that we develop what is appropriate to help each person.

Work is an important part of most people’s lives not because it provides economic security—although it must do that—but because it puts a value in the mind of people who work. It says that they are valued and are making a contribution. Work has a purpose, but it is not to build a stronger economy or increase taxation; it is to help the individuals. It is about ensuring that they have a sense of purpose.

People who have been out of work for a considerable time bring to re-engaging with work or engaging with it for the first time all sorts of issues in their minds and which they may create in others’ minds. We must deal with those. For example, although one woman in three and one man in four will suffer some mental ill health at some time in their lives, it is somehow seen as a tiny minority issue that does not affect us and, whenever someone has had mental ill health—as people will from time to time—they are stuck with a label for the rest of their lives. Employers will get a great deal out of drawing in people with a wide range of issues that I have delineated and having people who can contribute from their experience, adverse though it might be, to improve the operation of workplaces.

The Presiding Officer said that there would be room for inventions and I will take him at his word. As an older person among others, I suggest that we are perhaps missing a trick in relation to how we use older people to bring in younger people with less experience of work.

As older people reach the end of their working careers—which, through choice rather than necessity, is later than it might have been for many—we have a core of people who can be the mentors of the new. They might wish to work fewer hours but feel that there is a good social purpose in bringing in people who have particular barriers to getting into the world of work that, with their experience, they might be able to help with.

I wonder whether it is time that we collectively turned our mind to how we might make that work because, as one gets older, one might wish to work fewer hours. My father, who was a general practitioner, gave up working nights when he was 65. When he was 70, he gave up working weekends so, from the age of 70, he started to work what he thought was a normal working week. He was a bit different from the generality, but we increasingly see the pattern of people reducing their workloads.

That is an opportunity to engage people and give them a sense of worth and perhaps a tiny skill that enables them to get in through the front door and become depended on. Nothing gives people more sense of worth than the idea that what they are doing is necessary to support other people with much greater experience and far greater skills. The old lags such as me and others might be the key to unlocking that.

Something that we have talked about that is relevant in my area of the country is gender gaps. We have talked about how there is a huge skew, with few women going into many of the traditionally male-dominated industries. I welcome the fact that, when I go to what is now North East Scotland College—previously Banff and Buchan College—there is always a decent number of women on the oil and engineering courses. It is not yet enough, but a decent number of women can see ahead of them a career that is intellectually and economically rewarding and will engage their mental faculties. However, that pattern is not repeated over enough of Scotland. Women are not challenging men for places in what is a traditionally male industry.

I spent 30 years of my life in information technology. When I started, roughly equivalent numbers of men and women were doing the technical jobs, which is quite interesting. Of course, that is because nobody knew about computers then—I am talking about the 1960s—and they were viewed as not quite being a legitimate area, so the men did not automatically take over. Things have gone downhill since then, and men now dominate the industry.

We have to find new models and new ways of mentoring people, including women, people with mental ill health and—with regard to Richard Simpson’s slightly sideways reference—people who have the ability and desire to recover from addictions. That means helping companies that are prepared to make the effort to support ex-offenders who have, while in prison, improved their literacy and numeracy skills and who now need to add employment to their portfolio.

There has been a large amount of agreement in today’s debate. The Labour amendment, which talks about wider reforms of employment policy to deliver a more socially just Scotland, is spot on. It captures the whole point of what we are doing.

The amendment also talks about industrial injury. We have moved on a great deal from 1836, when my great-great-grandfather died as a serf in the coal mining industry. He was so low down the pecking order that there is no record of his death.

We can make progress. I hope that this debate contributes to the on-going debate about how we can do that.


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