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Scotland to fight to stay in the EU

Published 26/05/2015

Nicola Sturgeon will meet Ann Budge, chairwoman and chief executive of Heart of Midlothian football club
Nicola Sturgeon will meet Ann Budge, chairwoman and chief executive of Heart of Midlothian football club

Nicola Sturgeon has said the Scottish Government will make a "strong and positive" case for the UK to remain in the EU to prevent Scotland being forced out against its will.

The First Minister was speaking as she delivered her first major economic speech since the SNP's landslide election victory in Scotland and a day before the new Conservative Government's Queen's Speech.

Speaking at Heart of Midlothian FC's Tynecastle stadium, Ms Sturgeon set out three priority areas in which she said the Scottish Government would seek outcomes at a UK level to benefit the Scottish economy.

The SNP leader said the election outcome offered "an opportunity and a challenge" for the Scottish Government.

She said: "There is clearly an opportunity to ensure that Scotland's priorities are better understood but there is also a significant challenge in working with a majority Government at Westminster, many of whose policies we disagree with."

She said her Government would continue to oppose austerity, campaign for the UK to remain in the EU and press for additional powers for Scotland.

She reiterated her opposition to the Tories' in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU, and said her Government would "work to protect Scotland's interests".

She said: "We will propose a double majority, meaning that exit from the European Union is only possible if all four nations of the UK agree to it - something which would ensure that Scotland couldn't be forced out of the EU against our will.

"And during the run-up to the referendum, the Scottish Government will, of course, make a strong and a positive case for staying in the EU.

"We don't think it's perfect, we think reform is both desirable and necessary, but we believe very strongly that Scotland's interests are best served by being members of the European Union and we will argue that case strongly and positively."

She said she would expand on that case in a speech in Brussels next week.

The First Minister continued: "We will continue to oppose spending reductions of the scale and speed that the UK Government has suggested.

"We believe that these will slow economic recovery and make deficit reduction more difficult - and this has been demonstrated already by the impact of the cuts that have been imposed since 2010.

"And if the UK Government does stick to its current proposals, we will argue for ways in which the impact on Scotland can be lessened."

Ms Sturgeon said the Government would continue to seek greater powers for Scotland and ensure that the recommendations for further devolution made by the Smith Commission are delivered in full.

She added: "We are also seeking additional responsibilities - beyond those which the Smith Commission identified.

"In particular, we believe that greater power over business taxes, employment law, the minimum wage and welfare would enable us to better create jobs, grow the economy and lift people out of poverty."

The First Minister was speaking as she launched a new industry code calling on businesses to commit to paying the living wage and promoting fair practices.

Companies will be encouraged to sign the Scottish Business Pledge, described as a voluntary code for employers to recognise "fair and progressive" policies while boosting productivity.

The First Minister and Finance Secretary John Swinney met Ann Budge, chairwoman and chief executive of football club Heart of Midlothian as it became one of the first companies to commit to the pledge.

Made up of nine parts, companies wanting to commit to the pledge must pay the living wage to all employees over 18 and deliver on at least two other elements while committing to achieving the rest over time.

Other signatories include pharmaceutical company GSK, the bank Virgin Money, pensions firm Hymans Robertson, cleaning business Strata Cleaning and IT service provider LogicNow.

The First Minister said the pledge was designed to help boost economic productivity and tackle inequality as part of a "distinctively Scottish" strategy for growth.

She said: " Our economic strategy sets out a vision of an economy based on innovation rather than insecurity; high skills, not low wages; and enhanced productivity instead of reduced job security.

"We want to climb the global competitiveness rankings on quality, rather than racing to the bottom on costs.

"Increased productivity makes our economy even more competitive, which in turn brings benefits to individuals and communities across the whole of the country.

"However, it requires concerted action across all areas of our economy - and indeed across society - to achieve this.

"The Fair Work Convention, the Living Wage Accreditation Scheme and the Scottish Business Pledge are essential features of what is becoming a distinctive Scottish approach to growth."

Scottish Conservative enterprise spokesman Murdo Fraser said many smaller businesses would struggle to meet the living wage commitment, a concern also expressed by Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.

Mr Fraser said: "In principle, the Scottish Business Pledge sounds like a decent strategy.

"However, scratch beneath the surface and it would be realistic to say that many small to medium-sized business cannot afford to pay staff the living wage.

"This is particularly the case in sectors like care, where income levels are set by the state.

"The Scottish Government should be helping these businesses where they can.

"That's why we're calling for a Living Wage Business Bonus for small businesses which pay the living wage, in the form of a reduction in their business rates."

Ms Cameron said: " Whilst 81% employees in Scotland are already earning the living wage or above, there are some businesses which, whilst meeting their legal requirements under the minimum wage, currently cannot afford to pay the higher living wage to all staff based on their existing business models.

"This can be dependent upon the size of the business and the market they are operating in, and we need to be careful that this is not misinterpreted as a lack of commitment on their part."

The pledge's focus on zero hours contracts was welcomed by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) spokesman Rob Gowans, who said: "CAB evidence shows that too many Scots are taking on these contracts in good faith only to find they are then being exploited by rogue employers who leave them without work - or pay - for months on end.

"We see cases every week where this sort of exploitation leads to poverty, debt and destitution. Nobody in Scotland should be in that position and it's clear that action is needed, not just by employers but by governments too."

Green MSP Patrick Harvie said: "The ethics of doing business has been overlooked for too long and I welcome the First Minister's attempt to encourage companies to see how they can continue to turn a profit in a fair way.

"However, given the clear opportunity Scotland has to develop a low-carbon economy that respects our finite resources, and the urgent need to meet our failed climate targets, it's disappointing that the environmental impact of business is barely mentioned in this pledge scheme."

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