Gareth Jones sat down with Shona Robison to discuss her new role representing the voluntary sector within the Scottish Government
Scotland’s new social justice secretary has made an invite to the voluntary sector to help Scotland become a better place.
Shona Robison was appointed cabinet secretary for social justice, housing and local government after the election in May.
Speaking in her first sitdown interview since being appointed to the role, she said she wants to engage with organisations from across the sector to address the social issues the country faces.
She said: “I’m going to have to work through meeting and getting to know different parts of the sector. One of the messages I’m really keen to put out is an offer to work with the sector on some of the really big ticket items.
“One of the early jobs I had was to stand up in parliament and give a progress report on tackling child poverty. We’ve got a big challenge to meet those interim targets to reduce child poverty, and I want to work with a Team Scotland approach to engage the third sector in helping to do that, in all of its forms. Government can’t do it on its own, my portfolio can’t do it on its own, so we need a cross government strategy to come together to look at all we can do. "We also need local government, the public, third and private sectors as well.”
Before being elected as an MSP in 1999, Robison worked for Glasgow City Council’s social work department as a home care organiser and community worker. She was shadow minister for health and social justice before the SNP came into government in 2007.
There’s been something special about people wanting to do their bit and we want to build on that and try and keep that new burgeoning interest in volunteering going
Robison represents Dundee City East, and has held various roles in government in recent years, including minister for public health and minister for Commonwealth Games in sport. She is returning to the cabinet, having resigned as health secretary in 2018 after a challenging few years in both her professional and private life.
She said her previous experience in social care, as a minister and as an MSP will help her to connect with organisations, and that she is looking forward to meeting groups in person as restrictions are eased.
“Before I came into politics, I was a community worker in the west. I worked a lot with third sector organisations, volunteers and community groups, trying to build capacity and support them. I then managed a homecare service, before moving in to politics. During my time as a minister in government, third and voluntary sector organisations have been key, and as an MSP I work a lot with organisations and community groups that do a lot in my area. They really are the backbone of Dundee.
“Since Covid, they’ve been particularly important, coming together and supporting people in a way that was tremendous. At the outset, I’d like to give my personal thanks to all of those who came together, the groups that stepped up and those who volunteered to support others. It was a very impressive effort by all of those involved.”
The sector was previously represented by a communities minister, however this role was abolished as part of a cabinet reshuffle after the election. Robison said the portfolio of her role is a big one, but is part of an approach which aims to strengthen links across government and sectors.
“It’s a big portfolio, it spans a large area of government in terms of covering third sector interests, social justice, housing, local government and equalities. What’s exciting about it is being able to make those links across all those areas. In terms of tackling poverty, we need to look at everything we can do to help people into work. Third sector organisations have a big role to play in supporting people. We need to be able to help people reduce living costs, and supporting them through housing organisations is key as well. There’s also the other support people need, whether that’s through social security or the myriad of support that’s available to people. How we help people out of poverty works across not only my portfolio, but the whole of government.”
The cabinet secretary was quick to recognise the vital efforts of voluntary organisations in responding to Covid-19, and says they have a vital role to play in supporting Scotland’s recovery.
Robison said: “Although we’re still in the midst of the Covid pandemic, we’re starting to look at the recovery phase. The deputy first minister John Swinney is leading a lot of this work, and the contribution that the sector can make in that space is really important.
“Throughout the pandemic, there was a big ask of the third sector. There was support to help it deliver. As we recover, we need to ensure that those who have been most impacted, are supported to recover. The sector is very well placed to help us to do that work. It’s exciting, we have a lot of hard work to do, and I’m keen to get started.”
Robison highlighted social enterprises as playing a key role in the recovery, which is covered in a recently published action plan. She said: “We have the new social enterprise action plan, which was published just before the election and covers the next three years. That gives us a way to ensure the recovery from the pandemic is fully reflected and the plan is focused around supporting young people, helping organisations to build their capacity or change direction.”
The sector can only continue to play a key role if it has the support it needs to flourish, and Robison agreed it is important that the right support is there for organisations.
“It’s very important that the support is there for organisations,” she said. “Through Covid, we had about £350 million in emergency communities funding, with eight funding pots. The third sector and community groups were able to access that, and a lot of good work was done in supporting people. As we move into the next phase, we have a different set of challenges. It will be less about crisis emergency interventions that people needed and more about recovery. I want to work with the sector in plotting what they can bring to the table. Government doesn’t have all the ideas, we need to reach out and hear what others have to say. The role of the third sector in that is important.”
Another key theme of the sector’s response to the pandemic was a surge in volunteering, and the cabinet secretary says it is key that the community spirit that flourished during lockdown is retained.
“It never ceases to amaze me just how people stepped up. I mean that even in just a local sense of people getting to know their neighbours for the first time, setting up WhatsApp groups to ensure people were okay.
“There’s been something special about people wanting to do their bit and we want to build on that and try and keep that new burgeoning interest in volunteering going. Many people had never volunteered before, or may not even see themselves as having a volunteer badge but they have given their time and stepped up. We need to think about how we harness that.
“As we recover, and see what the new normal looks like, there would be some aspects of the pandemic that would be good to hold on to, like that volunteering ethos.”