It is very special to be here today. I want to start by welcoming Noel here to Glasgow. It's fantastic to have you here, you are an inspiring young man with a powerful story. You are also a powerful role model and you should be very proud of yourself and what you've achieved.
Last year on Care Day Callum invited me to attend his graduation and I had the privilege of watching Callum graduate at Strathclyde University. It was one of the most special experiences of my life so let me take this opportunity to thank you Callum for allowing me to be part of such a special moment in your life.
Callum, like so many of the care experienced young people I've met, is a very special young man. Someone who is already making his mark on the world and I have no doubt will go on to make an even bigger mark on the world.
We've actually just found out that Callum has been successful in his application to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust – a phenomenal achievement. The Trust provides funding for UK citizens to travel overseas and explore how other nations are addressing important issues that we all have in common. It means Callum will be spending six weeks of this year abroad, meeting care experienced people from across the world to discuss how the voices of care experienced people can be better heard better and louder – not just here in Scotland but internationally.
Through all of you here today and other care experienced young people across the country, we learn and get to know the huge success stories that come out of the care system. It is really important that we never lose sight of that. We should never talk about care experienced young people as if they are statistics or numbers. We should never assume that because a young person grows up in care or experience the care system, that they are destined to fail. That is not a reality that we should ever accept.
So it is really important to hear these success stories and allow these stories to inspire us. But to inspire us, to make sure that the kind of success stories we're hearing about today, are not the exceptions for care experienced young people, that they become the norm for care experienced young people.
We know for all of these success stories, we fail as a society, too many of our young people who experience the care system. We know, and it is painful to hear and admit, that too many care experienced young people will end up homeless, will end up in prison, will experience mental health problems. Too many care experienced young people will end up dead when they are still young and should be enjoying life to the full. We know that care experienced young people are less likely to go to university than people who don't grow up in care.
We must not shy away from these facts. We must resolve to do something about them. It is our responsibility, starting with me as First Minister, and in my view encompassing every single adult in this country. There can be no more important moral responsibility for anybody than to care properly for a young person that they have responsibility for – whether that's a parent, a guardian, a carer or the state. It is the most important responsibility that we can have. That's why I am so serious when I say as First Minister, that I want to work with you and everybody who has had experience of the care system to make it better so that these success stories are not the exception, that they become the norm.
Every care experienced young person is an individual just like every young person is an individual. Every individual will have their own experiences in life and will have their success and their failures. But what we must be aiming for, is to make sure that being care experienced doesn't make you less likely to have your successes in life than any other young person. And that's something we should be absolutely determined to achieve together.
For me as First Minister, there is nothing more important to me than what we are talking about today. Because the measure of any society, fundamentally and ultimately, is how we care for, look after, love and support those who are most vulnerable. This matters to care experienced young people, it matters to the care family. But it's bigger than that and it's more than that. It matters to all of us because ultimately how we care for young people is a measure and a mark of what kind of country and what kind of society we are.
That's why this is so important. That's why the Scottish Government has set up the Care Review. When we set up the Care Review with Fiona chairing it, one thing I was determined about was that we weren't going to set up a Care Review and then say nothing can change or get better until some distant point in the future when the Care Review has done its work and reported. As a politician, one of the easiest things you can do is set up a review of something because sometimes it's a way of abdicating responsibility rather than taking responsibility. Setting up a review of something can be a way of avoiding taking decisions in the here and now. I didn't want the Care Review to be like that. I think it's a really important and necessary thing we are doing but it doesn't mean we can't start to change things now.
That's why we have taken decisions to do a number of things. In the grand scheme of things, are relatively small but with a big impact. Whether that's making sure for any care experienced young person that has the grades, is guaranteed a place at university; that student loans have effectively been abolished; that there are guaranteed bursaries for care experienced young people going to university and the exemption from council tax. It's why the 2014 Children and Young People Act, and continuing to implement it, is so important.
All of these things, relatively small in the grand scheme, but really important both in a practical sense to young people, but also as a down payment on the part of society to care experienced young people – a symbol of our seriousness and intent.
And we've just taken a decision about our Employability Fund. At the moment, if you're on certain benefits, you have to wait 13 weeks before you can access our Employability Fund – which provides support for training to help people back into employment. So what we've decided, for care experienced young people, we're abolishing that waiting period – for support to help people into employment. You'll be able to access that support from day one. Another relatively small thing but an important signal of our intent that we are determined to level the playing field.
The purpose of the Care Review is to look at our system in a much more fundamental way than just some individual changes and initiatives, it's about fundamentally looking at how we care for young people – looking at what we do well but perhaps more importantly, looking at what we don't do well and need to do better.
At the heart of the Care Review, as was the case with the 2014 Act, has to be the voice of young people with care experience. One of the things that's often said to me, is that often young people feel that care is something that is done to them, not something that's done with them, by them and for them. The Care Review can't be like that. It must be guided and directed and shaped by the voices and experiences of young people themselves. I know Fiona is working hard to make sure that is the case.
Personally, I've made the commitment to speak to 1,000 care experienced young people. I can tell you I'm at 150 – so only 850 to go! That for me has been really profound. That commitment I made is to underline the importance of hearing the voice of young people and making sure that voice is at the centre of everything we do.
I'm not going to pre-empt the outcome of the Care Review – it still has a lot of work to do. But I know that some of the points that the Care Review is considering very carefully are the points I've heard time and time again. The one I've spoken about – we need to change a system that feels as if it's doing something to people instead of with young people. Removing a sense of stigma – it really struck a chord with me hearing Kevin talk about how he went right through university without telling anyone he was care experienced. Being care experienced is not something anybody should feel ashamed of. It should be part of your identity that you are proud of. That is something we need to work on to make the changes necessary to make that a reality.
And lastly of course is the word that is more important than any other word any of us will ever use, and that is love. At the end of the day, love is the most important thing any of us has got. When you strip everything else away, all we've got in this life is each other and how we treat each other, how we care for each other, how we love each other is the most important thing of all. A care system that doesn't have love at its core, doesn't deserve to be called a care system to start with. Love should be the foundation stone. But so often I hear from those who've experienced the system or work in the system is that they feel that there is no love there. And for those who work in the system that they're not somehow allowed to love. That I think is something that runs through our culture and society. Often the implication is to keep an emotional distance from people, don't get emotionally involved. That's not the kind of country I want to lead or to live in. We should get emotionally involved in things that matter and nothing matters more than how we care for our young people.
Love should be the foundation stone of the care system that we need to create and to build and that's what the Care Review is all about.
I'm under no illusions that this is not something you can just snap your fingers and change and create a perfect care system. Maybe we'll never have a perfect care system but we should aim to have one that gives young people the best environment to grow up in. One that gives young people every support and opportunity to fulfil their potential as young people and go on and have a happy and fulfilling adulthoods. I don't think that's something we should think is beyond us as a country.
So, that's what the Care Review is about and it will take all of you and all the other care experienced young people out there to make sure we get this right. If we do get it right, and Scotland is known for so many fantastic things internationally, imagine how special it would be if a generation from now, the First Minister of the time is standing in front of a global audience saying the thing they're proudest of is that Scotland is known as the first country to create a care system where every person is loved and supported and given the chance to succeed in life.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of this very special day.
Central Enquiry Unit
Phone: 0300 244 4000
The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House