Leadership groups focus on improving lives affected by poverty in Scotland

Newlands Junior College in Glasgow
Newlands Junior College in Glasgow

A Year ago some of Scotland’s leading business people embarked on what could turn out to be the biggest challenge of their corporate career. Over a dozen large businesses and organisations, led by the Royal Bank of Scotland, came together under the SNAP-RB banner to “improve the lives of families affected by poverty”.

With support from the Scottish Government and Business in the Community Scotland (BITC Scotland), the business leaders promised an action plan that would make Scotland “an even better place to live, work and study”.

Twelve months later and there has been a name change, with SNAP-RB evolving into the BITC Scotland Leadership Groups, but the mission remains the same.

Susan Fouquier, regional managing director of business banking Scotland at the Royal Bank of Scotland, who chaired SNAP-RB at its launch, explains the name change.

“We wanted to ensure that the focus and purpose of the businesses we had convened around issues of innovation, education and employment was clear and consistent, and we also knew of the imminent Scottish National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights (SNAP-HR).

“So, for clarity, simplicity and consistency, we decided to name our Leadership Groups after their areas of focus, which have remained consistent throughout – as has their mission: ‘to improve the lives of families affected by poverty through the collective actions of employers in Scotland’.”

After consulting experts across the public, private and third sector, the business leaders set up three leadership groups, focusing on education, employment, and innovation and ideas.

“We wanted areas where there was significant need and where business would be able to use their expertise and resources to make a meaningful impact,” says Fouquier, who now chairs the innovation and ideas leadership group.

“If you want to address poverty, education and employment are critical.

“Innovation is also needed so we are developing and testing new ideas.

“Poverty is such an entrenched issue that we wanted to ensure we leave no stone unturned in trying different approaches or activities that may help and may be relatively easy to roll out.”

The leadership groups – which meet bi-monthly and are currently recruiting additional members – decided not to produce a national action plan, instead preferring to focus on the three priority areas, and support new approaches or activities that could make a lasting impact.

The education group is chaired by Stephen Pearson, Virgin Money’s general counsel.

He is convinced that all businesses can, and should, be a force for good, as he explains: “This is a fundamental part of Virgin Money’s business model and strategy.

“Government and public policy have an important role but business should work in partnership with government on such issues.

“The work of BITC, of which Virgin Money is a committed member, is a good example of that partnership approach working in practice.

He says the education group is keen to learn from initiatives such as the Children’s Neighbourhood Project in Bridgeton and Dalmarnock in Glasgow and the city’s Newlands Junior College.

Bridgeton and Dalmarnock will be the first children’s neighbourhood project in Scotland and will bring together all the resources and organisations in the area to work collaboratively to build better lives for the children living there.

Newlands Junior College is an independent school for young people who have become disengaged from mainstream education.

It is the brainchild of Jim McColl, the serial entrepreneur and chief executive of Clyde Blowers, and the education leadership group is providing advice on its planned extension to Edinburgh.

Pearson says: “Business has an important role in education. By working in partnership with schools, we can provide invaluable work experience, career insights and employment opportunities for students.

“The national Developing the Young Workforce scheme, which aims to reduce youth unemployment, is a very good example of this approach.”

Fouquier echoes the importance of education to business and the economy: “Education affects everyone and every business. It is in the interest of every employer to ensure that their future workforce has the skills and attitudes they need to thrive in the workplace, and that lifelong learning equips workers for changes and supports progression.”

The employment leadership group, chaired by Diane Mulholland, general manager and vice president of Enterprise Holdings, is looking at a range of challenges in the workplace, from getting people job ready to reducing the systemic barriers, such as jargon-filled job descriptions that can prevent businesses from recruiting the best people.

It is also grappling with the challenge of helping Scotland’s ageing population stay in work longer.

According to Unison, 40 per cent of the Scottish public sector workforce are expected to retire in the next decade, precipitating a crisis in services such as the National Health Service.

And the latest data from the National Records of Scotland projects that the number of pensioners is expected to rise by a quarter over the next 25 years.

Not surprisingly the innovation and ideas leadership group is considering how Scotland can adapt to significant changes such as Brexit and the digital age, but perhaps the biggest challenge for all three groups is how to fulfil their core mission of alleviating poverty.

Nearly one fifth of Scots live in poverty: 200,000 children, 600,000 adults and 100,000 pensioners.

All the evidence shows that children in the most deprived households are least likely to succeed at school, least likely to have the skills required by employers and least likely to have good health.

And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that income inequality creates less resilient economies and slows growth.

Poverty is as bad for business as it is for those who suffer it, a point that is not lost on Fouquier. She says: “Responsible business is inclusive growth, and this is what we are ultimately all about. This is about more than random acts of corporate social responsibility.

“Responsible business is about every aspect of business – from supply chain to recruitment to customer engagements to the impact of the products and services the business creates. Every decision within a responsible business is taken with a view to how it impacts on the community, the environment and the business.

“The more this movement grows, the closer we are to creating a truly sustainable and inclusive society and ending poverty in Scotland.”

Her guarded optimism will be welcomed by Economy Secretary Keith Brown, who believes that business is central to the Scottish Government’s ambition to eradicate poverty.

The Scottish Government funds the leadership groups and is drawing up a national action plan based on the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A baseline assessment was published in October 2016, setting out how law, policy and practice in Scotland align with the UN’s principles and in November 2017 Brown invited business leaders to help develop Scotland’s plan.

Brown says: “As part of our commitment to prioritise inclusive growth, we are encouraging employers to boost productivity by investing in their workforces – ensuring that competitiveness and equality are not competing with each other but are two sides of the one coin.

“The Scottish Government will continue to promote responsible business and do all we can to deliver sustainable business-led and inclusive growth and a wealthier, fairer and more equal Scotland.”

This article appears in the WINTER 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. Further information about Vision Scotland here.