TWO of Humza Yousaf’s youngest junior ministers have insisted lived experience in government will be vital if Scotland wants to thrive as an independent country.

Emma Roddick, who became Equalities, Migration and Refugees Minister last month, and Natalie Don, who was handed the Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise brief, both have personal connections to their portfolios which they feel will help them to form bonds with harder-to-reach groups.

But they have said lived experience in government is something that is often undervalued and insisted it must continue to be prioritised as part of showing Scotland can govern itself well.

Roddick, 25, is the youngest member of Yousaf’s government but feels her experiences of mental and physical disabilities, as well as being bisexual, will help her to make a difference to people who are often silenced.

The Highlands and Islands MSP was diagnosed with three personality disorders four years ago alongside complex post-traumatic stress disorder and she has had to endure stigma with people suggesting she is not fit to be an MSP.

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She also suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) – a connective tissue disorder that causes very flexible joints and fragile skin.

Roddick told The National: “I think people devalue lived experience but I’ve been really happy to see the Scottish Government in recent years saying we cannot proceed without it.

“It was nice I got some emails from stakeholders in the portfolio saying they were excited to have somebody from the community in the role, because that’s not happened before. It was the same with disabled organisations, they were saying to me ‘you know how important it is’.”

Asked if she felt having lived experience in government was important for Scottish independence, Roddick added: “Absolutely. We need make sure we’re inspiring people and making them feel like they can be part of politics.

“It also means with the diverse range of people in Cabinet and ministers, we’re reaching groups that are harder to reach if you don’t already know them or have common ground.”

Devaluing lived experience is 'ignorant' 

Don was once a young carer who grew up in poverty in a single-parent household after her dad died from alcohol abuse, so being handed the opportunity to take care of the Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise portfolio was something she said she was “over the moon” about.

The 34-year-old – who is now a mum of two – said she has gained good grounding for the role already in being convener of the Scottish Parliament Social Justice and Social Security Committee, but believes her first-hand experience of a tough upbringing will be the most valuable to her going forward.

Don said: “I see criticisms of young people or people who some would class as inexperienced being in [elected] positions, and I think that just shows ignorance because when you have that lived experience or you’ve grown up having certain things then you are absolutely best placed to shape policy around that.

“I think lived experience is something we’ve been talking about in this parliamentary term when we’ve talked about how representative the parliament is. I think it’s so important.”

She added: “I think for me that’s the kind of government I would want to have in an independent Scotland, one that is representative of the people.”

Tackling poverty and advancing rights

In the area of equalities, Roddick wants to ensure the Scottish Government moves forward with its pledge to ban conversion therapy and work to ensure there is a societal shift in the way LGBT and disabled people are treated.

Migration and refugees are new to the portfolio having previously fallen largely under external affairs. Although Roddick said she will find this area more challenging, she has a deep interest in issues such as depopulation and advancing human rights she’s keen to throw herself into.

“These are all issues I genuinely care about and know how important it is we deliver on them so to have a firm role in that and making decisions on how we go about it is a real privilege,” she said.

A large part of Don’s responsibility will be in early learning and childcare – the latter of which she remembers her mum not being able to afford.

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She said many policies the Scottish Government has brought in, such as the Scottish Child Payment, have made a huge difference to families but she wants to use her position to continue tackling child poverty.

Don said: “I’ve been focused on poverty in my previous role as social justice convener and it’s been something that I’ve naturally been keen to talk about and raise awareness of. Childcare policy is going to be key to that.

“I speak to my family about policies that we’re implementing and my mum has regularly commented that these are life-changing things.

“She told me if they had been around, things like the Scottish Child Payment, when I was growing up, it would’ve dramatically changed so many people’s lives and I think we need to remember that.”

A new-look government 

Yousaf’s selection of his government not only appeared to place value on lived experience but also on young people leading the country, including young women and MSPs who had only been elected in 2021, such as Don and Roddick.

He named a Cabinet that is majority women for the first time in the history of devolution with half of them aged under 40.

Roddick and Don both said they were proud to be part of a progressive government as they insist it is critical people feel they can connect with politics.

Roddick said: “I think it shows how far we’ve come. Nicola [Sturgeon] did this too [putting young women in her cabinet] and I think a new First Minister being able to come in and look at the backbenchers he has and not see being young or being a woman or being disabled as a risk and actually more of an opportunity is brilliant.”

Don added: “It’s quite a young cabinet and it is very diverse and I think that is important in the same way as I feel it is important to have a representative parliament.

“But for those of us in the government who are setting policy, it is vital that we have experiences of everyday people and that they can look to us and have an assurance that we understand the issues they are going through.”