As we look ahead to the return of Parliament in September, one of the top items on the agenda in the first weeks will be the next Programme for Government. It will be Nicola Sturgeon’s third and she will likely look to take charge of education reform, given recent criticism of her Government’s record in this area.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Instead, let’s look back and see whether the Government delivered on its legislative programme from 2016-17.
Arguably the most important piece of legislation each year, the Budget (Scotland) Bill was the first one to pass in this parliamentary session on Thursday 23rd February. It came with considerable headache for the Government though, as it had to get used to negotiations with other parties once more. The Conservatives and Labour refused to support it, causing the SNP to turn to the two smaller parties. A deal was struck with the Greens ahead of the Stage 1 debate but not without considerable criticism. Had a deal not been reached, we could have been facing another Holyrood election.
The Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill completed Stage 3 just before summer recess with the support of SNP, Conservative and Labour MSPs. The Greens and Liberal Democrats voted against it due to environmental concerns – though it is worth bearing in mind that this Bill simply allows the Parliament to legislate on Air Departure Tax; it does not set the rates. Expect more disagreements when the Scottish Government seeks to reduce the tax by 50% via subordinate legislation. Only the Conservatives are set to be willing partners on this.
The Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill gained unanimous support from the Parliament shortly before recess. It removes the three-year time bar on civil cases which involve childhood abuse, with MSPs noting it took survivors far longer to speak out. However, the law of prescription means this only applies to those abused after 1964, so another bill is being prepared to resolve this and a consultation expected will be launched soon.
The final bill to finish its parliamentary journey this session was the Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill, which passed on the Tuesday before recess began. It was opposed by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as trade unions. The Bill merges the British Transport Police in Scotland with Police Scotland, which the Government argued will “maintain and enhance the high standards” of railway safety, but opponents expressed concern about a lack of officer training. Post-legislative scrutiny will be comprehensive, given difficulties following the creation of Police Scotland.
The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill passed Stage 2 at the last Social Security Committee session before recess. A number of amendments were accepted, with Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security & Equalities, Angela Constance, offering to work with opposition parties to bring forward further changes at Stage 3. While the final debate on the Bill is yet to be scheduled, it will probably take place shortly after Parliament returns. Critics argue the Bill does not actually address poverty, rather putting targets in place. Still, it is unlikely to attract much resistance in Parliament.
The Contract (Third Party Rights) (Scotland) Bill is a technical piece of legislation seeking to enforce third party contract rights. Witness evidence at Stage 1 suggests some lawyers apply English law to Scottish contracts, as the rights do not exist formally in Scots law. It has already passed Stage 2, though a date has yet to be decided for Stage 3. Don’t expect headlines over this one.
Introduced in March, the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill is currently undergoing Stage 1 consideration. At its last meeting before recess, the Justice Committee took evidence from Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, indicating the writing of the Committee’s report is underway. Stage 1 must be completed by Friday 29th September, and with questions around its definitions and scope, Stage 2 could be interesting.
The Civil Litigation (Expenses and Group Proceedings) (Scotland) Bill was introduced on Thursday 1st June and has been considered only once by the Justice Committee (in private). A call for evidence has been made, with written submissions to be sent to the Committee by Friday 18th August. Stage 1 evidence sessions will begin in September.
Stage 1 of the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill is to be completed by Friday 10th November. It will transfer powers from the Forestry Commissioners in Scotland to Scottish Ministers, who will have a duty to promote sustainable management. Two evidence sessions have so far taken place with the Rural Economy & Connectivity Committee and it will continue to scrutinise the Bill through the autumn.
The Parliament agreed to complete the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1 by Friday 1st December, leaving three months for the Equalities & Human Rights Committee to scrutinise it and produce a report ahead of the first debate. A call for evidence has been issued, with a closing date of Friday 31st August. Oral evidence sessions will begin in September. Questions will arise on whether legislating for gender balance is appropriate since some suggest quotas would see people put on boards solely because of their gender. This position is common in the Conservative Party, which has not signed up to the Women 50:50 campaign.
Lodged on Friday 9th June, the Islands (Scotland) Bill will bring about substantial changes around the devolution of power to the islands and, as such, it is not due to complete Stage 1 until February 2018. All parties have laid out commitments to empowering island communities, but differ on how this might be achieved. This one might take a while to pass and create tension in the Parliament.
Only introduced on Tuesday 20th June, the passage of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill is likely to be quick given the Scottish Government’s stated aim to begin paying Carers’ Allowance from summer 2018. This means the agency – which the Bill is setting up – must be in place by then, including recruitment, IT systems and other complexities that go with setting up a new public body. Ministers have called on opposition parties to work with them to ensure smooth passage.
This Bill has been long-awaited and several MSPs will be keen to see it pass swiftly. Stage 1 is due to be completed by Friday 27th October and evidence taken by the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee so far suggests it won’t have much opposition given the emotive nature of the subject. Some questions remain on its scope and whether it is necessary, however.
Now we turn to one of the pieces of legislation the Scottish Government did not deliver. The announcement on introducing the legislation for a second independence referendum was in line with the First Minister’s speech immediately following the Brexit vote. But a lot has changed in a year. In the weeks following the result of the snap General Election, Ms Sturgeon was criticised for not retreating from her position sooner. In a statement to Parliament on Tuesday 27th June, she announced these plans would be “reset” and the issue of a second referendum has been taken off the table until at least autumn 2018.
Housing (Amendment) Bill
Another Bill which never appeared was the Housing (Amendment) Bill, which was to alter the Scottish Housing Regulator’s powers to ensure registered social landlords continued to be classified in the private sector by the ONS. The reason behind its delay has been ongoing discussion between the Scottish Government and ONS – but in a letter to the Local Government & Communities Committee in May, Minister for Local Government & Housing, Kevin Stewart, confirmed it would likely be introduced in early September.
Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill
Finally, we get to the Children and Young People (Information Sharing) (Scotland) Bill – which was not included in last year’s programme for Government. This seeks to amend to Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 to ensure Named Person provisions can be implemented, following a Supreme Court ruling that the information sharing aspects were in violation of privacy rights. The Named Person scheme has attracted a lot of support and criticism from both politicians and the general public – and even the parties which supported it when the Act was first passed are now calling for refreshed messaging to ensure proper understanding of its purpose. The Conservatives remain heavily against the measure.
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