Nicola Sturgeon has delivered her Programme for Government, confirming 15 new bills to be introduced over the next year and identifying the four key areas of focus for the Scottish Government: Economic growth, education reform, improving public services and empowering communities.
The First Minister also confirmed the Scottish Government would begin consultation on a new Climate Change Bill in early 2017 to set a new target of reducing emissions by over 50% by 2020. A Warm Homes Bill will also be introduced later in this Parliament.
What are we missing?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the First Minister made a point of emphasising four new bills, on APD, Railway Policing, Gender Balance on Public Boards and “most importantly” Social Security, which are intended to utilise the Scottish Parliament’s new powers. She also noted that the annual Budget Bill would include detail on how the Government intended to implement new income tax powers. However, opposition parties have accused the Government of “timidity”, suggesting the new powers could have been utilised with greater enthusiasm to introduce deeper reforms.
The Inshore Fisheries Bill and Wild Fisheries Bill signposted in the SNP’s manifesto did not see an outing in the First Ministers statement, perhaps indicative of the as-yet-unknown impact of Brexit on this sector. However, the Programme for Government document does note an intention to build on the current Scottish Inshore Fisheries Strategy and consult on a possible future bill. Similarly, a pledge is made to consider a Wild Fisheries Bill this session, something which already appears to be on the radar of Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Convener, Graeme Dey.
Similar promises to consult are made on the pledges of a Good Food Nation Bill, Circular Economy and Zero Waste Bill and a Transport Bill, for the second half of the session.
The much anticipated emphasis on education, inequality and attainment was evident in the centrality of these issues in the First Ministers statement, indeed the Child Poverty Bill and the Social Security Bill were heralded as “perhaps the most important” of the year. Though an actual Education Bill was pushed to the second year of this session, with a consultation on a national funding formula for schools to be launched in March.
A review of small holdings legislation, signposted in the manifesto, did not make an appearance, though plans for a new Crofting Bill later in the Parliament were flagged.
Though empowering communities was much discussed in the lead up to and throughout the statement, the pledged legislation on devolving local authority functions to communities is fairly light on detail. Several opposition members accused the Government of failing to pass the baton of devolution from London and Brussels down to even a local authority level. The Greens in particular have expressed disappointment at the lack of further reforms to council tax.
The health sector was another central area which was lacking in detail, without a single dedicated health bill put forward for the first year of the Parliament. Investment was touted, with plans to increase resource spending in the NHS by £500m more than inflation over the Parliament definitely the flagship announcement, along with an intention to transfer funds from the NHS to health and social care partnerships. Pledges were made to legislate to enshrine safe staffing levels in law “later in the Parliament” and a new mental health strategy is planned for the coming year.
Things we weren’t expecting
The First Minister also set out a number of funding priorities, including support for private businesses following the EU referendum. Two of the flagship funding announcements in the statement – the £500m Growth Fund and the planned new National Manufacturing Institute, were only whispers in the manifesto. Though the former has already attracted controversy for the lack of consultation with the Treasury. The latter is particularly interesting given the context of the ongoing Enterprise and Skills Review.
The Forestry Bill was also not highlighted in the preamble to the statement, though given the momentum behind the devolution of this sector it was not necessarily a surprise. The SNP has elsewhere pledged to work on the links between forestry and health, improve action on meeting planting targets and hasten the approval of applications for planting. Action to restore ancient woodland has also been touted, along with exploring how woodland could help with flooding and water basin management through the Forestry Grant Scheme.
News that Scottish Enterprise is working on a comprehensive plan for decommissioning was met with surprise by many in the chamber, who inferred that given the vintage of this issue, an action plan should have been in development, if not in place.
The Railway Policing Bill, which has already had something of an outing at FMQs, was not a piece of legislation that appeared on the SNPs radar at manifesto time, nor was the Contract (Third Party Rights) Bill. While several inches of manifesto space were dedicated to tenants’ rights, the Housing (Amendment) Bill’s focus on social landlords was not foreshadowed at all.
Finally, the Referendum Bill. The way was paved for this piece of legislation in the manifesto, which said that Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if clear, sustained evidence presented itself proving that independence has become the majority of Scots’ preferred option, or should there be a “significant and material change” in circumstances, such as Scotland’s removal from the EU against the people’s will. In the immediate wake of Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to confirm that legislation for a possible Indyref2 was in development and the inclusion of this Bill had become a matter of when, not if. However, it remains to be seen how it will be agreed, particularly given recent polling, that a second independence referendum is “the best way to protect Scotland’s interests in the EU”.
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