10 Things about the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2016

Ben Wray

Common Weal Policy dissect the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government, the first since the election and Brexit

THE Scottish Government’s Programme for Government has been announced and provides a first chance for us to have a look at First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s legislative agenda for the fifth sitting of the Scottish Parliament. There’s plenty to look at – it’s the first programme since the SNP’s 2016 election manifesto and since Brexit – so let’s get on with it.

Investment ambition – but even more needed

As expected, the economy was central to Sturgeon’s speech and makes up much of the most interesting content of the programme for government. Scotland’s economy was already vulnerable prior to Brexit and the Leave vote has spurred action, the most prominent being a new Scottish Growth Scheme worth £500m to provide capital for small and medium sized businesses that have a growth in exports in their sights. The scheme is interesting in that it is reliant on the Treasury agreeing on an accountancy rule change to allow the financing of the projects to be treated differently on the balance sheet from the normal revenue and expenditure. Common Weal has been advocating such a move as the Treasury’s fiscal straightjacket supresses’ public investment in Scotland, our only complaint is – if you’re going to go to the Treasury for a rule change why not go for something bigger than a £500m fund (still a relatively small sum relative to the Scottish economy as a whole)? We’ve proposed such a move in order to establish a Scottish National Investment Bank with a capital base of several billions, a form of which was backed (in a slightly different form) by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his recent visit to Scotland. Even more ambition is needed on investment.

Other moves on the economy look positive – a National Manufacturing Institute looks like a very sound idea, although we will await the detail. A decommissioning plan that ensures the contracts stay in Scotland and the supply-chains are in place is also sensible.

Education policy still way off beam

Sturgeon reiterated that education was her “guiding mission” with the ambition of narrowing and eventually closing the attainment gap, but the policies in order to achieve that lofty aim still seem off beam. Re-branding standardised testing ‘standardised assessments’ doesn’t make anyone believe it is not testing. The lack of support for this among experts, further revealed by CommonSpace yesterday, and among any other party in the Scottish Parliament except Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories, who seems to have set the agenda on this, should make the Scottish Government think whether this is something they really want to commit too.

The Child Poverty Bill could offer redemption – setting statutory income targets on reducing child poverty will, hopefully, force Ministers to step up its radicalism in the future to meet them.

Some positive soundings on local democracy

The announcement of a review into local democracy ahead of the council elections next year is positive in so far as it creates a focal point for a renewed debate about establishing real local and community democracy in Scotland that is bottom-up. The relationship between the Scottish Government and local authorities is pretty toxic right now but it is likely that by this time next year most of the councils in Scotland, including the big ones like Glasgow, will be under the SNP’s control so looking at change now makes sense.

The prospect of other forms of electoral reform was raised as well now that the Scottish Government has powers over this from the Scotland Act 2015. There will be a consultation soon on “what electoral reforms Scottish citizens would like to see taken forward in future legislation.”

Energy efficiency focus

A new energy strategy that will attempt to reduce demand as well as increase renewable looks set to prioritise energy efficiency – a smart move long advocated by Common Weal. The new scheme will start in 2018 with a Warm Homes Bill in the latter part of the parliament, so we’ll have to wait some time for the detail, but a consultation on regulation of private-sector housing energy efficiency is being launched which signals steps in the right direction. It is ludicrous that private-sector house builders can still get away with building homes that don’t meet government energy efficiency targets – regulation to change that is long overdue.

Another consultation next year that will be of keen interest to us is on creating a green energy bond and publicly owned energy company – two ideas backed by Common Weal that we’ll be advocating for. One of the most exciting parts of the SNP’s 2016 manifesto was the statement that “by 2020, at least half of newly consented renewable energy projects will have an element of shared ownership” – sadly there was no mention of this target or how it would be achieved in yesterday’s programme.

Baby box

The baby box, a prominent feature of the SNP’s election campaign, will be consulted on this year and rolled out in 2017. The idea – providing essential items to new parents – is a good one, but it’s worth noting that in the Finnish case (of which the policy has been inspired by) the baby box was an enticement to a whole series of measures that ensure a child is healthy upon birth: pregnancy counselling, regular child health clinic visits and meeting’s with doctors and more. Building a whole child health strategy around the baby box is essential.

30 free hours childcare still lacking detail

Probably the most ambitious proposal in the SNP’s election manifesto was the move from 15 to 30 free hours of childcare for 3-4 year old’s (and vulnerable 2 year old’s). A huge investment will be needed to achieve this in new childcare centres and qualified staff, in a sector that is already struggling to meet its current commitments.

How the Scottish Government are going to achieve this is still unknown after yesterday’s Programme for Government. A policy blueprint will come out next year and trials will start in January. The Scottish Government’s policy adviser Naomi Eisenstadt has said that finding the balance between flexibility, affordability and quality is “almost impossible” but we think we’ve had a pretty good stab at it here with our proposal for a National Childcare Service.

In a Programme for Government full of positive feminist proposals like the Gender Balance on Public Boards Bill and the Domestic Abuse Bill, getting the reforms to the childcare sector right – both for new mothers struggling with costs and unable to work and an overwhelmingly female workforce that is low-paid and over-worked – must be a top priority if gender equality is going to be advanced over the lifetime of this parliament.

Tax problems

A noticeable absence from Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was Income Tax: devolved in May, this major tax power didn’t feature for obvious reasons – the Scottish Government are not planning on changing anything. With the small changes to Council Tax being many SNP supporters biggest disappointment of the election manifesto, it’s significant that the only major tax change is the plan to slash Air Passenger Duty in half – a move that will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers. The revenue implications of this tax policy are not unimportant – nearly £150m per year will be lost from the tax cut at a time of a shrinking block grant from Westminster. Finally, there is no solid evidence that the cut will boost the Scottish economy – indeed, our research shows that it is likely to cause a lot of damage to Scotland’s domestic tourism sector. With Sturgeon likely to rely on a Tory u-turn to get this through Holyrood, we’re still waiting on evidence other than re-hashed versions of Edinburgh Airport’s flawed publication to show us why this isn’t a very bad idea.

Transport woes

It wasn’t in Sturgeon’s speech, but in the Programme for Government’s Transport section a surprising review of bus passes was slipped in in typically diplomatic fashion: “We will also examine with stakeholders options to safeguard the longer term sustainability of the concessionary travel scheme.” The National Endowment Card has been guaranteed for the next year but the review raises question marks for the future.

Indeed, it would have been nice to have seen more positive measures on transport, such as bus regulation or a future commitment to bring the railways into public ownership when the Scottish Government can, but no such moves were forthcoming in a set of proposals that would have been read wearily by public transport users.

Referendum Bill

Far from being obsessed with independence, as the pro-union parties eagerly claimed, Sturgeon’s programme for government gave it little time at all. Sturgeon’s strategy on this can and has been read differently – while The Guardian led with ‘shelves plan for a quick second referendum’, The Herald plumed for ‘edges to closer to referendum’. What is clear is that there has been a rhetorical climb down – in the weeks following the 23 June vote Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” was met by the First Minister’s “Remain means Remain” and the “highly likely” prospect of an independence referendum. Now the talk is of “options”, a more limited demand of staying in the EU Single Market and Sturgeon’s draft Referendum Bill appears to be about giving her upmost flexibility to pull the trigger as and when she feels fit. The course of the Brexit negotiations – which have no clear end date – will likely shape events.

“A real battle of ideas”?

Sturgeon’s major rhetorical flourish in her speech was to make clear the major division in this fifth sitting of the Scottish Parliament: “…social democratic government in the mainstream of Scottish public opinion confronted by a right wing Conservative opposition. This means a real battle of ideas. A sense of solidarity versus the ideology of the small state.”

While red water can be clearly identified on issues like social security and work, some of the major changes the First Minister is pursuing – like standardised testing and the APD cut – are likely to rely on Tory support to pass. Many of the most ambitious parts of the SNP’s agenda are still maybes: how they’re going to deliver free childcare, how they’re going to drive green energy forward, how they’re going to change local democracy are all question marks with blueprint’s, consultation’s and review’s still to come. There’s not likely to be a lack of work for a progressive left think-tank, that’s for certain.