This Week in Scotland: Programme for Government

Nicola Sturgeon announced her government’s legislative programme – the equivalent of the Queen’s Speech – the last before the Scottish Elections.The Programme itself was not a radical upgrade of the Government’s current policies but more of the same. With one eye firmly on the election next year, Sturgeon undoubtedly held back on a few election goodies.

Instead the Programme is an extension and refinement of policies which are guided by the First Minister’s three principles in Government: prosperity, participation and fairness. As such there was confirmation of new trade, investment and manufacturing strategies; further help for SMEs; the extension of the popular Help to Buy Scotland scheme; and confirmation of a root and branch review of planning policy.

Tackling the criticism the Government has faced over educational attainment, she put a new National Improvement Framework at the heart of her programme. New national assessments will replace the variety of different arrangements currently in place while there is yet another extension of free early leaning and childcare.

With an eye to future powers, Sturgeon made her strongest suggestion yet that that Scottish income tax rates will remain in line with the UK’s; that APD would be halved; the bedroom tax be abolished; that improvements to Universal Credit would be brought forward; and that the DWP’s Work Programme and Work Choice would be replaced.

Scottish Budget Delayed

Over the weekend, the Scottish Government confirmed that it is to delay the announcement of its annual Budget due to the UK Government’s Spending Review. The Scottish Government normally announces its draft budget in September; however, as the confirmation of the UK Government’s Spending Review will not be available until November, the Scottish Government will be unsure of what its budget actually is. This will mean that the Budget will need to be fast-tracked and local authorities will have less time to plan their budgets accordingly.

It is expected that Scotland’s block grant will be reduced as George Osborne continues to seek cuts to public spending. With the Scottish Government already committed to protecting health spending, it could mean that ministers will be forced to make deeper cuts in other budget areas. However, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney will have new powers over Scottish rates of income tax to potentially help alleviate any cuts to his budget.

Independence Poll

An Ipsos Mori poll on behalf of STV has shown that more than half of Scots would vote for independence if a second referendum was held tomorrow. The survey indicated that 53% of Scots would vote Yes and 44% No with 3% undecided. This is the first such poll since the referendum last year. Given it is the first such poll the usual caveats apply. While welcoming the poll, the First Minister was quick to reiterate her promise to call a second referendum only if there was “material change in circumstances” remains.

The survey also indicated that the SNP are on course to increase their majority at next year’s Scottish elections. Support for the SNP was found to be 55% at a constituency level and 50% at a regional one, both up from their historic 2011 performance. Labour are down to 20% on both the constituency and regional vote – a result that would see their MSP representation drop from its current level of 37 to just 26 MSPs. The Liberal Democrats would gain an MSP, up to six, while the Scottish Conservatives would remain on 15 – a result that would be a considerable disappointment to Ruth Davidson. The Greens however, are set to increase their representation by 6MSPs, up from their current 2.

The SNP is also recorded as enjoying considerable leads on an issues basis in areas such as education, health and justice over its rivals despite recent criticism in the media.

Minimum Pricing blow

The Advocate General of the European Court of Justice has said that the Scottish Government’s plans to create a minimum unit price of alcohol could impact on the free movement of goods and thus break EU law. The ruling states that any move would only be legal if the Scottish Government could clearly demonstrate that there was no other mechanism (e.g. increase taxes) that was capable of achieving the desired result.

Holyrood passed legislation in 2012 to bring in a minimum unit price of 50p as an attempt to help break Scotland’s addiction to the bottle. However, the move was challenged by the Scottish Whisky Association, which argued it breached European law. The case will now be referred back to the Court of Session in Edinburgh for a final decision.

Faslane upgrade

A political row has broken out between the UK and Scottish Government’s following the announcement by George Osborne that more than £500 million of contracts has been assigned to the Faslane naval base. According to the UK Government, the contracts will secure 6,700 jobs and create thousands more at the home of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

However, the Scottish Government has branded the announcement as “arrogant” as it appears to pre-empt the UK Parliament’s decision on whether to replace the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Scottish Government believes that the £500 million would be better invested in conventional forces.

Blair: Devolution “mistakes”

Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has admitted in a new book that his government did not consider the impact of devolution on UK national identity.  Arguing that devolution was the right thing to do as resisting demands for devolved parliaments would have only served to stoke up demands for outright independence, he acknowledged that he did not fully understand at the time the importance of maintaining cultural unity between the composite parts of the UK.

Police reforms

The Scottish Government has announced that its plans to close local police call centres is to be delayed. The announcement comes after the publication of an inquiry by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) into the deaths of two people in a car accident in July on the M9. The HMICS report states that call-handing staff in parts of Scotland were under “unacceptably high” pressure. The announcement came on the same day as the Justice Minister also confirmed that the Scottish Government would accept in full the findings of an independent advisory group, which found that consensual stop and search of youths was of “questionable lawfulness and legitimacy.

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