This Week: The Wait for Justice

Following last week’s anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum, this week has been one to forget for the SNP. In addition to facing criticism on GM crops, Audit Scotland reported that the sheriff court system is coming under increasing pressure and delayed discharge is also back on the agenda for the SNP.

Courts judged to be under pressure

Audit Scotland has reported this week that the sheriff court system is being put under greater pressure as it faces falling budgets. The Audit body found that fewer cases were concluding within the 26-week performance target and the average time for cases to conclude has risen.

Questioned on the topic at First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon said the Government had provided additional funding in response to particular pressures and that the courts which were closed were “dealing with a relatively low volume of business”. She added that one of the issues at play was in the prosecution of more complex cases, with increased confidence on the part of the victims in reporting them.

Calls to lower income tax at Holyrood

Former chair of the Reform Scotland think-tank, Ben Thomson, has suggested that the Scottish Government cut income tax by 2p in the pound when Holyrood gains the power to vary income tax from April 2016.

The Scotland Act 2012 will mean the Treasury will deduct 10p from the rate of income tax in Scotland from April next year, with the power to raise or lower it within that bracket devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Giving evidence to the Finance Committee this week, Mr Thomson said his proposed tax cut would cost £660m – a gap which could be filled by a tax on high sugar products or reforming council tax.

Whilst the Finance Minister, John Swinney, is expected to announce the Scottish Rate of Income Tax or SRIT in January, when he announces the Government’s budget, stakeholders have questioned the awareness of the new rate in Scotland. In a submission to the Finance Committee, the Chartered Institute of Taxation said that “more could have been done to publicise the SRIT among the tax agent and tax adviser community and at an earlier stage”, rather than “one ‘big bang’ of publicity around the time of the announcement by the Scottish Government”.

Ewing reaches out to landowners

This week, comments by Business Minister, Fergus Ewing, have suggested that a centre-piece of Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for Government may not turn out to be as radical as once assumed.  Speaking at a grouse shooting event, Mr Ewing said he often saw “excellent examples of land use” being promoted by the larger estates and that “some colleagues in all parties perhaps haven’t had the same opportunities that I have . . . to educate myself as to what actually happens in large estates.”

The SNP’s Land Reform Bill proposes widening the ownership of land across Scotland by giving the Scottish Government the power to intervene where landowners are judged to be obstructing sustainable development. Whilst the Bill also plans to end the business rates exemption for shooting estates and deer forests, Mr Ewing has said the imposition of rates would have “relatively modest” implications. Whether Mr Ewing is seeking to pacify opposition to the Bill, or there is a real intention to water it down, will become clear as it progresses through the Scottish Parliament.

SNP backbencher speaks out

Glasgow MSP John Mason has called out his fellow SNP backbenchers for being “overly protective of the party line” in the scrutiny of legislation at the Scottish Parliament.

As part of the Standards Committee inquiry into Committee reform, MSPs have been called to give evidence on how to improve the Committee system. Mr Mason added: “The danger is that with a majority of Government backbenchers on a committee the backbenchers will be too subservient to Government”.

Conveners to question FM

The Conveners of each of the Scottish Parliament’s Committees will question the First Minister next week on her Government’s recent legislative programme. The annual event allows Conveners to question the broader themes the Government will pursue, under the Convenership of the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick.

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