The Rebel Returns as Holyrood Restarts

This week saw the return of MSPs to Holyrood after a busy recess for UK politics. Grayling Public Affairs summarises the first week of what is set to be a long autumn and winter for Scottish politics. There was a also an unexpected moment of bromance in the Chamber this week as Jackson Carlaw described a Government Minister as the “Che Guevara to the First Minister’s Evita”. Find out who below…

The Holyrood agenda was packed full, as MSPs lined up to query the summer’s developments and the Government’s response. Following the launch of the SNP National Survey last week, Scotland’s politicos had their ears pricked up for any mention of independence in the First Minister’s first Programme for Government as leader of a minority administration. Minds were also focused on any new Brexit developments and how the First Minister would be positioning the Scottish Government.

Programme for Government

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, this week set out the Scottish Government’s priorities for 2016-17 and into the future. She reemphasised her cause – tackling inequality through education. But this Programme focused on the day-to-day business of government with the First Minister laying out 24 Bills the Government intends to introduce.

There were few new announcements, but she said she was adapting the Government’s programme to the new constitutional context of Brexit. In this vein, her headline announcement was a new £500m Scottish Growth Scheme to offer financial support over three years for private sector business investment. The First Minister described it as “an exceptional response to an exceptional economic challenge.”

It was later revealed that the Scottish Government did not inform the UK Treasury prior to making the announcement on the new growth scheme, despite requiring its sign off. It is unlikely that the scheme will be rejected by the Treasury with commentators suggesting that the Scottish Government is stealing a march on the UK Government’s own economic stimulus plans which are expected to be announced in the Autumn Statement on 23 November.

The criticism levelled at the SNP – that they can’t take their eyes off independence and should be focusing on the day job – was addressed by the First Minister in her limited closing reference to a second plebiscite. She said the Scottish Government would publish a consultation a draft Referendum Bill, in order that it is ready for introduction should the Scottish Government conclude – and decide to seek Parliament’s agreement – that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests in the wake of the EU referendum.

You can request a summary of the Programme for Government below.

Brexit

Delivering a statement on the EU this week, the First Minister said she would soon confirm how the Prime Minister’s commitment to full involvement for Scotland in EU negotiations would work. She restated her position that the Prime Minister did not have a mandate to take any part of the UK out of the single market and the Scottish Government would seek to find ways to protect “Scotland’s place in Europe and our vital national interests and embed them in the UK’s negotiating strategy.”

The First Minister will appear before the Europe Committee next week and a series of parliamentary debates will take place over the next few weeks on the implications of Brexit in key areas such as the economy, rural affairs, education and the environment.

During PMQs this week, the Prime Minister failed to give a straight answer to Angus Robertson MP’s question of whether the Prime Minister wants the UK to remain within the European Single Market. Robertson criticized the Prime Minister, saying: “The UK Government have had all summer to come up with a plan and a strategy, but so far we have just had waffle”. Whilst the SNP continue to argue that the UK Government is responding insufficiently to Brexit, speaking on his LBC phone-in show, former First Minister, Alex Salmond, said membership of the single market would only “affect the timing as opposed to whether there was a (second independence) referendum”.

The Scottish Affairs Committee also began an inquiry this week examining Scotland’s place in Europe, focusing on how the EU referendum result will be implemented, and what options exist for Scotland’s future relationship with the EU.

SNP Coordination Group at Westminster

The SNP Group at Wesminster have created a Coordination Group to respond to the UK Government’s plans for Brexit. The convenor will be Westminster SNP Leader Angus Robertson MP and members will include Alex Salmond – Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Stephen Gethins – Europe and UK Department for Exiting the European Union, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – UK Department for International Trade and Hannah Bardell – Business and Economy Engagement

The party have also reshuffled their front bench team to shadow new departments created by Prime Minister Theresa May. These further appointments include:

– Callum McCaig – UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Spokesperson

– Calum Kerr – Digital Spokesperson

– Gavin Newlands – Sport Spokesperson

– Phil Boswell – Public Accounts Committee

– Tommy Sheppard – Electoral Commission Parliamentary Advisory Group

Council tax reform set in motion

Plans for changes to council tax have been set in motion as the Finance Minister, Derek Mackay, laid the necessary legislation before parliament to put reforms in place by April 2017. The planned changes will allow the Government to adjust the four highest council tax bands (E-H) to raise more revenue. The lower bands are to remain unchanged.

The Government believes the changes will raise an additional £500m in this session of parliament. The additional funds will be directed towards education, with the money to be placed directly in the hands of head teachers. The Government argues giving individual heads more autonomy around funding decisions will allow them to take a targeted approach to closing the attainment gap in their schools.

The Local Government Committee has issued a call for evidence as part of its examination of the Government’s proposals.

Government pushes on with Named Person plans

John Swinney announced on Thursday that the Scottish Government hopes to have implemented its Named Person plans by August 2017. The scheme which was originally scheduled to be in place this year had previously been halted after the Supreme Court judgement deemed the data sharing provisions unlawful. John Swinney made it clear that despite the controversy around the proposals the Government remains committed to amend and implement the scheme but will hold a “three month period of intense engagement” to take the views from stakeholders including social work practitioners, parents, charities and young people.

In his statement Swinney emphasised that the Supreme Court found that the underlying principle behind the act was “legitimate and benign.” This characterisation contrasts sharply with opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives view who have branded the policy “an assault” on family life and want the scheme scrapped entirely. Labour support the principle of the scheme but want to see it amended to remove 16 – 18 year olds. Labour spokesman Iain Gray said “It is absurd that people the law says are old enough to vote, marry, and work are told by the SNP that they need a Named Person.”

Police Scotland to merge with British Transport Police

The prospect of Police Scotland merging with the British Transport Police was one of the most contentious items among the justice measures being introduced in the Programme for Government this week. The introduction of the Railway Policing Bill will confer railway policing powers on Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority and put in place funding arrangements in preparation for the integration

Railway policing is being devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016 following a recommendation by the Smith Commission. This week a number of politicians have lodged questions concerning the merge and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson used her questions at FMQs to criticise the Government’s decision. She quoted BTP officers who were against the move.

Last week the BTP Federation, which represents officers working for the service said the Scottish Government’s plans would create “inconsistencies” for the millions of passengers who make cross-border journeys each year.

And Finally…

The Parliament gave formal approval for the appointment of Mike Russell as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe this week. Speaking during the debate on the motion to approve Mr Russell, Jackson Carlaw said the Tories believed him “to be the man for the job” and they supported his appointment.

Earlier Carlaw, in a tongue-and-cheek description of Mr Russell, described him as a “sometime intellectual, sometime muse; classic romantic—some would say romanticist; sometime tartan revolutionary; sometime diplomat, sometime partisan bruiser, Mr Russell is a big beast in a job that requires just that talent.”  Mr Carlaw said he was “the rebel returned to the cause, a political romance reset by Brexit”.  Mr Russell lost his post in the Cabinet in the First Minister’s first reshuffle in November 2014.

You can read the bromantic speech in full here.

Request a summary of the Programme for Government from Grayling Scotland’s consultants in the form below. 

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