Ambitious Relaunch or Back to the Day Job?

The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government (PfG) has been billed as a relaunch of the Scottish Government’s domestic agenda. With a second independence referendum on the back-burner and criticism from various fronts that the government was insufficiently focused on the day job, Sturgeon has come out with a wide range of bills and announcements touching on everything from healthcare to education, electric vehicles and the economy. However, is it the ambitious programme that we were promised?

It will be a busy year…
The Programme for Government (PfG) was always likely to be heavier this year. The General Election, Brexit and local government elections have all taken their toll on the legislative and policy agenda, pushing back some announcements and strategies. Much of the PfG outlines pre-exiting policy streams on issues like enterprise planning, obesity, climate change and energy which have been in digestion for many months, while other aspects are newer, particularly those aimed at restoring this government’s progressive roots, namely a commitment to extending free personal care for under 65s with dementia and to tackling ‘period poverty.’

A plan to fix education
Education was billed as the main focus of the PfG, as the First Minister continues to come under criticism for falling standards in Scotland’s schools. Sturgeon announced a new Education Bill that would place greater powers and funding directly in the hands of teachers and head teachers, and make reforms to the way teachers are recruited to help expand different routes into teaching. The Bill will also include the creation of Regional Improvement Collaboratives.

“It’s the economy stupid”
Sturgeon used her announcement last week to signal a number of economic reforms that were coming down the line. This was set out more clearly today, with the announcement of a Scottish National Investment Bank to support infrastructure investment and provide long-term patient capital investment for Scottish companies. The First Minister reiterated her desire for Scotland to lead in industries of the future, and committed additional resources for R&D, advanced manufacturing, and the establishment of a national FinTech hub. There was also announcements on greater support for entrepreneurs, and measures to support Scottish companies internationally.

One of the SNP’s main successes in government has been the substantial growth of the green economy and ambitious targets on renewable energy and climate change. In an effort to continue this momentum, the First Minster announced a target of 2032 for the phase out of petrol and diesel vehicles (eight years earlier that the UK commitment of 2040), supported by a range of proposals to promote the uptake of electric vehicles and create the necessary infrastructure. The First Minister also announced measures to establish Low Emission Zones in all of Scotland’s cities by 2020, and the creation of a deposit return scheme for drinks cans.

Transport
The First Minister took the opportunity to once again raise the success of the Queensferry Crossing, but there was little new to announce on transport. Smart ticketing, and a public sector bid for the ScotRail franchise are well debated issues, but the First Minister did announce a doubling of the budget for active travel to £80m. This will form part of the Scottish Government’s plan to tackle obesity, along with the restrictions of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

An alternative to austerity
As widely expected, the First Minister used the PfG to announce an end to the unpopular 1% public sector pay cap. Aware that lifting the cap will be costly, Sturgeon also outlined plans to publish a discussion paper on Income Tax to “open up the debate” about the best use of Holyrood’s tax powers.

Sturgeon also bowed to pressure from opposition parties on several issues. In response to a well-orchestrated Labour campaign, she announced that free access to sanitary products would now be available in all schools, colleges and universities. Sturgeon also agreed to adopt Frank’s Law, an extension of free care for dementia patients for those under the age of 65, a cause of the Scottish Conservatives. In addition, the First Minister announced plans to fund research into the concept and feasibility of a Citizen’s Income.

Brexit insurance policy
On Brexit, Sturgeon stuck to her familiar line that the Scottish Government will oppose any attempt at a “power grab” by the UK government through the repeal process. She reiterated her opposition to Brexit and to leaving the Single Market, but said that she was determined not to let it stand in the way of her legislative programme. Sturgeon announced that over the next few months, the Scottish Government will also set out, in a series of evidence-based discussion papers, the case for further extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament in the areas of immigration; social security and employability; employment; and trade. Apart from a fleeting reference to her existing timetable for considering an independence referendum, the First Minster’s speech stayed firmly away from a second referendum, as she looked to rebrand the SNP with a strong domestic focus.

Responding to the PfG, Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives said that “if the Scottish Government is to earn back the trust and respect of people in Scotland, which it has squandered in the last year, then it must change – and change fast. It must show it understands the differences between a genuine complaint and the politics of endless grievance.” Davidson also accused the SNP of taking several policies from the Scottish Conservative manifesto, suggesting the PfG should be called “something borrowed, something blue”.

Grayling analysis
While the Opposition parties will claim that the SNP has run out of ideas, Nicola Sturgeon’s PfG has done enough to persuade some commentators that she has reflected on the mood of the country. Although widely expected, the decision to end the public sector pay gap will dominate the headlines.  This will in turn put extra pressure on the government’s economic policies to deliver, as next year’s Budget will remain tight. The announcement of the discussion paper on Income Tax will be seen as the first step towards a tax increase, likely to fall on higher earners. Indeed, this has been picked up in much of the coverage, and will ensure the Scottish Conservatives’ “highest taxed part of the UK” narrative endures.

Although the next elections are more than four years away, the First Minister knows that her government has to deliver on this programme, particularly on education. It will be difficult in 12 months’ time for her to return to the Chamber to defend limited progress on many commitments that not only bridge last year’s parliamentary year, but even the last parliamentary term. Rumours persist that a Cabinet reshuffle could still take place in the coming weeks – a refresh in her senior team might also be necessary to give this programme the impetus it needs.

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