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by Chris Marshall
25 May 2021
Meet the Cabinet: The familiar names facing some unfamiliar challenges

Meet the Cabinet: The familiar names facing some unfamiliar challenges

Following the departure of a number of senior figures at the election, the Scottish Government Cabinet was always going to need new faces for some of the top jobs.

Former health secretary Jeane Freeman and Mike Russell, former Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, were perhaps the most high-profile departures as they stood down from Holyrood.

But the new Cabinet, which last week gathered outside Bute House for its first official photograph, had a familiar look to it.

Those who had hoped for an injection of fresh ideas were likely to have been largely disappointed by the assembly of a ministerial team which reflected more a reshuffle than a reboot.

Only Angus Robertson, the SNP’s former leader at Westminster, and Mairi Gougeon have not held Cabinet positions previously.

This relative lack of new blood was not missed by the SNP’s opponents, who accused First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of “recycling” her most trusted lieutenants.

Lib Dems leader Willie Rennie said: “The new Cabinet has not been refreshed; it’s been recycled. There are more old faces from the past than new ones for the future.”

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser tweeted: “Repair, re-use, recycle.”

For her part, the First Minister said the current term of office would be the most important since devolution, with her government facing the triple challenge of recovering from the pandemic, the ongoing impact of Brexit and the looming threat of climate change.

“The magnitude of these challenges is clear, but now is not a moment to shirk from those tasks but to embrace them,” she said. 

Indeed, while the Cabinet contains many familiar figures, some of the challenges they’ll face are entirely new.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney becomes Cabinet Secretary for COVID Recovery after being removed from his education brief, where his report card was mixed, to say the least.

Though Nicola Sturgeon’s said education would be her defining mission in government, progress on tackling major issues such as the poverty attainment gap has been slow or non-existent.

According to a report published by Audit Scotland in March, the academic gap between pupils from the most and least affluent families has remained stubbornly wide.

Despite some progress at a national level, there remain large variations across local authorities, with some councils actually going backwards since 2013/14.

New education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville not only inherits that challenge but also the problem of addressing how pupils make up for lost learning during the pandemic amid some considerable disquiet over the performance of both Education Scotland and the exams body, the SQA.

Swinney’s new job looks no less vast. 

During the election campaign, Sturgeon was at pains to point out that her party would not attempt to hold a second independence referendum until the worst of the COVID crisis is over and the recovery has begun.

The job of recovery is huge, with implications for the economy, education and, of course, the NHS.

But Swinney’s new role doesn’t end there. His massive remit also includes government strategy; inter-governmental relations; public service reform; resilience and the historical abuse inquiry, to name just a few. 

Also on the move is Humza Yousaf, who becomes the new health secretary after three years as justice secretary.

His new job is also a massive one, involving a crucial repositioning of the NHS as it recovers from the biggest test in its history, with worrying indications over missed cancer diagnoses and a growing backlog of operations and procedures.

Most routine cancer screening programmes and appointments were paused in March 2020 as the NHS geared up to fight the pandemic. 

While the full figures on cancer in Scotland during the pandemic won’t be available until next year, the early indications are worrying, with COVID apparently having had a big impact on detection.

In 2019, around 40,000 new cancer patients were confirmed by testing, a figure which fell to 33,000 in 2020. That means around 7,000 missed cancer diagnoses, although the actual figure could be higher.

Across Scotland and the UK as a whole, there is also unease about the growing backlog of planned surgery.

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), figures for NHS England show the number of people who waited more than a year for treatment had seen a 153-fold increase in November 2020, when compared with the same month the previous year.

While the numbers waiting in Scotland are much lower, the same problems exist.

More than 180,000 planned operations were cancelled in the first year of the pandemic, with routine surgeries such as hip and knee replacements or cataracts removals put on hold to free up space in the NHS.

Another key part of the new health secretary’s remit will be the delivery of a new National Care Service as Scotland’s grapples with the increasingly difficult job of caring for an ageing population.

Yousaf may be glad to leave justice behind, where he presided over the passage of the controversial hate crime legislation in the last parliament.

He was also heavily criticised following a recent podcast interview with Holyrood, undertaken while still justice secretary, in which he said he would seek to delegitimise the UK rule of law on issues he disagrees with after the backlash against attempts to deport two Indian men following a Home Office immigration raid in Pollokshields.

Yousaf’s successor as justice secretary is Keith Brown, a former Royal Marines commando who served as Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work from 2016 to 2018.

Brown, who has previously held ministerial roles in transport and education, also inherits a huge brief, with challenges of its own.

The SNP manifesto committed the party to exploring reforms of the justice system, including examining corroboration and the not proven verdict, two of the central tenets of the Scottish legal system.

While there is growing political consensus over the removal of the not proven verdict, the move is likely to prove controversial with the legal profession and will be opposed by many leading lawyers.

Perhaps a more pressing issue, however, is the reform of legal aid.

Scotland’s lawyers have long complained about the levels of funding for the legal aid system.

Last week, many took part in a protest, symbolically downing their gowns amid anger that the government has only paid out just over £2m from a £9m resilience fund. 

There are also growing backlogs in the court system and continuing disquiet among rank and file police officers about the amount of funding available for the service.

Also returning to the Cabinet is former health secretary Shona Robison, who has been appointed Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, with a remit that includes tackling child poverty and delivering 100,000 affordable homes.

Another familiar face who finds himself with a new brief is Michael Matheson.

A former occupational therapist who has been an MSP since 1999, Matheson has previously been both justice secretary and transport secretary and served as a minister for public health.

Following the reshuffle, he becomes Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport. 
With a key role ahead of Scotland’s hosting of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, Matheson will be charged with making sure the country remains on track to meet its ambitious target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. 

While the Scottish Government is committed to promoting so-called active travel (walking and cycling) and has already said it will nationalise ScotRail, there will nevertheless be contradictions within Matheson’s new brief.

With growing international pressure to cut emissions for the sake of the planet, transport projects such as the dualling of the A9, and the SNP’s stated aim of helping the airline industry recover and rebuild connectivity following the pandemic, look increasingly anachronistic. 

Working alongside Matheson will be the new Clydesdale MSP Mairi McAllan, a former Special Advisor to the First Minister, who becomes a minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform, and transport minister Graeme Dey. 

Reporting to both Matheson and finance secretary Kate Forbes will be Richard Lochhead in the newly created ministerial role of Just Transition.

Among those taking a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time is Mairi Gougeon, a former minister for rural affairs who becomes Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands. 

At just 36, Gougeon is one of the younger Cabinet members, although the youngest is 31-year-old Forbes, who found herself promoted following the scandal that engulfed her predecessor, Derek Mackay, after it emerged on the eve of the Scottish budget in 2020 that he had been messaging a 16-year-old boy on social media. 

Gougeon, a former Angus councillor, is likely to be kept busy with the fallout from Brexit. 

She has already warned that a potential UK trade deal with Australia could “devastate” Scottish farming by allowing cheap imported lamb to flood the market. 

The other new face in the Cabinet is Angus Robertson, the former SNP MP and Westminster leader who took Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh Central seat at the election.

Born to a Scottish father and German mother, Robertson worked as a journalist, reporting for Austrian radio, before becoming an MP in 2001.

He becomes Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, where his key task is likely to be helping deliver a second independence referendum.

Announcing her Cabinet, Sturgeon said the immediate challenge would be recovering from the pandemic, but she added: “As I have made clear, when the crisis is over and the time is right, Scotland must and will have the chance to choose its future in line with the unquestionable democratic mandate for that choice.”  

Within hours of being appointed, there was already controversy over Roberston’s role.

The Lib Dems brought an amendment in parliament seeking to remove the former MP from the Cabinet. 

Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “On Tuesday, the First Minister signalled a welcome change in tone and in direction. 

“Her first act was to create a ministerial office dedicated to the national recovery from COVID-19, but that was immediately undermined by her appointment of a Cabinet Secretary who exists, first and foremost, to advance the cause of independence.”

In the end, just four MSPs voted for the amendment seeking to block Robertson’s appointment. 

While some of his new colleagues face more immediate challenges, it is perhaps Robertson’s brief that in the months and years ahead is likely to come in for the most scrutiny.  

Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - Key items of PPE came close to running out at start of COVID pandemic

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