Programme for government: blueprint for an unusual parliamentary year
With the publication of the programme for government this week, the starting gun was fired on the beginning of a short and unusual parliamentary year that will last just seven months, ending in late March ahead of the 6 May election.
It also fired the starting gun on election campaigning and manoeuvres towards a second independence referendum, with the announcement that one of the bills planned for this year is an independence referendum bill.
This follows the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020, which was passed earlier this year and sets out the general framework for any future referendums in Scotland.
The new draft bill announced in the programme for government will lay out the Scottish Government’s preferred question, terms and timing of a proposed second independence referendum.
Writing for Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has already said that the 2021 election will be the most important in Scotland’s history and the bill raises the stakes on that.
Such a bill allows the SNP to go into the election with a manifesto commitment to hold indyref2 based on an existing bill, providing clarity on what people are voting for, which in turn they will hope strengthens the position to push for permission to hold a referendum if pro-independence parties get a majority.
But once set out in a bill, it will also be more difficult to back down from.
It is essentially turning the 2021 election into a referendum on holding a referendum.
In announcing plans for the referendum bill, Sturgeon referenced Brexit and the different programme for government they might be making in an independent Scotland.
“If this was a programme for government in an independent Scotland, it would not have to contemplate the damage of Brexit at all,” she said.
“Instead, it could set out even more far-reaching plans for an immediate extension of the job retention scheme, not a plea for another government to do so; the greater use of borrowing powers to further stimulate our economy; transformation of our national grid to support faster development of renewables; a migration system that welcomes talent at all levels and supports people to make Scotland their home; and a universal basic income and a social security system geared wholly, not just partially, to lifting households out of poverty.
“That is why we will publish, before the end of this session of parliament, a draft bill setting out the proposed terms and timing of an independence referendum as well as the proposed question that people will be asked in that referendum.
“Then, at next year’s election, we will make the case for Scotland to become an independent country, and we will seek a clear endorsement of Scotland’s right to choose our own future.”
The Scottish Conservatives said the proposed bill showed that the First Minister “just doesn’t get it” and she needed to “get back into the real world, where people are fearful of losing their jobs”, while the Lib Dems said her priorities were wrong to be devoting time to independence when “lives and livelihoods across Scotland are still under threat”.
But the independence bill was only a small part of the overall programme for the year. COVID, of course, will continue to affect the country during this parliamentary year and beyond, and the First Minister explicitly acknowledged that, while also stating that this must not hold back other policies.
“This is not a normal, business-as-usual programme for government,” she said. “Today’s programme is clear that suppressing COVID is our most immediate priority and will remain so for some time.
“That is essential for the protection of health and life and for economic and social recovery. Put simply, if COVID runs rampant again, our economy will sustain even deeper, longer-lasting damage. This programme faces up to that inescapable fact.
“However, we will not simply hunker down and wait for the storm to pass – we cannot afford to do that.
“We must end our contribution to climate change, improve biodiversity, invest in our national infrastructure, make our public services fit for the future, harness the economic and social opportunities of new technology, make homelessness history and lift children out of poverty.”
COVID must not be a “brake on our ambitions”, but “an accelerant”, she said.
There was an emphasis in this year’s programme for government on actions and funding – some new, some previously announced – rather than new legislation, with only eleven bills planned for the year, seven of which are already published or being considered by MSPs at stage one.
But with a short parliamentary year as well as the twin challenges of dealing with coronavirus and processing Brexit-related legislation, this is likely to be plenty to be getting on with.
Among the key legislation for the year is a bill to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, something that has long been called for by children’s organisations and which the Scottish Government had committed to do in last year’s programme for government.
There is also the controversial Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, which is currently being considered by the Justice Committee; the Defamation and Malicious Publication Bill; Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) Bill; a domestic abuse bill that will introduce protection orders banning alleged perpetrators from the family home; the Heat Networks Bill; Redress for Survivors (Historical Child Abuse in Care) Bill; and the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) Bill.
Last year’s programme for government had a green focus, being described, rather ambitiously, as a green new deal, and this year’s continued action on climate change as well as measures to aid economic recovery after coronavirus and progress in digital technology.
The announcement with the potential for the biggest shake-up is a review of the adult social care sector.
To be led by former director general of health and social care in the Scottish Government Derek Feeley along with a panel of experts that includes former auditor general for Scotland Caroline Gardner, former Labour health secretary Malcolm Chisholm, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Alliance Ian Welsh and Göran Henriks, chief executive of learning and innovation in Jönköping region, Sweden, the review and will report in January.
Its remit is still to be announced, but it is likely to cover both funding and delivery of care and to put forward options for the creation of a national care service similar to the NHS, a Labour policy that is also backed by the Scottish Government.
The First Minister likened the situation coming out of the coronavirus to the end of the Second World War, which saw the creation of the National Health Service.
She said: “The quality of adult social care matters deeply to us all. This is a moment to be bold and to build a service fit for the future.
“The National Health Service was born out of the tragedy of the Second World War. Let us resolve that, out of the COVID crisis, we will build the lasting and positive legacy of a high-quality, national care service.”
Other key announcements in the programme for the year were a £100m green jobs fund; a £60m ‘youth guarantee’ that every young person aged between 16 and 24 will be guaranteed either a place at college or university, an apprenticeship, a job or a place on a formal volunteering programme; a £25m transition training fund to support up to 10,000 people most at risk of redundancy through COVID-19; an inward investment plan to create 100,000 high-value jobs over ten years; a £10m hardship loan fund for people struggling to pay rent due to coronavirus; an expansion of Connecting Scotland scheme to provide 50,000 people who would be digitally excluded with a digital device, data and support; and the adoption in full of the recommendations in the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review.
Not surprisingly, given the circumstances, jobs featured highly on the agenda and that will be one of the key challenges for the year.
With the year ahead involving the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and the economic fallout from it, which is expected to bite even more as furlough finishes, the end of the Brexit transition period and the UK being fully outside of the EU, possibly without a deal, and an election looming imminently on the horizon, nothing about this parliamentary year is likely to be remotely normal.
The challenge will be for the government, and parliament, to ‘get on with the day job’ while all this is going on, to take the action that needs to be taken on climate, poverty, health and education while also dealing with the oddities of this strange and challenging time.