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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
27 December 2023
A year of change and missed targets

Humza Yousaf's cabinet | Alamy

A year of change and missed targets

It has been a year of change for the Scottish Government. Most notably, it lost its long-term leadership partnership of Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney in March. In came the self-styled continuity candidate, Humza Yousaf, and his new Deputy First Minister Shona Robison. A new-look cabinet was appointed with some familiar faces who, for the most part, moved into new roles alongside some new faces. The cabinet is also the first to have more women than men. Yousaf, the first Muslim leader of a Western nation, also appointed Scotland’s youngest-ever minister as well as keeping the Bute House Agreement in place, retaining two Green ministers.   

But as the cost-of-living crisis continues to hit families hard, the public finances have also felt the pinch. Robison, who is finance secretary as well as DFM, said in November there was “no doubt” that the public sector workforce would need to shrink because of budget constraints. Her first Scottish Budget has been described as the most difficult since the reformation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, as questions of a £1.5bn black hole for the year ahead still linger.   

Police Scotland warned that 3,000 officer and staff jobs were at risk without further investment from the Scottish Government. In December they opened a voluntary redundancy scheme for civilian staff which will allow those seeking voluntary redundancy or early retirement to apply from early January.    

Generally, it has been a tough year that has seen big targets missed by the Scottish Government, while concerning sets of statistics were published. 

Missed climate targets  

Two years after Glasgow hosted the global climate change summit Cop26, the official statistics published in June showed that Scotland had missed its annual target for cutting emissions from 1990 levels in 2021. It had fallen 49.2 per cent on 1990 figures but fell short of the 51.1 per cent target set down in the 2019 Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act.  

In June, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition Mairi McAllan said during a ministerial statement: “To miss our target so narrowly – by just 1.2 percentage points –  is, of course, disappointing - but it also demonstrates that we are not far behind where our world-leading targets dictate we need to be.  

“While the 2021 results show a rebound from 2020, this was not entirely unexpected given how much the 2020 position was affected by pandemic lockdowns.”  

The Scottish Government also missed its advanced deadline to draft a new climate action plan in November citing “financial and political volatility” for the delay. The legally binding date is set for the end of 2024.  

Major delays to the Deposit Return Scheme  

The Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) dominated headlines in the first half of the year for various reasons. An initial deadline for businesses to register for the scheme was extended ahead of the launch date in August.   

Many small drinks businesses expressed concern about aspects of the scheme and the impact it could have on cross-border business within the UK. But ultimately, it was the inclusion of glass in the scheme that caused it to be shelved.   

Glass, not included in Westminster's plans for its scheme south of the border, prompted only a partial exemption from the Internal Market Act for Scotland’s DRS. Glass was not included in the exemption.   

That decision forced circular economy minister Lorna Slater to push the launch to October 2025 at the earliest, in line with the rest of the UK. She described the actions of the UK Government as “sabotage”.   

In June, following the decision, the scheme administrator Circularity Scotland entered administration and subsequently collapsed with debts and liabilities of more than £86m. All of its 66 jobs were lost. In July, more than 40 former employees launched a compensation claim with the Insolvency Service.  

Key education statistics slip   

Scotland’s education performance slipped down the global rankings, as scores in maths, science and reading all fell.   

The Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) report, which measures performance across around 700,000 15-year-olds in 81 nations, found a decline in all three subject areas among Scottish high school pupils – falling behind England and the UK as a whole.   

The findings of the report also showed that Scotland has fallen behind the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average in maths and science.   

The organisation said there was an “unprecedented drop” in performance on average between its 2018 and 2022 studies. Education secretary Jenny Gilruth, a former teacher, said the results demonstrated the impact of Covid "across the majority of countries participating".  

Drug and alcohol deaths remain worrisome  

Data released this year by National Records of Scotland (NRS) showed that Scotland had its largest fall in drug deaths in 2022. 1,051 deaths due to drug misuse were recorded – a drop of 279 in 2021. However, the deaths remain unacceptably high measuring 2.7 times greater than the UK average and Scotland retained its shameful title of the drug death capital of Europe.  

NRS published similarly shocking figures this year of Scotland’s alcohol-related death figures. Figures for 2022 showed that 1,276 people died from conditions caused by alcohol – a two per cent rise on the previous year and the highest figure since 2008.    

NHS waiting times  

NHS waiting times were often raised at First Minister’s Questions this year.   

Figures released by Public Health Scotland (PHS) show that cancer waiting times from 1 July to 30 September for people suspected of having cancer have worsened, with a quarter of those urgently referred to specialists having to wait more than two months to start treatment.  

4,624 Scots were referred to specialists with an urgent suspicion of cancer during the quarter but only 72 per cent started treatment within the target time, well below the 95 per cent target. No health board achieved the target.   

The data showed that 94.9 per cent of patients started treatment within 31 days of a decision being made on how to best care for them – a slight decrease from 95.2 per cent in the previous three months.  

Data from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) showed that people waiting more than 24 hours for treatment in accident and emergency was 126 times higher than the figure for 2019. A total of 4,603 patients spent a day or more in emergency waiting rooms in the year up to August 2023.  

In the week to 22 October, 12-hour waits were at their highest since March, with 5.8 per cent of people who visited A&E waiting over half a day.   

Concern over meeting future poverty targets  

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published in October said that more Scots are facing "extreme hardship" and it is "difficult to see how" Scottish Government poverty targets can be met under current plans.  

One in five Scots – more than one million people – live in poverty. Around 250,000 are children and almost half of the total experiencing deprivation are in "very deep" poverty, according to Scottish Government figures.   

The report found that although the Scottish Child Payment – worth £25 per week, per child to eligible low-income families – will likely see child poverty decrease, this "isn't enough" to ensure the targets for 2023-31 are achieved.  

Among several goals, the Scottish Government ultimately aims to cut the proportion of children in relative poverty to 10 per cent by 2030-31. But poor pay and inadequate welfare put these goals at risk, JRF said.  

Ferry cost more than double from original estimate  

As another year passed, Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa remained in the news. The latest prediction has put the final cost of the two vessels at £240m, more than double the original price tag, and more than five years late.  

The Inverclyde-based Ferguson Marine shipyard requested capital expenditure from the Scottish Government as part of a plan to ensure it remains competitive. Wellbeing economy secretary Neil Gray said the business plan behind that request did not meet a key legal test for providing subsidies.  

The cabinet secretary said the government was working with the yard to “refine” the business plan.   

New A9 dualling date set  

In the final week before winter recess, a new date for the completion of the dualling of the A9 between Inverness and Perth was confirmed. Transport secretary Mairi McAllan told parliament that it would be ready by 2035 – 10 years later than the previous target.   

She accepted that "people have been waiting too long" but said that the SNP-Green administration is "working hard to give the confidence to the Highlands" that half of the work will be completed by 2030, 85 per cent will be finished by 2033, and the final phase expected to open by 2035. 

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