Jim O’Neill takes a look at the SNP’s Programme for Government and sees some good, some bad and some flannel.
The old saw used to say that “the proof is in the pudding”. Now with the advent of shows such as Masterchef and Big Bake Off, the new presenters are showing that the proof is in the eating. No matter how fancy the presentation, if it doesn’t taste good, you will leave the show.
Nowhere is this more true than in Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government. After a desert of legislation caused by her obsession with Indyref2, with only one act in the past nineteen months, we are faced with a veritable smorgasbord of bills for parliament to get its teeth into. Some of these bills are very welcome, some are contentious, and some have spending implications which are not yet clear.
As a former Children’s Panel chair, I very much welcome the long-overdue increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12. This does not mean that younger children will get away with crime. It does mean that children under 12 will be dealt with in a very different way and will not have their childish actions following them around all their lives. Scotland’s unique Children’s Panel system is well equipped to provide the care and intervention needed to turn these young people’s lives around, and should be given the resources to do so.
Similarly, the bill to pardon men convicted of offences related to sex between men that are no longer crimes, and Frank’s Law to provide care to those under-65s suffering dementia and other similar illnesses show a caring image, but the key major change is the removal of the pay cap, a victory for the public sector unions. This, however, is one of the areas in which we will have to wait to see the outcome. If the Pay Review next year decides to award a substantial, catch-up, increase, will the Scottish Government accept it? If so, how will they pay for it?
Among the more contentious proposals is the education bill, which will give effect to the changes in educational governance that are John Swinney’s “big idea”. This will diminish the responsibility of local government for the delivery of quality education, at a time when it has been reported that there are fewer HMI inspections of schools than ever before. I am sure that Labour will mount a strong challenge to this, just as they will to any lessening of local government powers in the local government review. This has been a centralising government over the past ten years and a reversal of that trend would be welcome.
The plan to commit £50m to attack child poverty, which has insidiously grown since the loss of the last Labour Government, which had halved child poverty in Britain, is good news but again the devil is in the detail and until we see how that money is to be spent to create a sustainable cut in child poverty, I think we must hang fire on any welcome.
Some of the proposals will create government costs which are neither spelled out nor funded. These include the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars by 2032, the National Investment Bank and the Climate Change Bill. Mr Mackay will have a lot of late nights finding the funding for these.
There were some disappointments in the statement. There was no mention of how the government is going to address the many crises facing the National Health Service, such as the recruitment of GPs and the growth in the time that people have to wait for operations. This is an area where Shona Robinson seems lost, as have been so many Health Secretaries before her. There was also inadequate comment on the need to rapidly increase social housing across the country, where waiting times and homelessness are increasing. And there was no mention of the implementation of the Scottish Benefits Agency, or actions to be taken to mitigate benefit cuts such as Universal Credit as it rolls out across Scotland.
So, there was much to be welcomed in the First Minister’s programme, not least in that it gives parliament a number of bills to get their teeth into. I trust that government will welcome opposition amendments rather than taking the dogmatic approach they have taken in the past. But there is also much to challenge in the programme and it looks like Scottish politics may have woken up from the torpor induced by the focus on constitutional matters.
In the end, however, as I said, the proof will be in the eating.