The first Programme for Government, after losing 21 seats in the snap General Election was always going to be a tricky one for the First Minster. The result combined with recent criticism of the Scottish Government in the media, including pro-SNP newspaper the Scottish Sun, has placed new pressure on the Government to reflect and innovate. Ten years of incumbency only compounds the challenge.
Before the summer recess, Nicola Sturgeon said that the SNP needed to set out “creative, imaginative, bold and radical policies”. Sturgeon later confirmed that 16 pieces of legislation would be introduced in what she deemed to be “her most ambitious plan” yet.
Education was a heavy focus of the First Minister’s speech in which she confirmed that closing the poverty attainment gap remained her ‘top priority’. The new Education Bill will give headteachers significant new powers and new Regional Improvement Collaboratives will be established to provide support to teachers. Sturgeon also outlined the Government’s commitment to reforming nurseries, schools and in colleges and universities.
For the Scottish economy, Sturgeon reiterated the key points from her speech last week which highlighted the need for Scotland to be the inventor and the manufacturer of digital high tech and low-carbon innovations, and not just a consumer of them. Plans include increasing investment in business R&D by 70% and the establishment of a Scottish National Investment Bank.
Scottish Governments of all colours look for ways to be more progressive than their UK counterparts. In this Programme for Government it took the shape of a new Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for drink containers and a new more ambitious target than South of the border to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans in Scotland by 2032 as opposed to 2040.
Plans were also outlined to take forward the Barclay review of business rates, with an implementation plan due to be published by the end of this year.
On the NHS, the Scottish Government committed to beginning work to fully implement “Frank’s Law”, which advocates the extension of free personal care for those under 65. Other bills included the Organ and Tissue Donation Bill, Safe Staffing Bill and a new Obesity strategy, which will restrict marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt, were also announced. In addition to increasing the NHS budget, Sturgeon confirmed plans to lift the public sector pay cap.
There were also plans to introduce a Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill, Drug Driving offence and Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Bill – a version of the ‘Turing Bill’.
Other major bills such the Warm House Bill and a Transport Bill were also announced. The Transport Bill will aim to improve public transport, smart ticketing and improve local buses. In addition, Sturgeon announced that the Scottish Government would work to identify a public body to bid for the next ScotRail franchise.
And what of the referendum?
Nicola Sturgeon reiterated her commitment to returning to the prospect of a second independence referendum, once the terms of Brexit had been confirmed. While it may be on the backburner, it is still very much on the stove.
The big showdown will be Brexit – where Sturgeon made clear her intention to not allow the a legislative consent motion for the EU Bill to get through the Scottish Parliament. The machinations of devolved parliaments will very soon run into the intentions of Theresa May’s government, which promises to make this Parliamentary session a very exciting one indeed.