Do the First Minister’s announcements mark a truly radical change in approach and will actions match the warm rhetoric?
With MSPs back from the summer recess, the First Minister outlined her Programme for Government for the year ahead. The programme was trailed as the Scottish Government’s “most ambitious plan ever”, containing details of 16 Bills and featuring announcements covering an array of policy areas. At first glance we pulled out some of the most eye catching policies and listed them here.
The response from the sector has generally been positive – with new funds established to tackle child poverty and homelessness and additional funding for active travel and drug and alcohol services amongst the bigger ticket items on display. With the noted exception of my credit card statement; throwing money at a problem doesn’t make it go away and real leadership is still needed to make sure there is an impact on the ground.
A significant chunk of the programme focussed on target setting – including for emissions, fuel poverty and the phasing out of petrol/diesel cars. Whilst welcome, it is evident that a huge amount of work will have to be undertaken to see these aspirations realised in the timeframes set out.
Encouragingly, the First Minister reaffirmed a commitment to human rights – an issue of fundamental importance to the third sector, and one which has gained real prominence since Brexit. Action to further embed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into policy and legislation was promised and it was made clear that the Scottish Government will oppose any attempt at withdrawal from the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights. The First Minister also signalled her intention to set up an expert group to explore how Scotland can keep pace with EU human rights developments and continue to lead by example. We are confident that the sector can, and will want to, play a role in achieving this.
Likewise, new strategies on obesity and mental health will have to be informed by organisations from across the sector – as too will legislative processes around the new Bills and the various new working groups, action groups and expert panels soon to be set up.
In what will no doubt be a controversial move, the First Minister, announced that funding would be made available to ‘interested’ local authorities wishing to further explore the feasibility and workings of a Citizen’s Basic Income. This is certainly an interesting concept and at SCVO we have long been keen to see how effective this could be. With the prospect of a ‘live experiment’ in the offing, we need to work with the Scottish Government and local authorities to ensure any pilot project is co-produced with those currently in receipt of social security payments. Only then can we properly assess its efficacy in terms of reducing poverty and allowing people to contribute to society in different ways.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, the First Minister seemed to soften her stance on the issue of raising taxes, stating that now was the time to have an “open discussion” about “responsible and progressive use” of the new tax powers. With the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour all calling for tax increases, it now seems an inevitability that this will be advanced – potentially in time for the beginning of the 2018/19 tax year.
The debate about how additional money is raised and for what purpose is one we should undoubtedly wade in to. Without our input we can be sure the outcomes will be unimaginative – potentially a simple threshold increase to top up departmental spending. Surely our ambition stretches further than this, and we should position ourselves as the animators of a more lively debate around the introduction of new tax bands and spending additional revenue on far more innovative and reformative schemes.
Like so many budgets and programmes for government before, this week’s announcement is packed with warm words and filled with good intentions. Now more than ever we need action to match the rhetoric and it should be the role of the sector to make that happen.