The First Minister sets out the Scottish Government’s policy stall for the year ahead

At the beginning of each September, the Scottish Government delivers its Programme for Government; a sort of mini manifesto for the year ahead, which sets out new legislation, spending, commitments, targets and policy initiatives.

This year’s announcement comes at a particularly tumultuous time – slap bang in the middle of a global health crisis and just on the cusp of a potentially devastating economic crisis. On top of that, we are only weeks away from a UK Autumn Statement and Spending Review and (as things stand) just a few months short of unceremoniously crashing out of the EU with no deal. Oh, and there’s a Holyrood election in May.

Due to that looming election, the Programme for Government is necessarily light on legislation. There simply isn’t enough time to pass new laws before the purdah period in April. In fact, the government has seemingly already overstretched itself on legislative commitments and has had to kick a few Bills in to the long grass, to be picked up again should they win another term.

Like all Programmes for Government before it, much of the detail has yet to be spelled out, realised or put in to action. As such there will soon be plenty for the sector to investigate, unpack, help to shape and get vocal about. The fairly high level tone of the announcements can also make it difficult to assess how positive or negative the changes that it brings about might be for the sector.

As you might expect, a great deal of time and treasure will be spent attempting to halt the spread of coronavirus, shore up the economy and protect and create jobs ahead of an expected spike in unemployment. However, interestingly, the First Minister seemed at pains to move past these gloomy opening remarks and to look at the bigger picture. In fact, with an air of optimism, she suggested that this unprecedented moment gave us a rare opportunity to do things differently.

Pointing to the fact that a hospital had been built in days, rough sleepers were given places to stay, isolated people received support in their homes, digital divides were bridged with speed and targeted resilience funding was delivered swiftly, she suggested that this was an epiphany moment and clear evidence that bold choices could and should be made to combat great social challenges. In short, the First Minister said that the pandemic ‘should not be seen as a brake on our ambitions, but as an accelerant’.

With warnings that unemployment could hit 10% and youth unemployment could skyrocket from 30,000 to 140,000 in the next year (a third of Scotland’s young workforce), the First Minister was always going to have to put some government muscle behind a mitigation plan. To that end, a swathe of employment and skills initiatives were announced, including:

  • a £60m youth guarantee scheme – ensuring every young person has access to a job, education, training or development programme
  • a initial £25 million National Transition Training Fund to provide retraining to up to 10,000 people who have lost their jobs or are at risk of doing so
  • a £100 million Green Jobs fund to support opportunities for green job creation across Scotland

Encouragingly, in the Programme for Government, the sector is clearly viewed as not only key to the delivery of training and skills, but also in helping to create jobs which are fair, green and sustainable. Considering the sector employs some 100,000 people and 1.4m people volunteer their time, it is perhaps not before time that the sector was viewed as a job creator and major economic player.

Of course, the sector itself has not been immune to the chaos of the pandemic and is undergoing considerable strain – with operations interrupted, fundraising disrupted and demand for many services spiking sharply. It seems clear, however, that the government views a strong and thriving sector as part of a successful recovery. The announcement of a £25 million Community and Third Sector Recovery Programme could represent a much needed shot in the arm for the sector – allowing many organisations to keep their doors open by adapting the ways in which they work, generate income and deliver the services so many enjoy or rely on.

SCVO has always pointed out that, whilst additional funding is to be welcomed, crumbs from the table and reactive efforts to see the sector through troubled times is treating the symptom and not the cause. It is clear that the sector still needs greater recognition of the role it plays in our society and must be treated as a genuine partner, deserving of an equal place at the table and an operating environment that allows us to deliver our full potential. It is a pity that this Programme for Government does not deliver that and we must continue to make the case to achieve that reality.

A surprise announcement on the ‘charity front’ was the decision to resurrect the review of charity law, which appeared to have been halted. This will now be completed and recommendations published before the next election. For more background on this, you can see SCVO’s response to the consultation from April 2019.

Delivering digital inclusion has long been central to SCVO’s work. As our lives are increasingly shaped by technology and the internet, digital inclusion could more simply be understood as social inclusion. Most of us now take the advantages of learning, shopping, communicating, working and accessing services online for granted. However, there are still many people who don’t have the skills, confidence, kit or connectivity to enjoy the opportunities the digital world provides. The government’s commitment of a further £23m to Connecting Scotland (a partnership between SCVO, Scottish Government and local government) will see 50,000 previously digitally excluded people brought online with the provision of a device, and two years of unlimited data and training.

One of the great challenges that has confounded governments across the world, is how to care compassionately and effectively for our older generations as they begin to lose mobility, cognisance, capacity and personal independence. The programme for government lays out plans to immediately establish a full review in to the provision of adult social care (due to report in January), with the intention of introducing a National Care Service. As major players in the design and delivery of services, the sector’s social care organisations will be vocal in how this progresses – representing, as it does, an opportunity to truly transform the way care is provided in Scotland. Many have already taken to social media to welcome the initiative and make known their commitment to playing a key role in the review. Others, however, have urged caution about the pace of the review and are reserving judgment until more is known about the makeup of any such service.

As always, the Programme for Government is a veritable smorgasbord of announcements and initiatives which will have particular relevance for a whole range of organisations across the sector – whether on active travel, asylum, child poverty, homelessness, mental health or the environment. The responses we have seen so far have been as varied as the content of the announcement. Many organisations see new opportunities opening up and longstanding asks being agreed to. Conversely, others see the government focussing on the wrong priorities, or failing to back up their words with meaningful action.

We look forward to hearing about what the programme for government means for you and the opportunities and challenges this presents as we now look forward to the Scottish Budget in February and the drafting of party manifestos ahead of the 2021 election.