The Scottish Government’s final programme for this parliament is a modest affair in terms of legislation, while seeking to address administratively some recent criticisms of its performance in education, policing and the NHS.
The new bills of most interest to UNISON members include:
Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm Bill. Creates a new statutory domestic abuse aggravator and a new offence of sharing private intimate material. It will also enhance protections for victims of harassment. This follows similar action in England and Wales on ‘revenge porn’ and should be welcomed.
Budget Bill. The spending review will be truncated this year as the Scottish Government decides to await the UK ‘autumn’ statement. While the shorter consultation has been criticised by some, I think it’s sensible to see the whole picture, particularly at a time when the UK government are again cutting spending. It would be helpful if the UK government returned to a genuine autumn statement, rather than what is now a winter one.
Burial and Cremation Bill. This will implement the Bonomy Commission recommendations on the cremation of infants and children with new regulation and inspection arrangements for crematoria, burial authorities and the funeral industry.
Lobbying Bill. This aims to improve public awareness of lobbying activity and will introduce a register of lobbying activity. It was Neil Findlay MSP’s members bill that the government took over. As he said in parliament today, the late introduction indicates a certain lack of enthusiasm for it.
Private Tenancies Bill. Introduces a Scottish Private Rented Tenancy and removes the 'no-fault' ground for repossession, meaning a landlord can no longer ask a tenant to leave simply because the fixed-term has ended. There will be some protection for tenants against excessive rent increases, including the ability to introduce local rent controls for rent pressure areas. We will need to see the detail, but it looks as if it will fall short of the calls in the ‘Living Rent’ campaign and elsewhere for stronger action on rent increases.
There will also be a Bill proposing a five-year term for the next parliament to avoid a clash with UK elections.
Not all government action requires legislation and the programme includes administrative action. Apart from the usual rhetoric, elements are clearly aimed at diffusing criticism of the government’s performance.
A National Improvement Framework for Scottish Education is the government’s response to the education debate on attainment. The key proposal is a new system of national, standardised assessment of children in P1, P4, P7 and S3, covering literacy and numeracy. The EIS have welcomed the fact that this is not the English league table approach and local tests are already in place in most areas. It is less clear if this really will make much difference in improving educational attainment that is much more about poverty than school tests. The government’s wider plans such as work with disadvantaged parents and library membership, may contribute just as much.
The childcare hours entitlement is to be increased to 1140 hours a year by 2020. While greater resource is welcome, we really need to think bigger as set out in the UNISON Scotland childcare charter.
The challenges facing Police Scotland are to be addressed through a review of national and local police governance. In addition, they will implement the recommendations of the HMICS review of call handling and statutory guidance on police stop and search. Cynics might well say that a review is the Scottish Government’s standard response to difficult issues and the claim that reform has “made policing in Scotland more accountable both locally and nationally” is not credible. As I said last week, the resignation of the Chief Constable and the SPA Chair is an opportunity for a proper look at Police Scotland. It remains to be seen if this is a serious review or just a cosmetic exercise. Scottish Labour’s own review will be helpful in keeping up the pressure.
There will be a new National Clinical Strategy for the NHS following on from the current ‘national debate’. Again, largely process at this stage and it remains to be seen if the government is willing to take difficult decisions about the location of services. Establishing an independent national officer to review the handling of whistleblowing cases aims to strengthen the whistleblowing arrangements for NHS Scotland staff. New investment is also to be targeted on child and adolescent mental health services in response to recent concerns. The section on social care is really disappointing. It simply doesn’t set out the radical action needed to deal with crumbling local services.
Local government gets scant mention in the programme. In fairness, big issues like reform of local taxation await the report of the Commission established to develop a cross party consensus. Yet another review of planning to ‘streamline etc’ will be greeted wearily by planning staff.
When further powers are devolved the Government will introduce a Social Security Bill to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts and abolish the bedroom tax. There is also a welcome commitment to abolish Employment Tribunal fees.
While there is nothing specific on the Trade Union Bill, ministers have said that facility time and check off is the prerogative of Scottish Ministers. The Scottish Labour leader supported this view and urged the government to demand a Legislative Consent Motion on these aspects of the Bill. As I said at the STUC conference last week, this is vital if we are to get these issues shifted to Holyrood and take practical action. She also made some strong points about the role of trade unions and the right to strike. This is an issue that many politicians duck, but she made a clear linkage between that right and not just better pay and conditions, but better public services. I covered related issues in my article in today’s Scotsman.
Kezia Dugdale’s response to the programme was measured and avoided the oppositionalism of her predecessors. She highlighted the weaknesses in the government’s record, given the length of time they have been in office, but supported sensible measures. The key message was that we should move on from complaining about what we can’t do, to being ambitious about what we can do.
Overall, no big surprises in this programme. There is a welcome consensus on many practical issues and probably a clearer indication of the battle lines in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.