Posts Tagged Scottish Government

Holyrood’s finest hour?

It’s time for the Scottish Parliament to show its mettle.

Tomorrow, Holyrood will debate welfare reform.  Hopefully, the Scottish Government will lay its delayed Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) before the Parliament and everyone will agree to the highly unusual step of appointing three scrutiny committees for the process, one lead and two secondary ones.  This will enable evidence to be laid and heard from the widest possible range of contributors and allow Holyrood to determine whether and how it allows Westminster to legislate on devolved matters contained in the legislation.

Such is the potential impact to Scotland and her people from the measures in the UK government’s welfare reform bill that nothing less will do.  If ever the SNP wanted to pick a fight with Westminster, if ever Labour wanted to return to the hallowed ground of class politics, if ever the Liberal Democrats wanted to point up differences with their English brethren, if ever the Scottish Greens wanted to champion the cause of inequality, if ever the Scottish Conservatives wanted to show that leopards can change their spots, then this issue is it.

I blogged at the ither place that “the scale of change heading down the tracks from the ConDems’ systematic dismantling of the welfare state is almost overwhelming”.  I don’t think I was over-stating the case.  For if the ConDems get their way, nary a household nor family in Scotland will be unaffected by some aspect of the bill.  And not for the good.

Everything is up for grabs and for months, voluntary organisations have been trying and largely failing to influence the process at Westminster.  The old labyrinth of benefits will go, to be replaced by a universal credit.  No bad thing in itself, for everyone has been crying out for fairness, transparency and simplicity in the benefits systems for years.  But it is the application of conditionality, time limits and sanctions for not taking up work or work-related activity – with no exception allowed – and the cutting of income and raising of threshholds making benefits harder to access that will cause increased complexity and real problems for claimants.  Though these measures will, of course, slake the thirst of the right wing media which has helped pave the way for public acceptance of these changes with its damaging, inaccurate and misleading denunciations of people on benefits as workshy fraudsters.  But anyone losing their job – and over two hundred thousand people in Scotland have in recent months – will be affected.

Families with disabled children will be particularly hard hit from changes, as will cancer sufferers and those with complex and longterm mental health problems.  Housing benefit changes appear to benefit no-one.  Lone parents, kinship carers, unemployed young people, people unemployed for more than a year, people seriously injured in an accident, young carers, children, women reaching retirement age, people with multiple and complex disabilities, people with mild and moderate learning disabilities, homeless people, war veterans with health problems, large families, separated parents, families with a young baby and low income families in work – all might find themselves worse off.

This matters because if tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Scots are made poorer and more vulnerable as a result of benefit changes, the pressure on services like health, social work, education, housing – and on charities that work with vulnerable people – will rise, at a time when funding for such services is being stretched and cut.  Real hardship could result.

Moreover, the bill cuts across whole swathes of devolved issues and even interferes with the independence of Scots family law, through the child maintenance reforms.  The devolution of certain parts of the welfare state, including council tax benefit, parts of the social fund and the new benefit Personal Independence Payments for disabled people, will create additional work for the Scottish Government and potentially add new burdens to the public and voluntary sector, without, of course, Westminster providing appropriate funding to help smooth the way.

And everything that involves a concession or a benefit-related discount or access, such as fuel poverty measures, or is in fact, a devolved benefit, as free school meals and clothing grant vouchers are, will require to be reformed, again creating additional work for the Scottish Government and where new regulations are required, for the Scottish Parliament too.

To date, the Conservatives have not been listening:  concerns about the impact of measures and attempts to amend provisions have been ignored.  The shape of the bill has changed little since its introduction in the Spring, with the Conservatives aided and abetted in their selective deafness by the Liberal Democrats.  At committee stage in the House of Commons, scarcely a murmur never mind a protest could be heard from Lib Dem members:  that will be the civilising influence at work again, then.

And the political point is this:  Scotland did not vote for this UK Government.  These changes are being imposed with missionary zeal on a population which did not ask for them, and would not want them if it had a choice.

Changing the shape and impact of the bill’s measures is proving impossible through the front door, so it’s time to try the back.  Holyrood can do something here.  It can do its best to change the worst aspects of the bill in which it has a devolved interest.  If it was feeling particularly brave, it could try to stop the bill in its tracks and refuse to consent to allow Westminster to legislate on the matters that properly belong to its jurisdiction.

Wednesday signals the start of the process that might end in an unprecedented denouement and a constitutional crisis:  already many voluntary sector organisations are calling on MSPs to refuse the LCM.  No one knows what might happen if Holyrood said no thank you, not this time.  But that is for the end of the process.  In the meantime, the Scottish Parliament must devote all its available energes and resources to poring over every aspect of this bill, so it can make an informed decision.  Time is short – the bill is now at its Lords stages, which the UK Government has also gerrymandered by creating a grand committee which makes it harder to amend the bill, and will be done and dusted by Christmas – and minds must focus.

It’s time for Holyrood to show the Scottish people what it is made of.  It’s time for the parties to lay aside childish things and act in concert, in the public good.  It’s time to abandon tribal loyalties and politics.  Work together, create a consensus, speak up and speak out.  Then stand together and stand up for Scotland.

Holyrood, your country needs you:  this could be your finest hour.



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Salmond’s Santa will bear legislative gifts

So they’re back.  The Holyrood faithful are returning from the recess, fighting fit and raring to go.  All the newbies have had the summer to practise writing MSP after their name, some of them might even have managed to work out why there are different lifts for different floors in the Parliament and the Cabinet has discovered parts of Scotland it never knew existed during its summer tour.

First up, the business and legislative programme and expect a very different approach from the last SNP Government.  No longer cowed by the lack of a parliamentary majority and having learned that you can ask the public sector nicely to do stuff but without the weight of law behind it, they can stick two fingers up at you, this second SNP Government will be embarrassing us with legislative riches.  What might we expect to see in the First Minister’s announcement on Wednesday?

Top billing goes to the minimum alcohol pricing bill.  No messing this time, the bill will be short and to the point and the Government will hope to create a landmark with its first piece of legislation of its second term in office.  The Lib Dems will support it this time round, the Tories will still oppose and who knows what Labour will do.  Hopefully they will.  And soon.

Children are going straight to the top of the agenda.  Music to the burdz ears.  The SNP manifesto promised an early years bill and the Scottish Government has already said that it will be published in the New Year.  But this week, it also announced intentions to embed children’s rights in legislation as part of a wider children’s services bill.  This latter one is due later in the parliament.  Work has already begun to shape a national parenting strategy and the needs of children should – I hope – feature in new frameworks to support victims and witnesses.  Indeed, we will also get a Victim Rights’ bill this year… I promise never to complain again about no one bothering about children’s needs.  Well, not for a while anyway.

There will also have to be some kind of public services reform bill (though it might not be called that) to give effect to the proposals to do away with multiple police forces and fire services.  There will be a budget bill of course, and that too will progress at breakneck speed, though not until after the Spending Review is announced later this month.  And while it is unlikely to be legislated for, there will be a souped-up Concordat (flagged up before the election) between local and national government, that gives rewards for compliance and fiscal consequences for failure to deliver.  Expect too, for preventative spending to furrow members’ brows at regular intervals during the year, and indeed every year, until they reach another election and can leave a legacy for the next lot that urges them to work out how to implement this most common sense approach to public expenditure without having got around to doing it themselves.

Same-sex marriage may feature but is more likely to proceed at a leisurely consultative pace, with a draft bill appearing perhaps at the end of this parliamentary term, unless of course an MSP loses patience and slaps down a member’s bill.  A review of the law on damages will commence this autumn – how knotty, complex and controversial the proposals are will determine if we get a bill this year or next.  Measures tightening up procedure and process in rape cases has also been promised – if it does not require further consultation, this might well feature in Wednesday’s announcement.  Of course, a bill promising to amend the existing Freedom of Information Act “to add clarity and strength to the legislation” instantly makes us all suspicious that the aim is to dilute and to weaken it.

Anyone looking for a big education bill is likely to be disappointed:  there will be amending legislation covering rural schools’ closures but everything else will be delivered through guidelines, frameworks, toolkits and strategies.  Expect the outcome of the McCormac review to dominate parliamentary proceedings and media headlines for a considerable period.  There will, however, be legislation on higher education to increase access from poorer communities and a review of college provision which may result in legislation at some point in the future.

The Scottish Government promised to introduce a living wage for government employees, which may or may not require legislation – if it does, Ministers might settle for allowing John Park MSP to do all the hard work and preparation, then assume his bill as their own.  It worked for Jack McConnell and the smoking ban…. It may be too early in the parliamentary term for the proposed Community Empowerment and Renewal bill which will enable communities to assume ownership of under-used assets.  It sounds simple but working out how to give it legislative effect might prove more complex.

Finally, the piece de resistance, the icing on the Scottish Government’s dense legislative cake – a bill to tackle high hedges‘ disputes.  I seem to recall this issue pre-occupying then Justice Minister, Jim Wallace MSP, without a legislative solution ever being put forward.  Roseanna Cunningham MSP may succeed where mere men have tried and failed.

And if this little lot doesn’t keep our MSPs out of mischief this parliamentary year and next, I’m not sure what will.  Oh yes, some local government elections next May and of course, constituents, surgeries, local issues and events….


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100 Days have come and gone

Belated congratulations are in order as the SNP marked another significant milestone in reaching 100 days, not of its first term in office, but its second running the government of Scotland.  Self-congratulation appears to be off the agenda though – nothing on the SNP website, nowt from the Scottish Government either.

Right on cue, though, a trio of disparaging and dispiriting articles in the Scotsman – a political one, an almost identical analysis, and in case we hadn’t got the message, a down in the mouth leader that ponders these last 100 days and concludes, clunkily, that the SNP Government hadn’t hit the ground running but jogging.

No we haven’t witnessed 100 days of dynamic action, as we did in 2007.  But then there are fewer quick fixes to be found.  And this time, where’s the hurry?  The SNP has a whole extra year to work with – pace is going to be everything this time round.

Moreover, with three opposition parties in disarray, floundering and leaderless, there has been no one snapping at their heels;  indeed, some of the Scottish Government’s poor headlines have been of their own making (or rather the media’s, seeing it as their collective national and noble duty to offer some kind of scrutiny).  This administration will last the course – the previous minority one did not know when its number might be called – and indeed, unless Labour gets its act together might even enjoy a third term.  Who needs a hundred days when there are thousands in which to make your mark?

In any event, many of the SNP’s manifesto commitments either involve no change at all – continued council tax freeze, free personal care, free tuition fees etc – or ambitious, sweeping change – new capital investment programmes, innovative legislation, a living wage, a real shift to localism.  Such measures are hard to fashion into immediate actions and ready soundbites.

These kind of reforms take time.  As the First Minister found out, in a rare lesson in humility, with the harried anti-sectarianism bill, sometimes the old proverbs really are the best:  less haste, more speed.  Our patience is likely to be rewarded with a number of “big bills” to be announced when the Scottish Parliament returns the week after next.

The only show in town, as far as the SNP is concerned, has been the opportunity presented by the Scotland bill to maximise devolution.  Its parliamentary timetable at Westminster demanded that the Scottish Government focused its attention on securing as many additional powers as possible;  indeed, one of the most vibrant and busy committees of the next 100 days is likely to be that set up to explore, scrutinise and make the case for all the powers the First Minister has put on his shopping list.  The prospect of items being crossed off that list is highly unlikely given the dominance of the SNP on the committee and in the chamber.

But it was not just the Government which eased itself gently into this session;  the Parliament too did not exactly spring into action.  Weeks went by with minimal parliamentary activity;  committees took an age to appoint convenors;  in the seven weeks before shutting up shop for the summer, the Parliament did not even open officially.  But with a very different shape and size to parliamentary groups, as well as a whole host of new parliamentarians, the logistics of getting the show on the road this time round were harder to achieve.  And crucially, everyone seemed exhausted from the efforts expended in the election – no one had much appetite for bounding Tigger-like into this session.

Now they’ve all had the summer to recover and recuperate, to rejoin and renew, there can be no excuses.  Yet, while the press appears to have rolled its eyes and declared the summer to have been “boring”, it has largely ignored the fact that the Scottish Government has been very busy indeed.  In fact, most of the Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers have had little more than a week off.  Not only has the Scottish Cabinet been on tour around Scotland, visiting far flung places like Stranraer, Fort William and even Kirkcaldy,  its members have been on other tours and trips, immersing themselves in their portfolios in different parts of the country.  Inbetween times, some of them have even managed to find time for some constituency work and pop home for tea with the family.  There are no five holiday Cameronians in this bunch.

And yes, it might make for few headlines.  It might seem – to some – to amount to aimless wandering, but it actually purports to serve a much needed purpose.  To make clear that Holyrood is not Edinburgh’s Parliament but Scotland’s, that this SNP Government belongs to and governs for all of the country, reminding everyone that it takes its new-found responsibility as the National Party of Scotland seriously.

Taken together, it might not amount to an action-packed, thrill a minute hundred days of glory.  But if it ensures thousands more days in government, and thousands more yes votes in the independence referendum, the SNP will consider it time well spent indeed.

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