Programme for Government 2020-21: not a normal PFG

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On Tuesday 1 September 2020, the First Minister set out the new Programme for Government (known as “the PFG”), Protecting Scotland, Renewing Scotland, in a statement to the Parliament.

With an election in May 2021, this final PFG of the session only officially covers the seven-month period from September 2020 to dissolution, around the end of March 2021.  However, as would be expected for the final year of the session, a lot of the policies highlighted in the PFG are either already in train, or will only be completed some years into the future, and beyond the next election. 

Of course, the PFG is dominated by the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the policy and fiscal response. 

This blog provides a summary of the PFG, and picks out areas that will be of particular interest to MSPs and the Parliament over the next seven months. It is not a comprehensive summary.

The PFG contains a significant range and scale of financial commitments across all areas.  Many of these commitments are over multiple years and/or have been previously announced. Committees will have an opportunity to scrutinise these commitments in detail through the budget process in the coming months.

At the time of last year’s PFG (see our blog from September 2019), the main themes were a “Scottish Green Deal” and the constitution. Much has changed since then, and a number of pieces of legislation from the previous PFG, including on gender recognition and a “tourist tax”, were either paused or cancelled earlier this year because of the pandemic.

Alongside the overarching focus on the pandemic, the PFG includes a range of policy proposals across other areas.  The number of new pieces of legislation is very low compared to previous years.  This is not surprising as there is limited parliamentary time between now and dissolution to pass legislation.  In addition, the Parliament will be dealing with the twin pressures of COVID-19 and a raft of Brexit-related legislation over the coming months.

COVID-19: “our most immediate priority”

The forthcoming election is expected to go ahead as planned on 6 May 2021 although in light of the pandemic, the Government is “working with the Electoral Management Board to explore options for running the election in circumstances different to the norm, if required.”

In her statement to Parliament, the First Minister said that:

[…] this is not a normal, business-as-usual programme for government. Today’s programme is clear that suppressing Covid is our most immediate priority and will remain so for some time.

However, despite highlighting the difficulties caused by the pandemic across all areas of Government policy, the First Minister also stressed that in her view “this is a time to be ambitious” and that the pandemic should be treated “not as a brake on our ambitions, but as an accelerant.”

COVID-19: health and social care

The PFG re-states and highlights the ongoing policy response to the pandemic.  Much of the new proposals are focused on dealing with what the PFG calls “a global economic crisis”.  In terms of policy developments in health and social care, the PFG includes:

  • A commitment to suppress, and “preferably eliminate” COVID-19.
  • A review of adult social care, including consideration of a “national care service”, to report by January 2021.  However, this might be a challenging timescale for a “comprehensive and fundamental review”.
  • The introduction of a new “proximity app” later this month, Protect Scotland, to assist (but not replace) the ongoing Test and Protect scheme.  MSPs will no doubt want to closely follow the roll-out of this app, given issues with apps faced in other countries.

COVID-19: economic response

Aside from health and social care, a major theme of the PFG is the response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.  To that end, the PFG launches the Government’s “new national mission to help create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs.”  “Good jobs” are defined as “paying fair wages and complying with high standards,” and in terms of the “green recovery”, the PFG states that:

It is imperative that our economic recovery is a green recovery – not just because it is the right thing to do in the face of the climate crisis, but also because it provides opportunities for new work and growth in today’s challenging global market.

Many of the policies in this area are either already being implemented or were announced in previous PFGs or other publications.  Some areas that MSPs and committees may wish to explore include:

  • The stated focus on a “green recovery”, including details around the £2 billion “Low Carbon Fund”, previously highlighted in the 2020-21 Budget.  This £2 billion is over the next parliamentary session, so will total around £400 million per year.  There are a range of announcements in this area, and it is not entirely clear from the PFG which of these are included in the £2 billion, and which are additional to it.  However, the new PFG does include further announcements on a £100 million “green jobs fund”, although again this is over five years.
  • The previously announced plans for road building are unchanged. While there is a commitment to “new funding of £500 million” over the next five years for “active travel”, this is not an increase on the £100 million funding in place for 2020-21.
  • The range of policies aimed at tackling youth unemployment, including a £60 million “Youth Guarantee”, so every young person aged between 16 and 24 will be guaranteed one of the following: an opportunity at university or college, an apprenticeship programme, employment including work experience, or participating in a formal volunteering programme. This will be backed by additional funding for apprenticeships and the new Job Start Grant. The implementation plan is expected to be published “shortly”.
  • A focus on “digital adoption” and to get more people online.
  • Establishing “a national network of world-class start up incubators, ‘Tech Scalers’”, with the aim of creating and supporting between 300 and 500 high quality start ups over the next 5 years, which comes off the back of the Logan Review.
  • A number of new plans and strategies, including a new Infrastructure Investment plan, to be published in September, covering the next five years. In addition, there will be an update of the Climate Change Plan, which the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and land Reform has stated will “articulate a “green pathway to recovery that is in line with our Climate Change targets, including reaching net zero by 2045”.

Independence, Brexit and the constitution

The previous PFG contained a focus on the constitution, including a commitment to undertake the necessary work” to update the 2014 white paper, “Scotland’s Future”, ahead of another referendum on independence. Much of this work was paused due to the pandemic.  But the new PFG states that a “draft Bill” will be published before the end of this session, which would set out the Government’s preference for both the question to be asked and the timescale in which a referendum should take place in the next session. 

The Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020, which sets the framework for any referendum held in Scotland and which is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament, was passed by the Parliament earlier this session. But to put a referendum on independence beyond legal challenge, the Scottish Government has maintained that a “Section 30 Order” would be required – and that means the UK Government cooperating on an independence referendum.

Brexit is specifically referenced on a number of occasions in the PFG.  With the UK set to leave the transition period at the end of 2020, all eyes are on whether the terms of a future UK-EU relationship can be agreed to come into force at the start of 2021.  The Scottish Government uses the PFG to reiterate its view that Brexit and the end of the transition period will cause significant economic damage for Scotland and the UK more widely. 

The PFG also refers to the UK Government’s internal market proposals, which it has argued are necessary to protect the UK’s “internal market” after Brexit.  The PFG highlights the Scottish Parliament’s vote to oppose the proposals in August 2020 and states the Scottish Government’s view that the proposals are “the most significant threat to devolution since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999”.  As a result, the PFG indicates that it will not recommend that the Scottish Parliament gives legislative consent to such proposals. 

Other policy areas

As mentioned in the introduction to this blog, while COVID-19 and Brexit will likely dominate parliamentary time and debate from now until dissolution, the Government has also set out its policy intentions in a range of other areas.  Some of these could lead to significant changes and MSPs and committees will have the opportunity to scrutinise these areas closely in the months to come:

  • First, the PFG confirms the introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill.   This is potentially significant legislation and will enable children and young people to take public authorities to court to enforce their rights. It’s worth highlighting that many of the policies and commitments in this PFG focus on supporting young people.
  • Other significant bills to be progressed include the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, currently under detailed consideration by the Justice Committee; and a Bill to “advance the existing legislative protections for those most at risk of domestic abuse, including the ability to ban suspected perpetrators from their homes.”
  • The PFG makes a number of cross-portfolio commitments on minority ethnic communities in response to the impact of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, on employment, the Government plans to publish “a recruitment toolkit designed to support employers in recruiting more people from minority ethnic backgrounds” in September. On health, the Government plans to make ethnicity a mandatory field in health databases, and there is commitment to a review of past and current initiatives to tackle systemic racism.
  • In addition, an “independent expert group” will be charged with looking at museum collections with a view to making recommendations on how to reflect Scotland’s colonial and slavery history in collections, and ensure that people are aware of this history.
  • On tourism, there are no major announcements, which is possibly surprising given the scale of the challenge for that sector.  The existing tourism strategy, Scotland Outlook 2030, will form the framework for recovery and build on the existing Tourism Rural Infrastructure Fund
  • To gather data on student finance and the impact it has on students’ education and experience at university, the “student income and expenditure in Scotland” survey will be carried out for the first time since 2007-08.
  • The PFG restated the commitment to fund additional university places following the decision to reverse SQA downgrading of teacher estimated grades, but no further detail on this is provided and questions remain about the number of places and level of funding required.
  • Measures in the Coronavirus Act that provide protections for eviction are to be extended. The 2020 Act temporarily extended the length of notice landlords needed to give tenants to end the tenancy.  These measures will continue until end of March 2021, although the Government has announced that eviction grounds for antisocial behaviour will revert back to 1 month. This appears to be in response to concerns from stakeholders.
  • On agriculture, there is a commitment to set out some clarity on post-Brexit agricultural support schemes, though there is no commitment to bring forward a second Agriculture Bill.
  • There is also a new commitment to a Blue Economy Action Plan to “strengthen the resilience of our marine industries” and “support coastal communities”.
  • The level of personal debt is likely to increase during the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, there have been calls for the Scottish Government to reform things like bankruptcy and protected trust deeds, to make them more accessible to those affected. The PFG does not contain any proposals for legislative reform. However, it does highlight funding for money advice.
  • The PFG states in a short chapter that it is “steered by the longer‑term vision in the National Performance Framework (NPF).”  But the NPF is only referenced briefly in one other chapter.  Links between the rich data in the NPF and the budgetary choices made by the Government will likely be a focus for committees in the forthcoming budget process.
  • The PFG also references the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are part of the NPF.  MSPs may also look to scrutinise government policy through this sustainable development lens, in particular the relationship between SDG 8, which is about inclusive and sustainable economic growth, in the context of the pandemic and the move to net-zero emissions.

Edited by Allan Campbell, Head of Research and Financial Scrutiny.  Contributions from senior researchers across SPICe.