Decorative - picture of accompanying document to FM statement on "Our priorities for Scotland"

The First Minister’s Statement on “Our Priorities for Scotland”

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On 18 April 2023, the new First Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP, made a statement to the Parliament, setting out his government’s priorities.

The statement was accompanied by a document Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership – A fresh start

Given this is a longer-term document with a three-year focus, by nature this is different to the annual Programme for Government (PFG) and is more about setting out a direction of travel to the next election in 2026.  It is expected that, as usual, the Government will publish a PFG in September 2023 for the year ahead.

In addition to the First Minister’s overall foreword, the document contains separate chapters in the name of each Cabinet Secretary, and a chapter from the two Green Party Ministers.  Each chapter includes commitments on what the Government says it will achieve by 2026.

This blog provides a short summary of these priorities and commitments.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive summary of all commitments, but reflects areas that may be of interest to parliamentary committees and individual MSPs.

To help navigate to specific portfolio areas, please use the contents popout below.

The three missions for 2026

The First Minister states that:

“I am setting three critical – and interdependent – missions for my government which will make a difference, tackling the issues which matter most and grasping the opportunities we have, to improve the lives of people across the country. These will be underpinned by our refreshed National Outcomes.”

These “missions” are:

  • “Equality: Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm
  • Opportunity: A fair, green and growing economy
  • Community: Prioritising our public services.”

These new “missions” are clearly in the same broad areas (though with some slight changes of emphasis) as the previous government’s priorities, set out in the 2023-24 Scottish Budget, of:

  • eradicating child poverty
  • transforming the economy to deliver a just transition to Net Zero
  • providing sustainable public services.

The PFG for 2022-23 stated that the “immediate and overriding priority … is to ensure households, businesses and other organisations, as well as the public services that support them, are protected from the worst impacts of the cost crisis.”  The terminology has slightly changed from the Government’s previously preferred “cost crisis” to the more commonly used “cost of living crisis”, which is mentioned a few times in the document but with nothing like the same emphasis as in the PFG.

In addition, the only mention of the National Outcomes or National Performance Framework is in the quotation above, which references the ongoing review.  It might have been expected that (as in the Budget document), more reference might have been made to the National Outcomes in the individual Cabinet Secretary chapters.  These are issues committees may wish to return to in the coming months, especially during the parliamentary phase of the review of the National Outcomes.

The remaining sections of this blog look at each of the portfolio chapters in turn.  Overall, there is a high degree of consistency with existing plans from the previous government, with some high profile policies either paused or delayed.  In all areas, while there are a range of commitments to be delivered by 2026, in many cases the language around what will be delivered is not as definitive as would be expected in a PFG.  Again, committees may wish to scrutinise these areas when hearing from the new ministerial team.

Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance

First, the section on finance notes the “challenging” financial situation and the ongoing “real pressures on the Scottish Budget”.  The Deputy First Minister confirms that she will publish a new Medium-Term Financial Strategy by the end of May.  However, there is no mention of a revised spending review.

On taxation, the document only commits to have “used our tax powers to deliver the most progressive tax system in the UK” by 2026.  This wouldn’t suggest much radical change as the Scottish income tax system is already more progressive than in the rest of the UK.  However, the language in the statement from the First Minister was stronger, where he stated that: “To tackle poverty we need to be even bolder on taxation and the redistribution of wealth”.

As in other sections, while there are commitments for what will be achieved by 2026, much of the language is around “making progress”.  For example, on public service reform, this chapter states that it will have “Progressed a ten-year programme of public bodies and public service reform that seeks to achieve effective and person-centred, fiscally sustainable public services.”

On local government, the document talks about “resetting the relationship” between the Scottish Government and local government. With an emphasis on collaboration and shared priorities, this is very  similar to the mood music coming from the first meeting between COSLA and the new First Minister. Key to any reset relationship will be the New Deal between the Scottish Government and local government which seeks to allow greater flexibility to local government over their finances, whilst ensuring shared accountability for the delivery of national priorities. Not an easy balancing act, as this year’s particularly fraught budget negotiations illustrated.

The principles behind a proposed New Deal are set out in 2022’s Resource Spending Review document. These built on the local governance review (launched in 2017) and discussions about a “fiscal framework” which have been taking place since at least 2019. Last year’s Spending Review confirmed the Government’s intentions to work with local government “to agree a new deal for Local Government in Scotland in advance of the next financial year”, thus by April 2023.

However, during a Committee session on budget scrutiny in January 2023, the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government stated that this timescale would not be achieved, citing “the cost of living crisis, the pay deals and the budget” as reasons for the delay.  Although the Cabinet Secretary spoke about “turbocharging” the Government’s focus on the New Deal, this week’s statement of priorities from the Scottish Government confirms that a New Deal, including a fiscal framework, will be agreed and implemented by 2026.

Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy

As readers will be aware, there have been some top-level portfolio changes in this area.  First, the economy has been split off from the finance portfolio, and energy has been moved from Net Zero.  In addition, the change of title to “wellbeing economy” formalises an approach and language used throughout the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET), published in March 2022. This section of the document reads, at a high level, like a continuation of that strategy.  One potential change in emphasis is that the original NSET clearly highlighted the importance of a focus on delivery. The new document appears to focus slightly less on this.

There is also mention of a “new approach to the Government’s relationship with business”. In his statement the First Minister mentioned three specific steps to “start that reset” on the relationship with business: a delay in the deposit return scheme (covered below), further work on restrictions on alcohol advertising (also covered below), and a promised “new deal” for Scottish businesses.

On energy, there are three key points made. These cover offshore wind and the domestic supply chain, hydrogen and its supply chain, and decarbonising Grangemouth and a just transition. There is a Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan being consulted on at the moment (and associated Committee inquiries in the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee and Economy and Fair Work Committee) so the key test will be whether there are any significant changes when these plans are finalised.

Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care

The First Minister set out some high-level ambitions for health and social care policy. These were largely focused on the NHS recovery and reform, reducing drug deaths, reducing waiting times, tackling health inequalities and improving public health. These are a continuation of previous ambitions and there was no detail on any new policy initiatives.

In relation to forthcoming legislation, again it was more a case of restating previous promises such as the review of minimum unit pricing of alcohol (in light of the sunset clause about to expire) and the introduction of safe access zones for premises providing abortion services.

The most notable developments for health and social care were:

  • confirmation that the Scottish Government will seek a further extension to the National Care Service Bill and undertake consultation with trade unions and local government
  • a pause and review of proposals to restrict alcohol advertising, in light of concerns raised about the effect on the Scottish hospitality industry and tourism
  • a commitment to set out a timetable for increasing the hourly pay of adult social care staff.

Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice

The chapter on Social Justice restates the Government’s existing commitments on child poverty, noting that “Driving action to achieve our statutory child poverty targets by 2030 and ensuring child poverty is at the heart of Cabinet decision making are central to achieving our mission to tackle poverty and protect people from harm.” 

The chapter also sets out a recognition of Scotland’s demographic challenges, but commitments here are mainly re-statements of existing priorities.  On social security, again, the new document is consistent with previous commitments.

Similarly, on housing, previous commitments are reaffirmed, including introducing legislation to deliver a new deal for tenants and new prevention of homelessness legislation duties, working with partners to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation and publishing a Remote, Rural and Island Housing Action Plan. 

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs

On Justice and Home Affairs, similar to other chapters, there is again mostly a re-statement of existing priorities, without going into much detail. Highlighted priorities include dealing with the post-COVID court backlog, better support for victims within the justice system, strengthening the response to violence against women and reducing the use of imprisonment on remand.  The document contains no specific mention of plans in relation to civil justice or civil justice priorities.

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills

The most eye-catching development in education was the commitment to re-join the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) studies.  Currently the only large-scale international study Scotland participates in is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Re-joining the TIMSS and PIRLS will provide additional data to better understand the performance of Scotland’s school education system and how it compares to other countries.

There is little detail on further and higher education in the document. While it does mention that by 2026 the Cabinet Secretary will have “Developed a more agile and responsive skills system that better meets the needs of Scotland’s learners and employers” it does not mention if this will continue to take forward the reforms proposed by the 2021 Scottish Funding Council review.

Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition

This chapter restates that mitigating and adapting to the twin climate and biodiversity crises are key priorities, with ongoing commitments to decarbonise heating and transport and increase active travel as some of the tools to achieving Scotland’s ambitions in these areas.

On transport, much is a restatement of previous priorities. Despite not featuring in the document, the FM confirmed in his statement that “the 6-month pilot to remove peak-time fares from Scotrail services will start in October of this year”. This policy has been announced several times already, but this is the first time a date has been mentioned, although no further details were provided.

On the deposit return scheme, the document only states that by 2026 the Government will have “increased the recyclability of packaging, including recycling 90% of single use drinks containers through the UK’s first Deposit Return Scheme.” However, in his statement, the First Minister noted that “we will delay the launch of the scheme until 1 March 2024”, due in part to “concerns of business” but also because the UK Government had not yet made a “decision to exclude the scheme from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020.” On 20 April, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity, Lorna Slater MSP announced a number of further amendments to the scheme principally aimed at supporting small businesses.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands

The commitments in this chapter are mostly re-statements of existing and ongoing government policy, including agriculture policy development, and implementation of the good food nation plan. An existing commitment to new land reform legislation is also highlighted in its new home within the rural affairs portfolio, where it was previously in the ‘Net Zero, Energy, and Transport’ portfolio.

The document does not restate the broader commitments within this portfolio, but rather, within those commitments, appears to set out what is expected to be accomplished by 2026. For example, the document references only that additional conditions will be applied to direct payments for farmers, rather than the wider process of agriculture policy development to deliver the government’s 2022 Vision for Agriculture. This timescale is in line with the expectation set out in the recently published Agricultural Reform Route Map, though the route map also suggests other changes to existing support schemes could potentially be made by 2026.  

Notably, this three-year timescale sheds light on expected progress for some of the government’s longer-term commitments. Having committed in 2020 to restoring 250,000ha of degraded peatlands by 2030, the document commits to delivering “up to 110,000 hectares of restored peatlands…with 10,700 hectares in 2023-24”. It is not clear what baseline year is being used in this commitment, but given that approximately 35,000ha of peatland has been restored through Peatland ACTION since 2012, this sheds some light on the pace of restoration that would be required, particularly in 2024-25 and 2025-26 if the target for 2023-24 is 10,700ha.

For marine and fisheries policy, the document also restates previous commitments on remote electronic monitoring, and improving the policy and regulatory framework for aquaculture.  There is no specific mention of Highly Protected Marine Areas in the document, bar a commitment to “enhancing protection for our most precious marine areas”.  However, in response to questions, the First Minister stated that:

“I have heard and have listened … to the concerns of our coastal, island and fishing communities. The consultation closed yesterday, and no criteria have been decided or sites selected.

A very basic principle that we have always operated by, which I reaffirm today, is that we will not impose these policies on communities that do not want them, so we will work constructively with those communities.”

Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

Despite the creation of a Minister for Independence, there is a noticeable shift in language around this issue. In response to a question from Clare Adamson MSP, the First Minister stated that:

“The UK Government continues to deny the mandate from the people for a referendum on independence, and to encroach on devolution.”

There is no mention of a second referendum on independence in the document, rather it sets out the First Minister’s commitment to “build the case for a socially just, independent Scotland”, with similar language in the chapter from the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture. 

In terms of the relationship with other parts of the UK, the document states that

“Scotland’s interests are best advanced through relationships of equality and respect, enabling the governments on these islands to work together to tackle shared challenges such as the cost of living crisis, child poverty, and the climate emergency.”

On wider issues in this chapter, similar to other areas, many of the objectives are very difficult for the Parliament to scrutinise as they lack detail and targets against which progress can be judged.  For example, whether the SG has “built the case for a socially just, independent Scotland within the European Union”. 

A key issue for the Parliament will be scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s policy commitment to continued alignment with EU law. 

In the Policy Statement published under the Continuity Act, it states that “Scottish Ministers’ default position, for the reasons set out above, will be to align with EU law”.  However, in the updated document it states that by 2026 the Cabinet Secretary will have “Protected continued alignment with the vital safeguards and high standards Scotland benefitted from as part of the European Union”. 

The section also notes that by 2026 the Cabinet Secretary will have “Pressed for the UK’s early return to the Horizon Europe research programme”. UK applicants are still able to participate in Horizon projects due to a UK Government guarantee[MI(1] [CA(2] . And any negotiation on the terms of UK associate membership will be between the EU and the UK Government.  In addition, there is no mention made of re-joining Erasmus+. The Scottish Government had previously committed to look at ways to re-join or create a replacement scheme.

A Greener, Fairer, Scotland

This chapter, from the Green MSPs in government, states that “Many of the policies set out throughout this document reflect the priorities in the Bute House Agreement,” including things like tackling the climate emergency and a “new relationship with local government”. This chapter also mentions “improved rights for transgender people and ending conversion practices”.

The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill and the Scottish Government’s legal challenge to the Section 35 Order made on it is not mentioned in the document. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice made a statement to the Chamber on the matter on 19 April 2023. 

SPICe Research