The 2023-24 Programme for Government – three missions: “equality, opportunity and community”

Reading Time: 24 minutes

On 5 September 2023, the First Minister (FM), Humza Yousaf MSP, set out his first full Programme for Government (known as the “PFG”) in a statement to the Parliament.

This followed the FM’s statement on “our priorities for Scotland”, which shortly followed his selection as FM by the Parliament last April.  SPICe also published a blog analysing this publication.

The PFG for 2023-24 sets out the actions that the Government states it will take in the year from September 2023, and the proposed legislative programme.

This extended, long-read blogpost provides a summary of the PFG, and picks out areas that will be of particular interest to MSPs and the Parliament over the next year. It is not a comprehensive summary.  It also briefly looks back at the previous PFG and at the FM’s April statement.

Blogs on previous PFGs can be accessed at the following links:

The contents pop-out below will help readers navigate to specific sections and subjects they are interested in.

Overall approach – “delivering our national missions”

In his foreword to the PFG document, the FM restated the “three missions for my government to deliver”:

  • Equality: Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm.
  • Opportunity: Building a fair, green and growing economy.
  • Community: Delivering efficient and effective public services.

This is very similar (though not quite identical) language to the missions set out in the April document Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership – A fresh start.  And similarly, the three missions are also clearly in the same areas as the previous government’s three priorities, which were set out in the 2023-24 Scottish Budget, as discussed in a previous SPICe blog.

The FM stressed that, in his view, these missions are connected and that the PFG “is unapologetically anti-poverty, pro-growth which is both fair and green, and focused on delivering high quality public services.”

The document provides detail on policies under each of the missions and how they relate to each other.  However, by nature these missions are very broad, and most plans and policies could be badged under at least one of these missions.  The document also considers, in broad terms, current challenges and taking difficult decisions, especially on the public finances (see section below on fiscal context).  However, as would be expected, the detail of this is left to the Budget in December.

It is worth noting as well that this is very much a “full PFG” compared to the 2022-23 document, which was much shorter, and focused on the response to the “cost crisis.”

A “team Scotland” approach and mandate letters

As in the April document, in a departure from the practice of previous administrations, each portfolio chapter is in the name of the nine individual cabinet secretaries.  

A further development in the PFG is the introduction of “mandate letters”.  These, from the FM to Cabinet Secretaries, set out “the outcomes they will achieve in the months ahead.”  All of these new letters are published on the Government’s website.  There is a lot of detail around what Cabinet Secretaries are expected to deliver by end of March 2024 (i.e. in the 2023-24 Financial Year) and to the end of the parliamentary session. 

These letters will no doubt prove a useful tool for parliamentary scrutiny and committees may wish to consider how best to scrutinise the objectives and outcomes set out in each mandate letter.  Questions that could arise include:

  • Are these the right objectives and outcomes?
  • How were the objectives and outcomes drawn up?
  • How do they relate to the PFG commitments?
  • What happens if an objective or outcome is not achieved?
  • How will progress be tracked?
  • How will the Government report to Parliament on progress against each of the objectives and outcomes?
  • How do these relate to other outcomes the government is committed to, like the National Performance Framework?

Of course, the Finance and Public Administration Committee may be interested in the overall concept of these new letters and why they have been introduced. It is worth noting it is a system in place in Canada.

The remaining sections of this extended blogpost follow the same structure as the PFG and pick out policies and announcements that may be of interest to MSPs and committees in the coming parliamentary year.  It also identifies where announcements have been restated or removed. 

But first, the following infographic shows the result of some text analysis of the whole PFG document.  The first chart is a “wordcloud”, which many readers will be familiar with.  It shows the frequency of words used in the PFG, excluding certain very regularly used words.  The second chart is a “network map” – this shows the frequency with which words are connected to each other.  A darker line indicates a stronger, more regular, connection.

Image showing results of text analysis of the PFG document.  Most commonly used words are "people", "support", "continue", "community", "services" and "local".

A separate chart also shows the links between certain words.  Strong link are between the three priorities of equality, opportunity and community and public services, social care and climate change.

Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance

The First Minister reaffirmed his commitment to a progressive tax system in his PFG statement, stating that “those who earn the most should pay the most”.  However, he also countered that this should not be at the expense of economic growth. 

Meanwhile, the PFG set out some potentially costly commitments, including around childcare and social care pay.  Meeting these spending commitments in what the First Minister described as “one of the most difficult public spending environments that this devolved Parliament has ever seen” leaves some challenging decisions to be resolved in the next budget and beyond.  The Scottish Budget for 2024-25 will be very important in setting out how the commitments will be delivered and how the Government will achieve its missions, but also crucially what spending will be reduced, or programmes stopped.  Committees embarking on pre-Budget scrutiny may wish to focus on these issues ahead of the Budget’s expected publication in December.

The PFG also noted the intention to publish an updated tax strategy alongside the 2024 Medium Term Financial Strategy (usually in May), setting out how the Scottish Government intends to continue to deliver a progressive tax system.

New commitments include the introduction of secondary legislation enabling councils to apply up to a 100% premium on council tax for second homes. It seems that decisions on other proposals that were consulted on earlier in the year, to allow councils to charge more than 100% premium on council tax for second homes and long-term empty homes, are still to be made

In addition to the proposed Cladding Remediation Bill, which would give Scottish Ministers the power to order the removal of cladding that poses a threat to life, the Scottish Government will request the devolution of powers to allow them to introduce a levy equivalent to the UK Government’s Building Safety Levy for England – which requires developers to contribute to the cost of cladding remediation.

Much is made of public service reform in the PFG – as has been the case from the Resource Spending Review (published May 2022) onwards.  Given this is a long-running programme, it is not surprising that most policies are not new, things like the estate review, a progressive procurement policy and community wealth building.  However, one policy was quite striking, and trailed in advance – to “Commence the Four Day Working Week public sector pilot by the end of this calendar year, to assess the wellbeing, environmental, and productivity benefits the Four Day Working Week could bring.”  Committees will no doubt want to scrutinise this commitment and how it will be implemented.

Local government and the PFG

In his foreword, the First Minister talks of his pride in delivering the Verity House Agreement (VHA):

“resetting and redefining the relationship between the Scottish Government and Local Government, and ensuring that we are collectively focused on our shared priorities and our duties to deliver for people and communities”.

The VHA, signed between the Scottish Government and COSLA at the end of June, establishes a set of principles upon which the future relationship will be based. It is one part of the New Deal between Scottish Government and local government which will soon also include new fiscal and outcomes frameworks.

Given that one of the main pressure points in the central-local government relationship is the annual budget process, the proof of the Verity House Agreement pudding will soon be seen in how local government responds to the next Scottish Government Budget, due for publication in December. With the VHA’s default position of no ring-fencing, its commitment to “sustainable public services” and a pledge to provide multi-year certainty “wherever possible”, expectations across Scotland’s 32 local authorities will be high.

The Scottish Government will rely on local government to help deliver its Programme for Government, for example the expansion of universal free school meal provision and its flagship childcare commitments. The Verity House Agreement commits to ensure the two spheres of government “will work together to consult and collaborate as early as possible in all policy areas where Local Government has a key interest”. Given the argument has been made many times in the past that national commitments come with insufficient funding and can often have adverse impacts on other local authority services, how local authorities and Scottish Government work together over the next months and years will clearly be central to the success of this PFG

Other local government related issues covered in the Programme include a commitment to completing a review of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 “to ensure it is fit for purpose, explore how communities can be further empowered, and improve community planning”. This is certainly of importance to the Parliament’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee which has been looking at various provisions of the 2015 Act over the past few years. Members will also be interested in the Government’s commitment to support the reconsideration of the European Charter of Local Self Government Incorporation (Scotland) Bill, which in many ways underpins much of the Verity House Agreement. And there is also a commitment to continue the Joint Working Group on sources of Local Government funding which, amongst other things, will look at ways “to identify further options for reforms to Council Tax”.

Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy

The Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy portfolio unsurprisingly maintains a focus on a wellbeing economy, noting that this will support the three key missions set out in the PFG. Building on the statement of priorities set out by the First Minister in April 2023, there is a slight shift in tone to be more pro-business and pro-growth; the PFG emphasises the New Deal for Business and the work to review the cumulative impact of regulation on Scotland’s businesses. The Scottish Government commits to work with businesses to develop a process for identifying, evaluating and where appropriate removing regulations which are no longer required. The New Deal and any changes to regulation are intended to help rebuild the relationship between Scottish businesses and the Government; recent analysis by the Fraser of Allander Institute suggests that only 9% of Scottish businesses feel the Scottish Government understands the business environment in Scotland, so there is clearly a significant way to go on this front.

There are also commitments to establish two new units in the Scottish Government; a Small Business Unit to ensure that SMEs voices are heard during policy development, and an Investment Unit to respond to the recommendations from the First Ministers Investor Panel

The Scottish Government also commits to develop a Green Industrial Strategy, which will set out how businesses in Scotland will be supported through the transition to a net zero economy, and will support the development of sectoral Just Transition Plans – also discussed in the Net Zero section below.

A key pillar of the Scottish Government’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation is to boost entrepreneurial activity in Scotland. The PfG continues this focus through increasing support for programmes including Scottish Edge and the Scottish Ecosystem Fund, pledges to implement the vision set out by Ana Stewart and Mark Logan to support women and other under-represented groups to become entrepreneurs, and undertake a review to identify how to better support employee-owned co-operatives and social enterprises.

Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care

In the NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care portfolio focus continued to be placed on NHS recovery and reform with the continuation of programmes to improve sustainable delivery, efficiency and flow, and to increase capacity in the system via the National Treatment Centres. There was a commitment to improve cancer outcomes by April 2024 through the implementation of the new Cancer Strategy.

There was also an emphasis on the importance of a sustainable and skilled workforce with a commitment to improve workforce planning, practice and culture. This will be  supported by the commencement of the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act 2019 and through taking forward the recommendations from the Nursing and Midwifery Taskforce. There was also a commitment to increase the pay of social care workers in the PVI (private, voluntary or independent) sectors in a direct care role to at least £12 per hour, from April 2024.

The Independent Living Fund will also reopen on a phased basis, with an initial £9 million in 2024-25 for up to 1,000 additional disabled people with the most complex needs.

No new health and social care Government Bills are expected in 2023-24. However, consideration of the National Care Service Bill continues and it is expected that Gillian Mackay’s Member’s Bill on Proposed Abortion Services Safe Access Zones will be introduced in the near future. It was also announced that the Scottish Government intends to undertake a review of abortion law , by the end of this parliamentary term.

A number of public consultations were also highlighted including on the future of Minimum Unit Pricing, a potential ban on single-use vapes and on a Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Bill.

Other commitments included:

  • convening a working group to explore how community access to sports facilities, such as schools, can be maximised and enhanced
  • establishing a new Mental Health and Capacity Reform Programme to begin the process of updating and modernising the mental health and capacity legislation
  • publishing a Mental Health and Wellbeing Delivery Plan and accompanying Workforce Action Plan in the autumn
  • improving access to GP services through further expansion to multi-disciplinary teams and delivering targeted support to practices serving the most disadvantaged communities in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde
  • establishing the Expert Medical Generalist GP role and future career pathway with professional bodies
  • launching the National Centre for Remote and Rural Health and Care in October 2023
  • publishing a refreshed Tobacco Action Plan in autumn 2023 
  • supporting the development of a Charter of Rights for people who use drugs
  • improving miscarriage care 
  • improve gender identity healthcare.

Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice

Poverty and social security

One of the three missions for the PFG is around tackling poverty.  In terms of social security, this is mostly to be achieved by continuing existing policies.

As last year, the flagship policy is the Scottish Child Payment which was extended to eligible children under 16 last November. There were no hints of anything other than inflation linked increases to the £25 payment. The Child Poverty Action Group expressed “disappointment at lack of further detail on First Minister’s commitment to increase Scottish child payment to £30.”  As in other areas, we therefore await the budget with interest.

Easily missed was the actual new announcement – a social security amendment bill.  There was little further detail on what this would cover, but a consultation last year gives some basis to work from.  One of the measures consulted on was changing the legislative basis of the Scottish Child Payment which would give the Scottish Government more policy options around eligibility. 

The interim statutory Child Poverty Targets include reducing relative child poverty to 18% by 2023-24.  Although Scottish Government policies have reduced child poverty, largely through the Scottish Child Payment, its likely this target will be missed.  The focus is now on the final target of 10% relative child poverty by 2030.  That is looking tough.

In June the Scottish Government published it’s ‘progress report’ for 2022-23, and said that: “We recognise that transformational change is needed to meet our statutory child poverty targets.”  The PFG does not include any large scale new commitments. It does flag the publication later this year for the report on the minimum income guarantee, and asks the UK Government to create an ‘essentials guarantee’.

The PFG restated what we know about the social security timetable. Regulations have now been laid to create Carer Support Payment – although now with a phased approach to introduction which the Scottish Fiscal Commission forecast will save £9m next year.  Regulations to remove income thresholds from Best Start Foods were sent for scrutiny in August and should come in in February 2024 and draft regulations have been published on replacing Attendance Allowance due to start in autumn 2024. What was missing though was any further confirmation of the timetable and policy for Employment Injury Assistance – we’ve been expecting a consultation on that since the spring.


The PFG announced a planned housing bill to create powers for the introduction of long-term rent controls, creating new tenants’ rights and introducing new duties aimed at the prevention of homelessness.  This was expected following a delay to its introduction that was outlined in last year’s PFG. 

There are further commitments around homelessness including working with local government and stakeholders to reducing the number of people in temporary accommodation and continuing to promote Housing First which offers a mainstream settled tenancy and wraparound support, as the default response for people experiencing homelessness who have multiple and complex needs. This focus on reducing temporary accommodation continues following on from the work of the Temporary Accommodation Task and Finish Group which reported in May 2023 and to which the government responded to in July 2023.

Other restated commitments made in last year’s PfG are plans to publish a Remote, Rural and Island Housing Action Plan and to publish a consultation on a heat and buildings bill (in the net zero chapter). Similarly, planned investment of £752m in the Affordable Housing Supply Programme was previously announced in last year’s budget.

Another new commitment is to consider the forthcoming recommendations of the short life Housing Review Group identifying those actions that can be taken by local authorities to address existing housing pressures within their current powers and budget.

Human Rights legislation and equalities

Plans to introduce a Human Rights Bill continue. The aim is to incorporate four international human rights treaties into Scots law, subject to devolved competence, on economic, social and cultural rightswomendisabled people and minority ethnic communities, as well as rights for older people, LGBTI people and a healthy environment. A consultation on the proposals closes 5 October 2023.

The Scottish Parliament will also be invited to bring back the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill for reconsideration stage. The UNCRC Bill was unanimously passed on 16 March 2021, but was then referred to the Supreme Court by the UK Government over its legislative competence. The Court unanimously agreed that four provisions of the Bill would be outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. In June 2023 the Scottish Government announced that amendments to the UNCRC Bill would be brought forward after the parliamentary recess.

The focus on advancing equality for particular groups continues, either through existing working groups or the development of new policy:

The FM and DFM will continue to support the National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG) taking forward their recommendations to tackle intersectional gender inequality.

An Immediate Priorities Plan for disabled people will be published, “that recognises the disproportionate impact the cost of living crisis and the pandemic has had on this group, setting out clear actions for change.” Previously there was A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People: Delivery Plan, which ran from 2016-2021. It set out five ambitions to improve independent living, employment, participation, accessibility, and protected rights, and 93 actions. A progress report was published in 2019, and a further progress report in 2021.

The Scottish Government will invest in a new “Anti-Racism Observatory which will provide oversight and support for the Scottish Government and the public sector to develop anti-racism approaches, so that we can continue to eradicate racism in Scotland.” There is however, no mention of how this might relate to the Race Equality Framework for Scotland 2016-2030, or the Race Equality Action Plan (2017-2021).

There are also plans to:

The FM also said in the Foreword that the Scottish Government will work with senior leaders and role models to consider how best to promote positive masculinity, highlighting positive examples of behaviour. The aim is to reduce what is referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’ and its negative impact on relationships, workplaces and society. However, this is not mentioned elsewhere in the PFG, so it is unclear who is taking the lead on this in government.

There is only limited detail on the Gender Representation on Public Boards Remedial Action Bill. This will remove the definition of “woman” from section 2 of the Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018. It will update the Act following a reclaiming motion of a judicial review decision on the 2018 Act, which meant that a wider definition of “woman” in that Act no longer has legal effect. The definition of woman included trans women.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs

As part of the PFG, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs outlined areas of ‘critical activity’ which she will take forward in the coming year:

  • prioritising our public services and delivering public service reform (e.g. supporting justice agencies to reduce court backlogs)
  • supporting everyone to feel safe in their communities (e.g. publishing a hate crime strategy delivery plan which will include implementation of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 early next year)
  • improving the experience of justice for victims and survivors (e.g. launching Bairns’ Hoose pathfinders in the autumn of this year)
  • tackling violence against women and girls (e.g. introducing legislation to criminalise misogynistic conduct)
  • reducing reoffending and limiting the negative effects of short-term imprisonment (e.g. working towards replacing prisons in Inverness and Glasgow).

In addition, in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs, the First Minster listed agreed areas of work to be carried out during the current financial year. These include:

  • working with the police to achieve a sustainable budget position
  • considering the outcome of reviews into policing culture and values, and championing equality and an anti-racist approach to policing
  • supporting further modernisation of the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service
  • refreshing the equally safe strategy aimed at eradicating violence against women and girls.

As already noted, the Scottish Government intends to introduce legislation to criminalise misogynistic conduct. Its plans in this area flow from the work of an independent Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland Working Group. The working group’s report, Misogyny – A Human Rights Issue (2022), recommended legislating to create:

  • a statutory misogyny aggravation
  • an offence of stirring up hatred against women and girls
  • an offence of public misogynistic harassment
  • an offence of issuing threats of, or invoking, rape or sexual assault or disfigurement of women and girls online and offline.

On civil justice, there was little in the way of new policy proposals or legislation, save the Judicial Factors Bill, which originated in a report of the Scottish Law Commission. Judicial factors are officials appointed by the court to temporarily look after, or sometimes gather in and distribute, a person’s property in complex or difficult cases before the court.  It is also noteworthy that some flagship civil justice legislation from Session 5 is still awaiting full implementation, including the Children (Scotland) Act 2020 and the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Act 2021.

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills

Early learning and childcare (ELC) and wider childcare

The First Minister identified five areas of work in relation to childcare.  Thesewere:

  • Six pilot “early adopter council areas” to increase access to childcare from nine months through to the end of primary school.
  • Accelerate the expansion of childcare for families with two-year-olds.
  • Recruit and retain more childminders.
  • A minimum wage of £12 per hour for those delivering funded Early Learning and Childcare in the Private, Voluntary and Independent (“PVI”) sector.
  • A new digital service for parents and carers to manage childcare.

The first two bullets broadly reflect the priorities in last October’s strategic early learning and school age childcare plan although the commitment in the PFG to increase access to childcare from nine months is new.  Previous commitments had been to develop a “new offer of early learning and childcare for one and two year olds”. It is notable that the mandate letter from the First Minister to the Cabinet Secretary also refers to developing policy in relation to funded childcare for one- and two-year-olds, but not for children under one.  Current statutory provision for pre-school eligible children is for a full-time term time place; it is not yet clear what the offer will look like for children under two.

The commitment to recruit and retain more childminders is not expanded upon in the PFG and this is an area where we might expect more detail in the months to come.  A commitment to minimum wage of £12 per hour for those delivering ELC in the PVI sector is due to come in in April of next year. Current policy is that these workers must be paid the Living Wage which is £10.90 in Scotland at present. However, the Living Wage will also be uprated for April 2024, so at this stage the impact of the commitment is unclear.

The commitment that is potentially of most parliamentary interest is the final one.  On the face of it a digital system to manage childcare may not sound ground-breaking.  The fuller quote from the PFG is:

“Through [a] community-based approach, test a new digital service to help parents and carers find, access and pay for childcare that best suits their needs, laying the foundations to transform the childcare system in the longer-term in a way that empowers parents and supports greater choice.”

The second half of the sentence hints at a different approach to the service design.  It is however unclear what this means at this stage.

School education

The planned expansion of universal free school meals for all Primary pupils is being progressed. Currently universal provision covers P1-P5.  The PfG stated that the Government will “work with COSLA in the coming year to prepare schools and infrastructure for the expansion of universal free school meal provision to Primary 6 and Primary 7 pupils during 2026, starting with those in receipt of the Scottish Child Payment.” 

Using receipt of the Scottish Child Payment to determine free school meal eligibility in P6 and P7 was announced in December 2022. This change will increase the numbers of pupils eligible as compared to the current statutory eligibility criteria.

It was expected that an Education Reform Bill would be introduced in the previous parliamentary year, and this was expected to establish a new qualifications body and education inspectorate. This has been delayed to allow time for the Government to reflect upon a number of recent reviews.  The Government will “set out plans for implementing reform of our education and skills bodies and put the voices of children, young people, and adult learners at their core” and intends to introduce the Education Reform Bill this year.


Following a consultation last year, the Government intends to introduce a Scottish Languages Bill.  This will include provision to support both Gaelic and Scots.

Care reform and The Promise

The Promise Bill expected by the end of this Parliamentary session was not announced in this PFG. However, the First Minister did announce he will chair a Cabinet sub-committee on The Promise to enable cross-portfolio change.

Much of the work to take forward care reform mentioned in the PFG has already been announced, for example the Whole Family Wellbeing Fund. New announcements include a planned consultation on support for Care-Experienced young people when they become adults. A national rate of allowance for kinship and foster carers was announced at the end of August.

The Scottish Government’s response to the recent review of the Children’s Hearing System is also much anticipated, and the Children (Care and Justice) Bill (CCJ Bill) introduced last year is about to begin Stage 2 scrutiny in Committee. If passed, the CCJ Bill will end placement of under 18s in young offenders institutions, instead placing them in secure care units.

Further and Higher Education

A bit more detail on the anticipated Erasmus+ replacement – the Scottish Education Exchange Programme (SEEP) – is given. The PFG says this will launch following an initial “test and learn” phase in 2023/24. Placements for disadvantaged groups will be prioritised and this will work with schools, colleges and universities to build EU and global connections.

The PFG also commits to setting out plans for implementing reform of education and skills bodies, responding to the recent James Withers review of skills and implementing the Purpose and Principles framework for further and higher education.

These plans include the development of a new funding model for post-school education provision – a move which is likely to see the functions of the Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland and the Student Awards Agency Scotland brought together in what could be a significant development for the sector. However, further details are not yet given.

Widening access and free tuition are mentioned as continuing commitments. A move toward parity of living cost support for students studying part time or flexibly is also mentioned, though how this will be taken forward is not detailed.  

Subordinate legislation will be brought forward to ensure college boards include a trade union representative.

Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition

Climate Emergency and Energy Policy

In his statement to Parliament, the First Minister made it clear that he would be “unapologetic in taking the action needed to ensure a sustainable future for our children and planet”, noting that there is an “enormous economic opportunity created by climate action” as well as “an overwhelming moral imperative”. Therefore, the Scottish Government “will take a responsible approach and show climate leadership”.

The Scottish Government has missed 8 out of the last 12 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, however there is little concrete or new policies in relation to direct action to reduce climate warming emissions. The First Minster noted the UK Government’s “commitment to more than 100 new oil and gas licences”, and called these “baffling and dangerous”. The focus in the PFG though is on devolved competencies such as a “just transition” for energy workers, particularly in the north-east of Scotland, through the Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan, which is expected to be finalised this year.

The key new proposal for speeding up renewable energy deployment is a commitment to:

“establish a sector deal with the onshore wind industry to help deliver our onshore wind ambition, maximising the benefits for Scotland’s economy and communities and accelerating our consenting processes – underpinned by an ambition to halve the average determination time for section 36 applications to 12 months where there is no public inquiry.”

Perhaps further action and information will be forthcoming in the draft Climate Change Plan (CCP), which the PFG states will:

“continue to drive down emissions […] with bold action across transport, heat, our natural environment, and other areas, demonstrating how our ambition will be realised while maximising opportunities for the economy, job creation, and health”.

Previous parliamentary committees and the Government’s statutory advisers, the Climate Change Committee have called for a quantified plan for how CCP polices will combine to achieve the emissions reductions required to meet statutory targets. This plan is where the nuts and bolts of climate leadership are really demonstrated.

Transport and planning

No significant new transport projects, funding streams or policies were announced. Transport Scotland will undertake a second tendering exercise for the dualling of the 9.6km section of the A9 between Tomatin to Moy. The first tendering exercise attracted just one bid, which was rejected by Transport Scotland. The Scottish Government also committed to publishing an updated route map to a 20% reduction in car kilometres, an updated rail decarbonisation plan and the final report of the long-running Fare Fares Review. There is no mention of the introduction of prohibitions on parking on pavements, in front of dropped kerbs and double parking, legislated for in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and expected to come into force in late 2023.

No significant new planning policies or proposals were announced. The Scottish Government continues to enact the remaining parts of the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 not yet in force, looking to bring forward secondary legislation on Masterplan Consent Areas and further extend permitted development rights.

Environment, biodiversity and circular economy

On the transition to a circular economy, there is a new commitment to consult on banning single-use vapes (alongside other potential measures), which follows the publication of a review by Zero Waste Scotland in June of environmental impacts. Other aspects of the PFG relate to ongoing work and commitments, including to work to deliver a Deposit Return Scheme from 2025 – the revised delivery date following delays announced in June. The Circular Economy Bill is currently at Stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament and wider context for the Bill is set out in the draft 2025 circular economy routemap – which the Scottish Government commits to finalise in the PFG.

The First Minister also emphasised that his Government’s agenda was “unashamedly” pro-growth and growth is emphasised as being necessary to tackle poverty. The written PFG refers multiple times to the need for “sustainable economic growth” which is a continuation of Scottish Government economic policy. The Circular Economy Bill contains powers to set targets which will seek to tackle unsustainable consumption in Scotland – signalling possible future debates about how continued economic growth in Scotland can be successfully decoupled from consumption (and our global carbon footprint from our consumption of goods and services).

The First Minister did not mention the nature crisis in his speech, however the published PFG recognises the twin climate and nature crises and commits to a new Biodiversity Strategy (a draft was consulted on in 2022) and a first five-year delivery plan. There is also a commitment to prepare for the introduction of a Natural Environment Bill by consulting on nature recovery targets, plans to protect 30% of Scotland’s land and sea for nature by 2030 (linked to the new global biodiversity framework), and modernising National Parks legislation, alongside “continuing work to designate a new National Park within this Parliamentary term” (a framework for this was consulted on in May 2023). There is a new commitment to publish “proposals for a market framework” to encourage private investment in natural capital as well as “new financial support for Nature Networks” – themselves a 2022-2023 PfG commitment – although no detail yet on what form this will take.

On issues of environmental justice, the PFG reiterates plans to include a right to a healthy environment in the forthcoming Human Rights Bill – already included in the Government’s consultation open until October. There is a wider current debate around post EU exit environmental governance and the question of the need for an environmental court – which the Scottish Government is also consulting on until October (and takes the view that an environmental court is not necessary).

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands

Land use and land management

Many of the major developments in this policy area are already underway. The PFG references the continued development of a new rural support framework and confirms the intention to introduce an Agriculture Bill in this parliamentary year. Relatedly, there is also a new commitment to “develop a gender strategy for agriculture and fund practical training opportunities for women, new entrants, and young farmers”. Moreover, while developing options for crofting reform was raised in last year’s PFG, this year the SG takes a step further, committing to “consult on proposals”.

In relation to forestry, the policy commitments remain largely the same though the PFG points specifically to skills training. It also mentions two big public land management projects, both managed by Forestry and Land Scotland: plans to make the recently purchased Glenprosen Estate an ‘exemplar of integrated management’, and plans for “planned natural regeneration of the 4,600 hectares surrounding Loch Katrine”.

Finally, in relation to peatland restoration, the PFG commits to restoring 10,700 hectares of degraded peatland. The hectare target is more specific than last year’s PFG, and more ambitious than what they achieved last year (7,500 ha according to this year’s PFG). However, it still falls short of the commitment made in the 2018 Climate Change Plan to restore 20,000ha of peatland per year, and, as the 2020 Climate Change Plan Update acknowledged, “to deliver on the 2032 emissions reduction envelope annual peatland restoration needs to be far higher than the current 20,000 hectare annual target”.

Land Reform

As expected, the PfG confirms that a Land Reform Bill will be introduced this year.

Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

For a second year in a row, constitutional issues were less of a focus in the substance of the PFG. Nevertheless, making the case for an independent Scotland still provided a backdrop for the detail on distinct policy areas. In his statement, the First Minister told the Parliament

“this Government will never stop believing that decisions about Scotland should not be made by a Government based in Westminster, but by the people of Scotland…In proposing the case for independence we will set out a positive vision for Scotland’s future.” 

There was, however, no detail on how an independence on Scottish independence would be delivered.  

The PFG indicated that the Scottish Government’s priority action in the constitutional space would be to: 

“Defend the powers and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and continue to build the case for an independent Scotland within the EU, including through the Building a New Scotland prospectus series.” 

The PFG also indicated that an Electoral Reform Bill would be introduced with changes to the law in devolved areas for Scottish Parliament and local Government elections. The Scottish Government had consulted on this in late 2022

On the external affairs side, there is a focus on the future UK-EU relationship with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which is due to be reviewed from 2025. The TCA review will be a focus for EU-UK relations over the next few years and may include discussions about issues in devolved policy areas.  The PFG sets out policy areas where the Scottish Government will press for a closer UK relationship with the EU including: 

“easements of trading conditions for Scottish exporters of food and drink products, a more effective approach for electricity trading, an expansion of sectors included in the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, a better solution for touring creative professionals, and for the UK to rejoin the Erasmus+ initiative.”  

The PFG also calls for the UK Government to commit to a UK return to the EU’s Horizon Programme for research and development (an issue covered in a recent SPICe blog).  Following the PFG, on 7 September 2023, the UK Government announced that agreement had been reached with the European Commission for the UK to rejoin the Horizon programme.

The PFG also includes a reiteration of the Scottish Government’s commitment to alignment with EU law.  However, whilst previously this commitment had been qualified as being “where appropriate”, the PFG sees a slight shift in terminology with the commitment being to “align where possible and meaningful”.  

Finally in external affairs, the PFG commits to develop new programmes with its international development partner countries of Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda and Pakistan. 

In terms of Culture policy, there was little new in the PFG.  We expect to see the publication of a refreshed action plan for the national culture strategy as well a new International Culture Strategy which was consulted upon earlier this year.

Greener, Fairer Scotland

The “Greener, Fairer Scotland” chapter contains a contribution from the Green MSPs in government, and features “five key priorities” and a note of policies that the Green Ministers are leading on.  It’s not entirely clear how these five priorities fit with the three “missions.”

Outcomes and Equalities

On outcomes, the PFG references the ongoing review of the National Outcomes, and confirms that the revised outcomes will be laid before the Parliament in early 2024.  The PFG also mentions that the Government is “committed to continually improving the way the NPF is used, across government and more widely”, but doesn’t provide any detail on how this might be done.  Like previous PFGs, the 2023-24 document again mentions exploring “the development of legislative proposals on a wellbeing and sustainable development Bill”, but with no clear commitment on what that might look like.

Despite the dedicated section on outcomes, there is no attempt to assign national outcomes or indicators in the individual portfolio chapters or in the new “mandate letters”, although these letters do focus on outcomes that cabinet secretaries are expected to deliver.  The relationship between these new documents and the NPF (and the review) may well be of interest to committees when they come to consider the new national outcomes in early 2024.  The recent SPICe blog on the review provides more detail and background.

The Legislative Programme 2023-24

The PFG sets out which bills will be introduced in the coming parliamentary year, these are covered, where relevant, in the portfolio sections above.

In total the PFG sets out the Scottish Government’s intention to introduce 14 new Bills over the next Parliamentary year.  These Bills are in addition to the 11 Scottish Government Bills which Parliament is already considering. 

SPICe Research, September 2023