Our new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out an ambitious Programme for Government this week in the Scottish Parliament.
A range of plans to be introduced over the next year will help to create a new, fairer and more prosperous society, in so far as that is possible within the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
The policy and legislative priorities include a radical package of land reform which will contain mmeasures to improve the transparency and accountability of land ownership and make information on land, its value and ownership more readily available as well as the removal of business rates exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates. These exemptions were put in place by the Tories in 1994 to protect the interests of major landowners. Ending them will help the Government to more than treble the Scottish Land Fund – from £3m this year to £10m a year from 2016. A measure that will help meet the target of 1 million acres of land into community ownership.
The Scottish Government will tackle:
Low wages by doubling the number of organisations signed up to the Living Wage Accreditation Scheme
Youth unemployment by increasing the number of Modern Apprenticeships to 30,000 a year
Gender inequality by setting the pace for equality in the public sector like the Cabinet 50:50 split.
Carers will receive more powers over the services that affect them through the Carers Bill and a Public Health Bill will reduce the availability of tobacco and e-cigarettes for young people. Patients will be protected through a ‘duty of candour’ from ill-treatment and further powers will be given to hospital inspection teams to close wards if they have concerns over safety.
These plans aim to build a sense of shared endeavor about how we create a wealthier and more equal society. And it is founded on three key priorities – participation, prosperity and fairness.
Read more about the policies and legislation plans, and how they impact on real people at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Programme-for-Government-2014-15
The long awaited report from the Smith Commission has been published and I acknowledge the efforts of Lord Smith and the hundreds of people and organisations who participated in the consultation.
However, I share the disappointment of many civic organisations like the STUC and the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) on the limited nature of the powers being offered.
The unionist parties were not prepared to deliver the powerhouse parliament the people of Scotland were promised - under these proposals, less than 30 per cent of our taxes will be set in Scotland and less than 20 per cent of welfare spending will be devolved to Scotland. That isn’t Home Rule - its continued Westminster rule.
Most significantly, the proposals do not include the job-creating powers that Scotland so badly needs to get more people into work and grow the economy, or welfare powers to tackle in-work poverty.
Control of employer national insurance contributions, tax incentives for research and development, the personal allowance to lift more low earners out of tax and make work pay, corporate taxation, child and working tax credits, and the ability to shape a welfare system that helps rather than hinders the path to employment - these all stay with Westminster.
This was a missed opportunity to devolve the welfare system in order to help build a fairer, more prosperous society - as the SCVO and many other expert organisations in civic Scotland called for - and the minimum wage, as the STUC wanted.
However the Scottish Government will use all the new powers Scotland gets wisely, to improve the lives of the people they serve. Although it is by no means certain all the promised powers will be delivered. Remember devolution of Air Passenger Duty has been reneged upon once before.
Next year’s General Election offers the people of Scotland the opportunity to have their say, and the SNP will propose improvements to the package for which we will seek popular support in May. The Westminster parties have now gone as far as they are ever prepared to go in terms of powers for Scotland -and it is nowhere near as far as they indicated with the famous ‘Vow’ during the last days of the referendum campaign. They have drawn their final line in the sand - and it is on the wrong side of majority opinion in Scotland.
The General Election enables the voice of the people to be heard over the powers that Scotland needs to boost employment and tackle inequality – it is those voices that will determine whether or not the unionist parties have delivered as promised and I look forward to their verdict.
You can access a full copy of the Smith Commission Report at https://www.smith-commission.scot/smith-commission-report/
I had the pleasure of hosting Primary 7 school pupils from Gardenrose Primary School at the Scottish Parliament this month. They took a tour of the building and witnessed history in the making with our new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in action during First Ministers Question Time from the chamber.
The pupils were obviously inspired with what they saw and heard and emulated the First Minister during a question and answer session with myself before heading back home.