It has been a fascinating few months in Holyrood. While there’s been an awful lot of politics at play, for the purposes of this blog, we’re going to focus on government policy.
In his first three months as First Minister, Humza Yousaf has arguably cut more policies than he has announced new ones. We’ve seen the Deposit Return Scheme paused following a chaotic roll out and wrangling between Scottish Secretary Alister Jack and Green Leader Lorna Slater over the inclusion of glass. Then there’s the controversial gender recognition reforms which have landed up in court; the delay in launching Highly Protected Marine Areas, and the shelving of a consultation into restrictions on alcohol marketing.
Yousaf will be keen to start September anew, with a fresh policy agenda, which he’ll do via the Programme for Government, an annual exercise (think King’s speech, without the pomp). The government will list the policies they will seek to implement in the coming year. They’ve already insisted the focus will be on delivery.
So what can we expect? In looking forward, we’re going to look back. In March, as Humza Yousaf began his premiership, he launched a policy prospectus setting out his three key missions for his time as leader. Broadly these were: tackling poverty, a green and growing economy, and a focus on public services. Yousaf has not been as rigorous at sticking to his themes as Rishi Sunak’s five pledges or Keir Starmer’s five missions and so you could be forgiven for forgetting what they were. However, the policy prospectus does provide us with an idea of what to expect.
With the DRS now paused until October 2025, the Government will be keen to show it is still pressing ahead with other environmental policies. The Circular Economy Bill, which is currently going through Stage 1 in Parliament, will be front and centre of this. This will place a duty on Ministers to publish a circular economy strategy and targets. It will also create powers to set a minimum charge for certain single use items (the initial focus is beverage cups) and to require waste and surplus reporting by businesses. The intention is that this will initially be applied to food waste, subject to further consultation.
The Scottish Government has promised to publish in the autumn, plans to restrict the promotion of high fat, salt and sugar foods. Minimum Unit Pricing for alcohol will also come back for Parliament to evaluate its performance and vote on whether to retain the policy. The Conservatives seem to be lining up against the policy, but we’d expect this to pass fairly easily through parliament. The bigger question is whether the minimum price will be raised to 65p or even higher, as some have been calling for. We may well also see a new version of the alcohol marketing consultation, which is expected to be much watered down.
Yousaf has been keen to reset relations with business and we should expect to see outcomes from the new taskforce established to ensure the government understands the needs of business. The group has been looking at business rates and we expect this will be part of a broader tax shake up, as Yousaf looks to put policy behind his commitment to deliver ‘the most progressive tax system in the UK’.
Oil & gas
A trickier issue will be oil and gas. Yousaf has shifted slightly from his predecessor, who was not favourable towards the industry. He has a tightrope to walk as he attempts to retain voters in the North East, while not upsetting an already rocky relationship with his Green Party coalition partners who do not want to see further development of oil fields in the North Sea.
With the General Election expected in the Autumn of 2024, September represents the start of a 12-month countdown to polling day. Aside from a potential by-election, that will be Yousaf’s first major electoral test. The SNP will enter full campaigning mode as it tries to defend a number of seats on Labour’s target list.
Yousaf said that he intends to open negotiations with the UK government on a second referendum if the SNP win the most Scottish seats in the general election. Even if they end up with fewer than 45 seats. Having made this commitment, he will be determined to position the SNP as a winning party and will be looking for popular policies to do this.
One thing is for certain, Yousaf and his Cabinet colleagues will be hoping for less political drama in the new Parliamentary term, as they attempt to shift to a focus of a government delivering on Scotland’s priorities. Arguably, too much of what has been happening in Holyrood recently has been contentious. From Marine Protected Areas to ferries to DRS. The big question is whether the SNP can bring a fresh policy agenda that will appeal to the majority of Scottish voters.
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