Autumn started with a bang in Scotland: a Programme for Government and plans for new legislation, including a referendum bill; a government reshuffle, and a host of policy initiatives.
First, Alex Salmond’s reshuffle of the Scottish ministerial team. The official press statement is here. Key moves are Nicola Sturgeon’s move to Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, along with a constitutional brief; Alex Neil’s swap with her, from Infrastructure to Health; the departure from government of Bruce Crawford and Brian Adam; and the appointment of Humza Yousaf as Minister for External Affairs and International Development. There has been something of a structural rejig. The Minister for Transport and Veterans (Keith Brown) and a new post of Minister for Housing and Welfare (Margaret Burgess) are to report to Sturgeon as Infrastructure Secretary. That may give Sturgeon more time for her constitutional brief. Yousaf reports to Fiona Hyslop as Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. The new Minister for Parliamentary Business is Joe Fitzpatrick, and is both whip and government business manager, but not a Cabinet Secretary. Burgess, Yousaf and Paul Wheelhouse (new Minister for Environment and Climate Change) all come from the 2011 intake of MSPs.
In contrast to the rather sprawling nature of the UK Coalition Cabinet (23 full members, its statutory limit, but 32 attendees – and there are also quite a few unpaid junior ministers to deal with the overall limit on the size of the government payroll), the Scottish Government are eager to point out that there are still only eight Cabinet members, and (by my reckoning) 10 non-Cabinet Ministers. Having a single-party government helps a lot, of course, and the Scottish Government’s responsibilities are much narrower, but even so the difference is telling.
Second, the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2012-13 and legislative programme were unveiled on Monday. The document can be found here (and here as a PDF), and there’s a nice discussion of it by Allan Massie from the Scotsman here.
It is a long and detailed document, with a total of 15 bills (including the budget bill). One of those is meaty (the same-sex marriage bill) in political terms, another is moderately so (the criminal justice bill, making extensive alterations to such matters as the law on corroboration) and one will be highly contentious one (the independence referendum bill). It’s a pretty full legislative programme, which compares well with middle years of previous Parliaments. (The process at Holyrood is loaded toward the end of a parliament rather than the beginning, so it’s wrong to compare the first year of one parliament with the last year of another.) The second year of the first Parliament produced 12 Acts, of the second 12 again, and of the third seven. Moreover, the way the Programme for Government is framed means that policies requiring legislation and those that do not can be combined in a single overall approach – in contrast, again, to what often happens at Westminster, where it sometimes seems legislation is used to show government activity regardless of whether it is actually needed. (How well that combination in fact works remains to be seen, and will be an interesting question to look back on.)
The referendum bill is likely to dominate political debate. There are two interesting points about the way this is discussed. First, it is put as simply being a referendum about ‘independence’; there is no mention of including any other option short of independence. That looks like a strong indicator that the Scottish Government is in fact willing to accept a single-question, ‘Union: Yes or No’ poll, rather than the broader one on some enhanced form of devolution that it has sometimes indicated it supported. Second, the bill’s inclusion implies there will actually be a referendum bill. As I’ve made clear before in various places but particularly HERE, the Parliament’s powers to hold an independence referendum under the Scotland Act 1998 as it stands are not so much limited as non-existent. It needs further powers, and the now much-discussed section 30 order is the means to confer them. Of course, that needs agreement between London and Edinburgh (meaning the UK Government, both Houses at Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament – not, as a matter of law, the Scottish Government). The inclusion of the bill in the Programme for Government strongly implies that agreement is near (something that Severin Carrell argues in a well-sourced piece here). Otherwise, the Scottish Government would risk having its flagship bill shot down before it even starts. Oddly, the SNP have increased the pressure on themselves to approve the section 30 order by indicating that they are going ahead with this key part of their programme.
(The bill would be shot down because both the Minister introducing the referendum bill, and the Presiding Officer, have to declare whether the bill is within the Parliament’s legislative competence or not. A negative declaration does not necessarily debar consideration of the bill, but it vividly highlights the problem of legal competence. In the absence of a section 30 order, the bill would be likely never to get so far as a full debate without litigation to challenge the Parliament’s power to consider a bill beyond its competence. Certainly debate would be dominated by the question of legal competence. The only alternative to a section 30 order is potentially lengthy litigation but ultimately no referendum.)
There are also bills creating the new land and buildings transaction tax (replacing stamp duty land tax) and landfill tax, both devolved by the Scotland Act 2012. Although the bill as such isn’t in this legislative programme, there is also a suggestion that there will be legislation to create the new ‘Revenue Scotland’ agency in due course; there’s mention of ‘a Tax Management Bill later in the parliamentary session to propose generic provisions on powers, appeals and other matters that would underpin devolved taxes.’ (‘Later in the session’ means some time before the 2016 election, as a Scottish Parliament ‘session’ is the whole elected term of a Parliament, not a year or so as at Westminster.) Until that agency is created, it will not be possible to bring the new taxes into effect, given the determination to bypass HM Revenue & Customs.
As the Scottish Government is launching a consultation on drink-drive limits, also just devolved, it can hardly be accused of dragging its feet in using its new powers under the Scotland Act 2012. Indeed, the opposite could be argued; that much of its new legislative programme is driven by using new tools, rather than the ones it already has. That would be harsh, given that a number of other bills including ones intended to help drive economic growth are also in the programme, but it has some foundation. Taken with the government reshuffle, though, this looks like a government marshalling its forces as it moves into a major battle: a refreshed front bench, a programme that covers both constitutional and more mundane matters, using new powers as well as existing ones.