Today (5 September 2023), the FM – following on from his ‘fresh start for Scotland’ speech in April – announced his much anticipated first programme for government (PfG).
Humza has not benefited from the same levels of internal support and popularity as his predecessors, making an already difficult job, harder. The first few months of his premiership have been challenging to say the least, from a police investigation into party finances, in-fighting among SNP party ranks and having to defend the Bute House Agreement after vocal opposition to its continued existence from some of his own MSPs. His government has also been forced to make U-turns on a number of key policies areas, including the Gender Recognition bill, Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), the alcohol advertising consultation and the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS).
Now more than ever, the first minister needed to provide an ambitious, yet practical programme that will tackle some of the enormous challenges we face. The statement was dominated by announcements designed to support people through the cost-of-living crisis while at the same time stimulate economic growth.
The first minister set out his stall, and throughout he put tackling poverty and supporting families most in need front and centre, stating that his programme for government was unashamedly anti-poverty and pro-growth.
In one of his first announcements the first minister confirmed that the Scottish Government will invest more than £400m in the child payment scheme and remove the income thresholds for the Best Start Foods programme. Alongside this there was a commitment to increasing social security payments by £1bn, as well as free school meals for P6 and P7, and the scrapping of peak time travel rail travel. There was a pledge to urge the UK Government to establish an Essentials Guarantee, ensuring that the Universal Credit payment will always be enough to pay for food, energy and transport.
Housing was another key area of commitment for the first minister, announcing the investment of £750m in affordable housing, 10% of which will be based in our rural and island communities. The housing bill will progress through parliament and will include long term rent control and new statutory duties to reduce the number of people living in temporary accommodation and to prevent homelessness. The Scottish Government will also be investing £60m in buying empty properties across Scotland and the creation of a £1m fund for key workers in rural areas to help buy property.
Public services saw some of the biggest announcements with a pledge to continue to reduce waiting times and improve access to GPs. The first minister addressed the drug death numbers and again stressed his commitment to opening a safer drugs consumption facility, urging the UK Government to look at the evidence and devolve the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament to implement this.
The first minister raised the issue of vaping and the unacceptable promotion of disposable vapes with advertising directed at a younger audience. In addressing this the first minister committed to curbing the sale of these vapes and taking opinions on moving towards the outright ban of single use vapes.
Human rights also played a key feature, commenting on his own experiences, and stressing that the protection of rights was a ‘collective obligation’. The first minister confirmed the introduction of the Human Rights Bill, and a promise to convene a cabinet sub-committee on ‘The Promise’. Yousaf also confirmed that his government would work with local authorities and employers to remove the barriers back into work.
This programme for government focuses on the real everyday priorities of Scotland, while at the same time attempts to press the reset button on the current relationship with business. A number of measures were announced and include implementing the recommendations of the New Deal for Business Group. There is also a commitment to approaching the UK Government about the potential of introducing policies such as Tom Hunters recommendation for tax incentives for the renewables industry and other key sectors as well as a pledge to work harder to attract international investment and developing export opportunities.
Innovation and entrepreneurship was another important feature of the first minister’s speech, with the announcement of a £15m investment in supporting the development of our entrepreneurs and promoting innovation. The first minister also pledged to work with local authorities and enterprise agencies to further support SMEs and aid their journey to improve productivity.
The climate crisis is clearly an important area and Yousef announced a sector deal with onshore wind to shorten consenting time, while at the same time streamlining the offshore wind process. There was a pledge to bring forward a green industrial strategy, to publish the final energy strategy and just transition plan and to implement the Scottish Government’s Hydrogen Action Plan. The first minister spoke of his commitment to promoting a circular economy and protecting the natural environment, all while working to position Scotland as a global leader in these discussions.
The programme for government is an opportunity for the first minister and his cabinet to set out their action plan for the next year and will be the last one for Yousaf’s government before the next general election. The commitment to tackling poverty was clear, as was the support for low income families, ensuring their basic human rights will be met. Time will tell if the announcements today will go far enough to meet the needs of those most in need.
There were some big announcements in today’s speech, with one of the most notable the tackling of the single use disposable vapes and how they will be advertised in future.
In terms of business, while there were a number of areas to feel optimistic about - corporation tax incentives, support for SMEs - , there was also a clear message from the first minister that tough decisions need to be made and he isn’t afraid of a challenge. It is clear from what was pledged today that the Scottish Government plan to revisit the notion of restrictions on alcohol advertising, and it is possible we could see this in early 2024.
There should also be no surprise in the fact that independence remains a core principle, with Humza reaffirming his belief that Scotland would be better off if we were able to have full control over our decisions. There is no doubt this will be a central theme of the party’s manifesto going into the 2024 elections.