You’d be forgiven, if you’ve listened to the news this morning, for thinking that the Scottish Government is about to embark on a business programme consisting of only one bill. Indeed, John Mackay had to pull up Iain McWhirter on Scotland Tonight (last night) for talking politics rather than parliamentary activity. Yes, the SNP debate on NATO membership might well be bubbling away in the background, but this business programme will give MSPs – of all parties – plenty to get their teeth into.
There will, of course, be a bill for a referendum on independence in 2014. When we get to see it depends on the result of the interminable negotiations, or rather the game of bluff and bluster, being conducted between the UK and Scottish governments. But it isn’t the only game in town.
Frankly, we get the politics our media thinks we deserve when it focuses solely on this one issue. Holyrood will be busy this year on a further fourteen bills, most of them with meat on their bones, which will impact hugely on a wide arc of our lives. This is what we have a parliament for, not that the journalists and commentators want us to know that.
So what’s coming up? What bill topics will be taking up MSPs’ time in the year ahead?
1. the budget
Remember the budget? The thing that largely determines the quality of our lives in the year ahead and beyond? This one is going to be a biggie, for it is likely that this will be the first budget under John Swinney’s stewardship which cuts. Unless of course he manages to turn the government sofas upside down and come up with a hitherto unknown swag bag of cash. The amount of money, thanks to those nice Tories and Lib Dems, that Scotland has to spend on essential public services, on trying to kickstart our stalled economy, and on trying to address poverty and mitigate against the worst impacts of recession, will fall. Hugely. And this will be less a test on John Swinney’s remarkable budgeting powers, and more one for the Labour opposition. Their country needs them to give up on the pointless grandstanding and roll up their sleeves and engage properly and fully on trying to assist the process. Shouting vacuous insults and making outrageous, uncosted and unaffordable demands will no longer suffice. Time for Labour to let us know if it has learned anything from its election kicking in 2011.
Already the establishment wagons are circling and their outliers are firing salvos. There is so much change coming to our justice system, it will be interesting to see how the defenders of the status quo respond. Early signs are not promising: the merest mention of Carloway in certain circles results in frothing and fulminating. And while the Justice Secretary and his Community Safety Minister might want to fit themselves out for fireproof jumpsuits and hard hats, they can take some comfort from the old adage that if they are upsetting the establishment – the men (largely) who have preserved our justice system in its old, inaccessible, unresponsive ways to the needs of victms and witnesses – then they are clearly doing something right. Some of what is coming in terms of changes to civil and criminal justice is being driven by the EU, but some of it is all Kenny MacAskill’s own work. Expect blood on the carpets as the soul of Scottish justice is fought over. Or rather, as it is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
There is a big bill chock full of big ideas for devolving power, responsibilities and duties down to communities. It will, by its very nature, upset parts of the public sector. It should create structures and approaches which enable communities to take on bigger responsibility for their own good. And it represents the biggest give away of power from the centre to localities since devolution. Something many of us have had cause to girn about, so here’s hoping this enactment of the principles of subsidiarity garners a few headlines along the way. And because some of the details have yet to be finessed, it should provide plenty of debate. If we’re really lucky, it will also result in a big exchange of ideas.
4. Children and young people
The bill coming this year does more – much more – than give parents the right to 600 hours of childcare and pre-school provision a year for their cherubs. This is the first major bill focusing on the needs of children and young people in Scotland, particularly our most vulnerable bairns, since the dawn of devolution. Indeed, it is the first such flagship piece of legislation since 1995. Scotland has an opportunity to think hard about the kind of society it wants to create for the next generations. It also has a chance to focus on the needs of the most needy. The children who don’t get the best start in life, who need the state’s support to have half a chance of a decent life. It won’t be considered worthy of a mention by most political journalists.
5. Equal marriage
In truth, the bunfight is over. The equality lobby has won and the largely faith-based opposition should put down its cudgels now. It won’t but nothing was ever gained from continuing to oppose a fight long since lost. Except further marginalisation and irrelevance from the great debate on what kind of country do we want to be. This bill will be a bit of a damp squib. It has a parliamentary majority of remarkable proportions, garnering support from across the SNP, Labour, Lib Dem and Green groups. The arguments have been made, all we need to do now is pass the legislation and implement it. Yet, for all that its parliamentary phase will lack the drama of the consultative one, this bill will be worth noting for the very fact of its passing. It says something important about us that we are passing it at all.
There are other bills, of course. Something on procurement, something else on better regulation. Bills so dull in the detail they will bore us all, yet will actually be pretty important to our daily scheme of things. Does no fault compensation for health claims need a bill, or perhaps it will find its way into a civil justice bill (see above)? Will the changes to council tax require primary or simply secondary legislation? And of course, there will be the usual obscure pieces of legislation about obscure issues which require to be passed, unloved and uncared for.
But there is also the prospect of some big members’ bills, particularly if the Presiding Officer can push through her reforms to parliamentary business. Phase 1 is complete today with Holyrood sitting on a Tuesday afternoon. From now on, parliament will sit three afternoons a week with committee business each morning. Now she is turning her attention to the committees. Hopefully, her proposed reforms will make it easier for members’ bills to see the light of day and get appropriate parliamentary support and time. Dr Richard Simpson has a proposed alcohol bill which will give statutory effect to much of the Scottish Government’s framework for action on alcohol, and some more measures besides. And John Park has a living wage bill which would extend responsibilities to private sector businesses receiving public money to deliver contracts. Both deserve at least an airing and the attention of our MSPs.
And frankly, with this amount of business to keep them all busy, with this range of issues which impact on the day to day of how we live our lives and on the kind of Scotland we want to be, the referendum bill, while heralding the start (proper) of the referendum campaign, might well feel a little like a damp squib. Even if it will dominate the headlines from now until 2014.