Programme for Government 2023-24

Craig Dalzell

September – if you can believe we’re that far through the year already – marks the return of the Scottish Parliament from its summer recess and the announcement of the Programme for Government – essentially a list of pledges that the Government plans to take forward over the course of the next year.
As is becoming uncomfortably usual in these days of PR spin, 24-hour news and “fast” reaction, folk clammer to get the first word out on any given topic and the politicians behind the announcements being commented upon are keen to shape the language of discourse – often through carefully “leaking” or previewing parts of what they are going to say. In years past I was part of that fray and was also part of the race to speed-read texts for a headline to get out in as few minutes as possible. For that reason, I’m grateful for the weekly schedule of this newsletter as it affords me the chance to slow down, to read the government’s plans more carefully and to try – as has become my habit with other publications like GERS and the like – to find the story that is either beneath the headlines or never made it to them at all.
For this year’s analysis of the PfG I’ve leaned heavily on Common Weal’s broad expertise and approached all of our Expert Working Groups as well as our Board of Directors and our broader activist base for impressions of the announcements and I’ll scatter this article with quotes from them.

Promises Promises

Robin wrote an article the other day that does more than I can here to point out that this PfG, like many before it, has much in it that is a restatement, reannouncement or continuation of announcements made in previous PfGs. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that a First Minister explicitly elected as the “continuity candidate” to the previous administration is following through with that promise but should we be just as unsurprised that not doing anything different from the last strategy will inevitably lead to the same, not different, outcomes? It’s possible to read all of the previous PfGs published since 2015. It would be an interesting task to go through every one of the promises made to track how many were re-stated year after year, how many were successfully completed and how many were quietly dropped. As a case in point comparing to last year’s PfG, the Government did successfully pass the Charities (Regulation) Bill it promised to introduce, the Circular Economy Bill was introduced but is still making its way through Parliament, the Government failed to introduce a Bill to handle the devolution of the Aggregates Levy and has pledged to try again this year and, rather infamously, the pledge to bring about an independence referendum this year has been dropped entirely.

The FM’s National Mission

“So let me make it abundantly clear, we are a government who will maximise every lever at our disposal to tackle the scourge of poverty in our country.” – Humza Yousaf, Programme for Government speech

The First Minister starts the PfG by laying out his National Mission – namely, to “reduce poverty” by delivering a “fair, green and growing wellbeing economy” and to do so “unapologetically”. Immediately we see the problem with this, which is to say all of it. A growing economy hasn’t delivered better outcomes for those in poverty for many years now, not since those in work stopped benefiting from the wage rises that a growing economy used to deliver to them and those reaping the profits managed to keep hold of them instead of being taxed on their growing hoards. Unless that changes, another year of GDP growth isn’t going to alleviate the poverty caused by the last 40 years of GDP growth. All it’ll do is deliver even more profits into the hands of those who have already captured so much of our economy for their own benefit. Yes, the FM also wants the growth to be “fair” but when he says he’s being “unapoloigetic” what he really means is that he’s going to ignore his Green partners in Government (‘GDP Growth’ being one of the sanctioned topics where the Greens are ‘allowed’ to disagree with the SNP without censure or jepordising the cooperation agreement) and instead “listen to business” as they continue to demand greater and greater levels of profit extracted from the backs of the labour of their workers.
We also know that the “Green Growth” is a myth too. It is simply not going to be possible to continue to grow the economy indefinately while reducing the footprint of our economy below the sustainable limits of the planet. Even a decarbonised “Net Zero” economy based on no carbon emissions but still with unfettered consumerism will choke the planet in plastic, erode our soils and kill us with particle pollution.
Which takes us to the idea of “Wellbeing Growth” – one of the worst corruptions of good policy that the Scottish Government has snuck into the public discourse. A Wellbeing Economy is emphatically not one in which imrpovements to wellbeing “complement traditional metrics like GDP” but one in which improvements are made to wellbeing regardless of their impact on GDP. It is perfectly possible that an improvement to wellbeing – such as public transport replacing private car ownership or Tool Libraries replacing consumer purchases – would actively reduce GDP. So this is the challenge to the First Minister’s National Mission – would he declare an economy that eliminated poverty by being fair, green and SHRINKING as a success or as a failure?

Finance and Tax

“We needed an emergency response to interlinked emergencies of the climate crisis, the fossil fuel cost of living crisis and poverty in Scotland. Unfortunately, again, the ambition in the PfG is to alleviate these crises rather than address them at their root cause.” – Iain Black, Common Weal Board Member

One of the “unapologetic” statements made by the FM during his speech to introduce the PfG to Parliament talked about using every lever at his disposal within the scope of devolution but while some measures have been taken forward on devolved taxes they have remained relatively modest. The new Visitor’s Levy will bring Scotland in line with the rest of Europe in terms of how the negative impacts of tourism can be balanced against the positives our country has to offer to visitors and the Aggregates Levy (a tax on the disposal of rock and soil from construction sites) may yet become devolved seven years after the promise to do so but in terms of affecting the overall budget line, these are taxes that are comparible to the margins of error in budget predictions. Yousaf is proud of Scotland having a “more progressive” income tax than England has, but even that is the smallest possible change so I’ll wait with anticipation to see if this year’s budget pushes things further. I’ll give the same advice to current Finance Secretary Shona Robison that I’ve given to her previous three predecessors:– your opponents already oppose you for what you’ve already done on income tax. They’ll oppose you just as hard for suggesting a further small changes as they will if you propose a radical change. Knowing this, there is no political downside to making the radical change. It won’t change the headlines the next day compared to making the small change or making no change at all. The only way to change that is to capitulate to them entirely and even then they’ll still oppose the fact that you are making the decision and not them.
However it is simply not true that the Scottish Government is operating at the limits of its power when it comes to tax. It’s true that in order to create a new national tax that accrues revenue to Holyrood, then powers are limited or at the very least there needs to be agreement with Westminster but the Scotland Act is quite clear that Holyrood has essentially unlimited power to create new taxes so long as they are controlled by and revenue accrues to Local Authorities. The Visitor Levy is a prime example of this part of devolution being used.
I was glad to see that Yousaf clearly knows this too as he has read and cited the report on local tax published by the STUC last year which called for a wealth tax controlled by Local Authorities (Disclosure: I was part of the advisory group for that report and was instrumental in placing focus on the use of local taxes as a lever for many of their policy suggestions) and this has led to discussions about a wealth tax in Scotland. I plan to engage with Richard Murphy who is in the process of publishing a major new report on wealth taxes across the UK for his views but to my mind a devolved Scottish wealth tax should focus less on moveable wealth like pensions, artworks and shares and more on immoveable stores of wealth like land and houses. After all, it doesn’t matter where you live in the world, from Motherwell to Monaco, if you own land in Scotland, you can be taxed on it.
However I still don’t hold out much hope here as the main barrier to the Scottish Government giving Local Authorities more tax powers is the Scottish Government themselves. They are quite openly hostile to the idea with the previous acting finance secretary all but saying outright that he thought it would be irresponsible to devolve such powers. Until that changes, then the Scottish Government might be, as they are so fond of saying, acting with one hand tied behind their back. But they are also sticking their other hand in their pocket and refusing to draw it out too.

Economy and Energy

It is disappointing to see this year’s PfG continue to celebrate the creation of Freeports and “Investment Zones” in Scotland as these are, almost by definition, the very opposite of a “fair, green and wellbeing” economy. It’s questionable that they’ll even result in a growing one as they mostly exist to displace work from elsewhere into their clutches rather than to create new work as well as to maximise profit extraction and minimise tax returns. The Scottish Government still hasn’t answered for the frankly misleading way in which they consulted on offering devolved tax cuts to the Freeports and I fear that they are hoping they will never have to.
Here we see that some major actions previously promised have been dropped. The Scottish Energy Development Agency designed to map out Scotland’s renewable energy potential has vanished as has the National Infrastructure Company that would allow public procurement to build that energy transition without the money disappearing into tax havens. Is the National Mission still a success if the economy that is growing as a result of this PfG isn’t Scotland’s?
In energy, there are some glimmers of hope in areas like a new Solar Strategy (Solar energy is on the cusp of being the major energy growth sector with new solar instalations globally outstripping all other new energy combined!) but we also see the ScotWind saga rumbling on with a pledge to make it even easier for foreign companies to come into Scotland to buy up swathes of our economy such as, and I quote from the PfG, “the energy transition, offshore wind, hydrogen and space”.
It seems to be that the Government remains fully invested in “attracting inwards investment” which it should obviously and definitionally mean “creating profit extraction”. Scotland’s track record of creating companies (another mission in this section of the PfG) only to immediately sell them to multinationals, hedge funds or asset strippers is dire. We’ll soon be publishing a report showing precisely how dire it is.

Health and Social Care

“I have grave concerns about the expansion of ‘childcare’. It seems to be predicated not on expanding high quality public services but the cheapest and the least effective in terms of child development. Of course those who can pay more will do so, so the already advantaged will be even more so. Generous parental leave is one way to strengthen families in children’s early life, not getting parents into low paid employment. Services for children in early years should be primarily concerned with their health and development, not the concerns of employers. And if they seriously wish to address an attainment gap, this is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.” – Marion MacLeod, Common Weal Care Reform Group

While the National Care Service is one of my own direct interest areas, my other colleagues at Common Weal are also working on reform of Healthcare as well and you can preview some of that work in Robin’s article linked to earlier. On a micro level, policies like the proposal to ban single-use vapes is welcome but, as I wrote about recently, banning individual harmful products is far too granular and reactionary. These devices shouldn’t need an explicit ban as they simply should not fit into a true Circular Economy in the same way that a ‘single-use mobile phone’ wouldn’t.
It’s disappointing to see the Care Service reduced to a single paragraph essentially saying “we’ll continue with legislation” given that this summer has been spent lobbying intensely to get improvements to that legislation. In July, for example, there was a major breakthrough in the form of an agreement to share responsibility for the NCS between the Scottish Government, COSLA and the NHS rather than the previous plan which would have been to give the Care Minister sole and complete diktat over the entire sector and to centralise all staff and resources under their command. However, this agreement did come at the cost of being essentially a political maneuver which completely undermined the “co-design” process the Government had pledged to follow. These concerns were raised in a recent meeting of co-designers (at which I represented Common Weal) and the anger there was palpable – not at the outcome of the agreement per se but at the fact that the first anyone outwith the folk who made the agreement knew about it was when it appeared in the press. Co-designers are now rightly very concerned that no matter what advice they give to the government about how to actually design the NCS, it may be swept aside in the name of political expediency or point-scoring.
Elsewhere on health, I’m less able to comment but the headlines generated on policies such as the expansion of childcare are not new and as Marion points out, it risks treating the symptoms rather than the causes of the attainment gap. We’ll have to watch closely as this policy in particular develops.

Public Service and Social Security

“There is nothing specific in the FM’s Forward regarding demographics or older people’s issues, and no distinct sections in the rest of the document. Arguably the positive messages about economic growth, equality and social cohesion can be deployed to suggest that older people will benefit along with everybody else. However, it remains an open question as to how that would be achieved. As our ageing population is a pressing time focussed issue, on a par with eradicating poverty, managing climate change, and achieving economic prosperity, it is disturbing when it doesn’t get explicit attention from the First Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. The worry is that demographic analysis is not being given serious consideration when developing policy and proposing specific measures for government.” – Bill Johnston, co-author All of Our Futures

In 2020 Nicola Sturgeon announced a pilot of a Universal Basic Income. This pilot was effectively blocked by the UK Government who would not cooperate with data or guarantee that recipients wouldn’t see their UBI taxed off them or any benefits they received reduced (which would have undermined both the ‘universal’ and ‘basic’ aspects of the income). In 2021, she instead announced a pilot for a Minimum Income Guarantee (a MIG says that instead of being unconditionally given a certain amount of money on top of whatever else you earn, you’ll instead receive a top up to a minium level should your other income fall below it). This is by far a less effective policy than a UBI (in particular because it implies a 100% marginal tax rate for income below the MIG floor) but it’s still far superior to the UK attitude that poor folk should work harder and be happy with the scraps they beg for.
Unforunately, the 2022 PfG dropped the idea of a MIG and it looked like it had gone the same way as the UBI. Not so this year, with it making a triumphant return with the promise of a report on the effectiveness of a MIG now due next year. I wonder if it’ll say anything different from the last one.
It’s also good to see the idea of the Four Day Week come back onto the agenda with a promised pilot of that within the Scottish public sector. However, there has already been a UK pilot that covered both the public and private sector and was overwhelmingly supported to the point that many participants kept the policy going after the trial. Now, as Robin has pointed out in his newsletter this week, it’s possible to do the 4DW badly – by catering towards managers who are able to work from home but abandoning front-line shift workers to the continued grind for instance – so it may well be that Scotland needs this pilot in order to explore particular aspects of the policy within a Scottish context but more generally the arguments for and against a Four Day Week aren’t significantly different from those levelled at a Six Day Week in the 19th century so if those specific questions are not being asked then we might wonder what the point of yet another pilot is other than for the Scottish Government to say they’re doing The Thing without actually doing The Thing. As to implementation, I expect folk to point out that the definition of the Working Week is reserved and they’re right but there are workarounds. The Government could implement the 4DW as standard policy across all public servants and challenge the private sector to match them. They could add the 4DW to their Fairer Work criteria and only contract 4DW employers for public tenders. They could even take a more drastic step – the ability to set Bank holidays is devolved in Scotland (though not in Wales) which allowed Scotland to set St Andrews Day as a distinct Bank Holiday here. Hypothetically, could we use that to declare every single Friday a Bank Holiday?
What is disappointing here though is that this policy was heavily featured in the press before and after the PfG announcement – evidently one of those stories that the Government really wanted to get our there – but in the actual report (which I’m sure every journalist also read, didn’t they) it appears right below an announcement that I’ve seen no press about whatsoever.
The Scottish Government has announced a new “Single Scottish Estates Programme” which has the aim of “saving public funds, reducing the public sector property footprint, and enabling progress towards our net zero targets”.
To translate that into human – they are planning to sell off public-owned government buildings. The justification for this is that Work From Home has reduced the need for offices and that they can consolidate staff into new “Net Zero” buildings so they can meet climate targets.
What happens to the old buildings once they’re sold off? Well, those climate emissions aren’t gone – they’re just someone else’s problem now. And if Government needs to expand again in the future? Well, that’s probably someone else’s problem too. Why they can’t at the very least rent out public assets rather than sell them off is beyond me. For a Government that is planning for the future, this seems very short term.
Unfortunately, groups like older people have, once again, been left out of the agenda this year. Please read Bill Johnston’s article for more given that this is an area that we’ve both written extensively about and there is some movement in the works in the form of Colin Smyth’s Members’ Bill to create a Commissioner for Older People to help maintain the kind of agenda attention we need.

Constitution and International

“On international development the programme for government says nothing new. Angus Robertson is urged to champion a feminist approach to development but that seems to be a step back from the previous First Minister’s commitment to a feminist approach to global affairs which is more inclusive” – Frances Guy, Common Weal Board Member

Were you expecting the “First Activist for Independence” to ensure there would be an entire chapter on independence in the Programme for Government? Independence is relegated to a single paragraph in Angus Robertson’s chapter of the PfG and all it says is that he’ll continue to publish the series of Indy White Papers. This may well be because only Cabinet Secretaries get a chapter in the PfG and indy is being led instead by a junior Minister but be that as it may I don’t think we can even expect much in the way of increased tempo or rigour in those White Papers. It remains a disappointment to me that when the series was first announced our approach to Robertson’s office to help with them was polititely but firmly declined.
On international work, as Frances says above there does seem to be a step back in the scope of involvement in many aspects and their celebration of European values expressed through helping EU citizens with the Settled Status process is, frankly, insulting given what so many had to go through and will have to continue to go through if the Government sticks with their plan to continue with the Settled Status process after independence despite their bitter complaints about it as it was being implemented. The hints of an expansion of Scotland’s commitment to global climate change damage and restitution funds is welcome and I’m still very pleased that Scotland was the first mover on this but where we are promising a few million pounds to these funds, our obligation based on our historic share of damage currently runs to the billions of pounds per year and for as long as we are not a negative carbon emitter (“Net Zero” only commits Scotland to one day stop doing more damage, not to repair what we’ve done and will do till then) then that bill for damages will continue to rise. We need to do less harm, faster and do more to fix the harm we’ve caused, are causing and will cause to the planet.

Land and Local Democracy

“What did catch my eye in the prelude to the launch of the PfG was the promise of further detail on the Verity House Agreement, forging a better partnership between Scottish and Local Government, and seeking to incorporate into Scots Law the European Charter of Local Self Government. This vital instrument would require Local Authorities to be equipped with sufficient competencies and associated financial resources to fulfil their increasing and complex duties. Local Government has responsibility for 65% of the National Performance Framework but faces its own financial challenges.
This brings to mind the obligation of the production by the end of this year of LHEES, a major policy dump on Local Authorities – a recipe for silo thinking and token gestures, when what is needed is leadership on the ‘big thinking’ of the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Heating Networks utilising ground sources and water courses that cross council boundaries.” – Emma Miller, Common Weal Energy Working Group

Like promises about childcare, Land Reform is a perennial favourite of recent PfGs but with previous year’s announcements still underway there’s little to actually announce here that’s new. We will be paying close attention to all of the Land Reform Bills currently in Parliament and we hope that this time, finally, will be the chance to see Scotland become a country the rest of Europe can call normal. But I was struck during a recent conversation with a Government Minister about an entirely different subject that there are so many areas in Scottish policy where there is a glaring ommission that needs to be sorted. Care, Housing, Land, local economy, tax, and many other areas in the PfG would be so much easier to fix if Scotland had a system of actual, municipal-level local democracy. Everything we try to do without that will be far too centralised (even if it’s run by Local Authorities) and thus unable to adapt to local needs. While there are some lines in the PfG about local democracy reform, there’s absolutely nothing on this kind of scale. I’m starting to get to the point that it’s almost not worth even trying to fix things within the current system when we all know that the problem IS is the current system.

Greens in Government

Given the world-leading news from earlier this year that Patrick Harvie had decided to adopt Alex Rowley’s Bill on making passive housing the minimum standard for new buildings from December 2024 it’s rather odd that this isn’t mentioned in the PfG this year – it won’t be long now till the industry has to start ramping up to adapt to the new standards (or, as they’re doing in my area, build as many crap homes as quickly as possible to get the orders off the books before the new standards come in). I don’t think it’s due to backsliding as I recently had a meeting with the civil servant team working on the Bill and while I don’t want to say anything about it that isn’t already public domain, progress is looking surprisingly good – far better than I dared in fact. There’s still a serious lack of joined up strategy across various climate policies though and what progress is being made in regulations for new buildings is being almost undermined by lack of strategy for retrofitting existing buildings. I’m currently in the process of negotiating funding to help retrofit my own house and while it’s going OK so far there have been barriers are almost every stage that would have been easy to design out of the system by NOT placing the onus on overcoming those barriers on the individual houseowners. I’ll tell the full story of that job when it’s done but the fact that my house alone in my street is going through this when we should be seeing organised and collective action across the entire street or village is, again, a symptom of the lack of planned action and a desire to ensure the blame for failure lands on my head, not the Government’s.
Beyond this, the specifically Green remit again doesn’t include much in the way of new and unannounced policy, instead continuing with previous policies such as the Circular Economy Bill and Heat in Buildings Strategy. A draft climate plan due some time this coming year will be worthy of analysis in itself but at the risk of pre-judging it, either it will match or exceed our Common Home Plan or it won’t be nearly good enough.


Leadership changeovers are usually the single best opportunity for a change in direction from a government outwith an actual election but this PfG, like the last one and the one before that, is more continuity than any of us deserve at this point. The major announcements, we already knew about or weren’t detailed enough to judge. The major things left unannounced, like the plan to sell off public buildings, is likely to go through without critique simply because everyone was distracted by the pre-announced re-announcement.
We, from lobbyists, through analyists and journalists, to government themselves, have to get better at seeing through the PR spin and placed distraction stories and start judging government on what it has actually achieved rather than congratulating what it has promised to achieve for the third year in a row.
Do not think that this lets Opposition parties off the hook though. Elections are on their way and parties are setting out their respective stalls but it’s one thing to point at Government and say “we’d do things differently”, it’s another to show precisely what you would do in their place and to do so with the same rigour as you would expect from a party of Government. And we need to see those parties be less tribal around areas where they have fundamental agreement (though I’ll once again say that if a politican says “we need unity” and they mean “and that’s why you should shut up and do what I say” then they’re not really being serious about that). Some of the best work of the last year in Holyrood has come from cross-party discussion. It’d be good to see more of that instead of yet another headline about yesterday’s headline.

1 thought on “Programme for Government 2023-24”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Thanks Craig for this considered analysis which is more useful than the immediate sound bites based on cursory skimming which now = mainstream journalism! I reckon this is a “Programme for the SNP/Greens to Stay in Government without doing much”.? There may be some small areas of genuine progress but overall I remain underwhelmed!

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