The Case of the Missing Minister

Bill Johnston

What Happened to the Minister for Older People and Equalities?

The simple answer is that the post has vanished. When Humza Yousaf finalised his cabinet team the previous Ministerial post was gone.

Created by Nicola Sturgeon in 2018 the post sent out a positive signal that Scottish Government was taking older people’s issues seriously and linking them up with the central equalities agenda. This was followed up with the report “A Fairer Scotland for Older People: A Framework for Action” in 2019. A long overdue development in many people’s estimation and a powerful signal that the UK government’s 2010 Equality Act, which specifies age as a protected characteristic, would have a powerful voice in the Scottish Government.

Scrapping the Ministerial post reverses this signalling and raises questions about where the responsibilities and any current work plans will reside in Government. Worst case would be that specific policy and any current business matters simply vanish into some sort of bureaucratic filing cabinet as Humza’s new government ‘moves on’ to address his stated priorities.

If various aspects of the older people’s brief are split across multiple briefs, the consequences are hardly less serious. We could see dissipation of effort, lack of co-ordination and a loss of strategic direction and accountability. Given that one of the responsibilities Nicola Sturgeon gave the Minister for Older People was to act across portfolios and ensure co-ordination this would not be an acceptable substitution.
Given that ageing issues do ultimately impact almost all areas of public policy and that these issues will become more acute as the demographics of the country age, a Minister at least in charge of overseeing other departments to ensure their policies line up with a national ageing strategy and to speak up when they don’t should have been the bare minimum. We know that the Yousaf Government is able to think in these terms because this appears precisely to be the remit of the new Minister for Independence who has been tasked with ensuring that other departments are working towards that goal.

This is not a good start to Humza’s ‘new era’ of progressive government. On this matter it seems the continuity candidate is looking like the discontinuity First Minister.

So why has he done it?

Was it a personnel issue? Christina McKelvie, MSP was Minister for Older People and Equalities from 2018 to date and she has been appointed Minister for Minister for Europe, Culture, and International Development. So, dropping the Older People’s portfolio surely can’t be explained by any personal concerns about Christina’s track record. In any case it would have been simple enough to appoint another MSP to the post, so it must be something else.

Have all issues been resolved, and all actions completed since 2018/19? If so, it shouldn’t be hard for Humza to make the case for abolition of the post with specific evidence of successful action. Although it’s odd that such a shining example of success in Government didn’t feature in the leadership contest. We heard enough from some candidates about the failings of Sturgeon’s period as FM, so you would have thought the “continuity candidate” might have countered by highlighting a programme of improvement in policy for demographic ageing and upholding older people’s rights. My sense is that he didn’t really address the matter in any serious sense, and in fairness I’m not sure his opponents did either.

Does this mean the SNP membership don’t see older people’s equality and service issues as a priority? I’m not a member so I can’t make a judgement, however if Humza is simply channelling membership priorities in this area that is not a good look for the SNP. It would be good to hear from current and former SNP members about their perspectives.

Finally, could it be related to Humza’s emphasis on ‘young people’ in his leadership campaign? If so, this is very worrying as it would send out a message that older people’s issues are not a priority for his government. Ageism and inter-generational divisions need to be challenged and overcome not validated or even encouraged. Given his own experience of racism Humza should be very aware of the dangers of such negativities taking hold in society and politics.

All these questions are up for discussion and resolution in the coming days as Humza’s government settles down to business. In any case we should all look very carefully at the next Programme for Government (anticipated in September) to estimate what, if anything, is proposed for managing our ageing population and the many issues affecting older people.

Bill’s book All of Our Futures can be purchased in the Common Weal shop here.
Bill also featured as a guest on this week’s Common Weal Policy Podcast.

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