Sturgeon’s re-launch fails to take off

Sturgeon’s re-launch fails to take off

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 7, September, 2018

IT HAS BEEN something of a nightmare of a summer for Nicola Sturgeon. The last parliamentary session ended in June with a botched reshuffle, the First Minister not only having to sack her closest friend and political ally Shona Robison as Health Secretary and lose new SNP Deputy Leader Keith Brown from the Cabinet, but she also suffered the humiliation of having to drop Gillian Martin MSP as the Higher Education Minister when unfortunate comments she had made in the past came to light.

At the same time, the SNP Government announced it was dumping what had been its flagship Education Bill, following opposition from the educational establishment. Excuses that the proposed reforms, to empower head teachers and devolve school management, would be taken forward on an informal basis, failed to convince.

Worst of all came the revelations last month about the alleged behaviour of Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s mentor, now taking her Scottish Government to court, and having the brass neck to run a crowdfunder to raise money for his legal costs – a crowdfunder which at least one of her MSPs was happy to contribute to.

So the launch of this week’s Programme for Government was an opportunity for the First Minister to press the reset button. Here was a chance for her to demonstrate direction, ambition and momentum for an SNP administration now in its eleventh year of office. But it failed on all three counts.

Some twelve new bills were announced, but few were likely to capture the imagination. Worthy as the Biometric Data Bill, and the Census (Amendment) Bill might be, they are hardly going to have any demonstrable political impact. 

There are measures in the Programme for Government that the Scottish Conservatives will support. My colleague Liam Kerr has been pressing for the introduction of “Finn’s Law”, to provide additional protection for working animals such as police dogs, and it was good to see this being included in the programme. The measures to address long-standing failures in mental health, particularly for young people, are also good to see.

But none of this amounts to a comprehensive programme for government, one that demonstrates a sense of direction. And nowhere was this more evident than in relation to the section on the economy. For, despite all the rhetoric from the First Minister about the importance of growing the economy, there was very little in the detail that offered a step change in progress. 

There will be a new Bill to implement some of the recommendations of the Barclay Review on Non-Domestic Rates. Much of this is welcome, including the reliefs for new builds and property improvements, and exemptions for day nurseries. Some of the process issues, such as moving to a three-year revaluation cycle, will also be beneficial.

However, it remains my view that the Barclay Review was a missed opportunity for more a fundamental review of business taxation in Scotland. In particular, retail as a sector continues to suffer, with pressure on traditional high streets. The Large Business Supplement, set in Scotland at a rate nearly double that applicable in the rest of the United Kingdom, continues to be a burden on Scottish retailers and creates a competitive disadvantage for Scottish traders which needs to be addressed.

The Non-Domestic Rates Bill will no doubt address the issue of rates on independent Schools, with an intention of implementing the SNP’s policy objective of removing the current exemption. Quite apart from the illogicality and unfairness of this (profit-making nursery schools are to receive a rates exemption, whilst non-profit making charities providing primary and secondary education are to be hit with an additional tax burden) there is also an economic issue. 

In Perth and Kinross, independent schools make a significant economic contribution to the local economy, supporting around 500 direct jobs, and many more indirectly. To hit this important economic sector with a new tax burden flies in the face of everything we have been told by the SNP Government about creating a competitive business environment.

All this comes against the background of two new, worrying, reports on the Scottish economy and public finances. The respected David Hume Institute told us that Scotland’s economy had stagnated for more than a decade, and that problem would continue unless real effort was taken to improve productivity.

And the Scottish Fiscal Commission published startling figures which disclosed that the income tax take in Scotland for 2016-17 was some £550 million less than previously thought, due to there being substantially fewer higher and additional rate tax payers here than once believed. While this has no direct impact on the Scottish Government’s budget, it does mean that we have to be extra careful in future not to diminish the number of wealthier tax payers (who of course contribute a disproportionately high percentage of the total income tax revenue) by, for example, taxing them so highly that they simply relocate their tax affairs elsewhere in the UK.

The problems are piling up for Nicola Sturgeon and her government. After eleven years in office, it is looking increasingly tired, unfocussed and out of ideas. On the evidence of this week’s Programme for Government, there is no sign that it is finding a way forward.

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