The new First Minister would do well to honour her pledge to listen to proposals from all parties, writes Brian Monteith
ALEX Salmond’s second term as First Minister started very well back in 2011. Not only did he and his nationalist party achieve a historic victory by winning outright, the First Minister also struck the right tone by avoiding being triumphalist. In his first speech he made the point that although the SNP “had a majority of seats it did not have a monopoly on wisdom”.
The humility did not last long, as the Scottish Government then proceeded to do whatever it wanted. It emasculated the Scottish Parliament’s committees and went to extraordinary lengths to deny freedom of information requests – including one for a legal opinion that in the end was found to not exist, despite the First Minster saying live on air that it did.
Now we have a new First Minister, and in taking office Nicola Sturgeon has assured the nation that she will seek to establish a consensus and be “open-minded to any proposals that come forward from any side of the chamber as to how the government can do things better”. Well, excuse me if I think this is nothing other than a calculated PR stunt designed to paint Ms Sturgeon as a different, more cuddly political animal than her combative predecessor.
Having never been slow to intervene when her opponents are speaking or score cheap party political points, the only consensus that will interest Nicola Sturgeon is one that she can shape to reflect her policies.
It is to be welcomed when a new leader extends the hand of friendship to opponents but the Scottish public would be fooling itself if it were to expect this approach will result in significant change at Holyrood. Sturgeon has been an SNP minister for seven years, five running the NHS, and as Deputy First Minister for all of that time there will be few of her government’s decisions that she has not agreed with and is in a rush to change.
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But let us take her at her word and give the new First Minister the benefit of the doubt. If she is to welcome good ideas from any quarter that must mean that she will consider those that come from Conservatives too – and the Tories have not been slow to offer them.
At Ms Sturgeon’s first parliamentary questions following the taking of the oath, Ruth Davidson called on the First Minister to strengthen her government’s proposals on the ending of automatic early release, which she complained would only affect a “derisory” number of cases. The answer was typically brusque, more Old Sturgeon than New Sturgeon, as the First Minister told the Tory leader as a member of parliament she would be able to offer amendments to the government bill. After Ruth Davidson pointed out that the Scottish Government’s proposals would only apply to 131 of 14,000 criminals sent to jail last year – just 1 per cent of the total – the First Minister softened her tone, saying she would be willing to listen to proposals from the Tory leader. So here we have the first test to measure the “open” and “consensual” approach adopted by Nicola Sturgeon, but it will not be the only one.
Conservatives are queueing up to test the First Minister’s openness. Writing at ThinkScotland.org over the weekend, Conservative MSPs Liz Smith and Murdo Fraser both raised further examples of how the First Minister could establish a consensus on various policy issues.
Liz Smith called on the First Minister to abandon the policy which sees half of Scotland’s children denied their full, two-year nursery entitlement simply because they have a birthday in the wrong month.
The current position is that children who are born between 1 March and 31 August receive the full two years of legal entitlement to nursery provision, whilst those born between 1 September and 31 December receive 18 months and those born between 1 January and 29 February receive only 15 months. Detailed academic work undertaken by Reform Scotland has shown that provision can vary by up to 317 hours or £1,033 towards the cost of a partnership provider, simply because of when a child is born.
The anomaly exists because the Scottish Government persists with a policy which determines that the child’s right to nursery provision commences with the term that starts after its third birthday, rather than by a fixed point in the year, which is what happens for primary and secondary schooling.
It is an anomaly and anomalies are not ideological but administrative, so what could be holding the First Minister back in telling her new education secretary to right this wrong? Surely not the fact that it has been raised by a Tory?
Smith has welcomed the First Minister’s new commitment to expand nursery provision from 475 hours to 600, and willingness to try and go beyond that, but has pointed out that if the anomaly that denies equal access for all children is not ended first then any expansion of provision will also expand the gap between the haves and have nots. Some children could end up with as much as 800 hours less provision unless the First Minister intervenes.
Murdo Fraser has focussed on the issue of relieving poverty – a matter of great concern for the First Minister – and drawn attention to how government policies on housing, energy and the cost of living can make matters worse rather than better. Were planning regulations to be liberalised, Fraser noted, the number of houses being built could increase and help drive the cost of housing down. Were the government more open to broadening its sources of energy then the costs of electricity and heating could be more affordable. Likewise, policies on planning and fuel have resulted in food costs being higher than they need be, so could these not be changed or even amended?
We now have a First Minister who says she is keen to tackle issues of what she calls social justice, telling us she wishes to find a consensus and will be open to ideas from all parties – it is a good way for Nicola Sturgeon to start. Ideas that are hardly controversial and carry more political upside than risk have been proposed. Is the First Minister’s new open approach sincere or is it blinded by an illogical prejudice against ideas that come from Tories, even good ones?
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