Scott Macnab: New laws don't drive social change

Enacting laws won't replace funding or support for crucial alterations to services, says Scott Macnab

Only with the demolition of Cockenzie Power Station was an interim climate change target finally achieved. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Alex Salmond was in his element regaling global leaders a few years back about Scotland’s “world leading” drive to tackle global warming with legally binding targets. They should be copying Scotland’s example, he proclaimed on a visit to Copenhagen in 2009 which was hosting the UN Climate Change Conference. But signing up to legislation is one thing, Salmond warned. The hard part is actually pushing through change.

The current SNP regime should think on that. Whatever’s going wrong in Scotland – homelessness, NHS failings, underperformance in schools – the magic wand being flourished by politicians is to change the law and hope this works. It seldom does.

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For many years Scottish ministers were quick to trumpet their “historic homelessness commitment”. This would give every Scot who found themselves without a roof over their head, through no fault of their own, a right to settled accommodation like a council house or housing association home. It was even hailed by UN chiefs who said the laws – first introduced by Labour in 2003 – should be replicated across the UK. Ministers were particularly keen that it would end the shame of families with children being housed in bed and breakfasts and hostels.

Fast-forward a few years since implementation in 2012, and there were 119 children living in such temporary accommodation in Scotland on just one “snapshot” day earlier this year. And more than 8,000 Scots who found themselves homeless last year – about a third of the overall total – were not found “settled accommodation”.

In a similar vein, the frustrating waits which patients face for hospital treatment was also to be tackled with new “legally binding” guarantees. This was introduced by Nicola Sturgeon herself when she was health secretary in 2012. The Patients Right Act decreed that patients should not have to wait any more than 12 weeks for treatment once a plan has been set out by their doctor. Ms Sturgeon hailed the new laws as an “important milestone” in the history of the NHS. Eligible patients could now look forward to treatment inside a three-month window because they are “exercising their legal right”.

Fast-forward four years and it has become clear that such legally binding guarantees are effectively meaningless, with tens of thousands of breaches of this groundbreaking legislation. Now if you or I broke the law – and were indeed such a prolific repeat offender – we might expect ourselves to be dragged before the courts and held to account. Not Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow Scottish Government ministers. For the legislation is carefully drafted to ensure that ministers and government officials face no sanction for any breaches. It prompted opposition criticism that the SNP government was placing “PR and spin” over the key issue of providing enough resources to ensure that NHS staff can do their job properly.

And while nobody would play down the importance of dealing with impact of climate change, successive Scottish environment ministers came close to being a laughing stock on the global stage. They would embark on international trips bragging about world leading climate change targets while – year after year – Scotland would fail to meet its own interim targets.

It was only last year, after the closure of Cockenzie power station, that an interim target was finally achieved. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act requires a minimum 42 per cent cut in emissions by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. But the legal impact of this is again questionable. Former environment minister Stewart Stevenson ruled out any sanctions – on himself or his predecessors – as he clashed with MSPs on the issue. The worst any future minister can face is being dragged before Parliament to face a grilling from colleagues.

But none of this has dampened the SNP’s enthusiasm for resorting to the law to bring about social change. When Ms Sturgeon unveiled plans to “eradicate” child poverty in Scotland just last week, it was new legislation which was to be at the heart of the approach.

“We need to do more to enshrine our distinctly Scottish approach in statute,” the First Minister said.

A laudable aim, of course, but will new laws have any greater impact on child poverty than they did on ending homelessness? In a similar vein, John Swinney’s “revolution” in education unveiled last month will see schools given unprecedented new legal responsibilities for the teaching of youngsters. Schools will be handed direct responsiblity for the first time under the terms of new legislation which is to be published next year. A fine ambition, but no substitute surely for more teachers and resources.

Can we look forward to an even wider roll-out of this approach under independence? The written constitution which the SNP proposed during the 2014 referendum campaign attracted criticism over the growing list of “day to day” policy pledges which were to be included, such as education and healthcare and protecting the role of local government. What if a future government is elected and wants to change policy direction on these issues? Who would be running Scotland under such a scenario – the elected government of the day or Court of Session judges?

The driving role of the law in any society is as a deterrent to harmful and offending behaviour. But making social policy the subject of legal breach – with no punishment – just seems a cop-out from political leaders.

New laws won’t produce more doctors or nurses in hospitals nor drive down the inequalities across the education sector. To pretend that Scotland’s legal system can be used to secure these services for Scots has proven to be little more than a smokescreen which is slowly lifting.