Analysis: Nicola Sturgeon has shown her hand for the next year with Programme for Government - but is there anything in it?

They say people in glass houses should not throw stones, so it was either admirable or foolhardy that Anas Sarwar lobbed a rather large rock across the Holyrood chamber when he demanded to know “is that it?” of Nicola Sturgeon after she had laid out her legislative plans for the next year.

Such a question could easily be put to his party, long reduced to third place in Holyrood, and whose own Covid recovery plan much shouted about during the May election campaign received little more than a lukewarm response from voters.

But he undoubtedly had a point.

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A fourth term of government for one party is unheard of in the 22 years of the Scottish Parliament, and running out of ideas would not be surprising. Indeed the same accusation was made when the SNP launched its manifesto for the last Holyrood election; free dental care notwithstanding, there was little that set the heather alight.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon presents her government's Programme for Government at the Scottish Parliament

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And Covid has made us all impatient. Being cooped up at home for nearly 18 months is enough to trigger cabin fever in the most agrophobic of people.

So there was a desire for a sense of urgency from Nicola Sturgeon when she stood up to speak on Tuesday, for big, bold, radical (to use the word so beloved by politicians) ideas to put the economy on the road to recovery, to get the health service back to full strength, to tackle the pressing issues facing the care system – all too obvious during the last year.

Yet by the time she sat down, asking “is that it?” seemed rather en pointe.

Of course, the first issue to be addressed by the First Minister was a second independence referendum. Leopards, after all, do not change their spots.

Still, there will be no Bill this year, though civil servants will now be back to producing a prospectus to sell to the Scottish public.

Much was made of plans for health spending, but the announcements had already been made. Events also soon overtook the numbers when the Prime Minister revealed that Scottish health spending would receive £1.1 billion as a result of his manifesto-breaking health and social care levy.

There was no new Education Bill, despite the failures of the system in the last two years and the critical OECD report into the curriculum. Instead there was a boast that 3,500 new teachers and 500 new classroom assistants would be recruited, which works out at a rather underwhelming 1.6 new members of staff per Scottish school.

Despite the desire to tackle child poverty, the pleas of many anti-poverty organisations for the Scottish Child Payment to be doubled immediately were not successful. Their hopes are now pinned on the budget.

And while rent controls were a large part of the deal struck with the Greens, there’s no legislation on the books for this year. Instead work will begin to design a system.

There was, as expected, a focus on environmental issues and the need for a “just transition” with the £500m for the north east economy for new job creation, highlighted again.

But the much promised public Scottish Energy Company, which was due to tackle fuel poverty and delivering on climate change targets, has been shelved and in its place is a plan to have a plan for the energy sector’s transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

What there is in the Programme for Government, are 12 Bills to be introduced and passed by the time MSPs break for next summer’s recess, while another two – the Carer’s Allowance Supplement Bill and the Transvaginal Mesh Removal (Cost Reimbursement) (Scotland) Bill – which had begun their parliamentary journeys earlier in the year, but had been paused, will be continued.

However, even the new stuff includes some old stuff. There’s the annual Budget Bill of course, a Fireworks and Pyrotechnics Bill (which had been consulted on in June) and a Good Food Nation Bill, which had first been in the 2019/20 legislative programme. The Miners’ Strike Pardon Bill had also been trailed prior to the summer recess.

Still, the government has not shied away from taking on some Bills, which will prove controversial in wider Scottish society.

The Gender Recognition Bill – which will reform the Gender Recognition Act – is to make a return and with it the raging online arguments will move to the Parliament.

Scotland’s landowners and gamekeepers will be keeping a wary eye on the Fox Control Bill, while the National Care Service Bill has already got councils, Cosla, and opposition MSPs in a lather given its centralising nature.

Even the Covid Recovery Bill is likely to have a rocky ride given the plan to make permanent some of the public health, public services and justice system reforms which were adopted during the pandemic.

Those less likely to create headlines are the Bail and Release from Custody Bill, a Moveable Transactions Bill and the Non-Domestic Rates Covid-19 Appeals Bill.

So the next ten months will see MSPs scrutinise and debate all the proposed legislation. It sounds like a busy time ahead – and yet this Programme for Government feels distinctly flat.

Perhaps it’s the fault of a governmental desire to make big policy announcements and pledges when the groundwork on bringing legislation to Parliament has not been done – it means a certain ennui sets in when the same thing is re-announced.

Perhaps it’s the fault of the pandemic – the government has rightly been entirely focused on coping with that. A lack of time for blue-sky thinking should not be surprising.

Whatever the reason, the injection of Green ministers into government has not produced a programme of any surprises, and the SNP/Green deal will mean it all sails through no matter any contesting from opposition MSPs.

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