It’s only a week until MSPs return to Holyrood and the legislative conveyor belt resumes. The parliamentary year kicks off with the First Minister’s Programme for Government, an opportunity for government and parliamentarians to convert election pledges into functional legislation.
That will hopefully mark a step change from this summer’s activity. There has been a hive of activity but it’s been a scattershot of distractions or decidedly modest initiatives. In a world transformed by Covid it’s hard to see how a consultation on banning shops trading on New Year’s Day is even countenanced let alone treated as a priority.
It’s time to concentrate on the bold and strategic steps needed to respond to a post-Covid era. This is especially clear to retailers who have made enormous changes to the structure of their business models and to customer service.
After a period where business and the Government have co-operated on a hitherto unimagined basis, there is a real opportunity for a new legislative programme to lay the foundation stones for recovery. There are good precedents. The last Parliament saw a positive Non-Domestic Rates Act which made tangible headway in modernising and simplifying the rates system. Next week, the Protection of Workers Act comes into force – recognising shop workers have the right to perform their duties free from abuse and assault.
More of the same in this year’s Programme for Government would be welcome, specifically on economic recovery, improving health inequalities, and the challenge of climate change.
Perhaps the one certainty is there will be a Budget Bill to set the fiscal envelope for 2022/23. This will be a very different Budget from the last two when, rightly, enormous resources were needed to support businesses as we battled the pandemic. Hopefully, the emergency lockdown measures won’t be needed again and, in turn, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect similar support. However, ministers need to be cognisant that businesses are a long way from recovery. Many firms face the financial equivalent of long Covid, with debts which will take months or years to repay. Attempting to return to normal is likely to do more harm than good – and ministers may need to blunt the full return of businesses rates until the economy is more buoyant.
Existing health inequalities have been exacerbated by the last 18 months. In that context we’d expect, and support, the reintroduction of legislation to restrict the promotion of unhealthy products. While preventing the sale of multi-buy deals on crisps and confectionery won’t solve the existing issues, it’s a chance to remove incentives for people to over-consume those items. And as part of a wider package of measures, it could start driving Scotland forwards to a healthier relationship with food. That’s something our grocery members already do and they would welcome the chance to compete on a fair and level playing field.
Finally, the existential threat of climate change hasn’t gone away. Retailers aim to get to net zero ahead of Holyrood’s own targets, and are building the infrastructure for a deposit return scheme. Hopefully, we’ll see legislation on emissions and the circular economy which complements the work our members are already doing to drive a green recovery – and ensure all organisations play their part.
The last two years brought challenges we hadn’t even imagined before the spectre of Covid emerged. Despite all the difficulties, retailers are looking forward to the future and playing their part in a green economic recovery. Let’s hope the Scottish Government is equally ready to be ambitious.
David Lonsdale is director of Scottish Retail Consortium