Mark Smith: The bills Nicola Sturgeon should have introduced

I like statistics. I especially like the way they can give you an utterly wrong impression of the truth. The First Minister gave a speech at Holyrood this week to launch her 2021/22 Programme. In all, she said 4588 words. She said “child” 16 times. She said “health” 18 times. She “green” nine times. And she said “independence” twice. As I say: statistics – they aren’t always right.

But it was the bills the First Minister announced that were really interesting because they apparently address the key challenges Scotland faces. There was talk of the health service, and poverty, and drugs, and more money here, and more money there. But it seems to be that what was lacking was systemic reform – fundamental change to tax, or the NHS, or the justice system. And so, if I may, I’d like to suggest the bills she could have introduced instead. Just for fun. You can’t vote for me.

Justice Bill

The First Minister said she would be introducing a Bail and Release from Custody Bill that will improve decisions on bail and offer better support to people being released from custody. But the Scottish Government still hasn’t got its head round what everyone I’ve ever spoken to in the prison sector tells me is the real problem here: far too many people are being jailed for short terms that are likely to result in reoffending. A justice bill should introduce a ban on prison sentences of under a year and a presumption against sentences of under two.

Council Tax Bill

The First Minister said she would introduce a Citizens’ Income “when this Parliament has full powers over tax” but she has the power to reform tax now. She could have introduced – as the SNP said they would – a bill to reform council tax. But no. We are still in the situation where the richest pay only three and a half times the poorest. Why has the SNP never done anything? Too hard? And how extraordinary that a Tory Prime Minister should be increasing tax to pay for social care while an SNP First Minister has done absolutely nothing on tax whatsoever.

Fox Hunting Bill

The First Minister said she would introduce a Fox Control Bill to strengthen the law on the use of dogs to flush out foxes, which was possibly the most mealy-mouthed thing Ms Sturgeon said in the whole speech. We know – I’ve seen it with my own eyes – that people are flouting the law every single week by killing foxes with dogs and the idea that you can “strengthen” the law is ludicrous. Scotland needs a bill to ban the use of dogs altogether.

Health Bill

The First Minister said there would be lots more money for the NHS. She would be increasing investment in health services by 20 per cent, she said, meaning that by 2026/27, the frontline health budget would be £2.5bn higher than it is today. She also said in-patient and day-case capacity would increase by 10 per cent over 18 months and 20 per cent over five years. This is all very good, but it misses the bigger point: we do not know what the NHS actually needs. A good health bill – an honest health bill – would order a root-and-branch audit to determine what level of funding the service requires. Then perhaps Ms Sturgeon could tackle the question of raising taxes – like Mr Johnson has, eh?

Rates Bill

The First Minister said there would be a Non-Domestic Rates Covid-19 Appeals Bill to prevent the “inappropriate use” of the material change of circumstances provisions to secure a reduction in rates. In other words, the fact businesses have been struggling with the pandemic will have no effect on their rates – indeed, there’s every chance the burden will increase. Again, this is another issue that’s been ducked. Why can’t we have genuine reform? Why can’t we have a bill that cuts rates for the city centre compared to out-of-town or suspends rates in areas that need new businesses? Like council tax, non-domestic rates needs radical reform. But, in the 2021/22 programme for government, there is nothing remotely radical.

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