“Collaboration has no hierarchy. The Sun collaborates with soil to bring flowers on the earth.” – Amit Ray
This week saw the annual launch of the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government – its stated aims for the next year in Parliament. Usually at this time I’d be taking you through a deep dive of the various policy announcements and what they might mean for Scotland. The truth is though there isn’t really all that much there to dive into. Most of the major programmes mentioned in it (such as the National Care Service or the Circular Economy) have already been announced and are underway and many of the truly new announcements simply aren’t all that exciting. Even I, policy-geek amongst policy-geeks, can’t bring myself to get too excited about the devolution of the Aggregates Levy – the tax paid on taking stones and soil to landfill. It was one of the taxes devolved to Scotland in the wake of Indyref, the Smith Commission and the eventual Scotland Act 2016. The others were Income Tax (significant, but already straining at the seams of what is possible under devolution), Air Passenger Duty (the devolution of which was scrapped because of a potential legal fight with the EU), the assignment of VAT revenues (the devolution of which was scrapped because no-one could work out how to actually do it) and now Aggregates Levy (which will finally be devolved seven years and two Holyrood Elections after the mandate to do so). According to GERS, it’s currently worth around £58 million per year which is almost 1/16 of the estimated margin of error in the calculation of Scotland’s overall tax revenue.
The only other really noteworthy item is that the Scottish Government has finally acceded to the campaign to bring in the kind of tourist tax that almost all of us will be familiar with if we’ve travelled anywhere in Europe. Back in August, I spoke to the National about this kind of tax and mentioned the possibility of using it to fund or subsidise public transport and that perhaps tourists could be granted a free travel pass when they arrive in return.
But let’s talk about the most important policy announcement in this year’s PfG – so important that someone decided to leak it to the press ahead of time. The Scottish Government has decided to bring in an emergency rent freeze – backdated to the day of the PfG, though the legislation still needs to pass through Parliament. At the time of writing, we don’t yet know many of the details of the freeze itself including whether or not the Government will subsidise landlords for implementing the freeze. The news report announcing the leak mentioned a source who said that if the cost of the freeze was met by landlords then it would cost the Government nothing – this certainly suggests that if the landlords don’t cover the freeze then the Government may look at giving them partial or full compensation in the way that Liz Truss may be about to do to energy companies. It’s difficult to say how much this could cost as the freeze may only be for a limited duration (say, till March 2023) and many landlords – particularly in the public sector – only raise rates anyway once per Financial Year in April and some private landlords either do the same or weren’t planning to raise rates anyway (will they claim otherwise now if they can expect “free” money from the Government for doing so?).
A very rough back of the envelope calculation suggests that if every private landlord charges the average Scottish rent of £861/month, and every one of them was planning to increase rents by 10% this week but instead freezes rent for six months and claims the difference in compensation from the Government, then that could cost the Government around £170 million. If council and housing association landlords are included then that bill goes above £460 million. Time will, of course, tell and we will see what happens when more details are published.
The news of this policy is welcome and will undoubtedly make a difference to tenants through what could be the economically hardest winter of their lifetimes so far but the way the Government went about getting to this point is not just worthy of comment but of outright condemnation.
You see, we could have had this rent freeze ten weeks ago had the SNP and the Scottish Greens not voted down an amendment to the Covid emergency powers bill put forward by Labour MSP Mercedes Villalba. Their excuse for doing so then was that they thought the amendment “wasn’t competent” (by which they mean that the amendment was poorly drafted from a legal standpoint) and that it could have breached the human rights of landlords. Quite frankly, the sight of Green MSPs voting down a rent freeze made me relieved that I left the party some months ago in the wake of the ScotWind debacle and the U-turns on public ownership of energy – I don’t think I could have reconciled my own principles with that even if it had caused me to quit now as a result.
It’s clear now though that those two parties were happy to bring their own rent freeze bill forward just a short time later and to try to claim sole credit for doing so. It begs the question of why they really voted down the Labour push last time. If they were against the concept of a rent freeze then and were using a technicality to get out of it then fine, but why the U-Turn now? That would speak to parties making policy not by principle but by being guided by the headline of the week. If they were in favour of Labour’s rent freeze but wanted to erase their involvement (which, frankly, seems the most likely option at this point) then that speaks to parties more concerned with what their next party election leaflet will say than with people not losing their homes over winter. And if they were in favour of the rent freeze but were genuinely concerned about the technicalities, why didn’t they try to work with Villalba to amend the amendment and bash it into shape?
Anyone who has tried to actually read a legislative bill or act knows that the language is incredibly technical and specialised and the style reads more like computer code than a human-readable document. Take this section of the National Care Service Bill where it talks about allowing us to submit Freedom of Information requests to the proposed National Care Boards.
The Bill amends a previous Act (in this case the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002) and inserts a new phrase into it. But the NCS Bill doesn’t provide any more context to the sentence that the amendment is adding to so to get that, you need to pull up the FOI Act itself and do so manually.
This is just a simple example but it shows that it is much harder to write a piece of example legislation or an amendment to one than it is to simply campaign for a principle and get the Government to sort it out for you. As an external think (and do) tank we have the luxury of the latter option (which is why we don’t even try to write our own legislative amendments). It’s very easy to get things wrong, miss a clause or point at the wrong part of the wrong bill and then you’ve just given your opponents the ammunition they need to say that your proposal is “not competent” and to throw it out. Back-bench MSPs bringing forward their own Members’ Bill don’t have this luxury however and I suspect that this is precisely what happened to Villalba’s amendment.
There are staff within the Parliament whose job it is to turn proposals into legislation but it’s a bit of an open secret within Holyrood that the time and resources granted to opposition back-bench MSPs is far less than the time and resource available to Government Ministers. This was something I discussed with Katy Clark on the Policy Podcast recently as she is going through the process of crafting amendments to the FOI legislation mentioned above. We may need to look at reforms to the way this kind of legislative drafting process happens to ensure that all proposed Bills are given equal resource for development whether they come from a Government Minister or an opposition backbencher.
The result of the current setup is that it is extremely easy for the Scottish Government to look at the Members’ Bills coming forward and to pick and choose. If they like an idea or the pressure around an idea is high enough then they can indeed lend a hand in making sure that the Bill works as intended (this is what happened when the Scottish Government realised that it wouldn’t look good to oppose Monica Lennon’s Period Products Bill – now an Act). The same could have happened with the rent freeze amendment but didn’t.
The Scottish Parliament was supposed to be built on a foundation of collegiate collaboration, not tribal opposition standing “two swords apart”. It is supposed to be one where good ideas are accepted and debated regardless of the source. The First Minister herself has complained loudly about the lack of collaboration from other parties.
A little over a year ago, I spoke out against the cooperation agreement between the SNP and the Greens. I was on the losing side of that debate and I bear no grudge for that but I do want to reiterate one concern I had then that, by joining with the Government (and by losing an MSP to the position of Presiding Officer), the Greens were fundamentally changing the balance of Government from one where the Opposition had a majority and therefore each opposition party had an effective king-making role in Parliament and a united opposition could even reign in or pass motions despite the Government to one where at best, a united Opposition would merely lead to a tied Parliament and the falling of any proposal. I believe we’re seeing that concern being borne out with the Greens and SNP showing more concern for being able to promote a policy as their own than “merely” supporting the same policy coming from someone else.
One of the reasons I enjoy working for a non-party political group (more so now that I myself am a non-party political advocate) is that I genuinely believe in cross- and non-party collaboration. I understand the near-inevitability of parties in politics but I would be very happy with a Parliament that tried its best to soften the lines between parties and to be more tolerant of differences of opinion between and within them. My ultimate goal would be a Parliament formed of “adhocracies” around policies and principles rather than party creeds.
If this means standing with an ally on one issue then debating them as an opponent on another, so be it. When Labour brought the rent freeze to Parliament, the SNP and Greens should have focussed on creating constructive policy for the people of Scotland and proclaimed their support for the amendment and worked to make it viable despite any concerns they had on technicalities rather than voting it down then claiming the idea as their own just a few weeks later. I would be saying the same if the roles were reversed.
The Scottish Parliament must be better than this. It needs to be if we’re going to get through the next few years of extremely difficult decisions as well as continued constitutional debate and a possible referendum on independence. If we keep encouraging tribal spats between parties rather than coalition building around common issues then those tribal divisions may be impossible to bring back together again when the time comes to do so. Such as when the SNP and Greens need to look to others to support them on an issue that would greatly benefit the people of Scotland. That is fundamentally the purpose of a politician and why we allow them to represent us at all.