We must keep pushing the Scottish Government beyond its comfort zone
Over the summer I’ve spoken with both supporters and critics of the SNP who agree that the mood has been somewhat flat in recent years, compared with the more dynamic and innovative years of their first spell of minority government from 2007-11. The First Minister seemed to recognise this, indicating over the recess that her government had a need for a reset.
When a government makes such an admission, opposition parties shouldn’t just throw mud; we should offer up new, positive ideas into the debate. The Green approach is always one of constructive challenge, so this was clearly a moment for us to set out Green ideas for a programme for government, with fresh policy ideas that could revitalise Holyrood and create a fairer, greener Scotland.
From a child benefit top-up to 20mph limits for safer streets, from net-zero carbon emissions to a national roll-out of benefit checks to maximise families’ incomes, we offered the Government positive proposals instead of just carping from the sidelines as some parties do.
We know this positive approach works because in the last term we made progress in ending benefit sanctions on devolved work programmes and supporting vulnerable families. Our historic budget deal earlier in the year also helped local councils shelve many of the service cuts they had been forced to consider.
In just a few days back in Parliament since the summer we’ve already shown the value of Green influence with many of our policies referenced in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. The fund to support councils piloting a Citizen's Income, a core longstanding Green policy, is a positive step which has the potential to transform people’s lives.
The phase out of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 is a good aim, even if it’s something the industry looks likely to deliver anyway, but we need a clear commitment to end their use not just their sale. Greens have long argued for action on air pollution, and the commitment to have low emissions zones in four cities by 2020 rather than the single zone the government originally proposed is modest progress.
On clean energy, there was less to celebrate. The commitment to carbon capture, which remains a speculative technology and can’t offer any help in the immediate years ahead, and the much anticipated decision on fracking still hasn’t materialised; only a full permanent ban will do. The deposit return scheme is welcome but did we really need to wait a whole decade since the enabling legislation was passed before taking this action?
We were also pleased to see support from the government for John Finnie’s bill to protect children from assault. It is simply unacceptable that we offer the most vulnerable in our society the least protection. The ‘justifiable assault’ defence is from a different age and it is vital that we move forward and afford our children the protection they deserve – the protection all adults enjoy - and send a message to the whole of society that we don’t tolerate violence against children.
Every programme for government is a mixed bag, and naturally there are areas where we’ll need to keep challenging the First Minister’s agenda.
We see a government still sticking to its unfair plans to cut aviation tax, putting money in the pockets of profitable airlines and giving the biggest tax cut to wealthy frequent fliers. The parliamentary scrutiny of this policy exposed an extraordinary lack of credible evidence, and when the consultation on it closes the Government will have one more chance to change their plans. If they don’t, it’s hard to see how anyone who takes climate change seriously will be able to work with them on this year’s budget.
One issue on which Greens have been leading the debate is the need for progressive tax policy to fund our services and close the inequality gap. Though it's frustrating that the Scottish Government hasn’t been in the mood for a real discussion on this for the last two years, the opportunity seems to be offered now. Greens have made it clear that we don’t need to clobber low-income taxpayers – we can reduce their tax bill while raising revenue from those who can genuinely afford to pay a little more for the public services we all benefit from.
And on education, while a review of Initial Teacher Education was clearly needed, particularly to ensure that every new teacher knows how to support the one in four pupils with additional needs, we can’t let this become cover for the bizarre policy of putting untrained people into classrooms instead of fully qualified teachers. The Government’s wider education reforms have proved hugely divisive, and we’ll keep pressing for a change of direction.
For the rest of the current parliament, we can’t afford to see caution and timidity when bold change is needed. The Greens will continue to push the SNP beyond their comfort zone, and we’ll focus on getting results for Scotland while the other opposition parties stay relentlessly negative.
This article first appeared in The National.