Ian Swanson: Sturgeon is sending the right signals

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SO now it’s down to business for new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. After the excitement of her “coronation” at the SNP conference, her historic election as the first woman in the role at the parliament and the ceremonial grandeur of the swearing-in at the Court of Session – not to mention the suspense of the reshuffle – she has been setting out what she plans to do in the top job.

Throughout the period leading up to the referendum, there were complaints from the opposition parties that the legislative agenda at Holyrood was minimal because the SNP was concentrating all its attention on persuading Scots to vote for independence. With the referendum over, the focus can return to more everyday matters like health, education, housing and poverty.

In her programme for government yesterday, Ms Sturgeon highlighted a wide range of priorities she plans to address – from votes for 16 and 17-year-olds to land reform to the living wage to gender equality.

And she began her speech by acknowledging the ongoing debate on more powers for Holyrood, but saying she would focus on “how we use our existing powers fully, creatively and constructively, in the interests of all those we serve”.

The list of 12 bills and the promises of action on other issues do sound more substantial than other legislative programmes of recent years.

She promised above-inflation increases in NHS spending, announced an extra £5 million to tackle bed blocking and set a target of widening access to university so that at least 20 per cent of entrants should come from the most deprived 20 per cent of the population.

There was also help for carers, action to reduce the availability of tobacco and e-cigarettes, a commitment to deal with domestic abuse, and the possibility of legislation to tackle “revenge porn”.

Her announcement of an independent commission to examine “fairer alternatives” to the current council tax system noticeably did not include any mention of the SNP’s previous policy of a local income tax. Reform of local government finance is probably 
overdue, but also daunting because any change in the system is bound to create losers as well as winners. It could be seen as brave of Ms Sturgeon to include such a move at such an early stage in her government, but critics will say setting up a commission is merely kicking the issue into the long grass.

But perhaps the most significant element of Ms Sturgeon’s speech was the emphasis on tackling inequality and poverty.

“We are one of the richest countries in the developed world,” she told MSPs. “But tens of thousands are dependent on food banks and one fifth of our population lives in poverty.

“What’s even more shocking is that, as a result of UK welfare cuts, poverty levels in Scotland are rising again for the first time in a decade.”

Her promise of £100m to mitigate the worst effects of welfare cuts, a poverty adviser, a fair work convention and promotion of the living wage may seem little enough in themselves, but if there is a genuine commitment to achieving change in these areas then this could be the start of something significant.

Academics reported after the referendum that one of the most effective arguments in favour of independence had been that it would lead to a fairer society.

Ms Sturgeon is sending the right signals about tackling poverty inequality – but she has to make it work.