The communities, social security and equalities portfolio may seem deceptively straightforward, particularly for Angela Constance, who previously had the higher profile education brief, but there are many changes afoot that will mean challenges for Constance and her two ministers, Kevin Stewart and Jeane Freeman, in the months ahead.
With key legislation and policy having been created in the last parliament and in the manifesto commitments of May’s election, there is a sense now that the next year must be one of action to turn all that has been promised into a reality.
There have been a number of significant pieces of legislation in this area over the last 12 months. Most notable, of course, is the Scotland Act 2015, which gives the Scottish Parliament social security powers for the first time.
Social security is a new area to the Scottish Government, having previously been almost entirely reserved. While the major powers over work-related benefits remain at Westminster, Scotland will gain control over 11 benefits including Winter Fuel Payments, Disability Living Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the housing element of Universal Credit, as well as the power to top up other benefits.
There will be a phased transfer of other devolved social security powers from April 2017.
In March, the then social security minister, Alex Neil, announced that a new social security agency for Scotland would be set up in 2017 to administer the £2.7bn of welfare funding.
He also committed to the Scottish Government bringing forward a social security bill in the 2016/17 parliamentary year.
Neil said: “Our new Scottish social security agency will be the flagship organisation that oversees the delivery of benefits in Scotland. It will be underpinned by our commitment to principles that will treat people with dignity and respect. We want to take a fairer approach to social security that tackles inequalities.”
Social security minister, Jeane Freeman, recently launched a consultation on what the new Scottish benefits system should look like, which runs until October.
The key challenge, though, will be to fulfil the promise of a fairer system that lifts people out of poverty with only 15 per cent of welfare spending devolved and within the financial constraints of the SNP’s commitment not to raise taxes.
Housing too has seen its share of dramatic change, from the historic end of right to buy in Scotland after 26 years to the Private Tenancies Act, passed in April and expected to come into force in late 2017, which will see more protection given to private tenants, including an end to no-fault evictions and the introduction of some rent controls.
Planning also came under review over the last year. An independent panel appointed to look at the Scottish planning system published its findings in May, recommending, among other things, an enhanced National Planning Framework, extending permitted development rights and improved engagement.
The Scottish Government has identified a number of measures that it can get to work on immediately and committed to bringing in a planning bill before the Scottish Parliament next year.
An increase in house building will be necessary if the Scottish Government is to achieve its promised 50,000 new affordable homes over the course of the parliament, but it may be hampered by Brexit if it leads to a downturn in the economy and a labour shortage.
The relationship between the Scottish Government and local government is one that has been increasingly strained recently over issues of funding and accusations of too much centralised control and interference, which led to a near revolt by councils at the beginning of the year over budget cuts.
This situation is unlikely to improve anytime in the near future, with funding likely to remain stretched next year as well and recent murmurings that control of education could be taken away from local authorities.
The key issue that remains to be revisited in this parliament, though, is council tax reform.
In December, the cross-party Commission on Local Tax Reform, chaired by then local government minister, Marco Biagi, and COSLA president, David O’Neill, published its report into a replacement for council tax, following up on the SNP’s 2007 manifesto pledge to abolish the “unfair” tax.
The report didn’t come down in favour of one solution, other than stating that council tax has to go, leaving it instead for parties to decide.
Surprisingly for a party that had been so critical of council tax that it set up the commission in the first place, the SNP has proposed to keep council tax, only tweaking it slightly by raising the top four tax bands.
It promised to initiate the reform in the 2016/17 session, but that was before the May election and since it is now a minority government, it may not be able to get entirely its own way.
The final form the new local taxation will take will likely now depend on which other party the SNP reaches a compromise with to back its proposals.
If Labour or the Greens, it could become more radical reform, if the Conservatives, even less of a change. Either way, the council tax freeze will certainly be lifted in April.
Equalities is an area that Angela Constance is known to have a passion for, so we may hope to see progress in this area. Nicola Sturgeon has already pledged to make transgender equality an issue in this parliament.
Women and disabled people have been disproportionately affected by benefits cuts and still lag behind in the job market. Disabled groups have been pushing for involvement in the design of the new welfare system and for social care support to allow them more choice and the ability to live their lives fully.
Just this month, the Scottish Government’s Access to Elected Office Fund was launched to support disabled people to stand in next year’s local government elections.
Despite pressure from the One in Five campaign to increase disabled representation in politics, May saw the number of disabled MSPs drop from three to one.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is poverty and here there are already commitments on the table. In January, the Scottish Government’s poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, published her recommendations for reducing poverty in Scotland, which include abolishing council tax.
The Scottish Government has committed to implementing her proposals in full and recently launched a child poverty bill to come before parliament next year that will set a target of reducing absolute child poverty to five per cent and relative child poverty to 10 per cent by 2030.
And with Eisenstadt having recently been reappointed as the poverty czar for this coming parliament, she will undoubtedly now be looking to see her other recommendations acted on.
Source: Holyrood Magazine