We've had the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election, which resulted in a new Parliament and a (sort of) new Government, and we are expecting significant changes to the Northern Irish Executive, even without an election. Devolved politics can be confusing at the best of times, but even more so these days. Marek Zemanik summarises some of the changes we have seen, some we are yet to see and what these mean for our profession.


Nothing has changed?

This year’s election – the sixth in Scottish devolution history – was the first time CIPD Scotland published a manifesto with a series of public policy asks which we then took to political parties. We did well, with around half  of our asks ending up in one or more of the main parties’ manifestos – on which the voters then delivered their verdict.

Despite the occasional excitable noises of the election campaign, the election result was remarkably unexciting. Very few seats changed hands and none of the parties’ MSP group numbers changed by more than two. The SNP fell just short of an overall majority – a remarkable result for a party of government after nearly 15 years. The Scottish Conservatives managed to galvanise the unionist vote and maintained second place with an unchanged number of seats. Scottish Labour, having changed Leader just a few months before the election, lost two seats, the Liberal Democrats lost one and the Scottish Greens gained two.

At first glance, nothing has changed. However, there are two key differences that will have an impact on the next five years. Firstly, there have been significant changes to the make-up of the Parliament. 34 MSPs from the fifth session decided not to stand for election, including former party leaders and members of government. We have seen more women elected, as well as more MSPs from ethnic minority backgrounds. Some have already attracted media attention for their performance in the Chamber. A new Parliament indeed. Secondly, the SNP has opened formal structured talks with the Greens about a co-operation agreement. This would make running a minority government easier, without having to negotiate deals at each Budget (as the SNP did primarily with the Conservatives 2007-11, and the Greens 2011-16). But this also means that public policy priorities will be impacted.

Public policy expectations

A co-operation agreement with the Greens is likely to push climate change right to the top of the agenda, especially in advance of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year. It remains to be seen how radical the Government decides to be, but the oil and gas sector in particular is likely to be following developments very closely.

The other area where immediate action is likely is child poverty. There is cross party consensus about the need to boost the Scottish Child Payment, alongside a range of other measures. This will need to be done alongside the rollout of a range of very complex devolved benefits, which have already been delayed and are likely to take up much Parliamentary time.

We will also certainly see a continued focus on skills policy, especially in the context of the recovery. The SNP made a series of commitments in their manifesto around this, including an extension of the National Transition Training Fund as well as continued support for the Young Person’s Guarantee (including new recruitment incentives). We will keep close to these issues to ensure there is two-way communication between our members and policy-makers.

Of direct relevance to the HR profession is the SNP’s pledge around the four-day-week. The manifesto promised the introduction of a fund to allow the trialling of these approaches. While this may be worth exploring in the longer term, we will continue emphasising that a range of flexible working options should be available to employees. That being said, it is positive to see a change in focus from flexibility of location to flexibility of time.

Northern Ireland stepping up

The CIPD team that is responsible for public policy and public affairs in Scotland has recently also started covering Northern Ireland to ensure the voice of our 3,900 members there is heard where it matters. And things have certainly picked up!

The differences in devolved powers between the nations are significant and Northern Ireland is unique in having control over employment law and the associated CIPD policy areas of interest – gender or ethnicity pay reporting, flexible working legislation or statutory training leave. In addition to this, Northern Ireland has full responsibility over skills policy, something that we will be looking at over the coming weeks.

Just a few weeks ago, the Department for the Economy has finally published its long-anticipated skills strategy for consultation – Skills for a 10x Economy. It looks to set the direction for the development of a flexible skills system for the next decade, covering a broad range of issues - from essential skills, through the right mix of qualifications, to the importance of a lifelong learning culture.

The consultation also recognises that skills policy cannot exist in a silo and that it interacts with other policy areas too. The importance of people management is explicitly recognised, as is the centrality of so-called ‘high performance working practices’ – dimensions of job quality like autonomy, flexibility, training. In order to boost the adoption of such practices, the Executive plans to introduce a Better Jobs Pledge – making funded Executive support conditional on a number of principles regarding employee engagement and empowerment.

This approach is clearly inspired by Scotland’s Fair Work First policy and will be accompanied by more research into conceptualising job quality in Northern Ireland. Job quality is at the heart of what the CIPD does, with large body of research we can point to. The opportunity for us to shape policy in Northern Ireland has therefore never been greater.

What can you do?

As you can see, there is certainly plenty going on in the public policy worlds of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The expertise, views and experiences of you – our members – are invaluable to those interested in the world of work. 

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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