Scotland politics

Scotland Act: what are Holyrood's new law-making powers?

Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament has been given new legislative powers over a range of areas under the Scotland Act, from abortion and equal rights to road signs and betting machines.

What exactly are the latest new areas where Holyrood can change the law, and what could happen as a result?


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Holyrood now has the power to legislate on abortion - for example to alter the time period after which a pregnancy can be terminated.

There has long been reluctance to devolve such power to Holyrood. There were passionate debates on the subject when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, with Donald Dewar eventually deciding the issue was best reserved to Westminster to prevent pressure on the new parliament to immediately change the law.

Some MSPs spoke out against devolving abortion powers this time around. Labour in particular opposed the move, with Jenny Marra saying "the safest way to protect the current legal framework around abortion is for it to remain at UK level where there is a strong consensus around the current time limit".

However, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said that Holyrood already has the power to legislate on end-of-life issues, the NHS and criminal justice, and that he could not see a "convincing constitutional reason" why abortion should not be devolved too.

Despite being supportive of having the power to do so, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she has no plans to change the existing regulations.

Parking on pavements

Image caption Parked cars on pavements can cause problems for pram-pushers, wheelchair users and guide dog owners

This is perhaps the most likely of the new powers to be utilised in the early days of the new Scottish parliamentary term.

Holyrood has already made repeated attempts to legislate on pavement parking, without being able to change the law on the issue. Now, it can.

The matter has been a particular crusade for SNP MSP Sandra White, who introduced the Footway Parking and Double Parking (Scotland) Bill in the previous Holyrood term.

MSPs unanimously supported its assertion that parking on pavements should be illegal, on safety grounds - but could only back the principle of such a law rather than its implementation due to ambiguity over where responsibility lay.

With the matter now firmly in Holyrood's hands, it would be no surprise if new rules were passed swiftly.

Gambling machines

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Holyrood now has the power to legislate on fixed-odds betting terminals

The 1998 Scotland Act outlines "betting, gaming and lotteries" among the matters reserved to Westminster. This has now changed in one specific area - that of fixed-odds betting terminals in high street bookmakers.

Holyrood's local government and regeneration committee held an investigation into the use of betting machines during the last parliament, and convener Kevin Stewart described them as an addictive "form of hard gambling" which should be "banned from the high street".

The terminals feature games including roulette, bingo, simulated greyhound and horse racing and slot machines, and can have maximum bets of up to £100 on single games.

Holyrood now has the power to legislate on the number of such machines situated in each premises - or at least any with a maximum bet of more than £10 - and indeed whether such machines are authorised at all.

Given Mr Stewart is now a junior minister, there could be a push from the government to use its new powers to crack down on betting terminals.

Equal Opportunities

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nicola Sturgeon has appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, and now aims to do the same to public sector boards

Holyrood's party leaders have voiced disappointment that, despite efforts to increase the representation of women in parliament, there was no increase in the number of female MSPs at the election - with women winning 45 of the 129 seats, the same total as 2011.

There has also been criticism of the fact that the groups which oversee the running of parliament - the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and the business bureau - are made up entirely of men.

The Scottish Parliament may be powerless to change the current gender balance of the chamber, but they are now able to push for changes on the boards of public sector bodies across Scotland.

Finance and Constitution Secretary Derek Mackay - a new member of Nicola Sturgeon's gender balanced cabinet - said the new powers would be used "as quickly as possible, to tackle inequality and create a fairer, more prosperous country".

He said the government would "promote equality by legislating for gender balance on the boards of public bodies".

Policing of railways

Image copyright PA
Image caption BTP will be merged into Police Scotland under the new changes

One of the SNP's most eye-catching reforms at Holyrood has been the amalgamation of Scotland's regional police forces into one big national body, Police Scotland. And with the new powers of the Scotland Act, Police Scotland is to get even bigger, absorbing the duties of the British Transport Police (BTP).

BTP had previously operated as a separate force in Scotland, and wanted to continue providing this service with oversight from Holyrood instead of Westminster.

But that was rejected by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, who said absorbing the "specialist" skills of the force into the single national force would "ensure the most efficient and effective delivery of all policing in Scotland".

Scottish ministers will also be allowed to decide if public sector companies can bid for new Scottish rail franchises in future - something Mr Mackay said the government would allow.

Speed limits and traffic signs

Image caption The Scotland Act gives MSPs new powers over speed limits and traffic signs

The Scotland Act powers don't just change the original Scotland Bill which outlined the devolved and reserved powers - it also impacts on other laws, such as the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984.

Scotland gained the power to set some speed limits in 2012, and now has fuller powers over this area.

Moves have already been made to introduce 20mph zones in parts of cities, while a 50mph limit was trialled for lorries on the A9, and the new powers will allow changes to be made on a larger scale if wanted.

MSPs also now have more power to legislate on road signs, including traffic signs and pedestrian crossings, beyond existing powers which only applied to trunk roads.

Consumer advocacy and advice

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The Scotland Act gives Holyrood a new role, as the champion of Scottish shoppers and consumers.

A Scottish government study in the last term of parliament found that 1.3m people in Scotland thought they had reason to complain about goods and services inside a year, and often did not know where to go for help.

The government believes the new Scotland Act powers provide "an opportunity to make real improvements for Scottish consumers" in areas like the postal and energy sectors.

A working group in the last term came up with 46 recommendations for improved services for consumers, including the formation of a dedicated consumer protection body and stronger regulation of businesses and service providers.

The new powers also mean MSPs can now push for greater competition within markets, with the ability to call in the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate markets which they suspect are not offering a fair deal.

Annual reports and appointments

Image copyright PA
Image caption MSPs will be able to call representatives of public bodies like Ofcom to appear at parliament

The new powers also give the Scottish Parliament a greater role in scrutinising the work of various public bodies.

The Office of Communications (Ofcom), Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) and the Northern Lighthouse Board will now have to put their annual reports before MSPs, and will be obliged to send representative to appear at parliament if requested.

Ministers will also be able to make appointments to the board of MG Alba, the Gaelic media service which works in partnership with the BBC to produce BBC Alba.

What's next?

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Image caption Holyrood will gain power over licensing onshore oil and gas extraction under the Scotland Act

The Scotland Act gives Holyrood power over a huge range of subjects, but they do not all come into force at once.

Scotland already has new tax powers, and will gain even more from April 2017, with the ability to set income tax rates and thresholds. The parliament will also be given control of Air Passenger Duty from 2018, with the government looking to cut the tax - although that plan has been challenged by opposition parties.

Ms Sturgeon is already preparing for new welfare powers being devolved, with Angela Constance's cabinet brief focusing on social security and equalities and new MSP Jeane Freeman installed as social security minister.

And the Scottish Parliament is also to be given power over the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction, a controversial issue for the SNP.

Ms Sturgeon imposed a moratorium on unconventional extraction, known as fracking, in the previous term, but stopped short of a full ban pending scientific reports. Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all campaigned in the election on a platform of banning fracking outright.

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