Meeting date: Thursday, February 27, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 27 February 2020
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, War Memorials, Exam Results 2019 (Analysis), Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- War Memorials
- Exam Results 2019 (Analysis)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1
- Decision Time
Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill: Stage 1
I invite colleagues to join me in welcoming to our gallery Mr Alex Maskey MLA, who is the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. [Applause.]
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21013, in the name of Kate Forbes, on the Budget (Scotland) (No 4) Bill at stage 1.14:53
I am delighted to open this debate today on the budget.
I thank the Finance and Constitution Committee for its report, to which I will respond ahead of stage 3. I also thank all the parties across the chamber—yes, all of them—for their consideration of the budget and for their constructive engagement in the budget discussions.
These have been unusual circumstances for all of us. It has never been more important for a budget to deliver stability and investment for Scotland’s economy and public services, while accelerating our response to the climate emergency.
The budget that I presented to Parliament makes significant progress against our four key themes of increasing wellbeing, tackling climate change, reducing child poverty and increasing sustainable and inclusive economic growth. I recognise that there is ambition on all sides of the chamber, including my own, for us to do more in a range of those areas.
In order to provide the certainty that our public services require, I met all parties in good faith to secure agreement and ensure that the budget passes. I am therefore delighted to confirm that I have reached an agreement with the Scottish Green Party that will secure the passage of this progressive budget.
In addition to the spending measures that I outlined to Parliament earlier this month, the agreement that we have struck will deliver an additional £95 million for local authorities, meeting a key ask of all parties and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; an additional £18 million for Police Scotland, helping the men and women of our police force to keep us safe and taking total additional investment to £60 million; £25 million of additional investment for energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures to help tackle climate change; £15 million more for active travel, taking total investment to £100 million for the first time; and £5 million more to support the development of rail infrastructure projects. Perhaps most significantly, our agreement secures an additional £15 million to support the extension of concessionary bus travel to everyone aged 18 and under, which I am particularly proud to be able to deliver.
I am grateful to the finance secretary for giving way. Could she clarify exactly what will happen with concessionary travel for the under-19s? Yesterday, the Green Party was trumpeting the new policy initiative that is to be delivered, but the wording in the finance secretary’s agreement says that the funding will support “preparations” for a new scheme, with the aim, if possible, of delivering it next year. Is that a cast-iron guarantee, as the Greens claim, or is it simply a possibility, as the finance secretary says?
The member will know that, as a competent Government, we do not roll out programmes until we are sure that they meet due diligence and are well designed. There is due diligence and preparatory work to do, not least in engaging with young people to ensure that the system is designed for them and by them. I believe that the contribution that the policy will make to tackling climate change, helping household budgets and empowering our young people means that it should be very difficult to vote against the budget at decision time.
All parties were publicly clear about their asks, and there has been agreement across parties. In delivering additional local government funding, police funding and action on climate change and concessionary bus travel, the additional package meets demands from every party in the Parliament. Although a deal has been done to secure passage of the budget bill, I hope that all parties will recognise that it is a deal that delivers for the country as a whole.
I intend to fund the additional commitments through limited amounts of underspend from this year, taking a multiyear approach to non-domestic rates management without impacting local authority revenues, and an increased consequentials assumption, including for the fossil fuel levy. That is not without risk, forced as we are to set our budget in advance of the United Kingdom Government’s budget and with very little clarity on the block grant adjustments. However, I have made a judgment call, and I recognise that the country needs certainty—it needs the budget to be agreed and passed.
The ambition of our national performance framework is reflected through the budget’s priority themes: tackling climate change, reducing child poverty, supporting inclusive growth and, in the roundest sense, improving the wellbeing of people in Scotland. Central to the budget are our efforts to accelerate the transition to a net zero economy by delivering a green new deal for Scotland that works in partnership with people, places and businesses to deliver the transformation that we need to meet our world-leading climate change targets.
The budget sets out new proposals with increased funding in manufacturing, energy use and generation, how we heat our homes and how we use our land. It includes proposals to plant new forests and pledges record investment of £250 million over 10 years to restore our peatlands. All of that will support our efforts to end our contribution to climate change and to support Scotland’s economy, which in turn will boost wellbeing.
The year 2020 will also be a landmark year for the devolution of social security benefits, with £3 billion in benefit spend transferring to the Scottish Government. That expenditure will reach approximately 800,000 people, making a real difference to real lives and wellbeing through a new system that is based on dignity and respect. That reinforces the importance of passing the budget bill.
We are doing all that we can to tackle poverty and inequality in this budget, including by providing £21 million for the new Scottish child payment. Worth £10 a week per child to low-income families with a child under six and described as a “game changer” by the Child Poverty Action Group, it will be introduced later in 2020. Once it has been fully rolled out, it will lift 30,000 children out of poverty. Alongside that, we are investing £110 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government welfare reform. That includes providing more for discretionary housing payments and for the Scottish welfare fund.
The budget also has an outward focus and will help developing countries to grow in a fair and sustainable manner.
Another budget milestone is our record investment of £15 billion in health and care services, which represents an increase of more than £1 billion in 2020-21. That not only meets but exceeds our commitment to pass on all health resource consequentials; it does so by allocating a further £100 million to support front-line spending.
The budget that I presented to Parliament provided local government with an increase of £494 million to support the delivery of core local services. Having listened to the case that was made by all parties and COSLA, through our agreement with the Greens, I will allocate a further £95 million to local government’s core settlement, taking the total increase to £589 million.
Returning to the economy, we are focused on stability and growth at this time of uncertain global economic conditions. Stability and growth are made all the more important by the nature of the hard Brexit that is being sought by the UK Government, which is clearly demonstrated in the negotiating mandate that was published this morning.
Alongside early progress on our £7 billion national infrastructure mission, this budget provides £220 million of fresh seed money for the Scottish national investment bank; continues to support city region and growth deals; increases the international trade and investment budget by more than 25 per cent; includes a £200 million commitment to additional low-carbon investment through the innovative green growth accelerator model; and delivers a 20 per cent increase in the transport infrastructure and connectivity budget.
We are also continuing to deliver further support for communities through a progressive public sector pay policy that is targeted at the lowest paid. We are investing more than £800 million to help to deliver 50,000 new homes in this session of Parliament. We are investing in improved bus infrastructure, electric vehicle charging and increased active travel. We are continuing to prioritise investment in education through real-terms increases for further and higher education and the provision of £645 million to almost double childcare from August.
To help to pay for that and other vital expenditure, the budget continues a progressive approach to tax that provides stability ahead of the delayed UK budget. Fifty-six per cent of Scottish income tax payers will pay less income tax in 2020-21 than they would pay if they lived elsewhere in the UK. A lower rates poundage will be paid on 95 per cent of properties in Scotland than is paid elsewhere in the UK.
I am proud to present this budget to Parliament. It is a budget that delivers for the people of Scotland and meets the key asks of all parties, despite the uncertainty and delay of the UK budget. All parties wished to see additional investment in local government. This budget delivers that. All parties wished to see more money for our police. This budget delivers that. All parties wanted to see increased investment to tackle climate change. This budget delivers that.
There is one ask of Parliament that I have not yet responded to. That was a request from parties for a £15 million increase in drug services, while our draft budget proposed an increase of £12.7 million. I am pleased to inform Parliament—although members might already know this—that Jeane Freeman has identified an additional £7.3 million from within her portfolio to help to reduce the harms and deaths that are caused by drug use. That will increase direct investment by the Scottish Government in drug services by up to £20 million, exceeding the demand that was made of us.
This is a budget that renews our social contract with the people of Scotland. It provides the resources that Parliament has requested. There might be parties that will contrive reasons to vote against it. They might want tax cuts for the rich or to turn this budget for public services into an argument against independence. The reality is that this budget delivers their key asks. It delivers for our public services, and it delivers for Scotland. Accordingly, I urge all members to support the budget bill tonight.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Budget (Scotland) (No.4) Bill.15:05
I pay tribute to my predecessor in the role, Murdo Fraser. He left big shoes to fill. I am glad to see that he is still beside me and will speak later in the debate.
I welcome Kate Forbes to her role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and note that the takeover of finance roles by Highland MSPs proceeds apace. I have enjoyed working with her on many other issues, so I am sure that our engagement in this portfolio will be constructive. In fact, since I was appointed to my role, we have met on several occasions to discuss the budget because my party was open and willing to engage in such dialogue. As Kate Forbes said, the discussions were candid and friendly, and were conducted in good faith. Although our parties might hold fundamentally different views on many issues, we all care that our public services are well funded and that Scotland prospers.
In that spirit, I will start with what we welcome in the budget. We welcome several of the announcements, including additional support for infrastructure and manufacturing. We welcome equally the funding for the police that was announced yesterday, although it should not have taken sustained pressure from us and others, including the police themselves, to shame the Government into taking action.
Let us look at what has not been delivered and the reasons why we cannot support the budget. We made an overarching request that there be no further divergence from UK tax rates, and we asked the cabinet secretary to undertake that if, in its budget on 11 March, the UK Government were to make changes to ease the tax burden on working people south of the border, the Scottish Government would match that. We did not seek a tax cut. We wanted to ensure that the tax gap widens no further, so that Scotland can remain competitive and continue to attract the best talent. That commitment was not forthcoming from the Scottish Government; for that reason alone, we could not have supported the budget.
I do not want to focus on tax today, important though it is. When we met the cabinet secretary, we made other reasonable and affordable proposals. We outlined a proposal to reverse some of the Scottish Government’s damaging cuts to drug rehabilitation services, and called specifically for £15.4 million for additional drug rehabilitation beds, over what is in the budget. Despite our productive conversations with the cabinet secretary, that was rejected on a day when an editorial in The Times rightly said:
“Scotland’s record of drug deaths is a matter for national shame.”
We sought funding not for combating drugs in general, but for a specific policy of providing residential beds. Scotland has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of drug rehabilitation beds. In 2007, there were 353 across 22 services; today there are just 70 places in three facilities. That is unacceptable, especially in this week, of all weeks, when we had two drug summits in Glasgow that were organised by the UK Government and Scottish Government to look at ways to solve this country’s worst humanitarian crisis.
We also outlined to the cabinet secretary the problems that are faced by our cash-strapped councils. Although revenue funding has been addressed, £95 million split between 32 local authorities will go only so far. In taking account of inflation, is it any wonder that—as COSLA pointed out—most local authorities will have to increase council tax simply to make ends meet?
In that context, it is the Government’s failure to fund the capital allocation to our councils properly with £117 million, which we also requested, on which I want to concentrate. I will illustrate what I say with an example from the Highlands that is close to home for me and the cabinet secretary. The example is road repairs. It is not a glamorous issue, but it is, nonetheless, crucial. Highland Council’s core capital funding is expected to be £23.74 million, which is a reduction of one third from last year. Local councillors tell me that it is inevitable that road repairs will be affected by that cut to capital funding even with increased council tax. Yesterday, I saw photos of some of the roads in the north of Skye.
Does Donald Cameron agree that, given that Scotland has a backlog of £3 billion-worth of roads repairs, the wrong priority for Highland Council is to build new roads—which requires obscene sums of money—as part of the Inverness and Highlands city region deal?
I think that John Finnie will agree that the priority is to fix the roads that are in such a bad state.
Yesterday, I was sent photos of roads in the north of Skye, which is in the cabinet secretary’s constituency. The roads are riddled with potholes, the tarmac is crumbling and there are craters everywhere. The roads on Skye and the notorious Stromeferry bypass in Wester Ross, which is deep in the heart of the area that the cabinet secretary represents, are vital lifeline roads that connect small communities across Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch.
If that is the case, why did Highland Council issue a press release today that says that it is planning its biggest single investment in roads projects for years? [Interruption.]
As I have said, it is inevitable that the council will have to do that by increasing council tax because of the cut to its core grant. The roads will not be repaired now, which is what the budget means in practice for the cabinet secretary’s constituents as they go about their everyday lives. That is the reality of her budget.
As I have said, our requests were not unreasonable, unaffordable or over the top. For truly extreme demands, enter stage left—or stage far left—the Scottish Green Party. Of course, it was going to be—
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I have already taken interventions. I am not going to give way.
It was going—[Interruption.] It was going to be the Greens’ big year. No more Patrick the poodle: 2020 was to be the year that the Greens finally stood up to the Scottish National Party, and the year in which they stamped their feet, banged their drums and made their blood-curdling demands. New road projects were to be cut, the dualling of the A9 was to be stopped, the A96 upgrade was to be halted, the Sheriffhall roundabout was to be completely revamped and they were going to get a definitive commitment to free bus travel for young people. However, one by one, the demands have either been abandoned or watered down so much that they have become meaningless.
Let us look at free bus travel—
Will the member take an intervention?
No, I will not take an intervention. I have taken many already.
What have the Greens received? They have received funding to “support preparations” to introduce concessionary bus fares “if possible”, subject to “research and due diligence”. There are get-out clauses wherever we look. How much have they received? They got £15 million. What would be the yearly cost of the proposal? According to the Greens themselves, it would be £80 million per year—more than five times the amount that they have actually received. That is not a commitment from the Scottish Government; it is a con trick. Patrick Harvie has been played like a fiddle—and not for the first time.
I will move on to a very serious issue. Underpinning the budget was the assertion that all the cash was accounted for. Yet again, we were told that there was no more money. However, it turns out that Kate Forbes has an even bigger sofa than Derek Mackay. She knows the respect that I have for her, but it makes a mockery of the budget process to insist that there is no more money, but then to produce it at whim.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am in my last minute.
How can committees that are involved in budget scrutiny and external organisations that are assessing the budget take the process seriously when the figures that we are presented with are simply not real? The budget process is becoming a charade and it demeans Parliament.
Of course, thanks to the UK Government, Scotland will benefit from an additional £1.1 billion in real terms, according to the Treasury. In fact, the Scottish Government figures are even higher—the draft budget refers to a whopping £1.5 billion in Barnett consequentials. There is no austerity, and here is the thing: people cannot complain—[Interruption.] People cannot complain about austerity and then inflict austerity on Scotland’s local authorities in terms of their capital funding. Ultimately, the budget—[Interruption.]
Ultimately, the budget comes at a time when the people of Scotland have to pay higher council tax bills, and when anyone who earns more than £27,000 will pay more income tax than they would pay if they lived elsewhere in the UK. As ever with this Government, people are paying more but getting less.
I move amendment S5M-21013.1, to insert at end:
“, but, in so doing, regrets that the Scottish Government has made no commitment to prevent further divergence from UK tax rates, and further regrets that the draft Budget fails to fund a proper drug rehabilitation strategy or provide adequate capital funding for local authorities.”
I call Bruce Crawford to open for the Finance and Constitution Committee.15:15
Before yesterday’s agreement between the Scottish Government and the Green Party, I had intended to say that this afternoon’s debate would include calls from across Parliament for additional spending allocations in the budget, and that there would be the usual theatre, in which the Opposition would claim that there was money stuffed down the sofa to pay for that additional spending. In contrast, there would be weary sighs from the Government and protestations that the Opposition would need to say where the money was coming from.
Whatever is said, I am glad that, for the sake of stability and certainty in the public sector and the economy, an early agreement has been arrived at. I will leave it for others to comment on the merits or otherwise of the budget deal, because if I did so I would, rightly, be accused of straying too far from my remit as the convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee.
Whatever the circumstances, the job of Parliament’s committees is not to indulge in the theatre or speculation that surrounds budget deals. Our job is to get our hands dirty and to ask the difficult questions that can sometimes be awkward for all the political parties in Parliament.
The Finance and Constitution Committee’s report on this year’s budget asks the difficult and awkward question whether it remains prudent for Government and Parliament to agree an annual budget that allocates every available penny.
Bruce Crawford makes a valid point. Is it not ludicrous, however, that Parliament is told that there is no more money because it has all been allocated, only for magic beans to be found down the back of someone’s couch?
I made reference to that in my opening, so I will not go back over that ground.
The committee asked that important question because of the increased volatility and risk that arise from tax and social security devolution. Further budgetary risks arise from continued economic uncertainty—which is likely to be exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19—and the UK Government’s decisions about European Union funding because of Brexit.
The operation of the fiscal framework adds to volatility and risk. The two most significant risks are that spending on demand-led social security benefits in Scotland is higher than the corresponding increase in the block grant, and that devolved tax revenues in Scotland are lower than the adjustment to the block grant.
Given that the size of those revenues and expenditure can be estimated only when the budget is being set, an additional risk arises from forecast error. Once we know the numbers, that can result in substantial reconciliations. We are now starting to see that forecast error impact on income tax. At this stage, we have only initial outturn data, so it is too early to draw firm conclusions on the extent of the risk. Nevertheless, the committee notes that, across the next three financial years, the Scottish Government is likely to need to find about £1 billion to repay negative income tax reconciliations.
I am grateful to the Finance and Constitution Committee’s convener for giving way. Does he agree that another strong theme in the evidence that the committee took from a wide range of sources is that uncertainties are made worse because of the order in which we are doing things—having to pass a Scottish budget before the UK budget has been passed? Does he agree that the witnesses that we have heard from will find it unacceptable if we are forced into that situation in the context of next year’s budgetary constraints?
I will specifically address that matter. Witnesses did make such comments.
Of course, the Scottish Government has two additional budget management tools to help it to manage increased volatility. First, it has the power to borrow up to £600 million a year, with an overall limit of £1.75 billion. Secondly, there is a reserve with an overall cap of £700 million, and annual drawdown limits of £250 million for resource and £100 million for capital spending.
The Scottish Government’s view is that, given the far greater than anticipated volatility, those powers are insufficient. Although the fiscal framework is due to be reviewed in 2022, ministers have asked Her Majesty’s Treasury to extend the resource borrowing and reserve powers in the short term. The committee has invited the Treasury to consider the findings of our budget report in responding to that request.
However, that would not answer the question that I posed earlier. Indeed, if HM Treasury were to agree to increase the borrowing and reserve powers, that would make the question more immediate. Do we want to consider, as a whole Parliament, whether it might now be more prudent, when additional funding becomes available, to build up a reserve to deal with future volatility? Alternatively, are we content that all new and additional funding be allocated, and that we deal with future volatility as and when it arises?
The forecast negative reconciliation of £550 million for 2018-19 is likely to present the Scottish Government and Parliament with a significant challenge in setting next year’s budget. The cabinet secretary suggested to the committee that, were the Scottish Government to build up a significant reserve, there would be accusations that she was not using the Government’s resources as well as she could. Today might well demonstrate that the cabinet secretary made a fair point.
Use of the reserve therefore raises the wider question about the need for a more strategic approach to budget management and the Government’s medium-term financial strategy. In our pre-budget report, the committee indicated that we were somewhat disappointed by the lack of information in the MTFS regarding how the forecast £1 billion negative reconciliation would be addressed. In response, the Scottish Government stated its position that decisions on management of income tax reconciliations can be taken only in each budget year. The committee asks—reasonably, I think—how that approach is consistent with the principles and priorities that are set out in the MTFS, which appear to provide the basis for a strategic approach to management of reconciliations.
The committee also asks how the Government will seek to find an appropriate balance between increasing the size of the reserve and/or committing to further public expenditure. The committee recognises that there will always be political pressures to allocate all available resources annually. However, Government and Parliament now need to consider seriously whether that is a sustainable approach.
The committee believes that the possibility of shifting from an annual focus on allocations to a more medium-term approach needs to be considered. The committee therefore recommends that the next MTFS set out the basis for a more strategic approach to budgetary management that seeks to address medium-term volatility and risk. In addition, the possibility of multi-annual budgets for public bodies should be considered. That said, the committee fully recognises that that would be a significant challenge, given the lack of a recent UK comprehensive spending review, and given some of the reasons that Patrick Harvie outlined earlier.
I recognise that it will not be easy to engender meaningful wider debate, but I live in hope. However, I warn Parliament that the challenges that the committee identified will not go away. Come December, it is likely that the Government will need to find about £500 million to address negative reconciliations.
There will also come a point in future budgets when Parliament will need to decide how to deal with positive reconciliations, which could be substantial. Should such additional funding be spent, or should it be kept in reserve to pay for future negative reconciliations? The answer will depend on our collective willingness to engage constructively on whether it is now prudent to plan beyond a one-year budget horizon. Our report is intended to contribute positively to that debate.
In conclusion, I thank our committee clerking team and our adviser, David Eisner, for their highly professional and considered input to preparation of our report.15:24
Although we welcomed the opportunity to meet the new cabinet secretary and we welcome her to her post as she deals with her first budget, we believe that the budget is a disappointment that is full of smoke and mirrors. It is all about the headlines and not the reality on the ground. The budget comes at an absolutely critical time for Scotland, after 13 years of mismanagement and underinvestment from the SNP, but—again—it does not deliver the transformational change that Scotland needs.
Before the celebrations begin on the SNP and Green benches, let us be clear that there will be cuts in our communities following today’s budget. A decade of underfunding and austerity has come with a hefty price tag. There has been a reduction of 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs, which is 33,000 redundancies in our communities. People have had to deal with those job losses. It is fascinating to hear the Tories say that austerity is over, but it has taken them a long time—10 years—and we have not seen the evidence yet. We want to see the actual consequentials. The worry is that the consequentials that are coming down the track will involve smoke and mirrors, too. There is a procedural issue about our ability to examine those consequentials when they are in place.
Will the member give way?
No—I need to make progress. I will give way to the member in a minute.
We are in a climate emergency, further and higher education services are under pressure and our local councils’ finances are teetering on a cliff edge as the demand for social care soars. That is also impacting on our national health service. We have had a decade of Scottish austerity, inequality is growing and poverty has become normalised. The number of food banks has grown in response to the erosion of the safety net that our councils play a key role in delivering. Councils are at the front line of tackling inequality, supporting our communities and giving young people the chances that they need to succeed in life.
The cabinet secretary asks us to celebrate the additional £95 million for local government that was found behind the sofa for today’s debate, which I suspect will be the image that lasts for us all. However, that £95 million was just the gap or the underfunded element in the Scottish Government’s commitments that had to be delivered by local government, so that money should have been in the budget in the first place. We have asked for fair funding for local government. We want to stop the cuts and ensure that there is investment to deliver on the programme.
Even with the additional money that the cabinet secretary announced yesterday, our councillor colleagues across the country will still have to make tough decisions. They are working hard, but they do not have the investment that is desperately needed, so they are having to make tough choices. The SNP Government controls the purse strings, but it does not take responsibility for its cuts.
The issue is not just with revenue expenditure, as the cuts of £117 million in capital funding mean that it will be tough to achieve the transformation that we need in our schools and council buildings and to provide the investment to meet our future needs. In my council—the City of Edinburgh Council—alone, the bill to refurbish existing schools and build new ones to meet the needs of the additional population will be £570 million, and it will need to borrow £260 million to meet that cost, which means that it will have to find an additional £17.5 million annually in revenue spending.
The SNP makes a big play about money for the NHS, but we have had mismanagement of that precious resource on an unprecedented scale. We have had cuts to integration joint boards and the loss of key staff in leadership positions. Six of our mainland health boards are in special measures, staff in front-line positions are under increasing pressure and patients are waiting longer to access general practitioner services or just to be treated. In the Local Government and Communities Committee, when I asked the cabinet secretary whether the budget will solve our social care crisis and end delayed discharge, she could not answer me. That is because so much of the additional resource that she wanted to talk about is already ring fenced and does not deal with the growing social care crisis in our communities.
The Local Government and Communities Committee has taken evidence on the lack of investment in preventative spend. COSLA is not the only body that is raising that issue; many organisations are making representations on it.
Many of us agree with the member that there should be more preventative spend, but does she accept that there needs to be disinvestment from other services and that the problem is that we have to take the money away from hospitals or somewhere else?
No—it is about making the money that is spent deliver in practice. The non-core local government budgets that are going to be cut include those for libraries, sports and leisure facilities, recycling and parks and green spaces. Those are the bedrock of our communities, and they are crucial to developing health and wellbeing.
The key issue about wellbeing is that it is not properly monitored. All those issues and all the non-core local government budgets are vital if we are to address the deepening inequalities and poverty that are being experienced in our communities. Crucially, the cuts will undermine the important work of the third sector. We welcome the Scottish child payment, but it does not go far enough, leaving 210,000 children still living in poverty, 65 per cent of whom are in working households.
We will not see the urgently needed investment from our local councils in economic development and local transport infrastructure. There is an irony in the Greens backing down from their big, climate-based infrastructure demands and being happy with their top-up £15 million for cycling at a time when the roads that cyclists use daily are being damaged by pot holes, which are growing at an alarming rate. It looks increasingly as though the Greens are the green wing of the SNP and are not standing up for their core principles.
Is Sarah Boyack not embarrassed that, from putting hundreds of millions of pounds back into local government to providing free bus travel for young people—including for 150,000 young people in the Lothians—the Greens are delivering more Labour policy than the Labour Party?
Are hundreds of millions of extra pounds going into local government? I do not think so, judging from the announcement that we have heard.
We are disappointed at the timid “in principle” commitment to free bus travel for under-18s. Let us hope that that policy fares better than last year’s Green deal, which was meant to secure a three-year funding deal for local government. That is not happening any time soon.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
Labour wanted an expansion of free bus travel to under-25s, which would have included students in further and higher education and young people in work, taking financial pressure off them, giving them affordable and greener options for travel and helping to turn the tide of bus passenger reduction as we try to address our climate emergency. The celebration will not include the 414,000 young people who will miss out.
We needed a radical and transformational budget to tackle poverty, create new jobs and deliver the infrastructure investment that we need to tackle the climate emergency and build the community services that we need across Scotland. This budget does not go far enough, passing cuts on to our local communities. Scotland’s people deserve better.15:32
Nobody would expect to have to step in and take over the budget process at the last minute, not least in this unprecedented situation of having to pass a Scottish budget before the UK budget. Kate Forbes has stepped into that role with professionalism, and I thank her for her engagement during the process,
The Greens have always believed that our responsibility as an Opposition party is to put positive ideas on the table and find ways to make them workable, to achieve an impact for people across Scotland. That is what we have achieved since the SNP lost its majority in 2016, and we have made a real impact, particularly in local government. I recognise that Sarah Boyack has only just rejoined us in the Parliament, but, since 2016 hundreds of millions of pounds have gone back into local government compared with the cuts that were proposed in draft budgets as published.
We should not be in the situation of having to have the discussion every year. A UK spending review that would allow multiyear settlements in Scotland again is long overdue.
I want to know how happy Patrick Harvie is about the cuts to non-ring-fenced revenue funding of nearly £900 million in real terms since 2013. Surely, we cannot celebrate that.
“Since 2013”—that is the point. Since the SNP lost its majority, in 2016, there has been a significant change. The most recent change is the reversal of a £95 million cut. Less than an hour before the budget agreement was published, COSLA put out a press release complaining about a £95 million cut to revenue, which has been reversed in this budget.
Will I claim that the budget achieves perfection? No, but it makes a substantial difference and it will have a lasting impact for people across Scotland. As a result of the additional revenue funding, Green councillors in Edinburgh have proposed more funding for schools, nursery teachers, meeting climate targets, tree planting, renewable energy and making the capital more wildlife friendly. In Aberdeenshire, the Democratic Independent and Green group has proposed that 17 secondary teacher posts and 25 pupil support assistant posts be reinstated. In Glasgow, the Green councillors have already secured their own budget amendment to the SNP’s budget.
Will the member take an intervention?
Not at the moment.
That shows, once again, that an SNP Administration needs to be pushed beyond its comfort zone. The Greens rejected Glasgow Labour’s proposals to slash teacher numbers across the city, and the extra funding will allow us to go further and faster. It means that we can propose that the Blairvadach outdoor education centre can and should be protected.
I will give way to Jackie Baillie on that point.
I welcome any U-turn on the part of the Greens, because in Glasgow City Council the Greens voted with the SNP to close Blairvadach outdoor education centre, denying thousands of children outdoor education.
Jackie Baillie might have been misinformed by Glasgow Labour councillors—that would not be out of character for them. The Blairvadach proposal was in the SNP budget and not in the Green amendment.
Capital resource is another serious issue for local government. The extra cash for active travel—taking the active travel budget to £100 million—as well as energy efficiency will support local government action.
We will need to wait for the UK budget to know what the full consequentials will be. No one can be in any doubt that the absurd situation of forcing the councils to set their budgets and then the Scottish Government to set its budget before the UK sets its own budget is intolerable.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
It needs to be a climate emergency budget, and the ground-breaking proposal for free bus travel for everyone aged 18 and younger will make a massive difference. Some students in Scotland are paying upwards of £1,000 a year just to get to college. A student travelling from Bathgate to Edinburgh College’s Granton campus will save more than £1,200 in an academic year. There are many other examples from around the country. A colleague from the south of Scotland, from Finlay Carson’s constituency—Finlay Carson has been criticising the deal because he says that it offers nothing for rural areas—said:
“Frankly giddy about free bus travel for the kids. Last time we did a family bus trip it cost £34 and that wasn’t even to our nearest large town! Good work @scotgp. #BetterBuses will make a huge difference to young people and low income families in rural areas.”
The proposals will make a substantial difference.
Young people who are starting work are discriminated against under the UK minimum wage, because they earn less than older workers. Vast numbers of employers in retail and hospitality still pay young people poverty wages, and the legal minimum is lowest for the youngest workers. We will go further in the future, proposing that fare-free public transport be available for all—including everyone under 25. Free bus travel for the under-18s is a huge first step in that direction, and I welcome the fact that Green pressure has made that happen.
In concluding, I will say something about the wider infrastructure projects. The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland has made recommendations that sound strikingly like the Green Party policies of the past 20 years. Those recommendations are not about building more capacity but about improving the infrastructure that we have. They are about a presumption against new capacity in the road network, but I am sorry to say that the SNP has, so far, refused to follow that logic—as have the other Opposition parties. There is now a major question about Sheriffhall. We believe that a review, if it is properly conducted, will result in alternatives that will take traffic levels down instead of increasing them.
Every political party in the Scottish Parliament now uses the rhetoric of climate emergency. Last year, however, we saw that opportunism will always be too tempting for some. The truth is that the Greens have been saying for decades what the ICS is now proposing. No other political party has been with us on that, and some have still not moved on from the days when every other party in the chamber was backing absurd projects such as the M74 northern extension. We have made significant progress with the budget agreement, but, all too often, such criticism is also levelled at the SNP.
Today’s Heathrow ruling is critical for the Scottish Government, too. It is not just about one airport; it sets a precedent that all Government infrastructure decisions must be compatible with the climate change acts. It may well be that, in the future, the Scottish Government will need to be held to account in court, just as the UK Government was today.
For the time being, this budget agreement sets out important steps forward for young people accessing public transport, which will shift that transport demand away from private car use and save families money, and it puts investment into the other climate emergency priorities that the Greens have set out. I welcome the fact that that agreement has been reached, and I hope that, next year, the UK Government will not—for goodness’ sake—force us again into this absurd situation whereby we have to debate a budget before we know what the consequentials of the UK Government’s decisions are.15:40
I pay tribute to Kate Forbes. I find her polite and respectful in our discussions. Even when we strongly disagree, she is respectful. I appreciate that. It creates a more conducive environment for constructive discussion. I received a letter from her yesterday in which she was respectful of the constructive way in which all the parties have engaged in the budget discussion.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance has a difficult job ahead of her, particularly with some of the legacy issues that she has to deal with, such as the £10 million loan to Our Power that was lost when that organisation collapsed. The Aberdeen western peripheral route is £65 million over budget. The IT system for agricultural payments is about £180 million over budget. The Royal hospital for sick children here in Edinburgh is about £90 million over budget. We know that the cost of the ferries in the west of Scotland has effectively doubled. The cost of the Baird family hospital and Anchor centre in Aberdeen is estimated at £35 million over budget. That is a considerable legacy for the cabinet secretary to deal with.
There are fundamental issues with the way our public services are working as a result of some of the decisions that her Government has taken, including in particular the lack of proper investment in mental health services that is causing considerable cost to the rest of the health service and to wider public services such as our police, schools and many other public services. We know there is a massive backlog in social care packages in many areas. We heard yesterday about the IJB in Fife that has a considerable deficit.
There are fundamental issues about the way our public services are working that mean that it is difficult for Kate Forbes to secure a balanced and effective budget. However, we must do away with the charade that the Government has left no flexibility at all for any other parties to put forward priorities that they would like to see reflected in the budget. Let this be the last year for that. The idea that there is no magic money tree has gone. The new phrase that appeared this year was “emerging underspends”. There were “sudden Barnett consequentials” and we saw the “non-domestic rates reprofiling”. Those are phrases that we are familiar with from some previous years, but we will be wise to them if they come up in future. She said that there was no magic money tree, but she has given it a good whack with a big stick. That argument has fallen. Kate Forbes was either bluffing or she was incredibly brave; in the end she was just bluffing. We have found that out.
The Liberal Democrats put forward reasonable and measured proposals for the budget. We had some fundamental disagreements about the overspend on several capital projects and on the way that mental health services and social care have been working. We were prepared to put forward costed and reasonable proposals. We looked at the COSLA advice about the £95 million shortfall that it saw in the revenue budget, but there is a £117 million shortfall on the capital budget that the finance secretary has not addressed.
That was just to meet promises that the Government has made on behalf of local government. Those are not local government promises, they are Government promises. At the very least, their costs should have been met already within the budget. The £590 million that COSLA identified as Scottish Government commitments should have been a fundamental part of the budget, but it never was. It should not have been up to other parties to make the case for the Government to meet promises that it made in previous years.
Forgive me for not accepting that that is enough. We know that the £200 million inflation cost that is also not included in the budget will have a direct impact on local government services. We will see more services closing. We will see it become more difficult for local authorities to fund the education that they need to provide in our schools—they are already struggling to do that. We will see it become much more difficult to provide social care packages and maintain the social fabric of our local communities. Forgive me for thinking that that amount is not enough.
The police estate is in a terrible condition. We have seen the reports about the state of police stations. I am afraid that that small amount of money—£5 million—will not deal with the legacy issues that we have in our police estate. We should be seeing far more going to the police. I think, from what the Scottish Police Federation has said, that there is a still a £20 million shortfall on what should have been the basic amount included in the budget.
The finance secretary criticises those who believe that independence is not a good idea. She criticises me for expecting her to accept, even in just this one year, that an independence referendum will not happen. We know that the reality is that it will not happen, so I do not know why the finance secretary—
Will the member take an intervention?
Not just now. I do not know why she is holding back funds for that possibility, when everybody knows that it is not going to happen.
Will the member take an intervention?
Not just now. I am not expecting her to give up on believing in independence. I have never expected her to do that, just as she would not expect me to give up on believing that the United Kingdom is the best constitutional future, but to hold back money for something that is not going to happen is a complete and utter waste of money, and I think that the finance secretary should reflect on that.
I do not criticise Willie Rennie for believing in the union. I criticise the fact that he prioritises the union over funding for education, infrastructure, mental health and everything else in this budget.
That point might have merit if the finance secretary was not holding back funds for a possible independence referendum this year. Everybody knows that that is not going to happen, so why are we doing that? Why are we wasting that money? That money could go to the police or to councils. The finance secretary is putting the constitution ahead of the priorities for this country and she should reflect on that.
I hope that the finance secretary has learned a lot from the process; I am sure that everyone in the chamber has learned a lot. Above all else, the one thing that we must do is ensure that our public services, our health service and our education system are properly funded. I am afraid that with this budget, they certainly are not.
Before we begin the open debate, I advise members that we have used up most of the time available for interventions and so on. I do not want to discourage interventions—quite the reverse—so I ask all members to reduce their speeches from six to five minutes, if they possibly can, as that will give us time for interventions. Trim your remarks, then we will have time for an actual debate. If not, I will have to drop speakers or take time off the closing speakers.15:48
Given the uncertainty about Brexit and the problems created by the delay in the UK budget, I am sure that this Scottish budget will be welcomed, as it delivers some certainty to local government, the health service and businesses. I am pleased that the Scottish Government and the Green Party have reached an agreement that boosts support for our young people, our police, climate action and local government. As one of our esteemed journalists said on Twitter,
“I have no doubt that if the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems had secured the same Budget deal as the Scottish Greens, they’d be hailing it as a great victory.”
COSLA called for an extra £95 million; the Scottish Government has listened and delivered. There were calls for free bus travel for young people; the Scottish Government has listened and will deliver. There were calls for an extra £50 million for Police Scotland; the Scottish Government has again listened and delivered £60 million.
Understandably, I think that the most recurring ask, which came from every party, was for additional funding for our local authorities. Our local authorities provide some of our most crucial front-line services day in, day out. We all know that too well, so I hope that everyone can get behind the £95 million of additional funding for local government that takes the total Scottish Government support for local authorities to more than half a billion pounds. My constituents in Edinburgh Pentlands will benefit from our council receiving an additional £7.4 million in the next year.
I also welcome the proposal to introduce free bus travel to all young people who are under the age of 19. Over 110,000 young people could benefit from that in Edinburgh and the Lothians, including nearly 13,000 youngsters in my constituency of Edinburgh Pentlands, when it is introduced in 2021. As someone who spent over 20 years working in public transport, I know about the enormous benefits that free travel brought to those aged over 60, so I welcome that it is now being extended to our young people. We might even see a reduction in the number of cars on the school run—especially in Edinburgh with our award-winning bus company, Lothian Buses.
Further education—including Edinburgh College, where the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and I recently attended a celebration of its 50th birthday—is set to benefit from the largest funding increase in the college sector in over 10 years. That investment is welcomed by the sector. Shona Struthers, the chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said:
“It is extremely pleasing that the Scottish Government clearly recognises the critically important role colleges have in delivering the skills and qualifications for almost 265,000 learners to develop their careers and the positive impact these institutions have across Scotland’s communities and how they help increase inclusive economic growth”.
She went on to say that,
“The college sector’s revenue resource budget has increased by £33.5 million to £640 million—a real-terms rise of around 3.6%”.
Tourism is another important sector for Edinburgh and my constituency. Over 33,000 of the capital’s citizens are employed to provide services to the 4.3 million people who visit each year and who spend around £4 million in the city each day. This budget recognises that importance, but do not take my word for that. Marc Crothall, the chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said:
“The Scottish Tourism Alliance welcomes the announcements made in”
“draft budget, many of which have been outlined clearly in our direct asks to the Scottish Government on behalf of Scotland’s tourism industry”.
“We are encouraged at the supportive measures for businesses announced today, one of which will see 95 per cent of properties paying a lower poundage in business rates than the rest of the UK in addition to business rates relief for many businesses. This is hugely positive news for the tourism sector in particular and I am sure that many of our businesses will welcome the opportunity to capitalise on this relief and turn thoughts towards investment in their product and people.”
I have had time to touch on only some of the commitments in the budget. It also delivers a record £15 billion for health and care services, provides over £3 billion in social security payments, delivers £201 million to secure the full roll-out of increased early learning and child care provision, invests over £100 million to address the poverty-related attainment gap in schools and provides £20 million for the Scottish child payment, to support our wider action to address child poverty. All those commitments will help to ensure that Scotland is one of the best places to live and work.
In closing, I reiterate that the budget delivers on key issues that have been raised by all parties in the chamber. All of us should unite behind it and deliver for the people of Scotland.15:53
I welcome Kate Forbes to her new role as Cabinet Secretary for Finance.
It will come as no surprise that I will focus my comments on the budgetary aspects of education and skills. Quite simply, I think that at the core of a strong economy lies the simple truth that current and future generations of young Scots must get the best start in life—from early years to on-going adult learning and everything in-between. Arguably, it is one of the most humbling of portfolios to hold in politics. Arguably, it should be any Government’s number 1 priority. Arguably, this Government has taken its eye off the ball.
I will start with some positives. I welcome parts of the budget, including some of the initiatives to tackle the attainment gap and fund childcare and to improve the skillset of our workforce and teachers’ pay. However, warm words, manifesto commitments and budgetary promises are one thing and delivering them is another. This week should serve as a stark reminder to us all of what happens when policy delivery does not match promises. Tell that to those who did not get the results that they expected in last year’s higher exams.
The stark reality is that our educational institutions have been under tremendous pressure for some time. Improving our education system will require not just political will, but vision.
What does the budget do to address that? Let us look at teacher numbers. There has been a recruitment issue in Scotland for many years. Last year, research found that areas of rural Scotland have some of the most severe teacher shortages in all Europe. I welcome any proposed rise in teacher salaries—there is no question but that they deserve to be recognised for the work that they do. The Scottish Government will probably argue that the rise is sufficient, but it comes after salaries have been capped at 1 per cent—well below the rate of inflation—for a decade. The increase also comes after two successive budgets in which teachers’ taxes rose, despite the explicit and firm promise of the Deputy First Minister in 2016 that he would not allow that to happen.
Will Jamie Greene take an intervention?
Let me finish. This Government deems anyone earning more than £27,000 a year in Scotland to be rich. Members can make of that what they will.
However, it is about not just levels of compensation, but the wellbeing of our teachers. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Scottish teachers work some of the longest teaching hours of any in the developed world, and a recent review found that 60 per cent of teachers reported that work has impacted their mental health, which is a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
Will Jamie Greene explain to Parliament the proposals that he advanced to the finance secretary in the budget negotiation that would have reduced class contact time for teachers?
Mr Swinney knows fine well that teachers are under tremendous pressure. It does not help teachers when they have to teach multilevel classes with two, three or four levels of teaching in one classroom. The pressure that that is putting on them has to change. The way to fix it is to get more teachers into schools—it is as simple as that. [Interruption.] How is multilevel teaching conducive to a positive work environment for students or teachers? Answer that, Mr Swinney.
On the important issue of early learning and childcare, the Scottish Government will rightly point out its commitment to the expansion of provision. Members on the Conservative benches welcome the principle that early intervention gives children the best start. However, it is not just about promising money or signing cheques; we need to ensure that the expansion work takes place on the ground. We know that 71 per cent of private nurseries have recruitment issues, and that 40 per cent of partner providers in the private and third sectors cannot cover the cost of delivering services with the rates that they are getting from local authorities. There is a huge squeeze on places; parents know that, so the cabinet secretary must know that, too.
I could go into a lot of detail on the funding of further and higher education, but let us not forget that, in 2019, Audit Scotland said:
“Scottish Government capital funding falls short of what is needed to meet the estimated costs of maintaining the college estate.”
The same is true of universities, where Scottish applicants are missing out on places due to current structures. Universities are increasingly reliant on fee-paying students from other parts of the UK or outside the EU. There is a funding crisis in education that has been bubbling away for years, and such is the nature of that Pandora’s box that no one wants to open it. It is my firm belief that no Scot, whatever their background, should be denied a place at a Scottish college or university when that place is deserved, wanted and merited.
This budget, like many before it, represents the status quo when it comes to education, but the status quo will not deliver the next generation of teachers, nurses, doctors and engineers that we need. If this Government does not make education its number 1 priority, we certainly will. I support the amendment in Donald Cameron’s name.15:58
I congratulate Kate Forbes on getting off to a brilliant start as the new Cabinet Secretary for Finance. Her performances last week and today have fully justified her elevation to the Cabinet.
The one downside is that the Cabinet is no longer gender balanced: it has seven women and five men, so there are two vacancies for men. I say to Bruce Crawford, Richard Lyle and all the other men who have announced their retirement that they have missed their opportunity. They could be in the Cabinet to rebalance it. I will not make that mistake, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.]
However, let me be serious for a minute. I have been sitting here listening to the Tory and Labour spokespeople, and I think that it is time that we got some intellectual honesty into the argument. The Tory party—the unionist party—is complaining because we are not spending more money on education, on local government and on social care.
Will the member take an intervention?
I say to the Tory spokespeople that we would be able to spend more money on all those things, but we have had our budget cut in real terms by £1.5 billion a year by a Tory Government in London.
If Mr Greene stands up again, I will take his intervention.
I am sure that Mr Neil will therefore welcome the £1.5 billion that he is getting from the UK Government to help to fund public services in Scotland. Go on, stand up and welcome that—let us hear it.
We are just getting some of our own money back. The member should at least be honest. It is the Tory party that is the cause of the problem because of its austerity cuts over 10 years.
I say to the other big unionist party—
Will the member take an intervention?
Of course. It gets easier by the minute.
If Mr Neil’s Government can spend millions more on bus passes, why has it not been able to find only £15 million to support much-needed residential drug rehabilitation beds?
We cannot spend money twice. If we are spending it on one thing—the member should ask his wife—we cannot spend it on something else. If we did not have a cut of £1.5 billion, we could do all these things.
Let me talk to the Labour Party as well, because there has to be a degree of intellectual honesty from its front bench. [Interruption.] I know that Ms Baillie is running for the position of deputy leader, and then, no doubt, she will get rid of Mr Leonard from the leadership, but I say to her that she should not get too het up, because the cuts did not start with the Tories—they started with Alistair Darling. As you may remember, Presiding Officer, when he was the social security secretary and this devolved Parliament took a devolved decision to introduce free personal care, he stripped our people of £140 million in social security benefits because we dared to take a decision that was opposed by the Labour Cabinet in London.
We will not be taking any lectures from the Labour Party, because it started the cuts. It paved the way for the Tory cuts, and in the better together campaign, when those parties were joined at the hip, the Labour Party effectively gave intellectual support to the Tory cuts and the austerity agenda.
The most important speech so far—apart from this one—has been the one by Bruce Crawford. He is convener of the Finance and Constitution Committee, and he will be sorely missed in this Parliament when he leaves. As convener of that committee, he has spelled out some home truths that everybody in this Parliament will need to face up to in the months and years ahead. Through the fiscal framework, we are, in effect, going to lose £1 billion over the next three years, and that is on top of the austerity cuts that we have already had. If we consider the implications of the demand-led Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 and the changes to the block grant, we see that this Parliament faces a potential financial crisis.
The new finance secretary must do a number of things, starting with asking the new chancellor in London to bring forward the review of the fiscal framework from 2022 to now. This country cannot take another round of cuts imposed as a result of, in this case, a financial framework that has now become very detrimental to the people of Scotland—and it is the people that we have to think of.
We face those challenges—
Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab) rose—
Unfortunately, I cannot take Rhoda Grant’s intervention—
Because you are sitting down. Thank you very much, Mr Neil.
I am sitting down.
I remind members that their speeches should be five minutes. I will allow time for interventions. Mr Neil took two interventions. This is a debate, and taking interventions makes it lively.16:05
The finance secretary may have changed, but the annual ritual has stayed the same. The SNP publishes its draft budget and then we are told that there is no more money and that we should take it or leave it—or, in the words of Kate Forbes:
“When I say that I have deployed every penny on the face of the budget, I mean that I have deployed every penny; we have deployed every penny”.—[Official Report, Finance and Constitution Committee, 12 February 2020; c 40.]
We then wait a couple of weeks and—hey presto!—the pennies drop and a few million pounds suddenly appear.
We had, and we have deployed, every penny on the face of the budget. The nature of our going ahead of the United Kingdom Government’s budget is that we are dealing with estimates for consequentials. We have reviewed our forecast. The answer remains the same.
The cabinet secretary was clear that—suddenly—there were underspends and rates reprofiling, which she did not seem to know about a few weeks ago. I am sorry, but money appears to have been conveniently hidden down the back of the magic money sofa. That happens year in, year out. Frankly, that approach continues to mislead people.
The proposed changes to the draft budget today are still less than half a per cent of the overall budget. When we look back on this Parliament and take stock of the four SNP-Green budgets that we have had during that time, we will remember them as the biggest sustained attack on council services in living memory.
When SNP and Green MSPs rubber stamp the budget today, they will do so as councillors the length and breadth of Scotland are wrestling with the menu of painful cuts that they still need to make. Which of their community services will they cut? Which of their neighbours’ jobs will they axe? How much will they hike up the regressive council tax knowing that they will be delivering fewer services? All that because the SNP and Greens refuse to use the powers of this Parliament to vary income tax rates for those at the top.
While SNP and Green MSPs pat themselves on the back in this chamber, the debate that is taking place in council chambers after four years of budgets by the SNP and Greens is not about which services to trim; it is about which services to scrap.
The cabinet secretary says that she is giving councils the £95 million revenue funding that COSLA has asked for. Let me tell her what COSLA said. In its “Invest in Essential Services” report, which was published last month, it laid bare the financial crisis that is facing councils, which have had to make £2.1 billion of cuts since 2012.
This week, COSLA confirmed that, as a result of the Scottish Government’s draft budget, councils are £300 million—not £95 million—short in real terms. That is just for them to stand still, never mind to reverse the cuts of the past.
It is not just councils’ revenue funding that has been slashed in the budget; it is also their capital funding. That funding rebuilds our crumbling schools, resurfaces our pothole-plagued roads and delivers the parks and leisure centres at the heart of our communities. That budget has been cut by £117 million in cash terms alone this year.
It really is an insult to the hard-working council staff who teach our children and care for our loved ones as if they are their own, for the SNP and Greens to claim in this budget that they are giving councils the funding that they have asked for, when they know that, as a result of today’s budget, more council jobs will be axed on top of the nearly 40,000 lost since 2007.
Just as austerity was the political choice of the Tories, it is the political choices of the SNP and Greens in their budgets that have caused those council job losses and cuts in local services.
On Monday, I met community councils from Biggar and Quothquan in my region. They have experienced cuts, cancellations and delays to bus services. Does the member agree that there must be funding if councils are to create bus companies for our communities and not for profit?
That is an important point. As a result of Labour’s amendments to the Transport (Scotland) Bill, councils will soon have the power to set up and run their own local bus service. However, the problem is that there is not a single penny in the budget that will enable that power to be used to reverse the massive decline in bus routes under this Government.
This year’s budget was an opportunity to change direction, bring an end to that austerity-driven record and pursue a progressive vision for the future. In reality, it has turned out to be more of the same: more timidness, more mismanagement and more cuts. As the cabinet secretary said, Labour engaged positively by proposing a number of changes to the budget, but we were ultimately undercut by a Green Party willing to settle for less: less for local government funding, less for young people and less for Scotland.
That can be seen even in one of the positive measures that I support: the move towards free bus travel for young people. I welcome any step in the direction towards Labour’s policy of free bus travel for under-25s. When we brought the issue to Parliament in March last year—in the only debate that there has been on the issue—every single SNP MSP voted against the proposal and some even questioned whether young people were in need of such support.
I welcome that positive change in policy, but I hope that the cabinet secretary will make clear today that every single young person under 19 will have free bus travel by the beginning of January 2021, because that is not clear from the budget proposal. The Government argues that work still needs to be done, but the Parliament voted in March last year to consider the costs and benefits of extending free bus travel to young people—
Will the member take an intervention?
No. The member has to wind up.
I wonder what the Government has been doing since that time. If we really want to unlock opportunities for all Scotland’s young people, we should deliver free bus travel for all under-25s. Yesterday’s Scottish transport statistics showed the scale of the challenge that we face. Bus passenger journeys in Scotland have plummeted by 8 million in a year and by 107 million journeys since the SNP came to power. If we are serious about climate change, we have to get serious about supporting public transport—in particular, our bus services. One way to do that is to build on the success of Labour’s bus pass for older people by extending it not just to some young people but to all young people. Doing so would deliver the real transformational change that we need to halt the dismantling of our bus network that is taking place under this Government.16:11
Understandably, the headline from the budget is the Government’s investment in environmental justice. I will focus my remarks on the Government’s continuing commitment to social justice, because environmental and social justice are closely linked.
In the rural parts of the South Scotland region that I represent, transport costs are a real challenge for people on low incomes and for young people in particular. The cost of commuting to work or education is high, so I very much welcome the commitment to deliver a national concessionary travel scheme, which will offer free bus travel for under-18s by January 2021. In Dumfries and Galloway alone, 20,000 young people will benefit from that measure.
The £151 million in the budget for energy efficiency also tackles environmental and social justice at the same time. I particularly welcome the £25 million of additional investment in local government energy efficiency measures to tackle fuel poverty, which is a huge challenge in areas of rural Scotland where people whose incomes are well below the national average live off the gas grid in homes that are hard to heat—a triple whammy.
That brings me to a major on-going social justice commitment of the Government that the budget delivers—the commitment to create 50,000 affordable homes over this parliamentary session. Some said that that could not be done, but it is well on track thanks to the energy and commitment of the SNP Government—in particular, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart. This year, there is £800 million to deliver on that commitment plus a further £300 million to ensure that building continues once that target is reached.
I saw the results of the house building programme myself this week when I joined Kevin Stewart on a visit to a new development of 27 homes just off the High Street in the town of Annan. What was a derelict industrial site has been transformed. The 19th century sandstone buildings that face on to the High Street have been restored as new homes, and place making and town centre regeneration are enhanced. The high-quality new-build terraced houses have solar panels and very high levels of modern insulation, and several have been adapted for people with disabilities. Again, social justice and climate justice have been delivered.
Furthermore, the house building programme is an important way of delivering on commitments to sustainable and inclusive economic growth. The Scottish Government invested £2.17 million in the development in Annan and another £1.5 million was raised by the developer, Cunninghame Housing Association. The main contractor was a local builder, Ashleigh Homes, which in turn used several local subcontractors. That represents an extremely big investment in what is quite a small community, and it is not the only one that is happening.
Our house building programme supports and creates jobs. Because of the Annan development and several others across Dumfries and Galloway that Cunninghame Housing Association is undertaking with Ashleigh, Ashleigh has been able to take on an additional two apprentices each year. In a rural economy, that is a big commitment that makes a significant difference to people’s lives. Behind every house there is a human story, not just of the people who live in it but of those who benefit from jobs in the house building programme.
I had great pleasure in joining Ms McAlpine in Annan on Monday. I am very pleased that she has mentioned Cunninghame Housing Association and the builder, Ashleigh, because they have been fantastic in Ayrshire and the south-west of Scotland. Ms McAlpine mentioned jobs. The current programme sustains 12,000 to 14,000 jobs. Another good aspect of the programme is the apprenticeships that it provides. As a result of that, a large number of women apprentices are now entering the trade. I pay tribute—I am sure that Ms McAlpine would, too—to Ashleigh for attracting young women into the construction industry.
That is fantastic and I welcome it, particularly as the mother of a daughter who is an engineer. I am very pleased to see that kind of thing happening, and I congratulate Ashleigh on that.
Turning to the social justice commitment in the budget, I particularly welcome the £21 million that is being provided for the Scottish child payment, which will be worth £10 a week for every eligible child. I was delighted to learn that the first payments will be made by Christmas this year for each eligible child who is aged under six. When the programme is fully rolled out, it is estimated that 30,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. Families will also benefit from an uplift in the Scottish welfare fund allocation, which has increased by £3 million to £41 million. That move has been welcomed by a number of third sector charities in the area, including the Poverty Alliance, Menu for Change and CPAG in Scotland.
The budget includes £3.4 billion in social security expenditure for the most vulnerable in our society, but it is tragic that, alongside its own social security commitments, the SNP Government has to spend at least £1.4 billion to mitigate the worst effects of the Westminster benefit cuts.
Please wind up.
That is all the more remarkable when we consider that, over the past 10 years, Scotland’s budget allocation from the UK Treasury has fallen by £1.5 billion, which is an absolute disgrace.16:17
Fixing the roads, emptying the bins, music tuition, outdoor learning, parks, environmental health, planning, building control, driving growth—those are all things that councils deliver, all of which are put at risk by this budget. For too long, councils have been the poor relations of the public sector yet, increasingly, they are expected to carry out the donkey work for central Government. That has to end.
I have to admit that Kate Forbes had me fooled: I really thought that she was genuinely interested in ditching Patrick Harvie’s madcap growth deniers. I really thought that she was genuinely interested in finding common ground with someone else—my word, she even had Murdo Fraser and Donald Cameron reaching out to find consensus. She had Messrs Fraser and Cameron going to the trouble of coming up with a set of reasonable proposals that would protect public services.
Those proposals were quite reasonable. In fact, I recall that one of them was that the Government should meet COSLA’s demand that local government funding be increased by £95 million. That is in the budget agreement, which I hope Mr Simpson will support at decision time.
I will come on to that money for councils.
The sticking point was avoiding the tax gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK growing. We said that, as a minimum, the core funding for local government needed to be increased in line with inflation and that all the additional extra commitments that have been put on councils, the cost of which is £497 million, should be funded in full, along with any new or additional commitments. Whatever spin the Government puts on its settlement with the Greens, this budget will still see councils making cuts. The extra £95 million for revenue funding that was announced yesterday is still way short of what is needed.
When I questioned COSLA’s finance lead, Councillor Gail Macgregor, at the Local Government and Communities Committee last week, she could not have been any clearer. She said:
“We would need about £300 million extra just to cover inflation and the shortfall. That would enable us to stand still”.—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 19 February 2020; c 12.]
When I asked her whether an extra £95 million would see every council in Scotland having to make cuts, she said yes.
Of course, there is nothing in this budget settlement about extra capital funding for councils. Cuts in services and increases in council tax across the board are what local government is facing with this sticking plaster budget. All councils will increase council tax again. That is rise on top of rise. We will soon get to a point where we have people living in council tax poverty. We may be there already.
Yesterday, South Lanarkshire Council, which Mr Simpson used to be a member of, unanimously agreed a budget. I wish the same could happen in this place. Mr Simpson is wrong to say that there are no changes, because the deal means that South Lanarkshire Council is getting an extra £5.569 million in revenue funding and an extra £880,000 in capital funding. It is a pity therefore that the Tories will not play ball.
I hope that I will get that time back.
Yes. I have made sure of that. If you get a five-minute speech and take interventions, you get another minute if it takes that long. Be happy.
Jolly good. That does not answer the point that all councils will have to make cuts. COSLA has said that the budget results in a £117 million cut to capital budgets. The capital settlement puts at risk significant projects that would promote inclusive growth across Scotland.
Another of our reasonable asks was on homelessness. The draft budget makes £50 million available for the ending homelessness together fund but, as the Salvation Army pointed out last week, Scottish councils have submitted proposals for spending on homelessness of £130 million. We asked for a rather modest £10 million extra. Although I welcome the efforts that the Government is making to tackle homelessness, more is required. We should all be on the same page here, as it is spending to save.
Sometimes it is best to let ordinary people have their say. I recently met Motherwell mum Fiona Sharkey, who wrote to me about the threat to music provision in North Lanarkshire. She said:
“Music provision opens the world up to children and exposes them to environments and opportunities so radically different to the reality for many of growing up in North Lanarkshire.”
She went on:
“If NLC destroy this service, they not only impact all the staff who will lose their jobs, they threaten the future of children who are studying music and risk failing their exams because they find themselves without a teacher.
All of this will make Scotland a poorer place to live in, culturally and economically, now and for many years to come.”
Lo and behold, North Lanarkshire Council has cut music provision, although it has saved a pipe band. It has, however, cancelled Christmas—there will be no festive lights this year, folks.
Councils are not fringe organisations. They are increasingly being asked to do more and more for less and less. The cracks are starting to show and it cannot continue. This is the year when the pain has to end.16:24
As always, I am delighted to take part in the budget debate, and I am pleased that an agreement has been reached.
The debate is hugely important, because we are deciding on our income and expenditure plans for the coming year. They impact on our health services, the police, local government and many other sectors. Our decisions impact on many people’s lives.
My first point is that we do not have enough money for all that we would like to do. Of course, almost all of us want more money for a whole host of public services—and for the third sector for that matter—and no one wants to pay more taxes than we have to.
A theme that we always return to in budget debates, perhaps because the Opposition parties keep forgetting, is that we have to set a budget that balances. Of course, anyone can just demand more money. The Conservative amendment today is disappointing, not because of the two areas of extra spending that it would like—in themselves, they are perfectly good—but because there is a lack of realism about how the budget works. I had expected better from a party that claims to understand numbers, and from Mr Simpson, who just asked for an extra £300 million.
In yesterday’s justice debate, a Labour member said to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice that the Government is responsible for the budget. That is true, but Opposition members are responsible for potential amendments. They are responsible for ensuring that every ask has a balancing cut. A phrase that was used yesterday was that the police are “underfunded”, and today at First Minister’s question time, Richard Leonard used the word “underresourced”. What do Opposition members mean by “underfunded” or “underresourced”? Do they mean that the police want and could use extra money? Yes, we would all agree with that. Do they mean that there is spare money sitting around? No, there is no spare money.
On the subject of spare money—
I hear what John Mason says about the budget and I reflect particularly on our own city. Does John Mason agree with his SNP council colleagues, one of whom said that the settlement from the Scottish Government was “very disappointing”? Another SNP councillor, Allan Casey, said that there are
“significant budget problems.”
He also said:
“I think Glasgow has been dealt a bad hand in terms of this budget.”
Does John Mason agree, and will he support me in arguing for greater resources for our city?
I want more resources for Glasgow, Aberdeen, the NHS and lots of other things, but my point, if Johann Lamont has been listening so far, is that we have to live within our means.
On the subject of spare money, if there is a slight underspend at the end of March, it does not mean that there is a huge pot available for every need. Our budget is now some £40 billion and 1 per cent of that is £400 million. Yes, £400 million is a lot of money, even for Glasgow City Council, but as a percentage of our budget, it is within the bounds of forecasting error—we understand that the Office for Budget Responsibility is often 3.5 per cent out in its forecasting.
Another way of engaging in the budget process is not to take part in a realistic way at all. Johann Lamont did not mention the Labour councillor who walked out of the budget meeting. That is not a very responsible way to take part in a budget process or to help to come up with a budget that balances and commands support. Anyone who wants more money for health, local government or something else really has to say where that money will come from, and whether that will mean more tax or cuts elsewhere.
I will make a couple of points on consequentials, which were mentioned several times yesterday in the justice debate. The point of this Parliament is to make our own decisions on the priorities of the people of Scotland. Yes, we have passed on health consequentials straight to health, but that should be the exception rather than the norm. For example, we want to have a more caring social security system, so that means that we need to reallocate resources from elsewhere.
We should not be automatically copying spending patterns from England. Of course, borrowing can be another option. Westminster has the capacity to borrow without much limitation, and some here perhaps feel that we should follow suit. However, let us remember that the Westminster debt is £1.8 trillion to £1.9 trillion, which is around £30,000 per head in the UK. Both Labour and the Tories have been guilty of irresponsible borrowing, and such a level of debt is not sustainable.
We should absolutely identify with councils, the NHS and others that are impacted by the tight finances that we all face. Glasgow City Council has made difficult decisions and has done well to protect spending on teachers and education.
A few people have said to me that we should look at the overseas budget. We should remember that it is only £10 million for the international development fund, which is a very small part of our national budget. It is one quarter of 0.1 per cent, or 2.5 pence out of every £100. The reality is that, in world terms, we are still a very wealthy country. We know that many of our citizens who are not well off themselves give sacrificially to charities such as Mary’s Meals or Tearfund, which are working to help vulnerable people in developing countries. Therefore, I think that we are reflecting the priorities of many of Scotland’s people when we allocate that very small amount to overseas needs. It is worth remembering that that money would not make a big difference to our budget here, but it can go a lot further in Malawi, Zambia or Rwanda.
We would all like to spend more on many things, but we have to live within our means and I think that this budget makes a very reasonable attempt to share out our resources in a fair way.16:29
The Government’s budget document says that it aspires to
“the creation of a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish”.
If that is the case, it would have to provide adequate investment in our schools, colleges and universities, because there can be no clearer or more effective investment in our future prosperity and no more direct way to maximise opportunity for future generations.
That would be true for any Government, but for this one, which has declared education as its top priority, and closing the attainment gap as a “sacred” duty of the First Minister, it is surely a given. Yet, this Government’s track record over 13 years is one of systematic disinvestment in education, and the budget—as presented—fails to halt that trend, never mind restore that lost investment.
Let us start with colleges, which, in the draft budget, receive a small real-terms increase in revenue funding. However, that fails to restore the repeated swingeing cuts that those colleges have had in the past decade. Figures that we have obtained from the Scottish Parliament information centre show that, next year, in real terms, the FE resource budget will be 10 per cent less than it was 10 years ago. What is more, next year the budget provides a capital allocation that is not only cut in cash terms but is less than half the requirement that the sector identified.
For universities, the picture is bleaker. Over the past five years, their resource funding has been cut by more than 11.5 per cent. The draft budget gives them no real-terms increase. As Professor Andrea Nolan of Universities Scotland said,
“The reality is that universities have no more money, in real terms, to spend on students and staff than they had last year.”
It is no wonder that university staff salaries have been squeezed, and that more and more university staff are on temporary or zero hours contracts or are now out on strike.
We are spending £700 less per year on students’ education, and the budget has no money to implement the promised improvements to student support. What kind of short-sighted Government chooses to squeeze FE and deprioritise universities, which are critical to our future? The answer is: one that is also daft enough to underinvest in schools.
Schools are the biggest item in council budgets. On the back of previous year-on-year cuts, today’s budget cuts council allocations by £300 million in real terms, so members should be in no doubt that schools will suffer. They have suffered already—since 2013-14, local government’s non-ring-fenced revenue funding has been cut by an alarming £899 million in real terms. It is no wonder that we spend £288 less per primary pupil and £129 less per secondary pupil than we did 10 years ago; that we still have 2,500 fewer teachers in our schools than we did when this Government first took office; and that the additional support that those teachers used to have has disappeared from many classrooms.
This budget will make those things worse. Members should look at the councils that have already set their budgets. We have already heard that, in Glasgow, the SNP-led council plans to close the much-loved Blairvadach outdoor centre, which has served the city’s children since 1974. It survived decades of Tory cuts and austerity but it could not survive the SNP at Holyrood and in Glasgow city chambers.
In Edinburgh, the budget that was passed last week cuts £1.6 million from devolved school budgets—so much for empowering schools.
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is winding up his speech.
Yesterday, Mr Swinney made a speech in Wester Hailes education centre but he failed to mention that the school’s devolved budget has been slashed by more than £20,000.
This budget does little for colleges, nothing for universities and yet more damage to our schools. It fails to invest in our future prosperity and it fails to invest in excellence in our education system—[Interruption.] Worst of all, Mr Swinney, it fails to invest in the future opportunities for our children and grandchildren. It is not good enough.16:35
I should declare my saltire card along with my senior railcard. I am delighted that the Scottish Greens have secured free bus travel for under-19s as part of the budget deal. That is a transformational policy that will benefit more than a million young people across Scotland and their families. It will tackle poverty and isolation. It will make families better off; we heard an example of that from Patrick Harvie earlier. It will give young people the mobility and freedom that they need to access education and employment opportunities, not to mention the social benefits that it will bring them. It will help tackle the climate emergency, reducing congestion and toxic air pollution by getting more people on buses. It will give people an affordable alternative to private cars—and we forget at our peril the number of people who do not have access to a motor vehicle. It will help to rebuild a culture of using public transport, after decades of decline. It will bolster bus services across the county, putting tens of millions of pounds into the industry and getting more passengers on to seats that are otherwise empty, not to mention more fare-paying adult passengers, as a result of family travel being made more affordable.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am afraid that I have only three minutes, Mr Greene.
The benefits of making bus travel free for under-19s are profound for rural areas. Rural bus users often face much higher fares than urban users, which closes down opportunities for young people in rural communities and causes social isolation. As one young person said in a survey that was run by Scottish Rural Action:
“I had a part time job half an hour away. The cost of the bus fare was equivalent to two hours pay from a four or five hour shift, which became untenable”.
Individuals such as that young person will immediately be helped by what we have announced today, and so will those who do not currently have access to a bus route, because we are at a turning point for the bus industry. Bus use has been in long-term decline as public transport has been neglected by successive Scottish Governments, which have focused support and money on road building.
Last year, the Greens secured powers in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to allow councils to run their own bus services. We will now see new life breathed into the industry as a result of the Greens working with others—including Mr Smyth—by getting their transformational policy of free bus travel for all young people introduced into the budget. It is no wonder that the announcement has been welcomed by so many diverse individuals and groups across Scotland: from Friends of the Earth Scotland to the Poverty Alliance and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. We are on a journey to transform habits, and we have seen in East Lothian that that can happen.
I am not surprised that the Tories will not back the policy today—their only priority throughout the process has been tax cuts for the wealthy. However, I am shocked and disappointed that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are lining up behind the Tories yet again.
A vote for the budget today is a vote to make bus travel free for more than a million young people across Scotland. I urge everyone in the chamber to put aside their political squabbling and to get behind this transformational policy to get Scotland moving, to address poverty and to tackle the climate emergency.16:38
Scottish Labour entered into talks to try and improve the budget. After 13 years of mismanagement, we and the communities that we serve are in desperate need of investment—investment in our public services, schools and community care, and in an end to potholes.
However, yet again the SNP and their little helpers, the Greens, have this year sold our communities short. They are parties that are more interested in flags than in people, and are more interested in division than in mending and growing our communities. We cannot support them in that. Although we welcome there being more money for local government, the deal will not stop local government cuts.
We will see continuing bed blocking. We will see young people being failed, as education standards fall, and more children with additional support needs being left behind. This is a budget of continued austerity at the hands of the SNP and the Greens.
If we give even more money to local authorities—I am not against that in principle—where will it come from? What would Rhoda Grant cut to give local authorities that money?
There is an assumption that cuts would have to be made. First, I would delve behind the big sofa again and find some more money, but I would also look at the reserves, at a social responsibility levy and at tax rates for higher earners. Those are all levers that are in the Government’s control, but which it refuses to use.
We wanted free bus travel for young people under 25. Even if the deal with the Greens delivers, 400,000 young people will miss out. The Greens have settled for an agreement to look at what might be provided for under-19s. There is no agreement to provide free bus travel for under-19s; there is agreement only to investigate whether that will happen. For a fraction of the price, the Greens could have delivered free bus travel for the under-16s tomorrow, but they settled for talks about talks.
On prices, I respect the fact that Labour was looking for free bus travel for the under-25s, but can Rhoda Grant tell Parliament what Labour’s costings were for its proposal?
I shared those costings with the cabinet secretary, and she shared her costings with me, although they did not appear to be based on anything. Our costings, which came through the Scottish Parliament information centre, are based on use of the Young Scot card. It would cost about £26 million to deliver our policy. The Government provided no real costings whatsoever, but simply assumed that the proposal would cost more than free bus travel for older people.
I do not believe that free bus travel for under-19s will happen. I hope very much that the Government will deliver, but we should look back to past budget sops. Last year, the Government told the Greens that it would consider scrapping the council tax. However, this week, I spent an hour in a meeting talking about amending council tax and varying the bands. That is going nowhere, and we are left with the regressive council tax.
Let us take the sop in the budget about fair ferry funding for the northern isles, which is another issue on which no progress has been made. Rather than providing a sustainable future for our ferries in the northern isles, funding is diminishing.
Bus usage has fallen by 8 million journeys per year. The proposal to provide free travel for young people under 19 is a fudge. We need to ensure that bus travel increases. Giving free bus travel to the under-25s would improve bus services not only for them, but for all of us, and would encourage life-changing habits among young people such that they continue to use bus services into adulthood.
Iain Gray listed the budget cuts to further and higher education and schools. As he said, on the SNP’s watch, there are 2,500 fewer teachers and ASN support has all but disappeared. This week, my colleague Jackie Baillie had a member’s business debate about the fact that ASN children are being failed in school and that many are not being educated at all.
We wanted a budget that delivers a just transition rather than one that is just a sop, with crumbs towards meeting the net zero emissions target. We wanted a budget in which the whole £50 billion would be tested against a just transition and our national performance framework.
There will, we hope, be consequentials from the UK Government. I reiterate my call to the finance secretary for negotiations to take place on those consequentials. I ask her to bring them to Parliament so that we can consider how they can best be spent to improve the future of all our citizens.
The process could have been so different. The budget could have halted cuts, but our communities will continue to see their public services disappear. Since 2013, councils’ discretionary spending has fallen by nearly £900 million, and that is after including the additional £95 million today. We want investment in our public services, and we would have backed a budget that stopped cuts, but this budget heaps yet more misery on our communities. Therefore, we cannot back it.16:44
This has been a lively debate. If the award for the most statesmanlike speech goes to my good friend Bruce Crawford, the award for the most amusing, so far, goes to Alex Neil. Although he was, of course, totally wrong about everything that he said, he entertained us.
In these troubled times, it is good to have in life certainties on which we can rely. In Scotland, we can always rely on the weather in February being miserable, we can be confident that our football team will perform dreadfully against whichever low-ranked opponent it is playing this week, and we can guarantee that, despite all their posturing and bluster, the Scottish Greens will always end up voting for the SNP budget. So it has turned out once again this week, with the Greens lining up with their fellow nationalists.
This year, it looks as though they have sold themselves very cheap. Only a few weeks ago, the Greens were setting out their red lines for the budget. They were demanding that road-building projects be cancelled and that dualling of the A9 and A96 be stopped. They were even calling for a four-day working week to be introduced. None of those things has been delivered, thank goodness.
Instead, what is now being trumpeted by the Greens is the introduction of free bus travel for people aged under 19. Yesterday, press releases from the Green Party and social media comments from Green MSPs claimed their victory in delivering that policy to tackle climate change. However, it is a debacle; when we look at what has actually been agreed, it falls far short of a firm commitment. I will quote directly from the Cabinet Secretary for Finance’s written answer yesterday. It says that there is
“£15 million to support preparations to introduce new concessionary free bus travel for young people aged 18 and under, with the aim if possible to begin in January 2021”.—[Written Answers, 26 February 2020; S5W-27621.]
There will just be “preparations”—there is just a possibility, as the finance secretary confirmed earlier—and there is just £15 million against an annual estimated cost of £80 million. Mr Harvie can now explain how that is a firm commitment.
I will be delighted if we can go into the next election saying that the only way to put an easily delivered policy into practice is to put the Greens into Government. However, I do not think that the Scottish Government will give us that opportunity, because that commitment is clearly deliverable. The only thing that would make the Young Greens happier would be if Mr Fraser told us that the Young Conservatives think that it is such a bad idea that they will never get on the bus, so they will not have to share it with them.
We are, after that intervention, none the wiser as to whether the policy will be delivered.
It is not just on that policy that the Greens have been sold short. Yesterday, they were claiming that the proposed flyover at the Sheriffhall roundabout should be revisited. It is a vital infrastructure project for connecting Edinburgh to Midlothian and the Borders. However, because the project is being delivered as part of the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal, a change to the policy would require the agreement of the UK Government and local authority partners: it would be up to them. The finance secretary confirmed that yesterday in a television interview, so the Greens have been sold short again.
I have to congratulate Kate Forbes on what she has achieved so far as finance secretary. She has been in the job for only nine days, but already she has stitched up Patrick Harvie far more successfully than her predecessor achieved in more than three years in the role.
Overall, the budget is a disappointment, but it could have been so much better. It was based on a 3.7 per cent uplift in real terms in the total available resource spending, thanks to the Boris bonus that is due to increased Westminster spending. Against that, as Bruce Crawford reminded us, we have to offset the negative reconciliation of more than £200 million from poorer income tax receipts than were forecast three years ago, and the downward effect of lower income tax forecasts relative to the rest of the UK on the amount of money that is available for the Scottish Government to spend. That all demonstrates, once again, that if we could grow the Scottish economy at even the same rate as the UK average, we would have many hundreds of millions of pounds more to spend on public services, without having to increase taxes any further.
Alex Neil made a speech about the fiscal framework, but he seems to have forgotten that the person who negotiated the fiscal framework was Mr Swinney, on behalf of the Scottish Government. If Mr Neil has a problem with what is in the fiscal framework, he needs to take that up with his colleague on the front bench.
Despite all the extra money that is available to the Scottish Government, and the fiscal transfer from the rest of the United Kingdom of £10.7 million, the budget still delivers cuts. There is an extra £95 million in revenue for local government, which is welcome, but there is nothing extra for capital. That means a real terms cut of £117 million in capital for local authorities across Scotland. It will mean that projects that are currently being planned—local roads and infrastructure projects, new school builds and refurbishments, leisure and recreation centre investments—will all have to be rethought because the SNP Government, backed by the Greens, is cutting the budgets of local authorities.
Right across Scotland today, local authorities are having to set budgets and make cuts. As Donald Cameron reminded us, they are having to make cuts in school-crossing patrollers, teacher numbers, classroom assistants, music tuition, the opening hours of libraries and leisure facilities and the opening hours of local recycling centres—from a budget that is supposedly focused on climate change. That is what is being delivered right across Scotland, thanks to the SNP and the Greens working together. At the same time, as Graham Simpson reminded us, many places are facing council tax rises of nearly 5 per cent this year.
In effect, the budgets of local councils across Scotland are being raided to fund the pet project of the SNP and Greens. If we see free bus travel for the under-19s being provided, the buses will be travelling on heavily potholed roads, because the Greens have stolen the money out of local government to fund that scheme.
The Scottish Conservatives engaged constructively on the draft budget; I thank the Cabinet Secretary for Finance for her constructive engagement. However, we cannot support the budget. Despite the extra resources that are available to the Scottish Government, the budget falls short of what Scotland requires. It will deliver more cuts, it does not tackle the drugs crisis, and for all the noise that they are making, the Greens have sold themselves short once again. It is a budget that Parliament should reject.16:51
This budget delivers certainty, stability and stimulus for Scotland. It protects our public services and it delivers on the priority themes of tackling climate change, reducing child poverty, supporting inclusive growth and, in the roundest sense, improving the wellbeing of people in Scotland. At a time of turmoil and uncertainty resulting from the UK Government’s actions, it is essential that we lead the way as a Parliament for the people of Scotland.
I will reflect on some of the comments that have been made by my colleagues, starting with the wider context. The Conservatives opened their remarks by saying, “There is no austerity.” Only a Conservative could look at the past 10 years, during which, under a UK Tory Government, Scotland’s discretionary resource allocation has been cut by 2.8 per cent—or £840 million—between 2010 and 2021 and say that. The Tories now talk about the windfall that they are kindly and benignly bestowing upon us, but only the Tories could describe a slight increase that does not reverse that decade of cuts as a bonus—whether it is Boris’s or anyone else’s. If the Tories are so proud of this year’s block grant, why is it so late? Why are they waiting and forcing us to introduce our own budget ahead of the UK Government’s, which is introducing even more uncertainty? For the Conservatives to say that there is no austerity is quite remarkable.
Despite the significant investment that we are making through this budget, the Tories have confirmed that they will not support the budget because of tax. They will vote against increased funding for local government, the police and health because of tax divergence. The intriguing thing is that such divergence would, of course, be the result of the UK Government’s decisions to cut tax rates. In 2018, the then chancellor promised to freeze the higher rate threshold in 2020-21; so if there is to be any divergence, it will only be because the UK Government has broken its promise and has, once again, prioritised tax cuts at the expense of other services.
Can the finance secretary confirm that, if the Scottish Government were to match any changes in the UK income tax rates, under the fiscal framework negotiated by Mr Swinney, there would be no additional cost to the Scottish Government?
I am not prepared to outsource our decisions on tax to the UK Government or to wait for the Tories to hurry up and get their budget done while we bake in anticipated consequentials rather than agreed consequentials, which will come only on 11 March—the very date by which local government has to set council tax in consideration of our precious public services.
Jamie Greene talked about our teachers. What he forgot to say is that the starting salary for a fully qualified teacher is significantly higher in Scotland than it is elsewhere in the UK. The budget commits the latest funding to increase teachers’ pay. After income tax and pay policy choices for 2020-21 are passed this evening, and ultimately at stage 3, a teacher at the top of the main scale will be around £950 better off next year than they are this year. Incidentally, a band 5 staff nurse at the top of the pay scale will be around £700 better off, and a senior nurse in band 6 will be around £890 better off. That is what the budget delivers.
Labour raised concerns about local authorities. Those concerns are why, in the agreement that we reached yesterday, we met COSLA’s ask of £95 million. Capital has also been mentioned. Local authorities will be able to access the £1 billion schools for the future programme to invest in their school estate; they will be able to access over £800 million to invest in affordable homes; and there is also £201 million for city region and growth deals.
Is the schools for the future funding just revenue funding, whereby councils borrow and the Government gives them some money towards that borrowing cost, rather than an investment by the Scottish Government in our schools?
Of course, it is an investment by the Scottish Government in our school estate. It builds on the very successful schools for the future programme, which saw the second-highest amount go to Highland Council, which is the member’s local authority.
The budget also includes the new £200 million for the green growth accelerator, to help and support local authorities to invest in low-carbon infrastructure. The additional revenue funding of £594 million, taken together with potential council tax income of up to £135 million, means that councils have the potential to access an additional £724 million in resource next year.
I think the reason why we have heard the predictable accusations and counter-accusations this afternoon is that this is a good budget. Yesterday’s agreement is good for the communities and businesses of this country.
Bruce Crawford, speaking on behalf of the Finance and Constitution Committee, identified some of the risks and challenges that the budget faces as part of the fiscal framework. Those are recognisable and we must take steps to meet those challenges. I spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier today, to highlight some of the risks of the volatility that comes with the fiscal framework. We must work collaboratively to manage those risks and that volatility.
Despite that, and despite the uncertainty and the fact that we do not know what consequentials will come to us on 11 March, we have a budget before us that is the best available budget for Scotland. It delivers for local authorities, it delivers for the wider public sector and it delivers for the people of Scotland. It will continue to deliver on the key priorities of the people of Scotland. I urge all members to support the budget, to ensure that we benefit the people of Scotland and give people the certainty that they need at a time like this.
I urge members to vote for the budget at 5 o’clock.
That concludes our stage 1 debate on the budget. I will give members an extra minute. I am not saying that the vote is on a knife edge, but I want to allow everybody time to come to the chamber. We will wait for another 50 seconds, until 5 o’clock.