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It seems to me that we often get carried away when we speak about money in this place. We speak about giving an extra couple of billion here, or an extra 10 million there. For most people—and I include myself in their number—such amounts are hard to imagine.
When we examine the figure of £453 million, we can come up with some interesting statistics. If £453 million were paid in pound coins, it would weigh 9.5 tons, and would stack into a pile almost 2 miles high. The total budget for the Forth Valley health board, which covers my constituency in Clackmannanshire and Falkirk, is about that amount, and it is more than twice the budget for council services in my constituency. For that amount, every one of my constituents could be educated, have their bins picked up and have their roads repaired for two years. That is the size of the Scottish Government underspend. I will say that again: this is the amount of money that was allocated to them and was not spent.
The SNP does not like that figure to be discussed and generally disseminated; it resists scrutiny, undermines Scottish parliamentary committees, and has subverted the freedom of information process in Scotland. But it is right during this debate that we speak about the services that could have been provided with the money allocated for the last financial year had it been spent—the healthcare that could have been provided to the sick, the educational equipment that could have been bought for our students, and the roads that could have been fixed or repaired for our motorists by the Scottish Government. The Scottish taxpayer is now the highest taxed of all taxpayers in these islands.
Of course, I defend the right of the SNP Scottish Government to set their spending priorities according to the priorities they have set for that Government. That is their prerogative. The devolved Government can and must reflect the different needs of Scotland. But it is right to throw a spotlight on the mismanagement of the public finances in Scotland and ask questions about the services being cut around Scotland while Derek Mackay runs up a huge Government surplus.
This comes at a time when councils are increasingly dipping into their reserves, and that is a direct consequence of SNP budget cuts. A recent Scottish Government report reveals that in 2017-18 councils spent £126 million from their reserves and this coming year it is predicted that councils will need to call on an additional £113 million- worth of reserves. These reserves are not being used for landmark projects; it is a last resort to keep day-to-day services going.
This might seem like a small issue, but to my constituents who contacted me it is a big deal. I am speaking now of the Stirling play bus. It is an old bus that many children in Stirling and the surrounding district for the past few decades had enjoyed. It went around Stirling, right into the most remote villages and into the heart of the some of the most deprived communities in my constituency. It was a place to play when the weather was not so good and it gave kids a place to go during the summer. The bus was, sadly, scrapped this year having finally given up the ghost. Stirling Council—an SNP and Labour-run council since last year—took the opportunity to reduce play services and remove all mobile provision of this kind, as a cost saving by a council strapped for cash.
It is shocking that this should happen while the Government of Scotland run up a surplus of half a billion pounds. I know Members from across Scotland will have many hundreds of such examples and I could go into many more myself; this will take some explaining on the part of the SNP Scottish Government.
As has been widely reported, the Scottish Fiscal Commission is forecasting that the Scottish Government are facing a £1.7 billion shortfall in public finances over the next five years, as Scotland’s economy lags behind the rest of the UK, with growth remaining below 1% a year until 2023. As my good friend and colleague Murdo Fraser MSP said:
“Derek Mackay might like to fool us all into thinking this £453 million underspend figure is an insignificant sum. But it’s higher than what the SNP’s independence blueprint”
—the growth commission—
“said it would cost to create a separate state. The finance secretary is having to put money aside to meet a projected shortfall in tax revenues due to Scottish economic underperformance.”
Those are the words of Murdo Fraser, and I concur with them.
In the minute I have remaining to me I would like to raise an issue pertinent to my Stirling constituency specifically: the governance of the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is answering this debate because she played no small part in delivering the city deal for Stirling and Clackmannanshire. For that we on these Benches are indebted and very grateful. But I am concerned about the governance that is prescribed for a city deal. I hope she will be able to reassure us that the approach for the governance of the city deal will be pragmatic—that it will be light touch—and will not be left at the mercy of a bureaucratic system of committees and joint boards. I wonder whether having the deal anchored within a council is the best way to achieve what we are striving to achieve. I do not want the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal to find itself in the category of city deals described in a recent FSB Scotland briefing, which welcomed the city deals but questioned their
“lack of engagement with smaller businesses” and the
“lack of transparency inherent within the deals”.
I look forward to hearing what my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—and she truly is a right hon. Friend to Scotland—will have to say in response to that specific concern.