Draft Budget 2014-15

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th December 2013.

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Photo of Jean Urquhart Jean Urquhart Independent

As a member of the Finance Committee, I endorse the very fair report by the convener, Kenneth Gibson, and thank the cabinet secretary for his speech.

The committee learned from expert witnesses that the national performance framework is internationally recognised and admired. It may not be as well known or as widely understood as we would like in Scotland, but it is a tool of international significance. The Centre for Public Policy for Regions has stated that the setting of ambitious targets across all areas is commendable. The cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government should therefore be commended for their determination to make a success of the NPF. I agree with the cabinet secretary that it is pretty well known at public sector leadership level, if not among the public. More can be done to raise awareness of the national performance framework and its national indicators, of course, and I am sure that there will be further attempts to do so.

Unfortunately, we have a race-to-the-bottom economy in Britain. As a result, Scotland is one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to Oxfam, the wealthiest households are 273 times richer than the poorest households, and the inequalities in Scottish society are deepening and being exacerbated by the declining progressivity of the UK tax and benefits system. Some 40 per cent of Scots in poverty are in work—that is a national disgrace and quite staggering for a country that is so wealthy. That figure is on the rise, as is the number of people in Scotland who are turning to food banks as a last resort. That is another national disgrace.

The Scottish Government can only mitigate those factors. It has no say over how the tax collection system is structured and has simply very little control over the issues that affect people’s lives on a daily basis. I suspect that it is that frustration that has brought the argument into the Parliament today.

The cabinet secretary and his colleagues have done a fine job in balancing the budget, given the tight financial constraints that Scotland has faced over recent years. How could we say any different? In real terms, Scotland’s budget has been cut by around 11 per cent over five years, and capital spending has been cut by more than 26 per cent. It is therefore hardly surprising that everybody is tightening their belts and that things are getting worse.

I find it remarkable that, under those financial pressures, the Scottish Government has committed to maintaining the council tax freeze. That is the only tax that can put a pound back in people’s packets. The Scottish Government has done that—it aims to do so for seven years. I also find it remarkable that it has committed to a consolidation of public services where possible; that it is investing further in colleges and the training of Scotland’s young people; that it is committed to investing £33 million a year in a welfare fund to try to protect the most vulnerable from Westminster’s austerity agenda; and that it will continue to protect the budgets of the NHS and local government in Scotland.

We are faced with a less-than-attractive future if we vote no next year. During his speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London last month, the Prime Minister made it clear that austerity is here to stay.