The Finance Committee is to be congratulated on the approach that it has taken to the budget this year. Mr Gibson took us through that extremely eloquently at the start. Not only did the committee, as it has sometimes only done, scrutinise what is up and what is down in the budget, but it took a longer-term, more strategic look at how the budget underpins the Government’s objectives.
After all, it is now six years ago that the Scottish Government unveiled its purpose—
“a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”— along with five objectives, 16 national outcomes and no fewer than 50 national indicators, all woven together into a purpose framework and tracked in a national performance framework.
In the course of his evidence, the cabinet secretary told the committee,
“I am not sure that it is vital that it is understood by members of the public”,—[Official Report, Finance Committee, 4 November 2013; c 3242.]
which may be just as well, but made much—fairly—of the complements that many witnesses paid to the national performance framework as an approach. However, he cannot then simply ignore the fact that, one after another, those expert witnesses told the committee members of their concern that they could find no connection between the Government’s purpose and its spending decisions.
Mr Gibson quoted his committee’s adviser, who said:
“There is … no link between the Government’s spending plans … and the intended impact”.
However, not only the Finance Committee found that. The Health and Sport Committee also reported on the
“lack of clear links … between the information in the Draft Budget and the indicators”,
and the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee concluded:
“There is no attempt to link spend to specific Targets or Indicators.”
The fact that no committee could find any link between the budget and what it is supposed to be for cannot simply be dismissed. Whether it was making Scotland wealthier, fairer, healthier or greener, our committees could see no plan, strategy or targeting of resources.
Mr Swinney says that we should not worry about that because we should test against outcomes, so let us do that.
Unemployment figures may be improving, but there are still 75,000 more Scots on the dole than when the Scottish National Party came to power. More and more Scots who are in work earn less than the living wage, more are in part-time work and more are on zero-hours contracts. Those are not outcomes with which we can be satisfied.
Let us look at the health service. The budget claims to protect the health service—the First Minister made much of that earlier today—but a recent survey showed us that less than one third of NHS staff think that we have enough doctors and nurses, and marginally over half think that the NHS puts patients first. That is in a week when what must be one of the most damning reports into any hospital that the Parliament has ever seen was published. Those are not outcomes with which we can be satisfied.
When the cabinet secretary published his budget, he made much of an increase in the housing line, but the truth is that he is simply restoring cuts that, at one point, cut the housing budget in half. Every year, he tells us that he intends to build his way out of recession but, last year, fewer houses were built than at any time since 1946, 20 per cent fewer social rented houses were completed than in the year before and waiting lists spiralled.
As for the future lifeblood of the country, Mr Gibson is right that the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee was concerned to find than the number of 16 to 19-year-olds not in employment, education or training is not reducing. In fact, it increased last year.
As for creating a fairer Scotland, the SNP inherited £1.5 billion of anti-poverty programmes and £1 billion of those programmes has disappeared. Is it any wonder that we still have 200,000 children living in poverty?
The connection between those decisions and the outcomes does not seem too complex to me.
The Government’s spin doctors rather let the cat out of the bag when the budget was published, because they briefed that it was a budget for independence. Of course, that is the Government’s actual and only objective. It is a budget to get through the referendum, so steady as she goes. Difficult decisions are dodged, responsibility is refused and no horses are frightened. That is not good enough.
If the cabinet secretary wants us to believe that the budget is about more than that, he should start by making two changes. First, he should use the consequentials from the autumn statement to extend 600 hours of nursery provision to 50 per cent of two-year-olds right now. Secondly, he should identify the money and the means to mitigate the whole impact of the bedroom tax; £20 million is less than half of what is needed.