I start by thanking the committee convener, Bruce Crawford, for setting out the committee’s position very fairly in his opening speech. As someone who is noted for his loyalty to the Government, I appreciate that this has not been an easy job for him to perform personally, but the role of a committee convener is to represent the committee view, even when one might hold different personal opinions, as I know from my own experience.
The finance secretary essentially had a choice when he came to the chamber this afternoon: he could either listen to the will of Parliament as expressed in the number of signatures to Mr Harvie’s motion, which represents a majority of Parliament, and offer concessions to meet Parliament and the Finance and Constitution Committee half way; or he could try to brazen it out. I regret that he has decided to take the latter path in this afternoon’s debate.
The key point that we need to stress is that the issue is not actually the timing of the draft budget. The committee is not calling for the finance secretary to publish his budget before December. Much as we would like the budget to be published in September, we entirely recognise the difficulties that that would cause the Scottish Government and the parliamentary process.
This debate is about whether sufficient information can be provided by the Scottish Government prior to the publication of the budget to allow effective parliamentary scrutiny. It is clear that neither I nor the other members of the Finance and Constitution Committee, from all different parties, are satisfied with the cabinet secretary’s response. In the letter of 21 September from the committee to the cabinet secretary, language is used that might well be unprecedented in such a communication.
The matter revolves around the level of information that can be provided to subject committees prior to the publication of the budget. As Bruce Crawford reminded us, when the cabinet secretary came to the committee on 7 September, he said, in response to a question from Mr Harvie:
“I am willing to produce as much scenario planning information as I can.”—[
Official Report, Finance Committee,
7 September 2016; c 16.]
In his subsequent letter to the committee, the finance secretary declined the committee’s request that he publish indicative budget figures or scenarios at the level of individual portfolios or programmes in advance of the draft budget to assist scrutiny. He stated:
“I think this would risk creating some confusion.”
The concern is that the finance secretary has now gone back on his word to the committee and is offering less than he previously promised. That is what led the committee to write in the very strong terms that we have seen.
As Patrick Harvie has already said, all Opposition members have signed up to a motion in his name that calls on the Scottish Government to do what the committee asked the Government to do and publish budget scenario planning information and illustrative figures before the end of the October recess. I sincerely hope that, even if the cabinet secretary does not do so during the debate, he will reflect on the stated view of the majority of members of Parliament and hold true to his original promise to the committee.
This is not merely an academic matter. Effective democracy requires appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of Government, and nowhere is that more important than in relation to scrutiny of the draft budget. In “OECD Best Practices for Budget Transparency”, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states:
“The government’s draft budget should be submitted to Parliament far enough in advance to allow Parliament to review it properly.”
Our Parliament’s past record in this area has been excellent. Indeed, it has been far better than that of Westminster. Last year, the introduction of the budget was delayed because we were awaiting the outcome of the UK Government’s spending review. At that time, we were told by the Scottish Government that that would be a one-off. It is therefore very disappointing that budget scrutiny is being truncated for the second year in a row.