Draft Budget 2017-18 (Timetable)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th October 2016.

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Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I must say that I found Derek Mackay’s response disappointing. This is a serious debate about how best the Parliament can scrutinise the budget. The Finance Committee had reasonable discussions with him and Mr Harvie offered him a reasonable way forward but, to be honest, we got seven minutes of absolute waffle.

The bottom line is that we have a £30 billion budget to consider and the Finance Committee was looking for scenario planning. That means having an optimistic scenario that involves a budget of £30.4 billion, a middle scenario that involves a budget of £30 billion and a pessimistic scenario that involves a budget of £29.6 billion, and running all the high-level figures through them.

It is disingenuous of Mr Mackay to pretend that it is difficult to do that, because a lot of the information has already been published. The Government budget holders do not sit with a blank piece of paper each year, waiting for the budget to come round; they go back to the previous year’s budget and start with that. We should not forget that 55 per cent of the Scottish budget is made up of staff costs, which do not vary a great deal from year to year, and there are other fixed costs. In the programme for government, we heard the Government make a number of spending commitments that will roll over into the budget. There is no excuse for not being able to produce different scenarios with high-level indicative figures.

When the Finance Committee discussed the matter, I favoured publication of the budget according to the normal timetable, because I was not convinced by the cabinet secretary’s arguments. However, the committee—very reasonably—gave Mr Mackay a way forward and asked for scenario planning and indicative figures. At the meeting, he gave the committee the impression that he was prepared to go along with that solution. It therefore came as something of a shock—a slap in the face for the committee—when Mr Mackay wrote to the committee to refuse to provide that information.

Where does that leave us now? We cannot carry out proper scrutiny. How can the subject committees properly scrutinise the budget in a matter of two weeks? That weakens and undermines the process. The irony in all this is that it is the most important budget in the history of the Scottish Parliament, at a time when we have more powers at our disposal than ever before, yet Derek Mackay is seeking to curtail and close down the debate. More than at any time before, we should be opening the budget process up for scrutiny, looking for ideas and involving more people, but it is difficult for us to do that when the timescale has been reduced.

I say once again that Mr Harvie’s motion, which has the support of the majority of the Parliament, gives Mr Mackay a way forward. Mr Mackay should seriously reflect before he stands up to respond to the debate, because if he does not respond positively and does not seek to address the issues in that motion, he and his Government will be seen to be treating Parliament with contempt.