Draft Budget 2017-18 (Timetable)

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

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I have always thought that Bruce Crawford is a wise, sensible and reasonable man. That has been confirmed this afternoon. I see him squirming in his chair as I give him that commendation, but it comes to something when somebody of his stature is prepared to put forward such a powerful case and to use phrases such as “unacceptable behaviour”. The cabinet secretary should pay heed to that.

We all accept that circumstances have changed with the new powers on welfare and tax, plus the autumn statement and Brexit. They make the case for more scrutiny—not less. They make the case for having a more detailed discussion with the country, not a less detailed one. Of course we understand that Derek Mackay cannot produce a draft budget that has all the variables in place, but let us understand a bit more of the detail. After all, the SNP Government is expert on everybody else’s responsibilities. Apparently, we have projected the cost of Brexit for the next 20 years but cannot predict the budget just a few weeks ahead.

We need a bit more perspective and understanding. The Fraser of Allander institute report that the minister has repeatedly quoted made projections over five years. That report must have some credibility, because he spends quite a bit of his time giving credit to it. However, he seems to be incapable of using all the might and resource of the Scottish Government to produce anything to compare with it.

It would be helpful if the minister were to pay heed to what has been recommended on producing scenario planning with indicative figures by the October recess. That is a reasonable thing to do and I think that I have seen a bit of movement from him today. I hope that it is movement towards that position so that we can have greater scrutiny and debate.

I fear that the hesitation and resistance that are clear from him are an indication of uncertainty about the SNP’s manifesto commitments, which were worked out months ago in advance of the election. What does the £500 million extra spending on health mean for the headline budget? What do the real-terms increases in police spending mean for the final budget? I would also like to see some profiling on the childcare commitment—one of the Government’s biggest and boldest commitments—to test whether some of the predictions that have been made about its roll-out can come true. Also, what is the real price of the cut in air passenger duty?

One of the biggest points that the Fraser of Allander institute makes is the need for detail on what departments are protected and which are unprotected so that we can fully understand the implications for the unprotected ones. The First Minister, who has quoted the Fraser of Allander institute’s report at First Minister’s question time, has made it clear on a number of occasions that the cuts could be something like £1.6 billion. We need, before the budget is finally published, to see some of the detail of what that could mean for the unprotected departments. That is some of the detail that the Parliament deserves to see.

I hope that we have seen some movement from the minister and that he pays heed to Bruce Crawford’s wise words so that we can come to an acceptable compromise on the matter, and so that the situation is no longer unacceptable in the Finance and Constitution Committee’s eyes.