The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08686, in the name of Michael Marra, on Scotland’s finances and the cost of living. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.
I advise members that we have no time in hand; therefore, all members will have to stick to their speaking time allocation. I am sure that you will lead by example, Michael Marra.
Financial crisis is gripping families across Scotland. Soaring food prices, interest rates, energy and fuel prices and stubbornly high inflation are driving the cost of daily life up and up. Over those few fateful days in Downing Street last September, that scandal was turbocharged by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget and the rest of the Tory party who backed them. There, we have a governing party that is morally bankrupt; here, we have a governing party that is going bankrupt.
Recent events have shown the depth of the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has festered at the heart of the Scottish National Party for years. The party treasurer resigned in 2021 over a lack of access to financial information. In any legitimate organisation, we would expect the treasurer to be able to see the books. Fortunately, though, the continuity First Minister does not believe that the SNP is a criminal organisation. He has never had a burner phone, expensive pens, pots and pans, jewellery or a fridge freezer—it is like the conveyor belt on “The Generation Game”.
No wonder the auditors resigned last year. That, too, was hidden, even from the SNP’s Westminster leader. Those auditors were concerned as to the extent to which
“the audit was considered capable of detecting irregularities, including fraud.”
Yesterday lunchtime, Colin Beattie MSP was not capable of detecting a 2-tonne camper van, let alone fraud. By teatime, he had managed to recognise his own signature. In the approach of the SNP Government, crucially, we find the same patterns of cover-up, secrecy and spin. Disingenuous tactics of dither and delay from this Government meant that the teachers strike dragged on for far longer than parents, pupils or teachers could afford. For months, the cabinet secretary branded a deal “unaffordable and unsustainable”, yet when her own constituents were targeted, like a rabbit from a hat, the cabinet secretary found the extra money, but was very light on detail. That is familiar to members across the chamber as typical of the Government’s approach to budgets.
The result of that haphazard budgeting is clear—more than £3.7 billion in wasted public money under the SNP. I ask that members do not just take my word for it—Audit Scotland has sounded the alarm for years about the opacity of this Government’s finance. A raft of reports and audits have criticised the Government’s lack of transparency. In its 2020-21 audit of the Scottish Government consolidated accounts, Audit Scotland said that without greater transparency, it was
“difficult to form an overall picture of the performance of the Scottish Government.”
In November 2022, Audit Scotland’s report, “Scotland's public finances: Challenges and risks”, said that
“a comprehensive and transparent assessment of the state of Scotland’s public finances” was needed. That warning was followed in December 2022 by the audit of the Scottish Government consolidated accounts, which stated:
“The Scottish Government needs to do more to improve the quality and transparency of its financial and performance reporting.”
Take the infamous ferry contract. Audit Scotland said that there is “insufficient documentary evidence” to explain why the decision was made to proceed with the contract. Audit Scotland’s March 2022 report on arrangements to deliver vessels 801 and 802 was also clear that this Government should
“improve the transparency of its investment decisions”.
Furthermore, just last month, Audit Scotland raised concerns about bonuses paid to senior managers at Ferguson Marine’s shipyard, stating:
“It is not clear how their performance was assessed, nor were appropriate frameworks and governance in place.”
Yet more wasted money, and no action from this Government to stem the tide.
We all remember that the SNP came to power on a promise from one of its disgraced former First Ministers to reduce the size of Cabinet and save the public money. Today, we have a Cabinet of 10, and a further 18 ministers. That is the biggest ever. The public purse is holding together a party in which a majority voted for the other two candidates. The public know that they are not getting value for money.
New figures that were published from the Scottish household survey just this week show satisfaction with public services plummeting. Today, not a single institution in Scotland is stronger than it was 16 years ago. All have been weakened, and some have been decimated, by a perfect storm of 16 years of SNP incompetence and 13 years of Tory austerity.
While the SNP crumbles, the people of Scotland are paying the price for a distracted Government that is mired in scandal. Ask the one in seven Scots on a national health service waiting list. Ask the teacher overwhelmed by their workload. Ask the islanders whose livelihoods are destroyed. Nothing is working as it should.
The reason for that is clear: we have a Government that is rudderless, cast lazily adrift on an ocean of incompetence. However, change is coming. The people will have their say in 2024 and in 2026. They can choose to elect a Government that will restore competence, integrity and transparency to our public finances. They can choose to elect a Government that will rebuild treasured institutions such as our NHS for generations to come. They can choose to elect a Labour Government. That is the change that Scotland needs.
That the Parliament considers sound financial management and the responsible use of taxpayers’ money to be key priorities for any government, and that this is especially important at a time when households and businesses face increased bills and expenses due to the ongoing cost of living crisis; understands that the record of the Scottish Government over the last 16 years has been characterised by failed financial interventions, incompetence, waste and inefficiency, which have to date cost in excess of £3.5 billion of public money; recognises that Audit Scotland has repeatedly highlighted the need for greater transparency, including during the audit of the Scottish Government’s consolidated accounts for 2021-22; considers that a culture of opaqueness and secrecy has prevailed in the Scottish Government in recent years, and that this has had a detrimental impact on the ability of the Parliament and the public to hold the government to account and ensure that value for money is being delivered; believes that, in these uncertain economic times, taxpayers across Scotland must have confidence that their money is being spent wisely, and calls on the Scottish Government to commit to prioritising openness, transparency and competence in the management of Scotland’s finances.
As Parliament will be aware, last week, we published our policy prospectus, “Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership - A fresh start”, which sets out how we as a Government will address the challenges that we face and build on our strengths. It sets out how we will drive equality, how we will seize the opportunities of an economy that is fair, green and growing, and how we will deliver for our communities with first-class public services to which we all aspire.
We have outlined the steps that we will take during this session of Parliament to deliver on that vision, and we are committed to routinely and transparently reporting on our performance against those aims and outcomes.
As a Government, we have been open and transparent with the Parliament on the fiscal challenges that we are managing, both last year and as we developed the budget for this year. The on-going impacts of the pandemic and soaring inflation caused by the war in Ukraine, which has been exacerbated by Brexit, combined to create the most challenging financial situation ever experienced by this Parliament and, indeed, ever experienced by the people we are honoured to represent.
Against that backdrop, we have successfully demonstrated careful budget management year after year, taking the hard decisions that are necessary to live within our means, despite the challenges that we face.
All Scottish Government spend is reported in our accounts, and those are audited against international accounting standards by Audit Scotland.
Not right now.
The Auditor General’s report on the 2021-22 accounts confirmed an unqualified clean audit opinion on the accounts for the 17th consecutive year. We have delivered the most progressive tax system in the United Kingdom and delivered a social security system with fairness at its heart.
Not right now.
Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that was published during the Scottish budget, showed that, as a result of our decisions, the poorest 10th of Scottish households are set to have incomes £580—4.6 per cent—a year higher than they would be under the systems in England or, indeed, in Wales.
We present a draft Scottish budget and budget bill each year to the Parliament for scrutiny, debate and agreement. We engage openly with Parliament on these spending proposals, and meet with appropriate members. Indeed, I am looking forward to meeting Opposition members in coming weeks, including Mr Marra, who I welcome to his new position. We also work with the Parliament and its committees to improve the information that is available to support its scrutiny of the annual budget. We also publish information on the Scottish budget that is understandable and accessible to a wider audience, principally through our publication “Your Scotland, Your Finances” on the Scottish Government website.
We seek to be responsive and listening as a Government, as is demonstrated through our work with key stakeholders and structures such as the equalities and human rights budget advisory group and the open government fiscal transparency commitment group.
During each financial year, we also present at least two budget revisions to Parliament, to agree any new movements within the Scottish budget. These are considered in detail with the Finance and Public Administration Committee. That committee has also acknowledged improvements in information in that regard. For example, in March 2022, the committee convener, speaking on behalf of the committee, complimented the amount of detailed information that was provided in the spring budget revision. I want to put on record my thanks to the committee for the work that it does, and to say that the Government will vote for the amendment in the name of Liz Smith, in recognition of the important work that the committee undertakes.
That is because, as a Government, on matters of financial transparency and presenting information as clearly as possible, we will always seek to improve. We will continue to engage on how transparency can be further improved in our accounts, in particular in relation to the points made by Audit Scotland.
We are committed to improving the understanding of the public finances by the public, their representatives and other interested parties, from the revenue that we raise to the outcome that it achieves. That is demonstrated through our fiscal transparency programme, which is at the heart of the wider commitment to improve fiscal openness and transparency and was co-created with civil society partners in Scotland’s third open government action plan. The plan looks at ways to improve the accessibility of our current fiscal data and information by using more data visualisations, infographics and open data. It commits us to improve the accessibility and usability of our data and information on public finances, benchmark our fiscal openness and transparency against international best practice, and improve engagement and participation in the public finances.
This is hard and complex work, and much of the critical change that we want to see will take time. However, we will continue to work with the Parliament and civil society partners in this. As a Government, we are committed to delivering on-going budgetary transparency and to working with the Parliament, and in particular the Finance and Public Administration Committee, to improve the scrutiny of Scotland’s finances.
I move amendment S6M-08686.2, to leave out from “failed” to end and insert:
“balanced budgets, unqualified accounts and, since 2018, the most progressive income tax system in the UK; considers that this is in stark contrast to the decade of austerity that Scotland has faced from successive UK governments; recognises that the Scottish Government has worked constructively with Audit Scotland, the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee to improve the budgetary process and parliamentary scrutiny of Scotland’s finances, and calls on the Scottish Government to continue to prioritise openness, transparency and competence in the management of Scotland’s finances.”
I am pleased to hear that the Scottish Government is going to support the amendment in my name, because it raises very specific issues about some inconsistencies in data sets that have been used for financial analysis.
We will also—unusually, perhaps—support the Labour motion, because it is important. It deals with an extremely important topic in relation to transparency and scrutiny. In fact, I do not see why any MSP would want to oppose the motion, because it is essential, most especially in these difficult economic times, that we do everything possible to ensure that we get better value for public money and that we do so in as open and transparent a manner as possible.
On the Scottish Conservative benches, we believe that the public deserve no less. They surely have a right to know exactly what their money is being spent on and, just as important, why elected members of this Parliament make certain choices. We need to be held fully accountable for every decision that we make, especially when it comes to the public finances.
I have to say that there is a little inconsistency on that, and not just in relation to detail. There was inconsistency in the minister’s comments. Mr Johnson has sat on the committee for as long as I have—it is a very important committee of this Parliament, for obvious reasons—and one of the important issues that we have raised time and time again is transparency and openness and the ability to scrutinise the numbers on a consistent basis.
Mr Marra referred to lessons that we should have learned. Some of those lessons actually go further back. I remember the previous Auditor General, Caroline Gardner, talking about exactly the same issues. She blamed the Government—it was not directed particularly at the Scottish National Party; it was about Government in general—for a lack of willingness when it came to the scrutiny that is essential to make the Parliament work effectively. There is a wider issue that is about not just the numbers—although we know that the SNP is not very good at numbers just now—but the scrutiny that we need to make the Parliament work properly.
Earlier this week, the Finance and Public Administration Committee convener wrote to Maree Todd to express the committee’s on-going concerns about the lack of a financial memorandum to support the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill. That is just another example of a lack of adequate transparency that prevents the Parliament from engaging in proper scrutiny. That cannot be right.
I am not too sure why the SNP amendment tries to place the blame on Westminster, because I do not think that that is right. Michael Marra cited a figure of, I think, £3.5 billion for failed and profligate spending, and that is a Scottish Government failure relating to Scottish Government projects. I do not really see how that is the UK Government’s fault.
Right. I will draw my remarks to a close, then.
I will finish on an important point. Openness and transparency are not only good practice to enable best value for taxpayers’ money to be measured, but essential if there is to be renewed trust between Government and the public. There is much media comment about how politics and Government have lost their integrity. That is not good for society and it is certainly not good for rebuilding Scotland.
I move amendment S6M-08686.1, to insert at end:
“, and further calls on the Scottish Government to address the concerns about the inconsistency in financial data sets that were set out by the Scottish Parliament Finance and Public Administration Committee in paragraph 43 of its report,
Pre-Budget Scrutiny 2023-24: Scotland's Public Finances in 2023-24 and the Impact of the Cost of Living and Public Service Reform
The minister kept a commendable straight face when he talked about “careful budget management”. Let me go through some of the greatest hits. The troubled GFG Alliance, owned by Sanjeev Gupta, duped the SNP Government into providing a £586 million guarantee in return for 2,000 jobs. Those jobs have never materialised in Lochaber, but it was a fantastic picture for the First Minister and Mr Gupta. There was £50 million to save 1,500 jobs at Burntisland Fabrications but the money and the jobs have gone. However, it was another fantastic photograph with the hard hats and orange jumpsuits.
The Government is on the hook for millions of pounds for the potential environmental clean-up at the Lanarkshire steel mills, if Mr Gupta’s empire collapses, but there was another gritty photograph for the former First Minister in return.
I turn to the icing on the cake—or, as they say in Port Glasgow, the painted-on windows on the ferry. I am talking about the running sore in our collective bank account, the insult to the workers at Ferguson’s and the agony of never-ending cancellations on the islands. The work is over budget and over time and is a national embarrassment but, boy, it was the best photograph ever. The project was such a success that the next lot of ferries are being built in Turkey.
This SNP Government has been an expensive spin machine from the start. It does not do Government for the long term; it does Government only in its own short-term interest. Public money, which has been hard earned by people working in shops, businesses, schools and hospitals, should be carefully stewarded but, too often, the SNP uses it as its plaything and for expensive stunts and press releases. It is an embarrassment; it is not a Government.
Instead, we need change. We need a new economic plan that focuses on long-term progress rather than short-term stunts. Our universities are an economic generator, with global talent working in excellent research. The USA exploits its talent with the careful nurturing of intellectual property, a culture of spin-outs and investment in the best research and talent. However, Scotland is slipping. We used to attract 15 per cent of the funding from Research Councils UK. In the latest round, we attracted only 12.5 per cent, because of the Scottish Government’s mismanagement. We need to reverse that decline.
Our colleges must be restored to strength in order to provide the skilled workforce that employers need. The apprenticeship programme must grow to meet demand, and the apprenticeship levy needs to be reformed to incentivise more training, not less. We need the skills landscape plan now. It has been promised for years, but we still do not have it.
Our renewables potential is huge, but we need a proper plan to rescue the potential of ScotWind. We need to invest in Scottish yards and to help Scottish firms to keep construction and servicing jobs here in Scotland.
To keep the best talent in Scotland, we need to build confidence in the Government’s taxation policy, which should always be evidence based, balanced and certain. Prudence should be our watchword.
We need good public services to keep us healthy and educated, and we need a clean environment in which we can all thrive. That means expanding early learning and childcare. It means shorter waiting times for mental health treatment and accessing a general practitioner. It means cleaning up the sewage from our rivers.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this extremely important and timely debate and to speak in support of the motion in the name of my colleague Michael Marra.
As we have heard from the opening speakers across the chamber, we face two huge crises in Scotland. There is the cost of living crisis, which has been created in part by the Conservatives’ reckless attitude to the economy, and there is the crisis across the NHS in Scotland, which is widely seen and felt. In fact, the crisis is not just in our NHS but across all our public services.
The reality is that Scotland is being failed by two Governments—a Tory Government that has become morally bankrupt, has not taken the action that is required to support and protect people and has contributed to economic recklessness that has driven our economy over a cliff edge, and an SNP Government in Scotland that has grown bloated and out of touch and is now mired in internal party scandals.
Why is that important? It is important because the people of Scotland are being left behind. I will read out a quote:
“I already have days where there is no gas or electricity in the property, and we already skip meals and go without basic items. I am worried that this is going to happen more often and on a lot more days of the month.”
That testimony is the painful reality that is felt by thousands of Scots every day. New research by the Trussell Trust has revealed that the need for food banks in Scotland has reached its highest ever level. Parents are skipping meals to ensure that they can feed their children.
However, that issue did not arise solely from a cost of living crisis. The Trussell Trust has concluded that
“neither the Covid pandemic nor the cost-of-living crisis are the key drivers of need for food banks.”
I think that we all know that they are symptomatic of wider issues including the wide and deep, endemic poverty that pervades in Scotland, which has not been sufficiently addressed across our communities.
Indeed, people who were already in poverty have been pushed to the margins. They are being ignored by both Governments—the one at Westminster and the one at Holyrood. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that 460,000 people in Scotland are now living in very deep poverty. That figure has increased significantly over the past two decades.
“making poverty history in Scotland will be the core of everything our Government does.”—[
, 31 January 2008; c 5744.]
Those were the words of the then Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in 2008. Of course, every member in the chamber should share the aspiration of making poverty history, but it is one thing to say it and another to focus all the Government’s attention and resources on doing something to make it a reality.
After 16 years, the level of child poverty remains the same as it was when the Government came to power. It has had 16 years with access to the levers of power to make fundamental change, but the reality is that, since entering government in 2007, the SNP has failed to address the issues in a serious and substantive manner. That is why we are seeing these issues. Of course, as we have heard, that is also against the backdrop of a Conservative Government at a UK level that has made matters worse.
The reality is that we need change. We need a Labour Government at a UK level that will invest in a meaningful windfall tax, take action on the cost of living and support families across the country. We also need change with a Labour Government here at Holyrood that will reprioritise and move away from waste and Government bloat, finding the triggers and levers and using them to make a difference.
Next week, we will participate in the poverty summit that was announced by the First Minister. We welcome any action to address poverty. However, let us be clear that there have been many summits and this is yet another one. It must not be another talking shop. Despite all its encouraging and positive rhetoric and all its photo ops, the SNP has failed over the past 16 years to use the powers of this Parliament effectively—the Parliament that we created—to make tackling poverty a top policy priority. After 16 years, people need less talk and more action from this Government.
I am pleased to speak in today’s debate, which gives us the chance to contrast Labour’s management of finance with that of the SNP; and, of course, we can look at the Conservatives as well.
In the first place, I am willing to accept that almost every individual and every organisation makes mistakes and wastes money at times. Who of us has never bought food that we did not eat or clothes that we seldom wear?
The Edinburgh trams cost far too much, although that was a decision that was forced on the SNP by other parties. The ferries, clearly, have not been a total success story, although if the Scottish Government had not intervened, p resumably Ferguson’s would now be completely closed and, with it, commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde.
I assume that that is not what Labour is arguing for.
Let us look at other capital projects that have been incredibly successful. For example, the Queensferry crossing was originally costed at some £3 billion to 4 billion but cost £1.4 billion. Prestwick airport remains open and is operating profitably, whereas without the Scottish Government it would presumably have closed, and with it would have gone some 2,000 jobs.
Then we come to revenue spending, where we see some considerable SNP successes, including the Scottish child payment, lifting 50,000 children out of poverty, and 1,140 hours of early learning and childcare for all three and four-year-olds, not to mention free prescriptions, free personal care and the continuation of no student tuition fees.
Of course, we do not know what Labour’s policies are. Both Keir Starmer and Anas Sarwar have been very policy light. It seems that they want to avoid real policies or commitments that they could eventually be held to account for.
Nothing in Labour’s motion for debate says anything about the different decisions that Labour would have made.
I am sorry; it is a four-minute debate so there is no time. [
Labour chose the four-minute debate.
Would Labour have made different decisions about Prestwick and Ferguson’s and allowed them both to close? What we know is what Labour has done in the past, when it had its hands on the purse strings. In Glasgow, it failed to settle the equal-pay claims of female staff and allowed the liability to run up year after year. Only when the SNP came to power and settled the claims did we discover the kind of bill that Labour had run up—£770 million. And how about Labour’s building of this Scottish Parliament building? The initial costs that were estimated by Donald Dewar were £30 million to £40 million; the final cost was £414 million. Was that competence in management?
As another one for Labour, how about the private finance initiative schemes?
I am glad that I am stirring them up a bit.
There were construction costs of some £5.6 billion for schools, hospitals and so on, but our councils and health boards are now having to pay back more than five times that, and it is rising with inflation, with some £15 billion still outstanding. Was that competence in management?
The last time I looked, Labour also continues to support nuclear weapons and £167 billion—according to Reuters—for the upcoming submarine programme. Is that really a priority when ordinary people in the east end of Glasgow are facing a cost of living crisis?
Before the Conservatives start feeling too pleased with themselves, what was the cost of hiring boats that did not exist? It was £13 million. How is high speed 2 going? The Euston tunnel has been delayed indefinitely, with the likely cost having risen from £2.6 billion to £4.8 billion, and the cost of the overall project has gone up from £72 billion to £98 billion.
I just hate to think where Scotland would be now if Labour had been running the show for the past 16 years.
This is an important debate, and it is a timely one, given the myriad of claims and accusations that face the Scottish Government and the party that leads it.
Transparency and accountability in government should be a core principle of government, so that decisions are made in an open manner and, when things go wrong, there is a clear record of how decisions were made and who was responsible for making them. However, that is not how the SNP Government works. Accountability appears to be a foreign concept to SNP ministers.
It was not always like that. In 2010, the then transport minister Stewart Stevenson fell on his sword because it was the right thing to do. If we fast forward to 2023, we find that no one in the Scottish Government has paid the price for the disastrous ferries procurement scandal. We have a Government that is happy to hold important meetings without minuting them, and we are forced to scrabble around searching for those minutes that it did take.
Those unfinished ferries are just one example of a Government that is as transparent as a black hole, and an issue on which decisions were made for political reasons. The SNP has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash on buying what must be the most expensive pre-conference headlines ever.
The ferries scandal and the situations regarding BiFab and Prestwick airport are all examples of a Government that not only made dubious investment decisions but made them behind closed doors and then defended them from behind a smokescreen.
In my region of the Highlands and Islands—Willie Rennie mentioned this—the SNP Government’s dealings with Sanjeev Gupta and the GFG Alliance over the aluminium smelter in Lochaber are another example of how the Government often operates in the shadows. Time and again, the Scottish ministers have hidden behind commercial confidentiality to avoid answering questions on a deal that resulted in more than £0.5 billion of taxpayers’ money being put at risk, and following which the promised new jobs have failed to appear and millions of pounds’ worth of assets were signed over to a business that is now being investigated for fraud and whose auditors resigned last year. That sounds familiar.
Why would we expect anything less from this SNP-led Government? A lack of openness is endemic in the party. Is it any wonder that a party for which transparency and accountability are such alien concepts has formed a Government in its own image?
The SNP has claimed to have spent £3 billion in tackling the cost of living crisis, but the Scottish Parliament information centre has estimated that the SNP has spent less than 20 per cent of that figure, with most of it coming from the UK Government.
The SNP has claimed to have increased support to Scotland’s councils, but Scotland’s councils have rubbished that. It has even claimed that Scottish gross domestic product has grown by more than UK GDP has done when, in fact, it has presided over GDP growth that has lagged behind that of the rest of the UK, and it has allied itself with a party that does not even believe in GDP in the first place.
In its amendment to the motion for today’s debate, the SNP claims that Scotland has
“the most progressive income tax system in the UK”.
There is nothing progressive about making Scotland the most taxed part of the United Kingdom, nor is there anything progressive in an approach that, according to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, could result in Scotland’s 2024-25 budget being reduced by £732 million, as a result of lower than expected tax receipts in 2021-22. That would mean that even more financial pressure would be put on public services.
I am grateful to the minister for giving us all a good laugh today. I can picture him sitting in St Andrew’s house surrounded by his advisers, instructing them to put a line in the amendment about the SNP-Green Government being open, transparent and competent. It is good to see that the minister has not lost his sense of humour. However, I am afraid that Scotland does not see the funny side, after 16 years of SNP incompetence and 16 years of SNP mismanagement of public funds, and when the only thing that is transparent about the SNP Government is its contempt for public accountability.
As someone who has fought hard for this devolved Parliament, I care about how it looks 20-plus years on. Right now, it looks to most people as though the current procedures are failing to help to hold the Government to account. One of the areas in which Scottish Labour believes that change is needed is that the Presiding Officers should have more powers to compel more accurate answers from ministers, where necessary, instead of the self-policing circus that we have at the moment, whereby ministers can avoid answering questions or can provide inaccurate or inadequate answers.
The only current route for politicians now—I know that this is a matter that the Presiding Officers are concerned about—is points of order. The current framework is not fit for purpose and it must change if we care about this Parliament at all.
There is a pressing duty on this Government to change the quality of parliamentary answers, and change course on its poor financial management and commit to a culture of openness and transparency that shows taxpayers clearly where all their money is allocated and spent. That is the case more now than ever. Ordinary people, as Michael Marra has said, question the Government more than ever. They have seen their party of government laid bare in recent weeks in scenes that have rocked the governing party to its core. Unfortunately, that has impacted on the standing and reputation of this Parliament.
I say to the SNP that it owes it to the people of Scotland to overhaul its approach to openness and accountability in this Parliament and in its finances. A culture of secrecy in Scotland’s finances has developed in the Scottish Government for far too long.
The words that I am quoting here are from the Scottish Parliament information centre. It said:
“Audit Scotland have repeatedly called on the SNP Government to improve transparency and accountability in recent years, and the Finance and Public Administration Committee have also urged the government to improve budget transparency.”
In recent years, the Finance and Public Administration Committee has also urged the Government to improve budget transparency. When the Government published its resource spending review in May 2022, it committed to publishing details around planning for public service reform, including the direction of travel for public sector employment. However, the expected plans were notable omissions from this year’s budget, which is another barrier to parliamentary scrutiny, as has been said already.
Public sector pay accounts for £22 billion of the Scottish Government’s budget. Not having a steer on pay parameters leads people to question why the Government was not open in the first place, given that we have had more than a decade of wage stagnation. The unions and the public want to know where the Government stands on its allocation of budget for something so important to the people of Scotland.
For anyone interested in a higher standard of parliamentary scrutiny of our human rights budgeting approach, the need for transparency means that we have to do an awful lot better than what we are faced with now. In the main budget documentation for this year, there is little comment on or description of the data underpinning budget decisions or how the decisions impact on different groups. There are no accompanying documents that are aimed specifically at accessibility, and none with a simple breakdown of the budget. Many supporting documents are not linked to and are hard to find on the website. As a Parliament we have to do better, and the Government needs to do better.
The Scottish Government needs to do more to improve the quality and transparency of its financial and performance reporting. One example in my justice portfolio is the rolling out of body-worn cameras, which is a fundamental requirement for police accountability. We cannot see whether there could have been a decision to make the roll-out happen quicker. Now we have the only force in the UK that will not fully use body-worn cameras. It is time for change.
The oversecretive approach of the Government—
I want to take this opportunity to highlight some positive aspects of the Scottish Government’s stewardship of the nation’s finances, and to identify opportunities for improvement.
All organisations suffer from inefficiencies; my colleague John Mason gave some excellent examples. Another example is the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been spent by the UK Government on questionable personal protective equipment contracts, which can be contrasted with the Scottish Government’s rapid and cost-effective deployment of locally manufactured PPE.
All organisations have opportunities for improvement. No matter how good they think they are, they can always do better. I have some familiarity with that from my previous life as a turnaround professional, which involved taking poorly performing organisations and dramatically improving service delivery for substantially lower costs. We created continuous improvement cultures that value employees and knowledge of how best to do the job, that delegate responsibility beyond layers of ineffective management, and which combined that with modern structured improvement methodologies and adoption of latest technologies. That is very much aligned with the Christie principles of participation, empowerment, partnership, prevention and reducing duplication.
One of the core arguments in favour of independence is that smaller countries are more agile, nimble and responsive to opportunities, and are more efficient at service delivery, thereby benefiting from shorter lines from organisations to service users. That is demonstrably true, and it is one of the reasons why smaller countries benefit from an average growth rate that is 0.7 per cent higher than the growth rates of their larger comparable neighbours.
In order to persuade people of the benefits of independence, we need to demonstrate that we can run efficient high-quality public services within budget. For example, Scotland’s health service performs better than its UK counterpart on many measures, but much more needs to be done.
Health is one area where reduced organisational complexity, the scope for technology adoption and leveraging preventative spends offer significant scope for improved delivery within budget. I and my colleagues will produce a paper shortly to give more detail on our thoughts on that.
There are some clear examples of where we need to do better. Our service delivery mechanisms are overcomplicated, with there being more than 100 public bodies, much overlap and duplication, serial management
overheads in systems and complex interfaces. The Government finds comfort in talking about inputs. There is no easier headline than one about the creation of a new fund or organisation to deliver it, but all that does is create more complexity and cost in the system, thereby reducing the amount of money that finds its way to those who need it.
The Scottish Government’s annual spend on the core civil service is now more than £700 million, and there have been significant increases in recent years. The alignment of workforce and budget controls falls short of best practice. It is worth noting that the majority of the additional revenues that are raised from this year’s tax-rate rises will be spent on funding increases in Scottish Government civil service costs.
The adoption of hybrid working has rightly led to overprovision of real estate, and the scope for significant cost reduction in that regard needs to be realised as leases expire. In that context, the construction of new premises, such as the proposed Glasgow community hub, would seem to be a misuse of scarce capital resources. The Scottish Government should also take forward at pace the creation of the Victoria Quay technology and creative hub and make use of redundant Government-owned estate to boost local economies and national clusters.
The public sector reform agenda is important. The work in the Government on culture change, empowerment and adoption of best practice in modern technology is critical. The external expert advisory group adds significant value on that, so I am concerned by reports that the Deputy First Minister has delegated engagement with the group to officials.
My constituents want to see the money getting to the front line and delivering high-quality cost-effective services, not being swallowed up in organisational complexities before it gets there. There are hundreds of millions of pounds to be redirected in that regard, and I have every confidence that the Scottish Government will deliver on that agenda.
I am grateful to Michael Marra for using one of his party’s business slots to give Parliament time to consider the challenges of managing our public finances during a cost of living crisis. As others have said, fiscal sustainability is a major area of interest for our Finance and Public Administration Committee and, of course, the Scottish Fiscal Commission.
On one level, fiscal sustainability in a devolved context should be pretty simple. We do not have the option of running a deficit—we cannot accumulate debt like a normal national Government—but the considerable constraints on our powers and on the budget that is available to us create serious challenges of their own.
Investing in infrastructure is one of the most effective ways to spread economic prosperity, but Scotland’s capital budget has been cut significantly by the UK Government, and we do not have the meaningful capital borrowing powers that any normal nation would have for exactly that kind of investment.
The effect of that lack of funding has short-term and long-term impacts. A group of MSPs from the Greens, Labour, the SNP and the Conservatives met last month with Jubilee Scotland to discuss the impact of the private financing of public infrastructure under the private finance initiative model. I do not have time to go into the detail of that, but I commend to members the latest report from the Scotland against public-private partnerships campaign. I hope that, through the Scottish National Investment Bank and other pathways, we will be able to make progress on providing far better value for the public purse in the future than has been the case with PFIs.
However, in the context of the review of the fiscal framework between the Scottish and UK Governments, and the development of the new framework between the Scottish Government and local government, I hope that we can build consensus across Parliament on the need for greater direct capital borrowing powers to sit here, and for some further reform of the borrowing powers that are available to local councils.
That review of the fiscal framework needs to deliver significant reforms beyond just borrowing powers. For example, the operation of the Scottish reserve is absurdly limited. The £700 million overall limit, the £250 million resource drawdown limit and the £100 million capital drawdown limit are all entirely arbitrary numbers, and they now reflect a far smaller proportion of the overall budget than they did when they were originally agreed. Reform of the reserve should be obvious, and I hope that it will be a source of consensus between the Scottish and UK Governments.
On a somewhat related note about the operation of the reserve, another area where change is needed, for the sake of transparency and public understanding, is reporting and discussion of our annual underspend. That is not because there is anything inherently wrong with the Auditor General’s reports, but because they are clearly and consistently being misunderstood.
Let us be honest: some of that is wilful—that is politics—but if we take the 2021-22 budget as the most recent example, the reported figure of a £2 billion underspend repeatedly resulted in claims being made that there was a £2 billion pot of cash that went untouched for some deliberate but unexplained reason, and which could therefore be spent in 2022-23. The reality is that much of that underspend was technical. It was the result of a variation in the student loans market, which—as the Audit Scotland report made clear in the very next line—did not actually mean that there was cash left over.
Much of the rest of the underspend was one-off ring-fenced Covid funds that could not be entirely spent on time for reasons that we all understand, and funds for specific projects that were delayed by the pandemic, which meant that the money was not literally going unspent. Rather, the spending was just being rolled into the next financial year because it could not be delivered in that one.
Despite all that, I lost count of the number of teachers whom I spoke to during their pay dispute who could not understand why we were not making a higher offer to them, because they had heard that we had an extra £2 billion in the bank just sitting there unused. Communicating that nuance is a challenge for Audit Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Parliament.
Openness and transparency in the handling of public finances are of critical importance to every nation, and the work of our Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee has demonstrated that there is much here on which we can find consensus. This afternoon’s debate has not quite hit on consensus to that extent, although a number of strong points have been made. That is politics. However, I hope that, through the committee system and other avenues, we will continue to make progress on our financial governance, which is so essential to maintaining the public’s trust in relation to what is ultimately its money.
The debate serves as an important reminder of the responsibility of all Governments to spend public money as effectively as possible. Today’s motion is right to speak about the waste and failed financial interventions that we have seen over the past 16 years of Government.
We have heard in the debate about the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been wasted on two ferries that have yet to see active service. Indeed, the final cost of those ferries is not yet known and continues to rise.
“most progressive income tax system in the UK”.
However, the truth is that the SNP’s decision to hike taxes again for 2023-24 means that Scots are paying massively in additional taxes, thanks to higher rates and lower thresholds. As analysis by the Scottish Fiscal Commission shows, that will result in just £325 million in additional revenue, due to slower earnings and employment growth here than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
My colleague Liz Smith challenged the First Minister on that issue last week, and was told that “detailed analysis” is carried out on all tax-related decisions. When it comes to justifying those tax policies, which ultimately risk slowing growth and lowering total tax revenue, it is not at all clear what that “detailed analysis” looks like.
That is just the latest example of this Government failing to be truly transparent when it comes to its finances. Other financial blunders include, from memory, the £30 million overspend on last year’s census. That was not the first time that the SNP’s insistence on doing things differently has ended up costing the Scottish taxpayer money.
Examples of all kinds of financial mismanagement can be found in every year that this Government has been in power. This Government’s mismanagement of public money is far from a thing of the past—it is very much on-going.
Despite many stakeholders opposing its plans, the SNP is still pushing forward with its national care service. That will cost an additional £1.6 billion at the worst possible time. That funding would be far better spent on overstretched local care services—they need that money and they need it now.
Although we heard that plans such as that have been kicked further down the road, it is still the case that the SNP will not scrap plans and wastes money continually.
It is perhaps no surprise that the SNP has come to the chamber and attempted to paint a very different picture of the Government’s record on Scotland’s finances. The main issue, and the main thrust of its amendment, appears to be that there is nothing to see here—absolutely nothing. However, as today’s motion set out, the truth is far less convincing.
Holding the financial levers of power is a tremendous opportunity for any government. It is high time that the Green-SNP Government recognised that and started taking its responsibilities much more seriously for the people of Scotland.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate in support of the amendment in the name of Tom Arthur. There is no doubt that this is a very difficult time for public finances in Scotland. The Tories’ crashing of the economy, the disastrous Brexit and now the policy of our Labour colleagues are all stretching budgets to the limit.
Inflation has rocketed and, as well as affecting Government budgets, it is having a terrible impact on our constituents. Food inflation is at an astonishing 19.2 per cent, which is the highest level in 45 years.
In the face of that challenge, the Scottish Government has set balanced budgets and has invested in supporting many policies to assist during these very difficult times. Unlike south of the border, people in Scotland can claim the Scottish child payment, have access to free prescriptions, pay no tuition fees and have lower council tax bills. Labour apparently previously labelled some of those policies as those of a “something for nothing” country. That was because it did not have the vision and compassion to recognise that the policies were crucial in keeping many households afloat.
High pay offers for teachers in Scotland and increased investment in education from the SNP Government mean that spending per pupil is now more than 18 per cent higher than it is in Tory-run England and Labour-run Wales, which spends £7,200 per pupil compared with more than £8,500 in Scotland. It is correct that we need to continue to deliver budgets that allow that investment to continue, and that is what will be seen from the Government. We can contrast that with Labour’s record, because we know that, when it came to budget competence and stewardship, Labour confirmed its incompetence in writing. We all remember the letter that was left by the chief secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, when Labour was removed from office. It said:
“Dear chief secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam.”
Some of us are old enough to remember Labour’s record in government in both Scotland and the UK—okay, all of us are old enough to remember that. We are even still paying for its record. Its disastrous public-private partnership schemes have cost Scottish taxpayers £30 billion, forcing us all to pay more than the original costs of the projects. It is estimated that there is still £15 billion left to pay for that economic madness. Also, do not forget the millions of pounds that it took away in supporting people grants from charities and third sector organisations in West Dunbartonshire; I will never forget that.
My Glasgow colleague John Mason reminded us of Labour’s refusal to pay equal pay to working women in the city—absolute shame. Unpaid carers will not forget Labour’s record either. Since 1976, when it was initially introduced as the invalid care allowance, successive UK Governments refused to align the amount paid with other earning replacement benefits. The Parliament needed to step in to right that wrong—a wrong that is owned jointly by the Labour Party and the Tories. Since the launch in 2018, a total of 833,425 carers allowance supplement payments have been paid to 141,565 carers totalling £231.8 million, which is another cost of mitigating Labour and Tory failure. Think about where that money could have been spent.
We cannot rely on the pro-Brexit and austerity Labour Party to put the people of Scotland first, and the Tory-inflicted cost of living crisis tells its own story about their incompetence, which is unprecedented since records began. Instead, it will be down to the Scottish Government to manage its budgets carefully, set progressive rates of taxation within our powers, and continue to invest in crucial services for the people of Scotland.
I fear that Michael Marra was enjoying himself just a little bit too much at the start of the debate, trolling the SNP front benchers about their party finances but, as Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned earlier, at least Tom Arthur has demonstrated that he has a sense of humour, talking in his amendment about “unqualified accounts” and “openness, transparency and competence”. I assume that his tongue was firmly in his cheek when he drafted those words and I am surprised that no well-paid special adviser or civil servant said, “Minister, do you not think that that wording is just a little bit courageous, given current events?”
However, Michael Marra was right to highlight the lack of transparency in relation to this Government’s financial decision making—and people do not need to just take the word of the Opposition for that. Liz Smith quoted the previous Auditor General for Scotland, Caroline Gardner, who raised her concerns back in 2021 about transparency around loans to private companies. Stephen Boyle, the current Auditor General, produced a report in December 2022 asking for more transparency in four respects: first,
“fully costing spending commitments, and reporting them clearly in budgets”; secondly,
“greater transparency over capital borrowing plans and how they apply to projects”; thirdly,
“more transparency over how reserves are used to help manage cost pressures”; and fourthly,
“increasing transparency within the accounts around the balances held within the Scotland Reserve.”
Those are the four areas where the Auditor General has called for greater transparency, but it does not stop there, because even within the Scottish National Party, we see criticism. We have Kenneth Gibson, convener of the Finance and Public Administration Committee—who I do not think is in the chamber this afternoon—writing just the other day on behalf of the committee that committee members are
“increasingly concerned over the lack of information on the financial implications” of the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill—it is a flagship policy of the SNP and there is no financial memorandum to accompany it. That is extraordinary, from a Government that tells us that it believes in transparency. The Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance tells us that this Scottish Government prioritises
“openness, transparency and competence” in the management of Scotland’s finances. The evidence, I have to say, tells us something different.
We heard from a number of members—Willie Rennie, among others—who highlighted the wastage in the Government. There is BiFab, Prestwick airport, and Ferguson Marine. Upwards of £300 million has been spent, and there are still no ferries being delivered and our island communities are being let down, yet we learned just the other week that Pentland Ferries is now loaning the MV Alfred from the Orkney route to CalMac Ferries to help to service some of the communities on the west coast that have been let down, for a cool £1 million a month—nice work, if you can get it—for a ferry that costs £17 million to purchase. I make that an annualised return on investment of 71 per cent. Pentland Ferries will be laughing all the way to the bank, at the expense of the Scottish taxpayer. I would think that the public finance minister should be just a little bit embarrassed about the deal that he or his colleagues struck for the Scottish taxpayer there. Then we have the guarantees to
Sanjeev Gupta and the GFG group for the Fort William smelter, adding up in total to £3.5 billion wasted just so that the Scottish Government could get some nice photo opportunities. That is not the way to steward the public finances.
My time is short. Trust in politics is important—that applies to the finances of political parties, as it applies to the finances of the Government. However, Governments are using public money and that is why they have to demonstrate a proper record of transparency. That is not happening at the moment. That needs to change and the complacent approach that we have heard so far from the Government front benchers has to be improved on.
In the midst of a cost crisis exacerbated by economic mismanagement by the UK Government and facing the most complex and difficult budget in the history of the devolved Parliament, this Government is using the powers that it has to tackle inequality and poverty. We are a Government that is focused on equality, opportunity and community and on making a real difference to people’s lives.
On equality, we will continue to tackle poverty in all its forms. We have substantially reduced child poverty. On opportunity, we will use all the powers that we have to their maximum effect to support economic growth, to help businesses and trade to thrive and to maximise the opportunity for a fair, green economy. On community, we are focusing on the delivery of key public services.
The Scottish Government recognises the pressure on household budgets, which is why, last year and this year, we have allocated almost £3 billion to support policies that tackle poverty and support people during the on-going cost of living crisis. The Government’s second tackling child poverty delivery plan, “Best Start, Bright Futures”, reaffirms our sharp focus on working with partners to support those who are at the greatest risk of poverty. The plan commits to wide-ranging and ambitious action to provide immediate support to families and to deliver transformational change in the longer term in order to break the cycle of child poverty in Scotland.
Of course, that includes Social Security Scotland delivering 13 Scottish Government benefits, including the winter heating payment, which launched in February this year. Seven of those benefits are entirely new forms of financial support and are available only in Scotland, including the game-changing Scottish child payment, which took 18 months from inception to delivery, which is unprecedented—no benefit in the UK has ever been delivered so quickly. It is a response to the cost of living crisis, too. Last year, we increased that payment by 150 per cent within eight months, from £10 to £25 per week for eligible children under 16. That payment is making a real difference for children and families.
In 2023-24, we are investing £5.2 billion in benefits expenditure to support more than 1 million people, which is £770 million above the level of funding that is forecast to be received from the UK Government through the block grant adjustment. That money will go directly to people who need it most and will support households on low incomes as well as carers. It will also provide help for disabled people who are living independent lives. In April, we uprated all Scottish benefits by 10.1 per cent, in line with inflation. All of that is being delivered by the Government within our fixed budget and limited powers, which shows the political choices that we are making to support people and that we are making a significant investment in the people of Scotland.
Of course, that also includes offering free school lunches during term time to more than 280,000 pupils in primaries 1 to 5. It includes maintaining our investment in the Scottish welfare fund and our continued investment in discretionary housing payments and free bus travel, which now applies to more than 2 million people and includes all children and young people who are under 22. It also includes £350 million a year to deliver the council tax reduction scheme, and our support for the carers allowance.
We have heard a great deal from the Opposition parties. Opposition debate speeches come without cost. However, if Opposition parties seriously wish to engage with the Scottish Government on practical, costed proposals, our door is always open. If not, this is unfortunately yet another afternoon that we have spent listening to hot air and nothing more. In the meantime, the Government will get on with delivering for the people of Scotland.
Let me pick up where the cabinet secretary left off. If I am not mistaken and she wants practical solutions, let us look no further than the pledge of £12 an hour for social care workers, which not only was adopted by Kate Forbes but has now been made by the current First Minister. If our suggestions are so impractical and so wildly unaffordable, why are they being adopted by the Government? Frankly, the statement that the cabinet secretary just made lacks any credibility. She knows fine well that the budget is not fixed, because the Government controls income tax and other levies—it has a variable budget. It cannot change the budget in-year, but it is not true to say that it is a fixed budget.
I apologise to Mr Greer, but I need to make some progress.
Perhaps the most interesting point of difference in the debate came not from members on the Opposition benches but from Ivan McKee. I agree that we need a lean, agile Government that uses the best technology. However, that is not what we have. I would contrast what he said with Tom Arthur’s account that everything is fine and is done according to best practice. That shows a level of complacency that stands at odds with what this Government needs to do and embrace, as well as with the findings of Audit Scotland, whose recently published report “How the Scottish Government is set up to deliver climate change goals” said that there are ill-defined goals and lines of accountability and overlapping responsibilities, which are leading to poor outcomes.
I suggest that, if the Government listened to people such as Ivan McKee, it would do a little less of the things that it is currently doing, as evidenced by Audit Scotland’s report. That is perhaps why Ivan McKee was pushed out—because those challenging voices are not ones that this Government can tolerate. That goes to the heart of what the debate is really about, because a Government that makes progress is one that is honest about mistakes, where it needs to make improvements and the challenges that it faces. That is not what this Government is interested in doing.
We need look only as far as the recent Cabinet reshuffle to see proof of that. This Government—which, granted, is in its infancy—is remarkable for very few things. It cannot even claim the prize for self-inflicted crisis and disaster, because that prize goes to Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss. No, the only thing that it is remarkable for is its sheer size. This is a Government that has doubled in size. Almost 20 per cent of parliamentarians sit on the Government front benches, and most of us do not even qualify. The front-bench members represent almost half of the SNP group. The SNP members who are not on the Government benches might need to ask themselves why they have been overlooked. It is ridiculous.
In the UK Government, the number of ministers is capped, yet, in the Scottish Government, the SNP seems to ever grow that number. That makes for bad government because—as we know—it is about increasing the payroll vote. And it is part of a wider pattern. This Government’s approach is about increasing its level of control, increasing secrecy and controlling the narrative. However, that ultimately leads to bad decision making and waste.
“We need to create a leaner, more efficient Government that is focused on delivering results and cutting waste.”
Those are not my words but the words of the SNP’s first First Minister. I know that the SNP does not like to quote its former First Ministers, but he was right, was he not?
The Government is going wrong not only in relation to ministers. Do we remember the bonfire of the quangos? Since that phrase was uttered, the number of quangos has increased. There has been a 29 per cent increase in the number of executive board members, and 223 new positions have been created by the Scottish Government, taking the total number of those positions to 774. There are now people whose description on LinkedIn of what they do professionally is “professional public board member”. Of course, when we have so many boards in such a small country we need people to double up, but it is a sign of waste and of confused objectives. It is about outsourcing and abdicating responsibility, and it ultimately leads to bad outcomes for the public and the public purse. Just last year, Labour published details of £3.7 billion-worth of Government waste, and that was not an exhaustive list, because it did not even include, for example, Angus Robertson’s travel budget.
The thread that runs through all the issues that I have mentioned is poor planning and poor objectives. It goes from the spiralling costs due to the complete inability of this Government to implement a workforce strategy in the health service, which has resulted in delayed discharge spiralling out of control and hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on agency staff, to what Willie Rennie described as the “greatest hits”—I cannot put it better than that—of transport disasters and industrial interventions.
Mr Rennie’s analysis was absolutely right, because those issues are driven by that same culture of secrecy and of putting politics over delivery. That is why this Government needs to go. We need a Government that is focused on the key issues—housing, schools and our industrial strategy—and, ultimately, on prioritising delivery over spin, which is something that this Government is incapable of doing.