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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
29th January 2009

The Budget is the issue.

I attended the opening of the office of John Mason MP on Friday, met with the principal of the University of the West of Scotland, spoke at another Burns Supper (in Eastwood this time, with the lights on), stood in as a substitute on the Petitions Committee as it met in Easterhouse - where I grew up, and, as part of the Education Committee, continued the work on the ASL Bill and took evidence on the New Horizons report.

All of that paled into insignificance yesterday, though, as three opposition parties – Labour, Lib Dem and Green – voted against the Scottish Government Budget for 2009-2010.  The ridiculous position of the Greens who got what they wanted from the budget and then voted against is absolutely breathtaking.  The Lib Dems had painted themselves into a corner early on and couldn’t really get out (a tactical mistake they’re unlikely to repeat, I think), and Labour grunted opposition in spite of getting a fair chunk of what they wanted – they just couldn’t bring themselves to support an SNP budget, but it was the petulance of the Greens and the ludicrous position of their Parliamentary leader which really shocked us all.

I find myself in a position I would never have thought possible just a few years ago – I’m looking at the other parties in Parliament and thinking that the Conservatives got it right.  They went into their negotiations with John Swinney knowing what they wanted, with a bid that was reasonable and could be delivered, they made the deal, got their prize and kept their word, voting for the budget.  The other three parties voted down the budget, putting at risk £1.8 billion in additional expenditure - the equivalent of 35,000 jobs.  They’ve jeopardised the funding to freeze the council tax which means that household bills could now go up by a whopping £250 on average across Scotland.  There’s £650 million of the NHS budgets at risk, the police recruitment to take us up to 1,000 new police officers, the additional funding to cut business rates – which could mean that 150,000 small businesses will lose out, they’ve put at risk 5,000 jobs which could be expected from investment in public infrastructure under John’s accelerated capital spending, and they’ve made difficulties around the further reductions to Prescription Charges planned for this April.

That’s what they put at risk – what a day’s work that was for them – and all for some petty party politics, and at a time when we’re facing the worst recession any of us have ever seen.  Irresponsible is one description, with Scotland’s smaller businesses needing breaks like the Small Business Bonus reduction in their rates just to survive and with hard-pressed households across the country looking to find savings rather than having to fork out another £250 on Council Tax.

I suppose there is at least some comfort to be taken from the fact that it’s not the whole of the spending proposed by the SNP that’s under threat.  If we don’t pass a new budget the previous budget continues, so we’d continue spending last year’s amounts instead of increasing them, costing us £1.8bn instead of £33bn – but it’s cold comfort and would be even colder comfort for the people at the sharp end of those cuts.

There have been quite a few stories that MSPs have been hearing about the public reaction.  One of my friends contacted me in disbelief that ‘politicians’ would vote down the budget in a spat “over some rock wool”, there’s a chap in Inverness who’s urging Alex to call an election “and wipe them out”, and there’s a Labour member in Edinburgh who’s now a former Labour member in disgust at his former party “grandstanding for headlines instead of standing for principles”.

If we can’t get this mess sorted quickly, we’ll see fewer houses built and fewer public works contracts issued. Planned road and infrastructure works could be lost or delayed, including the important, and potentially life-saving, improvements to the A9.  There are huge pressures on NHS funding as well – I don’t think that the stress should be increased for patients and staff.

It is the duty of the Government to bring forward another budget bill - and John Swinney immediately has already re-lodged the same budget, stepping up to the plate immediately. There’s no bottomless pit of money, though, and if the opposition parties want to get some funding increased, they’ll have to tell him where they want to make cuts.  There can’t be any more of the showboating demands that have marked the tactics they’ve employed so far.  Any extra spending must be made from finding cuts elsewhere.     None of the opposition parties have said where the cuts should be made.  

 It is absolutely right that the Government now holds talks with all the parties. And we are doing this straight away. However, the responsibility rests on all 129 MSPs to reach an agreement and to do so quickly.  This is, after all, a Parliament where every party is in a minority.  I have faith that the budget will be passed on the 11th of February and that we’ll be back to auld claes and porridge in terms of the excitement level.  If the budget falls again, though, we’ll be finding ourselves in an election – the alert has already been issued from SNP HQ – and we’ll go back to the ballot box.  That prospect holds absolutely no fears for me, I’m confident that we’d increase our seats to about 55 and we’d be taking a lot more constituencies.  Labour would be losers, though, as would the Lib Dems, and the Greens would, I think, lose their two seats.

Although the behaviour of the opposition parties has raised a whole lot of eyebrows in the last wee while, I don’t think they’re daft enough to be wanting an election just now.

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