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The Working Life of Christina McKelvie MSP
17th September 2009

Budget beginning

Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth John Swinney MSP introduced his draft budget to Parliament today.  Not for John any of the daft theatrical tricks we see in London with the budgets down there being conducted by Chancellors who seem to have half an eye on being stage prestidigitators rather than good, sober politicians – “from this evening there will be an additional two pence on a packet of polos and an additional relief on elephant bedding”.  John’s performance was, as always, a marvellously balanced prosecution of the case.  Year after year he brings to Parliament a well thought out budget and a reasoned case for it, and year after year he impresses us with his command of his brief.  The last two years, of course, Labour made a mess of their presentation on the budget – I wait with bated breath to see how they do this year.  Well, I say baited breath, but our budget process takes quite a while.

John Swinney
John Swinney

This year, of course, is an extremely tough year for Scottish spending given the mess that’s been made down south and the cuts that Labour is introducing to the Scottish budget to try to help them plug the gaping holes in the UK’s finances, and it comes on top of the resource allocation that the SNP Government has been given being the most restrictive ever, so you’d have to be some kind of miracle worker to rescue something from it.  Just as well we’ve got John Swinney, isn’t it?  I walked into the chamber ready to hear some really bad news and instead heard some pretty good news.  Every department’s spending was reduced from what John had predicted last year – London’s cuts biting deep – but there was still a lot to cheer. 

Frontline NHS spending is going up by £173 million – a total of £8.5 billion will go to health boards next year, that’s quite a lot of money; Lanarkshire gets an extra £21 million, every board except Ayrshire and Arran got an increase.  Education spending is going up by £53.3 million overall, funding for universities up by £35 million, funding for colleges up by £45 million, and the Student Awards Agency gets an extra £56 million for supporting students.  There’s an extra £6.3 million in central funding for the police and another £30 million for prisons; there’s £136.8 million to rebuild our prisons; £7.4 million for communications equipment for our Fire and Rescue service.  Support for the food industry is up; and Scottish Natural Heritage is getting more money.  There’s an extra £122 million going to local authorities for their general responsibilities and an extra £17.6 million for police through local authorities.

Even with less money to spend the Scottish Government is producing the goods.  There are cuts, of course, and they will be sore ones to cope with.  The budget for running the Government, the money for running Ministerial offices and that kind of thing, has been cut by 36%; the Government’s advertising budget has been slashed by nearly 54%; there’s more money for roads but a wee cut in the support for ferry services and air journeys and there’s a bit of a cut in support for the freight industry.  Some areas look like they’re taking a severe his – like housing and regeneration losing £260 million but there was an awful lot of spending brought forward to help protect Scotland from the recession, and that came out of the money that would have been in this budget, so it’s more a kind of repayment than a cut.

Actually, that “accelerated capital spend” – bringing forward money to spend it early – brought about an interesting exchange.  The London Government did something similar (it’s a fairly usual tool to use to address recession) and when John announced it in December last year it was welcomed by Labour, with Wendy Alexander saying she was delighted by the acceleration of the £260 million spend.  At the beginning of this month Iain Gray, Labour’s Scottish leader, said in Parliament that “Accelerating capital investment this year was a good thing” but today he called it “dodgy accounting” – when did that change come?

John’s had to scrap some capital spending plans as a result of the cuts, a painful decision but a necessary one.  One of the projects that got scrapped was the Glasgow Airport Rail Link – a decision which I thought would cause some disquiet but it turns out that the chair of Paisley North Community Council backs the scrapping of the link, as does Renfrewshire Chamber of Commerce.  A wee lesson never to try to second-guess the people of Scotland there!  Now we prepare for the long grind towards the budget votes and even more excitement.

Last night’s events were tamer but still enjoyable – I was at the launch of Gordon Wilson’s book SNP: The Turbulent Years 1960-1990 (I hope he doesn’t think the turbulent years have ended) before heading off to celebrate Catalonia’s national day with some dignitaries who were over especially for the occasion.  I’ll let you know what the book’s like when I’ve read it, but I must tell you about Bruce Crawford’s terrible joke in his speech at the Catalan do.  He was musing about what the Catalans have given the world from Gaudi to Miralles and how much of their influence has improved Scotland (including the building of our Parliament) and then said that we were evens, though, because we’d given them Steve Archibald to play for Barcelona and Espanol.  He got a laugh, right enough, but it did make me think that I wouldn’t give Scotland much chance of beating Barcelona in a straight match.

Committee this week was a lot less stressful than the last runout we had as well.  We took evidence on the Public Services Reform Bill from Children and Early Years Minister Adam Ingram MSP.  He was very measured and quite assured and answered all of the questions easily enough.  The committee was well-behaved this time and acted with good humour, and I think that the passage of this legislation will be smoother than the previous legislation – the regulations on legal aid in Children’s Hearings.  I certainly hope so, that nonsense did no-one any favours.

I’m off to an adoption night in Stirling tomorrow – our candidate is Alison Lindsay – it’s promising to be a fine campaign for Alison here – and the Holyrood seat belongs to Bruce Crawford, so expect more bad jokes!

Bruce Crawford
Bruce Crawford

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