Speech in the Scottish Parliament on the Budget 23 January 2008

In his opening speech, John Swinney claimed that his budget was about achieving sustainable economic growth, but it cannot be just about that; no budget can be.

It must show proper regard for the other side of the equation—the right of all our citizens to share society's increasing prosperity.

Despite Mr Swinney's assertions to the contrary, the budget simply does not pass that test.

It is a matter of significant regret that a proper equality impact assessment was not carried out and that a gender impact assessment was not undertaken.

I seek the cabinet secretary's reassurance that that approach will be reinstated.

The SNP Administration and its back benchers repeat over and over the highly debatable assertion that the budget settlement is exceptionally tight and that all the difficulties can be explained on that basis.

Even if that were the case, the SNP—which, during the eight years for which it sat on the shoulders of the Labour-led Executive, constantly condemning us for not being radical enough, never once made wise comments about budgets being limited—needs to explain why it is now obsessed with focusing above all else on tax cuts, of which it has proposed not just one but two.

In a tight budget settlement, that speaks volumes for the SNP's priorities.

I can understand why the Tories rally behind such an approach, especially given that, at a UK level, their leader has had to constrain any talk of tax cuts, lest people fear for public services.

It is remarkable how emboldened they are by their SNP allies.

The SNP must understand that asserting something does not make it true.

The budget contains only a few lines that support social justice, and the moneys that it allocates to primary care in deprived areas, which I welcome, are far smaller than the sum that it identifies for freezing the council tax.

The Government has cut regeneration funding to local government.

We know that council tax cuts do not benefit the poorest households and have a disproportionate benefit to local authorities that are under less pressure and a disproportionate disbenefit to local authorities in which the population is declining.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing told the Local Government and Communities Committee today that, because she was dealing with a fixed budget, the level of support to housing associations must be reduced.

Although there is little evidence of inefficiency among housing associations, the cabinet secretary said that the current situation is unsustainable.

That is arguable, but the cabinet secretary and others say that we need a bigger bang for our buck. However, no conditions will be attached to business rates cuts.

There will be no conditions on supporting training, on local jobs or even on recycling targets.

When John Swinney was asked about that, he simply said that he expected the cuts to make a difference.

On one hand, we want a bigger bang for our buck; on the other, we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I never thought that John Swinney would be an advocate for trickle-down economics.

John Swinney talks about the concordat with local government.

He has argued that it is important as an end in itself and he has drawn on the English example to reinforce his position.

It might have been better if the concordat's position on ring fencing had not been agreed in the context of a financial settlement that required a council tax freeze.

If John Swinney had wanted to draw on the English example as he developed the concordat, he could have put in the time and thinking that have gone into the approach locally in England. There have been anxieties about the concordat's implications locally.

If the concordat had been developed in a measured way, the groups who are anxious could have been involved and engaged—it is impossible for that to happen before March.

Those groups could have talked about how they can monitor and support the development of relevant outcome agreements.

However, that did not happen, which has contributed to concern.

The SNP's defence is that I and others have been scaremongering and have used organisations such as Scottish Women's Aid as a political football.

If I was not as big and ugly as I am, I might have been offended by such comments, given the previous Executive's record on violence against women.

For the SNP to imply that organisations such as Scottish Women's Aid are raising serious concerns simply because they have been duped by someone like me shows an appalling lack of understanding of the role of such organisations, which have forced issues on to the political agenda to ensure that they are addressed by government at every level, whoever is in power.

Scottish Women's Aid's long record on challenging us all on violence against women deserves a better response.

I am particularly concerned about the £34 million in consequentials that has been secured to the Scottish budget as a direct result of effective campaigning by families of children with disabilities.

The Government has the right—technically—to use that money as it chooses, but its judgment must be questioned in that regard.

When I asked Fergus Ewing about the issue, he gave a measured response and said that Fiona Hyslop was considering the matter carefully.

However, when the First Minister was asked, he took a less measured approach and simply said that the issue was dealt with in the local government concordat, although there is no
mention of it in the concordat.

Our concern is that the Executive's default position whenever it comes under pressure will be simply to say that an issue is dealt with in the local government budget.