Budget Process -Speech in the Scottish Parliament 17th. December 2008

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I confess that I do so with a degree of trepidation, as someone who is not a member of the Finance Committee and is certainly not an economist.

One concern is that the budget is often presented in techie language as a hugely complex and complicated issue.

One is given the feeling that only the high priests of the financial world can comment at a level that is appropriate to the debate.

We should recognise that the budget is about the real world.

We need to talk about the budget in terms of its real-world consequences.

We all find it easy to speak at great length on what we care about and what we believe in, but the test for the Government is not just to say what priorities it cares about but to show how it wills those priorities through its budget process.

A central job of Government is not simply to assert policy commitments or even to elevate some of those to issues of principle; a Government must talk about what it will do when faced with conflicting issues of principle and with a number of things to choose between.

The challenge for the current Government—a challenge to which the previous speaker perhaps failed to rise—is to accept that it cannot simply presume as a self-evident truth that certain things are good because they seem to be good.

The budget process, which is the process of testing the budget, is about moving from assertion and belief to evidence that the proposals will make a difference.

Given that the test for the Government through the budget process is to identify priorities, to make choices and to justify those choices, the budget needs to be transparent and its assumptions need to be tested.

There are real concerns about the capacity of the draft budget to show what priority the Government gives to issues of equalities and social justice.

Last year, there were serious concerns about the lack of commentary in the budget documents on equalities, which was identified as a weakness.

This year's budget is weaker still.

Audit Scotland and the Accounts Commission have commented on concerns about the capacity of local government to deliver on, or even to understand, its equality duties.

There is clear evidence that the budget process is not helping by providing certainty and confidence about the Government's priorities.

There is clear evidence that the Scottish Government has made political choices on the issues of the council tax and small business bonus scheme, but the rationale for those choices is missing.

That is where proper equality proofing—and anti-poverty proofing—would do a job.

I understand why people say that equality proofing is very complex and should not necessarily appear in the budget documents.

However, it should be at the heart of the process.

Regardless of the size of the cake, the issue is how the cake is shared out.

Therefore, equality proofing of the budget must be central to the process; it is not a bonus for the days when the sun is shining.

Equality proofing is even more—rather than less—important when budgets are under pressure.

On that basis, I come to the issue of single outcome agreements.

For me, there remains a central conundrum about single outcome agreements that has not been addressed by ministers.

On previous occasions, ministers have said that local authorities have a statutory responsibility to fulfil their equality duties.

However, local authorities say that single outcome agreements do not require equality impact assessments.

We do not know which of those positions is correct.

We need to know that, because otherwise there is a concern that those responsibilities will be deprioritised.

One explanation given is the timescales involved in single outcome agreements, but those timescales are entirely in the hands of the Government.

No guidance has been issued on whether single outcome agreements require equality impact assessments.

In the meantime, resource decisions are being made on the basis of what has been decided in single outcome agreements—not to mention the whole challenge of equal pay, which the Equal Opportunities Committee wants us to consider.

Let me give an example.

According to Scottish Women's Aid's analysis of single outcome agreements, only seven of the 32 agreements mention violence against women.

To be fair to him, in response to an oral question on violence against women, the Minister for Communities and Sport, Stewart Maxwell, said:

"I am sure that that is a priority for all councils throughout Scotland."—[Official Report, 4 December 2008; c 13112.]

However, the issue is not of sufficient priority for a significant number of councils to include it in their single outcome agreements.

What will the Government do?

What is the next stage?

Will the Government say to local government that single outcome agreements require equality impact assessments?

Will it say that issues such as violence against women should be mentioned in single outcome agreements?

When we come to that point, central Government steps back. In my view, that is not good enough.

The reality is that the budget will fail to take an equality impact perspective if, for example, a Scottish Enterprise skills strategy does not recognise the high number of people who have a disability among those within what used to be called the NEET—not in education, employment or training—group; or if modern apprenticeships face a challenge in relation to occupational segregation, which affects economic opportunity; or if the Government does not spend on infrastructure to address the particular needs of groups who are further from the labour force than others.

In such cases, the budget will fail to address equalities and poverty issues.