A Budget for Scotland’s People Scottish Parliament speech 25 November 2010

I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Labour Party.
I recognise that it is an important debate for the people of Scotland. It is not our intention for this to be a yah-boo debate; it is not a debate for the sake of it, but one that is of significance for all Scotland.
As members might be aware, I am not an aficionado of budget debates.
However, this is not simply a debate for the parties' finance spokespeople—which is why I am opening—but one that is at the heart of Labour's concerns and, I believe, the concerns of others about the Scottish National Party's approach and attitude to the development of the budget and the consequences for individuals, families and communities throughout Scotland.
Our motion recognises the reality in Scotland of uncertainty, anxiety, stress and fear for what the future may bring. Our job—the purpose of the Scottish Parliament—is to protect people and to take action that offers greater stability and certainty.
The evident uncertainty is corrosive; it is a threat that is not easily captured in a ledger but which fundamentally impacts on people's lives.
Our central argument is that the Scottish Government is compounding that uncertainty.
Yes—Mr Swinney is demanding efficiencies and outlining his spending priorities for the next year, but the reality is that he is preventing a wide range of public and voluntary bodies and local authorities from being able to plan and make informed choices about the future.
The Scottish Government has the information.
It can help, but chooses not to by refusing to give spending projections for the period of the comprehensive spending review.
When the Scottish Government is challenged about its many failures, broken promises or incompetences, it often says that it is a minority Government.
That is not, in itself, the problem: the problem is that it is a minority that is incapable of seeking compromise and consensus.
Instead of seeking co-operation to support people in these tough times, it acts in a way that keeps MSPs in this Parliament in the dark and, more important, which keeps in the dark crucial public bodies and organisations that are striving to deliver front-line services.
It is our contention that that is a dereliction of duty and an abdication of responsibility: those are sacrificed on the altar of party interest, not in the country's interest.
At decision time today, there will be an opportunity for the Parliament to assert itself against that minority control over the Parliament's powers, and to confirm its disapproval of the approach and its consequences for the people whom we represent.
If successful, it will be a challenge to the Scottish Government to accept accountability and to act accordingly to create more certainty and give people more protection.
I expect that, if the motion is supported at decision time, the Minister for Parliamentary Business will report as a matter of urgency on how he plans to enact that decision of the Parliament.
We want the Scottish Government to take an approach that recognises the challenge not only for ministers but for all those who depend on the Government's funding. Mr Swinney said in his budget statement that this is not a one-year problem and then revealed that he would provide only a one-year budget. That contradiction is as odd as it is unacceptable.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): Why does the Labour Party want to win the election next year but operate an SNP budget? You are basically calling for us to set a budget for a four-year term of office throughout which you hope to be in power. Is that because you want to sit in office—if you win, which is unlikely—and blame the SNP for all the cuts that were imposed thanks to the incompetence of the previous United Kingdom Labour Government?

Johann Lamont: That intervention was self-evidently ludicrous.
We make the point—I will make it again later—that this is not about elections but about serving the people of this country.
Mr Swinney says that it is difficult in these unprecedented times to do as we suggest, but in Wales people have the information and in England people have the information.
Earlier in the week, the Northern Ireland Government indicated that it would provide spending plans for 2011-12 to 2014-15 as part of its budget process.
I even understand that in the Republic of Ireland—despite the system there being under terrible pressure—the Government has made it clear that any budget that it produces will provide plans for a period far beyond the next year.
In a previous debate, when Mr Swinney was being asked to produce an indicative budget ahead of the comprehensive spending review, he replied that Wales had taken the same approach as he had; that he and the Welsh finance minister were as one and had decided
"to wait until the comprehensive spending review had been undertaken".
Mr Swinney asked Andy Kerr:
"If that approach is good enough for Welsh Labour, why is it not good enough for Scottish Labour?"—[Official Report, 4 November 2010; c 29972.]
In the same way, we might now ask: if a spending review for the comprehensive spending review period is good enough for England, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, why is it not good enough for Scotland?
Why, uniquely, are we incapable of doing it?
What is unique about our civil servants that renders them incapable of identifying options for spend beyond the next year?
Is Mr Swinney really saying that no work has been done, or is being done, to prepare spending plans?
If the work has been done, why could it not be done as part of the budget process?
Were civil servants instructed not to do the work?
If they are doing that work, why is it not being harnessed to create certainty for all those who seek to meet need in our communities?
The truth is that Mr Swinney has that information; he just does not want to share it.
"But", says Mr Swinney, "we can't because there are big issues here. We have asked Campbell Christie and his commission to look at them and we can't give details until Parliament has had the opportunity to consider the commission's proposals."
We might say that there is evidently no rush, but Mr Swinney is asking us to set aside the fact that the logic of that position, given the breadth and depth of the commission's remit, is that no decisions could be taken on anything.
At the same time, Mr Swinney has blithely ruled out much of the independent budget review and has made significant spending commitments at his party conference.
To accept Mr Swinney's position, one must also disregard the fact that the commission has been told by the Scottish Government that its purpose is long term and that, in an earlier debate, Mr Swinney said that that purpose would allow
"the focusing of medium-term financial priorities."—[Official Report, 4 November 2010; c 29976.]
We all know, however, that the reality is that Mr Swinney is now using the commission as a short-term alibi to get him through the winter and into election time. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Johann Lamont: I call in evidence someone whom I would not necessarily happily quote. In an interview in Holyrood magazine of 18 October, Alex Salmond argued that what is happening in Westminster in relation to cuts is about election timetables.
He reflected that
"electoral, political and economic cycles don't always fall in the same way and politicians should have a higher duty and the duty is more to the economic cycle than the political cycle."
Mr Salmond clearly needs to have some firm words with Mr Swinney and himself.
I recognise many of those who have agreed to serve on the commission and the qualities that they bring, but the slightest glance at its remit, which embraces not only delivery of services, but improvement of services and tackling of inequality and its causes—among a host of other things—makes it clear that its purpose is not just about rationalising the landscape in tough times in order to inform immediate spending decisions. It is about far more.
So substantial is its work that it is entirely illogical to call it in aid against publishing spending plans and giving people the information that they need to plan.
I am sure that the commission will make interesting recommendations, but its remit is, in my view, so substantial that it is, in fact, one of the central purposes of Government.
We have to ask what Mr Swinney and his colleagues have been doing for the last number of years.
Why did they not notice that challenging times were ahead and act then by harnessing the talents within government, in the Parliament and throughout Scotland to prepare, rather than cobbling a commission together now, with a glorious remit and short timescale, which reflects not on the commission members but on the motives of those who have set it up and on the short-termism of the Scottish Government?
Mr Swinney may try to dismiss the issue at the centre of our motion as being some kind of academic issue about budget processes, and as being of interest only to the pointy heads.
It is not, however, academic or obscure; it is not just for the number crunchers.
Budgets are living documents.
They are the expression of priorities and, in their delivery, they give shape and direction to the society we wish to live in and they shape people's life chances.
In the tough times, these choices are ever more critical.
Local authorities, health boards, voluntary organisations and police boards, which are all on the front line, want and deserve some certainty and the ability to plan.
They want that not for the sake of it but because they care deeply about their health provision, their care services, their responsibility for people with learning disabilities, their ability to create economic opportunities and their creation of sustainable communities.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Strathclyde police authority, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, the Confederation of British Industry Scotland, Consumer Focus Scotland and a range of other organisations have all asked for the certainty of a spending review. When they ask for that certainty, are they all wrong?
My colleagues will focus on the impact of the budget in more detail, but it is self-evidently contradictory to demand efficiencies without a timescale in which to make those demands realistic and achievable.
I predict that, instead of demonstrating increased rationality in their decisions, organisations will become risk averse and perhaps cut services that might otherwise have survived, thereby creating the worst kind of short-termism.
In its written evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee, COSLA said:
"This puts Scottish Local Government at a disadvantage compared with other parts of the UK ... Had we been able to see the resources over a longer time frame this would enable Local Government to plan more effectively and perhaps avoid cuts which may hurt our communities unnecessarily."
That is the charge.
Not only is it displaying short-termism, but the Government is creating a situation in which people are making cuts that may be unnecessary.

Tricia Marwick (Central Fife) (SNP): Johann Lamont cited several organisations that support a three or four-year budget. If she gives such weight to external bodies, why did the Labour Party give such little weight to all the external bodies that wanted minimum pricing?

Johann Lamont:
This is a serious debate about the Government's choices.
The historic concordat suggested that the SNP listened to local government.
The charge is very serious.
Who pays?
I will give just one example: the care worker who is waiting to find out whether they have a job as the result of a commissioning agreement, while the voluntary organisation that has made a bid waits for the decision of local government, which is waiting for the Scottish Government's decision.
What is the impact on that individual worker and his or her capacity to deliver the service?
They do no know whether they will have a job or should look for another.
It is demoralising and reduces the local capacity to be efficient.
For some, it is much worse.
I understand that Employers in Voluntary Housing, with the help of the Scottish Housing Regulator, has issued guidance for housing associations and co-operatives about the challenge of the current economic situation.
Banks are reported to be eagerly seeking to review deals for risk, and will possibly increase costs and charges, while the housing association grant has already been cut, increased and then cut again and is unpredictable.
In such circumstances, the lack of information for future planning may have a devastating effect by undermining the sector's capacity to thrive and deliver economic opportunity.
The call for the sector to be more efficient is entirely undermined by the Scottish Government's approach, which hampers housing associations' attempts to do what they do best—planning, preparing, delivering and maintaining.
The Government's approach to the budget disregards the needs of local people and is symptomatic of the SNP's overall approach, which is that it is cynical, self-serving and incapable of separating the country's interests from the party interest.
If Mr Swinney is to be worthy of his office, he should use the powers that he has to help people throughout Scotland. At the very least, he should stop being a hindrance to those who want to make a difference to individuals and their families.
In refusing the spending review, he is not taking a technical step but making an active choice.
Mr Swinney lacks the political will do what his office demands, and his purpose is to serve his party, not his country, and to put his own interests ahead of the future of people in our communities.
That is his narrow, SNP party-political choice, but—

Members: Oh!

Johann Lamont: The consequences of that choice will be felt by those who are weakest in defending themselves—the people who seek jobs and who rely on services. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order.

Johann Lamont: I ask members to support the motion. The people of Scotland deserve better.
I move,
That the Parliament notes that the Scottish Government has been presented with its spending budgets for the four-year spending review period yet has chosen to provide local authorities, NHS boards, universities, colleges, the voluntary sector and the wider public sector with only one-year budget proposals for 2011-12; believes that such uncertainty is corrosive as it does not allow those organisations to plan effectively; believes that this inability to plan will have an adverse impact on services, individuals, families and communities, and calls on the Scottish
Government to follow the example of the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body and publish indicative figures until at least 2013-14, in addition to its planned one-year budget for 2011-12.