Friday, 15 February 2008

Serial scaremongering over budget proposals

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 15 February, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

OPPOSITION to the SNP national budget was seen off in truly spectacular style last Wednesday.

From the SNP benches we witnessed the final abstention of Labour and Lib Dem MSPs. This showed how negative the role of Labour and Lib Dem MSPs had been in the whole budget process whose rules they drew up themselves eight years ago. The Labour proposition was to seek changes to one per cent of the total amount, then propose a reasoned amendment on skills training and apprenticeships. After having it accepted by John Swinney, then to subsequently abstain from the final vote on the whole 100 per cent was as farcical a stance as I have witnessed in many years of politics. I am told Wendy Alexander was asking how to vote from another frontbencher, so cloudy were the tactics.

As for the Lib Dems, what a cheek they displayed in describing the budget as too opaque to amend in the finance committee. They were the inventors of opaque and thus ruled themselves out as a serious player.

The upshot is that around the country small businesses, councils and the general public see an SNP Government start to change the culture of administration which includes a historic concordat with local government, frozen council taxes, a small-business bonus, adding 500 extra police to the 500 already promised and increased funding in all departments on a modest scale.

Now let us turn to this week's Highland shenanigans. The news headlines are full of serial scaremongering by opposition MSPs and councillors. We are told that teachers will lose their posts, voluntary services will be slashed, learning centres will definitely close. The likes of Jamie Stone and Rhoda Grant have turned the debate on the budget proposals of the Highland Council's independent/SNP administration into a competition to see who can raise more fears about services among as many sections of the voters as possible. Don't ask for detailed explanations from them, headlines sound better than facts – and anyway, they just want to sound off. But foghorns won't deliver the services. That will come via proper accountability, audited behaviour and service level agreements for voluntary groups in receipt of local government support.

This week, after months of attacking the local government deal, Andy Kerr, speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, has finally broken ranks with Labour in Parliament and backed the council tax freeze. He actually might recognise the most generous spending settlement ever from a Scottish Government for Scotland's local authorities at a time when the Scottish Government has received its least generous settlement from Andy Kerr's Westminster colleagues.

Over the next three years councils will see their funding increase by 12.5 per cent and over the next few days we will see councils across the country taking that opportunity to introduce a council tax freeze. As Pat Watters, president of COSLA, said on Wednesday morning, in order to match the level of funding on offer from the Scottish Government councils would have to increase council tax by 3.5 per cent.

That was part of my argument in another recent Parliamentary debate. The extra costs of the Public/Private Partnership schemes for new schools and hospitals are quite unnecessary because the SNP is to launch a Fund for Future Investment to cut profiteering by the private sector and save public money. Compared with conventional borrowing, we have lost £2.1 billion in additional PPP costs in four years. What could local services do with that?

We need a pause for reflection. In the wake of the SNP budget, what we are witnessing is a new way of thinking. Taking stock of wasteful practices is well understood by local councils across the country who will bring in the council tax freeze. Every department will look closely at finding two per cent efficiency savings. By the way, that's below the amount of savings demanded in England by a Labour Government there.

Rob Gibson MSP visited the threatened Pulteneytown PO to assure staff of his support for the fight to retain the office, which he sees as a vital community resource.

DEVOLUTION – is it a process or an event? That is very much in focus this week. It is, of course, closely linked to the recent budget victory for the SNP and its supporters. We were told that Gordon Brown did not consider the idea of a devolution review to be the province of Wendy Alexander, the Tories and Lib Dems in Holyrood, and certainly not the SNP. He would dictate its scope and range. Any increased powers, especially tax powers, for the Scottish Government are ruled out by London. Scottish Labour soon responded. Wendy's spokesperson told London ministers they were "out of step" with Labour in Scotland.

Commentators have noted that the Unionist vehicle for constitutional debate would come off the road unless the subject of tax was openly discussed. Yet Scottish Office minister David Cairns MP then argued that fiscal powers were off limits.

Meanwhile, the SNP Government's National Conversation is to move on to more specific proposals. Alex Salmond announced this in Dublin ahead of the British-Irish ministerial meeting.

The threatened 2p increase in fuel prices due in April will cripple north hauliers and Scottish businesses of all sizes who need variation in Corporation Tax up here. These moves are anathema to Gordon Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling because they are seeing Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff governments probing for new ways to build their economies, while Brown faces losing control of more and more strings of central government. As a control freak he just hates that. But, as the pattern of getting more and more local flexibility for Scottish councils shows, it's a process that cannot be stopped.

The Scottish Parliament took the first major steps last week; the Highland Council is likely to do so this week. It's good for taxpayers and it's time we harnessed our huge resources to build Scotland and not pay for any more London mismanagement. You only need to look at the sorry saga of the destruction of our post offices to know Scottish control will be a lot more sensitive to community needs.

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