John Swinney's late deals seal new Scottish cash plan

SCOTLAND'S £30 billion budget for the coming financial year will today be approved at Holyrood after a series of last-minute deals between the SNP and opposition parties.

• John Swinney has agreed a deal with opposition parties to see the Scottish budget through. Picture: PA

After the chaos of 12 months ago when the budget was voted down for the first time, the Scottish Government has been keen to ensure there is no repeat.

Finance secretary John Swinney has agreed to Liberal Democrat demands for an additional 20 million of funding for extra college places, as well as 10m to support access to finance for firms. The college money will help support an extra 7,500 students.

The SNP has also bowed to pressure from the Conservatives to open up the government's accounts to the public. Under this plan, all items of spending worth 25,000 or more, excluding salaries, should be listed publicly.

The changes, to be included in the Public Services Reform Bill, will also give people the right to see all spending on communications and special advisers, advertising and sponsorship, all overseas travel costs, as well as all hospitality and entertainment payments.

A deal is also expected with the Greens on insulation, meaning that Mr Swinney appears to have succeeded in his goal of leaving Labour isolated as the only party expected to oppose the budget today.

A spokesman for Mr Swinney said the minister was "cautiously optimistic" about the vote.

He said: "The tone in the case of all parties has been constructive and productive, and there is a genuine awareness that the Scottish Government budget has a key role to play in supporting recovery and protecting frontline services.

"There is a particular awareness of that, given the overall financial climate we face, so I think that has helped to concentrate minds."

Officially, the opposition parties were last night remaining silent on how they would vote, but The Scotsman understands that the budget will be passed.

Conservative finance spokesman Derek Brownlee insisted the party would make up its mind on how to vote later today. However, he hailed his concessions as "a transparency revolution".

"It will transform the relationship between government, public bodies and the taxpayer who foots the bill," he said.

A further meeting was held last night with the Tories to agree the terms of setting up an independent review board, similar to the one which has recommended swingeing cuts in Ireland, to look at how massive savings can be made in future budgets.

As well as making 20m available for extra college places, Mr Swinney has already agreed to a Lib Dem call for a review the salaries of top earners in the Scottish public sector and look at ways of meeting the 5 per cent cut.

However, the Lib Dems were unhappy about a letter sent by Mr Swinney that intended to clarify the details of the capital budget for one-off projects.

The letter followed complaints from all the opposition parties that Mr Swinney was hiding the details of the capital budget. But the Lib Dems claimed that his reply has only added to the confusion and suggested this may lead to them abstaining, rather than supporting the project. But, crucially for the SNP, they are apparently unwilling to help vote the budget down with Labour.

Lib Dem finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis said: "Ministers have cherry-picked projects for this report, causing confusion about Glasgow School of Art and the Southern General Hospital, and have failed to show what was cut this year to fund last year's town centre regeneration fund."

In addition, there were talks about improving the insulation scheme to get support from the two Green MSPs, whose votes were crucial in bringing down last year's budget.

They want the Scottish Government to put more money into the scheme and make it free for homeowners.

Mr Swinney has already said he will put 10m into a marine renewables fund requested by the Greens, and it is expected they will not vote against the budget.

Labour were last night still holding out for the reinstatement of the Glasgow airport rail link (Garl), which Mr Swinney cut in his draft budget.

Labour leader Iain Gray said: "John Swinney should be big enough to change his mind at the eleventh hour and reinstate Garl. The loss of Garl will cost Glasgow over 1,300 jobs and 300m investment. It is not only a blow to the west of Scotland, but will harm Scotland's competitive edge.

"At a time when it is crucial the government stimulates the economy to kick-start recovery, the SNP response has been pitiful."

However, privately Labour have made it clear that they will not be unhappy to lose, because they intend to use the cancellation of Garl to highlight an alleged anti-Glasgow agenda by the SNP in the general election this year and Holyrood election in 2011.

They have also demanded reversal of a planned 222.5m cut to the housing budget, which Mr Swinney said was forced on him when Chancellor Alistair Darling refused to allow him to bring forward capital spending from future years.

WHAT THE PARTIES WANT FROM SNP

LABOUR

The reinstatement of the 60 million Glasgow Airport Rail Link is central to Labour demands. It claims funding is available from elsewhere, but Mr Swinney is expected to rely on the support of other parties and not accede to Labour's request.

CONSERVATIVE

The party wants information on public sector purchases of more than 25,000 to be posted online. The Conservatives are also seeking an independent review board to scrutinise the Scottish budget and have called for testing of local walk-in health centres.

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT

Mr Swinney has hinted he will look at Liberal Democrat proposals to cut the pay of top-earning public sector employees. The party also wants 20 million for additional college places, as well as help for the Scottish post office network.

GREEN

Mr Swinney has implied he will increase funding to extend a home insulation scheme to help secure the Greens' two votes. He is also expected to promise 10 million for a new fund to support marine renewables.

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