It does seem prudent to keep from overspending your budget when there are heavy penalties if you do overspend. And with an overall cash pot of £33.7 billion £392 million may not seem like a lot. And of course the money is not lost but can be spent the following year.
So the Scottish government underspend last year, as in previous years, is a matter of no concern for Finance Secretary Derek MacKay, and is in fact a sign of prudent stewardship of the public finances. But the signal that such an overspend sends out is not a good one. To have hundreds of millions left over when councils are facing cuts of up to 11 per cent, cuts that will see services hit and jobs lost, looks like a lack of care and consideration, a lack of understanding of the difficulties such cuts cause, almost a callous disregard for what tha pain might be.
The message does not improve when you look at where the underspends have been generated. Many pensioners will no doubt be able to suggest useful ways to put the Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights’ £163 million surplus to good use.
And given the vital importance the government has placed on education, particularly on closing the attainment gap, and at a time when it is forcing councils to raise council tax to get more money for education, it seems careless to have the biggest underspend in Education and Lifelong Learning.
But surely one thing that is beyond any debate is condemnation of the loss of £14m of European money because ministers did not properly follow the strict Brussels rules on how this money should be spent. That is not an inconsiderable sum, and no-one is being held accountable for its loss.