Bill Jamieson: Sideshow budget sidelines most important numbers

I begin with an apology. I have struggled with the Scottish Government’s budget, (283 pages with nine annexes); with the Scottish Fiscal Commission report the same day (144 pages, 24 of annexes), both these door-stopping documents following fast on the report of the Scottish Infrastructure Commission (137 pages, 14 appendices).

Public finance minister Kate Forbes unveils the budget. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

There is no such thing as brevity in official Scotland. Everything comes at numbing length. I only have to breathe the words “Scottish Government” or “SFC” near my Canon printer and it risks cardiac arrest. As for the printer cartridges, I have to load these up with every session like a fresh belt of ammunition into a hyperactive machine gun.

I had hoped to bring a succinct, snappy summary of key points, such as by how much the Scottish budget overall has risen in recent years; or why Scotland’s per capita growth rate has fallen relative to the rest of the UK; or why output in the Scottish health and social care sector, where spending is now trumpeted to top £15 billion, has been near standstill over the past seven years.

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Basic questions. Simple questions. And ones we need to ask. To these questions I now add others. Why is it that the Scottish Government seems unable to produce a report without a tonnage of superfluous, indigestible verbiage? Who has the time and wherewithal to wade through all of this – other than, of course, other public sector officials on the government clock? I daren’t ask who has read it all through to the end lest some desperate work experience trainee raises a tremulous hand and cries “I am Spartacus!”

And why do so many of these documents seem to downplay the essential points, where it has not missed them altogether?

Barely an opportunity is missed to bludgeon us with earnest digital strategies and targets, “delivering opportunities”, game-changing transitions, net zero carbon ambitions, work-life balance standards, challenging roll-outs and a fresh burst of climate change targets when we have barely had time to dead-head the old ones.

We are told about 30,000 children “being lifted out of poverty” without explaining why, after decades of welfare spending and endless government interventions, this number is so high; or why we need a near 50 per cent increase in “targeted funding” to reduce alcohol abuse and illicit drugs after years of countless programmes and education campaigns. It’s ever more of the same. But the definition of insanity is to keep repeating policies that evidently fail.

For more years than I care to remember successive Holyrood administrations have pledged to boost economic growth. But unaddressed by either the Scottish budget document or the SFC, are official figures on the latest estimates of Scottish Gross Domestic Product up to the third quarter of last year. These show our total GDP per head has been revised down by more than £5bn from the previous estimate, a fall of around 3 per cent.

As a result, notes the independent economist John McLaren, GDP per capita in 2018, which had been around three per cent higher for Scotland than for the UK, is now £32,253, almost exactly the same as the UK figure of £32,276. “Such a large revision,” McLaren notes, “has important implications for these calculations although there was no acknowledgement of this at the time of publication”.

As an example of its impact, he adds, the Scottish fiscal deficit in 2018-19, estimated at £12.6bn in the latest GERS, has moved from minus 7 per cent of GDP to minus 7.2 per cent as a result of these revisions. This means that another £350 million would have to be adjusted for us to reach a 3 per cent deficit target. But who else is paying attention?

Two other points he makes are worth noting. Output in the Scottish health and social care sector has been near standstill over the past seven years, despite above inflation budget settlements for the NHS. Output has risen by only one per cent since the third quarter of 2012 and has fallen by 0.5 per cent since the third quarter of 2016, while at UK level this sector has continued to grow.

Meanwhile, output in the Scottish business services sector has fallen by around 0.5 per cent over the past five years. At the UK level output has grown by 19 per cent over the same period. While less connected to government decisions than the health and social care sector, this discrepancy, McLaren adds, “is still a major worry and worthwhile of considerably more scrutiny than it currently gets. The lack of analysis of important trends and revisions to Scottish economic data is worrying… A £5bn, near 3 per cent downwards revision in Scottish GDP has important implications for judging Scotland’s economic and fiscal standing, especially in terms of independence or full fiscal autonomy.”

What does the SFC offer? More dismal forecasts, broadly in line with its last ones, though it has reduced its 2019 forecast from 1.2 per cent to 0.9 per cent. The forecast for this year is unchanged at 1 per cent, rising to (magnifying glasses at the ready) 1.1 per cent in 2021. Brexit, it says, “still poses a risk to Scotland’s economy”, though it is unable to explain why forecasts for numbers in work are raised in each of the three years 2019-2021.

And what of the treatment of McLaren’s work? For his previous analysis on global well-being rankings across 32 OECD countries, he was assailed in an anonymous article in the SNP mouthpiece The National. McLaren, it fulminated, was previously a special adviser to previous (non-SNP) first ministers and is “a staunch unionist.” No evidence was presented as to the “staunch unionist” claim, and the article omitted any reference to his work for both the Centre for Public Policy for the Regions (CPPR) at the University of Glasgow or indeed to his contribution to the SNP’s own Growth Commission Report. What was fatuously labelled a “FactCheck” article was an outrageous personal attack on an independent economist and a shocking example of “going for the player, not the ball”.

Poorly explained data and lack of analysis on major features of budgetary policy and Scotland’s economic performance are depressing enough. But if this is how independent analysis of economic data is treated in Scotland, Heaven help us all.