JOHN Swinney declared war on Scotland’s Labour-led councils as he threatened to cut their funding unless all authorities give a “clear commitment to protect teacher numbers”, as Holyrood granted final approval to the SNP government’s spending plans for 2015-16.
The finance secretary was accused of using the budget to create a “turf war” with non-SNP councils, after he warned Scotland’s 32 local authorities their share of a £41 million fund for teacher employment would be cut unless they commit to protecting school staff numbers.
They have been forced to sign up to the Nationalist government’s flagship policy of a council-tax freeze during the SNP’s time in power – a measure critics say has starved authorities of cash to fund frontline services such as school staff.
Labour accused Mr Swinney of attempting to impose a deal and of ripping up the SNP government’s long-standing “historic concordat” with local authorities, which has been behind the council-tax freeze and arrangements underpinning local government funding.
Mr Swinney, who is also Deputy First Minister, told MSPs Labour councils within the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), had refused to agree a funding deal over teacher numbers.
He announced the move after staff numbers slumped to a ten-year low, with 50,824 nursery, primary and secondary teachers in Scotland – the lowest number since 2003 and more than 4,200 fewer than in 2007 when the SNP came to power.
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This is “not acceptable”, Mr Swinney said, as he blamed cuts by councils, who have said the declining teacher numbers are down to budgets being reduced by hundreds of millions of pounds.
However, Mr Swinney said councils will now have less than two months to state a commitment to use the £41m to support teacher employment or face having their share “clawed back”, under the SNP government’s spending plans.
He also threatened councils with a “further clawback” of an additional £10m fund that will be made available next year on top of the £41m, if they continue to refuse to sign up to the deal on teacher numbers.
He said: “Let me be clear: any council which does not make that commitment and demonstrate that it can be achieved will have their share of the £41m clawed back before April.”
Teaching union the EIS accused Cosla of a “betrayal” over teacher numbers by failing to reach a deal and accept the additional £10m pledged by Mr Swinney. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “It is shocking Scotland’s local authorities, through Cosla, are refusing to enter into a new agreement that would maintain the number of teachers working in our schools.”
MSPs backed Mr Swinney’s budget for 2015-16 by a margin of 64 to 53, with Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats opposing it. The plans will see NHS funding rise to more than £12 billion for the first time.
The budget also includes £4.5bn for infrastructure investment for 2015-16, more than £390m for 6,000 new affordable homes and £300m to be spent extending free childcare for all three and four-year-olds and some vulnerable two-year-olds.
There is also a new NHS “performance fund” of £31.5m to deal with waiting times and delayed discharges in hospitals, as well as £15m put aside to “provide insurance” against risk associated with the devolution of new tax powers to Holyrood.
A new levy on property sales, the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT), which replaces stamp duty in Scotland, comes into force in April, at the same time as power over landfill tax is transferred to Holyrood.
The SNP government says the threat of financial penalties over teacher numbers is needed to prevent councils using the £41m intended for school staff levels for other areas of spending.
Mr Swinney called on councils to sign up to the deal on teacher numbers and “make that commitment” to “deliver the teachers that our children deserve”.
He said: “At this stage, despite the support of SNP councils, Cosla have been unable to agree what I consider to be a fair and generous offer of government support to deliver a good outcome for our children.
“As a result this government has no alternative, in order to protect teacher numbers and deliver the educational standards we want to see, but to make that funding available on a council by council basis if and only if they are prepared to sign up to a clear commitment to protect teacher numbers. £41m is available at the start of this financial year as planned.
“For those who share our ambition to maintain teacher numbers and deliver on their commitment, a further £10m is available following the teacher census in December; however a failure to deliver will result in a further clawback of funding.”
Cosla president David O’Neill said he was “outraged and appalled” at Mr Swinney’s remarks in his budget statement, as he denied Cosla had walked away from talks with the government.
He said: “When he [Mr Swinney] advised MSPs that Cosla was unable to reach agreement, this was factually incorrect and an entirely misleading description of Cosla’s position.
“Local government is a statutory service provided by councils and this is a blatant attempt by government to control it by making these decisions.”
Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown accused Mr Swinney of using his budget speech as a platform for “creating a turf war with Cosla”.
“We heard talk today of clawbacks, of penalties, of ring-fencing, yet just a few months ago the First Minister in her programme for government said that this would be a great decentralising government,” he said.
“What was decentralising about today?”
Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said: “Whilst I am pleased the cabinet secretary has engaged in discussion with Cosla about maintaining teacher numbers, it clearly is the case that no agreement has been reached and he has imposed a deal.
“Now I think that’s a first – I think the concordat that he signed up to now lies in tatters.”