The tax-tinkering budget is bad for our schools, councils and the country, writes Brian Wilson
Are there good reasons to care who runs Holyrood? To those who inhabit its bubble, the question may sound sacreligious but it is doubtful if yesterday’s events will inspire many who despair of its ability to make a positive difference.
After 20 years of well-funded devolution, now supplemented by tax-raising powers, its impacts on the fundamentals of Scottish life have been remarkably limited and by no means universally positive. Instead of fresh, radical politics, we have a forced diet of low-grade debate, bloated rhetoric, constant spin and now tax tinkering.
Meanwhile, to name just a few symptoms, there are more rough sleepers, wider educational disadvantage, grossly diminished council services and appalling levels of predicted economic growth – the things Holyrood was meant to address. And of course, there has been a relentless process of centralisation to the detriment of local accountability.
The problem has not been lack of money but rather the order of priorities, dearth of ideas and, under the current administration, a zealous centralising mentality. None of these will be improved upon by increasing taxation for middle-earning households or hard-pressed Scottish businesses. Far less will the continuing assault on council funding – and please don’t believe Mr MacKay’s spin – do anything other than further harm.
In the past few days, we have had a damning report from Audit Scotland on the wasteful farce of Police Scotland and the hand-picked quango supposed to oversee it. After years of resistance, the ill-conceived named-persons scheme may finally have bitten the dust. There is no shortage of targets on grounds of both competence and cost.
Yet where is the commanding narrative of change? Judging by yesterday’s exchanges, the only Big Idea in town is to increase taxes in order to spend more money not very well. Mind you, if the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax is anything to go by, there isn’t even a guarantee of raising more money. That piece of “doing things differently” achieved the double whammy of raising less money while putting a significant share of the housing market to sleep. There is at least an even chance that yesterday’s increases, widening the tax gap with the rest of the UK, will have a similar effect.
The challenge to opposition parties is to convince the sceptical public that they would do anything better or differently. In an environment of mediocrity, incumbents tend to prevail for an unreasonably long time. We are now living within that cycle, hopefully at an advanced stage, but it needs more than that.
The income tax increases are supposed to bring in an extra £164 million per year. Little of that will come from top earners of whom there are apparently very few in Scotland. Instead, most who foot the bill will already be living on tight budgets.
The case for raising more through increased taxation rather than reviewing how money is spent has simply not been made, largely because there has been so little pressure to make it. Tory opposition to tax increases tends to be dismissed (though not necessarily by voters) on the grounds that it is expected of them.
But where is the challenge from other parties? Surely there is an obligation to call halt and demand a review of how not only government departments but also the myriad quangos spend huge budgets before buying into the assumption that more means better? We heard almost nothing of that yesterday.
While tax matters, it should not marginalise the other single most important feature of Mr Mackay’s statement – the cash freeze on local authorities which is actually a three per cent real-terms cut, plus the requirement to meet public sector pay increases. Cosla said they needed an additional £538m to stand still; instead they have a £135m real-terms cut. The SNP administration’s treatment of councils over the past decade would make Thatcherites blush with shame. But again, you have to ask where effective opposition has been, either within Holyrood or from once-active public sector trade unions and STUC. Hopefully, Richard Leonard’s focus on the subject will encourage resistance with a finger-pointed firmly at St Andrew’s House.
The sustained attack on local government funding started in the good financial times for Holyrood and the price is now being paid, nowhere more so than in our schools. Many of the problems to which sticking plaster is being applied through gimmicky national schemes can be attributed directly to these ruthless cuts in council budgets since 2007.
Earlier this week, the Scottish Government issued a press release headed: “Teacher numbers rise.” I heard this being faithfully repeated as lead story on radio and television though, to anyone with any sense, the obvious question was “increased from what and when?” which produces a very different headline.
The answer is that, by diverting money from a national scheme, there has been a one per cent increase in teacher numbers over the past year, as opposed to a seven per cent cut since the SNP took over 2007. In hard numbers, there are still 3,500 fewer teachers in Scotland which goes a long way towards explaining the gloomy statistics about attainment.
The true message is clear. High-profile initiatives, announced by oh-so-caring Ministers in classroom press-calls surrounded by child-props, are no compensation for damage inflicted on councils who still have to provide the vast majority of funding for our schools. Therefore, yesterday’s news is not only bleak for services in general but education in particular; the reverse of the rhetoric.
Is that how it will be reported? Who will provide a voice for those hit hardest by these cuts – inevitably, in Scotland’s less well-off communities? It makes no sense to argue about whether low-income families will be paying a few quid
more or less in tax without also considering the impact of what is being done to council jobs and services.
Until that debate is carried into the communities that pay the highest price of Holyrood’s priorities, it is unlikely that people will recognise the Scottish Parliament as a channel for meaningful change as opposed to a platform for perpetual grievances. That is the challenge, but who is going to meet it?