Andy Wightman: Reset local democracy to end budget feud
The Stage One debate on the budget last week was bad-tempered with unparliamentary language and frustration to the fore. But it also had its share of first class pantomime and humour. A cabinet secretary fell off her seat in the gales of laughter that followed a bad joke from Murdo Fraser. But that was topped by an intervention by Derek Mackay on Neil Findlay when the Finance Secretary revealed that the Lothian MSP had accidentally emailed a copy of his speech to the Scottish Government and he promptly began quoting from it.
Behind the drama of the events in the chamber lay the serious matter of the Scottish Budget. Parliament now has responsibility for new policies such as social security and for raising substantial amounts of devolved taxes to support the £42 billion budget voted for on Thursday. This poses new risks in terms of the public finances to add to wider uncertainties around Brexit.
In a parliament where no party has a majority, a coalition has to be built to secure support. Greens have done a deal in the past two years but this year we argued that we could no longer do a deal to plug funding gaps in local government without meaningful progress on local tax reform. This posed challenges to the government as we were negotiating future commitments as well as numbers in a budget. Talks broke down the week before as both parties ran out of road.
For a small party to support the government is a risk. If we get it wrong, we can suffer significant political damage. If we get it right, government can too easily claim the credit. Negotiations are also exhausting for a small party without access to the kind of official support available to government.
As a group of MSPs we had genuine difficulty in deciding whether we could back the deal that emerged only 13 minutes before the debate. This wasn’t some carefully orchestrated drama for the media but a consequence of our substantial reservations about the risks involved. None of this was helped by the fact that we were the only group at the negotiating table.
We agreed in the immediate aftermath of last year’s budget to attempt to secure reforms that could begin the process of empowering local councils to enable them to properly reflect the wishes of their electorate. Greens want our local democracy to be like that you can find in any normal European country – smaller in scale, more autonomous, with greater fiscal freedom and a relationship with national government based on a quasi-constitutional, rules-based framework.
Following years of failure to scrap the regressive council tax, we have secured a commitment to negotiate legislation that will be published this session. This will be hard work but I believe that it is possible. Parties will have to work together if they wish to influence the outcome and we will need to create a process based on collaboration, respect and trust. Such reforms should be a shared endeavour since they are about the powers available to local democratic institutions.
Twenty years of devolution have been dominated by trying to micro-manage councils through ring-fencing funds and adopting strong-arm tactics to constrain their fiscal freedom. If the UK Chancellor were to attempt to freeze the Scottish rate of income tax by threatening to reduce the block grant unless Scottish ministers complied, there would be outrage from all parties.
That, however, is precisely what too many political parties and MSPs have engineered through council tax freezes and caps in a calculated and subversive attempt to hijack the local state. If Angela Merkel were to try and do the equivalent in Germany, she would be found guilty of an illegal appropriation of powers under Article 28 of the German constitution.
In 2015, the First Minister appointed Naomi Eisenstadt to advise her on how to best tackle poverty and inequality. In her initial report, “Shifting The Curve”, she recommended that ministers should be bold on local tax reform and that “this is a central moment of political decision, an opportunity to introduce a much more progressive system, one that will have important implications, particularly for working households at or just above the poverty line”. Four years later, on the morning of the Budget, the Poverty and Inequality Commission reviewed progress and found that this one recommendation was the only one not to have been delivered.
Scotland’s parliament has achieved much in its 20 years, but its failure to match the evolution of its own fiscal autonomy with that of local government is a badge of shame that has led us to a crisis in public services, local democracy, and the trust and hope that the electorate should be able to place in their locally-elected representatives.
At the heart of this is a debate about political power and about how parties should do business in a proportionally elected parliament. As the budget process has demonstrated, there is no shortage of outrage and opposition and no lack of colourful rhetoric of rescue deal, capitulation and betrayal.
In future I hope that we can do things better. Government should provide leadership in convening roundtable talks in September to be followed by further detailed discussion and negotiation following the UK budget when the financial envelope is known. Such talks can then inform the draft budget published in December. Detailed negotiations can then follow leading to the Budget Bill being considered in parliament.
Such a process would ease tensions, build trust, allow red lines and aspirations to be properly assessed and tested and, ultimately, increase the chances of a budget for Scotland built on a shared collaborative endeavour.
In February 2017, I walked into the chamber of the Scottish Parliament to debate the budget for the forthcoming year. I was greeted by shouts of “Judas” and “sell out”. Politics is a rough trade but I don’t think our constituents are best served by the kind of oppositional and confrontational posturing that now accompanies the budget. It is time for a reset and the meaningful collaborative endeavour that I think most constituents expect and deserve.
• Andy Wightman is local government spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP for Lothian