Scotland’s NHS is in crisis, social care is on the brink, school pupils are being failed and too little is being done to fight climate change. The SNP must realise it’s time for radical change, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
This Scottish Budget is one of the most significant in years. This year, the Scottish Parliament has the chance to vote for a budget that will deliver the investment Scotland badly needs and bring about real change in our county.
In the last few weeks, we have seen the cost of years of mismanagement and timidity. December’s A&E waiting times were the worst on record. The number of homelessness deaths in Scotland is rising sharply and the rate is the highest in the UK. Scotland’s schools are slipping down the international rankings and there is to be a full and extensive review of the SNP’s botched implementation of Curriculum for Excellence conducted by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
Unfortunately, while there is so much at stake determining the future of our country, the Derek Mackay scandal has overshadowed much of Thursday’s important debate on the Budget statement. Derek Mackay’s actions are nothing short of predatory and everyone at Scottish Labour sends their support to the schoolboy involved, his family, and the family of Derek Mackay.
Such heinous acts by a man in a position of power and privilege are entirely intolerable. It is right that Derek Mackay has resigned from the Cabinet and it is right that the SNP have removed the whip, but the nature of his actions mean he is not fit to hold public office – he should go and go now.
The long-awaited Budget statement, as presented by Kate Forbes on Thursday afternoon, was deeply disappointing. Though not without some positives such as the Scottish Child Payment which I have called for many times, the statement clearly showed the SNP has no intention of breaking with the timidity of the last 13 years and delivering the investment Scotland badly needs.
Yawning financial black hole
That the SNP intends to use its resource-borrowing powers to borrow £207 million in order to plug the £1 billion financial blackhole is deeply troubling. This is money that must be paid back and the SNP need to come clean with the parliament and the people of Scotland and explain exactly where they intend to make the cuts that would be needed to pay this money back. Throwing good money after bad in order to try to plug the yawning fiscal black hole is not only unworkable, but irresponsible. Scottish Labour is willing to work with the Government, but only if they commit to free bus travel for under-25s that will promote public transport usage and break down barriers to opportunity; provide a fair deal for our hard-pressed local authorities; and take decisive action in response to the climate crisis.
So far, the indication is that the SNP will not commit to free bus travel for under-25s nor provide further and higher education with the resources they need after years of under-investment.
The Government’s proposals for local authority funding have received deservedly short shrift from councillors and Cosla, whose president, Alison Evison, has said that in reality this Budget means local government faces “a cut to services, a cut to local jobs, a cut to the work councils do to tackle child poverty and respond to climate change”.
The Budget as proposed also makes for dire reading on the subject of higher education. After a decade of cuts and neglect, it offers nothing of any substance to Scotland’s universities. Students too, who are now burdened with record levels of debt, have little reason to celebrate this Budget. As the president of the National Union of Students Scotland, Liam McCabe, has said, “Despite the rising cost-of-living, the support on offer to Scotland’s students remains largely unchanged, leaving them increasingly out of pocket and many struggling to get by, especially the most disadvantaged.” Nicola Sturgeon once said “judge me on education”. Well, the NUS have judged her and her Government, and it’s failing marks for the SNP.
Tories offer to back SNP
The alternatives to a Scottish Labour-backed budget are either unpalatable or unthinkable. The Scottish Green Party, who have dutifully helped pass the last four Scottish Budgets, have rediscovered their environmental zeal and have decided that they cannot back a Budget that has failed to provide a coherent or strong response to the climate crisis and has been described as “… more timid tinkering at the edges” by Friends of the Earth Scotland.
The Scottish Tories, who helped pass the SNP’s Budgets between 2007 and 2011, have offered to lend the SNP their support this time around, but on condition that the SNP legislate for lower taxes. The SNP have made it clear that they will not lower taxes (although they have steadfastly refused to raise taxes on the highest earners) and so this scenario, quite apart from the constitutional animus, looks unlikely. The Liberal Democrats have said they will under no circumstances support any Budget proposed by the SNP.
The option the SNP has is this: will they join with the Tories in passing a harmful and damaging budget or will they work constructively with Scottish Labour? It doesn’t have to be like this. Over the coming weeks, Scottish Labour will be fighting for the change we want to see and making the case for our transformative policies to the Government. We have a chance to turn the page on years of under-investment and SNP smoke and mirrors. Scottish Labour will fight for our proposals with the courage of our convictions.
Our NHS is in crisis, with social care on the brink. Our education system is failing school pupils and leaving students burdened with eye-watering levels of debt. Our planet is on the verge of ecological disaster. This Budget has so far entirely failed to meet the needs and demands of the day. It is high time the SNP had a long, hard look at the contrast between timidity of their proposals and the need for radical change that exists in our society.
After 13 years of SNP mismanagement and timidity, it is time for investment and time for real change.
Richard Leonard is the leader of Scottish Labour and an MSP for Central Scotland