Annabel Goldie: Time to open books on Holyrood budget

IN THE last two Scottish budgets, the Conservatives have taken the responsible – and constructive – approach of trying to make the budget better. As a result, more than 100,000 small businesses in Scotland are paying little or nothing in rates, more police are on our streets and regeneration projects are happening in towns from Stranraer to Brechin.

Last year, the Scottish Parliament got the budget process badly wrong. The unedifying shambles of the rejection of the budget at the hands of Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs was swiftly followed by the equally unedifying sight of them clamouring to support a practically identical package only a week later.

It showed that there are serious consequences to votes on the budget. Scotland expects us to act responsibly in these exceptionally difficult economic times.

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This year, the responsible thing to do is for all parties to try to work together to tackle the consequences of the mountain of debt run up by the Labour government.

It is time for a reality check.

Labour's debt crisis is affecting us all. The interest alone on the national debt run up by Labour will be 60 billion a year by 2012, almost double the entire annual Scottish Government budget.

If, at UK level, we don't get a grip on our debt, there is a risk that the UK will lose our good credit rating – which will, in turn, massively increase our interest repayments. This would lead to a vicious circle of more and more money being spent on debt, and less and less being available for our public services.

That is why it is so important we deal with the massive deficit: if we don't, public services will be at risk. That's why the Scottish Government will have to face up to spending less while we tackle this debt.

Because we all have to face up to the stark reality of the deep impact of Labour's debt mountain, the 2010 Scottish budget, and those that will follow, are unlike any before. We are entering new waters. That is why the Scottish Conservatives, alone amongst Scotland's political parties, began the process by making a start in identifying where savings could be made and recognising that we must prioritise spending.

We have consistently put on the table a quarter of a billion pounds by, for example, taking Scottish Water out of state control and saving 150 million from the public purse. We remain opposed to any further moves to reduce prescription charges for the 7 per cent that still attract any cost. Conservatives believe that the 40m could be much better spent within the health budget, not least on extending the numbers and availability of Scotland's health visitors. Far better that we improve healthcare for all our children than have free prescriptions for the wealthy.

These are examples of the choices and priority decisions that politicians must face up to in the years ahead.

So, this year, I want the Scottish Government to show it is serious about confronting the tough times that lie ahead. All of us – government and opposition – have a responsibility to deal with the unpalatable truth about the spending reductions that will be needed over the next few years, whoever wins the British general election. We need to change the culture within government. Rather than recognising civil servants for spending more and employing more people, we need to reward those who come up with ideas for how we deliver the same levels of public services with less money.

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Changing the culture won't be easy, but here's one simple way: it's time for ministers to open the books. The Conservatives are demanding the SNP government now commits to publishing online details of all spending over 25,000. This would be a transparency revolution in public spending. When spending decisions are open to full public scrutiny, every government minister will know that they have to justify their decision. A government that is more transparent will be more prudent.

Why shouldn't taxpayers be able to see what their money is being spent on? I believe this simple measure will of itself save the government millions of pounds, by making every civil servant and every minister think twice before spending taxpayers' money.

We should do as much as we can by getting government to be more efficient. But it won't be enough. We are going to have to have a frank debate about where we should prioritise over the next few years, because we won't be able to spend money on everything we might want to.

Just as the Scottish Government will have to make do with less, so will the Scottish Parliament. MSPs must show leadership to the rest of the public sector.

The jobs of the future will come in the private sector, many of them in small businesses and start-ups. So we also need to focus on one of Scotland's lingering economic problems: the lower number of start-up businesses here compared with the rest of the UK.

A UK Conservative government will help tackle this problem with incentives on National Insurance for new businesses. I want to see the Scottish Government pulling in the same direction, doing what it can to help make a culture of entrepreneurship flourish.

These are exceptionally difficult economic times, but we will get through them if we face up to reality, reform our public services and focus on the jobs of the future. I want the Scottish Government, in its budget, to do just that.

• Annabel Goldie is a list MSP for the West of Scotland and leader of the Scottish Conservatives.