Fiscal plans need more transparency, not radical change

Following the call by Tavish Scott of the Liberal Democrats in The Scotsman last week for a budget office to report to parliament, the Scottish Conservatives' Derek Brownlee offers his thoughts on the ongoing debate

LAST year, much to the annoyance of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives helped to block plans that would effectively rewrite the budget process just a week before it was due to begin.

We did so for one fundamental reason – that it is wrong to change fundamental procedures, such as the way the budget is scrutinised, without serious and proper consideration, and without adequate notice.

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Although Labour and Lib Dem MSPs voted against the Conservative motion to review the process, it passed, and Parliament is now considering how the way that we approve the budget might change. I welcome Tavish Scott's contribution to the debate in The Scotsman last week.

The Conservatives will evaluate all budget proposals on their merits. Our role is crucial: on both parliamentary committees currently scrutinising the process, without our support the proposals can only be passed if Labour and the SNP unite.

I hope it does not come to party division, and that a consensus across all parties can be forged – but if not, we will seek to do what is right for the long-term interest of the parliamentary budget process, rather than pursuing short-term party advantage.

We will not support measures that are aimed solely at making life difficult for the current government. These matters are too important to be left to day-to-day party politics. We need to build a robust budget process that balances the need for parliamentary scrutiny with the need of governments to govern. The process must be lasting and must be seen as fair by all parties.

There are some general principles we seek to pursue:

There should, wherever possible, be consensus across parties about the process.

The process should be applicable whether the government is a majority, minority or coalition – a change of government should not dictate a change of budget process.

The process should carefully balance the interests of government and parliament and should not be skewed towards either.

I am inclined to support plans to establish a parliamentary budget office to allow the parliament better information on the likely costs and implications of different policy options. It would not just help scrutinising the budget, but also in day-to-day scrutiny of policy announcements made by government or opposition.

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Whether this is the cost of free personal care, the GP contract or the Holyrood building, there are many cases of actual costs turning out to be well in advance of those projected. Improving financial scrutiny of proposed policies and tracking their implementation costs is vital, and would help parliament scrutinise the government's legislative programme and budget. A parliamentary budget office could play a valuable role in achieving this.

There would be, of course, a cost in establishing such an office, but I believe there is scope to save money in the longer term by better financial scrutiny at an earlier stage in the policy process.

The issue of amending the budget is also important. At present, only the government can lodge amendments to it. Although we do not have a closed mind on the issue, we remain to be convinced that this should be opened up more widely, particularly after this year's vote which saw a package of budget amendments put forward by the government passed by varying margins. Some MSPs wanted to support more spending, but not the savings needed elsewhere to accommodate it.

I do not expect the issue of how the budget process is reformed to be the talk of pubs and offices up and down the country, but it is vitally important for all taxpayers and it is important we get it right for the long term.

Stand by to see new budget flexibility as process is reviewed


LAST autumn, when Labour and the Liberal Democrats came up with what appeared to be a clever political wheeze to scrutinise the Scottish Government's budget, there were inevitable accusations of double standards.

This was because the detailed scrutiny they called for had not been mentioned once in their preceding eight years of government. In those days, a majority was secured and the budget passed as a formality. However, time in opposition seems to have sharpened their appetite for examination. The difference, they claimed, was that Scotland now had a minority government and the level of scrutiny should therefore increase.

They proposed holding separate parliamentary debates on the main budget areas – housing and social services, health, environment, education and community safety.

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It would have seen a much heavier budget process and left the SNP government facing the prospect of requiring many more votes to get through what they wanted.

The government eventually defeated the Labour and LibDem proposal with the help of the Tories and the Greens and normal service was resumed. The old governing parties did, however, win a review of the budget process. Since then, Holyrood's finance committee has been asked to conduct an inquiry, the consultation stage of which finishes tomorrow.

It is unlikely that its recommendations will favour the proposed Labour and LibDem model, suggested last year to try and turn the political heat up on the SNP. But there have been hints that the current committee work could be beefed up to allow more flexibility to make budget changes.

The idea is that some governmental power may be moved back to parliament. Additional debates based on what committees have to say may also be suggested. Currently there are just two, for the first and third readings of the budget. At the moment the options are open and no report is likely to be seen until well after the summer recess.