Scottish election 2021: Do the Tory manifesto pledges and prices stack up?

Douglas Ross has unveiled his party’s election manifesto, going heavy on spending pledges and a promise to try and cut income tax by the end of the parliamentary term should financial circumstances allow.

The Scottish Conservatives have offered extra spending on the NHS and childcare, as well as investing in new training schemes and apprenticeships, while other measures include doubling the Scottish Child Payment, free lunches and breakfasts for all primary pupils, and increases in the allowances to carers.

But while the Tories questioned the SNP’s maths last week, claiming its manifesto spending spree would need the Scottish Government budget to more than double to meet the pledges, what about their own costings? Do they add up?

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HEALTH

The IFS said that Douglas Ross's ambition to cut income tax was hard to achieve without cuts to services.

Certainly the SNP has already claimed the Scottish Tories’ proposals would see cuts to the NHS budget while also offering tax cuts for the wealthiest in our society.

But according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Conservative manifesto pledge of £2 billion for the NHS over the next four years is “at least as generous as the SNP’s" despite the headline figure cited being lower.

This is because the Conservatives’ £2bn figure relates to 2025/26, the last full year of the next parliamentary term, while the SNP’s £2.5bn refers to the following year, 2026/27 – which would be after yet another Holyrood election.

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The IFS says the Tory pledge is “similar to, but slightly more generous than, what was promised last week by the SNP”.

Yet, even that extra £2bn, it says “would not be sufficient to deliver on the Conservatives’ promise of a ‘double lock’ for the Scottish NHS”, which the party says would “guarantee the NHS budget will increase by Barnett consequentials or 2 per cent more than inflation, whichever is highest, in every year of the next Parliament”.

"We estimate that the total increase required by 2025/26 would be at least £2.6bn, and closer to £3bn if NHS spending in England continues to increase in line with recent trends – which both the Conservatives and the SNP pledge they would match,” the IFS said.

"In other words, given likely continued growth in NHS spending in England, spending on the NHS in Scotland is likely to grow by more than either the headline Conservative or SNP numbers suggest.”

TAX

So if the health budget is out, what about raising cash for spending in the form of tax? The SNP has pledged to freeze income tax over the course of the next parliament, while Douglas Ross says he’d like to be able to announce a cut in income tax by 2025/26.

The IFS says the Conservatives are certainly saying more on tax than the SNP and proposed reductions to Land and Buildings Transactions Tax and reforms of small business rates relief are “welcome”.

But the fiscal body adds: “The funding environment may mean that an ambition to cut income tax to slightly below the levels of the rest of the UK may need to remain just that: an ambition as the cut – which would benefit 1.2m people – would cost around £400m a year.”

The IFS adds: “As well as under-estimating the cost of the NHS double lock, the cost of a rigid funding guarantee for local government, and any cost of cutting income tax, are omitted.

"While the precise details of the first of this is to be agreed with councils, and the cuts to income tax are an ambition rather than a firm commitment, their omission means that there will actually be less headroom against the overall funding increase than the policy costings document suggests..”

Ben Zaranko, a research economist at the IFS, said: "The Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto reflects the seeming consensus in Scottish politics on a range of issues – increases to Carer’s Allowance, doubling the Scottish Child Payment, universal free school meals for primary school aged children, and more generous childcare, to name a few.

"Alongside other commitments, including a funding guarantee for councils, the increase in NHS spending means that without a substantial increase in UK Government funding, the ambition to cut income tax to slightly below the levels in the rest of the UK may have to remain only an ambition."

COUNCILS

Despite the manifesto containing little on social care – both Scottish Labour and the SNP have promised the creation of a National Care Service and the abolition of all non-residential charges – the IFS says the pledge to ensure that Scottish councils receive a set percentage of the total Scottish Government budget means that councils should see cash-terms increases in grant funding of around 4 per cent each year.

However, the IFS warns while such a move may be welcomed by councils, it would depend on the extent to which new responsibilities like extensions to free school meals and wraparound childcare have to be funded from within this share. It could also mean that if the UK Government decided to top-up NHS funding in England, the NHS ‘double lock’ proposed for health spending “would mean that any consequentials had to be passed on to the Scottish health service, but the funding guarantee for Scottish councils would require them also to receive their share of the increase in the Scottish Government’s budget to maintain their share of overall funding”.

"This would mean funding for non-NHS non-local government services has to be cut – because part of the Barnett consequentials have in effect been promised twice.”

BUSINESS

The Conservatives are more definite about cutting business rates – but only temporarily.

They propose a freeze in 2022/23, at a cost of £72m, and a further 25 per cent discount in that year for the retail, hospitality and leisure sector in 2022/23, costing £181m.

But the IFS warns: “The Conservatives have not found money for these reductions to last beyond next year. From 2023/24 onwards, the only definite change proposed from what is currently planned is to remove ‘cliff edges’ in Scotland’s system of small business rates relief.”

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