SNP suffers defeat after MSPs reject call to back its budget

Former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart. Picture: PA
Former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart. Picture: PA
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MSPs have refused to endorse finance secretary John Swinney’s spending plans for the next year, claiming there is no evidence that it is a budget for growth.

In a rare defeat for the Scottish Government at the hands of a Holyrood committee, members of the finance committee rejected an SNP amendment calling on the body to praise the 2013-14 draft budget.

The defeat came after former SNP MSP Jean Urquhart voted against the motion, claiming it was irrelevant to today’s report on the minister’s £28.4 billion spending plans.

The SNP motion had called on members to agree that Mr Swinney had “produced a budget which encourages sustainable growth”.

However, Ms Urquhart voted with Conservative and Labour MSPs to reject this statement in a blow to the SNP, which has an overall majority at Holyrood and dominates most of the parliament’s committee system.

Ms Urquhart resigned from the party in October alongside fellow SNP rebel John Finnie over its new support for Nato, reducing the SNP’s parliamentary majority to one.

The resignations shifted the balance of power on three Holyrood committees, with the SNP now in a minority on the finance, justice and equal opportunities committees.

Labour finance committee member Michael McMahon accused the SNP members, who include convener Kenneth Gibson and vice-convener John Mason, of drafting a motion that was at odds with the evidence they heard.

He said: “The SNP government tried to prevent any real scrutiny of its budget by failing to give us sufficient detail and ordering its majority of back-benchers to block any attempts to get to the bottom of this.

“Despite these efforts, the finance committee couldn’t find any real evidence to sustain the Scottish Government’s assertion that this is a budget for growth.

“On the contrary, witness after witness argued the opposite, and it seems only those under the SNP whip believe this set of spending priorities is about creating jobs.

“John Swinney has a lot of work to do to convince the country that this budget is one which will result in the outcome he boasts it will.”

Ms Urquhart told The Scotsman she had voted against the SNP amendment because it had been “irrelevant” to the report.

The independent MSP, who also voted against a Labour amendment, said: “We’d had all the discussions and it was unnecessary to put in amendments. The report was done and dusted, so it was irrelevant to do this.”

Mr Swinney’s draft budget was introduced to parliament in September, when the SNP minister made a series of mostly low-key announcements, which only amounted to £180 million in the overall budget of more than £28 billion.

At the heart of Mr Swinney’s budget were plans to spend £40m on affordable housing, plus £80m on accelerating the school building programme.

Mr Swinney said the number of schools being built would increase from 55 to 67.

In an attempt to create 10,000 private-sector jobs for young people, the Scottish Government has also promised £15m that would be matched by European Structural Funds.

However, opposition members on the committee had claimed the budget did very little to kick-start the economy.

Tory MSP Gavin Brown described Ms Urquhart’s scepticism as an “embarrassing defeat” for the SNP. He said: “The committee failed to support the Scottish Government’s central proposition for the budget that it is a budget for growth and jobs. The SNP proposed an amendment which stated that the budget encourages sustainable economic growth. However, I’m pleased to say that the committee saw sense and rejected this suggestion.

“The SNP’s budget started to unravel the day after it was delivered. That unravelling shows no sign of stopping.”

While the committee’s vote is embarrassing for the Scottish Government, it is unlikely to affect the bill’s progress through parliament when MSPs come to vote in the full chamber.

Mr Swinney had previously told MSPs the draft budget was “my toughest year”, as he said that government spending had gone down from £28.6bn in 2012-13 to £28.4bn for 2013-14.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman claimed Mr Swinney’s plans for economic growth were restricted by the lack of fiscal powers for Holyrood.

She said: “The draft budget is focused on jobs and growth, because this government is doing everything it can, within its limited power, to stimulate economic growth. But with the full fiscal and economic powers of independence, we could do more to create the best possible environment for success.”