Rennie says SNP Government must put more into mental health, the police and helping disadvantaged kids in schools

It’s time for the Scottish Parliament to debate the Government’s budget plans for the coming year. It’s particularly interesting this year as the SNP no longer has a majority and must secure the backing, or at least the abstention, of others in order for the budget to pass.

Willie Rennie has written to Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Minister, to set out the changes that the Liberal Democrats wish to see before they could consider supporting the budget.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that he is sticking to the priorities we outlined in our manifesto for the Scottish elections last year – more money for disadvantaged kids in schools as we implemented successfully south of the border, an expansion of mental health services, particularly for young people, and more funding for the Police who are struggling to cope with the SNP’s disastrous centralisation.

It’s quite important that we have all this in mind in everything that we do during this Parliament. We need to think about what we want to achieve and what we will have to say to voters in 2021 about what we have fought for and where we are not prepared to settle for tepid, unambitious half-measures. In the last Parliament, where the SNP had a majority, we still made issues like early years education, colleges, the Police, civil liberties and mental health our own and won significant concessions from the SNP in budget discussions. Now that there is no majority, we need to push for more.

Derek Mackay should not under-estimate the pressures that Willie Rennie is under from within the party. Activists and councillors across Scotland would take some convincing before they would be happy with our MSPs supporting the SNP’s budget. There would have to be some pretty significant changes in line with the priorities Willie has set out. Window dressing will simply not do. This is what he has to say on the subject:

The SNP have no majority for their draft budget.  If they want a majority they will need to agree to this comprehensive but necessary plan.

The intention is to secure substantial changes to the budget which will set Scotland on a stronger, more liberal path, giving people the chance to succeed and reach their potential whatever their background.

Liberal Democrats will not agree to the draft budget as it stands and will need these substantial changes. If we don’t get what the country needs then we will walk away.

Our plan invests for a step change in mental health and a transformation in education that will help in the road to a liberal Scotland.

A properly funded pupil premium and more money for colleges will create that opportunity and boost jobs and the economy.

New investment in mental health services will boost this Cinderella service and make the whole NHS more sustainable in the future.

We have also included support for alcohol and drug services, a higher budget for the police and lower cost transport for the Northern Isles.

I have had a number of meetings and discussions with the Finance Secretary so far and looking forward to receiving his response to our plan.

His full letter to Derek Mackay is below:

Derek,

We have had meetings on the 2017-18 Scottish Budget prior to publication and since then, most recently last week. I want to use this letter to set out the position of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in advance of the Stage 1 vote on the Budget Bill.

The result of the election has left you as a minority.

I have looked at the priorities and proposals made by my party in the election. I want to be clear with you about what my colleagues and I believe needs to be changed in the Draft Budget. In short we will need new measures on mental health, restored college funding, a fully supported pupil premium, new money to support the police, together with less costly transport links to the northern isles.

Given the turbulence that has affected the Scottish economy, and the weekly warnings about skills shortages, business confidence and educational attainment the Scottish Liberal Democrats are right to prioritise a strong long-term economy for Scotland. It remains our belief that the range of issues we have discussed with you remain important to develop a strong, diverse economy with increased economic participation.

You have explained to me how you have adapted and structured your Draft Budget to meet some of those priorities. This note sets out where we accept elements of that but I need to be completely clear with you where the Budget continues to fall substantially short.

The centrepiece of our election campaign was a £500m annual investment in education. As you will have heard me say on many occasions, Scotland used to rank amongst the best in the world for education, now we are average. The decline will have a real effect, when the lack of investment in education reduces the number of high-skill and high-wage jobs in Scotland. My party’s proposals invest in education and learning from childcare, to the pupil premium, to restoration of funding to colleges. We showed in May that this could be paid for by our Penny for Education proposal, not through the withdrawal of funding to other services.

Our proposal for a pupil premium will give schools the resources to raise attainment by children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We allocated £190m in our manifesto to allow additional funding of £1400 for eligible primary school pupils and £900 for secondary.  This was on top of the Attainment Fund that existed at the time of the election. Since the election you have announced a welcome change of policy away from your previous position of limiting funding to only certain local authorities and towards our idea of an entitlement that reaches right across Scotland.  The amount of your proposed investment still falls short of the amount that would match the similar pupil premium operating in England. The outcomes from the investment in England have been substantial and worthwhile. It doesn’t seem right to us to underfund the provision in Scotland and risk not achieving the gains. This £70 million shortfall will need to be addressed if the Budget is to gain our support.

On colleges, we remain seriously concerned at the shortages of skills in important sectors. College funding next year will be £93m below the peak funding achieved in 2010-11 under the terms of your Draft Budget. The erosion of the college sector should not be allowed to stand next year. The decline has impacted on women and older students disproportionately. We believe that it is important to return investment back to former funding levels and meet future skills needs. Improved college funding will need to be part of the final Budget.

On childcare, at our discussion in December you set out how the Scottish Government will be piloting different models for implementing its policy of additional free childcare provision from the age of 2. My party supports your overall aim. We believe that the policy will be difficult to deliver. We are very concerned about the reports of the difficulty of accessing current provision in some parts of Scotland. I am prepared to accept your assurance that the policy is being implemented in a phased way to allow for proper evaluation of the best way to bring it in. This is a different route to that proposed by my party in May. We felt that much more investment would be needed earlier. I am prepared to accept that your route does not need that particular slice of our additional funding for the year 2017-18.

The Scottish Government has failed to meet the challenge of mental ill health. The government’s strategy expired more than a year ago. The proposals in the Draft Budget do not get anywhere near meeting the need.  This is a big issue for the economy and employers, who lose millions of days from staff absences. It is serious and heart-breaking for individuals and families. In May we proposed to increase the mental health budget line for 2017-18 to allow for the expansion of provision of services.

Given the daily reports of immediate problems in the Scottish NHS, together with concerns about its long term sustainability, our proposed investment in mental health is essential. Changing the way we deal with mental health will take the pressure off GPs, A&E and the police who are left, too often, as the only point of call for mental health.

Our mental health plan would double CAMHS spend to match England.  We would also invest in dedicated mental health professionals in A&E departments, GP surgeries and in police divisions. These are substantial new services that signal a transformation in the seriousness with which mental ill health is treated.

I met SAMH last week and they too believe that doubling the CAMHS budget will allow for more Tier 1 and Tier 2 treatment for young people, and this has also been endorsed by the Parliament’s health committee.

In short, we cannot support a Budget that does not deliver substantial additional resources for mental health, above the resources identified in the Draft Budget. It will need investment of at least £1.2bn in mental health next year together with a mental health strategy that develops the new services I have mentioned.

For the wider economy we do need to insist that the Scottish Government honours its commitments on ferry fares to the northern isles. We believe that fares can and should be halved in order to support the economy of the northern isles and to match the increase subsidies given to west coast routes in recent times. The reinstatement of the business use of the Air Discount Scheme is also essential.

We are also concerned at the provision of Alcohol and Drug Partnerships. Their budget was cut and then funding amalgamated into the overall health board budgets a year ago. Services are falling short in many areas. As part of the budget process we would want to gain some assurance and certainty that health boards will provide the right investment in these important services.

I should also report that we have looked at the points you made to me when we met last week on the police budget. I would wish to place on record that the Scottish Liberal Democrat manifesto retained the £55m change fund and added a further £20m to the indexed police budget. This is because we do not believe the change programme has succeeded. So your present Draft Budget is at least £20m short of what we think is important to promote a successful police service.

What I have set out above is not a long list of every item that would benefit from more spending. It is a tight and prioritised list that has the long term future of the Scottish economy at its heart.

This list is smaller than that which we proposed in our manifesto but the challenge for you remains substantial. I have indicated where we have accepted your reasoning on childcare. I believe that the proposals I have made here are ones that can be accepted by the Scottish Government and, given the economic challenges ahead, should be incorporated into a revised Scottish Budget.

I stand ready to discuss these matters with you further. I have been clear in this letter that our support for the Budget can only be considered if significant and substantial change is included for colleges, the pupil premium, mental health, the police and the island economies.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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3 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Jan '17 - 1:25pm

    Everybody understandably up in arms about the lack of interaction on regional spokespeople on Brexit , and the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader as usual rightly able to concentrate on his country , ie Scotland !

    England is never an issue , other than to say no thanks , its got to be regional.

    And nothing much seems to be an issue other than Brexit . The excellent work on victims gets one comment , mine !

    I feel very alienated from this knee jerk attitude to so much at present. I get very irritated by overuse of iliberal, but it is !

  • It’s good to see Willie maintain pressure to give mental health services the support they deserve. I hope he gets a proper response.

  • It would be cool if there was also an article about what the leader of the Welsh Lib Dems was getting up to this week: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/politics/s4c-funding-cut-to-bone-12473476

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