Rennie warns of budget cuts to councils and health boards

Speaking ahead of the Scottish Parliament debate on the Budget, Willie Rennie set out the Liberal Democrat priorities of investment in education and mental health. The SNP Finance Minister has not made good on a promise to provide funding for inter-island ferries in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland.

The Budget needs to do more to meet the long term needs of the economy.

It should invest in people through education and mental health. We have a fully costed plan to make that happen.

We have yet to hear how the SNP are going to change the Budget to make sure that the promised pay rises for public sector workers are fully funded. The current plan from the SNP will mean cutbacks in councils and health boards.

A couple of weeks ago, Labour had an opposition day on the budget and public services. It was not the most constructive debate you have ever seen. Here’s Willie Rennie’s speech seeing out our budget priorities:

Our general approach to budgets has been constructive and about engagement. Since I have been leader, we have voted for the Scottish Government’s budget on two occasions and, as the finance secretary will know, we have always engaged constructively. We voted for the budget previously because we perceived that it was, not perfect, but good enough. We secured more investment for nursery education, free school meals and for colleges. However, the approach this year has changed, which we deeply regret. In previous years, we have engaged positively and constructively with Derek Mackay but, this year, he is trying to strongarm us into supporting the budget by using the significant issue of the northern isles ferries. To try to secure our support, he is threatening to withdraw a clear commitment and promise that he made to the northern isles to provide financial support for the internal ferries for those islands.

There are two Government documents that are very clear about the Government promises. One of them, from back in 2014, talks about a negotiation at that time to conclude the issue. That commitment was made in 2014, but nothing has changed since. Discussions might be happening, but I cannot see any commitment to actually delivering on the promise. The ferry services plan from 2012 was equally clear about resolving the injustice for the internal ferry services. The result is that, if there is no change, public services will be cut or ferries will be cut. It is Derek Mackay’s responsibility to come to terms with that. That is why we hope that, when the final budget is published, we will see a clear commitment to deliver on the promise that he made. I hope that there will be a change of tack, because I would like to get back to the constructive process of engagement that we have had in previous years.

Liberal Democrats have been clear, open and honest about our costed manifesto commitments. At the election, unlike the Scottish National Party, we said that we were prepared to put a penny on income tax to invest in a transformational investment in education for nurseries, schools and colleges. We were frank with people so that, when they voted for us at the ballot box, they knew what they were voting for. However, those who voted for the SNP were not clear, because the SNP said one thing and has done another since then. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that the SNP now recognises that we need to use the powers that the Parliament has gained to make a transformational change. We therefore urge the Scottish Government to go the full length by making a proper investment of £500 million.

We think that a £500 million boost to education is necessary because that will benefit the economy, in the face of Brexit. I agreed with much of what the First Minister set out in the paper that she published on Monday on the economic impact of Brexit. However, we do not see any action in the budget to try to deal with that. We need to invest in people’s skills and talents to try to supply the skills that will allow businesses to grow wealth and opportunities in this country.

That is why we think that there should be a proper investment programme in nurseries for the expansion of nursery education for two, three and four-year-olds; proper investment in school budgets and the pupil premium—or the pupil equity fund, as the Scottish Government calls it; and reversal of the damaging cuts to colleges of recent years, in which 150,000 places were cut and mature and part-time students were deprived of opportunities. That is the investment that we think is necessary in order to get the Scottish education system back to being the best in the world.

We also need to invest in mental health. In the previous budget, we recommended that mental health spending should go up to £1.2 billion. We need that significant extra investment in mental health because we have seen large numbers of people who have to wait to get essential mental health treatment—young people who just cannot get the support that they need and people waiting for up to a year to get the basic treatment and support that they need. One of the commanders of police in Dundee has said that mental health is one of the major issues that the police force in Dundee now deals with. We need investment in mental health to take the pressure off the police and the front-line services.

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  • It would have looked a lot better if the five Lib Dem MSP’s had agreed to vote the same way. Sorry, but two supporting the Budget and three opposing it doesn’t send a resonating united consistent Lib Dem message.

  • Peter Martin 1st Feb '18 - 12:35pm

    The experiences of both the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments should make us wary of wanting the same thing for the English regions.

    Regional or Devolved National governments don’t have the the currency issuing capacity of central government. Their borrowing costs are therefore much higher. A regional/devolved government can default on any loan whereas central government, which is a currency issuer, cannot. By default, the economics of such government tends towards austerity. Budgets have to be balanced – unless there is an agreed subsidy from Westminster. Spending has to be tightly controlled.

    Lib Dems like to cite successful local government in countries such as Switzerland and Germany. These countries generally have large export surpluses. There is always more money entering the country than leaving so there isn’t the same need for deficit spending either at National or regional level.

    In the UK, a regional government would probably only work in London and the South East of England. The area where it is least needed! It wouldn’t work in the North East, for example, unless central government provided generous cash grants. That might happen to start with but unless we had a government in Westminster with the correct economic understanding it would be unlikely to continue.

    So when the cracks started to show in the regional NHS, the regional education system etc the voters would complain to their Westminster MPs. They’d be told that it wasn’t their problem any longer and that they should take it up with their representatives in their regional Assembly.

    Britain isn’t a huge country. We already have local government and National government. There’s no need for an additional layer of regional government.

  • @ Peter Martin Sorry, Peter, I don’t know why you undervalue the Scottish and Welsh devolved arrangements. Having lived in Scotland for more than a dozen years I have experienced and value the unique aspects and successes we have received from Holyrood Governments of all shades in terms of health and education. We also have the benefit of PR and accessibility – and a budget moving in a progressive way after inter-party discussion.

    Do you know anything about this – or is your judgement from a far away perch ?

  • Peter Martin 1st Feb '18 - 11:51pm

    @ David Raw,

    The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were set up to head off the Nationalists in those countries rather than provide better government to Scotland and Wales. I don’t remember anyone making the ‘better government’ argument with any conviction. The Nationalists went along with it all because they saw it as a stepping stone to full independence. The SNP were considered a bigger threat than Plaid Cymru, and so the Scots very likely got a better deal.

    Are the Welsh NHS and Scottish NHS any better than the English NHS? Many would say the Scottish educations system is better, but they were saying that before Holyrood came into existence. Is it, and the Scottish NHS, better than it would otherwise be?

    Maybe you can give some examples of what has been made possible due to the existence of Holyrood which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise? I don’t just mean the differential rates of income tax!

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