Orcadian 01/03/17

After spending last Saturday at Murrayfield watching our men’s rugby team emulate their female counterparts by beating Wales, it’s tempting just to offer my tuppence worth on Scotland’s chances of securing the Calcutta Cup and a Triple Crown when they take on England at Twickenham a week on Saturday.  

There is a column to be had, surely, in assessing the wisdom of the Scottish Rugby Union’s decision to terminate current Scotland coach, Vern Cotter’s contract at just the point that his team achieves the dizzying heights of fifth place in the world rankings. I suspect, however, that my comments would be deemed ‘unparliamentary’.

Instead, let me reflect on an historic week in and around Holyrood, when the Scottish Parliament had its first ever opportunity to vote on a tax-varying bill. The fact that the SNP government, backed by the Greens, chose to leave those powers ‘sitting on the shelf’ should not diminish the significance of this shift in the way budgets will come to be considered from this point onwards.

Like many, I have long accepted the inherent weakness in MSPs being able to debate and decide how our budget is spent, but have no say over how monies are raised to pay for it. That though has now changed.

Ironically, despite being so vocal in demanding powers over tax, the SNP seem in no hurry to use them. One would have thought, given how much SNP Ministers claim to hate ‘Tory austerity’, they would have leapt at the chance to adopt a different approach. Apparently not. As a result, last week’s budget represented a missed opportunity.

In keeping with almost all budgets, there were elements that deserved cross-party support. Overall, however, what Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay brought to parliament fell well below what could and should have been achievable.

He had an opportunity to make a serious investment in education, for example, from the very earliest years, when the gaps in life chances between rich and poor open up, to repairing the damage done to our colleges, where the loss of 150,000 largely part-time courses have had such an impact on accessibility, notably for women and older learners. Instead, there was little in the budget likely to help Scottish education regain its place as the best in the world.

Mr Mackay could also have secured a transformational change in funding for mental health, providing much-needed investment in an area that still struggles to get the attention or support it needs and deserves. Instead, services, particularly for children, will remain over-stretched and patchy.

The timidity and lack of ambition in the budget is regrettable. It may be that the SNP and Greens have decided that with the First Minister preparing to launch yet another independence referendum campaign, they want to avoid doing anything radical that might alienate potential supporters. Whatever the reason, the decision will result in deep cuts to council budgets and local services, for which Nicola Sturgeon and colleagues are responsible.

At such an historic moment, it was perhaps no surprise that the government sought to sneak out news of the latest plans for Highlands & Islands Enterprise. Leaking details of the so-called Crerar Report to the media before informing parliament led the Presiding Officer to rebuke the Minister, Keith Brown. More significantly, however, the plans confirmed that while HIE’s board may be retained, it would act as a mere ‘delivery’ agency for a centralised ‘super board’, chaired by the Minister.

This ‘fudge’ is no better than the earlier proposal to abolish the board. In effect, HIE’s chair and board would be answerable to Edinburgh and the Minister: the specific needs of businesses and communities in the Highlands & Islands would be a secondary consideration.

Those of us who genuinely want to see HIE operate more effectively want to see it have more autonomy and less micro-management by Ministers. Sadly, the SNP are proposing the complete opposite.

Last Saturday, Finn Russell’s sleight of hand was a thing of beauty, which bamboozled the Welsh defence. By contrast, Keith Brown’s sleight of hand is horribly ugly and will fool no-one in the Highlands & Islands.

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