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The haggling continues

Brian Taylor | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

UPDATE: In the debate, the frontbench speeches proceeded as anticipated.

Jeremy Purvis of the Lib Dems welcomed Mr Swinney's indications on top salaries - but stressed they would need more.

They want guarantees that the cash thus released would be spent productively on bolstering manufacturing and helping the young jobless.

Andy Kerr for Labour supported GARL.

It was, he said, a "weathervane" for the need to enhance the economy more generally in a time of stress.

I thought Mr Kerr was unwise to go on to accuse Mr Swinney of "arrogance" in presuming that every pound in his budget was wisely spent.

The minister had opened his remarks by insisting precisely the contrary: that he was open to other ideas.

Thoughtful speech

Mr Kerr presumably feels that such openness does not emerge in practice.

Nonetheless, the tone jarred with the remainder of his speech which was characterised by persuasion rather than invective.

Mr Swinney urged the entire chamber to focus upon the coming squeeze in public expenditure as well as the constraints involved in the immediate Bill.

Substantive contributions all - but perhaps the most thoughtful speech came from Wendy Alexander.

The former Labour leader dealt with the power of parliament to alter the capital budget.

She urged ministers to publish full details of the capital spending programme, year by year, while noting Permanent Secretary Sir John Elvidge had last week indicated to Parliament's Audit Committee that four major programmes had slipped in timetable.

These were, she said, the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, the Borders Railway, the National Arena for the Commonwealth Games and the Gartcosh campus.

Hands 'tied'

Projects, she said, worth a total of £1.2bn.

Such slippage, she argued, might release productive capital for other schemes.

Yet the Scottish government still declined to publish all the details - and parliament had not pushed sufficiently vigorously for publication, effectively tying their own hands.

Now, of course, Ms Alexander has a constituency interest in mind: that Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

But she pursued the wider issue without hammering home the Garl point.

Winding up the debate, John Swinney said that Ms Alexander had made a reasonable point - except that she had neglected to note that some capital projects, such as the M74, had to be accelerated.

He insisted the Scottish government spent close to its capital limit, with minimal slack.

But Mr Swinney indicated he might be open to the notion of an independent review of Scottish expenditure.

This would be following the Irish model.

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Let's talk directions of travel with regard to public spending.

MSPs vote this evening on the Scottish budget for next year.

But it's only the Stage One vote. Stage Two follows next week. Stage Three the week after.

Much more haggling to come.

But it looks like the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will assist the Bill to pass today - on the grounds that it merits further consideration.

Labour will almost certainly vote against, concerned at the scrapping of the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and other issues such as the housing budget.

On that latter point, Labour says there have been substantial - and potentially damaging - cuts.

Pay constraints

Ministers say no. They say the budget over the three year period is up but that a significant tranch of that capital spending was accelerated, meaning that it isn't available next year.

That makes the case, they say, for further acceleration.

But the most intriguing direction of travel is on pay.

I expect John Swinney this afternoon, opening the debate, to signal support for significant pay constraint in the upper echelons of the public sector.

In the next few weeks, Mr Swinney will outline a full pay policy. But we should get some pointers this afternoon.

He'll back a freeze in top salaries - where he has the power to do so.

He'll urge the public sector to shelve bonuses. And he'll argue that the overall salary bill should be driven down.

Westminster control

Where he has the power to do so? That doesn't include local authorities - who are autonomous - although, of course, Mr Swinney sets much of their budget and will hope and expect that they would follow suit.

It doesn't include those parts of the public sector under reserved Westminster control.

And it doesn't extend to staff on extended pay deals, say over three years.

But it would include ministers, senior civil servants, top NHS managers and those at Government quangos such as Scottish Enterprise, VisitScotland and the like.

That direction is veering towards the Lib Dem position. They want a 5% cut in the wage bill, generated by curbing top salaries.

There's talk that some of that could be achieved by, say, reducing the number of senior managers in a particular division.

In a speech tonight, Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie will follow the direction set by her Westminster colleagues when she'll back a pay freeze for those in the public sector earning more than £18,000.

That would apply from 2011.

Annabel Goldie says that would save the equivalent of funding 10,000 jobs.

But it has no support among other parties who say it is unfair to penalise those on relatively low pay.

Will the budget go through? Yes. There's minimal appetite in the current climate for political grandstanding.

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