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The un-enlightenment

Brian Taylor | 14:07 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

There was, in truth, little to enlighten any of us in this morning's public spending debate at Holyrood - with one or two exceptions.

But I did rather enjoy the sally from Jeremy Purvis of the Lib Dems, aimed at Finance Secretary John Swinney.

Mr Swinney, he averred, was occasionally inclined to "conflate providing a response with answering a question." JS looked suitably ministerial: that is, grim.

Frankly, most of the debate was occupied with responses rather than answers. To be fair, that is because we do not yet have firm figures upon which to base a detailed assessment.

For Labour, Andy Kerr's speech was chiefly dedicated to bemoaning that fact.

He argued the finance secretary should produce figures now - so that Labour could respond constructively/give him a kicking (delete according to which you think is more likely.)

Mr Swinney noted, with dry resignation, that he was unable to produce figures because the Scottish Budget was predicated upon consequentials from the UK Comprehensive Spending Review. Which does not emerge until October 20.

Ah, said Mr Kerr, but you know to within £200m what the figure is likely to be. Go on, have a shottie.

Mr Swinney declined, noting, in the same dry tone, that it was not the business of government to guess.

Mr Kerr persisted - and was only faintly discomfited when he was advised by the wily Bruce Crawford that the Welsh Assembly Government (main proprietor, Labour) was proposing to publish its financial plans in November. After the CSR. In exactly the same fashion as the Scottish government.

To be fair to Mr Kerr, Mr Swinney gave very few pointers either as to how he intended to proceed. To be fair to Mr Swinney, that is because he is still working on his package and has yet to obtain the final details.

To be fair to both - and to the others - they stressed that they were willing to seek consensus where possible.

May be difficult given the extent of the cuts. May be impossible given pending elections.

The minister's argument is that nothing would be gained by providing a draft based on incomplete figures.

Nothing, he argued further, would be gained by offering a detailed response now to the Independent Budget Review which was the topic of the debate.

All would be revealed in his own Budget, in November.

Mr Swinney repeated the bald figures: projections of a £3.7bn real terms reduction in the Scottish DEL budget between this year and 2014-15; a cut of some £1.7bn in real terms for next year.

He stated a determination to enhance efficiency; to protect the economy where possible; to preserve NHS spending, recycling efficiencies internally; to defend free personal care; to streamline the quango network; to consult on the government's wish to maintain the council tax freeze; and to curb public sector pay.

But details in each case would emerge at the time of his response to the CSR. In November.

Perhaps the boldest speech came from Derek Brownlee for the Tories. It was a thoughtful, serious performance.

He dismissed the notion that the finance secretary should have a dry run for the budget. Instead, he focused on what might need to be sacrificed in the real thing.

Mr Brownlee suggested a pay freeze on public sector salaries above £21k; a recruitment freeze, allowing turnover to cut costs; cancellation or delay for some capital projects; measures to curb concessionary fares, if possible by negotiation with transport operators; and opposition to reducing prescription charges.

Of course, the extent of the spending challenge will require more than that. I suspect Mr Brownlee is alert to that fact.

As are the others.


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