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Showing restraint

Brian Taylor | 10:49 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

Given that pay is such a substantial element of public sector spending, it was all but inevitable that pay constraint would play a part in efforts to rebalance Scotland's budget.

On John Swinney's part, it may be seen as direct, combative and potentially productive. It is also, however, part of an emerging pattern - which is to seek to share the responsibility for the cuts.

How so? Think back to the Beveridge report, commissioned by ministers.

Alongside pay restraint, it suggested the Scottish government might consider scrapping free personal care and other costly universal services.

If John Swinney were to stand up on Wednesday and scrap free personal care, then that decision rebounds directly upon him. It is an immediate decision - with, potentially, immediate electoral impact in May.

Ditto if Mr Swinney were to scrap free bus passes or reverse the cut in prescription charges or . . . you get the concept.

Ditto if Mr Swinney were to announce that the hugely popular NHS budget (see our poll) would face cuts in line with other areas of spending.

Obvious cuts

He would make the cut. His party would take the hit.

Mr Swinney will, of course, not be making any such announcements. Cuts there will be: do not misunderstand me. Overt, obvious cuts.

But, equally, there will be strategic moves which involve, to some extent, sharing the responsibility for implementation.

John Swinney cannot order a pay freeze. He can fund public services on the presumption that pay has been frozen (for those earning more than £21k.)

He can then drive forward such a settlement in the employment sectors for which his government is directly responsible - and urge such a settlement in others, such as local government, where it is not in direct control.

That involves a big challenge for central government - but also for councils, unions and employees. It involves shared responsibility.

Ditto the possible search for higher efficiency savings. Mr Swinney may budget on the presumption that such savings are found.

Collective effort

If they are, victory. If they are not, then the fault does not lie directly with him.

Ditto the notion of a prolonged council tax freeze. If councils agree, they will get money from central government - and there will thereby be a collective effort to ease the pressure on households.

However, if one or two councils break ranks and impose an increase, then that is their call, not John Swinney's, and they will take the electoral consequences.

Bear in mind Mr Swinney's fundamental approach: that this is not the budget of his choice; that he will not accept the blame for the global financial crisis; that he believes the UK government is cutting far too rapidly and deeply.

Given that analysis, it is understandable that he should seek to spread the pain around.

Both financially and politically.

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