Scotland politics

Scottish budget plan backed in principle

John Swinney Image copyright PA
Image caption Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney said his budget went as far as it could within the limits of devolution

The Scottish government's final budget before the independence referendum has been backed in principle by parliament.

Finance Secretary John Swinney said the 2014-15 spending plans would boost the economy and counter "Westminster cuts".

Opposition parties said the budget failed to support recovery and accused SNP ministers of putting Scotland "on hold" until after the referendum.

The spending plans face another two rounds of voting before final approval.

MSPs backed the Budget Bill in principle by 90 votes to 13, with two abstentions.

Labour supported the proposals, provided more was done to help people affected by UK government welfare changes, while the Liberal Democrats also voted for the bill.

The Conservatives refused to support the spending plans, saying they failed to boost Scotland's economy.

Ahead of the 18 September referendum, where voters will be asked the yes/no question "Should Scotland be an independent country", Mr Swinney said his government was doing everything it could for Scotland, within its "limited" devolved powers.

The Scottish government said measures the Budget Bill included:

  • £55m to provide free school meals to all pupils in the first three years of primary school from January 2015
  • £59m to expand free childcare to vulnerable two-year-olds
  • £77m for business rate relief
  • £20m set against UK housing benefit cuts for recipients living in council housing deemed to have spare bedrooms, described as the "bedroom tax" by critics
  • Continuation of the council tax freeze and universal benefits like free prescriptions
  • Measures to secure £8bn of infrastructure investment over the next two years

Mr Swinney said of the spending plans: "It is a budget based on this government's vision of a nation founded on the principle of fairness and prosperity, and one which demonstrates the benefits to Scotland of decisions being taken in Scotland by those who care most about Scotland: the people who live and work here."

The budget - worth a total of about £30bn annually and funded by a Treasury block grant - was criticised by opposition parties, but the SNP's parliamentary majority will ensure it is passed.

Labour finance spokesman Iain Gray said £50m was needed to mitigate the effects of the "bedroom tax", and offered to work with Mr Swinney to increase the size of the pot.

Mr Gray added: "The budget fails to rise to the challenges Scotland faces, this is a 'steady as she goes' budgets, changing little and risking less to get the government past their only real objective, which is the referendum in September."

The Conservatives' Gavin Brown said the Scottish budget was now £3.5bn more than when Alex Salmond became first minister, and said the latest set of spending plans failed to tackle Scotland's problems.

"This is not a budget for the economy," he said.

"They don't even pretend to talk a good game about the economy any more, it is not front and centre. This is all about the referendum."

Opposition parties also said policies promised by the Scottish government in the event of independence - such as providing 30 hours of childcare per week in term time for all three and four-year-olds and vulnerable two-year-olds - could be delivered now.

'Work needed'

Despite opposition criticism, Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie welcomed the government's commitment to expanding childcare and school meals entitlement.

He added: "The budget, even so, will still not be perfect.

"It may be good enough for us to vote for the budget - we will have to see how the discussions develop in the coming weeks."

Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie also praised the measures for children, but criticised the government for pursuing "unsustainable transport projects".

Meanwhile, Mr Swinney has said capital spending in the budget was being cut by 26.6%, while UK government welfare cuts would take an estimated £4.5bn out of the Scottish economy.

As part of his Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne said the Scottish budget would increase by £308m over two years, meaning the Holyrood administration's budget would be cut by less than 0.2%.

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