Scotland politics

Committee calls for MSPs to debate budget delay

budget document Image copyright PA
Image caption The draft budget is usually published in September

Holyrood's finance committee has called for MSPs to debate the government's budget timetable after the publication of draft spending plans was delayed.

Derek Mackay has put back publication of his first budget until after the UK government's Autumn statement.

Convener Bruce Crawford expressed "concern" at the amount of time MSPs will have to scrutinise budget plans.

A "fundamental" review of the Scottish budget process is to be held in light of Holyrood's new fiscal powers.

The Scottish draft budget is traditionally published in September, but new finance secretary Mr Mackay has proposed delaying his until December - leaving much less time for MSPs to study the details before voting on it in February.

He said uncertainty caused by the UK's vote to leave the EU, coupled with Holyrood's new financial powers, meant he would need to see what moves new Chancellor Philip Hammond makes in his statement on 23 November.

Mr Crawford, an SNP MSP and former cabinet minister, acknowledged the government faces "a significant challenge" in putting the budget together, but said his committee "remains concerned at the amount of time which will be available for parliamentary scrutiny".

And in a letter to the finance secretary, he said it was "unacceptable" that Mr Mackay was not prepared to give the committee any scenario planning information in advance of the draft budget being published.

Image caption SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said it was "unacceptable" that Mr Mackay would not publish some scenario planning

He added: "While the committee recognises that there is a need to maintain some flexibility in the timing of the budget process, there also needs to be a recognition that sufficient time is ordinarily allowed for robust parliamentary scrutiny."

Mr Crawford has now lodged a parliamentary motion calling for MSPs to debate the timetable, meaning members would get to vote on it - with no guarantee the minority government would win.

Mr Mackay defended the delay when questioned by the committee earlier in September.

He said: "Publishing an inaccurate budget would be the wrong thing to do. The starting position is about to change, and having such intense scrutiny on a budget that would be subject to so much change because of the variables would be the wrong approach."

Image caption Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has defended the delay in committee

The Scottish Conservatives welcomed the move, with committee member Murdo Fraser saying it was "essential" that parliament had "sufficient time to scrutinise the budget".

He added: "Under the SNP plans, this would have left just two weeks for the plans to be analysed, when usually there are two months for that.

"The SNP is now a minority government and can't simply force through what it wants. Today, Derek Mackay is learning that very lesson."

'Ballpark numbers'

Scottish Labour also said it would be "completely unacceptable" for the government to delay all scrutiny until December.

MSP James Kelly said: "Derek Mackay has been unwilling to give MSPs any ballpark numbers. Given how vital this budget will be, that simply isn't good enough.

"The SNP have form for trying to dodge parliamentary scrutiny, they cannot repeat those tricks when it comes to the funding for Scotland's public services."

A Scottish government spokeswoman welcomed the committee's recognition that the Brexit vote and new powers "necessitates a later publication" of the budget.

She added that a number of committees "have already adapted their approach to budget scrutiny", and pointed to the ongoing review of the budget process.

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