Scotland politics

Row over scrutiny as Scots budget delayed until December

Derek Mackay
Image caption Derek Mackay committed to handing over "high level" budget planning information

Scotland's finance secretary has pledged to give more information to the finance committee to scrutinise his delayed draft budget.

Derek Mackay was accused of "showing contempt for parliament" during a fiery debate on the budget timetable.

The finance committee wants Mr Mackay to hand over detailed planning information ahead of the budget, which will be published on 15 December.

Mr Mackay said he would publish some extra "high level" information.

However opposition members said he had been "ambiguous" and had not been clear about what information would actually be provided.

A "fundamental" review of the budget process has also been established in light of Holyrood's new fiscal powers.

Mr Mackay has delayed publication of his first set of spending plans until after the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, which he said would make a major difference to the funds available to the Scottish government.

The finance committee, led by SNP member Bruce Crawford, brought forward the chamber debate to voice "concern" at how much time they would have to scrutinise spending plans before they are voted on by MSPs.

He said it was "unacceptable" that Mr Mackay had refused to hand over any scenario planning information as an indication of how the budget may unfold, despite having previously told the committee that he would give them as much information as possible.

Image caption Bruce Crawford brought forward the debate on behalf of the finance committee he chairs

All opposition MSPs backed Mr Crawford on this point, signing up to support a motion from Patrick Harvie "urging" the government to put the information in the public domain.

During the debate, Mr Harvie said opposition members had chosen not to force a vote on the matter, but worried that Mr Mackay "kept using the same language" as he did when previously writing to the committee.

The finance secretary replied: "What parliament asked for was high level scenario planning, and that's what I've said I'll provide.

"I've repeatedly said I won't publish a draft budget [before the Autumn Statement], I can't publish a credible draft budget or a number of draft budgets. But I will publish that scenario information that I've pledged to in keeping with what I've said to committee."

'Offering a compromise'

However, opposition members said Mr Mackay was still not being clear about what information he would actually provide.

Labour's James Kelly, who said the finance secretary had provided "seven minutes of waffle" in the debate, said MSPs were "still no further forward" with budget scrutiny.

Conservative member Alex Johnstone said it would "take some further time" to work out exactly what Mr Mackay was offering the committee.

He said the committee was "offering a compromise" to the finance secretary, noting that "it appears he has not yet accepted that compromise".

Mr Harvie said he was disappointed at the "ambiguous stance" Mr Mackay had taken, saying he was "being quite unclear" about what information he would provide.

Image caption Patrick Harvie lodged a motion, supported by every opposition MSP, calling for more information

Mr Mackay had earlier said he would "honour the commitment" he had previously given about "sharing as much information as I possibly can".

He said he could not produce a draft budget without having all of the information that will come from the Autumn Statement.

He added: "I will continue to work constructively with the finance committee and share as much information as I can to give as much certainty as I can, but that doesn't mean we can produce a draft budget."

Fellow SNP member Kate Forbes said it would be "downright irresponsible" for the government to publish detailed budget figures prior to the Autumn Statement.

'Showing contempt'

Opposition MSPs reacted angrily to Mr Mackay's statements, with several accusing him of "showing contempt" for parliament's role in budget scrutiny.

Tory member Murdo Fraser said he "regrets very much" that Mr Mackay had chosen to take a "brazen" approach to the debate, urging him to "keep his word" and hand over planning information.

He added: "To do otherwise, frankly, is to show contempt both for the work of this parliament and the finance committee."

Image copyright PA
Image caption The draft budget will be published in December

This was quickly echoed by Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who said Mr Mackay's budget timetable "will severely limit the ability of the parliament's committee's to scrutinise the budget properly".

She added: "In addition, by refusing to publish as much information as possible in advance of the publication of the draft budget later this year, Derek Mackay is treating this parliament with contempt, particularly since he is going back on a promise that he has previously made to this parliament."

Graham Simpson said Mr Mackay could "bleat all he likes about the Autumn Statement", calling it a "pathetic excuse" for delaying scrutiny, and fellow Tory member Adam Tomkins said Mr Mackay's plans were "profoundly disrespectful" of parliament.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said "it's come to something" when an SNP figure of Mr Crawford's figure called the government's approach "unacceptable".

However, SNP member James Dornan said other parties were "playing political games" over the budget, noting that the education committee he chairs is able to carry out some pre-budget scrutiny.

And Mr Mackay later told BBC Scotland that he had committed to giving the committee the extra scenario planning information requested, saying there was "room for consensus" on the issue.

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