Taxing questions in Scotland

It was all about pounds and pence this week as MSPs considered Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s draft budget at its first stage of legislative scrutiny.

There was a great deal of speculation in the run up to the debate as to which party the SNP would call on for support to get the budget passed. In the end, as some, perhaps cynical, commentators predicted, it was announced via the Finance Secretary’s Twitter feed bang on 12 noon on Wednesday, just hours before the budget debate was due to commence, that the Greens would be supporting the budget in exchange for increased funding for local authorities and public sector pay.

With the Greens also supporting last year’s budget, there was, perhaps inevitable, speculation that the deal was more staged than spontaneous.  Indeed, Conservative Finance Spokesperson Murdo Fraser accused the Greens, a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the SNP, of “falling sweetly into line”.

Given the SNP’s minority standing in Holyrood, it is reasonable to think that the Finance Secretary would have built in some wiggle room into the numbers to suit negotiations.  A now-closed ‘anomoly’ discovered in the budget maths that would have seen some higher rate tax payers actually pay less under SNP tax plans was an obvious target in pursuit of higher revenue to help pay for additional commitments, for instance.

In truth, there was something for almost everyone in the budget: in addition to the Green achievements, funding for island ferry services was secured, which earned additional votes of support from Lib Dem MSPs Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott; even the Conservatives will have found succour in the fact that it can credibly take on the nationalists on their bread-and-butter issue of taxation.

It was perhaps only Labour left wanting. It released its ‘alternative’ budget earlier in the week, promising close to £1bn in new spending to be paid for by ‘radical’ new tax proposals. It was immediately panned as “fantasy figures” by the SNP, with Nicola Sturgeon continuing the theme during Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions, branding the party as “incompetent” on tax.

MSPs on all sides will now have a chance to regroup and hone their arguments before the budget comes up for a final vote later this month.

Despite this week’s focus on the budget, MSPs still made time to pass two significant pieces of legislation.

On Tuesday, the Gender Representation on Public Boards Bill was approved by members.  Public sector boards must now work towards a target of having 50 per cent of non-executive members be women by 2022. The Bill was lauded by campaigners and will see Scotland become the first country in the UK with such a statutory target.

On Thursday, new domestic abuse legislation was passed, on a nearly unanimous basis (the lone dissenting MSP, Margaret Mitchell, later said she had accidentally pressed the wrong voting button after forgetting her glasses). Psychological and emotional abuse will now be more clearly included in the definition of domestic abuse, though there are concerns in some quarters of the legal profession that this may be difficult for prosecutors to show in practice.

And finally, what was a somewhat quiet week on the Brexit front suddenly exploded after Brexit Secretary Michael Russell vowed to publish the UK Government’s leaked Brexit impact report should he receive a copy. Mr Russell argued the public has a right to know what the report says, while the UK Government pushed back strongly, saying it would damage the national interest and hamper negotiations with the bloc.

It provided a reminder that whatever else may happen in Scotland, there still remains one politically dominant issue above all else. More on that next week, no doubt.


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