Did you know the Ministerial Statement on the Scottish Government’s budget for 2015-16 is taking place next week? Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson certainly did. The pre-referendum leaked paper on a £400m funding gap for the Scottish NHS and a proposed cost-saving plan to address it is likely to be the focus of next week’s debate. The Labour and Conservative leaders were quick to criticise the Government.
Before Johann Lamont began tackling the First Minister (FM) on the NHS, he announced that legislation to force councils to write-off historic Poll Tax debts would be forthcoming. Without prior notification to the parties and the Parliament, he received a short slap-down from the Presiding Officer (PO) and later in a point of order Ken Macintosh stated the Parliament had again been subject to an abuse of power by the Government. The poll tax issue has been brought to the fore due to councils cross-referencing new people on the electoral roll with Council and Poll Tax arrears. The First Minister was not fazed by the criticism from the PO and the Chamber as he stole another march on Scottish Labour and a message which will have likely played well to the new members. However, COSLA has described the announcement as “bizarre” with councils left with mixed messages over the collection of unpaid taxes. In addition, there is already a dispute over the amount of tax to be collected and questions over whether those who did pay the taxes will be reimbursed. This is likely to become a point of real political tension into the future.
Johann Lamont has reverted back to the elitism charge. The FM was heading a complacent Government who had Scotland on pause and he was more interested in improving his golf swing than having an open and honest debate on the future of the NHS. She said the Government had failed to meet Cancer waiting times over and over again and would not acknowledge the shortfalls for NHS funding. The real world vs Salmond’s world was the familiar characterisation Lamont sort to deploy. With effect, she referred to calls from the BMA and health professionals for immediate and radical action to address the budgetary challenges of the Scottish NHS. Of course, the FM defended Government policy to the hilt.
He responded by stating that the budget for Scottish NHS front line services would continue to increase in real terms. A hint that the Government may look at administrative and support functions next week to save funds. He compared the NHS in Scotland to England where midwives and nurses were striking over pay, stating that the Government was protecting health spending in the face of Westminster cuts. In a re-run of pre-referendum rhetoric the FM stated that Holyrood needed control of the finances of the NHS, not just the administration.
Ruth Davidson jumped into the fold by referring to IFS statistics which showed that since 2009 the Scottish Government had not matched NHS funding increases in England, depriving hospitals and patients of £700m. Davidson stated that this was a matched pledge the FM had reneged on and had knowingly misled Parliament as he had already been made aware of the IFS analysis. This was sharp stuff which the FM struggled to wriggle out of and something John Swinney will have to respond to next week.
Following the Government’s partial u-turn on police officers carrying weapons, it was clear Willie Rennie felt vindicated when he asked the FM whether he would be taking the Justice Secretary with him when he stepped down. The Lib Dems have consistently campaigned against officers carrying weapons on routine patrol and Rennie received rough treatment from the FM when he raised it previously. The FM’s defence of Mr MacAskill was soft, preferring to focus on low crime statistics rather than defending the handling of the issue.
In other news from FMQs, the FM stated that the budget statement would include further information on bedroom tax arrears.