Budget will defend public services, Derek Mackay pledges

By Katrine Bussey, Political Editor, Press Association Scotland

Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has vowed to protect “vital public services” and prioritise spending on health and education in his forthcoming Scottish Budget – despite not yet appearing to have the support to get his plans through Holyrood.

Mr Mackay said he would have talks with other parties “in the weeks ahead and into the New Year” in a bid to convince them to back his tax and spending plans for 2019-20.

He spoke after the Scottish Greens revealed they have not yet entered formal negotiations with SNP ministers.

Green co-convener Patrick Harvie said he would be “ready to talk” ahead of Wednesday’s Budget statement at Holyrood – but also stressed the Scottish Government needed to do more on the key issue of local tax reform.

Derek Mackay (Jane Barlow/PA)

With the SNP no longer having a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the Finance Secretary needs the support of at least one other party if his financial package is to be approved.

However, the Liberal Democrats have already ended Budget talks with ministers – citing the SNP’s insistence that their “damaging and costly plan for an independence referendum had to stay on the table” as the reason for this.

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said this left the Government  “at the mercy” of the Greens.

Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie insisted ministers needed to commit to “wider reform” of local government taxation.

He said: “We have been given a clear instruction from our party members that we can only enter formal budget negotiations if there is meaningful progress on local tax reform to make a fairer system that protects services and cuts inequality.

“Replacing council tax with a fairer alternative can’t happen overnight, but the work must begin now. Three years ago this week the SNP agreed with the Greens, Labour and the Lib Dems that ‘the present system of council tax must end’.

“If they are unwilling to recommit to that policy and start working on making that pledge a reality, then they will be choosing to close off any chance of reaching a budget agreement with the Greens.”

Mr Mackay insisted the proposals he will outline will “protect vital public services and prioritise spending on health, education and economic investment”.

He stated: “Our policies have already ensured that Scotland benefits from quality public services and our progressive reforms to income tax have protected those on the lowest incomes.”

While he cited Brexit as continuing to be the “biggest threat to Scotland’s prosperity”, he insisted his proposals would “not be defined” by this.

Instead, he said the Budget “will set out how we help protect Scotland as far as we can from the damaging uncertainty of the UK Government’s Brexit policy”.

Patrick Harvie (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Labour wants the Budget to include a rail fares freeze for ScotRail travellers and a £5 a week rise in child benefit, which it said would lift 30,000 youngsters out of poverty.

The Tories want the SNP to commit to no new tax rises in 2019-20, after Mr Mackay made a number of changes to income tax in Scotland this year, leaving some higher earners paying more than their counterparts south of the border.

Conservative finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said: “The SNP must give taxpayers a fair deal on taxation, invest in public services and no new tax rises.”

But SNP MSP Angela Constance said: “If the Tories want to promise high earners a handout, they have to explain what public service they’d cut to fund it – otherwise nobody will take them seriously.

“People know that public services need investment, and think it’s fair that higher earners pay their fair share to fund our schools and hospitals.”