Saturday, September 15, 2007

John Swinney - the Scottish Government's Minister for everyone & everything ?

John Swinney, reports the Scotsman, is the minister for everything ... but is he free to act on his own or does he still have to take orders from Westminster ?

The Scotsman reports :

Swinney, the minister for, well... everything


GIVEN the heavy burden that rests on his shoulders, the minister for just about everything in the Scottish Government is looking remarkably relaxed.

John Swinney, the cabinet secretary for finance and sustainable growth, is sitting on the sofa in his office in St Andrews House in Edinburgh, not formally at his ministerial desk.

Having responsibility for enterprise, energy, tourism, climate change, transport, finance, the public services - and many other things besides - seems to suit him.

He smiles a lot. The message is clear: whatever the stresses of office, it is clearly better than the impotence of opposition. He is enjoying himself.

How long his cheery demeanour will remain, we are about to find out. For Swinney is not only the first SNP finance minister, he is the first finance minister since devolution to have to manage a budget that is not increasingly rapidly.

On the day before this interview took place, Swinney had been down London to see Andy Burnham, the chief secretary to the Treasury, to talk about Scotland's settlement under the comprehensive spending review process.

However, it was not until after the interview that this fact emerged, alongside claims by senior SNP sources that Scotland would only get around 1 per cent above inflation - a claim strongly denied in Whitehall.

Whatever the final figure, this budget round will be tight and it will, in turn, force Swinney to make some difficult decisions in the Scottish Government's own spending review.

So, does he have an estimate or know what Scotland was going to get in terms of percentage rise from the Treasury?

"No, I don't know. What do I think? I think it will be a great deal lower as a percentage increase than any devolved administration has received since 1999."

The tight settlement will make if difficult to deliver two key SNP manifesto commitments - a freeze in council tax across Scotland, and cutting class sizes to 18 pupils in the first three years of primary school.

But the key to achieving these and other policies would be to a "much clearer and sharper" set of outcome measures set out in outcome agreements - where councils and the Scottish Government agree what will be delivered locally but with authorities having freedom to decide delivery methods.

Is the council tax freeze just an objective or it will happen?

"I'm working to achieve that with local authorities. I made it clear... I wanted to work closely with local authorities to deliver a freeze in council tax and deliver that by agreement, and that's the approach I am taking."

Given it could cost at least £70 million a year merely to freeze council tax, how will he avoid being seen to bail out councils that are running deficits?

"Local authorities are autonomous organisations. They are responsible for their own decisions and for the financial choices they make. Obviously government has particular priorities - we would be a strange national government if we didn't have our own priorities which we want, with local authorities, to achieve.

"Now, ultimately it is up to local authorities to decide what financial choice they want to make but we are taking forward the discussion, one of the outcomes of which is deliver the freeze in council tax."

Local authorities, he says, complain about a "blizzard of targets and measures". "What I'm saying to them is let's move to a simpler system, which is focused on outcomes - what is it we expect to deliver as a result of this injection of money?

"And one of those things would be a council tax freeze. There will be other points within that outcome agreement."

He says the Scottish Government has not yet decided whether the agreements would be with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) or 32 local councils. Can he insist, using ministerial powers, that local authorities freeze their council tax?

"A council tax freeze is what it says it is on the tin. You keep it at 2007-8 levels. What I am saying is the best way to pursue this is by agreement."

So what of the class-size issue? Steven Purcell, the leader of Glasgow City Council, has questioned the educational need and said introducing the policy would cost his city nearly £50 million.

"These are questions that are implicit within an outcome agreement. We're looking to bring together the national priorities of the government with local priorities in a shared way. The way in which we capture that is in an outcome agreement as to what we all expect to be produced as a result of this co-operation.

"The issues in connection to manifesto commitments like class sizes and council tax freeze will flow into that discussion of the outcome agreement."

But councils will in the end say it comes down to more money?

"A lot of things do come down to money. Yes, I do accept that. We have got to look at all of these issues in the round, in terms of the financial settlement that is delivered to local authorities."

On the broader picture of the money from the Treasury, he says the Scottish Government can only spend the resources it has but that "raises other questions about the limitations of the devolved settlement which are clear for all of us to see".

In other words, the amount allocated by Westminster? "Well, yeah, I don't see what else we can do."

And he also plans to use some of the £1.5 billion held for Scotland by the Treasury, money not spent in previous years.

"That's part of the negotiated agreement with the treasury as to what proportion of that I have to use. I don't have control of that today. I can't just spend £1.5 billion. I have to negotiate with the Treasury what proportion I can use at any given time."

Previous finance ministers had nearly two years to prepare their spending plans, Swinney says he has "the best part of month" between knowing what he is getting from the Treasury and announcing his plans to parliament. It will, he promises, be "very condensed period of consideration".

• The Scottish Government will continue to publish the Expenditure and Revenue in Scotland document (GERS), Swinney says. The document, derided by the SNP in opposition as a "dodgy dossier", last year showed the country has an £11 billion "black hole".

Publication will, Swinney says, be a matter for Dr Andrew Goudie, the chief economic adviser. Asked if there would be any political input, he replies: "No."

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