Scotland needs a Who

Since the Spending Review was announced last week, we have had the usual suspects and interest groups jockeying for position and headlines, generally crying foul.

COSLA pronounced in capital letters, no less, that it was “VERY DISAPPOINTED WITH LEVEL OF SPIN PUT ON FIGURES”.  It calculated that over the next three years, it was going to be down by 15% when cuts and new demand for services was taken into account.  “That can only mean one thing”, the local government body’s press release said in sonorous tones, “a significant reduction in local services and local spend”.  To hammer home its view, it put up Cllr Jim McCabe from North Lanarkshire council for the discussion panel on Newsnight Scotland on Wednesday night.  So armed was he with statistics that he not only managed to bamboozle the audience but flummox himself.  Fulminating against the council tax freeze, he was asked what he would put it up to.  He wouldn’t, he said, not in an election year.  Which gave the game away – it isn’t about economics, it’s about politics.  In fact, it’s not even that lofty:  it’s simply about getting elected.

We’ve also had business chipping in.  CBI Scotland considered it “alarming that the Scottish Government is proposing two business tax rises…”, referring to the public health levy and the review on empty property relief.  It also accused the SNP Government of being “in denial with regard to the dire state of the UK public finances.”  It then goes on to make a point in this regard which made little sense to me, so I won’t trouble you with it here.  The Federation of Small Business in Scotland was much more considered in its response, but even it felt compelled to warn that “public sector bodies must not use their local business communities as a pot from which to draw additional income”.

Then came the unions.  The PCS representative on Newsnight Scotland’s panel seemed to indicate that job losses would be fine but that a pay freeze would not.  Uh huh.  The union denounced the ongoing pay freeze as “an attack on Scottish workers”.  Apparently, the extension of the pay freeze “by our own government and employer will provoke anger as never seen before” and just to emphasise the point, “Scottish public servants will be very angry that they are facing this double whammy from Westminster and Holyrood”.  Perhaps we should point out to the PCS that their pay will only be frozen once not twice?

The STUC, meanwhile, tried to criticise nicely, but ingrained habits die-hard, and occasional slips allowed the rhetoric to ratchet up.  Thus, “transferring existing revenue spend to capital is less welcome – a ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ exercise which will not add to aggregate demand and will further impact on public service provision” and “having praised public service workers yesterday for achieving £2.2 billion in ‘efficiency savings’, he has today imposed a similar requirement for the coming period but offered nothing in return”.  I would have thought a wage, albeit a frozen one, and a job for the foreseeable future might have been reward enough in the current climate?

Finally, the third sector got in on the act.  On the whole, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) was highly positive about the Review and in particular, the shift to preventative spending but it warned that “Scotland cannot afford to miss out on this opportunity of doing things differently by allowing the funds to be hijacked by acute services or local government structural reform.”

So pardon me for asking folks, but if not you, who?  If the Scottish Government is guilty of loading the impact of reduced money to spend on you, who is it you think should bear the pain?  For if not business, big and small, nor councils, nor workers, nor voluntary organisations, should it be pensioners, disabled people, low-income families or unemployed young people?

Oh I know you will all say that by hurting you, the Scottish Government is hurting them.  But a little less rhetoric and a little more reality.  Please.

For in her hour of need, Scotland and her people need a who.  Sectors, agencies and bodies who will accept that we are where we are.  And actually, it is not quite the meltdown that is being portrayed.

No one wants to see budgets going backwards.  But the overall decline in expenditure – in real terms – between this year and next?  1.5%.  The following year, it is 1% – that is a cumulative 2.5%.  Tough but hardly Armageddon.

Moreover, even though the amount of money we have to spend is less next year than this, it is still more than we had to spend five years ago (£28.67 billion) and much more than ten years ago (£20.08 billion).  We managed then, so what has changed now?

Sadly, we are all too Scottish for our own good.  This is a country where the glass is definitely half empty, where Rev I M Jolly embodied our outlook on life, where we never pass up an opportunity for a girn.  We are wedded to a deficit approach to life.  Yet, in these tough times, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear from sectors, agencies and bodies about what they are going to do to get by, how they will use the money they are getting to make a difference?  Instead of focusing on the money being lost, couldn’t everyone focus on the money we have?  And what we might do with it?

There is no doubting we are heading for choppy waters.  But it could be worse.  And what Scotland needs right now is a Who.  People, leaders and organisations who will focus on what we have.  Who will accept the challenge ahead and put their shoulder to the wheel.  Who will find the ways to do better with less.  Who will vow to work together for the common weal.

Business bumps its gums again

For a moment I thought it was April Fool’s Day.  Reading the papers online before the first cup of coffee of the day is sometimes not the wisest move.

Top story in today’s Scotsman is all too wearily familiar, with business organisations bumping their gums about a plastic bag tax.  The froth from their fulminating is laughable, particularly when there are not (yet) clearcut proposals to introduce such a tax.  If the Scottish Government gets its way, and if it gets all the tax raising powers it is demanding from Westminster for a super-charged Scotland bill, one of these will include the power to impose a plastic bag levy, something which the Scottish Government may introduce.  It is a classic case of attack being used as a form of defence.

Apparently, such a tax “could deal a devastating blow to Scotland’s economy”; CBI Scotland reckons such a tax “could act as a barrier to investment” and that this, and other measures such as sales or tourism taxes could make Scotland “a less attractive place to invest, live or visit”.

But winner for most over-hyped hyperbole is the Scottish Retail Consortium:  “It (a tax) demonises bags, when there are things that are much more environmentally damaging such as energy loss from homes and transport.”  What, not from badly designed, built and insulated supermarkets and stores?  “To clobber people with charges would mean we were not taking the public with us on this issue” – a response to the fact that many customers have voluntarily eschewed plastic for eh, more heavy-duty plastic with the supposed bags for life and various expensive hessian options.  A nice little earner for the supermarkets, by the by.

Clearly a slow news day then….

At the heart of it all, is CBI Scotland’s oft-repeated mantra that it is wrong for any shortfall in public spending to be made up by an increased contribution from the private sector.  The Scottish Government could increase income instead of just applying cuts to lessen the impact of a tight financial settlement.

Well, doh.  Isn’t that what any responsible accountant or financial guru would recommend?  Isn’t this what businesses do day in day out?  Raising prices, finding new ways to extract dosh from customers is all part and parcel of good business sense.

But of course, business doesn’t see itself as having any corporate social responsibility to the commonweal.  There is no sense of “we’re all in this together”.  They – or rather their representative organisations – expect to carry on untrammelled by what is going on around them, unencumbered by any sense of duty to contribute more to the kitty.  I’d have more sympathy if both the CBI and SRC were targeting their concerns at the impact on small shop owners and independents.  They, however, are likely to see such a tax – as their counterparts in countries like Ireland and Denmark which already have such a bag levy – as a potential wee moneyspinner.  People going into a gift shop to buy one or two small things will either forego a bag altogether – as they do now – or value the purchase enough to add another 5p or so on to it.  No one will object to a small shop ensuring it recoups all the costs of levying the tax in the cost of the plastic bag and if that means also making a small profit on the transaction, then good frankly.

We will, of course, be less impressed if the supermarkets or big retailers which already make huge profits by squeezing every penny possible from their transactions with the public try the same tack.  They will find it more difficult to pass on the whole cost of the tax to customers because people will object, thus requiring them to absorb the administrative costs themselves, eating into their profit margins.  The burdz heart bleeds.

When it comes to a choice between a plastic bag levy to raise more income to protect services like classroom assistants, home helps, libraries, community centres, health visitors, hospital cleaners and much more, then this is a no-brainer.  Same with the likes of a tourism tax.

Local authorities’ prime responsibility is to provide services to the people who live in their areas and they must use all measures at their disposal to do so.  If that means tourists contributing indirectly so that museums stay open and free where possible, so that local monuments and parks are maintained, so that walks and visitor centres are passable and staffed, so that public toilets are clean and available, then so be it.  A clever council would hypothecate at least some of the tourism tax income to such endeavours ensuring there is a direct correlation between what tourists pay and how they benefit.

Business frothing at the mouth every time any ideas are mooted to help offset the worst of the ConDem cuts to our budget is futile and pointless.  Their representative bodies would be far better deployed engaging constructively and proffering proposals on what they can do to help.  In case, they had not noticed, Scotland has moved on from the tired ways of the past and is looking and travelling forward.  Scare tactics no longer work: positivity triumphed remember?

Scotland seems committed to learning a new sang: it’s time business realised that and composed a fresh and compelling refrain.