Rolling out the pork barrel

There’s nothing quite like the prospect of an election to shake a government from its torpor.   Scotland is no different.

Civil servants who’ve been ambling along at walking pace, taking months to move initiatives along, have suddenly found top gear.  Purdah looms on the 23rd of March and it’s as if there is a big countdown clock ominously ticking down the hours and minutes harassing them at every turn.  Either that or the First Minister has been compulsorily loaded on as a screensaver/app to every PC and Blackberry demanding to know “what have you done for us lately?”

The SNP Government appears to have located its mojo.  And like the very good politicians they are, every media release is accompanied by the sound of pork being scraped from the barrel.  They aren’t the first to do it and they won’t be the last.

It was particularly pleasing to see that a cause dear to the burdz heart was the subject of just such an announcement today.  An extra £2 million has been found to provide short breaks for families with children with complex disabilities.  These are amongst Scotland’s most vulnerable families.  The load they shoulder is immense and a few hours extra support can and does make all the difference, especially when it is provided early and enables families to get on with getting on, rather than being applied like a sticking plaster when crisis looms.  

While the £2 million is not nearly enough, it’s a promising start and the National Review of Services for Disabled Children hopefully signals a real change in how support is made available.  Best of all, the money will go straight into service provision, avoiding the local authority middle men who can and will suck it up for other purposes.  At last, the Scottish Government is learning.

So, £2 million for disabled children on Sunday; a doubling of funding for a knife education programme and £1million for 500 new engineering apprenticeships on Friday; an internship programme for newly qualified nurses and midwives on Thursday; a new centre of excellence for looked after children, £1million to upgrade cultural venues ahead of the Commonwealth Games and £3,000 for a vets training programme on Wednesday; a £10 million package to support 5,000 people into work on Tuesday; and an extra £20,000 for a Gaelic short film competition and £15million for the Life Begins at 40 health checks on Monday.

Keeping up there at the back?  Better still, is anyone keeping a tally?

If you are, you need to add on the near £31 million announced in the previous week on everything from jobs schemes for young unemployed people to investment in rugby to food education for schoolchildren and a new aircraft hangar at Prestwick airport.  Amazing what loose change you can find when you search down the back of the sofas in Victoria Quay and St Andrew’s House.

Only a few weeks ago, the parties were wrangling over the size and scale of the cuts to the Scottish budget, yet at the eleventh hour, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, John Swinney, produced a wad from his wallet to meet the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats’ demands.  The First Minister has had the temerity to write to businesses urging them to engage with the opportunities the £34.5 million investment in jobs and training packages his government is providing.  Reliable sources confirm his tongue wasn’t stuck firmly in his cheek.

With three weeks to go until Parliament and consequently, the Government is dissolved, expect more.  Much more.

Right now, we – or rather they, on our behalf – are spending like there’s no tomorrow.  And if they keep going like this, there actually might not be.  I dread to think what the final cost for this pre-election bonanza is going to be.  One presumes it is all from existing budgets and the magical, wonderous phenomenon of year end flexibility, but it would be nice to think they will keep a few bawbees in the bank for the coming year, when the cuts storm actually hits.

They might be first timers but the SNP Ministers are clearly fast learners, having warmed remarkably quickly to this pork barrel task.  

However, a little focus on applying it where it can have most impact would be good.  Not every vote is needed to win the election and a scatter gun approach might well dilute the effect.  Failing that, making sure the most vulnerable, the families likely to be hit hardest by local authority cuts, are supported would be a good maxim.

And if asking for such a strategic or principled focus is expecting too much, they could just make sure it hits the spots it needs to.  A hint, if you’re in a listening mood:  Ayr is not a winnable seat for the SNP but Kilmarnock is one you need to hold. 

Similarly, if you can’t hold a seat with a 5,000 + majority without lashings of pork, then there is little point in this great give away. 

It’s pork barrel for a reason.