Speech: The Scottish Budget 2014

Jean spoke in the final debate on the Scottish Budget, emphasising again the importanmce of preventative spending, and secure funding for the charities that provide so many preventative services.

She also addressed the Bedroom Tax, which the Scottish Government has successfully mitigated but which remains effectively a tax paid by Scotland to the UK Treasury.

You can watch her speech below (start at 1:45:48), and read the transcript of the whole debate at TheyWorkForYou.com.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): As always, I pay tribute not only to the hard work of the cabinet secretary in putting together the budget but to the efforts of the Finance Committee clerking team in helping those of us who are on the committee to scrutinise the budget and shed some light on the issues at hand. I am pleased to have the opportunity to go over some of those issues in this stage 3 debate.

The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on producing a positive and ambitious budget despite the tough economic environment and Westminster’s disastrous austerity agenda. Once again, vital components of Scotland’s social wage—free prescriptions, free personal care and public transport for the elderly, and free university education—have been protected. When household budgets are being squeezed by rising food prices and energy costs, those measures are not only welcome but necessary.

As a member of the Finance Committee, I am particularly pleased that the Scottish Government has strengthened its commitment to prevention, spending to stop social and health problems before they start instead of relying on expensive cures once it is too late. That philosophy is increasingly being followed in Government strategy, and the budget includes £30 million over two years to support the voluntary sector’s vital work in that area.

However, far too many charities are still being given funding settlements for just one year at a time, which makes it hard for them to plan and invest in future services. For example, the Badenoch & Strathspey Community Transport Company, which is extraordinarily good, faces an uncertain future despite providing an essential service that is well used by hundreds of people every week. We need to move to an expectation that funding for community projects will be for several years at a time, which will create the security that these brilliant voluntary sector services need and deserve.

On a more general note, I was pleased to see so many parties voting for the principles of the budget at stage 1. That is a testament to the cabinet secretary’s ability and his determination to get the best deal that he can for Scots from all walks of life. It also demonstrates that, despite differences of opinion on Scotland’s constitutional future, a solid majority in this Parliament believe that there is such a thing as society, that we cannot slash and burn our way to a better economy and that a healthy economy is based not on how those at the very top weather the storm but on how those at the bottom are protected from the harsh winds of an economic storm that continues to wreak havoc on communities up and down Scotland.

I am still angry that the bedroom tax was imposed on Scotland in the first place. I am angry that other welfare cuts, which are driven by ideology and lack compassion, are causing tens of thousands of Scots to turn to food banks. I am angry that a party that has been consistently and overwhelmingly rejected by the Scottish people for years continues to hold the purse strings. No matter what sterling work the cabinet secretary is able to do within the confines of our financial settlement and no matter how much we may agree with the second-largest party in this Parliament, the fact remains that, until Scotland has the full economic powers of any other nation, there is only so much that can be done to counteract the me-first attitude of Westminster’s right-wing orthodoxy.

At the end of her speech, Jackie Baillie declared with great aplomb—I hope that I am quoting her correctly—

“Today we can vote in effect to end the bedroom tax”.

Well, we cannot. We cannot simply vote to end the bedroom tax—that is the point of wanting Scotland to have independence.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab): Does the member accept that, because of the Scottish Government’s actions in putting the £50 million on the table, we have effectively ended the bedroom tax in Scotland?

Jean Urquhart: No, I do not accept that at all. We have mitigated some of the worst outcomes of the bedroom tax, but we have not ended it. In fact, Scotland is going to pay dearly, to the tune of possibly £50 million from other services, to mitigate the bedroom tax. Let nobody be under any illusion that we have ended the bedroom tax.

The Conservative members who have spoken so far have pointed out that the cabinet secretary has not mentioned business or the economy, and they have said that this is not a budget for business. However, it seems to me from all the reports—those in what I might choose to call the English papers as well as those in the Scottish papers—that the big issue today is not the business community. The biggest issue—the one that is hitting everyone’s mailbox—is the bedroom tax and its effects on housing associations and local authorities.

I highly recommend the budget. I can only repeat what many other members have said: the only way to mitigate the bedroom tax is to abolish it, and the only way to guarantee that it will be abolished is to vote yes on 18 September. The budget lays the groundwork for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. I support the Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill and the Government in its efforts to ensure that all future budgets can freely set Scotland’s priorities.

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Speech: Stage 1 Landfill Tax Bill (29th October)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill and I welcome its stage 1 completion. I thank fellow members of the Finance Committee for their commitment, interest and dedication in scrutinising the general principles of this important bill. I also thank the Government for its feedback on the committee’s report, which has made the Government’s position clear on a number of the committee’s concerns.

As a result of the bill, the Scottish ministers will become the tax authority for the purposes of the Scottish landfill tax. That is a great step forward. I have confidence in the ability of the Scottish ministers and their staff to take responsibility for the Scottish landfill tax as well as for other important taxes such as the Scottish rate of income tax. The bill enables ministers to make an order to designate another tax authority, and I welcome the move by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth to set up a new body, revenue Scotland, as Scotland’s tax authority for devolved taxation. Revenue Scotland already exists as an administrative function within the Government, and the Government has been consulting on provisions to establish it on a statutory footing.

The Government has indicated that it intends that the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax should be undertaken by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on behalf of revenue Scotland. Landfill tax administration and collection would become a new function for SEPA, which already visits and inspects landfill sites as part of its environmental regulation duties. That would offer significant advantages for the Government. The existing knowledge and considerable expertise in SEPA will create opportunities for significant efficiencies and other operational benefits in relation to the administration and collection of the Scottish landfill tax. I therefore support the Scottish Government’s intention to have SEPA in charge of the administration and collection of the tax.

Although I give full support to the general principles of the bill, I draw the Parliament’s attention to two areas of concern. First, I believe that one further waste exemption could be considered. Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 states:

“If no person has, after reasonable inquiry, been found who is by virtue of subsection (2) above an appropriate person to bear responsibility for the things which are to be done by way of remediation, the owner or occupier for the time being of the contaminated land in question is an appropriate person.”

That means—I think—that individual property owners might end up footing the bill for contaminated land remediation through no fault of their own. There are live examples of individual householders who have been charged vast sums for the remediation of contaminated land.

In the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth’s statement to Parliament on 7 June 2012, he described four principles that underlie the Government’s approach to taxation and he reiterated them today. They are certainty, convenience, efficiency and that the tax is proportionate to the ability to pay. It is that final principle that I believe is relevant here. My suggestion is that consideration should be given to including in the bill a measure to allow for the costs of contaminated land remediation to be waived if an individual property owner is found to be on contaminated land, has in no way caused the contamination but yet has been unfortunately designated the status of appropriate person because of the lack of someone being found who actually caused the contamination. By putting such a measure in place, the Scottish Government would ensure that its principle of taxation being proportionate to the ability to pay is adhered to.

The second concern relates to the committee’s suggestion that there should be a lower rate of tax on island waste, for materials for which there are never likely to be viable recycling or recovery routes. Although the Government has made its position clear on that, I still believe that a review of the issue could be carried out. In Shetland, Enviroglass provides a local solution for Shetland’s waste glass by recycling all the glass that is collected by the local authority through its bottle banks. That has been essential in minimising the financial and environmental costs that shipping glass to mainland UK for recycling would incur. However, not all island communities are fortunate enough to benefit from such a scheme and a review could help to find alternatives for the islands that lack the means to cheaply recycle waste materials.

A final aspect of the bill that I will speak about relates to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda, which is an ambitious programme of change that aims to create an environment in which we make the most of resources and minimise Scotland’s demand on primary resources. That is to be achieved by maximising the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources rather than treating them as waste. The Scottish landfill tax will play an important role in maintaining the economic stimulus that is required to harness those waste management opportunities and in directing the Scottish economy towards a prosperous future with secure access to resources. By doing so, Scotland could follow the great example of its Nordic neighbour Sweden and make productive use of waste that would otherwise build up at landfill sites.

We must ensure that environmental organisations continue to be supported by the landfill communities fund. The Scottish Wildlife Trust, for example, has received £3.6 million to date, which has helped it to develop and manage essential environmental and community projects.

The Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill is a good and valuable piece of legislation. It does what it is supposed to do: it provides legislative provisions for a Scottish landfill tax to replace the UK landfill tax regime. It provides the Scottish Government with real power to take important decisions on a crucial area of taxation and makes use of the experience and expertise of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. It is conducive to the Scottish Government’s zero waste agenda as we look to greener energy alternatives. Therefore, I support the general principles of the bill.

Speech: Stage 1 of Budget Debate (January 23rd)

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I will use the time that I have in this stage 1 debate to reflect on the difficult choices that the cabinet secretary and the Government have faced in preparing the budget.

I am mindful of Professor David Bell’s conclusion in his report on the budget back in September:

“The Cabinet secretary is largely constrained by the settlement from the UK government, which in turn reflects its policy towards the UK’s current fiscal deficit.”

In the face of those constraints, and as I said in the Finance Committee debate on the draft budget before Christmas, I fully support the cabinet secretary’s budget for 2013-14 and the choices that he has made. We do not have the flexibility of normal countries as our budget is handed to us from on high. For example, restoring money to our colleges would mean cuts elsewhere—cuts that others have failed to outline or propose. In many instances, the choice that we have is Sophie’s choice, where money that could be used in so many different areas cannot be allocated to them all.

I was pleased to see the cabinet secretary’s thoughtful and considered written response to the Finance Committee’s report, which was debated in the chamber on 20 December, as the response answered many of the points that were raised in our report. I was particularly heartened by the information that the Government outlined on the economic impact of public sector investment in next generation broadband, with almost 14,000 indirect jobs being created between 2013 and 2028. That might seem a long period of time, but the ambition is welcome.

As a Highlands and Islands representative, I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s recognition of the need to deliver improved connectivity in areas where next generation speeds are not yet possible. A reliable broadband service in the Highlands and Islands is the greatest gift that the budget could deliver to the region, as it would open up opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises that are currently at a disadvantage due to their geographic location. It is no use having superfast broadband in Kilmarnock if Kiltarlity does not even have a dial-up service. The Government’s commitment to all parts of Scotland is to be lauded.

I was also glad to hear, in response to recommendations that were made by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, more details of the work that the Government is undertaking on public procurement. As Jim and Margaret Cuthbert attested to in their evidence to the committee, Germany’s strategy of breaking down larger contracts into smaller chunks to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for them is eminently sensible. Given the preponderance of SMEs in the Scottish economy, I am keen for the Government to continue to consider the idea as part of its bid to make the most of what we have.

As a member of the Finance Committee, which agreed its report on the budget, I hoped to see the helpful and constructive tone of our evidence-taking sessions extend to the chamber. I think that, in taking evidence from various organisations and other committees, every member of the committee was acutely aware of the difficult decisions that are being faced in these difficult times. I am convinced that the cabinet secretary has produced the best possible deal for Scotland, but I look forward to hearing positive, constructive and costed suggestions from the Opposition parties on how they would propose to improve it.

BLOG: Position on College Funding

There’s been a lot of press coverage recently for NUS Scotland’s “Fund Scotland’s Future” campaign on the issue of college funding. As an organisation, the NUS does a lot of excellent advocacy for students the length and breadth of the country, attempting to secure the best possible deal for our young people. Their steadfast advocacy for an education system free of up-front or back-end fees was just one campaign I was privileged enough to support and to continue to support. However, I’m afraid that I cannot support their most recent campaign around college funding, and I wanted to state my reasons for this publicly.

Scotland’s budget is under extreme pressure. As well as the overall budget for Scotland being shrunk by more than 11 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the UK Government is cutting its own Further Education budget by £1.1bn over the same period, which affects the Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

In the face of these unavoidable cuts, the Scottish Government is doing what it can to invest in, and help, Scotland’s further education sector. The extra £11.4m allocated to student support in last year’s budget, as well as the Scottish Government funding for over 116,000 full time equivalent (FTE) students in 2013/14, will help colleges preserve wide access at a time of significant challenge.

In particular, due to my experiences as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands board, I strongly support the reforms being made in college regionalisation. The process of regionalisation will help to target resources where they are most needed, breaking down institutional silos and improving the learning experience for students. While support for this process is not universal in the sector, it has been welcomed by many principals and will undoubtedly lead to long-term benefits for students and colleges alike.

Although it is disappointing that more money cannot be found for colleges at this time, I fully believe that the money that has been invested in future years will help to shield the further education sector from the cuts being imposed by UK Government decisions. I’m also wary that, due to the restraints on the Scottish Parliament’s financial powers and the severe cuts being made to its budget, extra money for further education would result in cuts elsewhere, reflecting the incredibly difficult decisions that must be made by the Scottish Government in maximising the impact of the money available within these constraints. Reversing a £34.6 million cut in colleges would just mean £34.6 million worth of cuts elsewhere, a Sophie’s Choice that none of the other parties have proposed a solution to. All that we can do with the current powers available to Scotland are re-arrange the deckchairs on the Coalition’s Titanic.

Having said all of that, I’m still very open to meeting with students and student leaders from across the sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing our young people. It’s vital that the energy and engagement these issues develop in our young people is harnessed and encouraged, and that no citizen is ever made to feel disconnected or discouraged from taking part in the political process.

PRESS RELEASE: JEAN URQUHART WELCOMES HOUSING SUPPORT FOR SHETLAND

Highland and Islands MSP Jean Urquhart has welcomed the announcement of extra funding for Shetland Islands Council to help the transition from its traditional model of council housing funding.

Following the abolition of the Housing Support Grant from April 2013 for Shetland Islands Council, the last local authority area to receive it, the Scottish Government has reached a deal with Shetland Islands Council to provide £840,000 of funding until the end of the Parliamentary term.

Jean, an Independent Highlands and Islands MSP, said:

“I was delighted to hear that the Scottish Government and Shetland Islands Council have reached an agreement on an issue that was causing concern in the Islands.

“I was equally pleased that the Scottish Government listened to the concerns of local tenants and put in place a package that will help the Council in tough economic times.

“We must now focus our attentions on holding Westminster to their promise of writing off Shetland’s historic housing debt, whose repayments continues to cripple both the housing situation and Shetland’s finances as a whole.”