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The Scottish Budget - Making the Deal

Eilidh Carmichael

Our pre-Budget blog compared the ministerial statement in the circus world, with Derek Mackay as the tightrope walker. However, the process will now be anything but light entertainment. In fact, the whole thing is governed by some very rigid procedures and a very tight timeframe.

Expect to see committees announcing the next stages of their scrutiny immediately. There’s a very limited timeframe this year, as we’re receiving this draft later than usual because of the timing of the UK Budget. This is a pickle which should be rectified before we see another Scottish Budget (I sincerely hope so – a late December Draft Budget is a serious crimp in newsdirect’s festive fun) and is a result of the reversal of the March Budget/Autumn Statement timing the UK Government previously preferred. As the opportunities for scrutiny from subject committees are curtailed this year, many took lots of preparatory evidence in the months leading up to now.

During parliamentary scrutiny of the draft budget, the Finance & Constitution Committee should be able to propose changes, but these must not amount to an increase in spending. The SNP does not have a majority on the Committee, but all the opposition members would need to club together to have any change approved – and it’s hard to imagine what Murdo Fraser and Patrick Harvie might agree on to inspire an amendment. Most subject committees will need to take evidence next week before providing the Finance Committee with their reports by the end of the first week back (Friday 12th Jan). The Finance & Constitution Committee’s report concluding this stage of scrutiny will probably be published on Friday 26th.

The next step is the arrival of the Budget Bill which should be introduced in mid to late January. A letter from Derek Mackay to the Finance Committee back in September suggested it might be Thursday 25th January. From whichever date it picks, the Government has 20 days to get the Bill past Stage 1 and Stage 2 considerations. To put it another way, it can’t start Stage 3 until 20 days after its introduction. In addition to the stipulation on when it must start, there’s also one on when it must be end. From the date of introduction, the Cabinet Secretary has only 30 days to begin Stage 3 – although it’s worth bearing in mind decisions on taxation have in the past been voted on separately. On top of that, only the Scottish Government can propose amendments once we’re in the scrutiny process. All going well, and based on Derek Mackay’s preferred publication day, that means Stage 3 should be completed in the week beginning 19th Feb.

Of course, this is the Budget and it wouldn’t be the first time the whole thing’s unravelled…In 2009, the Budget was not agreed to at Stage 3 and a new bill had to be introduced on the same day. Designated as an emergency bill, it passed Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3 in one day. Andy Wightman said the Greens won’t back the Budget unless it includes a real-terms increase in council budgets. Whatever way it goes, you can be certain there will be a great many backroom meetings before anything is agreed.

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