Scottish Budget: How I've been trying to help John Swinney do a better job – Alex Cole-Hamilton

Deputy First Minister John Swinney will set out the Scottish budget this week (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)Deputy First Minister John Swinney will set out the Scottish budget this week (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Deputy First Minister John Swinney will set out the Scottish budget this week (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
One lesser-known Christmas tradition is the parliamentary budget cycle. At this time of year, the Finance Secretary meets opposition parties to explore what particular items they have on their wish-list and see whether a deal might be struck.

Given the Finance Secretary seems to have secured the Greens’ support simply by spending millions on independence, some might question why we’re even taking part in budget talks.

Every opposition party has backed the government at one time or another. Liberal Democrats did so last year and were proud to secure £120 million more for mental health and extra cash to help pupils impacted by school closures during the pandemic. Budgets can be an opportunity for real and progressive improvement in the lives of the people we sit in parliament to serve; so it’s worth exploring options for consensus.

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So, as John Swinney prepares to open his Christmas budget sack, let me set out what the Scottish Liberal Democrats have asked for this year. Top of the tree is a massive new nationwide emergency insulation programme because every home in Scotland should be a warm home. This will help insulate you from the cost-of-living crisis, the climate emergency and a range of health problems linked to poorly heated houses. The recent cold snap has provided a stark reminder of just how much it’s needed.

We also want to see a massive injection of funding and real reform in social care. Any given day nearly 2,000 people are stuck in hospital, well enough to go home, but unable to leave because there are no social care packages available. As well as costing the NHS £262 a night for each bed, it causes an interruption in the flow throughout the NHS.

Part of the solution is to introduce national bargaining and establish better pay, conditions and careers in social care from this coming April, years ahead of the SNP’s schedule. Where could the money come from? There’s the misleadingly named ‘National Care Service’, a vast and unnecessary SNP/Green-ministerial takeover of social care and a billion-pound bureaucracy. Council leaders, financial experts, former health secretaries, trade unions, human rights watchdogs and even SNP backbenchers have spoken out against it.

Instead my party wants to see the recent SNP/Green cut to the mental health budget reinstated. Waiting lists are only going up, and lockdown’s long shadow and the rising cost of living have created a tsunami of need.

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We also want to go much further than the miserly £10 million made available to Scotland’s 200,000 long Covid sufferers, the biggest mass disabling event since WW1. The SNP could triple the level of government support by using money set aside for an independence referendum that everyone knows isn’t happening.

I told the Finance Secretary how important it is for SNP/Green ministers to finally give a fair deal to local government, protect vital public services and help put an end to the disruption in schools and other services.

This year’s going to be tough. It’s about choices and priorities. I have been straight with John Swinney about the prospects of a deal when they’re spending their time and your money on breaking up the UK, but we owe it to the people of Scotland to endeavour to improve this budget.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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