“As we move through the festive period, thoughts in Holyrood turn to the Scottish Government’s Budget. This is their third budget and a chance for ministers to make their choices clear.
People are still losing their jobs – just before Christmas, Flyglobespan went bust with the loss of 550 jobs. We need a change of direction in Scottish public life from the Scottish Government. Their budget needs to respond to the challenges facing Scotland’s economy.
The choices I want to make for the Scottish Budget should tell you that the Scottish Liberal Democrats want a fairer society and a sustainable economy.
For example, as money gets tight, we really need the Scottish Government to get a grip on the salaries and bonuses of the highest people in the public sector.
Research published by the Scottish Liberal Democrats shows that the total salary bill for those earning more than £100,000 is £413 million and is £651m for those earning more than £80,000. And that covers just 5,300 people out of about 500,000 working in the public sector.
People have been astonished to learn that the highest earners in the NHS are able to nominate themselves for bonuses worth up to £75,000 a year.
And further Liberal Democrat research has shown that many of these very highly paid medics also work in Scotland’s private hospitals. So, despite six-figure salaries, the NHS still doesn’t get them full time.
When we hear of health boards, such as Greater Glasgow and Clyde, drawing up plans to delete nursing posts because of cash pressures we know that change needs to happen.
It is not just in the health service. The Liberal Democrats are calling on the Scottish Government to save millions next year on these big salary budgets across the whole of its responsibilities.
We need restraint at the top to give a fair deal to the people at the bottom of the income scale. Not least of these will be young people without a job.
Statistics last month from the UK government show that the level of unemployment among young people has officially never been higher. The numbers claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance have gone up by 45 per cent in the last year. The Scottish Budget needs to respond to the very real prospect of a generation of young people being economically unproductive, just like many of us saw in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.
We also know that there are record levels of people being turned away from Scotland’s colleges – research by the Liberal Democrats has shown that many colleges are turning away six times as many applicants as two years ago. If the Scottish Government expanded the number of college places available, then they would provide a direct way of boosting skills in sectors of the economy where we know we are short, be it engineering or social care.
A fair society is one where the very well-off shoulder more of the burden in the tough times. When so many young people don’t have a job and many other people on low pay are worried about losing theirs, we think this approach will mark a change that works.
This all mirrors the Liberal Democrat plans for the Treasury. Vince Cable has published our plans to limit public sector pay rises to £400. This gives an increase well above inflation for people on low pay. The alternative idea – currently the policy of the Scottish Government – is for a percentage limit. That isn’t as fair: a limit of 1.5 per cent still gives an increase of thousands of pounds to people at the top and just a couple of pounds a week to the lowest paid.
And we will go further with our radical tax plans. By closing the loopholes exploited by the very wealthy, we can take the income tax threshold up to £10,000 for everyone. That will save middle- and low-earners £700 a year, save pensioners £100 and take 530,000 Scots out of income tax altogether.
I don’t think that people who want a progressive, fairer society will forgive us if we don’t take up these plans.
We can also do more to give Scottish businesses a fighting chance of getting through the recession. Reports from the British Chambers of Commerce, Fraser of Allander Institute and the Federation of Small Businesses show the scale of the problems faced by Scottish business. Small and medium-sized Scottish companies still can’t get access to the lending they need.
And Scottish manufacturing – including textiles – isn’t getting the support to help those companies at risk of closure, redundancy or short-time working. The Scottish Budget needs to bring forward proposals that develop staff skills and strengthens these businesses, putting them in a good place to reap the rewards of economic recovery.
There are practical steps that should be taken to build industries that can have a real long-term future for Scotland. Liberal Democrats remain concerned at the lack of research and development support for the marine renewables industry. Report after report confirms Scotland’s potential for green energy and the thousands of jobs that it could bring. The Saltire Prize has, of course, been announced. But the SNP has delayed the payout from that until 2015. This is no use to Scottish companies now. The previous government gave research support. The benefits are clear: the companies that received support under the previous scheme now have prototypes generating electricity in Scotland. The 2010-11 Budget needs to make sure other companies can follow in their footsteps.
We need practical steps that can help Scotland through the recession. The SNP government needs to embrace them.
It can find the money. It should use the money it has earmarked for its constitutional referendum. It should look hard at the Scottish quangos – and not just at their pay bill. For example, the Scottish Futures Trust continues to consume millions of tax pounds but builds absolutely nothing.
So these are the choices our government must make to build a better Scotland. We will be urging them to make these changes.
• Tavish Scott is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats”