Accountable? Transparent? Budgets and Public Finance in Scotland
by Ken Gibb
‘Exceptionally complex and opaque’ and ‘without precedent internationally’. Fraser of Allander Institute on the Fiscal Framework, quoted by the Finance Committee, Scottish Parliament in their 2017-18 draft budget report
I found myself reading the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s draft budget report the other day in part to prepare for teaching on public finances in Scotland. I was struck just how non-transparent the fiscal framework is and how difficult it is to communicate the consequences of the rules of the game in terms of Scottish policy intentions and budgetary implications. It is as if the designers in Holyrood and Westminster were seeking to be rewarded for fiendish inventiveness rather than designing a set of financial rules that were clear, transparent and fostered accountability. In that respect, the Finance Committee’s report is remarkably helpful (along with the recent SPICe briefing on the budget).
I will get into the main points that struck me shortly but it also raised a second related question. In the year of the council elections in Scotland, there is a near equivalent lack of transparency regarding the local government settlement and the consequences for local decisions on tax and spend. This has, if anything, been exacerbated by both the implementation of the recent council tax reforms and the controversy over what the draft budget means for local spending by councils. We need more transparency here too and perhaps a local fiscal framework (something being pursued by the Scottish Greens) that makes explicable and straightforward how local tax and spend works, how it is impacted by Scottish ministers and what decisions mean for tax bills and spending choices.
What is it that makes the new national fiscal framework so difficult and why is it so significant? The devolution of new tax powers reduces the size of the Block grant. Critical to how this will operate is, how the Block Grant adjusts, which comes down to a series of decisions, firstly, about the baseline reduction that is determined by revenue in the year prior to the devolution of the tax in question. Thereafter, the second critical question is how accurately tax revenues for the now devolved tax are forecast in terms of playing into public spending planning and control decisions and the risks of over-estimation. Third, there is the contentious question of how to uprate the block grant adjustment for the devolved taxes in subsequent years. This concerns the extent to which Scottish tax revenues grow relative to UK tax revenue growth and (and this is where the controversy exists between the two governments) then how adjusting for relative population growth between Scotland and rUK operates.
These Byzantine and head-hurting rules are incredibly important. If Scotland can grow its tax revenue quicker than rUK, the block grant and the size of the fiscal cake expand. This fundamentally depends on relative tax policy changes, which currently benefit Scotland because we are not raising the threshold for the higher rate of income tax by as much as HM Treasury – and other things equal we should grow tax revenue per head more than rUK. But it is also driven by relative population change, relative economic and productivity growth (and these presently all look less favourable from a Scottish perspective). As the Finance Committee stress, the Scottish Government have taken on considerably more responsibility and the technical requirements for forecasting future tax, economic growth and in specific sectors too (e.g. land and buildings transactions tax depend on housing and commercial property markets) – and they have done so in a period of remarkable uncertainty, austerity and Brexit.
The Scottish Government is presently consulting over the Scotland Performs National Performance Framework. In the light of the above maybe they need to change the absolute or top line purpose of Government to maximising relative tax revenue growth?
One might conceivably say ‘well, these risks are what happens with more responsibility and that is what real devolution is all about’. My view however is that what we might be seeing is actually the outcome of bargaining over an inherently complex system and one that consequently is difficult to predict, manage and base fiscal plans on. I am sure the Scottish Government will step up to the plate – they have to get this right and must invest the necessary resources and capacity in doing so. Specific forecasting expertise by the Scottish Fiscal Commission will also become much more important in the future. Moreover, the plan is that in less than 5 years the whole basis of the fiscal framework will be reviewed and the indexing methods and other fundamentals may well be substantially revised. Let’s hope for less haste and that a simpler and more durable set of negotiated outcomes is the result.
Then there is the controversy over the local government settlement. There are several accounts of what is happening to local government spending, depending on what you compare it against (draft or final budget in 2016-17), how wide you draw local government activity, and, if you do include other elements, that you know what these extras are worth. SPICe estimates that local government spend in 2017-18 may either fall (compared to 2016-17) by 1.6% to 3.2% in real terms, or if you just look at the core grant (including non-domestic rates), it may fall by between 4.5% to 5.8%. However, speaking to the local government committee of the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet Secretary argued (para 273, Finance Committee Report on the 2017-18 Draft Budget) that ‘when wider spend on local services, including funding for health and social care integration and from council tax reform is considered, there is an increase in expenditure on local services by local authorities of £240 million or 2.3 per cent.’
Clear as mud. And then there is the interaction between grant, non domestic rates and council tax – we (i.e. tax paying voting citizens of Scotland) surely need to clearly understand how all this works together so that we can make sense of the financial and service outcome implications of different political platforms? Can we not do better?