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Devolved Administrations: Borrowing Powers

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered borrowing powers for devolved administrations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the House for allowing this important debate on the borrowing powers of the devolved authorities across the United Kingdom. People might be wondering, “Why have this debate?” We have a packed audience here to listen to it, which shows the importance of the powers and why they matter so much for our constituents. If people do not realise how much the powers matter, hopefully this timely debate will help them to see that.

Funding is often contested. Speaking as a Scottish MP, and as I am sure colleagues will attest, there is confusion about the powers available for tax raising and borrowing, as well as about where the funding comes from—Westminster, Edinburgh or a local authority. That stands in Wales and Northern Ireland as well. In my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire, recently a Barnett consequential for the high street and towns fund was denied. Representatives of the devolved Administration in Edinburgh said that there was no Barnett consequential, and that the funding came from Edinburgh. It is important to have this debate to discuss exactly where the money comes from, and the powers that devolved Administrations have throughout the United Kingdom.

There is also some confusion on social media; I am sure cross-party colleagues will agree. When funding plans are welcomed or criticised, there are often such comments as “Scotland has no powers to borrow any funds”. Today’s debate will hopefully be an opportunity to demystify the borrowing powers of the devolved Administrations and some of the funding routes across the United Kingdom. I hope that it will make the situation clearer and will raise the debate to a higher standard right across the UK—in Westminster, Edinburgh and at local authority level.

I start with the facts. All devolved Administrations can borrow. That includes Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and even some of the devolved areas in England, although powers and the amounts vary across the devolved Administrations. I will attempt to make things clear for constituents and those who want to learn more about our financial settlements. Those powers will often be split into two parts: capital, going to assets, and resource spending, which is more cash-based.

My focus is very much on Scotland. I have some live examples, and I am sure colleagues will have interventions to make. In Scotland, local public revenue raises about £60 billion, which is about 8% of UK GDP. Expenditure stands at just over £73 billion, which is about 9.3% of the UK’s spend, so there is a gap of about £13 billion between what we raise in Scotland, including the oil and gas revenue that is often quoted, and what we spend. That gap is bridged by central Government, by other tax revenue raised in Westminster from across the United Kingdom.

What powers does Scotland have for additional tax raising and borrowing? Tax-varying powers have existed since devolution started. We had some flexibility over the penny on income tax. Obviously, our powers increased through the Scotland Acts 2012 and 2016, and we now have powers to vary the income tax bands—powers that the Scottish National party Administration in Edinburgh have used. They have lowered taxes for those earning under £26,990. If someone earns less than that threshold, they are now about £20 better off per year. That is about 38p better off per week—very helpful if someone wants to buy a Tunnock’s Teacake. Someone who is in the higher tax band will be charged about £1,500 more than other taxpayers in the United Kingdom.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

That is a significant point. Not all the higher-rate taxpayers in Scotland—about 14% of Scottish taxpayers—are ludicrously wealthy; the people who fall into that tax band will be teachers, doctors—some will be nurses—and public servants, as well as some very hard-working private sector workers. They should have their hard work rewarded; they should not be penalised for being in Scotland.

We want to attract more people to Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) has brought up many times, this issue is especially important for our armed forces. Everywhere else around the world, they pay the Westminster rate of tax. It is only in Scotland that they are penalised and have to pay additional tax for being based there. Being based in Scotland is, of course, a benefit, and that benefit should not be eroded by the tax system imposed on them by Edinburgh. Thankfully, due to the work of my colleagues and the Government, that tax impact has now been neutralised, and members of the armed forces will now pay no more tax in Scotland than they do in other parts of the United Kingdom.

Devolved Administrations can borrow. Scotland can borrow about £3 billion for capital and about £1.75 billion for resources. What does “resources” mean? Breaking it down, it means that if we are a bit short in our cash flow in Scotland, we can borrow up to £500 million for cash. About £300 million is for forecast errors, and we see some of those coming through at the moment. There is a fantastic National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee report on devolved income tax collection in Scotland. It makes for fantastic night-time reading; it clearly outlines some of the difficulties and costs of having additional income tax rates in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the limited borrowing powers in the Scottish Parliament, which do not match the growing taxation powers. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary ruled out more economic powers for the Scottish Parliament in his Tory leadership bid. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish Parliament needs greater borrowing powers to invest in the Scottish economy?

In short, no. We should use the borrowing powers that we already have. The SNP Administration underspent by a reported £450 million in the last year; that shows that the proper economic programme is not being put forward for Scotland. They are not delivering for us. We have the power to vary tax rates, we have additional borrowing powers, and we do not have half the risks and responsibilities that the Treasury in London has to bear, yet in each of the next four years, we are forecast to underperform, compared with the rest of the UK. Going back a year, we were the lowest performing economy in the OECD and out of the G20 advanced economies.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the capacity for surplus borrowing. The Scottish Government have used only about half of the capacity in that borrowing envelope. He will also note the huge, disproportionate cuts to local government. I understand that Government funding has been cut in Scotland by about 2.8% in the last decade, but 7.5% cuts have been imposed on local government. That has had a huge impact on the provision of municipal services. Why on earth are all the borrowing powers not being used, including issuing bonds to maximise the capital capacity of local government and to ensure we minimise the negative effects of austerity on local government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I could not agree more. What I cannot understand is the clamour and constant push for powers from the SNP, who have been saying, “We want more powers; we need them.” We have the borrowing powers. We have the tax-varying powers. We have flexibility over the business rates. We have flexibility over council tax. It is Edinburgh that decides how much our local authorities get. Just like the hon. Gentleman, I have experienced my local authority being underfunded in a way that has meant that education and general maintenance in our counties has suffered. I cannot understand it either. I wish a representative from the SNP was here to put the SNP’s case for those cuts and its economic programme. Unfortunately, the SNP is completely absent from a very important debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. These are the kind of debates we should be having to set the record straight about what is happening in Scotland and its fiscal position. He mentioned the Scottish Government’s underspend. I believe that they have returned more than £2 billion in the last four years in underspend. On the borrowing requirement, I understand that the Hong Kong dollar is an independent currency, but it is supported by reserves of double the GDP of Hong Kong. That means that if an independent Scotland were to set up its own currency, it would require somewhere in the region of £360 billion of reserves to support that currency. Where would Scotland get that from?

I wish SNP Members were here to say how they would meet those responsibilities. I will not speak on behalf of the Scottish Labour party or the Scottish Liberal Democrats, but we are parties who support and respect devolution. We are the parties who are trying to make devolution work more effectively. That is why we are having these debates and changing the machinery of government to try to make it work more effectively. The SNP is the only party that does not believe in devolution. That is why it is not involved in these debates and why its members are not here today. All they care about is separation.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the SNP has not faced up to some of the responsibilities and costs of that separation. That is illustrated by the underspend. Some £100 million is somehow being rolled forward as part of setting up a new social security agency. That was agreed in 2016. We want to look at how to best serve our constituents. We do not want to be state building; we want to make sure that our constituents get the benefits that they need. Rather than spending £100 million-plus on setting up a new social security agency, which means our constituents will have to stop at three or four places to get the benefits they require, I would prefer to use that money to top up the benefits, and use current Department for Work and Pensions systems to ensure that constituents get the money they need. Our constituents would benefit, but we would not have to go through state building, and we would not have to spend money when it is not required. As I am sure the Chair appreciates, welfare is an incredibly complicated area of policy, and the systems that have supported our welfare state have been in development for over 60 years.

On the borrowing powers that we have on the resources side, there is power to borrow up to £300 million for forecast error. That is important, because as Derek Mackay, the Finance Secretary in the Scottish Government, recently outlined, their income tax forecast is down by around £1 billion. Again, this might be something that we should be debating in Westminster and Holyrood. The forecast error borrowing allowance is around £300 million, and it already looks like there will be a £1 billion gap. How will we bridge that responsibly without increasing taxes for people in Scotland, or irresponsibly having to go back to Westminster?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am certainly a staunch critic of this Government’s social security policies. However, he will be aware of the scope of powers available to the Scottish Government to deliver a system in Scotland that is qualitatively, as well as quantitatively, different. For example, ending the two-child cap in Scotland costs around £60 million, which is a fraction of the £500 million revenue underspend in Scotland, and would not even mean dipping into the available borrowing powers. What does the hon. Gentleman think are the motives behind not using those powers?

I would not be so bold as to speak on behalf of the SNP—I do not think the party would like it. I can theorise that the SNP has not prepared for some of those powers and is not ready for them. Looking at the recent Fraser of Allander Institute report on the welfare and tax powers being given to Holyrood, we see that there are significant structural and programme changes that need to take place before those powers can be used effectively. I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates and welcomes some of the changes that the new Work and Pensions Secretary has made to the two-child cap policy. It is an issue that I have debated since I was elected to this place, and certainly before.

Welfare powers are available, and I am at a loss to understand why the SNP has not used them when it is so critical of a lot of my Government’s policies in this area. If the party is so critical, and the Scottish Administration have the powers, I do not understand why they have not used them in the time that they have had them. They have been supported centrally by the Department for Work and Pensions in Westminster. The SNP told us in 2014 that it would take only 18 months to establish Scotland as a completely separate state, so I do not understand why it takes seven-plus years to try to get a basic social security system for our constituents.

The other £600 million that is available for resource funding is protection for a Scotland-specific shock. Should our GDP fall to 1% below the rest of the UK, we could borrow an additional £600 million to try to prevent any additional hardship for our constituents and to support our public services in the way they need.

As I touched on earlier, it is important to note that even with all those powers and the levers at the disposal of the devolved Administration in Edinburgh, we are still looking at an economic performance over the next four years that trails behind that of the rest of the UK. After more than 12 years of an SNP Administration, we have to ask why. It is not just that they disagree with policy coming from Westminster; it is that they have powers but are not making devolution work. This is not good or bad devolution; it is dysfunctional devolution. I hope every colleague in the House will work with me and MSP colleagues to try to improve that.

We have three tiers of government in Scotland, or four if we include community councils: our local authorities, the Administration in Edinburgh, and central Government in Westminster. As an MP, I am determined to ensure that they work as effectively as possible.

Further to the point on the possible motivation, does he share the view that if the Scottish Government were to deploy all those powers fully, it might in some way diminish the appetite for independence? After all, a majority of Scots agree that the United Kingdom is over-centralised, but if they were to see devolution fully deployed and fully activated, it might well address any dissatisfaction that they had with the current system.

It feels wrong to bash the SNP when its Members are not here to respond, but this is another clear example of the SNP putting the nationalist interest above the national interest. We could be using those powers to serve our constituents today, rather than deferring their use for years and years to further grievance and stoke the flames on social media.

Why is this important? Why did I apply for this debate on borrowing? It is so important because of the underspend that, as I said, has been widely reported. It was £450 million last year. It has certainly had a real impact in my constituency, which covers two council areas: Clackmannanshire, which is the smallest county in Scotland, and part of Perth and Kinross, which is in one of the largest counties in Scotland. We have seen impacts on frontline services. In Perth and Kinross, teacher numbers have reduced. We have had to increase waste charges, and we have had a 3% increase in council tax. In Clackmannanshire, we had the threat of closure of two primary schools, which I and council colleagues were against. We had the threat of closure of the Alloa Leisure Bowl, a reduction in our secondary school supplies and a 4% increase in council tax.

Given that the SNP argues for all those powers and makes such a stand about being stronger for Scotland, it cannot make such an argument in this place and then be absolutely weaker for our local authorities and let down our public services, children and communities in such a colossal way. As I said, the underspend could well be justified. If SNP Members were here—I was hoping to have a bit of a debate with them—they could justify it by saying they were carrying some spending forward to future years, as we said about the welfare and social security agency. We might disagree with that, but at least it could be justification. As colleagues will hopefully realise, and as I have argued, given the borrowing powers that exist, the development of the Scotland reserve, and the increase in block grant coming from Westminster, there is no need for huge underspends in the Scottish budget. We simply do not need them. We can use the borrowing powers when we need to. For example, should there be a Scotland-specific shock, we could access £600 million if we needed emergency cash for our frontline services. We can actually spend the money we need now, so why cut our local authorities when it is clearly not needed?

The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful argument. I know he might disagree with the policy issue, but there is a principle issue. The Scottish Government have full powers to do something about issues that they talk about a lot, such as the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women and the rape clause in universal credit. They have the powers and a massive underspend, but they refuse to do anything.

That is exactly my point. It is one of the main reasons I wanted to have this debate. Again, it is one thing to criticise on social media, but another to write letters to a paper when it is a one-sided argument. I applied for this debate because I wanted all parties to be here, and to have the opportunity to justify underspending by nearly half a billion pounds and then standing up in the Chamber and criticising the Prime Minister, the Government and often Opposition party leaders for their lack of policy and lack of caring for our constituents. That is inconsistent, it is indefensible economics, and it is unbecoming of MPs and a political party that sits in this Parliament.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that it was quite telling that when there was word of the UK Government’s potential direct spending in Scotland, the Scottish National party was running scared? It is the only party I know that would run scared from somebody else wanting to deliver further funding in Scotland. It just shows that this is not about money. Everything the Scottish National party does is down to playing politics with policy and people’s lives; it is not about getting the best for Scotland.

I could not agree more. The whole point of being an MP is that we put people before politics. I have certainly been critical of my Government on issues of spending—I know my hon. Friend has, too—and Members of the Opposition have certainly been critical about getting funding for Scotland, be it in block grant or city deals. We have made the arguments and posed the difficult questions time and again in this place. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister appreciates, we will continue to do so in a future Administration.

We have had an interesting exchange of views on this matter. On the use of powers and the logical disconnect between the rhetoric in this place and how it plays out in governance in Scotland, the Daily Record has recently been reporting on the scourge of drug-related deaths in Scotland, which are at epidemic levels and are a real national emergency. How can the SNP reconcile the rhetoric about the need for the Home Office to change its views on the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—I agree with that—with cutting addiction services in Glasgow by a quarter? How can that possibly help?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen at first hand the impact of some of those cuts in his constituency, just as I have seen their impact on frontline services in mine. No Government are perfect and no party is perfect—I respect that—but the whole point of these debates is to discuss the issues, come forward with facts, put forward arguments, fight for our constituents and, at election time, convince them that we are the best people to represent them, and that we have the best ideas and arguments. That is why I secured this debate.

If an hon. Member or a colleague in Holyrood were Finance Secretary, rather than underspending by £450 million and putting £100 million into the social security agency, they could have invested £294 million, which is what COSLA—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities—has requested for inflationary increases in council spending. They could have uplifted that by 10% or so to help close the funding gap in Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross, and they would still have had around £100 million left to put into a reserve for a rainy day, if that were genuinely their intention.

I will wrap up as I am conscious that the Minister wants to respond. I hope that he will support me and other colleagues in taking a more mature approach to funding and borrowing in our United Kingdom, to ensure that devolved parts of the United Kingdom are not separate, and to ensure that central Government engage with all levels of government, so that there is appropriate borrowing and spending, and funding goes directly to the frontline public services that need it.

As colleagues have mentioned before in such debates, balance sheets and borrowing do not sound all that exciting, but every single number on the balance sheet represents an opportunity for an education, or for investment in the NHS and social care. It is vital that we get the facts out there and have a mature and appropriate debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support us in that.

It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is an important topic that commands interest not only across the House but, more importantly, across the four constituent nations of our Union and among our constituents. I take my hat off to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) for securing the debate and for the energy that he and his generation of Scottish Conservative MPs bring to the House of Commons. It has been a tremendous tonic and has been very good for the House as a whole.

Like my hon. Friend, I am surprised and a little dismayed that the Scottish National party is not present for the debate. That in itself tells a story that we need to explore more widely and that I will come to later. He raised a wider issue, so I will talk about what the Government are doing more generally before I address the question of Scotland that he raised so eloquently.

As my hon. Friend and everyone in the Chamber will know, the Government are committed to strengthening the Union, which is arguably the oldest and most successful partnership of its kind in the world. Only last week, the Prime Minister announced an independent review to ensure that Departments in Whitehall work in the best interests of the Union. Protecting the Union is also a priority for both candidates who are vying to be the next Prime Minister.

I understand that the Minister’s opening remarks are about the Government protecting the Union, but what does he say to the 63% of Conservative members who would rather see Brexit than the UK staying together?

I do not think that they regard that as in tension with a proper unionism; they worry about the union with the EU. In their view, they are giving voice to a sovereignty that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland expresses and has done for more than 200 years.

As colleagues will know, I can never talk about the Union without mentioning my great hero, Adam Smith. He said that the 1701 union was:

“a measure from which infinite Good has been derived”

to Scotland. How right he was. The reason why that was true for Smith and is true now is that the Scots took advantage of the potential offered by that incorporating political arrangement. As the House will know, Scots spread out across the world, ran large chunks of it and were extremely effective and successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Their country and the United Kingdom as a whole greatly benefited.

Borrowing powers are one of the most important ways in which the Government are strengthening the constitutional settlement, by providing devolved Administrations with greater choice and responsibility. Greater resource borrowing helps to ensure budgetary stability and affords devolved Administrations the flexibility to manage volatility associated with their new revenue-raising powers—or tax powers, in Scotland’s case. Similarly, capital borrowing powers offer much greater control over infrastructure investment.

The Scotland Act 2016 increased the Scottish Government’s capital borrowing limit to £3 billion, with an annual limit of £450 million. The resource limit was also raised to £1.75 billion, with an annual limit of £600 million. Those are substantial sums that create a degree of responsibility. To have those powers is to be trusted to exercise them responsibly. If that means investing them in better services on behalf of local people, that is the responsibility that those Administrations face.

It should be clear that those individual borrowing powers come on top of the funding that devolved Administrations receive through the Barnett formula. The fact that devolved Administrations already receive a share of all UK Government borrowing under the formula explains the need for limits on their borrowing to ensure the sustainability of the public finances. Spending decisions taken by the UK Government continue to deliver growth and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend and colleagues will know, last year’s Budget provided a funding boost of £950 million in Scotland, £550 million in Wales and £320 million in Northern Ireland.

By 2020, all three devolved Administrations will therefore have received a real-terms increase during this spending review. Before adjustments for tax devolution, block grant funding will have grown to more than £32 billion in Scotland, £16.1 billion in Wales and £11.7 billion in Northern Ireland. There has been further support through city deals and growth deals, including more than £1.3 billion for eight such deals in Scotland.

I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that the Government are also committed to devolving greater responsibilities on tax and welfare. Once the 2016 Act is fully implemented, more than 50% of the Scottish Government’s funding will come from revenues raised in Scotland, making the Scottish Government more accountable to the people they serve. That is surely the point—with power comes responsibility—so the fact that the SNP is not present in the Chamber is a token of the wider problem of the Scottish Government’s lack of accountability. It is unfortunate that, although one constantly hears that Government’s grievances, they do not spend to address the issues of which they complain—my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) is absolutely right to make the point about playing politics. However, the question at the heart of the debate and of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is not one of disingenuousness or hypocrisy but one of public service and accountability.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire for securing this debate and for his important and eloquent speech. It poses a challenge to the Scottish Government to live by what they say and to do what they profess. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak for the Government and demonstrate our continued support for the sustainability and prosperity not just of the Scottish nation and economy but of those of Wales and Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.