Sunday, 6 April 2008

An episode of Desmond's

It must crush all hope when you've been drowning for almost a year and your rescuers are Yvette Cooper and Des Browne balancing on what little of your head is above water.

With Yvette Cooper understanding less about Funding the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly: Statement of Funding Policy (see especially paragraphs 6.3 and 13.2 and paragraphs 7 & 8 of the statement of principles - annexe A) than about buying herself a house, it was left to Desmond to come riding to the rescue with a fascinating article in Scotland on Sunday.

Des has titled his epistle to the nation "A Year of Governing Dangerously" - I do hope that he just doesn't appreciate the possible resonance of such a title rather than being quite that crass.

Mind you, the tone of his 919 words would suggest maybe not. When a politician starts to throw random and unjustifiable insults instead of debating policy you can be sure the unravelling is beginning. Since Dessie is a Minister in Her Majesty's Labour Government you can take it that the same falling apart is infecting the rest of them

Let's see what Des says. He compares the amount of legislation going through the London Parliament with the amount of legislation going through our Edinburgh Parliament like some over-keen competitor in a sports-car measuring competition. Here's an interesting thing, though, he says
24 of the 26 pieces of legislation in the Queen's Speech impact upon Scotland

The most interesting part of this isn't apparent until you cast a glance at the Queen's Speech and realise that only 20 pieces of legislation are in it. Surely a chap who holds 2 cabinet jobs should know what was in the Queen's Speech? It is, after all, the basic building block of the Westminster legislative programme.

Is Dessie confused? Well, look at these three statements:

The UK Government is actively legislating – with the SNP's agreement

In the parallel universe that the SNP inhabit, everything the UK Government does is portrayed as either an act of betrayal or interference in Scotland.

the SNP choose to use parliamentary time to provide a platform for Alex Salmond to grandstand, to debate issues outwith their responsibility and to promote disagreements with the UK Government, seemingly for the sake of it.

All in the same article! He's not finished at that either:
A statement of fact that council tax benefit has never been part of the block grant is labelled as meddling.
Can I refer him to the Statement of Principles at the back of the Statement of Funding mentioned above in relation to Yvette Cooper? This Statement of Principles was written by his good friend Alastair Darling while the Chancellor was Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Paragraph 7 contains this wonderful line:
provision for Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit which will both come within the Scottish Block for the first time after devolution;

The document was revised and reissued in October 2007 and this bit wasn't changed, so we can assume it's still relevant. Our good Des goes on to accuse Scotland's Government of
seeking to contrive a row about access to additional funds they know there is no entitlement to

That'll be the £400 million or so in Council Tax Benefit (there should, of course, be a balancing adjustment in the Block Grant this year because Scottish benefit payments growth will be outstripped by English ones - paragraph 6.3, first point), the £120 million in prison building payments, perhaps the attendance allowance that was withdrawn when the Scottish Parliament introduced Free Personal Care - that kind of thing. Have we reached a billion quid yet? Here's the decker for Desmond from paragraph 2.7:
1. Departmental Expenditure Limits (DELs) set firm, three-year spending limits. Expenditure in DEL is split between those items within the Assigned Budget and those within the non-Assigned Budget. Spending within DEL is generally undifferentiated, as the devolved administrations will have full discretion over their spending priorities; these are ‘Assigned Budget’ items. Changes in provision for these items are determined through the Barnett Formula (see Chapter 4). If spending in DEL, however, is exceptionally ring-fenced and specific to that spending priority, these are known as ‘non-Assigned Budget’ spending items

That would be the prisons then. London claims the prisons money doesn't count because it came from reserves. Access to the Reserve is only supposed to be provided in exceptional circumstances - did London not plan to build these prisons? Chapter 10 of the funding statement makes it absolutely clear that you can't just take money out of the Reserve because that will open up the DEL again - whether it is the Scottish Government or a Whitehall department, so there's a Barnett consequential to come to Scotland.

Should the London Government continue to insist that the money provided for English prisons comes from the Reserve, and that this will not result in a renegotiation (exceptionally) of the English Justice budget, Scotland gets access to the Reserve for building the prisons we need 10.2:
specifically where:
1. a United Kingdom department is granted access to the Reserve to enable it to meet exceptional pressures on a spending programme. If a devolved administration has a comparable programme and establishes that it faces similar exceptional pressures, unforeseen at the time spending plans were settled, it will have the opportunity to make its case on access to the Reserve which will be considered.

You would think that if I can find this on the web a Cabinet Minister should be able to ask their Private Office to have it checked out, wouldn't you?

Back to Dizzy Dessie. He argues that abolishing Council Tax and introducing LIT instead would make Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK. Erm, no. removing one tax and replacing it with another does not automatically increase the overall tax take (how long has Labour been 'running' the country?) I might be getting old, but I remember a Labour party that once believed in taxation based on the ability to pay - apparently not any more. How much more pain have the poorest in our society to suffer before Labour relents? 12% of Scotland's taxpayers - the poorest 12% - have just seen their income tax bill double thanks to Labour's budget.

Just a couple more points. Early in his homily, Desmond preaches about
the SNP is the only level of government with any interest in Scotland

Much as I think that Scotland's Party is the party with Scotland's best interests at heart, our members would never think about the party being a 'level of government' - perhaps that reveals something about the arrogance of the Labour party?

The other thing is Dessie-baby's assertion that the SNP Government is 'beginning to wear thin amongst Scots' - I wonder why opinion polls keep going in the other direction if Des is correct? Perhaps he's just wrong?

I'd just like to apologise to everyone connected with the sitcom Desmonds - the pun was too good to miss, but no-one should be associated with the Labour farce against their will.

I will note, though, that the SNP Scottish Government has now come under attack from 4 Westminster Ministers - Gordon Brown, Des Browne, Yvette Cooper and David Cairns - in the past couple of weeks. Is this a tacit admission that Wendy Alexander simply isn't up to it?

As Des Browne signed off, "It's time they got on with governing rather than fostering grievance." Yup, they get paid enough.