Council leader McColl was hung out to dry by SNP on FM’s budget letter issue
Richard Leonard, Nicola Sturgeon and the Holyrood parliament building.
By Bill Heaney in Edinburgh
Is it true then what West Dunbartonshire Council leader Jonathan McColl said about the swingeing austerity cuts imposed by the SNP-Tory coalition budget this year?
Or was First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrong when she said the council had been given more than enough money to cover the cost of services in the current financial year?
Richard Leonard, the Labour Party leader, almost got the answer Cllr McColl and most other people were seeking in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.
It was embarrassing in the extreme for the SNP to have the Labour leader trying to wring out in public the answer from Nicola Sturgeon that she was wrong and Cllr McColl, pictured left, was correct when he said the council cuts imposed here were necessary – despite the fact that after a public outcry he was forced into a U-turn on some of them.
However, the FM simply fudged the issue and it was only later that a senior figure in the SNP told me there had been a calamitous mistake made in relation to the letter “signed” by Sturgeon.
“A civil servant wrote the initial letter, which was wrong,” I was told. “It should never have gone out. It left us in an awkward situation. The ‘confirmation’ letter that eventually went out said that although the cuts were not necessary they were needed.”
How is that for political double-speak? It appears that Jonathan McColl has been hung out to dry by his SNP bosses and this may go some way to explain why he did not resign after accusing the Labour councillors who brought it to a council meeting of lying.
Leonard said the vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Graham Houston, had warned that some smaller councils were at a “cliff edge” in regard to their finances and the provision of services.
And he added: “Just yesterday in the Scottish Parliament, the education convener of Glasgow City Council admitted that local government had been hit with a greater level of budgetary cut than many other areas. Are those senior councillors from the First Minister’s own party wrong?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “Like people in the national health service and in the education system, senior councillors are, of course, feeling the constraints of the squeeze in spending that the Government and the Parliament have been subject to because of spending decisions that have been taken at the United Kingdom Government level. “Over the past months and years, we have talked many times about the real-terms cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget. Nevertheless, we have taken responsible budgetary decisions to raise income tax in a progressive way, to deliver more revenue for public services and, within that, to give a very fair settlement to local government.
“In this financial year, there are real-terms increases in the revenue budgets of local councils. Of course, that does not make it easy for them, but it demonstrates that the Scottish Government is taking the appropriate action to protect local services. That stands in stark contrast to the situation elsewhere in the UK.
“There have been swingeing cuts to local councils in England and in Wales, where Richard Leonard’s party is in power. He does not like my saying this, but the local government budget there did not increase in real terms this year; there was simply a 0.2 per cent cash increase.
“We have taken the right decisions. Yet again from Richard Leonard, it is a case of we should follow what he says, not what his party does in power.”
That answer amounted to a fudge, which indicates that McColl’s contention that the cuts were needed and that the letter from the FM to a member of the public in Dumbarton saying they were not was wrong.
Richard Leonard said he wasn’t interested in what was happening south of the Border – “The last time I checked, this was Scottish First Minister’s question time. The First Minister can talk about responsible budgets and fair settlements all that she wants to, but it is Scottish National Party councillors who are talking about cuts. The fact is that the Government has not only failed to stop Tory austerity; it has added to it and then imposed that on local councils and schools.
“Only three years ago, the First Minister claimed that education would be her top priority, but she is now getting letters from teachers such as the one that I have in my hand. That letter, which was sent to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills and the First Minister, says that, because of cuts, teachers are forced to buy pens, pencils and books for their pupils. That teacher posed a simple question. They wrote:
‘You wouldn’t expect a doctor to supply their patients with prescription medicines out of their own finances, so what makes teaching different?’ What is the answer to that question?”
The FM replied: “In spite of the £2 billion real-terms cut to the Scottish Government budget, we will continue to take budgetary decisions that give fair settlements to local government. There is a real-terms increase in revenue budgets for local councils this year, and we have also, of course, taken steps to establish the pupil equity fund, which gets £120 million of resources every year directly into the hands of head teachers so that they can take the actions that they think are necessary to raise standards and close the attainment gap.
“I know how tough it is for teachers, nurses and police officers—indeed, for everybody across the public sector—but we will continue to take the appropriate budget decisions to protect local public services as far as we possibly can.
“The draft budget for next year will be published in the Parliament in just a couple of weeks’ time. If Richard Leonard wants different decisions to be taken, he will have to come forward and say not just where he wants more money to be spent, but where he wants that money to be taken from. If he does that, we can have a constructive discussion.”
Leonard accused Sturgeon of note listening to the teachers.
He said: “The First Minister talks about attainment money, but that money is papering over the cracks in cuts in core budgets. The First Minister wants to be judged on her record in education, so let us examine that record. It is a record of austerity, which even SNP councillors admit is going too far. It is a record of our teachers themselves having to buy pens, pencils and books for pupils because Scotland’s schools are starved of cash.
“It is little wonder that this week Scotland’s teachers emphatically rejected the SNP’s pay offer. Teachers, parents and pupils across Scotland are asking how education can be the First Minister’s top priority, with underfunded schools and undervalued teachers.
“Teachers are not undervalued: we highly value the work that teachers do. We will continue to negotiate in good faith with teachers for a fair pay increase, just as we did successfully with nurses and other healthcare workers, and with our police officers.
“As well as the real-terms increases in local council budgets that were delivered by the finance secretary in the last budget, spending on schools by local authorities has increased in each of the last three years. That is a fact. We have also seen the pupil equity fund, which is delivering increased resources to schools. We will continue to take the appropriate steps and make the appropriate decisions to support our teachers on the front line, just as we support our nurses and other public sector workers.”
Dumbarton and Lomond MSP Jackie Baillie, pictured left, had this to say after the debate on the teachers’ pay issue: “
“It is not in teachers’ nature to strike. If you look at their track record, the last time they deemed it fit to strike was under Thatcher.
“But the 98% of Scottish teachers who just rejected the latest pay offer clearly feel so let down by this SNP government that they are willing to strike.
“The SNP Government has continuously undermined and under-resourced thousands of Scottish teachers and this must change.
“The way our teachers have been treated in recent months, is part of a wider culture of disregard by the SNP Government of our hardworking, undervalued public sector workers.
“At FMQs today, Nicola Sturgeon was given the opportunity to apologise directly to teachers for the disgraceful mishandling of their pay negotiations. Sadly, she chose not to do so.”
Cllr Jonathan McColl was not available to comment to The Democrat.