The five leaders of Scotland’s larger political parties took part in their first televised debate of the 2021 Holyrood election campaign last night. In front of a “virtual” audience, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, the Conservatives’ Douglas Ross, Labour’s Anas Sarwar, Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats and Lorna Slater of the Greens set out their policies and made a series of claims. Things got particularly heated up when the Scottish Conservative leader accused the SNP of failing to reform council tax.
The First Minister protested that it had been frozen while the SNP has been in office and is lower in Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Other parties voted against abolishing council tax.
“We are freezing council tax this year.
“Your party is increasing it in the middle of a pandemic. “
While her claims are verifiably true, it does appear the First Minister has reneged on SNP manifesto promises.
The abolition or reform of council tax was promised three times, but changes have been limited.
In 2007, the incoming SNP administration said the “hated” and “unfair” council tax would go and be replaced with a local income tax.
As a minority administration, it failed to get sufficient support for that.
However, it did start freezing the tax.
When it got a majority in 2011, it continued to freeze it and began negotiating reforms that led to people with bigger houses paying slightly more.
After a nine-year freeze, it briefly allowed councils to raise it, and then froze it again last year and for 2021-22.
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At band D, the average Scottish bill in 2020-21 is £1308, in Wales it is £1667 and in England it is £1818.
A new study published today reveals Ms Sturgeon’s spending on Scottish public services is 30 percent greater than the equivalent funding in England thanks to the Barnett formula.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found a growing cross-Border spending gap, with the SNP administration having more than £1.30 per person to spend on public services for every £1 in England.
Almost all of this difference – 28.9 percent out of 30.6 percent – comes from the grant the Scottish Government receives from the UK Treasury, which is calculated using the highly controversial formula.
The report also found Ms Sturgeon’s government will “almost certainly” receive more funding per person to tackle the coronavirus pandemic than is being spent in England.
However, the IFS claims the First Minister plans to use some of this temporary boost from the Treasury to fund permanent, “non-COVID-19” policies, many of which are central to her Holyrood re-election campaign.
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Some of these include free school meals for primary pupils, free bus travel for young Scots aged under 22, the report said, and “potentially” a large pay hike she unveiled for Scottish NHS workers on the eve of the election campaign.
The IFS warned that from next year the funding for these policies will have to come from the Scottish government’s core budgets, meaning tax hikes or spending cuts in other areas.
Philip Davies, a Tory MP, said the figures showed the Barnett formula was “completely unjustifiable”.
He said: “You’ve got the Scottish government spending money as if it’s going out of fashion on all sorts of things that people in England can’t get, and and yet the English taxpayers have been expected to keep dipping their hands in their pockets to pay for it.”
Sir Christopher Chope, another Tory backbencher, added: “I think this shows that the whole thing is a complete mess.”
Kate Forbes, the SNP Finance Secretary, defended the formula.
She said it was “under attack by the Tories at Westminster, who have cut our capital budget by five percent and stripped the Scottish Parliament of powers so they can engage in ‘pork-barrel’ spending through the so-called levelling up fund”.