jimtoggleJim O’Neill puts Nicola Sturgeon’s finance minister in the spotlight for a shoddy approach to budgeting, and calls for sensible policies on locally sourced food for school meals to be rolled out across Scotland.

 

You would hope that the person who has been put in charge of the nation’s finances would have some grasp of the implications of his decisions, and be able to explain why he constructed his budget in the way he had. Derek Mackay, the new Finance Minister appointed by the First Minister to replace John Swinney, clearly takes a different view of government economics.

When challenged by the Finance Committee recently to bring forward the evidence that cutting Air Passenger Duty would benefit Scotland’s economy, he was forced to admit that neither he, nor John Swinney, had instructed any research into the impact of this change. So, we have a central part of the SNP manifesto, on which they were re-elected last year, based only on a whim, rather like the replacement of Council Tax by a local income tax.

Even more concern was caused when he responded to an earlier request by the same committee, when investigating the Budget Bill, about the structure of the budget by saying “it felt right”. I’m sorry Mr Mackay, but it doesn’t feel right to those local communities who are affected by the further cuts in local authority budgets you forced through using the SNP Stepford Wives with the collusion of the always bribable Greens.

The comment on Air Passenger Duty was made while the Finance Committee was beginning to look into his Air Departure (Scotland) Bill. The question arose after Mr Mackay invited the Committee to agree to the Bill and he would fill in the details after it had been passed. That is a bit like going to the bank for a mortgage and agreeing to the mortgage without being told the costs. None of us would sign up to that. Mr Mackay was sent homewards to think again and to come back with the results of an investigation into his proposal. That’s 1 – 0 for the Finance Committee, showing much more scrutiny that the nodding donkey committees of the last Parliament.

In another context, the First Minister said at First Minister’s Questions that “the last thing a government or a First Minister needs to happen is to be flying blind by not knowing what is happening”. Well, First Minister, it would seem that the pilot of your financial plane is doing just that. Just remember who put him in place when your budget starts to unravel.

It would seem that some Scottish Health Boards are spending as little as 94p per person per meal, and that both they and many Scots local authorities are sourcing their food from as far afield as Thailand, attracted by government purchasing guidelines. When I served as a councillor on East Ayrshire Council, the then Labour-controlled authority introduced a policy, first piloted in Hurlford Primary, of sourcing all their food from local farmers. This meant first that the council taxpayers pounds were being spent locally, second that the food was all fresh when it was procured, and finally that the quality of the food we offered to our children was assured. The immediate result was a substantial uptake in school meals, which has been sustained under subsequent councils led both by Labour and the SNP.

It has always amazed me that this example has not been copied by more councils in Scotland, since we have a fairly large mixed farming industry that can supply most foods needed for school meals from meat to potatoes and from sweetcorn to apples. Maybe the Scottish Government could help this local spending approach by amending the purchasing rules to encourage local purchasing, and even considering subsidy support for farmers involved in this trade? After all, after Brexit we will not be covered by the stringent EU purchasing laws and, even if we start now, any case against us will not be concluded by the time we leave!

Finally, I cannot close without making comment about the passing of former Provost of Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Andrew Nisbet. Andrew had lived to the ripe old age of 103, but even on his 100th birthday, he was giving advice and guidance to all who would listen. Andrew sat next to me, on the far left of the council horseshoe, during my first term as a councillor from 1984-88. He was Immediate Past Provost at that time and it is safe to say that he taught me everything about being a councillor. He helped me avoid many of the pitfalls of being a “newbie” and I have continued my public life using the values and principles that he taught me. Farewell, old comrade!