In an article on the BBC News Scotland website dated 17 October, its business/economy editor, Douglas Fraser examines the claim by Tory Douglas Ross on BBC Question Time that a sum of £700m provided by Westminster to the Scottish Government is for business support and it is not being passed on by the Scottish Government (SG) for that purpose. You may recall this was refuted by the SG’s Kate Forbes.
Mr Fraser examines the competing positions and provides (IMHO) a rambling account that – as shown below – essentially fails to substantiate, at the very least, Mr Ross’ claim whilst working hard to avoid actually saying so!
Mr Fraser sets out the background. The SG’s finance secretary announced on 9 October £40m to help business through the October restrictions. On the same day the UK Chancellor amended his winter plan with the promise of grants to firms required to close down for infection control measures. At that time he announced £1.3bn additional money to be shared between the Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont governments, with Scotland’s share being £700m
Mr Ross claimed that the SG is failing to help Scotland’s businesses with the £700m it was given by the Treasury. So the question posed by Mr Fraser in his article is: “.. is that £700m for business support, as Douglas Ross seemed to be arguing when on BBC One’s Question Time?”
Whilst it is up to the Scottish government to decide how to allocate any such ‘consequential’ funding, regarding this £700m Mr Fraser notes: “… it is derived from a Scottish share of several allocations of newly borrowed funds to English spending priorities.” (You may need to read his phrase two or three times to ponder what Mr Fraser is telling us and what relevant information he is leaving out in the context of this article!)
To me this seems like a ‘weaselly’ way of saying it is NOT a consequence of just additional funding allocated for business support in England. And if the £700m is NOT a consequential transfer from a business support fund only, then surely Ross’ claim has been shown here by Mr Fraser to be wrong? Given the question he poses initially, why does Mr Fraser shy away from saying so?
And then Mr Fraser adds: “It is rarely made clear how that (i.e. additional funding from Westminster for Scotland) is derived, and it has become less clear since the Treasury started funding Covid crisis measures by raiding other unspent Whitehall budgets. The more they do that, the less consequence through Barnett.”
So if it is ‘unclear’ how the funding is derived and if the Westminster government is viring funds in ways which avoid consequentials, how can the Tory government and the claims of the Tory leader in Scotland in terms of consequential funding be substantiated and held to account? Mr Fraser shies away from drawing the obvious conclusion.
It gets clearer and clearer as we read through the article what Mr Fraser has found: e.g. “So far, a very large share of that extra funding has gone into matching England’s additional health service costs, for test and trace, which is costing an eye-watering amount, and personal protective equipment for those most vulnerable to infected people.”
So would consequential funding for Scotland not have similar diverse calls upon it? Does this assessment not again suggest that Mr Ross’ claim that all of the £700m derives from just a business support fund is at best unsubstantiated if not plain wrong? Why does Mr Fraser not conclude explicitly that he has been unable to justify Ross’ claim?
And then he adds: “A much smaller amount is associated with England’s business grants scheme. And big sums are required to subsidise bus and rail operators, for whom the current constraints on passenger numbers is leaving them with big losses”. He then surely he nails it in terms of negating Mr Ross’ claim: “Rishi Sunak has not said how much his grant scheme for businesses will cost.”
But having framed his article in a way that set out to answer the question “…. is that £700m for business support, as Douglas Ross seemed to be arguing when on BBC One’s Question Time?” And despite in various, albeit oblique ways telling us, in terms, that either it has not been possible to substantiate Ross’ claim or that it is just wrong, Mr Fraser ends by diverting away from making a judgement on Mr Ross’ assertion on Question Time to answer a rather different – and a much less pointed, perhaps ‘safer’ for him – question.
He says: “That makes it impossible to say if the £40m allocated by the Scottish government is more or less generous than the English one, as it only covers this month.”