Tom Gordon

THE Scottish budget has cleared its first parliamentary stage amid taunts the Scottish Greens have been “played like a fiddle” in their deal with the SNP.

MSPs voted 65 to 54 on the general principles of the Bill for the 2020/21 budget, with the second and final votes expected to be a formality next week.

It followed SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and Green co-leader Patrick Harvie announcing on Wednesday they had struck a deal to get the package approved.

After telling MSPs three weeks ago that the £40bn at the Government’s disposal had been fully allocated, Ms Forbes found an extra £173m at the last minute to bring the Greens on board.

This includes £95m for councils, £18m for the police, and £15m to develop a free bus travel scheme for under-19s starting in January 2021.

In a lively debate before the vote, the Tories said “Patrick the poodle” and his party had been taken in by a “con trick”, with the bus travel scheme far from certain to be delivered.

Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “What have the Greens received? They’ve received funding to support preparations to introduce concessionary fares if possible, subject to research and due diligence. There are get out clauses everywhere you look.

“This isn’t a commitment from the Scottish Government, it’s a con trick.

“Patrick Harvie has been played like a fiddle and not for the first time.”

Ms Forbes defended the plan, but confirmed it would depend on further research confirming it was workable.

Mr Cameron said the eleventh hour increase in funds “makes a mockery” of the budget process.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay said it appeared there were “magic beans to be found down someone’s couch”.

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: “Let this be the last year and we can do away with this charade that the Government has left no flexibility at all for any other parties to put forward priorities that they would like to see reflected in the budget.”

Labour MSP Sarah Boyack called the budget a “disappointment”, adding: “It’s full of smoke and mirrors and it’s all about the headlines not about the reality on the ground.”

She added: “This budget does not deliver the transformational change Scotland needs.”

After the vote, Ms Forbes said: “I’m pleased that parliament has supported this budget at Stage 1 which will deliver certainty for vital public services, tackle the climate emergency and provide record investment for health and social care.

“This budget will now deliver free bus travel for young people, £1.8bn investment in low carbon projects, the child payment to lift children out of poverty and £15bn for health and care services.

“I look forward to concluding the budget process next week when all parties should recognise the support it provides for local government, police, tackling climate change and supporting drug services and back this budget for Scotland.”

Mr Harvie said: “Free bus travel for under-19s is due to commence in the last quarter of the financial year.

“The opposition can call it what they like, but free bus travel for young people is a transformational announcement which will tackle poverty and the climate emergency.”

Gail Macgregor, resources spokesperson for the council umbrella group Cosla, said: “I welcome the cross-party support from all of the political parties who have recognised the vital role of Local Government in this year’s Budget and I want to acknowledge the work of the Green Party which has resulted in the Scottish Government moving in relation to our Revenue settlement.

“However, Councils across Scotland still face significant budget pressures because of inflation and demand which this Budget doesn’t recognise. We are also left with a huge drop in our core Capital Budget. Councils will not be able to mitigate the impact these gaps will have on communities.”

Meanwhile an independent analysis by Holyrood officials said the Government had provided only “partial answers” on how the new £173 of spending would be funded.

Around £98m is due to come from “anticipated income next year from the Fossil Fuel Levy, and revised assumptions about UK Budget consequentials” under the Barnett formula.

However no further detail is provided.

Last October, Ms Sturgeon refused to take the UK Government’s word that there would be more money coming to Scotland as a result of the UK Budget largesse.

She told MSPs: “I prefer to see the colour of the money and have the cheque cashed - rather than have it bounce - before we start allocating it.”

The parliament’s information centre said: “It is not clear on what basis the revised assumptions about UK consequentials have been made.”

Earlier, the budget watchdog, the Scottish Fiscal Commission, warned MSPs that Holyrood was entering a “new era” of tax and spending.

It said Holyrood controlling an extra £3bn in social security spending from April would make the budget far more complex and liable to greater forecast errors, and recommended “month to month” monitoring of public finances, as demand for devolved benefits could me greater than current estimates.

The Scottish Government yesterday awarded £600,000 to 26 groups to help maximise take-up of benefits among single parents and people with physical and mental disabilities.