The Auditor General for Scotland has called on the Scottish Government to be transparent in its plans for spending to tackle Covid-19.
In a official blog, Stephen Boyle wrote that even before the coronavirus hit, the Scottish Government was facing “some very real financial challenges”.
An obvious priority was the NHS, which continues to absorb much of the Scottish budget – 41% in 2019/20 – even without big changes to service delivery and faster integration of health and social care.
“Other knot-filled folders sat on ministers’ desks,” said Boyle, listing police and local government funding, Brexit and managing the volatility of new tax and social security powers.
“Most of those challenges remain,” he stated. “These issues would have tested any government at any time, now a pandemic – and the increased costs and uncertainties it has brought – must be managed alongside them.
Today sees the Budget Bill come before Parliament for the first time, with Finance Secretary Kate Forbes urging MSPs to back “a consensual budget for unprecedented times”.
The Scottish Government confirmed that £8.6bn of consequential funding guaranteed for 2020-21 has been allocated to tackling the pandemic.
The Spring Budget Revision (SBR) details a further £2.5bn of coronavirus spending since September, including £780m for business support, taking the total to more than £3bn in the current financial year – and an additional £494m to health and sport – while £745m has been reprioritised within existing budgets.
During the year, £100m of resource and capital funding was also deployed from the Scotland Reserve.
Forbes said: “The SBR highlights once again the enormous economic impact of the global pandemic, which reaches into every area of spending and continues to stretch our resources.
“It confirms that every penny received by the Scottish Government to tackle Covid-19 has been channelled to where it is needed most.”
Most of the Covid-19 spending in Scotland has been covered by huge levels of UK Government borrowing to fund the health, social care and business response.
That has added an extra £9.7bn to a Scottish budget of more than £40bn for 2020/21.
Not all the pandemic pound has been allocated so far, but that’s not surprising, wrote Boyle. Some spend, like business grants, is demand-led and other pots, like the £100m for school attainment, are spread over more than one year.
“But it’s getting harder to identify what is, and isn’t, Covid-19 spending, as our latest analysis found,” read the Audit Scotland blog.
“That’s because of the volume of announcements (over 170 to date) and, increasingly, how the spending naturally links with wider economic development and government goals.
“That increases the need for transparency around spending,” Boyle added.
He conceded that the multiple pandemic problems make directing public money more complex, arguing that this is why leaders must together.
“All the main players in the coronavirus response – the UK Government, Scottish Government, councils, health boards, enterprise boards – must keep collaborating and sharing knowledge to achieve the best outcomes and value for money.”
Boyle noted that the longer the pandemic continues, the more the financial consequences of disruptions to services – such as the courts backlog – increase.
The Scottish Fiscal Commission expects the economy to contract by 11%, with a return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
“The Scottish Government must be clear about its priorities, about which services are essential to maintain, and where it can quickly alter spending to deal with budget fluctuations,” Boyle concluded.
Jenny Marra MSP, convener of the Public Audit & Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee, commented: “Our committee will be very keen to ensure that money has reached the services that need it.
“Transparent planning and prioritisation should be key to the Scottish Government’s agenda, to allow us to do this effectively.”
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