UK Government ‘too busy’ for Scotland: Kate Forbes on struggles with Westminster
Exclusive by Kirsteen Paterson Originally published in the National.
Kate Forbes is the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch Photograph: Ruaraidh White.
“IT’S not about me being disrespected, it’s about Scottish businesses not getting the cover that they deserve.”
Kate Forbes is talking about the relationship between the governments in Edinburgh and London, and what that means for the country.
In September, Scottish Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said there is “absolutely” no trust between the administrations, with communication between the leaderships “significantly worse since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister” and the Tory team showing “a hostility to devolution”.
That was before Johnson described devolution in Scotland as a “disaster” in a Zoom call to English Tory MPs. And it was before Forbes had to begin petitioning her UK counterpart, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, for information about his spending plans, and how the sums add up for Scotland.
Today Forbes, the only woman ever to hold the country’s purse strings, has published the six-page letter she’s sent to Sunak calling for a £98 billion commitment in the spending review he’ll announce on Wednesday. That letter was sent on Friday after her team sent multiple requests for meetings about the matter.
“The last time I spoke to Rishi Sunak was quite a while ago,” she says. “I can’t remember off the top of my head.
“The weekend they announced the extension to furlough, I made four or five requests for a meeting, none of which were responded to. I have had no feedback since. Over that week and in the days afterwards the only response we got was that the UK Government were very busy.
“There had been a request for a meeting before then to outline what we expect from the spending review, particularly around replacement for European funding, which was a Tory promise but which we have had next to no information on, and there has been no meeting guaranteed.
“There is a degree of frustration that, even if our governments have different objectives and different political ideologies, it’s in the interests of the people of Scotland that we share information and work constructively. It can be the difference between jobs being saved.
“It’s not about me being disrespected, it’s about Scottish businesses not getting the cover that they deserve.”
The breakdown in communication, Forbes says, delivers the same message as Johnson’s “disaster comment”.
“Most of the time the frustrations in the inter-governmental relations are relatively hidden and private,” she says. “They only spill over when the Prime Minister says publicly what he thinks privately.
“The content of the conversation shouldn’t surprise any of us watching the Internal Market Bill.” That, Forbes says, has been designed to “erode and undermine the powers” of all devolved administrations. “If it was just the Scottish Government saying that, you could dismiss it as just being the SNP,” she says, “But the Welsh Labour Party are saying it.
“It takes two to have a conversation,” she goes on. “I tried very hard to be constructive and open because I thought that working together would serve the people of Scotland. That has not delivered as I had hoped.“
In her letter to Sunak, Forbes calls for the UK Government to prioritise public services and economic recovery through a package of at least 5% of GDP and which would be on par with those in place in countries like Germany, France and New Zealand.
There are specific asks about increasing Universal Credit, early certainty on ongoing Non Domestic Rates relief, extra fiscal flexibility for the Scottish Government to respond to the ongoing impacts of coronavirus and assurance on pay for frontline services.
And five months after the Scottish Government published its paper setting out ten principles that should underpin the UK Government’s fiscal approach, an update covering the resurgence of Covid-19, the latest economic modelling and the concurrent risk of an EU exit has been published.
While all this has been going on, Forbes has faced suggestions that her administration is failing to prepare for independence, something her colleague Ian Blackford has said could be in the post, with a fresh referendum held next year.
“During the last few months politicians on the frontline of the response haven’t had much time to sleep, never mind doing work beyond the day job, but through the pandemic there have been ways of showing, not telling, that Scotland can do things differently,” she says. “We absolutely need to go into any referendum with a strong economic prospectus. That thinking has only been strengthened during the pandemic.
“Often when people ask the question, they are suggesting that somehow we need to start from scratch, but we don’t. The material is there. It’s about building a case that will ensure that every local economy has great opportunities.”
That material includes the 2018 report by the Sustainable Growth Commission, of which Forbes was a part.
“In the years since its publication our economy has changed and the challenges we are grappling with have changed significantly,” Forbes says. “We need to look ahead to how we deal with the legacy of Covid and how we build this country again, how we build on the fundamental strengths of the Scottish economy and any document at any point in time is useful in so far as it provides a starting point.”
In an update, Forbes would want to see more on borrowing powers and the potential for the digital sector, something in which she sees “huge opportunities for growth”. She is, however, of the belief that the Yes movement should focus more on the “why” of independence than the “when”. “I do think that we fixate on dates and we fixate on process,” she says, “We know the arguments for why Scotland should have power in its hands. Dates are of less concern that those arguments, which are far more compelling, which are far more persuasive than they have ever been before. “We don’t want a return to austerity. If we don’t want that, we have to have an alternative.”
January will see Forbes setting her own Budget for the first time, having stepped into the role at the eleventh hour last time round after news emerged that her predecessor Derek Mackay had bombarded a 16-year-old boy with messages.
While the postholder has changed, the unenviable situation the Finance Secretary faces has not – delivering a Scottish Budget, with all that means, when the UK Government has chosen to postpone its own plan. When asked if she’d envisioned such a repeat, Forbes replies: “Absolutely not.”
“It’s one of the most persuasive examples of how Scotland is always an afterthought,” she says.
“Their justification for not producing a Budget is that it’s impossible to plan. In ditching their Budget, they’ve made it impossible for us to plan. They pick and choose what they plan ahead for.”
The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP says she’s been straight with the Treasury from the beginning. “I set out a choice to the UK Government – either you’ve got to give us the fiscal levers or you’ve got to give us sufficient clarity of funding availability. They declined us the levers. We are now in a position where we will be setting out policies, tax rates, support to give the people of Scotland some certainty without having that certainty for ourselves. It’s not a political point, it’s a practical point. It matters to everybody whether the NHS has sufficient funding, it matters to everybody whether we can support business.”
Meanwhile, the pandemic has taken its toll “on everybody having to make decisions”. “We are constantly mindful of the people who are bearing the brunt of these restrictions,” Forbes says, “whether it’s care home residents who can’t see their loved ones, people who can’t go to funerals or weddings through to the businesses that haven’t had any trade.
“As a constituency MSP, in virtual surgeries you’re sitting face-to-face with people in despair – in tears sometimes – appealing for help with issues that you can’t help because the measures to suppress the virus require the rules and regulations. You feel the burden of their worry and their anxiety.”
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