Hard to read the Scottish Budget

This analysis of the information provided by the Scottish Government to the Holyrood Parliament about its spending plans is prompted by having looked in detail so far at just four lines of the draft Scottish Budget, and finding something wrong with the way the numbers are presented in each case. That seems a high hit rate, given this should be one of the exercises over which the Government takes the most trouble.

Sources

There are two relevant sources.

The draft budget document presented to Parliament by the government, which gives figures to “Level 3” (quite detailed, but not the most detailed) alongside a general text, where the government mentions the points  to which it wishes to draw attention. The document is here.

More detailed “Level 4” figures are also provided – they are produced by the Parliament’s research unit, but using information provided by the government, and are available on the Parliament’s website, here.  There’s no general text, but – very usefully – here there is a comment against every line, explaining any change.

Here are the cases I’ve looked at.

Baby boxes

The text of the Budget document says that baby boxes are a priority within the Education portfolio, and within that come from the Children and Families budget. They are not itemised, but are mentioned in the text, under “What the budget does”.

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But search the Level 4 data for Children and Families in the Education spreadsheet for more detail – and there’s nothing more on baby boxes.

To find that requires going instead to the Health section (line 137), where baby boxes are listed as having a new budget of £7m within Miscellaneous Other Board Services and Resource Income. The total for Miscellaneous Other Board Services and Resource Income and for Children and Families in the Level 4 spread sheet matches that given in the draft budget document. That means the text in the draft budget document is out of synch with the numbers it contains.

This means that though the document says that this falls within the Education portfolio, (and therefore the  remit of the Education Committee), this is in fact a cost against the Health budget (and sowould normally fall to that Committee). Describing spending as falling within the wrong part of the budget should be a very difficult mistake to make, and then not to spot.

Student Support and Tuition Fee payments

I looked also at the cash funding for student grants and SAAS fee payments, which is given as a single combined figure, in the first line below of Table 6.07 (from the draft budget document). I wanted to know the official explanation for the £26.4m rise and then fall shown. The document text is silent on this.

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The Level 4 document doesn’t break this line down further (and never has done, as far as I know) but would, helpfully, be expected at least to provide a specific comment against the relevant line. However, turning to the Level 4 spreadsheet, the relevant line (141) doesn’t have the same figures. It shows the same (lower) one for both 2016-17 and 2017-18 (only these two years are covered), and so no change needs to be explained. It’s possible that SPICe lifted the 2016-17 figures from what they held last year: but the commentary column at minimum ought to have come from the SG. For consistency with the draft budget document, it ought to pick up the change that shows between the two years.

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Which version of the numbers gives a true picture of planned spend in this area over the two years? Parliament can’t tell, because the budget document and the Level 4 data are inconsistent.

(The answer is in fact likely to be a third set of numbers – see below – but being able to reconstruct that, more or less, from yet another source, if you happen to know about it, is a poor substitute for having the correct ones in the official budget documentation.)

Cost of student loans

I also wanted to know what the explanation was for the dip and then rise in the cost of student loans shown in the Budget document: £175.6/125.6/175.6m – also Table 6.07 above. It’s not reflected in the pattern of the value of loans being issued (£491.3/491.3/560m – also Table 6.07). Again, no explanation is included in the accompanying text.

But again the Level 4 table (above) is no help, as it shows instead a steady £175.6m in each year. Again the budget document and the Level 4 data are inconsistent.  So what’s going on with the lower 2016-17 loan cost figure presented in the budget document to Parliament? It’s impossible to say.

University funding

I also looked at the Level 4 explanation for more on the fall in university current (ie non-capital) funding (“Higher Education Resource”).

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Here the figures are consistent between the two documents, and the drop is explained as being offset by the move of all postgraduate funding to loans rather than some grant (previously provided via the SFC), and surplus income from the fees charged to rUK students.

This however raises a different internal consistency issue. The extra £26m for student support in 2016-17 discussed above is in fact almost certainly partially accounted for by an in-year  £20m transfer made by the SFC to SAAS (see para 36 here. from the February 2016 SFC funding circular).  In 2016-17, for some reason the Scottish Government decided to under-budget for student support and fee costs: it knew as early as February 2016 (before the budget was passed by the Scottish Parliament) that SAAS would need a large cash injection during 2016-17 to cover its costs in relation to rising student numbers, and planned for this to be taken from the SFC allocation.

The SAAS figures for 2016-17 in the draft budget document appear to be shown after that transfer. However, the SFC university funding figure appears to be shown before it (£1027.2m is  also the figure which was presented to Parliament in the official 2016-17 budget last year: Table 6.06 here). But if that’s the case, the same £20-odd million would be showing in two places for the current year. That would be a substantial error.

This really isn’t good – if money has transferred between one body to another, it needs to be treated consistently. Also, if this is what explains what’s happening in 2016-17, what’s the plan for 2017-18 regarding transfers from the SFC to SAAS – because if a larger one than this year is planned, it means the real terms fall in university funding is larger than shown here.  Also, there was quite a big transfer from the SFC to SAAS in 2015-16 too (para 22 here) – where does that fit in?  Parliament is entitled to greater clarity about all this.

Conclusion

Commentators (myself included) can be pretty critical of the opposition parties at Holyrood for not being more effective. But if the budget document  – one of the single most important things the government puts before the Parliament – contains these sort of inconsistencies, they really are up against it. Even more so, if I haven’t just been especially unlucky, and there’s more of this to befound  in other lines.

I hope the current review being undertaken by the Presiding Officer will look at this as a case study. It suggests at minimum that the government is under-resourcing the production of this material for the Parliament, because nothing here should have survived the sort of systematic, careful cross-checking these documents (and the Parliament) deserve.

First published on the author’s own site, Adventures in Evidence

Image via Scottish Government CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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