GERS shows an increased government deficit for Scotland. According to GERS, Scotland had a deficit in 2015/16 of £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of its GDP). For the UK, the deficit was £75.3bn (four per cent of GDP).
The figures in GERS are estimated as the difference between estimates of total expenditure for the benefit of Scotland by the Scottish Government, UK Government, and all other parts of the public sector (£68.6bn), and estimates of Scottish public sector revenue, £53.7bn, of which £60m was North Sea revenue: this was a big drop from £1.8bn in the previous year.
Public sector revenue in Scotland was 7.9 per cent of UK public sector revenue. In contrast, public sector expenditure in Scotland was 9.1 per cent of total UK public sector expenditure. All told, the current balance figures show Scotland with a public sector deficit of 8.15 per cent of Scottish GDP, while the figures for the UK show it to have a deficit of £41.5bn (2.2 per cent of its GDP).
Without doubt, the information that is given in GERS is not good news, and it is far from enough for the first minister to say:
I accept Scotland faces, whatever our constitutional arrangements, a very challenging fiscal position, [but] the fundamentals of our economy are strong. (Guardian, 24 August, 2016).
To justify such a statement on our economy – “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” – we need some detailed data and analysis that stands up to scrutiny.
But GERS does not give the whole of the rather nasty picture. The two biggest items that the public sector spends money on are social protection and health. The first, social protection, is responsible for over a third of total spending. Much more attention needs to be paid as to why there is such a need (and there is such a need, if not more of a need) to spend so much on health and welfare in Scotland.
How much of the health and social spending has resulted from years of poor employment opportunities, low wages, poor qualifications, poor housing? In that examination, the long term management of the Scottish economy must be considered: was that management in the interests of those who live in Scotland?
The need for so much of the budget to be spent on social protection and health is not of today’s making. It exists and has to be dealt with. What is at the door of the present government is whether it is doing enough to tackle the underlying problems so that young people today and future generations will have improved health and improved employment opportunities in Scotland.
It is up to the government to publish the detail on which the first minister’s statement is based. Anything short, and we have every right to be sceptical.
But once published, we are in the hands of our representatives, our academics, independent researchers, and the media to analyse the information thoroughly. The important word being thoroughly which, as you can imagine, is not going to happen on the television or the main media the day government papers are published.
Worryingly, GERS gives just part of the story of Scotland’s debt position, and this is because the Scottish Government has yet to allow the publication of Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) – accounts which are available for the UK.
What this means is that while an estimate in GERS has been made of our current deficit, we do not have an estimate of the build up of debt that is going on due to the capital spend – and it is large. Estimates of WGA could be done for Scotland but those in power would seem to be dragging their feet.
Why is the government in Scotland dragging its feet on producing whole of government accounts?
In order to fund an ongoing deficit a country has to borrow. The Scottish Government has a very restricted ability to borrow. Particularly under Gordon Brown’s time as chancellor of the exchequer, PFI became virtually the only way forward for local authorities, health boards and prison authorities to embark on a much-needed modernisation of schools, hospitals and prisons.
PFI deals were considered for many years as being ‘off the books’, so all that showed up in expenditure in any year was the amount spent in payments to the private sector in that year. Forget tomorrow and the payment commitments that still had to be met.
Scottish governments, local authorities and quangos have therefore turned to private sector financial initiatives such as PFI, where we ‘live now, pay later’. Nevertheless, these debts will have to be met, despite the totals of these debts not showing in GERS.
It is imperative, for reasons of transparency, that the Scottish Government starts the production of Whole of Government Accounts, and the first minister surely agrees, having said:
I believe that transparency is not an optional add-on but an integral part of policy making. (Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Parliament, November 2012.)
That way, we can see better where real problems in decision making lie, and begin to correct them, hopefully before we end up in the same boat as Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy and some other smaller EU countries which are slowly being strangled by austerity programmes, imposed by the EU, in an effort to reduce their debt.
Turning now to the government’s latest statement on Brexit, a paper that also got a lot of attention in the media, it states that “applying the results of a range of UK level studies to Scotland, suggests that if the UK adopted an alternative trading relationship with the EU, it could potentially reduce Scottish GDP by up to £11.2bn per year by 2030, compared to what it could be if Brexit does not take place”.
The Scottish Government Brexit report also states:
Membership of the EU has made an important contribution to the economic growth of both Scotland and the UK as a whole. It has removed barriers to trade for Scottish based companies seeking to export to other EU members – a market of 500 million people.
As a result, Scotland’s exports to the EU are now (2014) worth more than £11.6bn a year – 42 per cent of the country’s international exports.
Because all of the data in the tables referred to is in money terms so that, given inflation, it is difficult to judge whether any increases in the money value of sales is a real improvement in sales. As the data does not go back beyond 2002, it is impossible to say from the document whether there has been a real improvement in trade with EU countries since our joining the Common Market.
However, using the Consumer Price Index (equal to 100 in 2014) as a deflator, what we can say is that from 2002 to 2014, exports to Europe fell in real terms by just over £3bn; that is, a fall in real terms of 26.4 per cent.
Over the same period, again using Scottish Government export statistics, international exports from Scotland to the rest of the world grew in real terms by 23 per cent. Exports to the rest of the world outside the EU are now greater than exports to the EU (excluding other UK countries).
It goes on to say that EU membership also helps to facilitate some of Scotland’s trade with the rest of the world through the trade agreements that the EU has secured. Again, no evidence is given, or referred to, to back this statement.
This report follows, unfortunately, a technique that is becoming increasingly common in government economic-related papers. While the report quotes academic institutions for some of the data, such as information on Gross Domestic Product, it is more than worrying that there is no detail given whatsoever on how it has arrived at its estimates.
In this instance, the Fraser of Allander Institute came to the conclusion, with which I heartily agree: “Most economists agree that Brexit will pose challenges. But what is disappointing from the Scottish Government is the lack of analysis to understand the distinct implications for Scotland.”
It is becoming a trademark of Scottish Government reports that important statements are not backed up by relevant data or by references to where relevant data can be found.
The Scottish Government Brexit paper does not give information on what we are selling to the EU. Is it, for example, computer, electronic and optical products, industries where Scotland and its research base could, like Ireland, help to develop our own businesses and our own economy, or is it whisky, primarily owned by foreign multinationals?
The data would suggest that whisky is one of our largest exports. Will drink exported to the rest of the EU help to grow our economy and add sufficiently to our ability to provide useful employment to all the young engineers, science graduates, etc?
The information provided by reports, such as the Scottish Government’s latest on exports, steers well clear of information that would enable the public to form an informed view.
And, yes, poverty of accurate information matters. The massive decline in some of our manufacturing industries was a clear indication that, at that time, the economic quangos in Scotland, as opposed to those in the Republic of Ireland, were just not on the ball, and today their masters in the Scottish Parliament are either not able to meet the terms that Ireland can offer, or are still not on the ball.
The upshot is that Ireland has a vibrant industrial base, albeit led by multinationals, where young engineers and science-based professionals can find work. The decline in the manufacturing sector in Scotland had little to do with the EU, but with the UK’s ineptitude in meeting the challenge.
We need evidence that, today, the Scottish Government and its quangos, in particular Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Development International are up to that challenge.
But good news is possible, although it would mean a very active, informed public demanding better information and better participation in policy formulation.
One area is tackling quangoland and the increasing difficulty of getting information from these groups who are in charge of major economic decisions. The money that has been spent by the Scottish Government through quangos and local authorities on construction and services procurement has gone to major contractors outside Scotland. The policy has meant that big firms like Serco dominate the provision of school, prison and hospital services.
Bye-bye the small local butchers etc. that used to be involved. Welcome the potential of horsemeat and chicken sourced from the far east. Welcome service contracts lasting many years. Welcome the bundling of projects such that very few Scottish firms are big enough to afford the costs of putting in bids, and paying the fees of the large financial bodies and lawyers needed in preparing large contracts.
New strategy required
We need a turnaround in economic development strategy, in bringing decision making back into government, and in public procurement.
Another area we need to tackle is what the higher and further education sectors in Scotland are doing to help the Scottish economy. Their promotional papers suggest a lot. So it should not be too difficult for them to give hard information on how much of higher education research and development is focused on improving the products and services of firms based in Scotland.
Unfortunately, much of the published data on Scottish domiciled graduate destinations on leaving Scottish higher education institutions tell us little. Are they finding jobs as junior managers in retail, distribution, electronics or science-based businesses?
And yes, this matters for Scotland’s future well-being and for young people making their subject choices. We need some research and a public debate on this subject.
All told, we need much more interest shown by the public on demanding detail about how the government spends our money, and then, most likely, demanding change.
We are all busy but there is clear evidence that many in Scotland care deeply about major and, importantly, minor, issues about what is happening to the Scottish economy.
We need to play an active part in decision making and evaluation.
First published in August 2016 by Common Space