Who was right in the Andrew Neil Scottish Budget Row?
On the BBC1 Sunday Politics Show of 18th October, Andrew Neil asked Angus Robertson, SNP leader in the House of Commons, by how much had the Scottish Government budget been cut in the past five or six years. With Angus Robertson being unable to reply, Andrew Neil went on to say that in real terms, that is, taking out inflation, the overall Scottish Government budget was £35 billion in 2008/09 and this year/ next year was just over £35 billion. Thus, there had been no real cuts in the Scottish budget.
Following on from this programme, Wings over Scotland ran an article “Fiddling the Figures”, on 21st October 2015, and quoted Scottish Government figures to show that the Scottish Budget had fallen in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16 by 10%. There has followed a very heated exchange on Twitter between Andrew Neil and Wings over Scotland.
What we will do in this note is to make some sense of these apparently contradictory claims. This is a complex tale: but at the end of it all, our conclusion will be that truth, (or a reasonable judgement of what the truth might be), lies somewhere between these two positions.
But there are important general lessons to be learned as well. One is that different measures are appropriate for different purposes: so commentators like the BBC should be very clear about what they are measuring, and why, before rushing into heated argument. Secondly, this kind of debate represents a really sterile distraction. There should be no room for arguing about what the size of the Scottish Government’s budget actually is. And this type of argument about the figures just distracts attention from other really important issues – like, how well is the Scottish Government spending the money it controls within its budget: and is the other money being spent on Scotland’s behalf by Whitehall departments, (on reserved services), being spent effectively?
The figures Andrew Neil was referencing were a measure known as Total Managed Expenditure (TME). So to start getting to grips with what is going on, we have to look at how TME is defined, and what its different components are.
According to the definition given in the Glossary to the Scottish Government’s Draft Budget 2015/16, TME is the sum of the Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL), plus Annually Managed Expenditure (AME). Again, according to the same source, the DEL, (which, at over £30 billion in 2015/16, represents over 80% of TME), is that provision which the Scottish Government can plan and control over the Spending Review period. As its name implies, Westminster sets annual spending limits on each government department’s DEL. For Scotland, the Scottish Government’s DEL is currently determined by the Barnett formula: though the Scottish DEL will in future reflect the flexibility the Scottish Government will have to determine part of its own resources under the Calman and Smith changes.
AME is that expenditure which is less predictable than the DEL, and which is therefore not subject to DEL-type limits. It is set each year, and stands at over £7 billion in 2015/16. A major element of the Scottish Government’s AME relates to NHS and teacher pensions, which account for about 55% of the total AME. The pension figure in the Scottish Government’s AME has, however, some special properties, and these are very relevant to the current debate. In calculating the figure, government actuaries work out the present value of future pension payments, by applying a discount rate specified by the Treasury to the estimated stream of future pension payments: an interest charge is then worked out on the present value of future liabilities. If the discount rate specified by the Treasury changes, the present value of future liabilities changes: it will move upwards, if the discount rate has gone down, which means that the figure for pensions appearing in the Scottish Government’s AME will increase. No doubt the government accountants have very good reasons for adopting this approach to estimating the current annual cost of future pension liabilities. But the effect is that the figure which appears in the AME is a non-cash figure, completely out of the Scottish Government’s control, and which is subject to large, largely arbitrary, fluctuations as the Treasury’s discount rate changes, or as the actuaries re-estimate future pension payments. Moreover, because of the reduction in interest rates due to Quantitative Easing, the Treasury has been reducing its specified discount rate: as economic circumstances normalise, and interest rates go up, the Treasury discount rate will follow them, and the effect will be in due course to reduce the pension element of AME.
The other major item in Scotland’s AME is non-domestic rates receipts, which account for almost 40% of AME. As we will see, the inclusion of non-domestic rates in AME is also of significance in relation to the current debate.
In relatively simplistic terms, DEL is often regarded as that part of its resources over which the Scottish Government can exercise direct policy influence – as the Draft Budget says, the Scottish Government can “plan and control it over the Spending Review period”: whereas AME is often regarded as being demand-led elements over which the Scottish Government can exercise no immediate control. However, this categorisation is over-simplistic. For one thing, within the DEL, there are some elements which do not represent cash which the Scottish Government could spend: in particular, there is a large non-cash item which represents depreciation of the capital stock of public infrastructure. So to reflect more accurately the element of the DEL over which Departments could actually exercise spending control, the UK Government now identifies a sub-set of the overall DEL, which it calls “fiscal-DEL”. In the Scottish context, this is defined as total DEL, less the large non-cash element of DEL, (mainly depreciation), and also less two small items called financial transactions and capital borrowing.
According to Table 1.01 of the Draft Scottish Budget of 2015/16, the Scottish Government’s fiscal DEL, (expressed in constant 2014/15 prices), fell by 10% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. This was the figure quoted in Wings for Scotland, in opposition to Andrew Neil’s statement about TME.
We can now see the basis of the respective claims made by Andrew Neil and Wings. Both are quoting figures produced by the Scottish Government, (or by the Scottish Parliament, based on Scottish Government figures). But Neil is quoting TME, and Wings is quoting fiscal DEL – and both are quite open about this. Just to summarise, and putting figures from both sources on a comparable time basis, then the respective figures are as follows (expressed in real 2014/15 prices):
|£ Million||2010/11||2015/16||% change|
Sources:TME: Scottish Parliament Track-the-Budget online tool. Fiscal DEL: Scottish Government Draft Budget 2015/16 Table 1.01
The real questions then are: which of these two measures is the better or more informative to use? Or is there some other indicator that is even more appropriate than the two indicators quoted in the Table?
The answer on the first of these questions depends, of course, on what you are trying to do. But it seems to us that an indicator which is telling you about the scale of the resources which the Scottish Government can actually plan and control, and which leaves out non-cash elements which are not directly related to the funding of public services on the ground, is by far the more relevant indicator to consider. In that sense, it is much more important to be looking at fiscal DEL, (the Wings choice), rather than TME (the Andrew Neil option).
A clear victory for Wings, therefore? Well, not quite. As we have seen, an important element of the Scottish Government’s AME is non-domestic rates: and while non-domestic rates revenues may not be exactly forecastable from year to year, they nevertheless directly affect public spending, and are controlled by the Scottish Government. So we would argue that a better measure of the scale of the resources within TME which are controlled and planned by the Scottish Government would be the sum of fiscal DEL plus non-domestic rates: (and we would also add in the small financial transaction and borrowing elements). If we call this “resources controlled by the Scottish Government, then the relevant figures are, expressed at 2014/15 prices:
|£ million||2010/11||2015/16||% change|
|Resources controlled by Scottish Government||33,362||31,434||-5.8|
Source: derived from Scottish Government Draft Budgets. Note that in this measure, we have restricted attention to resources within TME: we have not brought in Council Tax, which is not counted within TME.
So on this measure, the cut suffered by the Scottish Government has still been very severe, but not as large as the 10% real cut in fiscal DEL.
Finally, it is worth commenting on one other source of needless confusion. While both Andrew Neil and Wings made it clear that they were, respectively, talking about TME and fiscal DEL, they both at other times referred to their figures as being the Scottish Government budget. This ambiguity reflects widespread confusion elsewhere about what the word “budget” means. For example, when George Osborne announced a cut in the Ministry of Defence budget, he was talking about a cut in DEL. When the Accounts Commission referred to the Scottish Government’s budget they were talking about the DEL (Scotland’s Public Finances, June 2014). But in Table G of the Draft Budget for 2015/16, the Scottish Government refers to TME as its “budget”. Unless Government itself can stick to a standard usage of the term, this merely fuels the kind of debate we have seen between Andrew Neil and Wings.
So finally, some concluding comments.
- It seems much more relevant to be considering a measure which relates to the resources the Scottish Government can plan and control: rather than one which includes non-cash elements which the Scottish Government cannot control, and which are subject to relatively large and arbitrary fluctuations. On this basis, and after adjusting for non-domestic rates, it seems to us that a reasonable estimate would be that the resources within TME controlled by the Scottish Government have dropped by 5.8% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16.
It is quite wrong that a BBC programme, funded by the licence payer, should be advancing the position that TME is the appropriate measure to take for Scotland’s budgetary resources, without explaining that there are large non-cash elements within TME which are outwith the Scottish Government’s control: and that some of these non-cash elements are subject to significant fluctuations due to the effect of changes in the Treasury discount rate, which are liable to reverse as discount rates rise.
Until Government adopts a uniform definition of what it means when it talks about “budget”, the BBC will still be able to exploit the confusion for political ends.
We should not be in the situation where the argument is about the definition of different sets of figures. That is just a sterile waste of time.
But above all, this debate which Andrew Neil has forced upon us represents precisely the wrong sort of argument. Churchill set up the Central Statistical Office during World War II so that there would be no arguments about what the relevant figures were: and so that debate and consideration could then focus on the underlying issues, and the policy decisions which had to be made. It is ridiculous to be arguing about whether the Scottish budget has gone down or not: in the sense that matters, it clearly has gone down. What we should be focusing on are arguments like:
• Should it have gone down: that is, are the cuts the correct response, (primarily by the UK Government), to the current economic environment.
• But also – how well is the Scottish Government managing the resources it has control over.
• And more broadly, about 40% of the public expenditure attributed to Scotland is spent by Whitehall departments on reserved services. Are we getting adequate value for this expenditure – there are plenty of indications that we are not.