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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Budget hangover

To use a seasonal analogy, some of us may be feeling the after effects of the office party. Well, the Scottish budget could have a similar effect on public finances later next year.

I have outlined the main impact of the budget on UNISON members in my budget briefing. One of the queries I often get from members is why there are different figures for the same budget or service. Public finance is confusing enough, even for budget geeks like me, without the added confusion.

The first reason is political spin. Politicians will conflate budgets to make their point, and sometimes, even count the same cash twice. The ring-fenced education budgets are an example of the former and social care the latter.

Another reason, and a legitimate one, is the presentation of a budget in 'cash' and 'real' terms. Cash is fairly straightforward. It's usually the amount on the cheque the public body will get from the Scottish Government - a bit like our own household budgets.

Presenting a budget in 'real' terms is an attempt to reflect the impact of inflation. To show if a budget is being increased or reduced to reflect policy priorities or a change in service level. Inflation is the increase in the cost of living, usually measured by an index. The main ones are the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which excludes housing costs, and the Retail Price Index (RPI) which includes them. Wage negotiations tend to focus on the RPI because most workers have housing costs of some sort.

The next complication is that when setting a budget the government is not looking at today's inflation rate, they are looking at forecasts for the next financial year (April 2018 to April 2019). This is done by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) at UK level and the Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) in Scotland. The OBR has forecast that the CPI will be 2.4% next year and the RPI 3.3%.

However, there is another inflation rate called the 'GDP deflator' which government's use to present budgets in 'real' terms. This uses a different basket of goods and services from the better known CPI and RPI measures. The OBR forecasts that this will be 1.4% next year. So, when a budget line is described by Scottish ministers as a 'real term' increase, they mean only if inflation keeps at or below 1.4%.

Now, I personally think the OBR forecasts for CPI are optimistic, but I am pretty certain that 1.4% is not going to cover public service inflation in Scotland next year. For a starter, the Scottish Government pay policy is going to cost just short of 3% and that's 55% of the Scottish Budget. The NHS makes up a third of the budget and health inflation is always much higher than the standard measures. Then we have demographic change, which for social care requires a 2% increase just to standstill. I could go on, but you get the point. 

And let's not forget that local government isn't getting even this kid on real terms increase - they are getting a flat cash revenue settlement. In real terms the local government budget is cut by £135m, COSLA thinks it is closer to £154m. If you apply the points I make above, it's probably even bigger than that. To give some context, a 1% pay rise costs councils around £70m.

The concept of a 'real terms' pay increase also comes in here , given the Scottish Government pay policy. Even if RPI falls to 3.3% next year that still leaves those earning below £30k, who are promised 3%, out of pocket. Much more of a loss for those above £30k, who are only promised 2%.

In summary, I fear that if we swallow this draft Scottish Budget we will be left with something of a delayed hangover later next year. 

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