Austerity isn’t dead – it lives on in the SNP’s failure in pandemic support

Austerity isn’t dead – it lives on in the SNP’s failure in pandemic support

by Max Young
article from Wednesday 3, March, 2021

ON 25 FEBRUARY Stephen Boyle, Scotland’s Auditor General, released his latest report on the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. He noted that the Scottish Government had received an extra £9.7 billion from the UK Government to deal with COVID-19 in the 2020/21 financial year and highlighted that if you check the 170 public spending announcements related to Coronavirus, only £7 billion is accounted for. Somewhere, £2.7 billion is lying both uncommitted and unspent by the SNP.  

Digital skills? 

There seems to be a problem at the core of the SNP Government – its hatred of spending money on a given purpose after promising its delivery. In 2017 Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Digital Growth Fund for businesses would distribute £36 million in loans to businesses with the aim of improving digital skills. But in January, Kate Forbes was forced by a written question to reveal that just over £6 million had been sent out to businesses since that announcement was made. Only 121 businesses have received any cash – even as applications have been rising year-on-year. Back in 2017 Sturgeon said of digital competency that “Scotland cannot afford to ignore this prize. That’s why we will now boost our support for digital skills.” This iron determination seems to have disappeared somewhere, along with the promised funds to businesses. 

Back-to-work? 

Comparing back-to-work schemes for 16-24-year-olds helps to reveal the SNP’s austerity mindset. The UK Government’s Kickstart Scheme, started in July last year, has an average spend per capita of £2,976. The SNP’s Young Person’s Guarantee scheme only spends £1,176 per head. This isn’t due to a lack of funds – the SNP has received billions of extra funding to cope with Coronavirus. It is deeply worrying that Scotland’s young people are more greatly disadvantaged to the tune of almost £2000 per person.  

Business support? 

The UK Government’s hand in Coronavirus support in Scotland also reveals the SNP’s inability to provide quick and effective support to businesses that need it. The UK Government gave out Bounce Back Loans to 79,000 Scottish businesses while more than 15,404 are still waiting for their initial application for support from the SNP seven months ago to be processed, when that fund closed in July last year. One third of the cash earmarked for business support during the October “circuit breaker” lockdown wasn’t paid out. Sturgeon’s team proclaimed in December that support would be available for small businesses like wedding suppliers and taxi drivers – but that fund cannot even be applied for yet. Why is the SNP so reluctant to support its people?  

Misleading narrative? 

Instead of doing their job, the SNP politicians use any opportunity that comes their way to push a caustic narrative of Scottish nationalism that ignores the facts and views all else as expendable. Kate Forbes lashes out at the UK Government, demanding it releases what she calls “Scotland’s share” of the COVID-19 Response fund – in full possession of the knowledge that the majority of the money in that fund is to be spent on the UK-wide testing and vaccination procurement programme. Forbes also conveniently ignores the existence of Scotland’s own £700 million reserve, which the SNP refuses to dip into. 

A sprinter’s or snail’s pace? 

A quarter of Scottish businesses have “no, or less than three months” of cash reserves according to a recent Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey. If ever the SNP Government truly needed to distribute business support funds in a hurry, it is now. And yet, after all of the press conferences and daily briefings, the Scottish Government spending figures now released show the snail’s pace at which funding is being distributed. As of January 22nd, only £55 million had been paid out to businesses of the £715 million promised by Sturgeon at the beginning of October. Of the 30 business support funds announced by the SNP Government in December, only 7 are actually in operation. Local government is unable to deliver funds because the SNP has failed to send detailed criteria on what can be spent. This is while savings are running out and businesses are dying. Of course another reason local government may have difficulty in responding is because its capacity has been shredded by huge spending cuts imposed by the SNP, some £1,500 per head

Is the SNP tight for a reason? 

The SNP’s bizarre failure to spend money or even to acknowledge that it exists is not limited to Coronavirus spending. In March 2020 the UK Government supplied £100 million to the SNP in order to deal with the crisis of dangerous cladding. Few know of the delivery of the sum because the Scottish Government largely failed to acknowledge it. The Ministerial Working Group on Mortgage Lending and Cladding, which is responsible for allotting the funds and ensuring they are spent effectively, has not published its minutes since April last year. How many more funds is the SNP Government holding onto that we don’t even know about? Why is it hiding and hoarding money? Is it to splurge on election campaign bribes, as Iain Murray MP has suggested, or is it to spend on its planned second independence campaign? Certainly the desire to hoard money is extreme, as evidenced by the withholding of at least £14m of emergency funding from hospices, more than half the amount allocated by the UK Treasury.

Costing businesses? Costing lives? 

Scotland is clearly worse-off for this austere SNP Government. The SNP leadership doggedly pursues its policy of making exciting public announcements of big spending projects and support schemes, followed by, in most cases, almost nothing happening at all. In previous years this trend was disappointing – but now it is deadly. An inability to distribute crucial support funds is killing businesses. The UK Government can’t pick up all of the slack – thousands are slipping through the net. The SNP Government needs to get its act together if Scotland is going to recover from this pandemic and its own pandemic restrictions. 

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Max Young is an undergraduate student at Edinburgh University.  

Photo of a closed business from Shutterstock. 

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