Q&A: Finance secretary Kate Forbes on taking on a new role during a crisis and the need for more financial powers
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?
In March the parliament agreed the Scottish Budget for 2020-21, providing almost £50 billion of investment in our public services and the economy to benefit the people of Scotland. The budget delivered certainty for our vital public services and local government, providing a record £15 billion investment for health and social care, which has been vital during the COVID-19 crisis. It also supports our ambitious plans to accelerate Scotland’s transition to becoming a net-zero economy, helps us tackle inequalities and ensures no taxpayer in Scotland pays more income tax on their current income than in 2019-20.
You were appointed to this role during a political crisis and since then you have had to work through a health and an economic crisis. How have the first few months in the role been for you personally, and what lessons have you learnt in the process?
It certainly has not been easy. If starting a new job midway through the budget was demanding, then doing so just weeks before a global pandemic was tough. It does not compare, however, to the efforts and dedication of frontline staff throughout the pandemic. From the very beginning I had to focus on finding solutions to the many unprecedented difficulties the country was facing. Rather than getting bogged down in process, we had to move exceptionally fast to resolve issues and implement solutions.
One of the key lessons I’ve learnt in my time as finance secretary is the importance of working across government. This was a public health crisis that caused an economic one, and ministers had to work together to strike the difficult balance between supporting the economy while continuing to suppress the virus. This was about much more than just public health and the economy: it was about children accessing education while schools were closed, local authorities getting sufficient support, agricultural businesses having what they needed to keep food on our plates and key workers accessing childcare.
If you cannot get the extra fiscal powers and the UK-wide stimulus package you have requested from the UK Government, how will Scotland’s recovery be affected and what other measures will the Scottish Government take to support it?
The Scottish Government has moved swiftly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, notably providing a £230 million infrastructure and growth package on top of our £2.3 billion business support package. While the additional COVID-related funding received from Westminster to date has been welcome, it doesn’t meet the scale of what’s required to respond to the crisis. Yet, the restrictions imposed on the Scottish Government means we have limited alternative sources of funding.
I’ve been clear with the UK Government that we require either additional funding or temporary easing of the rigid rules applying to our budgeting. Without either, we will be responding with one hand behind our back. Along with my counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland I’m still engaging constructively with the UK Government and expect a sensible outcome, as the alternatives – such as having to scale back vital frontline services at the worst possible time – do not bear thinking about.
Has the coronavirus crisis made it easier for the Scottish and UK governments to work together on economic measures that work across the whole of the UK?
In the early stages of the crisis there were good examples of joint working across government, including on issues of finance and the economy, and Scottish ministers were regularly meeting with their counterparts in the UK Government and in Wales and Northern Ireland.
I have regularly put on record my appreciation for the efforts made to date by the UK Government, both in terms of their reserved functions through initiatives such as the Job Retention Scheme, and in providing additional resources.
Clearly, there is much more to do in response to this crisis, and we have repeatedly made the case for additional funding. Crucially, we have also been calling for additional fiscal powers and flexibilities, and alongside finance ministers from Wales and Northern Ireland I have been making the case for greater joint working on finances and for all devolved governments to have access to appropriate borrowing powers.
The recent announcements by the UK Government on support for the economy have largely bypassed devolution: the schemes will be run across the UK by the UK Government. While clearly, they will be available to people and businesses north of the border, it will mean the Scottish Government is less able to tailor our response to the specific needs of the Scottish economy.
Councils were already struggling with cuts to their budgets before coronavirus and are now facing huge extra costs relating to the outbreak and a total potential shortfall of over £500m. Isn’t it time for the Scottish Government to look again at local government funding to ensure essential services can continue?
It’s important to note that before COVID-19 we had already committed to providing local authorities with a total funding package of £11.4 billion this financial year through the local government finance settlement, an increase of 5.8 per cent on last year.
We have taken exceptional measures in every area of government as we deal with the challenges of COVID-19, and that is particularly clear in our support for local services. To date the Scottish Government has committed almost £330 million of additional funding to local government for COVID-19 measures. Scotland’s councils have received £405 million in advance payments so far this financial year to assist them with their cash flow, and by the end of July this will have risen to £455 million.
We are continuing to work with COSLA and local authorities, as evidenced by the additional funding announced by the Deputy First Minister to support the return to schools.
How difficult has this pandemic been for your constituents in Skye, and do you feel they have been let down by the care sector’s handling of the virus outbreak?
All of my constituents across Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch have faced the hardships of lockdown restrictions, but the outbreak in Skye was particularly difficult. Some of the islands and rural areas may have felt far from the COVID-19 crisis, but the level of infection and the number of deaths at Home Farm in Skye hit the community hard. Friends and family are still grieving, and my thoughts are often with them.
I have been heavily involved in every development at Home Farm, and I think that the action taken by NHS Highland at the outset made a significant difference. I am thankful that the outbreak did not spread widely amongst the community outside Home Farm.
The pandemic has shown us just how important social care support and unpaid carers are to all of us in Scotland. After we have dealt with the immediate impacts of the crisis, I have no doubt that we will be considering the future of care home provision, including how it is organised, regulated and funded.
Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown OR what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted?
I missed the freedom to travel, go outside and meet up with people and so I am enjoying all three now that lockdown restrictions are being eased. Church is a fairly regular part of my week in normal times, so it will be good – when safe to do so – to resume normal services.
If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?
At the risk of alienating everybody I don’t pick, I reckon you can’t do better than the health secretary during a health crisis.