Shona Robison: 'We recognised the needs of household budgets and the council tax freeze was one lever we could deploy'
Shona Robison spent the last week before Christmas delivering one of the most difficult Budgets in the recent history of the Scottish Parliament. Almost exactly a year earlier she had taken forward the government’s controversial gender reforms, leading MSPs in marathon sessions of parliament which ran long into the night. Regardless of politics, most of us can probably agree the minister is deserving of a holiday.
But when Robison got a late deal for a ski break at a four-star resort in Chamonix, France, over the festive period, she found herself in the crossfire of the tabloids, accused of being “tone deaf” for sloping off to the Alps after presiding over a £200m cut to the housing budget and introducing a new tax band for higher earners.
“I don’t get much time with my daughter, and I went on a short, three-night break that I got a very good last-minute deal on,” Robison says. “I decided that given I had hardly seen much of my daughter, due to the business of the Budget and other government business…we had a very short family break.
“If we’re going to start analysing where each of us goes on holiday, I think that’s a poor place [to be]. If that’s now up for grabs as a way of attacking each other, I don’t think that does the body politic much good at all. We all make our own decisions about where we spend time with our family, and I did that in my own time with my own money. It shouldn’t be the subject of intrusion, but it is what it is.”
Robison clearly has a lot on her plate. As well as being finance secretary charged with steering the Scottish economy, she is also deputy first minister, a role whose responsibilities are as diverse and diffuse as public sector reform, the running of the civil service and the overseeing of public inquiries into historical abuse and the death in police custody of Sheku Bayoh.
After Robison cancelled our initial interview due to being unwell, we meet in her Holyrood office where she sits behind a large folder of briefing notes, an answer for every conceivable question I might ask about Scotland’s economy. At several times during the interview, she will turn to a page and read almost word for word the lines marked in yellow highlighter.
On the issue of the council tax freeze, the policy seemingly announced on the hoof during First Minister Humza Yousaf’s SNP conference speech last year, Robison says she is “on the same page” that it was the best thing to do to ameliorate the effects of the cost-of-living crisis on families struggling to make ends meet.
“We recognised the needs of household budgets and the council tax freeze was one lever we could deploy. It’s a lever you have to deploy carefully.
“We’re still in discussions with Cosla around the mechanics of how we take this forward. Ultimately, it will be a judgement for local government about whether they want to agree to take the resources for the freeze.”
Another headline announcement from Robison’s Budget was the creation of a new 45 per cent tax band for those earning between £75,000 and £125,140. For those earning more than that, the top rate of tax rose from 47 to 48 per cent. Yousaf has already indicated that Scots are unlikely to get tax cuts should Chancellor Jeremy Hunt reduce the burden for those in England during his Budget in March. I ask Robison if she’s worried about the increasing divergence between the two countries on income tax.
“The tax changes we made will affect five per cent of taxpayers – the highest earners. In tough times when we need to raise money for public services, a progressive tax system is based around those with the broadest shoulders paying that bit more.
We all make our own decisions about where we spend time with our family and I did that in my own time with my own money.
“Actually, if you take into account the changes made to National Insurance, even those earning around £100,000 are not going to be any worse off overall.”
Setting aside the argument over whether those with the broadest shoulders should pay more, it’s debatable how much the income tax changes will actually raise for cash-strapped public services. Following the Budget in December, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) described the changes as “small beer”, saying they would bring in an extra £82m, the equivalent of 36 hours of spending in the Scottish NHS.
Income tax revenue did, however, provide a major boost to the economy with fiscal drag (the phenomenon whereby those earning more are pulled into higher tax bands) providing a significant fillip. According to the Scottish Fiscal Commission, due to fiscal drag, each percentage point of earnings growth in Scotland delivers around £25m more revenue than would be generated by the equivalent UK tax policy.
For the highest earners affected by the new tax changes, someone earning £125,000 will pay an extra £5,000 in 2024/5 in Scotland than they would in England, according to the IFS. Robison says work is underway with HMRC to monitor whether any behavioural change is taking place because of the tax tweaks.
“We shouldn’t be complacent about behavioural change but actually there’s no empirical evidence [it’s taking place]. We actually still see a net in-migration to Scotland from the rest of the UK. It was circa 10,000 in the last figures so people are still making a choice to come and live and work here.”
One of the most controversial decisions in Robison’s Budget was to slash the government’s funding for housing, delivering what the sector called a “hammer blow” at a time of acute crisis. Last week it was revealed that nearly 800 people had applied for a single council house in Edinburgh, a property which had previously belonged to the MoD. I ask the finance secretary whether she’s made life even more difficult for families facing homelessness.
“We are investing £556m in our affordable housing budget and we have a good track record – we’ve delivered over 126,000 affordable homes. We want to continue to deliver but traditional capital budgets being constrained in the way they are, we have to look at more innovative finance solutions.
“I recognise some of the particular challenges of Edinburgh, both in the private sector and social rented sector, and we have given Edinburgh funding in recognition of that but we know there is more to do.”
If Robison has faced flack following some of the tough decisions made in December’s Budget, it’s nothing compared to the maelstrom she found herself at the centre of the previous year as the minister responsible for bringing forward the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. Much has happened in the intervening 12 months, ultimately leaving the legislation on the statue book but unable to be enacted after the UK Government’s veto under the Scotland Act was upheld by a Court of Session ruling.
Robison has received a good deal of criticism for a comment she made at the height of the debate over self-ID when she said there was no evidence predatory men ever had to “pretend to be anything else” to abuse women. Her words took on new significance following the conviction of Andrew Miller, a paedophile who abducted a schoolgirl while dressed as a woman. I ask Robison whether she now regrets her remark.
“What I said was that predatory and abusive men don’t need to pretend to be anything else. I recognise there have been some high-profile cases of transgender prisoners who have committed horrific crimes. I don’t think though that takes away from the fact that 99.9 per cent of the victims of abuse are the victims of predatory and abusive men.
“The risk to women and girls is overwhelmingly from predatory men and their behaviour. A small number of, albeit horrific, cases of transgender prisoners and offenders doesn’t change the fact that is where the overwhelming risk to women and girls comes from.”
I ask Robison whether she’s learned anything from the fractious debate around gender reform which could help reduce the tensions around the Scottish Government’s plan to ban conversion therapy, another policy already dividing opinion.
“Gender reform was a divisive issue and we tried to create consensus where we could and actually built a majority in favour in parliament. The advice is to be clear as much as possible about what the legislation does not do as much as what it does. Being upfront and clear about what it does not do as much as it does would be my key piece of advice.
“I’ve always accepted, whatever the legislation, whether it’s GRR or conversion practices, people will have deeply held views and that should be recognised. I repeated on a number of occasions that I respected people who had different opinions. When we’re debating, discussing and reporting on these matters, we’re should be clear about what it doesn’t do.”
As our time draws to a close, I ask Robison, a famously close friend of Nicola Sturgeon, whether she misses the former first minister. Asked about Sturgeon in an interview earlier this month, SNP MP Mhairi Black said she had “not missed” the former party leader since her resignation.
“I see Nicola Sturgeon in here on a regular basis, so her presence is still here, and I regard her very much as a friend,” Robison says. “Cabinet has changed and every leader has their strengths. Nicola certainly had many as a leader – Humza’s are different. The way he conducts cabinet meetings, and his way of working, is quite different.
“When someone moves on it’s always difficult – there’s a period of challenge and people trying to get used to a different way of working, but I’ve found Humza’s style very collegiate and very inclusive. That’s the mark of his leadership.”