Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Frack that

There's been quite a build-up to this afternoon's Scottish Government statement on fracking.

Both the SNP and Labour have been trying to sound tough, with talk of a moratorium, while quietly leaving the door open to fracking in the future - there's money in them thar shale beds after all.

And let's not forget riveting row between SNP MSP Joan McAlpine and energy minister Fergus Ewing on the subject, as lovingly reported by Rob Edwards in the Sunday Herald.

It reminded me of an interview I had with Alex Salmond just before the referendum.

Despite being typically gung-ho about extracting oil and gas from the North Sea, the then First Minister opposed onshore fracking on health grounds, in case it contaminated the water table.

When even a life-long hydrocarbon junkie like Salmond is against fracking, the SNP would be wise to walk away sharpish.

Here's the exchange from 11 September 2014:

Q: Is there a place for fracking in the energy mix of an independent Scotland?

Salmond: “Not onshore, I don’t think. 

"The basic problem with fracking onshore is this: although the seismic stuff [earth tremor risk] doesn’t look to be substantial in its impact, the water table stuff has a lot of questions to be answered.

"I don’t think that’s a good idea in a relatively unpopulated area. 

"But in a densely populated area you’ve got to be able to answer the water table situation. 

"The central North Sea is a different matter. 

"The central North Sea is a great possibility, but at this stage it’s no more than a possibility, but there’s substantial work up the clay basins of the central North Sea." 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Stash in the attic

The unofficial launch of the general election campaign this week brought a flurry of Labour and Tory stats with it.

But one intriguing figure which hasn't had much publicity yet belongs to the SNP.
This is the annual underspend on the Scottish Government accounts.
Naturally, overspends are a bad thing, but big underspends can be viewed that way too.
They suggest inefficiency and public services unnecessarily going short.

Here's the funny thing - after moaning all through the referendum about Westminster austerity, it turns out the SNP recorded its largest ever underspend last year, almost £450m.
If that comes as a surprise, perhaps it's because ministers only issued the final total in an obscure report laid at parliament just after it rose for the Christmas recess.
The government press office then refused to send me a copy, saying their lawyers had ruled it had to be cleared by parliament first, which sounds like complete cobblers.
However, I got hold of it in the end. 
Readers can judge whether it was genuine inefficiency behind the underspend, or perhaps ministers squirreling cash for bumpy times after a Yes vote, or largesse before the election?
Here's the story


Tom Gordon

THE SNP Goverment ended last year with a record underspend, despite repeated complaints about Westminster austerity cuts squeezing its budget.

Ministers underspent by almost half a billion pounds in 2013-14, according to a final outturn report lodged at Holyrood the day after MSPs left for the Christmas recess.

The government had £444m left over from its  £34.5bn budget last year, or 1.3% of the total, the first time an underspend has exceeded £350m since the SNP came to power in 2007.

The underspend is usually less than 1%.

The Scottish Government has not published the report on its own website.

Although the £444m will still be available for use this year, a large underspend is often seen as undesirable, as it means public services missed out unnecessarily on better funding.

The biggest factors in the last financial year were a £165m underspend in the £3bn education and lifelong learning portfolio, or 5.5% of the budget, and a £102m, or 4%, underspend in the £2.6bn infrastructure portfolio, then being overseen by Nicola Sturgeon.

At a time when sheriff courts were being close to save money, the justice portfolio was underspent by £92m, or 3.6% of its £2.5bn budget.

From the Scottish Government's final outturn report - note that £444m total in the bottom right corner

The underspend in the government’s own accounts came to £413m, but additional underspends in NHS and teacher pensions, over which ministers have less control, made the grand total £444m.

In a statement to parliament in June, Finance Secretary John Swinney gave a provisional estimate for the underspend of less than £300m.

Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown MSP said it was rich for the SNP to complain about cuts while sitting on funds of nearly half a billion.

Och, it's only half a billion quid
“Last year, they moaned in every speech about not having enough money and how austerity was holding them back, yet they didn’t spend what they had.

“No wonder this report was released at the quietest time of the year.”

Although elements of the underspend were previously reported in assorted government accounts, it was not until they were brought together in December's report that the full total was made explicit.

A Government spokesperson said: “This report contains no new information. 
"It simply brings together budget and outturn information already laid before the Scottish Parliament and published in the audited accounts of the bodies that make-up the Scottish Administration.
“The report records an overall underspend of less than 1.3 per cent.”