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Research group says tax rises not enough

Mackay urged to give Budget boost to output

Derek Mackay

Derek Mackay: under pressure to raise productivity (photo by Terry Murden)

Finance Secretary Derek Mackay will need to use Thursday’s Budget to boost the country’s economic output in order to pay for the Scottish government’s rising public services bill, says a key research body.

While the outlook is poised to improve next year, the Scottish economy is held back by slow growth and weak productivity, says the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI).

It warns that even adding a penny to all tax bands would only be enough to offset an expected fall in the block grant from Westminster.

The institute says that an alternative to the predicted tax hikes would be to focus on stimulating growth.

In its latest Economic Commentary, published today,  the University of Strathclyde-based independent research institute says that, whilst the outlook is set to improve next year, Brexit uncertainty and ongoing weak demand in the Scottish economy will act to dampen growth.

Scotland’s economy grew by just 0.5% over the past year, one-third the rate in the UK as a whole. FAI analysts’ point out that whilst employment has held up well in Scotland, this has been at the cost of falling productivity, which has now declined for seven consecutive quarters.

Mr Mackay has indicated that economic growth will be a priority, but pressure is mounting on the Finance Secretary to do more to stimulate productivity rather than impose tax rises.

Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, said: “The Scottish economy remains stuck in a cycle of weak growth.

“Brexit uncertainty is clearly not helping, but in such times it is important that policymakers focus on the areas where government policy can help support the drivers of long-term growth, such as entrepreneurship, innovation, skills and connectivity.

“Whilst much of the political reaction will centre on the government’s proposals for taxation, the Budget provides a vital opportunity for Scottish Ministers to set out their plans to grow the economy and boost productivity.”

John Macintosh, head of tax for Deloitte in Scotland, said: “Scotland continues to grow, but it’s doing so at a slower rate than the UK and is exacerbated by weak productivity.

“Combined, these factors highlight the current fragile state of the economy. While we’ve seen a number of positive initiatives announced this year, Thursday’s Budget is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to set out a balance of policies that will help to get the economy growing at a faster rate.

“Investment in technology, education, skills, and infrastructure could be the best way of unlocking Scotland’s latent potential and, while it may be years before the results can be seen, a long-term mindset will be crucial to our long-term success.”

Mr Roy added: “With the Scottish budget now much more dependent upon the tax revenues generated in Scotland, boosting Scotland’s fragile economy will be crucial in helping to alleviate budget constraints over the long-term.

“The Scottish Government undoubtedly faces delivering a tight budget settlement on Thursday. 

“The Scottish Government’s resource block grant is on track to decrease by over £200m in real terms next year.  On top of this, it is likely that the Scottish Fiscal Commission will revise down their estimates of the outlook for devolved taxes.

“With major manifesto commitments to pay for in health, education, childcare and policing – not to mention a more generous pay settlement for public sector workers than those in England – ‘non-protected’ areas will be in line for an extremely tough settlement.”

David Eiser, Head of Fiscal Analysis at the Institute, said: “The government has been open about its aspirations to raise revenues through increasing income tax.  However, it is likely to be cautious given the largely unknown impact this could have on business sentiment and behaviour.

“At the same time, even one of its ‘bolder’ options on income tax – e.g. one that adds a penny to all tax rates and either protects or reduces the tax burden on lower earners – is likely to only be just enough to offset the cut to the Westminster block grant next year.

“Despite the recognition from across the political spectrum of the need for a long-term approach to managing public service delivery, budget planning remains remarkably short-sighted.

“This means there is a lack of awareness both of recent trends in the distribution of government spending, and how best to address the long-term challenges that our public services face.”

Overall, the FAI have revised down its forecasts for growth to 1.2% for 2018 and 1.4% in both 2019 and 2020.

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