Is the Scottish Parliament Short With Short Money?

The Scottish Parliament, like its mother in Westminster, operates a system of financial support for opposition parties. “Short Money” is intended to level the playing field between the government, who have the resources of the civil service to aid them in formulating policy, and the opposition. It pays the salaries of researchers and press officers in each party’s support units, office costs, and certain other expenses to assist members in the pursuance of their “Parliamentary duties”.

In Westminster the level of funding is calculated on the basis of a fixed amount-per-member plus a further sum per 200 votes received. Following the Neill Report in 1998 the level of funding per member was, by a resolution of the House of Commons, more than doubled making Short Money in Westminster rather generous. The Short Money levels in the Scottish Parliament were established by s97 of the Scotland Act. As part of the transfer of legislative power to the Scottish Parliament during the first month of its existence the UK Parliament amended the Scotland Act by Order-in-Council to expressly un-reserve the making of payments to “any political party for the purpose of assisting members of the Parliament who are connected with the party to perform their Parliamentary duties.” As the present Short Money funding level in the Scottish Parliament is enshrined in statute primary legislation in the Scottish Parliament would be required to vary it. The consequence of this is that, relative to Westminster, the opposition in the Scottish Parliament is vastly under-resourced.

For the financial year 2011/2012 the level of funding for opposition parties in the House of Commons is £15,039.85 for every seat won at the last election plus £30.04 for  every 200 votes gained by the party, which for the Official Opposition makes a total of £20,050.24 per member. In the same financial year the level of funding of opposition Parties in the Scottish Parliament is a mere £7,094 per member. The votes element of the Westminster formula is designed, in part, to smooth out what can be stark variations in the sizes of oppositions in each parliament. There is no provision for such smoothing in the Scottish Parliament.

The result, therefore is that the main opposition party in the Scottish Parliament has seen its Short Money drop from £309,899.24 to £262,478 in a Parliament where the role of the opposition is more important than ever.

The Neill report in 1998 said of such events:

The Official opposition has a general duty to scrutinise the actions and the legislation of the Government.  We do not think it appropriate that it should receive a significantly smaller amount of Short money simply because it has recently suffered at the polls.  Indeed it can be argued that, if the party in government has an overwhelming majority in [Parliament], it is particularly important that the Official Opposition should be adequately funded and resourced.

When the Scottish Parliament debated the various statutory instruments which, among other things, gave them legislative competence over Short Money on 2nd June 1999 (exactly one month before Primary Legislative power was transferred to Holyrood) the opposition was united in its view that the level of Short Money was inadequate.

Mike Russell, lately Cabinet Secretary for Education, proposed that the Scottish Parliament refer a decision on what the level of opposition funding should be to the Neill Committee, and that the Parliament should agree in advance to accept whatever recommendation the committee made. He also argued that:

There is no doubt that by dramatically reducing the amount of Short money available to parties, which is, in effect, what the Westminster Government’s order does, the Labour party is attempting to ensure that the work of the Opposition parties is undermined.

Then SNP Deputy Leader and current Finance Minster John Swinney decried the government for showing “no hint of benevolence, no sense of fairness.”

Similarly, the then Scottish Conservative Leader David McLetchie argued that:

What is good enough for Westminster is apparently not good enough for the Scottish Parliament, and the apparent altruism of Her Majesty’s Government is only skin deep. In Westminster, Labour can afford to be generous as it is backed-at least for the time being-by a large parliamentary majority. In Scotland, Labour is doing everything it can to suppress opposition to its unprincipled coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

There can be little doubt that the then Scottish Labour leadership, arrogantly presuming that they themselves would never be in opposition, were attempting to choke off funding to the SNP. It wasn’t until the Scottish Labour Party were ejected from Government that the stark the folly of their presumption came to be realised.

A few days after the 2007 Scottish Parliament election Jack McConnell asked his colleagues for a substantial increase in their contribution to the Labour Support Unit from their individual allowances, which its fair to say was met with hostility from the more territorial Labour MSPs. Following her elevation to the Leadership of the Scottish Labour Party Wendy Alexander followed her Shadow Justice Secretary Pauline McNeill in calling for Short Money to be increased. Having only one seat more than Labour in the Scottish Parliament and been forced to live on paltry Parliamentary rations for their 8 years in opposition the SNP were understandingly unsympathetic.

But four years on things have changed radically. The SNP won well against a Scottish Labour Party which, in all honesty, deserved to lose. They have the first overall majority in a Parliament which wasn’t designed for such an eventuality. They’re guaranteed five years in government; Holyrood is to receive a raft of new competences from Westminster; and there will be a referendum on Independence for Scotland. As the newly elevated Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business, Bruce Crawford can show the benevolence and sense of fairness of which Ted Short was so possessed, and which the Labour-led Executive so clearly lacked. And if fairness isn’t justification enough for the Scottish Government, maybe we can even call it “Crawford Money”.