Holyrood meets for the first time today, and it’s set to be an interesting few weeks as the new Scottish Parliament comes into focus.
It’s clear that the new Parliament will be different from the last. As well as welcoming new MSPs and preparing for the fifth session to officially open on 2 July, the months ahead will bring big changes in Scotland’s public finances as the Parliament takes on a substantial increase in its financial powers.
Given the very different manifesto commitments from each of the political parties, there will continue to be a debate about the use of these powers over the life of the new Parliament – in particular, whether to use its new tax powers, and how to use any revenues raised by them.
This new chapter in Holyrood’s history brings opportunities and risks for everyone involved in ensuring that public money is spent well, including Audit Scotland.
We provide independent and expert insight into how public money is spent and policy is delivered, responsible for auditing more than 200 public bodies in Scotland. Whatever the political make-up of the Parliament, we’re here to support it in scrutinising the use of public money and holding government to account.
The Smith Commission agreed that the Scottish Parliament should seek to expand and strengthen the independent scrutiny of Scotland’s public finances, in view of the additional variability and uncertainty that further tax and spending devolution will introduce. I wrote to the Conveners of the Finance Committee and the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee in March, highlighting my interest in two key issues – the need to ensure the financial sustainability and management of the Scottish public finances, and the case for comprehensive, transparent, reliable and timely reporting.
The new powers mean there’s a need to look again at the Parliament’s arrangements for budget oversight. The budget processes put in place in 1999 have served the Parliament well, but they need to be refreshed so that Parliament, Government and the public can understand and debate the basis on which spending decisions and policies are made. This is especially important with the continuing financial pressures on Government, and the ambitious programme of public sector reform now underway in areas such as health and social care, education and communities.
As well as the budget process, an overall account of the revenues, expenditure, assets and liabilities of the Scottish public sector as a whole will also be essential – we have Whole of Government Accounts for the UK, which incorporate Scottish information, but we don’t yet have the equivalent picture for Scotland.
As Auditor General for Scotland, I report in public to the Parliament’s Public Audit Committee. I’m looking forward to meeting and working with new committee members so we can build on the good work of the previous session and ensure MSPs – and the public – get real value from the wide range of Audit Scotland’s work.
I’m also keen to explore new opportunities to support Parliament by informing and engaging with other committees and their members.
We’re committed to helping Parliament to develop its arrangements for using the new financial powers, and to seizing this unique opportunity to help shape Scotland’s fiscal future for generations to come.
About the author
Caroline Gardner is the Auditor General, and Accountable Officer for Audit Scotland. She started her term in July 2012, and has 30 years’ experience in audit, governance and financial management. Follow her on twitter @AuditorGenScot