NICOLA Sturgeon has agreed to cross-party talks to rewrite Holyrood’s budget in light of the cost-of-living crisis after Anas Sarwar proposed a “Team Scotland” approach.
The First Minister said she was willing to work across the aisle, but warned the Scottish Labour leader that any changes had to be achieved within existing funds.
It followed Mr Sarwar suggesting the Scottish Government should slash fares on state-run ScotRail services to help people faced with soaring bills this winter.
On Wednesday, deputy First Minister John Swinney announced £500million of spending cuts to the 2022/23 budget in response to surging inflation and public sector pay hikes.
He said the budget was worth £1.7billion less than when it was first published in December because of double-digit inflation, with recent pay settlements costing another £700million, and support for Ukrainian refugees an additional unforeseen £200m.
Earlier this week, Ms Sturgeon announced an immediate six-month rent freeze and eviction ban to protect social rented and private sector tenants until at least the end of March, provoking a furious backlash from landlords.
ScotRail fares, due to rise by 4 per cent in January, have also been frozen until March.
At FMQs, Mr Sarwar said: “Rents are not the only costs that are rising. We have been calling for a rent freeze since June.
“But we’ve also been calling for a reduction in rail fares since April.”
He highlighted a document from the SNP published over the summer which outlined the action being taken by other European countries in the face of the cost-of-living crisis.
“In that document, they included examples from Germany, Spain and Ireland, who have all cut rail fares,” he told the chamber.
“ScotRail is now in public ownership. The decision on rail fares is for this Government.
“So will the First Minister commit to Labour’s plan for halving rail fares, which could save commuters up to £130 per month?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “We have confirmed, as I did on Tuesday, a freeze on ScotRail fares until the end of March.
“The Deputy First Minister said yesterday that we will be considering, in the context of our emergency budget review, extending that further.
“We will also consider in the context of that emergency budget review, not just on rail fares but on a whole range of other areas, where we can go further to help people with the cost-of-living crisis.
“But it is important – not just important, it is inevitable and essential – that it is done in the context of that budget review.”
Mr Sarwar urged the First Minister to be “bolder and more ambitious” in her emergency measures, and not fall prey to “timidity” and delay.
The Scottish Government’s emergency budget review is due to take place after the Westminster mini-budget expected later this month.
Mr Sarwar said: “I know that the First Minister will say that the Scottish Government has to find the money. That is why I welcome an emergency budget review, but it has to be an open, genuine and transparent one.
“Therefore, in recognition of the national emergency, the Scottish Government should open up the books to all parties so that we can have a team Scotland approach to actually using the powers of this Parliament to confront the cost of living crisis.”
The First Minister replied: “We will engage on that basis, and I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will be happy to have open discussions with any party about how we meet that challenge, as long as the starting point for any discussion is an acceptance of the reality that, if we want to spend more on anything this year – as, I think, all of us do – that money must be found elsewhere in our budget.”
After FMQs, Mr Sarwar said: “I am glad that the First Minister today agreed to open up the government’s books and initiate discussions with all parties over emergency budget talks.
“This isn’t the time to be timid or to delay. Our Emergency Cost of Living Act included a rent freeze and a winter eviction ban, which we welcome.
“But it also included halving rail fares, capping bus fares, a £100 water bill rebate, writing off school meal debts, topping up the Scottish Welfare Fund and establishing a business hardship fund to help keep small businesses going. Let’s have a Team Scotland approach.”
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