Progressive taxation and increased health and social care support welcomed by voluntary organisations.
The Scottish Government has faced mixed-reactions from the country’s third sector following the announcement of Holyrood’s spending plans for the next financial year.
On Thursday Deputy First Minister John Swinney laid out what he called “a different, more progressive path for Scotland” as he presented the Scottish Budget 2023-24.
The MSP also promised to strengthen the social contract with the people of Scotland and pledged to do everything possible to shield families from welfare cuts and austerity policies from Westminster, with the budget providing more than £13.7billion for NHS boards and £2bn to establish and improve primary healthcare services in communities.
The Government also pledged £1.7bn for social care and integration, paving the way for the National Care Service - delivering what the government said was a £1bn uplift to the health budget.
Having already increased the Scottish Child Payment to £25 per week, the Budget invests £428million to uprate all other devolved benefits in April 2023 by September’s Consumer Price Index inflation level of 10.1%.
The Budget also commits £20m to extend the Fuel Insecurity Fund to provide a lifeline for households, including the most vulnerable, against rising energy prices.
Scotland’s transition to net zero is boosted with increased investment to over £366m in delivering the Heat in Buildings Strategy in 2023-24.
Ministers said this would help tackle fuel poverty as part of a £1.8bn commitment over this Parliament to improve energy efficiency and decarbonise more than a million Scottish homes by 2030.
The budget also includes more than £550 million additional funding to local government, the Government said.
Mr Swinney said: “Through this Budget we are facing up to our responsibilities while being honest with the people of Scotland about the challenges which lie ahead.
“This Budget strengthens the social contract between the Scottish Government and every citizen of Scotland for the wider benefit of society. This social contract means that people in Scotland continue to enjoy many benefits not available throughout the UK – including free prescriptions, free access to higher education and the Scottish Child Payment.
“Because we know this progressive model works, we choose the path where people are asked to pay their fair share, in the knowledge that in so doing they help to create the fairer society in which we all want to live.”
One Parent Families Scotland welcomed key commitments to tackle child poverty in today’s Scottish Government budget announcement but says much more can – and must – be done to support low-income single parent families.
However, a number of other important actions recommended in advance of the budget were absent from the announcements, including increased investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund, doubling the Scottish Carers Allowance supplement, and mitigating the two-child limit and young parent penalty through the Scottish Child Payment.
Chief executive of One Parent Families Scotland, Satwat Rehman, said: “We are heartened to see that the Scottish Government has listened to several important calls from anti-poverty organisations, such as increasing taxes for the wealthiest to raise funds for public services.
“We are also pleased that the government is raising benefits in line with inflation, which is the right thing to do and will make a real difference for low-income families who are being snowed under by rising costs.
“However, there is more the government could – and must – do to support those who are struggling most.
“We appreciate that the Scottish Government is operating within tight budget constraints in a difficult economic period, however it is important to remember that the government still has a duty to meet statutory child poverty targets.
“We believe that this won’t be possible until resources are directed towards those facing disproportionate levels of poverty.”
The move to increase taxes for Scotland’s better off was welcomed by other groups in the third sector, who said this could “get more investment for the compassionate Scotland that people want”.
Poverty Alliance policy and campaigns manager, Ruth Boyle, said: “We hope that this will be the beginning of the Scottish Government’s efforts to use the full range of tax powers at their disposal.
“In the longer-term, the Scottish Government must reform the basis of our tax system, including implementing the long-awaited reform of council tax, to ensure that our tax system has justice and compassion at its heart.
“Increased support for the NHS and social care is very much welcomed. However, all of our vital public services are calling out for more investment.
“This budget raises a number of concerns for the future, and we fear that there will be more cuts to other public services coming down the line. We all rely on these public services, but they are a vital lifeline for people on the lowest incomes.
The call for the Scottish Government to go further was consistent among the views of charities and voluntary groups.
CPAG in Scotland published research earlier this week that showed that rising costs are still outstripping additional Holyrood support, despite the real difference the Scottish child payment was making to families.
The campaigners called for use of tax powers to ensure Scottish benefits at the very least retain their real terms value next year and that the government’s child poverty delivery plan is fully funded.
Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, John Dickie, said: “It is absolutely right that Scotland’s tax powers are being used to ensure government has the resources it needs, not least to deliver on the child poverty commitments that Holyrood has unanimously backed.
“It’s now vital that the Budget is scrutinised to ensure the revenues now available to the Finance Secretary are adequate to fund not just the health service but the social security, childcare, employment, education and housing actions that are critical to meeting the Parliament’s legally binding child poverty targets.”
Ewan Aitken, Chief Executive of Cyrenians, a charity tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness in Scotland, warned of the looming end to the temporary evictions ban in Scotland.
He added: “This winter is tougher than ever for people who simply cannot meet the cost of living. Thousands of people are getting into debt that will threaten their ability to keep a roof over their head. The cost-of-living crisis must not be allowed to become a homelessness crisis.
“April 1 is currently looming like a cliff edge which could put many at risk of homelessness – the eviction ban and rent freeze are due to expire on that date and energy bills will go up as the Westminster Government withdraws support from the household energy cap.
“There must be a plan now to ensure that thousands don’t tip in to crisis when these protections are removed.
“The current crisis is not going to melt away with the snow. We need to look beyond an immediate crisis response and work towards long term systems change to ensure that everyone can afford to live and thrive, not just survive.”
With waves of strike action, those representing workers warned that the budget from mr Swinney did not go far enough to bringing in the changes needed to improve the lives of ordinary people in Scotland.
STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said: “It’s clear that Scotland’s trade union movement has made progress in winning demands from the Scottish Government. Raising taxes on those most able to pay, including second homeowners, are key demands in our ‘Fairer Taxes’ report.
“However, we needed strides, not steps. We cannot pretend this is the radical, redistributive budget working people in Scotland needed – it isn’t.
“We can – and will - demand the government to go much further and deliver the substantial reforms needed to our economy including introducing wealth and further property taxes called for in our report.
“The Finance Secretary has more to do and we welcome his constructive engagement with our movement. This budget leaves the door open for public sector workers to negotiate the inflation level pay rises they so desperately need. We intend to use it.”
Environmental campaigners have welcomed the news that peak pricing will be removed on all Scotrail trains.
The change will take place for a pilot period of six months as part of the fair fares review as a way of making rail travel more affordable and attractive to travellers.
Gavin Thomson, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “It’s great news that peak pricing is being removed to help more people to take journeys by train rather than by car.
"The move demonstrates how public ownership can keep fares from getting even higher, benefitting passengers and helping support the necessary shift away from cars.
“Transport is Scotland’s biggest source of climate emissions, so we need an affordable, accessible, high-quality public transport network to make it possible for people to get around without cars.
“We need to start thinking of public transport as an essential service, like education or health. It should be available to everyone and free at the point of use.”
The climate spending and moves towards net-zero were also scrutinised by charities, who warned more ambitious moves would have been more welcome.
Fabrice Leveque, climate and energy lead at WWF Scotland, said: “It’s good that one of the Deputy First Minister’s priorities for this budget is achieving our net zero ambitions. However, it doesn’t go far enough.
“Scotland’s climate targets have the potential to create jobs, develop new industries and improve health, all whilst restoring our environment. At a time of economic constraint, all public spending must bring down emissions and build an economy and country that’s fair for all and fit for the future.
“We welcome the commitment to continued investment in sustainable agriculture. There must now be action to ensure that all spending on this sector is more effective, using the forthcoming Agriculture Bill to create a system that delivers for nature and our climate, whilst also delivering a just transition for those working in it.
“Spending on energy efficiency and greener heating is an essential step to tackle both the climate and energy crises that we face. It's crucial that the full budget for greening home heating is spent over the coming years to make sure that as many homes as possible benefit.”