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Greater transparency needed on Holyrood’s Covid response spending – report

The new report has analysed the Scottish Government’s spending in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (Andrew Milligan/PA)
The new report has analysed the Scottish Government’s spending in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The Scottish Government should evaluate whether its Covid-19 spending delivered the desired outcomes and allow for greater scrutiny on its decisions, according to Audit Scotland.

A new report by the independent body, released on Thursday, has analysed the financial response towards the pandemic from Holyrood since March 2020.

Collaboration at pace in “difficult circumstances” between the Scottish Government and the UK and local governments is acknowledged in the publication, but it said it is “critical that lessons are learned about what worked well, and what did not” in order to improve responses in the future.

It is “hard to see how some financial decisions were reached”, Audit Scotland said, adding more work is required by the Scottish Government to demonstrate how the wide range of spending measures worked together to address the harms caused by the pandemic.

The Scottish Government managed its overall Covid-19 budget “effectively”, the report said, but some funding still remains unspent.

Some £15.5 billion was allocated for Scotland’s Covid-19 response between 2020-2022, of which an estimated £11.8 billion was spent between March 2020 and December 2021.

More than 300 announcements on Covid-19 spending were made at Holyrood between March 2020 and March 2022, Audit Scotland said.

Recommendations from the independent auditors include improving the transparency of public finances in order to support any scrutiny on funding and spending measures brought in to mitigate the pandemic’s impact, as well as reflecting on the financial decision-making processes.

Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said: “The Covid-19 pandemic created challenges on a scale our economy and people have not faced in living memory.

“At every stage, the Scottish Government worked to safeguard lives, businesses, jobs and livelihoods, acting as quickly and efficiently as possible to support people and businesses.

“Despite the impacts of the pandemic, many of which are still being acutely felt, we worked collaboratively with all sectors of the economy to identify those most in need and then with local authorities and partners to utilise existing systems to ensure financial support was delivered swiftly and effectively.

“We will now carefully consider the Audit Scotland report and engage with relevant sectors to ensure that future decision-making is as informed as possible and best supports the people of Scotland.”

Scottish Labour spokesperson for Covid recovery Jackie Baillie said the public “deserves to know exactly what happened” to unspent money that was set aside for the pandemic response.

Stop the Spread sign
Some £15.5 billion was allocated to Covid-19 spending (Jane Barlow/PA)

She said: “This report lays bare the secrecy and mismanagement at the heart of this SNP government.

“Getting this lifeline funding to all those who needed it was a matter of urgency, but that shouldn’t have come at the expense of transparency.

“The SNP’s economic mismanagement has left public finances in total chaos, but even as they forge ahead to cut services to the bone we still don’t know what happened to billions of pounds of Covid money.

“The public deserve to know exactly what happened to these extraordinary sums of public money, so we can have confidence it reached the right people and delivered what it needed to.”

Andrew McRae, FSB’s Scotland policy chair, suggested any leftover funding could be reallocated to firms struggling with overheads during the energy crisis.

Mr McRae said: “Repurposed grant funding could help businesses make investments to reduce both their bills and their carbon emissions.

“Nine in 10 Scottish businesses are warning their overheads are on the rise. New financial help for firms to tackle rising energy costs could help businesses that survived the Covid crisis thrive in the future.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser called the report’s findings “alarming”.

He said: “A gap between nationalist rhetoric and delivery is typical – but the watchdog’s alarming conclusion is that we simply don’t know how, where, or even whether, these funds were spent. That’s simply unacceptable.

“It’s damning – yet predictable – that the auditors find the government ‘struggled to maintain transparency’, hampering the watchdog’s ability to scrutinise the accounts.”