The Scottish finance secretary John Swinney made an unreserved apology to the Scottish Parliament today in the row over the lapsed Tartan Tax powers – effectively saving his job from a concerted opposition effort to unseat him.
Mr Swinney told the Scottish Parliament he got it wrong when he decided to keep secret the fact that the so-called Tartan Tax tax-varying powers had been allowed to lapse.
Mr Swinney expressed his “regret” that he did not make the right decisions when he chose to keep the issue secret and “apologised” to the chamber for not informing MSPs of what he was going on.
Mr Swinney has come under intense pressure over a dispute his department has had with HMRC over the past three years. The dispute led to the Tartan Tax falling into abeyance because the Scottish Government refused to pay the sums necessary, both to keep an up-to-date database and also to pay for an improved IT system.
Opposition MSPs expressed their fury in parliament today – not with the decision to get into a dispute with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – but with Mr Swinney’s decision to keep the issue secret.
As a result of this decision, the Scottish Parliament was not told that the Tartan Tax powers had effectively lapsed and could not be used for several years to come.
In his opening speech in a hastily arranged debate on the issue, the finance secretary told MSPs that he had been involved in detailed discussions with HMRC over the money required to keep the tax power up to date.
Mr Swinney said: “I judged that to come to parliament while those discussions were underway would breach the confidentiality the Secretary of State, amongst others, had requested.
“Those judgements have been called into question. I made those judgements in good faith for the reasons I have set out but I express my regret to parliament that, in retrospect, I clearly did not get all of those judgements correct.”
And then, in his wind-up remarks, the finance secretary went further, adding that he had made “mistakes”.
“I apologise to parliament for making an error of judgement in not coming to parliament,” he said.
The opposition parties were due to unite later this afternoon to pass a motion condemning Mr Swinney for his decision, accusing him of misleading parliament and demanding a full apology.
If Mr Swinney had not apologised, then the parties were determined to unite in a “no confidence” motion, forcing him from his job and possibly forcing an election on the country as well.
However, the early indications from opposition parties this afternoon were that Mr Swinney’s apology would be enough to prevent further action from them, including a possible “no confidence” motion.
During the debate, the language from all the opposition parties was fierce.
Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, attacked Mr Swinney’s decision to keep the tax changes secret. “It was taken not just without the agreement of this parliament but the knowledge of this parliament,” he said.
And he concluded: “This is a deliberate and systematic attempt to mislead both parliament and wider Scotland into believing that the government still had the option of varying the Scottish Variable Rate.”
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader, said that the tax power was not Mr Swinney’s to give away, but was the property of the whole parliament.
She described Mr Swinney’s approach as “grossly misleading and blatantly hypocritical”.
While, in a furious tirade, Tavish Scott, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, lambasted the finance secretary for “mess, deceit and incompetence”.
A joint statement from the opposition parties was expected to be published later this afternoon. The parties were expected to refer Mr Swinney’s case to the Finance Committee for further investigation. The finance secretary is also expected to face an investigation into allegations that he broke the ministerial code.