THE candidates have made their last presentations. The vote is nearly over. The result will soon be known. Scotland will have a new first minister that, so far, few are showing any great excitement for.

So, what have they to do to grab the headlines? I looked through the questions asked of me by National readers and came across this one by Adam Ingram:

Is GERS an accurate reflection of our fiscal profile? If not, what should the Scottish Government do to rectify or replace the annual report? In any case, what steps must an independent nation take to stabilise and improve its financial health?

The National:

This seems to me to be a particularly relevant question at this moment, when Nicola Sturgeon assiduously avoided this question during her time in office.

Let me deal with GERS – or the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland statement as it is properly called – first of all.

GERS was created by the Tories 1992 with the intention of showing Scottish Government finances in a poor light. It has, I admit, been improved several times since then and some numbers (like Scottish income taxes paid) are now largely based on Scottish data.

There are, however, large parts of GERS that remain nothing more than intelligent guesswork, at best. These include receipts from major taxes like VAT, national insurance and corporation tax, as well as economically significant taxes like capital gains tax and inheritance tax.

READ MORE: 'Urban myth' GERS figures debunked by Scottish economist's research

It is also not at all clear that important non-tax receipts by the Westminster government are properly apportioned to Scotland. The suggestion that many of these figures are simply made up or are subject to serious margins of error is as real now as it has always been.

Worse than that, though, is the fact that GERS records income in Scotland but matches it with expenditure for Scotland. This is a vital distinction. Expenditure for Scotland includes significant sums spent outside Scotland, which the UK Government deems to be a benefit to Scotland whether it likes it or not. These costs are, as a result, charged in GERS as if incurred by the government in Scotland, when that is not the case.

Worse still is the fact that no tax that is paid on this expenditure for Scotland is credited to Scotland for inclusion in GERS. So, for example, the cost of army personnel might be charged to Scotland, but the tax paid by those army personnel is credited to England. GERS is bound to, as a result, show a worse financial position for Scotland than will ever really be the case.

The National:

This does incidentally, also work the other way round. Large amounts of interest expenditure in Scotland is paid to England, and so is taxed there. The same is also undoubtedly true of corporate profits. As a result, both the GDP of Scotland and the resulting tax revenue are understated. GERS will be wrong again as a consequence.

The result of all this is that although the Scottish Government has, by law, to balance the 60% of all government expenditure in Scotland that it manages with the revenues that it has available to it, the government in Westminster claims that it makes a massive deficit on the remaining 40% of expenditure that it incurs (or so it says) for Scotland. There can be no doubt that this is in no small part because the tax paid as a result of that expenditure is not credited to Scotland.

Nor, incidentally, is the benefit of that spend taking place in England – in terms of the boost it provides to the rest of the English economy – taken into account when estimating what is to be credited to Scotland. Again, Scottish income is deliberately understated.

  • GERS is as a result of these misstatements a completely misleading guide to what it claims to represent, which is government expenditure and revenue in Scotland.
  • GERS complies with no known accounting convention by failing to match income and expenditure on the same basis.
  • GERS ignores many of the most basic rules of economics.
  • GERS is not even a good indication of how Scotland is managed under devolution. It is an even worse indicator of what would happen if Scotland was an independent country.

What can be done?

The question as to what can be done about this is, in that case, very important. I have three obvious comments to make.

The first is that the new first minister should scrap GERS. They should then appoint a panel of economic advisers to create a better statement, truly reflecting what really happens in Scotland.

Secondly, that new first minister should seek to extend the number of taxes that are devolved to Scotland. It is absurd that not all income tax is devolved. It is beyond crazy that capital gains tax, national insurance and corporation tax or not.

When these taxes all interact with income tax, the Scottish Government is completely unable to influence many taxation outcomes. It is as if the current Scottish taxation system was deliberately designed to fail. And VAT must be a proper Scottish tax in the future, not least so that Scotland truly understands how the Scottish economy works, which VAT data helps explain.

Finally, the new first minister must seriously increase the resources available for the collection of data and statistics on what is really happening in Scotland so that the basis for independence can be properly understood. Far too little progress was made on this issue under Nicola Sturgeon. That has to change if Scotland is to win the argument for independence.

It is my suggestion that these three things are the precondition for improving the financial health of Scotland. Everything else follows from them.