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The first cuts aren't the deepest

Douglas Fraser | 12:54 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The prospect of looming spending cuts underlie and overshadow every other aspect of the Westminster election, but without much sign of parties getting into the detail of where the axe is going to fall.

There might be a bit more candour at Holyrood from Tuesday, as the Scottish Parliament's finance committee starts an inquiry into the implications of the budget squeeze.

And if politicians aren't willing to offer detailed proposals about who is going to feel the most pain, then the non-politicians are holding back as well.

In written submissions for the inquiry, there are plenty of groups wanting to protect what they've got.

One of the more interesting is the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland:

"There are varying views on the impact of recession on crime," it said.

"However, there is one view that crime might increase and this will impact on public fear of crime, confidence and feeling of safety.

"Both the perception and reality of crime have the real potential to impact on wellbeing and health.

"It is therefore important that there is clear understanding of the complex relationship between one sector's efforts and the impact it has on much wider national strategic issues.

"The disproportionate reduction of investment in one area might impact outcomes for others."

Universal services

It's harder to find those with suggestions of what we can do without.

Yet it's a political and government body that sums up the prospects most starkly.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities sets out two of the areas to be considered:

It said: "Within a reduced allocation of resources, can Scotland still afford universal services?

"We have found it more difficult to promote a more radical debate about the responsibility of the state, individual and community and this may be required in the longer term."

Cosla also asks about early intervention.

If the priority becomes quick gains in cuts, what happens to programmes such as pre-school spending, from which the results - in educational attainment, tax revenue and even in lower imprisonment costs - can sometimes take decades to feed through?

Local, for consumers

The most forthright views about change in public spending come from business.

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce argue that productivity in Scotland's public services lags not just the private sector but also the rest of Britain.

It highlights the relatively generous pensions in public services, and it recommends "a shift towards a consumer orientated, locally focused model for public service provision that is the norm across Europe".

"Service providers should be independent of government and accountable to service users instead, who should in turn benefit from greater variety of provision," it said.

"The government role would be limited to a financial and regulatory role to ensure that access remains universal."

CBI Scotland is urging more contracting of services, and particularly back office, to the private sector.

It cites examples of improved efficiency, from team-based rubbish collection to reform of Glasgow City Council and management of the Faslane naval base.

Abolish libraries?

It's only a management consultancy, 4 Consulting Ltd, that offers concrete examples of what could be cut.

The list starts with plastic surgery on the NHS, and moves swiftly onto public libraries.

It suggests that instead pubs and cafes could become the places people leave books they don't want, for others to pick up.

Its other suggestions are hardly likely to solve Britain's deficit problems; fine lorry owners for parking on pavements, using the funds to pay for pavement repairs.

And why not limit the size of trucks on British roads, so that each one can do less damage?

Clearly, 4 Consulting Ltd is not standing for election.

If you're interested in the future tax powers of the Scottish Parliament, you can read about a heavyweight contribution from one of Scotland's leading economists and one of its leading academic lawyers, published by the Reform Scotland think tank.


  • Comment number 1.

    Somehow "management" needs to be cut - long before any services are cut.
    Our local Council - run by a New Labour / Liberal alliance - has just appointed 3 additional "managers" on £50K+ each. At the same time they are "consulting local communities" - about whether they would rather have the swimming pool closed down or one or two wee Primary Schools closed.
    Bring all politics and politicians home!
    The more remote they are, the more they lose any sense of perspective, responsibility and/or common savvy.
    Slainte Mhor

  • Comment number 2.

    "The list starts with plastic surgery on the NHS"
    So if you suffer facial deformities in a fire or car accident, you should have to pay to have your normal face back? Does fixing cleft palates count as plastic surgery?

  • Comment number 3.

    The "heavy weight" contribution you refer to on future tax powers seems to be somewhat weighted towards the narrow scottish interest:

    - Public Sector pension liabilities to a UK fund
    - Tax from Scots south of the border to a Scottish Treasury
    - Majority of North Sea oil receipts to Scotland
    - Scotland's contribution to defence spending less than population share.

    I somehow think that if you were sitting south of the border, you may think if these were Scotland's demands to remain within the union the time had come to go our separate ways?

  • Comment number 4.

    "The government role would be limited to a financial and regulatory role to ensure that access remains universal."

    Access is not the issue, availability is what matters.

    An Eton College education is accessible to all, but not available (or, if you like, 'accessABLE').

    If the Government can dictate to the FA that its cup final MUST be available on free-to-air television, why cannot it dictate that the BEST surgeons, etc., MUST make their services available to the NHS!

  • Comment number 5.

    "It suggests that instead pubs and cafes could become the places people leave books they don't want, for others to pick up."

    The point of libraries is that they provide the books that people DO want [to read], but often cannot afford to purchase or simply do not want to retain after reading.

    The proposals sound very much like attacks (and a tax) upon learning and knowledge.

    The idea that such an early 18th century notion is being propounded as a way FORWARD is staggering...


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