Robert Black: Free public services need 'revisiting'


Former Auditor General Robert Black has questioned whether providing the current range of free public services in Scotland will remain sustainable.

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Scotland's former Auditor General Robert Black has questioned whether providing the current range of free public services can remain sustainable.

Decisions to offer free personal and nursing care and concessionary travel fares should be revisited, he said.

Mr Black said the cost of such services in Scotland had risen more than anyone had expected when they were introduced.

He went on to say there was an urgent need for reform, including fewer councils and other public bodies.

The Scottish government said it remained commited to the council tax freeze, free prescriptions, free bus travel and its public service reforms.

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont signalled a major policy shift for her party last week by criticising the "something for nothing" society, and casting doubt on Labour's support for free university tuition, the council tax freeze and free NHS prescriptions.

Start Quote

Every pound that goes on bus passes for well off older people is a pound that is not available for other things”

End Quote Robert Black Former Auditor General

Speaking to the BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme, Mr Black said: "The move being made by the Labour party in Scotland to at least start asking questions is a good thing.

"We need to do more of that but we need to do it as a society. I mean can we really afford all the services that are free at the point of delivery?

"If you take free personal nursing care and the national concessionary travel scheme, the free bus passes. When those schemes were set up there was no hint given that the costs of those would be rising as quickly as they are now.

"As we said in Audit Scotland reports in my day, the concessionary travel scheme could cost not far short of half a billion pounds by the time we get through to the 2020s.

"Were the MSPs aware of that when they launched the policy? I suspect the frank answer is not. So to that extent I think I am on safe ground by saying the affordability of some this has to be questioned, we do need to revisit it. Every pound that goes on bus passes for well off older people is a pound that is not available for other things."

In a wide-ranging lecture in Edinburgh on Thursday, Mr Black also listed rising costs and backlogged maintenance that are forcing a re-think of spending priorities.

He claimed MSPs have become too cut off from the way services are delivered in local communities. He argued they should spend less time on passing unnecessary laws, to free up more time for budget scrutiny.

The former watchdog and council chief executive said the scrutiny would be helped by a new commission to investigate whether public services are being well and efficiently run.

The former auditor general is also speaking on behalf of the public service leaders - the non-politician ones, that is - who are not allowed to speak out in public.

Having heard from quite a range of them, the strong, collective message from officialdom is one of frustration at a lack of political leadership (he's not specifying which layer of government) in openly explaining the tough choices facing public services and spending.

They're frustrated also at the speed at which innovation can be implemented. And with cuts being applied, they're finding that their organisations are losing knowledge and experience, without giving space to young talent moving up the career ladder.

Robert Black is calling for a "safe space" in which these conversations can be carried out, providing energy and drive to the necessary reforms, observing that debate in Scotland is now fragmented across numerous conferences and seminars.

If you're in government employment, the two year period leading up to a referendum on independence does not look like a safe space to do anything particularly risky or controversial.

But the message from Robert Black is a strong one; public services need reforming, and that process can't wait for a decision on the constitution.

Mr Black was the first to hold the post of Auditor General, and led Audit Scotland for 12 years.

The lecture at the David Hume Institute was his first detailed reflection on his time in office.

He warned politicians have only had "coping responses" to challenges in public services, but urgently need to work on longer-term ones.

Talking about the independence referendum, he said: "Whether the outcome is more devolution or complete independence, we will be facing the same challenges in our public services as we do today.

"The political and media focus on the independence issue is leaving little space or opportunity to address the great challenges which we are facing.

"Time is not on our side. The challenges are immediate and require an urgent response. We cannot afford to place this agenda to one side until after 2014."

He went on: "There is clear leadership on the independence debate, but on many of the other big issues, it can feel as if the politics of Scotland hasn't fully come to terms with the challenges we are now facing.

"No one party or leader is prepared to take the risk of being the first mover in re-thinking policies, whether it be penal reform (or) reshaping the health service".

Mr Black cited the growth in police numbers from 6,900 in 1949 to more than 17,000 now, despite the use of technology for policing, and without any politician asking why the higher numbers are necessary.

He said scrutiny of public services is "episodic and patchy" and "mostly conducted at Holyrood, remote from the localities where the services are delivered".

Strong criticism

And while he said there has been extensive attention paid to budget cuts, less has been paid to rising costs, including:

  • A £4bn backlog in roads and public building maintenance.
  • The cost of travel concessions rising to £500m in the next decade.
  • Council costs of waste management rising to £580m
  • Personal and nursing costs rising by 15% each year.
  • Free prescription and eye tests costing £150m each year.
  • Drug prescribing costs double what they were a decade ago.
  • The estimated cost of health and social care for people over 65 rising to £3.6bn by 2030.

The speech featured strong criticism of the lack of data with which to tell what is being spent on public services and how effectively. Mr Black said he was disappointed at the "glacially slow" progress despite repeated calls from Audit Scotland.

And he said that partnership working between councils, health boards and other bodies has become too complex and ineffective, without adequate financial controls.

He warned that councils lack a knowledge of the way other organisations provide social care, and are already threatening their survival by cutting funds.

Flagship policies

He suggested a national body should be set up to help councils contract for social care, providing expertise that is not available to many of the 32 councils.

And he reported that, in discussions with leading figures across the public sector, he had found strongly-held feelings that they were not getting support from political leaders "in openly addressing the real challenges of choosing priorities and driving down costs while maintaining service access and quality".

In response, Finance Secretary John Swinney said: "Our support for key universal benefits such as personal care for the elderly and prescriptions reduces costs in our hospitals, whilst the bus pass ensures our elderly can access services, remain part of their communities and benefit from the full range of public services available to them.

"All of these services and the others that we fund, such as free university education, are by definition affordable because they are being paid for now from within a fixed budget.

"Through the integration of our public services, including reform of police and fire services and delivery of adult social care, implementation of a public sector pay freeze, the delivery of a substantial efficiency programme, the reduction in the number of public bodies and a decisive shift towards early intervention, our actions ensure that we can protect essential services now.

"It is clear that whilst we can continue to manage declining UK spending, an independent Scotland will provide the economic levers to further stimulate growth, enhance productivity and strengthen the sustainability of our public finances."

Mr Black's comments were welcomed by Ms Lamont, who said: "The truth is that whatever government is in power, and whatever our constitutional arrangement, Scotland faces a public spending crisis. Every western country is facing these problems although ours are made worse by a Tory government which is cutting too far and too fast.

"This isn't about universal benefits versus means testing, it is about affordability. It is about examining policies which were affordable in times of growth, but which have become slogans which hurt those in need in times of recession".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    // robyn warrender
    Also to those who say England is paying for Scotland's "freebies", you insult all us hardworking taxpayers up here. Keep it up as it just adds fire to the independence cause//

    Remember, we, the English, are way more in favour of Scottish independence than the Scots are.

    So get as riled as you like, and just leave. Close the door behind you,and don't come back.

  • Comment number 14.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The Scots argue (convincingly) that the cost of administering the prescription fee was greater than the revenue gained. Given that only about 15% of prescriptions in England are paid for by the patient they're probably right. The admin costs involved in 'means testing' benefits are frequently greater than the saving made by the means testing.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    5. robyn warrender

    If you go independent you'll find it hard to fund all the students from England that will be eligible to go to Scottish universities on the same terms as Scottish (and other EU) students. You'll certainly find that a tad unsustainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    These services aren't free - they are paid for by the tax payers. So the question is will the tax payer be willing and able to pay the bill to keep services free at the point of delivery.

    The end goal is noble but until the vast waste and inefficiency in the way the services are run is addressed, at some point the costs will outstrip the level of taxation that is affordable and desirable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    That may change if they vote for independance. Lets just hope they do.
    After the last government got the ball rolling with devolution & created "the nations" its a bit too late now talk of "one nation". I sometimes wonder where they expected their devolution policies would lead to.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I agree with comments 1-3.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Of course it's not sustainable if us Englanders stop paying for it, and we should. If they want their independance, let them have it without our cash. Were strapped enough as it is

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Well when 50,000,000 people are paying for free everything for 5,000,000 then they are going to, inevitably, do it. I don't want Scotland to have independence, but I am looking forward to those voting yes trying to explain how they can be completely independent, and not go totally bankrupt because of the English bankroll going missing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The BBC become more and more like pravda each day. Robert Black, made these points back in 2008 so it is nothing new. We can afford them, it is a matter of prioritising and in an independent Scotland we won't have trident. Also to those who say England is paying for Scotland's "freebies", you insult all us hardworking taxpayers up here. Keep it up as it just adds fire to the independence cause

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    There is something fantastic about a society that offers non means tested benefits. Yes some rich people benefit but they more than compensate by the tax they pay. Benefits are popular, without stigma and are fully taken up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Scotland won't be able to afford these services, if they go it alone.

    Say no to independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The truth, put your fingers in your ears and go da,da,da.
    The state will not be able to provide the services that have been there.
    Any society that has placed wealth distribution before wealth production has fallen.
    Brown and his fellow incompetants, took this to new level spinning and borrowing to buy votes, leaving us with a huge debt and mess

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As long as the English keep paying for Scotland's services ( whilst we in England pay for our own ), then Scotland will keep providing them. Would't you ?


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