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 35.

    It's about time someone has said it, well done Robert Black.

    The fact is the Scottish Government can play the role of the Cool Uncle, dishing out anything/everything we ask for without worrying about the consequences. Anything he can't give, he just blames Uncool Dad.

    Salmond knows this, and is playing us like fools. If independence comes, we'll soon find out what hard decisions really mean.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Is there any truth in the rumour that the West Coast Main Line franchise is now going to terminate services at Carlisle?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    This is exactly why Scotland needs more power! At the moment it simply isn't fair that Scotland receives additional free services next to the rest of the UK. If Scotland had autonomy over tax, spend and its resources it can either pay for those services...or not. If it can then fair enough, it it can't then tough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    @5 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”

    Your right we are insulting the Scots, the English are horrible, nasty nation, your better off independent

    Let's start an insult Scotland campaign!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The uneducated notion that England subsidises Scotland is amusing. If the English knew how to run a country, raise children and just be generally more intelligent, they could have it as nice as us Scots too, we give them enough money to at least try and better themselves after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Trout Mask Replica - EU numbers are currently capped at undergraduate level in many Scottish universities - just like the number of English students would be capped post-independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    In an age were everyone is losing jobs,taking pay cuts and wage freezes, why is it so taboo to talk about cutting benefits? It seems if you are on benefits they continue to rise more than inflation, why is this? It cant be right for someone to travel all over Scotland for free on a bus, it should be limited to their region, its not essential to go on a day trip just cause its free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    What is 'left out' of such thinking is the reasoning behind the decision to offer such 'free' services in the first place. Need is the answer. Take travel passes,the point is or should be that old people who have no travel pass will not be able to go out so often and will become a bigger burden on the state.It is the economics of the mad house,sadly it fast becoming government policy too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Don't worry if Scotland goes broke you can all move to England, there are plenty of houses here and the streets are paved with gold.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    If only the English taxpayer/voter, so keen to bemoan the 'paying for' of Scottish services, were informed in the same way the government at Westminster are then the man on the street would be as desperate as the government for Scotland to remain with in the UK - Scotland and her resources subsidise UK spending and without Scotland the rUK would be far worse off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "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"

    Bye bye 'Englanders' then!! Let us see you go the way of the US with astonishing social inequality and tax breaks for the rich. Let's see how that works out for you 'taxpayers' as clearly, we Scots pay no tax.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Why are Scottish MPs allowed to vote on matters which only affect England because they are devolved in Scotland?
    Talk about having your cake and eating it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The £40 million just wasted on the West Coast Franchise debacle would pay for quite a few free prescriptions, wouldn't it?

    Westminster inneficiency & waste (especially MOD contracts) is way above giving Scots a few freebies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    You want designer clothes, a new car, a nice holiday and all the fine things in life.

    That's great. But you got to pay for it.

    Same in Government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I'm an Englishman, and I've stated before I wish you chaps well in your bid for independance. I do think however you need to be realistic, the reason why the marority of affluent states don't offer "freebies" like yours is simply a matter of economics. The costs of trident and income from "world leading" greens will not fund the tea party post independance. Remember that before you picket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    let them go - and pay their own way

    and perhaps we'll then have a quieter neighbour

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I wonder how Alec Salmond will try to spin this to say it is all Westminsters fault. The sooner we are rid of these SNP duds the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    How about some joined up adult thinking?

    Take away free travel, hit the poorest pensioners, public transport usage falls, services are withdrawn. If people can get out and about, they should remain physically and mentally healthier for longer, maintaining contact with their social network. If the need for social care, and health and mental illness increase, does it really help the budget?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @1. HaveIGotThatWrong - I'm not sure I would classify printing money / borrowing money as strictly 'paying' for services :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    If the Scots want to spend their money on health care, travel concessions etc., rather than Trident and tax cuts for the wealthy they should be able to choose to do so. We in England will never get such choices.


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