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 55.


    Thanks for 'letting us'. England is an overpopulated hell hole but don't let that stop you being opinionated and overbearing about other countries. DIdn't take long for the FRIED MARS bar clanger. At least be original in your insults.... I doubt any anti-Scots here have the intelligence for that though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    RE 18. Elderly bus passes. How much do they really cost?
    My father has one. He just shows it and gets on the bus. No record appears to be kept. So how do they know how many are using this facility? Are the bus companies subsidised as a mass subsidy or based on usage? Pensioners with cars presumably use buses less. How are they subsidised?

    The devil is always in the detail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Whiskey, smoking, gambling, murder. The Scots have a much higher prevelance than us English folk and we have to pay to clean up their mess. Let them break away and see how they get on then....

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    I love Scotland,but I do get frustrated with some of their fixtation on how the UK has oppressed them. In many ways it's done the opposite. Regional pride can destroy a nations relationship with others. Being from Italy I know this. It's a key part into why Italy is such an abysmal mess. No one gets along properly. Please don't let the uk like that! I really don't want to go home!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The costs mentioned above can easily be met by a) Serious clamp down on tax evasion, b) Cancelling Trident, c) Derailing the gov. contact gravy train that led to the recent rail bidding fiasco.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Free prescriptions and eye tests have always seemed crazy, why SHOULDNT we contribute to the cost of our own health care? We get free treatment for which I feel very fortunate, we SHOULD contribute a bit ourselves. Its our health! People expect too much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    17 Minutes ago
    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 ?
    You are wrong. If the Scots choose to implement different policies from England it is their prerogative; that is what devolution is all about. Something else in Scotland suffers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    But, pray tell kiind sir, what else would one do with cake but eat it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I think the SNP has done well and have no problem with them whatsoever , but as a 58 year old employed male I certainly wouldn't object to paying for prescriptions and bus travel. Having been employed in the drugs industry as a manual worker and seen the process involved it is expensive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Don't worry us southerners will pick up the tab again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Scotland cannot afford these free. at point of contact, service whether we vote for separation or not and who ulitmately pays for it is a smokescreen. Scotland spends the money it is allocated just as Wales and NI does and we all contribute.

    The simple truth is we cannot afford it. The perverse idea of freezing Council tax has meant the loss of 2000 local jobs over the past two years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It's shame that we are not trying to find ways of changing the system to allow us to provide these services. Unfettered Capitalism (everyone for themselves) has lead to the wealth funneled upwards to a minority, paid for by debt from the majority. Balance the wealth and nobody would begrudge the provision of a few "freebies". Undecided on independence, but perhaps an opportunity to change things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I also have a message to those who think that people on high wages should not get anything back from society - we pay more in tax and NI than those on lower wages and whilst I am not saying we should get welfare benefits, I do think we have a right to access health care free at the point of use and I also think we have the right to a decent, free education system. I already pay for these dearly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    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."

    Another example of thorough due diligence by the political thinktanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.


    Off you pop then. Don't let us English stop you

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    It's chilling that this politician actually says there "was no hint" that costs would rise this fast. No hint of an ageing population? No hint of a growing retired demographic? These the idiots in charge of the country! Ones that can't even plan ten years ahead, never mind fifty. The country is in real trouble as GDP costs will have to at least double over the next 20 and these guys are clueless.

  • Comment number 39.

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

  • Comment number 38.

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

  • Comment number 37.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    its idealistic crashing because they are not realistic.... it happends alot in England its nothing but a migraine which by the way costs to sort out too....hhmmm irony


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