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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  • Comment number 95.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Bring back MEANS TESTING. The well off pensioners should NOT benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Re 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"
    This gets a high + score.
    We want free NHS, nice schools, new train lines, good social care. What then? But we don't pay, we borrow!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Polls show consistently 60-70% of people in Scotland support the Scottish Parliament being given full control over all domestic tax and spending to be more accountable. It's Westminster that still wants to hold onto the purse strings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    @ 55 Edingirl

    I seriously doubt you should be lecturing anyone on being opinionated and overbearing if you say things like ' England is an overpopulated hell hole'

    Your mouth is no better than any anti Scot Madam. I think it's time you grew up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I might be more willing to consider the arguments if they weren't loaded with the word "free". None of these services are free. They've been paid for by people paying tax and national insurance all their lives.

  • Comment number 89.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    . Scotland contributes MORE into the UK Treasury than it actually gets back.

    This calculation is based on an assumption that none of the UK wide costs for example for Armed Forces are actually Scottish bills while all of the revenue from the North Sea and Irish Sea are entirely Scottish only incomes.

    Who owns what isn't settled. But if Scotland goes it alone presumably we will find out

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    It is more cost effective to make prescriptions free for all than it costs to administer prescription charges..

    That's why its free in Scotland & Wales.

    Sorry England ,Westminster would rather waste money than take care of their people. You're being ripped off it's not the fault of the Scots.

    £40m on trains this week what will it be next week??

    Think about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    What is BBC Scotland like, they won’t allow comments on Scottish political stories as a rule, but when it a certain story suits them, they occasionally allow comments, and even have the gall to encourage comments from down south by linking the story to the rest of the UK under the guise of, “Scots free services not sustainable”.

    It is hardly subtle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    67. AuntieLeft
    Who is to blame?
    We are.
    We vote in politicians who spin and lie to get votes and whose policies are not sustainable. All built on the Brown 'smoke and mirrors' fiscal policy of building up debt that someone (looks like our kids and grand kids) will have pay.
    50% of the population are to blame, the rest don't vote in general elections, and an even higher %ge in local elections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Scotland's free services? You means the ones paid for by the ENGLISH tax payer? What on earth will they do if they become independent? Go begging to Norway?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I want Scotland to become independent. My son wants University in a couple of years time, and an Independent Scotland will give him a free one. Thanks Scotland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    They told us many Welsh government concessions were not sustainable in WalesThis is just properganda to keep Scotland in the UK.We have free prescriptions in Wales because it is cheaper than processing prescriptions, we have bus passes, we have free museums, We now handle our own education, local government etc and as the people of Wales voted for more freedom in March 2011 we know its works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    @66 - each nation does not decide how it spends its taxes - England has no devolved government and therefore no opportunity to direct her own taxes, and the devolved nations only receive a percentage taxes raised in their nation as a block grant - thats the crux of the matter those in favour of independence want complete control of the spend of taxes raised in Scotland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I know where you are coming from in terms of we are to blame for electing dishonest selfish politicians, but at every election we only have a choice of electing one selfish, incompetent politician or another (i.e. vote for the lesser of two evils) so unless the entire way we elect people changes we will be stuck with gravy train merchants ad infinitum.

  • Comment number 79.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The EU have recently made it clear that if Scotland go independent not only will the UK be making claims for North sea oil but The Dutch and Norwegians will also be able to restake their existing claims. So i just hope whatever Scotland votes for they dont do it with the assumption that they are oil rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    If I lived in Scotland Iwould be voting for indpendence that way they can protect these services that people have fought to preserve. If celebrities and civil servants at the BBC to name paid their taxes correctly then maybe this would help. They are psuedo thieves.The BBC and others are helping to destroy democracy in the UK. They feed you want you are allowed to hear and talk about but hide many

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Free Haggis for all !!!


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