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 395.

    Be careful what you use as evidence. One of the biggest city bailouts was for RBS. What does the S stand for?

    & what would have happened if they'd let RBS & HBOS go bust, would it have just been Scotland that was hit, no England would have been hit just as hard, maybe worse because more of these banks business was in England than Scotland & the Scottish part was profitable

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.


    I'm not a nationalist, I find it inappropriate not because I wish to limit his free speech but rather he's making comments which could easily be viewed as being informed by robust work by Audit Scotland, as his comments as Auditor General were, when actually I don't think Audit Scotland have said the policy needs revisited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Dear "Son of Maggie and Norman"

    If Scotland is such a basket case nation, why were your staunch Unionist "parents" so desperate to hang on to it?

  • Comment number 392.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Too many people are getting off Scot free!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    I would make a list of anyone earning over 100k a year, I would stop their wages and force them to work down the mines for food and lodgings. This way the drain on society would cease to exist and free healthcare for everyone else would be no problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    All these arguments of independence is pretty silly. Polls in the last few years have shown at least 60% of Scotish nationals would support the union

    However, distrust between the nations will continue to grow but mostly from the English side towards the Scots. The biggest problem isn't money, its the "West Lothian Question"

    Until thats sorted, we are on the road towards a breakup of the union

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    364. Moose

    'I find it quite inappropriate that the ex-Auditor General is getting involved'

    Typical nationalist statement. He commented because we live in a free country that allows people the right to express their views. Why is it that 'nationalists', whatever country they may be from, feel the need to suppress opposing views?

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    BTW Oil production in the next 10 years is expected to drop by around 30%. So an indepedent Scotland would see its tax drop hugely just as independence was kicking in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    The unionist arguement is that free prescriptions / bus passses / education cannot be afforded on the Westminster handout as it is steadily reduced.

    The arguement of those seeking independence is that we can afford it by controlling our fiscal levers. Not having nuclear weapons on the clyde and not trying to rebuild the empire.

    An Independent Scotland will make different choices - simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    355 Connor McLeod! Many Scots believe that the maritime border is a straight latitude line drawn from Berwick eastwards. The assignment of continental shelf is based upon median lines like you say, but upon a deemed continuation of the land border as you go out to sea.

    The border between England and Scotland slopes up to the N.E. which puts goodly chunk in the "English Sector". Sorry

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    With an ageing population, giving away 'free' health and travel perks to pensioners paid for by the younger taxpayer will fail due to the law of diminishing returns. The minority cannot fund the majoirty. At some point the madness has to stop and it depends how much debt you want to be in before you decide the obivious and scrap the schemes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Is it paid for by taxes paid by the people of Scotland only or with help from the other parts of the UK?
    Scotland spends what it raises and a host of independent economic reports over the years have established that fact. The most subsidised part of the UK is the S-East of England who recently got between £9-18bn for the Olympics

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    there is quite a good case for restricting free travel to local so over 60's can do shopping & all the other things they need to do but not provide them with free holiday travel

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    Especially the care for the elderly is a financial timebomb. Whether free to everybody or means tested. We need to have a frank and grown-up conversation about this. And the media and the politicians need to recognise that there is no way around it and that we need arguments and solutions rather than propaganda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    The debt is piling up; we even borrow far into the future so that our children & our neighbour's children are born into debt to pay for our "free services" today. The NHS & other programs are Ponzi schemes. We can either choose to end it voluntarily & at least design our own transition from a nanny state or, economics will force the medicine down our children's' throats in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    341.Anglophone & 352.largejanner

    The problem is with the accounting - they class the tax raised in oil revenue as "westminster money" i.e. not attributed to Scotland but they then class the money spent on Scotland as a debit on the "Scottish balance sheet". If they allocated 91% of the oil money as a credit on the "Scottish balance sheet" the numbers would be more representative...

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    A bunch of inept, lying, cheating, swindling, fraudulent, subversive, untrustworthy, immoral megalomaniacs are spewing propaganda to support their own personal agendas - power and wealth. Politicians.

    It is working beautifully - here we are on HYS attacking the PEOPLE of England and Scotland.

    Who do you seriously believe you have more in common with? Who will really pay the price?

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    My parents retired last year. Between them they take home (after tax) £2500 a month in pensions, have an 18 month old car that is replaced brand new every 3 years on a contract lease. They think its ridiculous they qualify for heating allowances, free prescriptions and the like. Even if the time comes they can't drive, they could still more than afford the bus, taxi and train fares to get around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    Who will pay for these "free" services once Scotland becomes a sovereign nation?


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