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 455.

    445.telemark lozzie
    If you read the article its all hypothetical and pre-supposes that the rUK treasury would step in and help Scotland to stop the crisis speading.It states Scotland would probably only bail out a small %. If you were part of the EU/EURO they would have bailed you out.
    Production in 2007 dropped more than any other country and we NOW (GB) import oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 454.


    But why do the BBC do it? Because they are working for the EU/Germany

    this is the umpteenth "the bbc is working for" - whomever their secret masters are its not that obvious - paranoia only a step away

  • rate this

    Comment number 453.

    The country has been living well beyond its means for decades and all the taxes have already been spent by the various governments. If fact, the UK has a huge debt on top of spending all the taxes it collected.

    Therefore all these free services are being paid for by the current working population. Pensioners should not think that governments have set aside retirement funds for free services.

  • rate this

    Comment number 452.

    @ 430. Whistling Neil
    "effect of Scots MPs voting on English only matters in Westminster has been of no practical significance since devolution"

    I think you should look back at the last government. Foundation hospitals, tuition fees are just 2 that come to mind. Labour MP's revolted, Labour hierarchy called on Scotish MP's to carry the vote as they knew they would have been defeated. Not good

  • rate this

    Comment number 451.

    444. Divot

    Here is Scotland's EEZ:

    It's amazing the amount of people that are so clueless as to think the sea border would follow the land border.

  • rate this

    Comment number 450.

    Why is it that BBC Scotland can't open comment on a Scottish issue without dispaying it PROMINANTLY on the front UK page?

    Is it that without encouraging an English input their unionist propaganda simply isn't accepted, and they can't find much support for their views?

    BBC Scotland is bias!

  • rate this

    Comment number 449.

    Independence will benefit EVERYONE except Westminster

    Different policies, tax, culture, industries, welfare, education, opportunities, futures, democratic styles etc etc etc

    If Scotland stay OUTSIDE of the EU, like Norway, then opportunities and choices for the little guy will be huge, needing no more effort than a scoot across the border in your car

  • rate this

    Comment number 448.

    432 Connor McLeod

    I actually am a geologist and in one respect you're right. Originally production was expected to cease in the 1990s and yet here we are. Improved recovery can delay the end but won't reverse the process. While I'd bet that oil will still be produced in 2030, the amounts will be small. Peak production has been and gone and it ain't coming back, no matter how much people wish!

  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    @425. EphemeralDeception "It is unacceptable that the BBC Scotland promote Scottish debates to be saturated by an English audience to encourage ignorant and baseless rants..."

    Hear, hear!

    But why do the BBC do it? Because they are working for the EU/Germany - and so encourage division between Scots and English, to weaken the UK. Divide and Rule.

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    90. Andi : I agree with you 100% so do a lot of other people.
    Its not a question of whether or not these services are free, its a question of who pays for them. 384.
    Commentator : yes! why should young working people who won't ever have the same perks as older people do now pay for them?
    Whats wrong with means testing these services? 'Free' at the point of need? Surely that makes sense?

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    JasonEssex. An independent Scotland could of afforded the banking bailout. Even the BBC managed to report this correctly

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    Yes I've read about that scenario too. Even if the line slopes up it still leaves Scotland with about 85% of the Oil so only about 6% less.

    We'll have to agree to disagree as I find the opposite, either way why has this not been discussed earlier, as it'll have a huge bearing on whether Independence is sustainable and will alter many Scots & Brits view on Scottish Independence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    SNP will find this bad reading. Their entire popularity is based on being able to "give" these perks out, and claiminng that they can because they are free from whitehall. Sadly the real world means you cannot spend more than you receive without something having to give.

    This is why the SNP should not be allowed anywhere near public office

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    Offer a free service and demand rises. What a surprise. Obviously there is such a thing as a free lunch after all. Or politicians that NEVER see beyond the next election. Then the food runs out and the free lunch ends and we are surprised. Being a simpleton I am still working out why 2 + 2 is not to equal 5 as our masters seem to believe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    Read before you jump! I was replying to someone else who said the Scottish part was profitable and rUK would have had to bail out the bits that lost all the money. I replied in independent states it wouldn't work that way! And yes I view RBS/HBOS as British and I believe the Britsh tax payer was right to bail them out. PS like most English people I like Scots and Scotland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.


    "I'm concerned the SNP are spending beyond Scotland's means to bribe us into independence and divide the union. Seems to be working!"

    How can they spend beyond their means? The Coalition decides how much they can spend? The SNP can only choose how they spend that money, and as their budget has been cut, where they can making savings.It is all about priorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    " The bribery and perfidy of the SNP is finally being exposed, let's hope it isn't too late to stop them destroying our country."

    So you'd prefer the destruction of our country by westminster? That is what will happen without independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    418.frogspawner "... if you want to see Scotland's 'independent' future - look at Greece now."

    422. postingdude "Yes but Greece has the wrong kind of oil."

    "Yes" - glad you see what the SNP are up to, too.

    But whatever type of oil, the principle is the same - EU/Germany gets it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    As we all pay the same taxes what is it the Scots are missing out on that we in England benefit from so they can spend their money on these benefits?

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    @ 420.Hugh

    But I thought that the Tories in Scotland ,was a thing of the past and that they had been completely eradicated as a political entity please don't tell me they are breeding in significant numbers again?


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