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 475.

    Peak production has been and gone and it ain't coming back...

    As a scientist, you should know better that to make these sorts of statements. What you said is probably true, but new fields are being explored west of shetland - if they have greater reserves than expected then the situation changes again...
    Never say never - unless & until you know ALL the facts...

  • rate this

    Comment number 474.

    RBOS and HBOS have registered legal HQ adresses in Scotland. And if you know the law that is where the liability should have been claimed from. It doesn't matter where a company trades. So ergo; Scotland would have had to stump up all the bucks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    "445.telemark lozzie If you read the article its all hypothetical"

    Yes! the assumption that an independent Scotland would have deregulated their banks in the first place is hypothetical. And now Proffesor Hallet c/o the BBC:

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    @450. X_Sticks "Why is it that BBC Scotland can't open comment on a Scottish issue without dispaying it PROMINANTLY on the front UK page? ... BBC Scotland is bias!"

    Yes, the BBC are fostering English/Scottish division, trying to help break-up the UK. So their EU masters can grab Scotland.

    Please don't fall for it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    Don't you love it when some rich guy decides what is best for us plebs? How wearying it is to hear the same old garbage from the same quarter. We must pay for 'free' services, those same services our tax is used for. Why not 'liberate' some of the vast wealth of the rich (or at least collect their tax) and use it for something other than their own personal luxuary. Why in gods name must WE pay?

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    Once again a story by an unknown person guessing how much services will cost and coming up with a scary figure is highlighted in the news. My article on on how much money will be diverted from the leisure services, public transport, and food providers, into the pockets of the drug companies and road lobby has been ignored.

    Any such savings will not save the country from its spiralling debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    425 Epemeraldeception

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

    Absolutely...Scotland is a proud separate nation and is quite capable of having its own ignorant baseless rants without any help from the English thank you very much ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    426 Because the number of prescription that are paid for are very small. 88% of prescriptions in England are dispensed free anyway.
    The estimated income (from Govt figures) for England is only 450million (once cost of administration is deducted, 50% of the income!). The problem with free is most get filled - paid for around 5% or more simply don't. Self rationing care, that is the truth of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    How many times? STOP paying benefits except job seekers to young people. Start paying benefits to people once they have completed every decade of work. Make the older workers responsible for the welfare of their younger family members. STOP NHS to more than 5 person family groups. Over 3 children would be a luxury. With less benefits in their youth, they would have smaller families anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    Well what do you know? Scotland not viable as an independent nation - and yesterday its university ratings plummeted down to a rating in top 200! - Justice served I think for the SNP decreeing that education is free in Scotland to anyone except the English.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    If they had to pay the true cost would they still favour independence?

    The numbers from Westminster are hooky and the SNP will be claiming the birth of a new eutopia

    We should struggle by though, our parallels with Norways situation are uncanny

    Our only really BIG problem is the British Disease of rubbish managers and politicians

    Maybe we should get the Norwegians to run our country

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    411. Jason

    That debt was built up by the investment banking arm located in the City of London. Scotland isn't responsible for most of it. Didn't you bother to find out why the US bailed out RBS's arm located there? Or why there have been cross border bailouts in Europe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    @445. telemark lozzie "An independent Scotland could of afforded the banking bailout. Even the BBC managed to report this correctly"

    Er, but the BBC is an EU/German propaganda tool these days, and so anti-UK. (It only supports the Tories on less significant matters - remember how they handled "Cameron's Veto"?).

    So I'd view that report with deep suspicion, if I were you...

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.


    I'm perfectly aware of that - I used it as a point to illustrate that if a fund HAD been built up, it could have been used to help during tough times. Instead, the money was just spent as it came in...
    There is no long-term thinking by Govt.
    As any sensible investor knows, once you build up a fund to a certain size, compounding does all the work

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.

    No surprise here - well there is actually. The surprise is that it has taken this long for this way of 'buying votes' to come to light. No wonder many Scots favour independence - they have been seduced by these 'give aways' - if they had to pay the true cost would they still favour independence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    "RBS and HBOS were located in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, with Edinburgh only then assuming a proportionate share of around, possibly, only five percent of the total costs concerned."

    GEORGE WALKER: Professor in financial law, Queen Mary University London and Glasgow University

    As part of the UK we get to pay 10%, Lucky us!

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    SNP will find this bad reading. Their entire popularity is based on being able to "give" these perks out .claiminng that they can because they are free from whitehall.

    I think you'll find the people of Scotland know only too well the services that have been cut or that they have to pay more for to fund these "perks", parents paying 400% more for music tuition in one area as an example

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    Re 286 McGill

    Gordon Brown is Scottish.
    The recession started towards the end of the New Labour govt and was caused by excessive borrowing to buy an unsustainable economic boom, and failing to regulate the banks.
    Some people have short memories!

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    Promises are made not for the long term good of the Scottish people but merely to keep those making the promises in power. If ever the Scots vote for independence then they'll find out the true cost of running a country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    Bankers and their chums live in luxury through THEIR retirement,money all squirreled away so the taxman can't get it. In the meantime they posit that pensioners should lose their heating allowances,bus passes,daycare centres,free prescriptions and so on. Amazes how the solution to economic problems from the well to do is always the same - attack the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the elderly.


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