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 495.

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

    The Pro-Scotland link you sent is worthless, as Scotland don't have a maritime boundary as they're not Independent? I'm not making it up it's fact that Convention UNCLOS III is how maritime boundaries are drawn up? No matter how much you don't like it, this is fact?

  • rate this

    Comment number 494.

    Any concessions we may get is merely a fraction of the compensation we're due for putting up with such whinging gits as neighbours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 493.


    I wonder what will happen when oil runs out

    What you don't realise is that the SNP are very pro-renewables (wind, wave and tide power) and are developing these technologies NOW. My main gripe with them is they're anti-nuclear which I think is a mistake.
    They're far from being a 1 issue party. In 20 years they've taken most of Labour's voters from under their nose...

  • rate this

    Comment number 492.

    How does the funding for 'free' bus passes work? I thought that it was only when you used the pass on the bus that a cost is incured by the Local Authority. Is there another cost associated with administering bus passes (i.e. a cost incurred to issue a bus pass, even though it might never be used for travel). If the cost is only when you travel how many rich pensioners are there that travel by bus

  • rate this

    Comment number 491.

    What would happen to the money that they say would be saved. If any would be saved. How much would it cost to seperate the rich from the poor, how rich is rich, I think we should wait until Labour is back in power in Scotland so they can remove all free items, then they can tell the world that how much they saved and where it is. But hopefully that will never happen if we are sensible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 490.

    The old Tory ploy Divide and Conquer oh boy is it working well, even better this time around DC and his ilk have learned the lessons from MT and JM and improved them and of course the few believed the lies and voted them in always put the blame on those less able to stand up for themselves tax avoidance cost much more than the welfare state but that truth is hidden away

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    Why is all this stuff free in Scotland anyway?

    Cant people up North afford to pay for anything? Maybe getting a job a paying for things might restore a bit of pride back. Bankers, mp's, public sector workers and jobless wasters all steal from the state. So why does anyone care? my advice is to earn money enough not to worry about all this stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 488.

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

    454. postingdude "this is the umpteenth 'the bbc is working for' - whomever their secret masters are its not that obvious..."

    Then let me make it clearer - the EU is now controlled by the old East German Stasi, trying to re-gain their power.

    The other week BBC R4 gave a Stasi Colonel airtime to say what great job they did!

  • rate this

    Comment number 487.

    Mr Cameron:
    Why is "yes/no" the only question you will allow me to vote on regarding Scotland's membership of the UK? Why not a "devo-max" question?

    Why is "devo-max" the only question you would consider allowing me to vote on regarding the UK's membership of the EU? Why not a "yes/no" question?

    Constitutional muddle? Or fear that you will be delivered two "wrong" results?

  • rate this

    Comment number 486.

    Good grief, from some of the comments on here it does sound as if half of Scotland is prepared to take over from Greece as the No1 most economically inept nation on earth just to 'escape the clutches of the evil English'. Should they get independence maybe they could have no taxes and free everything, frankly I'm not bothered either way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 485.

    Please check your facts the US never bailed out Citizens Bank (RBS US), we did. The biggest loss RBS made was due to the disastrous ABN Amro acquisition (a dutch bank). Don't think Holland bailed out ABN Amro parts RBS bought.Cross border bail outs have been because the banks (Dexia/Fortis) were incorporated/registered in multiple countries

  • rate this

    Comment number 484.

    474 bungle99

    Bungle, if Scotland was indepedent RBS's investment banking arm (which is where almost all the debt was built up) would need to have had a registered office in England in order to do business. This is why RBS's and HBOS's arms in the US were bailed out by the US Gov. Unfortunately for you, rUK would still have been responsible for the debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 483.

    This what happens when the SNP are a 1 issue party, they don't know how to do anything else but bang on about independence as a result they would be prefer to see scotland have a slow death than sort things out now and admit they can't afford everything.

    I wonder what will happen when oil runs out or more like people stop needing it due to electric cars, not long now give a decade or so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 482.

    These so called freebies were all part of the SNP manifesto before they were elected. Unlike the other parties that promise jam tomorrow but never deliver. The system may be creaking at the seams but for now it is holding up. I wonder if Robert Black has been promised something in the new years honours list. I heard Lamont's speech last week and I thought she was a Tory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 481.

    I wish more prominent and respected Scots such as Billy Connoly would speak out more against independence. Even if Scotland got its independence and had a disportionate share of the oil - any financial benefits would be very short lived as all of the fields - have roughly 10 useful years left. The political damage to Scotlands nearest trading partner would however be catastropic and permanent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 480.

    @451. Blumphie

    O.K but what would happen if the Shetland & Orkney islands vote to remain part of the Union as both seem to be questioning it. Its not like you can force independence on them.

    Also, how would that effect the SNP's figures considering the area's contain alot of the oil Salmond is counting on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    Johann Lamont is a disgrace and the reason that Scottish Labour will lose further votes. Again, they may just get those Conservative votes for those misguided Tory supporters that think that their backing will make any difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    It's depressing that we are scrapping among ourselves over who should get what and what should be taken away while the bankers who have been robbing us blind for years get to keep their bonuses and exorbitant wages. It is they who should be the target of our anger. With bus passesl, the tax payer would need to subsidise many routes anyway, so they might as well get something back for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.


    quote: "Why in gods name must WE pay?"

    So it's okay as long as you don't have to pay for it? If we all thought like that "take. take, take", it would be a much worse country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    "Something for nothing" society, is it now? Well sure, because no one in Scotland pays any taxes, do they, to fund those "somethings." Those same taxes pay your wages, Johann Lamont. It's YOU who's getting something for nothing, out of other people's money!


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