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 515.

    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
    We have our own corrupt politicians, masses of people on welfare, a useless civil service and a general culture of incompetence and entitlement

    in short

    Scotland is ready for Independence !

    Roll on the independence vote

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    It is senseless to give public money to those who do not need it. Yet the cost of means testing makes universal benefits attractive. Society needs to direct Government policy. Children have no “right” to expect a legacy if their parents need the money in their own lifetime. A home is a shelter which must be paid for. I concur we expect more than we are willing to pay for!

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    Nothing is 'free' we are currently paying for these services through our taxes and the OAP's have been paying for them all their lives also. If the government wasn't the worst book-keepers and most inefficient organisation out there, we wouldn't have such problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    more scare mongering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    I will leave this debate for the scots .... the question scots have to ask is , if we have independence how sure are we that our annual revenues will be as predicted/hoped because if the reality is different then a lot thats free now simply wont be in future and a lot of other things could cost a lot more than they do now .

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    I live in the South with wife and 2 kids and another on the way. I have an aupair a dog and a cat. I only have a 4 bed house.So I need a 5 bed house,so I was thinking I need an extra £100-£150K to move up the property ladder. So can the Scottish Government give me that cash? After all I have paid a lot more then that in taxes to prop up your feeble moaning country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    If the Scots do vote to break away from the UK, it would be a seismic shift.

    But there's no reason it need be irrevocable. Another vote should be fixed for 5 or 10 years after, to ask if the Scots wished to re-join the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    Free? I worked for years, paid my taxes and NI contributions, and served my Country in the Forces. I paid over and over for "free" services. A youngster, an immigran t- none who have contributed - all get free treatment, meals, glasses, housing, etc. What do I get? Derision and a feeling that I should remove myself from this mortal coil so that they can benefit from my contributions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.


    thankyou, you have made my day!

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    It makes no sense (except for politicians egos) to have different rules for Scot, Wales & Eng. We are one country and it is not fair to give citizens of Scotland different benefits to those of England. If Scotland was independent it would be different, but in my view that would be far too complicated to do as no one would agree on the terms (distribution of Debt/oil/wealth/defence/CorpTax).

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    We pay tax. If there'ss no money for services, you either make them cheaper, reduce them or increase the money

    The choice is between removing winter fuel allowance or making people pay for prescriptions and collecting taxes properly from big companies, or MPs doing thier Jobs properly, not wasting £40million of taxpayers money on a corrupt tendering system. Its easy to see what the problem is

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    We need to focus on facts in this debate.Free at the point of access is the key.None of the services in the UK are free as the word is defined.What governments in th UK need to do is get the taxed money working smarter.Don't sign illegal contracts where you have to give millons of taxed money in compensation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    481. Oh, so the new figure is now 10 years, is it? Funny that they said there were only 20 years of oil left, 40 years ago. Oh, what’s this!?:

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    The fact is Scotland isn't independant, ascribing things to it as though it were is nonsensical, if Scotland had gained independance in the past, it would be different, as one example, Scotland never liked New Labour so an independant Scotland might well, though might not have rejected neo-liberal inspired light banking regulation in favour a much tougher traditional left wing regulation approach

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    473.telemark lozzie
    You seem to forget that Alex Salmond was best mates with Fred Goodwin and praised his takeover of RBS. If anything RBS would have been more lightly regulated. And RBS US operations were not bailed out by the US, we bailed them out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    There is one secret weapon which we in England - have had enough of and that's moaning by Scots. Independence if it happened would have one benefit - all those Scots in England - either moaning or drunk - could be deported North of the border and we could all get on with our lives happily in England/miserable and resentful in Scotland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    It is quite obvious why we have free University places, free prescriptions, free bus passes etc in Scotland - it is purely for Political reasons. Everything under SNP appears better than the rest of the UK - what a great job they are doing. The referendum comes and independance is much easier to justify because we have never had it so good-until afterwards when we will all pay the price big time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    The cost has risen by amounts that everyone not politically motivated said they would. Had they looked beyond their blinkered socialist ideology they would have seen that. But no, it's always the same. Socialists always run out of other people's money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.


    You seem to think those south of the wall in England are all pro-union. I can tell you that this is not the case, and a lot of us are also sick of the pro-union bias as well shown on the BBC website (UK IS NOT A COUNTRY BBC!!!) So be proud to be Scottish because I know I am to be English. And maybe once you've devolved you can start raising YOUR own taxes to pay for your OWN free services!

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    "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"

    There is no such Law. RBS and HBOS are multinationals. Please explain the US RBS operations bailed out by the US Fed reserve?


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