Cuts will be 'ugly' says watchdog

Auditor general Robert Black
Image caption Auditor General Robert Black said cuts were going to a "tough challenge"

Politicians will need to show strong leadership and pull together in the face of public service cuts, Scotland's top spending watchdog has said.

Robert Black, the auditor general for Scotland, told the BBC the cuts would be "ugly", "severe" and "dismal".

He said that the country faced "a long, hard financial winter".

Mr Black said he regretted that people across Scottish society failed to start planning for tighter spending several years ago.

The auditor general, who is responsible for keeping a check on the spending of publicly-funded organisations such as the Scottish government, councils and the NHS, said there had never been a tougher time to be a politician.

However, Mr Black warned MSPs and councillors not to take the easier options, such as cutting the £4bn maintenance backlog or funding for the voluntary sector.

He said not-for-profit organisations were already found to offer quality and value, and would be essential to more diverse public services when government sought to rebuild from the cuts in five to 10 years.

Mr Black also spoke on Wednesday at a conference in Edinburgh organised by Holyrood Magazine, where he warned free provision - of prescriptions or bus travel, for instance - would quickly come to be seen as a right, when it could soon be found to be "unaffordable".

He said the media's emphasis on the prospects for spending cuts tended to ignore the pressure from considerable existing and growing commitments.

These include the growing cost of the backlog maintenance and demographic change, as the number of older people with health and care needs increased.

The auditor general also highlighted public pension liabilities that needed consideration, and that private finance contracts were a commitment which could not now be cut.

He added that users of services would have to contribute more in future, and that public service workers would have to be more flexible.

And Mr Black said that the value placed on shared services was a good one but it tended to crowd out alternative ways of providing.

Auditor General Robert Black on public spending cuts, in his own words:

The scale of the cuts:

"It means going from fifth gear into reverse in a year or two, and there are huge commitments built into public services, so it's very difficult to make this sort of change as quickly as is going to be required, because public services have to balance the books. So it's a really tough challenge."

On the lack of forward planning:

"I do wish a few years ago, all of us in Scottish society had thought more seriously about the way we're going as a society with public services, and how we use this investment spend to design services more efficiently and effectively.

"Those questions are still there, but what we are facing is really severe short-term cuts in areas where we can get expenditure out quickly, and that is going to have an affect on the workforce and on some services people enjoy at present."

On party politics:

"We're all in this together. There's never been a tougher time to be a politician, and this is an issue that all of us in Scottish society must share together - all political parties and all of us as users of services and taxpayers.

"It's too big an issue to be seen as purely a party political issue".

The short and the longer term:

"There's a two stage process. The first stage is the really tough one. It's going to be quite ugly and that's the business of reducing spending quickly in order to make sure we are balancing the books in the early years.

"But at the same time we've got to think about the long term redesign of public services, which is going to be so important if we look at the challenges to services beyond 2015."

The message to public sector workers:

"There's a challenge not only for the politicians but for trade unions as well.

"We need to take seriously getting more flexibility into the workforce, that means thinking about redesign of jobs, making jobs more flexible and also more flexible contracts, working different weeks of the year and so on. That's a way you can get costs down."

On protecting some services from cuts:

"I think ring-fencing is a concept that I would not encourage.

"To put it brutally, let's say the decision is going to be taken to ring-fence the NHS.

"It carries the implication that every pound spent in the NHS is being spent as efficiently as possible.

"I don't think that is the case. I don't think any part of the public sector should be removed from the challenge of running services more efficiently."

On more diverse provision of public services:

"We've got to be much more sophisticated in thinking about the added value the public gets from services.

"For example, in the short term, it's quite clear a lot of the money that goes to the third sector - the not-for-profit sector, or the voluntary sector - the studies we've done, and others, indicate that sector produces huge value in terms of quality of life for the people of Scotland, so we've got to find a way of taking that into account.

"After the long hard financial winter, we will have to rebuild some of these services, so that at the same time the hard decisions are being taken, we should think seriously about where we plant the seeds for the longer term.

"That will include new ways of working and a new role for the not-for-profit sector."

On free provision of public services:

"When these free services are introduced, like free prescription charges, within a very short period, attitudes move on and it becomes a right.

"That's one of the really hard issues we're going to have to address, and it's going to require some quite strong leadership and a sense of reality from those who benefit from these services that they're not going to be affordable in the longer term.

"Another element of this is thinking seriously about sharing the costs, so those of us who are more affluent pay part of the cost.

"This could do a great deal to ease the pressure on public services".

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