Ex-auditor general Black questions affordability of free Scottish services
By Richard Johnstone | 5 October 2012
Former Scottish auditor general Bob Black has questioned whether the Scottish Government will continue to be able to fund a range of free public services amid spending cuts.
Black, who held the top audit post from its formation in February 2000 until July this year, said the affordability of universal services such as free personal care and the concessionary travel scheme for pensioners had ‘to be questioned’.
Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland programme, he said 12.5% was being taken out of the Scottish Government budget to 2014/15, with ‘all the indications’ that the spending challenges were going to continue after that. Only around a third of the planned cuts had been made so far, he added, and providing universal services affected others that were not as well funded.
Black called for a debate ‘as a society’ on spending plans for universal services, which in Scotland include free prescriptions and a council tax freeze. ‘We do have to revisit it. Every pound that goes on free services, such as bus passes for well-off older people, is not there to do other things,’ he said.
‘We [Audit Scotland] did a report a couple of years ago on health and community transport, which is really, really important for vulnerable people.
Because of council tax capping and the pressure on councils, we saw those being put back, and people were getting more and more isolated in their homes. That, in turn, meant they were having a poor quality of life and for the public sector it probably meant they will be admitted to hospital more often because they can’t get to the community care facilities.’
Black called on the Scottish Parliament to create a ‘commission on resources and performance in Scotland’ that would be able to provide ‘good analysis to inform the debate’.
He added: ‘We need to get to a place where we can talk about these things quite frankly and openly, tolerate differences of opinion being expressed, and then allow the politicians to absorb that information, take it forward and develop the policies.
‘Somehow we have to find a space to talk about these issues, which matter because if our public services cannot continue to be delivered to the level people expect then people will suffer – the vulnerable will suffer, the elderly will suffer.’
Black’s comments come after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont last week cast doubt on the party’s continued support for free university tuition, the council tax freeze and free NHS prescriptions.
In a speech last week, Lamont said that ‘someone always pays in the end’ for universal services. She added: ‘I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need.
‘If we wish to continue some policies as they are then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere. If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, then the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with little options.’
Black, who was speaking yesterday after he gave a lecture on public services to the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh, welcomed the attempt to lead a debate on public spending.
‘The moves being made by the Labour Party in Scotland to actually ask questions I think is a good thing. We have to do more of that, but we need to do that as a society. Can we really afford some of the services that are free at the point of delivery given some of the numbers in the Audit Scotland reports?’