Brian Monteith: Bob Black’s book-balancing ideas worth considering
THE former auditor general’s views on Scotland’s finances should be read by all MSPs, writes Brian Monteith
When a former auditor general makes an intervention into the politicial discourse of a nation, it is a contribution worth considering. Last week, Bob Black made a considered and carefully argued call to review Scotland’s commitment to its range of free public services and benefits that continue to grow in cost and for which the changing demographics make future affordability doubly difficult.
He asked if MSPs were really aware that, among others, the cost of travel concessions would reach £500 million in the next decade, that free prescription and eye tests cost £150m each year and that the estimated cost of health and social care for people over 65 would rise to £3.6 billion by 2030. Not missing the target, he also questioned the political leadership being offered in the management of expectations and delivery.
Black’s questioning of the present arrangements was made in a lecture given to the David Hume Institute, one of the few bodies in Scotland where the collectivist status quo and its vested interests are challenged.
Were there such forensic, critical analysis in Scotland’s Parliament rather than the political parlour games that pass for scrutiny at too many of its committees, then our public finances might be in better fettle.
It was therefore disappointing to find how Bob Black was dismissed by so many who should know better, just as Johann Lamont had been derided for having the temerity to question the inviobility of a whole range of welfare benefits the week before.
Lamont, being a politician, could have expected such an assault, but showed her courage if not her delicacy in approach by raising an issue that continues to reverberate and put the SNP administration on the defensive.
Black, being a retired public servant of neutrality, would have been entitled to expect a more balanced reception. No sooner had word of his lecture surfaced than the SNP MacTwitterati were accusing him of trying to do independence in, providing the link for the BBC’s report as if this was evidence to be used against him.
Maybe if they had cared to read his quoted comments, they would have seen 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.” Hardly an assault on independence, more the words of a true patriot concerned about the financial risks facing his country that are being ignored by too many politicians.
Not to be outdone by her loyal lap dogs, Nicola Sturgeon waded into the debate with a tweet saying: “I think we should all agree, regardless of our views on universal benefits, to stop calling them ‘free’. We pay for them through our taxes.” Sturgeon – the Cabinet minister who more than anyone should be aware of the use of scarce resources – was clearly seeking to bracket Black’s questions in the same group as those of Lamont.
It does not require a higher in economics to realise that it is not current taxes nor taxpayers that pay for the “free” benefits – be they universal or targeted. It will be the future taxes of the as-yet-unearned income of future generations, namely our grandchildren, and their children not yet conceived, that will pay for today’s largesse.
When Gordon Brown took the government surplus that he inherited in 1997 and turned it into a year-on-year deficit from 2003, the cost was covered through debt and kicked into the future. When the Scottish Parliament decided, as was its right, to use its deficit-financed grant aid to provide benefits that would not necessarily exist in other parts of the UK, it did so in the full knowledge of figures that were questioned by political opponents and by bodies such as Audit Scotland.
Time and again, Audit Scotland and Bob Black as auditor general produced reports and research questioning the sustainability of benefits going into the future – as was their job.
The questions do have to be asked: why are free eye tests necessary when some opticians were already offering them free, and does that continue to be a wise use of resources? And if we believe pensioners should receive a bus pass that entitles them to free travel across Scotland why is it granted at 60 when we already recognise that the pensionable age needs to rise in line with greater life expectancy? Is it really cruel or uncaring to suggest raising the entitlement to 65 when we now consider anyone who dies in their early 60s as having “died young”?
Some welfare benefits are better delivered universally, even if only for ease of administration as the costs of identifying who does not really need them can become onerous and self-defeating – just as some taxes or differential tax rates can become counter-productive when they cost more to administer than what they recoup.
That does not mean we should not adjust current benefits as some can be quite easily targeted without requiring means-testing – by restricting entitlement to those already on other benefits. Thus free prescriptions were available to those on other benefits, pregnant women or those with chronic illnesses. Such gateways to benefits can save public money that can then go to other worthwhile causes. This does not undermine the welfare state but in fact makes it more effective.
To suggest, as some have been doing, that the benefit arrangements that existed before 1999, or 2003 or 2007, were somehow 19th-century is mendacious and divisive and should be castigated in the strongest possible terms by anyone with the good of our public services in mind.
Bob Black’s speech is worthy of reading and re-reading by every MSP and every elector of our nation who cares about our public services and ensuring that they remain viable into the future. If that were done, and if our politicians were to recognise that each and every one of them has the good intention of seeking to improve the system so that the core of support for those most in need can be delivered, then a productive debate can be had.
• Brian Monteith is policy director of ThinkScotland.org
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