Leaders: Question of universal benefits needs real debate
UNTIL recently outsiders may have been forgiven for thinking that while we thrash around in recession, the only issue preoccupying Scotland’s political elite was independence.
But Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has bravely raised the issue of universal welfare benefits and whether these can be sustained in an era of deep budget austerity.
On this issue in Scotland there has prevailed between the main parties a sulphurous armed stand-off: no-one dared put the issue of universality up for discussion for fear that it would be immediately seized and used against them in election campaigns.
Thus an omerta has persisted, spending continues to rise, the welfare bill climbs new peaks – and budget debt and deficit totals soar to new records. It is unsustainable.
The courage of Ms Lamont in bringing this question to the fore is to be commended. Politically difficult though this issue is, it is not the first time that Labour has faced it. Indeed, this momentous struggle between political aspirations and budget reality marked the career of the fiery Aneurin Bevan, the man who brought the NHS into being. It was Nye Bevan who famously declared that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. It is in fact the religion of all governments, left and right: a reality to which the SNP is now becoming slowly wise.
A further powerful statement in support of this debate comes in The Scotsman today with analysis from Scotland’s former Auditor General, Robert Black. Here he sets out the daunting figures on the cost of service provision in the near future.
He reminds us of the yawning gap in productivity in the public sector. He tells of big increases in spending not being met by a corresponding improvement in outputs, citing, for example, the finding that a 68 per cent real terms increase in spending on orthopaedic services over ten years produced an 11 per cent increase in activity. He drives home the case for continuous scrutiny of public sector productivity.
Most compelling of all, he calls for a standing Commission on Resources and Performance. This would work closely with the Scottish Government but would also be accountable to the Parliament. It would provide in depth analytical reports on the performance and efficiency of service delivery across every spending area. He asks if the time is now right to develop the idea. It most certainly it is.
It is part and parcel of addressing the issues Ms Lamont has raised, and which merits far greater and more substantial discussion than the schoolboy taunts that have prevailed thus far. This debate deserves at least equal prominence with that on further constitutional change, directly affecting, as it does, the central questions of debt, austerity, priorities and fairness. What possible political gain is to be had from pretending the larder of entitlements is full when the figures point in the opposite direction?
Kilmuir engaged by telephone kiosk
It could have come straight out of the film Local Hero – and in terms of inspiration, almost certainly did. A telephone box in the remote Scottish village of Kilmuir on the Black Isle is no ordinary phone box. And it doesn’t much matter if the ubiquitous mobile phone has rendered it
redundant. In fact, no call had been made from it in three years.
So BT never imagined there would be a fuss when it sent a lorry to remove it. However, it soon found out the phone box was very much engaged – surrounded in fact by villagers determined to retain the landmark.
BT has now relented, and The Scotsman was able to tell the villagers the good news they had been offered the option of “adopting” the kiosk for £1. It hardly matters if it’s a workable phone, or that villagers have little practical need for it.
That’s not the point. First, the red box sent a signal – that Kilmuir mattered. The remote village was part of a nationwide public phone system. And Kilmuir could thus make a call any time it wanted, even if recently it has chosen not to.
Second, it is one of these little landmarks that brought the village together. Here was something that Kilmuir had in common. Its function was secondary to the signal it sent about the community and the recognition that Kilmuir, no matter how remote, could ring any time, any place, anywhere.
And the Kilmuir box is not alone. It joins about 150 others in little towns and villages across Scotland where the local
community has expressed a wish to retain their iconic telephone box.
It seems we love the little red kiosk, even though it may now be a case of “number unobtainable”.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West