SCOTTISH councils have issued a “hands off” warning to the SNP government amid concerns that local democracy could be undermined by a flagship drive to merge health and social care across the country.
The Scottish Government is now facing fresh claims of “centralisation” and a demand that the proposed Public Bodies Bill is changed to curb new ministerial controls.
Council leaders fear the bill will open the door to SNP ministers ordering further services to be merged locally, such as housing and education.
The changes are seen by ministers as essential to deal with the impact of an ageing population, by saving money at a time of scarce resources.
But it has left the SNP administration on the back foot again over claims of a centralising agenda in Edinburgh, after it pushed through the creation of a national police and fire service last year, despite local concerns.
Some council chiefs have also questioned the prospect of savings being made in submissions to Holyrood’s health and sport committee. They warn it would give ministers unprecedented powers to set up new public bodies by decree to administer traditional council services.
“The bill conveys a general sense of inequality between Scottish ministers and the democratic sovereignty of elected members,” a submission from Aberdeenshire Council states.
The submission warns that the hoped-for benefits and efficiencies are “not certain” and adds: “There is no evidence of integration delivering recordable efficiencies.”
Council leaders in Edinburgh warn that the move could lead to other services being merged without “consultation or debate and at the potential expense of local democratic accountability”.
“It could be interpreted as a centralisation of local government responsibilities and accountabilities, which are currently in the hands of local elected members,” they said in their submission.
Among the particular concerns are that the Scottish Government can effectively ride roughshod over health boards and councils by creating “integration boards” to oversee mergers and appoint key staff to drive through amalgamations.
MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee will take evidence from council leaders on the issue at Holyrood today.
The ageing population is predicted to increase demand for health and social care services by between 18.4 per cent and 28.7 per cent between 2010 and 2030. This equates to a potential funding gap in the order of £2.5 billion against current investment.
Local government body Cosla said the power being conferred to Scottish ministers in the bill is “far too great”. “The relationship thus defined makes local government subservient to Scottish ministers,” Cosla added.
The issue has also prompted North Lanarkshire to warn that services which are already “integrated and performing well” – like children’s services, justice, addiction, homelessness and housing – could be “fragmented”, a situation they called the “height of folly”.
The SNP has said the status of local government should be enshrined in a written constitution after independence. The Scottish Government declined to comment on the claims last night.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to lead actions which will make the greatest difference to delivery of public services and transform outcomes for the people of Scotland. We are not looking to reform, as an end in itself, but as means to realise our ambitious vision for a fairer and more prosperous Scotland.
“Integration will focus on improving care provided in people’s homes and communities, to help ensure that people get the right care in the right time and the right place. The Scottish Government’s aim with this legislation is to put in place a framework for integrated health and social care that provides appropriate flexibility for local systems to put in place arrangements that suit the needs of local people”“
Reconviction rates fall but drug treatment orders are criticised
Hundreds of criminals handed a drug treatment and testing order (DTTO) in Scotland’s courts every year reoffend within 12 months, official figures have shown.
Official reconviction statistics have revealed that 12,500 offenders in 2011-12 found themselves back in front of a court within 12 months – although this rate of 28.4 per cent is a 14-year low.
A Scottish Government report concluded there has been “very little change in the number of prolific offenders” in Scotland in the past decade.
Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said DTTOs were becoming “a mechanism for avoiding a custodial sentence”. But the report does show a fall in the one-year reconviction rate for under-21s since 1997-98, a fact applauded by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill.