Leaders: No way to run a country
TWO stories in this newspaper today might seem entirely unrelated, but in fact have an important connection that highlights a major flaw in the way Scotland is governed.
They are our front-page revelation about failings in cancer treatment and our ongoing Let The Children Play campaign for free musical instrument tuition for Scottish schoolchildren. What links them is the way people in different parts of Scotland are treated very differently by public services, even when it comes to basic entitlements in health and education. So, some cancer drugs are available in some health board areas but not in others; and children sitting Higher music in some local authority areas have to pay for tuition while other children elsewhere get it for free.
What is clear from both of these examples – and there are many more – is that these local differences are not the manifestation of distinctive local circumstances or a strong local opinion on these public services, one way or another. Instead, they are almost completely random administrative decisions made by local councillors and bureaucrats based on either organisational failings or political whims. This is not, in other words, local democracy in action – it is national democracy in an unholy mess.
There is a very good reason why Scotland leaves far more of these decisions to local government rather than enforcing them at a national level (in England, by way of a comparison, the national curriculum in education and the drugs authority NICE exercise power in a far more centralised way than north of the Border). In Scotland, the power of health boards and local education departments is a hangover from the days of powerful regional councils, which themselves were a reaction to the lack of a Scottish national government that was directly accountable to the Scottish people. In pre-devolution days, strong regional government allowed some local control of how Scots were governed, as a bulwark against rule by a Scottish Office often run by politicians rejected by Scots at the ballot box. It was a small – ultimately too small – attempt to address Scotland’s democratic deficit.
Thirteen years after the introduction of devolution, however, these local authorities still exercise disproportionate influence. So much so that the first SNP government, elected in 2007, was unable to implement any of its key policies on schools, finding that local discretion by local councillors had the ability to trump a national mandate. The same now applies to music tuition and availability of cancer drugs, with an arbitrary postcode lottery around the nation.
This is no way to run a country. The power in the land now is a directly elected Scottish Parliament, and the government it appoints. Ministers in this government should be able to ensure that across the country, access to basic public services is consistent and equitable. Local government should be responsible for important local matters such as economic development, public transport, leisure and the practical implementation of national policies in health, social work and education. It should not be able to dictate health and education policy.
The SNP’s move towards a single national police force (with appropriate local accountability on local policing issues) along with the centralisation of other emergency services, is a partial recognition of this reality. But more must be done. We call on Michael Russell, the schools minister, to get a grip of the music tuition issue and implement the five-point plan we publish today for our Let The Children Play campaign. It would be a good first step to a more coherent way of governing Scotland.
Games for a laugh
Following the lavish Olympic and Paralympic Games, and their globally well-received opening and closing ceremonies, the task lying ahead for the organisers of the Commonwealth event in Glasgow in 2014 is to make Scotland’s contribution to global harmony and happiness distinctive. Help may be coming from an unexpected quarter in the form of what is being called the Gallus Games. As we report today, the lottery-funded organisers hope they can capture the up-for-it cheek and resilient humour of the city and the nation in a series of street games and activities that can be moulded into competitive – ahem – sport. Who can resist trying to medal in the Scottish longest leapfrog contest or stand on the podium displaying the nation’s best spray tan? The low-budget Gallus Games – their bigger counterparts in London cost £13 billion – will be a brilliant way of engaging a wide range of Scots in the spirit embodied by both the Olympic and Commonwealth events and deserve the support of funding bodies. They will also be fun. Later this week, the Commonwealth Games team will add to this by unveiling the mascot which will take us all the way to the starting line. Gallus or otherwise, the Games are already looking great.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: South east
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: West