Brian Wilson: councils carrying budget cut burdens

Speech Therapy has been affected by cuts. Picture: TSPL
Speech Therapy has been affected by cuts. Picture: TSPL
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You probably didn’t notice this week, but it was announced funding for speech and language services for children and adults with learning difficulties has fallen by 8.8 per cent since 2011 while, in some parts of Scotland, the cut has been over 20 per cent.

Such statistics are mere orphans in the storm that surrounds what passes for the only political debate that matters in Scotland – the constitution. They are about reality rather than rhetoric and who, in the current climate, has time to bother with reality?

Well, I do. And I demand an explanation of why, in the midst of all the drivel we are fed about Scotland’s unique attachment to social justice, such shameful statistics can emerge? Why, in the words of the Scottish Autism Society, are these services coming under “extraordinary stress” or disappearing altogether?

I want that explanation because I am familiar with the cruelty and human deprivation that these statistics represent. For children with learning difficulties, there is often no more vital service than speech therapy. It is the critical difference between an ability to communicate and the entrapment of language and ideas.

For those affected, the inability to communicate through speech becomes the source of huge frustration. For those who want to communicate better with them, frustration also lies in the knowledge that, with more professional help at the appropriate time, so much more could be achieved.

So what is Scotland’s response to that challenge? It has been to turn the service into a postcode lottery, with some places planning to get rid of it altogether. That is indefensible and cannot be blamed on Westminster or Tories or the other familiar scapegoats. The power and money exist to take decisions in Scotland according to priorities – and this is a sadly accurate reflection of where priorities most certainly do not lie.

Let me attempt my own explanation of why these little-publicised cuts affecting the least influential sections of society are happening. Quite simply, local government has been made to bear an entirely disproportionate brunt of the overall reductions in public spending and the effects of that traditional tactic of the political Right are now inescapable.

As The Scotsman editorialised last October in response to John Swinney’s budget: “He has shuffled most of the cuts burden on to Scotland’s local authorities. It is they who will have to do the dirty work in the coming year – closing more schools, shutting more libraries, cutting back on social care services for the elderly and vulnerable, locking the doors of local swimming pools.”

That is exactly what is now happening in every corner of Scotland. Add speech therapy, for which responsibility is shared between councils and equally hard-pressed health boards, to the list. But where is the coherent campaign to point out the cynicism and consequences of what is happening to public services? It, too, is submerged in referendum froth and empty rhetoric about the golden future beyond.

Some 18 months ago, Johann Lamont made a sensible speech in which she described the spending choices that the Scottish Government had to make and how the priority given to “universalism” – ie, free things for the better off – was inevitably at the expense of services for those whose needs were greatest. Exactly the same point had been made by the late Campbell Christie’s Commission on Public Services.

Ms Lamont’s speech was greeted with near-hysterical abuse, led by Nicola Sturgeon, who cackled that this made her “the poster girl for the Tories”. The exact opposite was true.

Only by prioritising those whose needs are greatest could there be a scintilla of economic redistribution in their favour or even, in current circumstances, reasonable protection of services that already existed.

Unfortunately, the abuse seems to have silenced the argument, since we have not heard much of it since. Yet every one of the current cuts reflects choices – not just at council level but through the Scottish Government’s use of local government as its “human shield” to protect itself from the opprobrium.

That phrase was used by Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, in pointing out his city would have an extra £153 million between 2013-15 if its share of funding – even on the much reduced national allocation – had been maintained at the level which prevailed when the SNP came to power.

How can any government which parades itself as a champion of social justice defend that figure? Is it really the view of the Nationalists that Glasgow’s needs are so marginal that huge sums of money can be transferred away from it?

Matheson listed what more could be delivered with that money – all aimed at the key indicators of child poverty, youth unemployment and inadequate housing.

Alongside the general assault on funding, we have the continuing insistence on a council tax freeze. I understand the attraction of this policy to any centre-right government that wants to protect its core support from paying a bit more in tax. What I cannot reconcile it with is the impertinence of the Nationalists, at the same time, in claiming the mantle of social justice.

Make no mistake, the shortfall in council tax revenue is being paid for
– not by affluent people in Band A
houses, who are by definition the major beneficiaries, but by folk who depend on unglamorous services that are now under siege. In the region of 30 per cent of Scottish households have not had a single extra pound to spend because of the council tax freeze – but it is they who pay the price, disproportionately, through loss of services.

When the SNP came to power, they offered local authorities an end to ring-fencing in return for acquiescence in the council tax freeze. It was a deeply misguided pact that has doubly disadvantaged those whose needs are greatest.

My own experience in government made me a firm believer in ring-fencing because, without it, the loudest voices will prevail in the clamour for scarce resources and minority interests are marginalised. Children and adults with special educational needs are innocent spectators to that clamour and so the services that make their lives better are being whittled away.

That is where the council tax freeze leads. That is where the abolition of ring-fencing leads. And in Scotland, that is where the constitutional obsession leads, when the true divisions within society are subordinated to it.