Brian Wilson: They run schools and care for elderly but face poorhouse

Drastic cuts to Scottish council budgets are hurting the most vulnerable members of society
Drastic cuts to Scottish council budgets are hurting the most vulnerable members of society
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For anyone who cares about the fabric of Scottish society, as opposed to political rhetoric, this week’s essential reading is the Audit Scotland report on Local Government for 2016-17.

It may not sound like the most exciting text and won’t be the glossiest piece of literature produced at public expense. However, the contents put many other issues into perspective.

Quite simply, councils have been screwed regally by the Scottish Government and the biggest losers are those who depend most on their services. In response to the report, the unimpressive Scottish Finance Minister, Derek McKay, told the BBC that cuts imposed on local authorities by the SNP administration were “broadly in line” with what they themselves suffered at the hands of Westminster.

This is not true. According to Audit Scotland, local authorities have endured a real terms cut from the Scottish Government of 7.6 per cent since 2010-11. The impact on services is much higher, given that fixed staff costs are the biggest item in council budgets – 2,200 jobs disappeared in the last year alone.

Year-on-year comparisons are difficult due to changing powers and accounting methods but the Fraser of Allander Institute put the real terms cut to Scottish Government spending in the same period at 3.8 per cent while adding: “None of this debate is helped by the way in which the Scottish Government presents its budget… the selective data (they) present often appears to support their arguments rather than to inform debate.”

To which, one can only add: “Indeed.”

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The Nationalists have got away for too long with obfuscation as a primary tactic of government. It takes the dry language of Audit Scotland to reveal the price being paid, at community level, for an order of priorities which has consistently sucked powers and resources away from councils and the services they provide.

The inescapable fact is that local government has been disproportionately hit by spending cuts and matters are about to get much worse. In the current year alone, budgets are being cut by a further 2.3 per cent in real terms – even after revenue from Scottish Government-badged schemes like the School Attainment Fund is included. Do you argue with that, Mr McKay?

Referring to “local government” may seem abstract. These are the bodies which educate our children, empty our bins, run our community centres, provide leisure facilities and care for our elderly.

The less money they have, the more these services are reduced – and the least well-off depend disproportionately upon them.

It is hypocrisy for any government to pay lip-service to poorer communities and families while ruthlessly undermining the tier of government best placed to ameliorate their disadvantage. Grandiose announcements about tens of millions being spent on this and that are worthless compared to the actual damage being done to basic services, largely unreported.

Audit Scotland points to the “ongoing demand pressures” which councils face, including “those associated with an ageing population and placements for looked-after children”.

You might thing that is self-evident, demanding high national priority in a supposedly caring society. Yet social work budgets actually reduced in 2016-17, according to Audit Scotland, though “not by as much in percentage terms as in other areas of service”.

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Furthermore, Scotland’s councils are heading straight for the poorhouse. Twenty of the 32 dipped into reserves last year to combat the cuts – or “support service delivery” as Audit Scotland delicately puts it. They will have to do the same again this year or else cut even deeper. Three councils – Clackmannanshire, North Ayrshire and Moray – have only two to three years of reserves left.

All this suggests that the new Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, is right to initiate a review of all forms of taxation within the powers of the Scottish Government but also that it would be foolhardy to endorse any increases in personal taxation until there is a full audit of Scottish Government spending.

The SNP’s opponents have the luxury of thinking time and should not throw it away.

The harsh treatment of council budgets is not a product of necessity but of political choices. Local government, just as in the past for the Tories, has been an easy hit with too little opposition. Endorsing the idea that more tax revenues, rather than different priorities, can provide the elixir would only serve to validate Mr McKay’s false narrative, without first testing it.

In another, related context, there were fascinating statistics this week about the reality of student funding in Scotland, as opposed to the boasts about “free tuition”. Remember, the Nationalists came to office with a clear-cut promise to abolish student debt. Anyone who tried to point out the impossibility of this was shouted down. The subsequent reality was laid bare by former civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn. Student debt has increased by 175 per cent while grants and bursaries have been cut by a third, the exact opposite of what was promised. Ministers wrap the two together as “student support” – a weasel phrase they would be unlikely to apply to their own salaries.

Sure, there are no fees for Scottish students – but plenty debt. The results are that most universities are drawing on reserves to meet deficits in funding while we have a worse record than the rest of the UK in access for students from lower-income backgrounds.

All of that has to be challenged rather than accepted as a starting-point. Personally, I think it is far more important to tackle inequality at its origins in early childhood than pretend to do so by encouraging a minority of young people from less well-off backgrounds to borrow more money. The old policy of providing realistic grants to those who really need them had much more to be said for it.

Education policy and the question of how best to reduce disadvantage takes us back to the funding of local authorities because the divergence of opportunities begins at home and in schools – not universities.

Labour, or anyone else with half a brain, should review all of these policies, priorities and means of funding them before being sucked into acquiescence to tax increases.

There is nothing radical in propping up the wrong priorities or spending more money badly.