Brian Wilson: SNP faces a question of competence

A commonly-used defence of the SNP government simply does not standup to scrutiny, writes Brian Wilson.
The creation of Police Scotland has been clouded by controversy, including the routine arming of officers. Picture: Ian RutherfordThe creation of Police Scotland has been clouded by controversy, including the routine arming of officers. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The creation of Police Scotland has been clouded by controversy, including the routine arming of officers. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Ask supporters of the Scottish Government to name a single measure of the past eight years which redistributed wealth from the better- to less-well off and you can expect one of two responses.

The first is silence followed by a rapid change of subject. The second is a list of measures which actually, whether they understand it or not, moved scarce resources in precisely the opposite direction such as tuition fees and council tax freeze.

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Whatever the other merits of these policies, they are certainly of no assistance to people who will never see the inside of a university or to the many who were exempt from charges and taxes anyway because of low household incomes.

When this chasm between rhetoric and reality is pointed out, the fall-back position is to invoke “competence”. The SNP in office may not be redistributive (except towards those living in big houses) but they are indubitably “competent”, are they not?

That perception is challenged in a report this week by Audit Scotland about the further education (FE) sector which has undergone upheaval over the past few years. The impression which emerges is less of competence than of cuts on a Thatcherite scale with precious few benefits to demonstrate.

The figures are extraordinary – particularly when one considers that FE is the traditional route out of disadvantage for people from low income backgrounds, seeking to improve their lot. In other words, exactly those who would benefit from any meaningful commitment to redistributive policies.

I declare, with some pride, a bit of past history. When I became Scottish education minister in 1997, overall spending was frozen but I made sure the FE sector got every penny it was asking for because I so much admired its work across the educational spectrum, from people with learning difficulties through to those who pursued degrees.

Meeting the needs of FE involved a flea-bite from the overall tertiary education budget. Our great universities would have looked down their noses at the sums involved. But particularly in areas from which few youngsters went to university, the work of colleges was crucial – and cried out for support from a Labour government. The cry was heeded.

Contrast that with what has happened under the current regime. According to Audit Scotland, the numbers in further education are down by 36 per cent since 2008. There are 48 per cent fewer part-time students while the over-25s – a crucial “second-chance” category – have been reduced by 41 per cent.

Teaching staff have been cut by one in ten in the past two years alone. Budgets are slashed at a rate wildly disproportionate to anything that can be blamed on “Westminster” or “austerity”. All this has been carried through under the cover of college mergers, accompanied by massive cuts in resources, student numbers and in bursaries for low-income students.

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But what of “competence”? Is the assault on FE even going to yield the promised savings? The Auditor General for Scotland is sceptical. “It is unclear,” she states drily, “what savings have been achieved in addition to reduced staffing costs and what the full costs of the merger process are … It is also unclear what progress there has been in achieving some of the wider benefits expected from the mergers”. Competence? I think not.

Another of the Scottish Government’s flagship policies has been the creation of a national police force, as close to political control as they could get away with. A hand-picked chief constable and a hand-picked quango have replaced the long-established checks and balances of a structure involving local accountability.

The one word which nobody now attaches to the creation of Police Scotland is “competence”. As was entirely predictable, centralisation has cost money rather than saved it. There has been a succession of reputational issues arising from one-size-fits-all policies and a drive for national targets owing more to politics than policing priorities.

When Nicola Sturgeon went to the Scottish Police Federation conference this week, she adopted the usual tactic of blaming Westminster. Her only line of defence for the huge spending cuts the police face for front-line services was that her national police force pays VAT to the tune of £23 million.

It now emerges that SNP ministers knew all along that one implication of taking policing away from local control and putting it under a quango was spelt out to them three years ago but was not allowed to stand in the way of the political imperative which, as always, was to centralise in order to control. Competence? I think not.

Or take a current shambles closer to my own Hebridean doorstep and thus less familiar to the wider audience. The introduction of a new ferry on the Stornoway-Ullapool route has been presided over by Transport Scotland – a title suggesting an organisation which doesn’t actually exist. Transport Scotland is simply the Scottish Government in disguise.

For the first time in the history of Caledonian MacBrayne, a vessel sailing under the state-owned company’s colours has been procured through what, in all but name, is a PFI contract. (Remember how wicked PFI contracts were supposed to be?). The new Loch Seaforth is owned by a London bank and sub-leased to CalMac who had no hand in her design or construction.

They are, however, left to sort out the mess now impacting on every aspect of the island economy. The decision to introduce a single, large ferry was taken in the face of local opinion. The terminals required major adjustments at a cost to the taxpayer of £23 million. Timetables are fraught with uncertainty due to inordinate delays in both ferry and terminals.

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This week, Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government to state “the principal terms of the leasing agreement” forced on CalMac. The reply would have done justice to a Thatcherite minister at the height of his pomp. “Commercial confidentiality due to the requirements of Lloyds Banking Group” means there will be no information – yet communities must now depend on this vessel, taxpayer funded at unprecedented cost, for the next 20 years.

Competent, transparent and progressive? I think not. High-handed, secretive and centralising? That sounds about right. But a lot of people seem to like that.