Leader: Politicians should heed call for targeting public services

IN A passionate and thoughtful contribution to The Scotsman conference yesterday on the prospects for the new parliament, Rory Mair, the chief executive of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, made a compelling case for targeting public service on the poorest in our society and questioned the idea of universal benefits in difficult economic times.

Mr Mair cited striking figures which showed that, compared to those who live in the 100 least deprived areas of Scotland, people in the 100 most deprived areas have extremely poor educational qualifications, are admitted to hospital far more often, and are subject to massively more crime. Some 57 per cent of them are "income deprived" compared to just 2 per cent in the best areas.

Now, it might be said this is a statement of the obvious, that this tells us nothing we do not already know, or should already know. But Mr Mair was using these stark and rarely publicised figures to kick-start a serious debate about the universal provision of services and benefits, a policy which has been adopted by the SNP government, which has made everything from bus passes to prescriptions free for all, taking no account of ability to pay.

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If, as Mr Mair suggested, a gap of as much as 3 billion is set to emerge between local authority budgets and the projected cost of the demand for their services, then the Scottish Government has an obligation either to close that gap - something that is unlikely with money going to freeze council tax - or consider targeting the services to where they have most impact.

Two areas Mr Mair mentioned were early intervention for very young children, and shifting money from hospitals, where patients are often needlessly referred, to other areas of care.

The clear conclusion of his remarks was that those better off lose out. Indeed, he said they could do without public service provision at all. While there is a case that some universal benefits are equitable, cheap to administer and ensure the "squeezed" middle are not punished unduly by such a reform - their support for taxpayer-funded welfare is vital - there is much to commend Mr Mair's argument, which he said made sense both in terms of social justice, but also in terms of the potential savings made by helping raise the poorest from benefits.

The government must heed this warning that the demand for services is "killing" local government. He was right they - and other political party leaders - should be ashamed that, as he pointed out, there has been an "almost wilful avoidance" of a discussion on this. If we do not have these discussions, and move away from the idea of universality towards targeting help to those who really need it, we will, as Mr Mair rightly said, be letting Scotland down. A pity then there were no government ministers or even SNP MSPs at our conference to hear this radical and timely intervention.