Scottish independence: Cash crisis ‘can’t wait till after referendum’

Alex Salmond during First Minister's Question Time yesterday. Picture: PA
Alex Salmond during First Minister's Question Time yesterday. Picture: PA
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ONE of the country’s leading public sector figures has warned the SNP government that emergency measures to tackle Scotland’s cash crisis cannot be side-tracked by the build-up to the independence referendum, in a stark assessment of the nation’s financial plight.

Writing in The Scotsman today, Bob Black, who retired as Auditor General for Scotland earlier this year, warns that the country’s school, hospitals and other public services are facing their “most challenging period in living memory” thanks to both spending cuts and rocketing costs.

With Scotland turning its back on competition in the public sector, he says ministers should set up a new powerful independent watchdog to root out waste and poor performance from the public sector to ensure scare resources are spent wisely.

Painting a grim assessment of the spending hole facing the country, he warns that finance secretary John Swinney now faces a £4 billion backlog in road and building repairs, a £3.6bn increase in health costs by 2030, and rocketing costs of so-called “freebies”, such as personal care and bus travel.

Mr Black warns against allowing the referendum to suck time and effort away from the challenge of dealing with the cash crisis.

He writes: “Political debate is focused on the independence issue, leaving less space to address the great challenges we are facing, but we cannot afford to place this agenda to one side until after 2014.”

Mr Black was the country’s first Auditor General, having held the role from 2000 until this year.

A week after Labour leader Johann Lamont called for a wholesale review of Scottish Government spending, he uses the article to warn about the cost of the council tax freeze which, he notes, “benefits better-off home owners” while leaving a shortfall of £490 million in council coffers.

Ministers should create a new “Commission on Resources and Performance” to carry out “rigorous, evidence-based reviews” of public sector bodies, he says.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman last night pointed to the Scottish Government’s “Fiscal Commission”, whose members include Professor Joseph Stiglitz, which, she said, was “co-ordinating the work to help establish a fiscal and macro-economic framework for Scotland”. She went on: “We remain firmly committed to the flagship policies which are making Scotland a fairer and healthier society – such as the council tax freeze, free prescriptions, free bus travel for older Scots and our ambitious programmes of public service reform.

“We have an excellent record of managing our finances, responsibly”.

But Scottish Labour’s Richard Baker MSP said: “Bob Black is clear: we can’t wait to have these difficult decisions in a couple of years. The choices need to be debated now.”

He added: “ Alex Salmond has to make another £3bn of cuts, but won’t tell Scots where they will fall.

“It’s time the SNP accept the challenge laid down by Campbell Christie, Crawford Beveridge and now Bob Black, to act like a real government and start being honest with the Scottish people.”