SNP set to 'grab' yet more council powers

SNP ministers are considering taking responsibility for social care for the elderly away from local authorities and handing it to the NHS.

The move comes just days after education secretary Fiona Hyslop revealed the Scottish Government is considering taking education away from councils and raises new questions over the future of local government in Scotland.

The prospect of both education and care for the elderly being taken out of local council control last night led to accusations by the Liberal Democrats that the Scottish Government was planning a "power grab" which would "kill off councils".

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The latest proposal over social care for the elderly was originally put forward by Lord Stewart Sutherland, the architect of free personal care.

Lord Sutherland yesterday explained that he backed the setting up of National Care Service in Scotland to provide free personal care at home.

Last night, a spokesman for First Minister Alex Salmond said: "The agenda for this has come from Lord Sutherland, but it is one of the options we are looking at, along with others such as councils and the NHS working more closely together.

"The position is that we are looking at a range of options to better integrate health and social care services, but the Lib Dem accusation of centralisation is wide of the mark."

The proposal is being considered by SNP ministers as a possible way of tackling the crisis in Scotland's finances and a failure by councils to deliver on Scottish Government targets.

In response to a failure to cut class sizes, Ms Hyslop last week warned that ministers were looking at "alternatives to the current system of local government delivery of education policy".

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) was outraged by the threats, warning that it meant a concordat agreed between councils and central government was being ripped up. There is likely to be further anger among local authorities over any new move to take delivery of services for the elderly away from them.

The development came amid growing concerns that the cost of free personal care for the elderly is rising uncontrollably and is expected to be more than 500 million a year after 2011.

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Lord Sutherland supported a proposal for the National Care Service – mirroring that announced by Gordon Brown earlier this year to provide free personal care at home for older people in England and Wales.

The service north of the Border would be run by the NHS in Scotland, and Lord Sutherland said it would be more efficient with people no longer having "to deal with three points of service".

The Scottish Government is asking councils to work in partnership with the NHS on the provision of free social care for the elderly and in other areas.

But the National Care Service could see the NHS taking over complete control from local authorities.

Former Labour minister Susan Deacon, who backs the proposals, yesterday said: "We have to face up once and for all to the fact that we don't need 14 NHS boards and 32 councils to provide our services."

Lord Sutherland agreed and pointed out the expense of having "32 directors of everything".

But Liberal Democrat MSP Ross Finnie said that this marked the end of the concordat and could finish local government.

"The SNP has been ramming their concordat with local government down everyone's throats for two years now," he said. "But now we know exactly what they think of our local councils.

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"First, their version of a local income tax was to be administered and set centrally; next ministers threaten to take back control of schools; and now we see SNP ministers considering taking away responsibility for care of the elderly."

Professor Richard Kerley, of Queen Margaret University, an expert in local government and public policy, said: "I imagine that (the measures] would be strenuously resisted.

"While you can see an argument for something like education, this proposal for care for elderly seems ad hoc and ill-thought through. It would also take away a large part of the responsibilities of councils."

The threat by the Scottish Government to take control of schools has been labelled "Stalinist" by opponents. Critics also said the concordat funding deal between local authorities and central government was failing education.

And headteachers demanded the financial "crisis" facing schools was resolved before any talks of reforming local government.

Murdo Fraser, Conservative education spokesman, yesterday demanded an inquiry into who should run Scotland's schools.

He described the plans as "Stalinist" and nothing more than a fit of pique by Ms Hyslop.

Mr Fraser said: "There is a rift in the SNP's own ranks between the progressive ideas of East Lothian Council (who favour schools having more autonomy] and the Stalinist plans of the SNP government. That is why the Scottish Conservatives will this week ask Holyrood's education committee to launch an inquiry into who should run Scotland's schools."

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Headteachers demanded all sides seek to solve the funding crisis in classrooms before embarking on a power struggle.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary headteachers, said: "What should be done is people should be working together to come to at least even short-term solutions to meet the direst need of some.

"The concordat absolutely isn't doing that and we need to draw back from that and talk about how we can deliver equitably across the country."

He called for a return to ring-fenced funding to ensure money intended for education went to education.

The Scottish Government dismissed the criticism and said that it had no intention of "killing off" councils. A spokesman for the First Minister described it as "odd" that Labour and the Lib Dems should be accusing the SNP of centralising when "that is what the former Lib/ Lab Scottish Executive did in the first eight years of devolution".

He added: "We are the ones who brought in the concordat and gave councils more powers and flexibility. It is right that we look at different approaches for education and that is why the Cabinet intends to meet Cosla about this.

"It is also right we look at ways of delivering services like care for the elderly better and more efficiently."