Brian Wilson: Glibness ill becomes the First Minister

Those living with the reality of care funding cuts deserve better than Nicola Sturgeon's evasive answers at Holyrood, writes Brian Wilson
Nicola Sturgeon was questioned over cuts to care funding by Scottish Labour leader Kezia DugdaleNicola Sturgeon was questioned over cuts to care funding by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale
Nicola Sturgeon was questioned over cuts to care funding by Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale

Of all the policy areas within the Scottish Government’s remit, you might think the one which least lends itself to slapstick politics is care of the elderly and vulnerable in Scotland.

If that is a reasonable premise, it seems unfortunate that nobody seems to have told Nicola Sturgeon. Faced with questions about the deeply concerning Audit Scotland report on Social Work provision this week, she responded with a shallow petulance that did no credit to herself or her office.

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The report warns that “current approaches to delivering social work will not be sustainable” and calls for “a frank and wide-ranging debate”. If the exchanges at First Minister’s Questions are any indicator, then that is doomed to be a vain hope.

Surely there are people of all political persuasions within Scotland who recognise this is a rapidly developing crisis, and that funding of local government – which is in the front-line of addressing it – is an inescapable part of that necessary debate.

In spite of the 11 per cent cut suffered since 2010, Scottish councils have increased social work spending by three per cent. That figure is dwarfed by what Audit Scotland sees coming down the track. By 2020, there will need to be an increase in spending of between 16 and 21 per cent, which equates to more than half a billion pounds.

There are 300,000 people in Scotland receiving care support through social work and 70 per cent are over 65. Not only demographics but also the flow of legislation and regulation from government will escalate the costs. Audit Scotland rightly highlights the impossible burdens this will place on local authorities unless the approach to funding changes.

By any standards, the report is a document of first-order seriousness. This is no pressure group, biting at the heels of government. It is the Scottish government’s own statutory watchdog on the effectiveness of public spending and the financial implications of policies being pursued.

The report is relevant, currently or potentially, to every household in Scotland. To take one example of why, it states there are 759,000 “unpaid carers”, which is 17 per cent of our adult population. The impact of cuts to services on that hidden army, and those who might join them, is inescapable. If public services cannot provide, who will?

It is also worth noting that pressures on social work funding have knock-on effects. Local authorities have statutory obligations in respect of much of what Audit Scotland describes. They must fulfil these duties, however adequately, one way or another. Sadly, the “other” is often by taking money away from rival areas of low-profile spending, such as special needs education. Ring-fencing was a friend of the weakest and should never have been got rid of.

So, when Audit Scotland highlights the impending crisis, it is no political abstraction but hugely relevant to real people with real needs. The challenges are not all about money – staffing is also a huge issue - but nobody can deny that money plays a large part. If you currently ask any councillor across Scotland about future prospects for these services, the answers are unlikely to offer encouragement.

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The closer collaboration between NHS and social work, which is the Scottish Government’s one big idea, may or may not yield savings in the longer term. Meanwhile, it is scarcely uplifting to find Audit Scotland warning that it has “made governance arrangements more complex” which was surely not the intention and does not sound like the harbinger of savings.

As the report points out repeatedly, local government funding in Scotland has been cut by 11 per cent since 2010 with worse in the pipeline. In the same period, the Scottish Government’s budget has been cut by five per cent.

It is entirely legitimate for political opponents and society as a whole, to ask: “Why has local government endured this disproportionate cut and is it not now time to think again, particularly in light of Audit Scotland’s dire warnings?”

Kezia Dugdale asked these questions on Thursday and was responded to with a series of patronising sneers. The whole thing was, of course, Westminster’s fault for its “austerity” policies; the critical gap between five and 11 was simply ignored. Ms Dugdale allegedly wants to “shift the burden or Tory austerity on to working people“ so it was really her fault also.

Then as her coup de grace (or lack of it), Ms Sturgeon reminded the Labour leader she had lost the election “and that is why she is sitting on that side of the chamber”.

Now, it is hardly a state secret that Labour had a bad election and is much diminished at Holyrood. While these facts are indisputable, it is difficult to see what place they have in an answer to perfectly reasonable questions about an apolitical report from the Government’s own auditor about the care of elderly and vulnerable people. Does losing an election disqualify party leaders from asking courteous, searching questions about Scottish Government priorities and competence?

In one of her preferred formulations, Ms Sturgeon intimated that she was not prepared to be “lectured… on the implications of Tory cuts”. But that raises precisely the point she was so anxious to evade. It was not “Tory cuts” she was being “lectured” on. It was SNP cuts to local council spending she was being asked to explain – the difference between five per cent and 11 per cent, and repeatedly she declined to do so. These figures need to be imprinted in public consciousness between now and next May’s council elections.

One of the most interesting passages in the Audit Scotland report confirms how rapidly the policy on free personal care is eroding, without any public intimation. Councils simply can’t afford it so “because of funding pressures, most councils now only provide services to people assessed as being at critical or substantial risk”. So the figure has dropped from 70 in every thousand to 50. Real people with real needs, now quietly deprived of services.

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It’s time to face up to the scrutiny of that “frank and wide-ranging debate”, Ms Sturgeon. Glibness is not the answer to everything and those who are living with the reality of what Audit Scotland has identified surely deserve better.