Will Scots lose free public services?

Edinburgh skylineAndrew Milligan/PA

Scotland's former Auditor General, Robert Black, says that the country may have to axe some of the public services it currently offers for free, as the costs are far higher than originally thought. It means that free personal and nursing care and concessionary public transport could be for the chop.

So is Scotland going to face the same cuts as England?

Calls for cuts

Black, who recently retired after 12 years as the head of Audit Scotland, was responding to comments by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who criticised the "something for nothing" society. She had said: "This dishonest government continues the myth than in an independent Scotland we could have Scandinavian welfare while cutting tax to a level that would make Mitt Romney blush".

This opened the Pandora's box of Scotland's commitment to funding all sorts of benefits that the rest of the UK has had to learn to live without - from free university education to free prescriptions.

Black told to the BBC's Newsnight programme that there was a real case for revisiting promises like this. He said: "If you take free personal nursing care and the national concessionary travel scheme, the free bus passes. When those schemes were set up there was no hint given that the costs of those would be rising as quickly as they are now."

Rising costs

"As we said in Audit Scotland reports in my day, the concessionary travel scheme could cost not far short of half a billion pounds by the time we get through to the 2020s."

"Were the MSPs aware of that when they launched the policy? I suspect the frank answer is not. So to that extent I think I am on safe ground by saying the affordability of some this has to be questioned, we do need to revisit it. Every pound that goes on bus passes for well off older people is a pound that is not available for other things."

He has publicly raised some very serious concerns for Scotland - including the fact that the cost of travel concessions will rise to £500 million in the next decade and that personal and nursing costs are rising 15% a year: the cost of health and social care for people over 65 is expected to hit £3.6 billion by 2030. There are also concerns over prescriptions: free prescription and eye tests cost £150 million each year - and drug prescribing costs are double what they were ten years ago

Face it now

He called for the debate to be opened, so that politicians could discuss these issues without fear they are committing political suicide. He also called in an editorial in The Scotsman newspaper for this debate to take place now - rather than waiting for the independence referendum in 2014 - by which time it may be too late.

The Scottish Government has frequently restated its commitment to free services. Last month SNP Deputy Leader Nicola Sturgeon said:"At a time when people are facing serious wage restraint and rising living costs, the council-tax freeze, the abolition of charges for prescriptions, support for higher education, apprenticeships and the elderly are all part of the support we in society give to each other."

This week, a spokesperson told the BBC: "Scotland is in a stronger financial position than the UK as a whole, and what this demonstrates is the need for independence and control of our own resources in the future. We have an excellent record of managing our finances, responsibly, meeting commitments, delivering efficiencies and making the necessary reforms to ensure our commitments are sustainable."

So what do you think? is it time for Scotland to face cuts too - or do they have the right idea? Let us know in the comments.
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