Former Auditor General joins Labour attack on Universal Benefits

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The former head of Audit Scotland has joined the Scottish Labour party’s attack on universal benefits claiming that they are “unsustainable”.

Robert Black, who retired from the post after twelve years at the helm of Audit Scotland has joined Johann Lamont’s Scottish Labour party and the Scottish Tories in attacking free travel for pensioners and care for the elderly.

Speaking at the David Hume institute as part of its Autumn Seminar Series, the former public servant said: “We need to do more of that but we need to do it as a society.  I mean can we really afford all the services that are free at the point of delivery?

“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.”

On Thursday evening on Newsnight Scotland, BBC Scotland’s Raymond Buchanan introduced Mr Black with the words: “Now that he has retired we get his thoughts on free universal benefits and whether the sums add up”

However, Newsnet Scotland has discovered that the BBC man’s introduction was slightly misleading.  These attacks on personal care and free travel for the elderly by Mr Black are not the first time he has attacked the publicly funded benefits.

In February 2008, less than a year after the SNP won their first Scottish election, Mr Black criticised the policy of Free Personal Care.  In a report published by Audit Scotland, he said:

“Free personal and nursing care is an important policy for older people in Scotland.  It is well documented that Scotland has a growing older population, and demand for free personal care will grow.  There needs to be better planning and better funding of this policy.

“Because of the limited information at the time the Scottish Parliament did not receive sufficiently robust and comprehensive financial information and risk assessments.  The Parliament should require this as a matter of course to enable it to properly scrutinise all major policy proposals.”

In October 2010, Mr Black’s organisation went further when attacking concessionary bus travel for older people when he insisted it was a waste of money and was spiralling out of control and was open to fraud from bus companies who he claimed could charge for “phantom” customers.

Commenting at the time, he said: “National concessionary travel is popular, with take-up by older people at a very high level.

“But there were weaknesses in how the scheme was planned and implemented. Systems to effectively administer NCT were not in place, and this left it more open to error and fraud.”

Audit Scotland, under Robert Black, has also attacked the universality of free prescriptions and free eye tests.

Speaking last night, Mr Black also suggested the creation of yet another Holyrood commission staffed by economists, he says “to do work for the parliament” which would be tasked with looking at resources and spending.

However, as well as having already criticised universal benefits, suggestions of interference in administering the Scottish budget was another that Mr Black had previously made.

In 2010, according to the Scottish Review, Mr Black controversially claimed that his organisation should have a say in how Scotland’s block Grant was spent.  He was quoted as telling the Scotsman: “In future Audit Scotland could play a part in scrutinising the Scottish budget”.

In the article, published in April 2010, Kenneth Roy wrote:

“He [Robert Black] pointed out that, since devolution, the Scottish Government’s budget has risen by an average of 5.4% a year, making possible such schemes as free personal care and free bus travel for the elderly, free eye examinations, free prescription charges: his report mentioned all these schemes specifically. He then went on to cast doubt on the Scottish Government’s ability to maintain such public services through a prolonged downturn, emphasising that efficiency savings would not be sufficient to bridge the serious funding gap he predicts.”

Mr Roy added: “Coincidentally, Mr Black gave an interview to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland. Again he was accorded that deference which characterises the media reaction to his every utterance.”

Mr Black’s attack on universal benefits follows criticisms of the free benefits from Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.  However Ms Lamont’s proposals, which could include means testing, have been widely condemned by the third sector, Unions and student leaders.

Robert Black has had a wide ranging career in public office, including Controller of Audit Scotland.  He was also chief executive of Tayside Regional Council between 1990 and 1995, until just before its abolition.  Before that, he was chief executive of Stirling District Council, and his earlier career was in policy planning and research with Strathclyde Regional Council, Glasgow City Council and Nottinghamshire County Council.