RSE: sacrifice 'sacred cows'

9th April 2010 at 01:00
Key pledges on class sizes and tuition fees should be reassessed, says leading think-tank

"Sacred cows", such as smaller classes and the abolition of university tuition fees, should be put out to grass during the recession - and perhaps even afterwards.

That is the blunt message from a high-powered working party representing the influential Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), which prides itself on being Scotland's national think-tank.

It is the latest heavyweight contribution to the debate on the future of public services, arguing that the "unprecedented" scale of cuts required to reduce the public debt means that "a radical re-think is needed about what services the public sector should provide and how best to provide them".

The working group was chaired by Sir John Arbuthnott, the former principal of Strathclyde University who also headed the Clyde Valley Review, which championed the sharing of services by the eight local authorities in the area.

The RSE report calls on every political party to evaluate critically all of their policies, none of which should be protected until that happens. It singles out key pledges on university tuition fees, class sizes, free personal care and concessionary travel schemes. "There should be no a priori sacred cows," it adds.

The report says: "When faced with budgetary pressure and no guarantees on future levels of funding, public bodies will be forced to become more agile, flexible and innovative."

It adds that this means cutting the wages bill, which represents around half of public expenditure, but warns that the "talent base" of staff will have to be empowered for this to happen. Engaging with the workforce must therefore be a priority.

The RSE analysis, which was prepared for Parliament's finance committee, follows that of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions, which has calculated that the Scottish Government's budget in 2013-14 could be between pound;2.1 billion and pound;3.8 billion less than that of 2009-10.

Both Audit Scotland and the Scottish Government have estimated that public spending could decline in real terms by 14 per cent over the next four years.

Robert Black, the Auditor General for Scotland, also warned in January that the pound;7 billion cost of maintaining the public estate, including schools and hospitals, was too high for a country the size of Scotland.

The RSE report itself estimates that if the pound;17.6 million Scottish Executive budget of 2000-01 was applied to deliver the same levels of public services now, the cost at today's prices would be pound;22 billion - compared with the actual pound;29 billion.

The society's findings will be fed into the independent committee set up to examine options for controlling public spending.

It is being chaired by Crawford Beveridge, a former chief executive of the Scottish Enterprise development agency, and a close ally of First Minister Alex Salmond.

More doom and gloom in Glasgow, page 7.

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