Holyrood must do better

Holyrood must do better

by Brian Monteith
article from Monday 10, November, 2014

ARE SCOTTISH POLITICIANS of all parties not missing the point? After two years of debate about Scottish independence, now quickly followed up by the work of the Smith commission that must ensure continued debate on “more powers” for at least another few years, when will they turn to using the powers they already have?

The lack of any real debate in Scotland about the standards of our public services is a glaring omission in our political culture. Our political class is wedded to discussing constitutional structures instead of how we alleviate poverty, broaden opportunities for the most disadvantaged and raise living standards for the many.

Politicians come and go, the parties of power go through the Holyrood revolving door, and yet there has been no great reform of education in the 15 years of the Scottish parliament; economic development has not been transformed; and blame for failing services is still the cliché of a lack of resources even though spending has grown beyond our ability to fund it without recourse to continued borrowing that future generations will have to repay.

As Holyrood takes on more powers that originated from the Calman commission — and is set to receive even more from the Smith commission — it is crucial that we begin to consider how well our nation is performing in those areas we do have control, that we learn from our successes and failures and we then alter our policies to achieve real and genuine improvements.

To encourage greater debate about policies that help people rather than pander to constitutional navel-gazing, ThinkScotland.org has published comparative research that helps us see how well the Scottish parliament has fared in comparison with the rest of the UK and with other similar small countries.

We first looked at the nation’s economic performance, then its tax and spend policies and their effects, and finally the school education sector. These papers, and a fourth being compiled on Scotland’s health sector, will then be reviewed annually so we can begin to see what progress — if any — Scotland is making.

Unfortunately, since devolution was delivered in 1999, Scotland has not fared well at all. In each case our conclusion was the same: devolution has not resulted in the sort of differences that we were led to believe it could. Although the reasons in each field of study vary, there is one common denominator: a failure by our politicians to use their existing powers to good effect.

Scotland faces serious economic and social problems, and there can be no escaping the fact that the Scottish government has significant powers to tackle them. It controls nearly two-thirds of government spending, controls most of the big domestic public services, and has important economic powers, including over taxes, economic development, infrastructure and land use planning.

And yet the Scottish economy continues to perform poorly when compared with the rest of the UK and similar countries. In the years since devolution, the Scottish government has not improved performance; on the contrary, continued relative decline suggests that devolution has been bad for Scotland’s economy. Nor is there evidence that the current administration has made any difference. Without a change in approach, Scotland can expect a continued decline from an already poor position.

In considering the tax and spend policies of Holyrood’s various governments it is clear that Scotland enjoys a considerable public spending premium over the rest of the UK. Most of this advantage is controlled by the Scottish government and, in effect, is equivalent to the UK’s tax revenue from the North Sea. In the past five years the Scottish block’s Barnett premium has provided £38.5bn, compared with North Sea Oil revenues being £40.3bn over the same period.

This money is spent mainly on topping up current and capital expenditure on the important public services. Unfortunately for those advocating yet more increases in public spending there is no evidence that higher spending in the past has resulted in a better growth performance, and overall policy is very conservative. Meanwhile, Holyrood’s significant tax powers are barely used.

By adopting a “more of the same” fiscal policy, Holyrood’s political establishment cannot exploit the potential to change Scotland for the better.

A good education system is essential to the social and economic well-being of Scotland and its people. Worryingly, the available evidence indicates that the performance of Scottish state schools has not improved under devolution, with a significant group of pupils who do not achieve basic standards of literacy and numeracy.

In international terms, Scottish pupils have performed relatively badly and there is no evidence of improvement. There has also been little improvement in domestic exams and, using a broadly accepted measure of equivalence on qualifications, there is persistent relative decline compared with England.

Education spending in Scotland is 5% higher in Scotland than the UK average and has enjoyed a 32% increase in real terms since 1999. This increase in spending over the past 15 years has not brought a commensurate improvement in results — and nor has the recent squeeze in spending had any apparent impact. The conclusion has to be that big increases in funding available have been accompanied by a steep decline in productivity, implying billions of pounds of wasted educational resources.

An example of this can be found from the bi-annual surveys of pupil literacy and numeracy that alternate annually. The number of pupils in the second year of secondary school performing below the minimum level expected at numeracy was 35%, with overall performance declining since the first study.

Meanwhile, Scottish governments have made it harder to make comparisons of their performance against other jurisdictions or between schools. They have restricted information on schools that was once publicly available, withdrawn from international studies and made the comparison of exams more opaque.

Again, continuing with the current complacent and aloof approach is highly likely to result in further relative decline or stagnation from an already low position.

In response to the findings of our research it is clear that there is a huge challenge facing all Scottish politicians and that there are more than adequate powers and resources to achieve improvement — but too little priority has been given to effective policy-making.

This should come as no surprise when the Scottish government has spent so much time working on policies for the application of powers it did not have or has avoided difficult reforms or unpopular decisions until the referendum was over. Opposition parties have also been rather too lax in addressing real policy development for the same reason — although the launch of an education paper by the Scottish Conservatives this week was a welcome breath of fresh air.

The time for genuine debate has therefore arrived. Can our politicians and the parties rise to the challenge?


This article was first published in the The Sunday Times on 9th November 2014

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