Tough times ahead:
that was the theme of the 2011 General Election, and for months afterwards austerity dominated the political debate. It has now been replaced with more optimistic mood music, as the economy slowly but steadily starts to improve.
The difficult truth, however, is that austerity is far from over. As the union Unison points out today, severe cuts, in Scotland, are still to come. Only just over half of the post-credit crunch cuts will have been brought into effect by the end of this financial year.
The CPPR think tank at Glasgow University forecasts smaller reductions in Scotland over the next two financial years, but the axe will gouge deeper again in 2016/17 and 2017/18, an outcome that appears to be unavoidable whichever party dominates at Holyrood and regardless of which way Scots vote in next year's independence referendum.
Cutting a few percent here and there from Government spending of billions might have limited impact in any one year, but the CPPR's John McLaren judges that by 2017/18 public sector budgets that have not been protected from cuts are likely to have shrunk by as much as 25% on their 2009/2010 peaks. Reductions of that magnitude will have a profound effect, but as yet, no party has indicated which public services will suffer.
Voters have every right to know that before they cast their ballot in the 2016 Holyrood election, which is why Unison is quite right to call for all parties to submit their spending promises for independent auditing, perhaps by the mooted Scottish version of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Such a move would likely thrust the issue of universal benefits back into the centre of the political debate. When Johann Lamont announced she was establishing what has become known as a "cuts commission", the SNP reacted like a football team watching their opponents score an own goal. It seems clear, however, that unpopular cuts will be required during the course of the next parliament, to balance the books. Universal benefits such as free bus travel for the over 60s and free prescriptions, popular as they are, might ultimately prove to be the least controversial targets for cuts or modifications, if the alternatives are frontline public services. As for free personal care, this newspaper has argued before that given the increasing cost of this admirable policy, the fairness of offering free personal care to all of pensionable age, must be reassessed.
The Scottish Government's long-standing council tax freeze will also inevitably come under scrutiny. Maintaining it has inadvertently hit the poorest, because of the knock-on effect it has on the budget for local services, while those with large valuable properties have the most to gain. The Finance Secretary John Swinney has promised to keep both the council tax freeze and popular "freebies" until 2016, but what then? Cutting services and blaming Westminster would be unlikely to impress voters.
Whoever wins in 2016 faces a punishing task because of ongoing austerity, but voters will trust all the parties more if they have costed manifestos that reflect hard financial reality
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