By Claudie Qumsieh
Scottish citizens grilled politicians in the Big Cuts Debate held at BBC HQ in Glasgow last night. The 80 attendees included employees in healthcare, education, charities as well as students. The panel consisted of Iain Gray, Labour Leader in the Scottish Parliament; John Swinney SNP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth; Jeremy Purvis, Liberal Democrat MSP and Derek Brownlee, Scottish Conservative MSP.
The debate followed a BBC poll which placed NHS spending as the least popular of proposed cuts, followed by increasing prescription charges for those who pay, then cutting public sector pensions and public sector jobs. Some of the audience present were worried about their pensions, one woman who has worked in the public sector for 28 years feared her final salary pension would be at risk.
There was much debate over the value of ring-fencing the NHS. Professor David Bell, of Stirling University, highlighted that NHS in Scotland accounts for £10 billion out of the £30 billion overall spend in Scotland. Bell commissioned a report to the Scottish Government highlighting that “Scotland already spends 10% per head more than England on healthcare and has not seen the improvements in health outcomes that have been observed south of the border during the last ten years” .
John Swinney argued that at the end of this parliament there will be more people employed in NHS in Scotland than when the SNP came to power in 2007. An audience member asked if these additional staff are qualified nurses, or care workers doing the work of qualified nurses. Swinney said he was talking about an increase in healthcare staff “generally” and evaded the specific question on qualified nurses. Another nurse raised his concerns that the posts of nurses who leave are never filled and that the first victim of this is patient care.
Liberal Democrat MSP Jeremy Purvis expressed concern for the £90 million bonus for consultants and argued that this money could be better used to help reduce the £600 million deficit. Swinney warned that changing the remuneration package for Scottish Consultants would mean Scotland inevitably lose good consultants to England.
Iain Gray claimed that coalition cuts were “too deep and too fast”. John Swinney described the announcement regarding cutting child benefit for higher earners as “a Master Class in how not how to make this kind of announcement” and points out that the Prime Minister had to apologise to the electorate as a result.
Political and social commentator Joyce McMillan said she was “baffled” as to how there was no public debate before the decision was made to recover the deficit with 80% public spending and only 20% by increased taxes. McMillan warned that similar scare tactics and cuts in the 1980s were socially destructive. McMillan would rather pay higher tax than cause social damage by cutting public services.
There were at least three representatives from charities working with vulnerable women at this debate, their presence demonstrating the effects any cuts will have on protecting the vulnerable people of Scotland. One Scottish Women’s Aid representative said that half of the vulnerable women trying to access refuge are being turned away. Last year’s Fawcett report “Are women bearing the burden of the recession” documented how women are more vulnerable in the downturn.
When asked to suggest ways to cut the deficit Iain gray argued that there are “too many health boards, too many police forces and fire brigades” John Swinney said that the government must ensure that public sector focuses on outcomes and what will make a difference to people’s lives.
The debate ended with some of the audience feeling frustrated that there were too many questions left unanswered. One thing is certain, cuts are coming. Many of the audience agreed that cuts were “too deep and too fast”. In the long-term, will fast cuts prove to be the deepest?