That Covid-19 has exacerbated and deepened existing inequalities in Scotland is not in dispute. But as the Accounts Commission’s recent overview of local government made clear, there is a growing crisis of harms that must be addressed now.
Our report highlights shocking health inequalities across Scotland – a 24-year gap in healthy life expectancy in Scotland’s most deprived areas compared to less deprived areas, and nearly a quarter of children living in poverty.
I’m also deeply concerned about the increasing evidence of severe social and wellbeing impacts on children and young people. These include delays in the development of very young children, worsening mental health, a fall in educational attainment, and young people’s increasing concerns about their job prospects. This is a crisis which will affect families and young people for many years to come if we do not urgently address the causes, consequences and invest in longer-term prevention.
While councils recognise the unequal impact of the pandemic on different groups, we’ve yet to see clear plans across all councils on how they are planning to reprioritise public services to address this crisis. With spiralling inflation, food and fuel costs deepening existing inequalities and pushing some into poverty for the first time, there must be a focus on those who are most vulnerable in our society. It is a fundamental principle of any government to protect and support those most in need. Yet frustratingly we find this isn’t being played out in practice. For instance, in a recent blog from the Accounts Commission, we highlight the very real gaps in services provided to children and young people with additional support needs.
As councillors establish themselves following the recent council elections, leadership at a local level is critical to ensure that strategies for service recovery are aligned with financial plans that focus on reducing the multiple impacts of inequalities. As councils look to restart and deliver services differently, they will need to work alongside and collaborate with their local communities, as well as other public sector and voluntary sector organisations.
The Accounts Commission’s reports offer a platform for change, renewal and a shift in how council services are delivered. That renewal mustn’t mean a return to the old ways of delivering services. This isn’t appropriate or possible - with council finances reduced in real terms and demands for services growing, now, more than ever, services should focus on those who need help and support the most.
However, I and other Accounts Commission members are increasingly concerned that services to those most in need are being restricted still further. This is an area we will continue to report on and is central to our strategic thinking, including future reporting on child poverty and digital exclusion.
Our expectation is that the significant data gaps reported in our recent overview of local government are quickly addressed, providing vital evidence to support and inform change in our public services. As data analysis improves and service performance is reported, we will hopefully find addressing this crisis of harms is a priority for all councils. It cannot wait.
Geraldine Wooley, Member of the Accounts Commission