By Stephen Moore, Member of the Accounts Commission
Governments, working in partnership, exist to empower, protect and enable and support all of us to live the lives we choose. At their best, partnership working is a force for change, underpinned with regard for our human rights, to benefit those who most need support.
And it is by strong, empowered partnership working, through collective action, that we can begin to rebuild our communities. This need is urgent, given the severity of the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
As we report in our latest Local Government Overview, councils working in partnership with the third sector and communities have been essential in protecting people’s wellbeing.
By Geraldine Wooley, Member of the Accounts Commission
Covid-19 has disproportionately affected both the health and prosperity of groups such as black, Asian and ethnic minorities, women and the disabled, reinforcing many of the inequalities that underlie our society with a stark brutality.
Having worked for many years on women’s equality in the labour market, and supporting people facing multiple disadvantages such as homelessness, poor mental health and substance abuse, I worry that the progress we had achieved is now at risk in the aftermath of the pandemic.
I recognise that the public sector will have to face multiple challenges as we emerge from this crisis. Nevertheless, I feel it’s vitally important that providers of public services remain aware of the consequences of inequality as well as adopt strategies to protect those facing disadvantage.
By Alan Alexander, Chair of the Audit Scotland Board
Public audit in Scotland supports a mixed-market approach to audit appointments, appointing as auditors employees of Audit Scotland and audit firms. This mixed audit delivery model brings together a wealth of specialist experience and supports a flexible and sustainable supply of cost-effective, high-quality audits.
Tendering every five years ensures best practice by enabling the rotation of auditors, so that a public body doesn’t have the same auditor for an extended period. The latest tender round was planned for last year, but the Auditor General and the Accounts Commission made the decision to extend the current audit appointments for a year, given the disruption, risks and complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I am pleased to announce that we will proceed with the tendering process this year and we will be inviting audit firms to bid for work this autumn. This decision has been made possible, in part, because we have seen the completion of all of the 2019/20 financial audits this year; a real achievement in such difficult circumstances.
ABOUT a year ago public service delivery was turned on its head.
Vast sums of money were being spent to cope with the pandemic, and there was a huge shift to digital. Overnight, Audit Scotland became a virtual organisation.
That changed landscape and the sheer pace of events meant our reporting had to become more agile and responsive, while maintaining audit quality and looking after our colleagues’ wellbeing.
We want our work and reports to be used widely so that they inform and help public services improve. We were already producing shorter, sharper briefing papers before Covid-19. Subjects included drugs and alcohol services, the student loan system and ways to get the best outcomes from public spending. But they were infrequent. Pieces of work with wider scopes tended to take precedence.
BEFORE coronavirus changed life as we know it, the Scottish Government was facing some very real financial challenges.
They knew the NHS would continue to absorb more of the Scottish budget (41 per cent in 2019/20) without big changes to service delivery and faster integration of health and social care. Those problems largely remain.
Other knot-filled folders sat on ministers’ desks. They included ones marked police and local government funding; Brexit; and managing the volatility of new tax and social security powers. Most of those challenges remain.
These issues would have tested any government at any time. Now a pandemic – and the increased costs and uncertainties it has brought – must be managed alongside them.
Most of the Covid-19 spending in Scotland has been covered by huge levels of UK government borrowing to fund the health, social care and business response. That’s meant an extra £9.7 billion added on to a Scottish budget of over £40 billion for 2020/21.
Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, and there is a risk that it will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.
How the Scottish Government and public bodies respond to that challenge will be a big focus of our audit work in the months and years ahead.
Poverty is on the rise and mass unemployment is being predicted on a scale not seen since the early 1990s. All at a time when you are already twice as likely to die with Covid-19 if you live in one of this country’s most deprived areas.
Covid-19 has changed our society and economy in profound ways. The immediate and longer-term impacts of Covid-19 are ever-present, shifting the ways in which we live and dominating the delivery of public services.
The pace of change has been rapid and, in many ways, this is welcome. However that speed also presents risks to public services and the potential for increased exclusion.
Central to providing citizens with ongoing reassurance about how public services are being provided, alongside the approach to rebuilding and renewing those services, will be regulation, inspection and audit by Scotland’s scrutiny bodies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a huge change in our health and care services in a very short time.
The terrible human cost of that first wave is felt strongly by all of us, particularly those of us who lost loved ones. And we know that the impact of the pandemic hasn’t been equally shared and that it’s the most vulnerable people who have suffered the most.