13th December 2017

Use SIC reserves to help most vulnerable, new councillors suggest

The most vulnerable residents must be protected in the face of deep budget cuts, two councillors have warned.

Shetland Central representative Ian Scott and Shetland West member Catherine Hughson were both elected for the first time in May.

They have urged Shetland Islands Council to dip into its vast reserves to dull the blow of austerity.

Mr Scott said: “It’s a very simple thing. We have got tonnes of money and we really have to look after our vulnerable people, our older folk and our young folk who need help.”

Meanwhile, Ms Hughson called for “must have” services to be treated differently to “nice-to-have” services at budget-setting time.

Their comments came following a meeting of the council’s audit committee in which each revealed their views to varying degrees.

Members were given an update on the SIC’s financial state by auditors Deloitte.

Ms Hughson, who is the committee’s vice-chairwoman, asked the auditor whether he would approve of a hypothetical decision to impose a two per cent spending cut across all departments when the budget is set early next year.

Deloitte director Pat Kenny’s response was that such a move would be a “blunt instrument” and unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term.

After the meeting, Ms Hughson said she agreed with the auditor’s interpretation.

“I think it is a blunt instrument, to be honest. I don’t think it’s a fair way of doing it. Because there’s ‘must have’ services – things like caring for the elderly and education and children’s services – and services that are nice to have but which are not actually a necessity.”

She said that if cuts had to be imposed, they should fall less on the former.

Mr Scott’s contribution to the meeting was raising the idea of using the council’s reserves – which are in excess of £200 million – to direct more money towards social care in defiance of the UK-wide austerity agenda. He said: “We are not happy with the way things are going with the spending. We are being assured by the government that austerity is temporary but really what I am saying is we’re going to be faced with a large series of cuts and we have got the resources within the reserve fund [to counter them].”

He added: “I am here to represent my constituents and they don’t want to see the cuts and I think we are in a position to say ‘no thank you’ to the Scottish government for their restricted finances but we are going to alleviate that for our people.”

SIC finance chief Jonathan Belford said reserves were already being used to top up the funding given by the Scottish government.

Following the meeting, Ms Hughson declared some support for Mr Scott’s suggestion.

She said: “I think if we need to use a small percentage of reserves year on year I don’t see that as a bad thing because the reserves we have are making money and we are actually building on our reserves so do we need to build on the reserves or do we need to spend the interest to keep everything and ask for less cuts?”

Mr Scott told The Shetland Times that he “makes no apology” for making arguments in favour of protecting vulnerable people.

“I’m here to fight for the people of Shetland and bugger the rest of them with their huge salaries and pensions,” he said.

Mr Scott added: “If we keep going the way we are going it’s going to be hell here.”

The council received around £3 million less from the Scottish government this year compared with the previous year. The budget for next year is likely to be set around February.

When asked about Mr Kenny’s “blunt instrument” comment, Mr Belford said: “My view is that if that were our only approach to setting our budgets then we are not being sophisticated enough.

“The scale of the task for setting future years’ budgets is described in the Medium Term Financial Plan and reflects rising costs and falling Scottish government funding, so we have to go beyond efficiency savings and are working on the prioritisation of service redesign options so that choices are made about where resources are directed to support the outcomes we are working to achieve.”

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