IS this the beginning of the end for local government? Is local democracy and accountability about to be replaced by a panoply of unelected quangos?

The National Care Service (Scotland) Bill has just been published with a stated aim of improving the quality and consistency of social services in Scotland. In reality, it would hollow out the responsibilities of local authorities.

The bill would transfer the social care and social work functions of Scotland’s 32 democratic councils to the Scottish Government and a number of new quangos under ministerial control.

The bill’s policy memorandum explains at paragraph 44 that the new “National Care Service” is a “part of the Scottish Government” and “as it will share the legal identity of the Scottish Ministers it does not need to be established in the Bill itself”.

Tucked away at paragraph 53 of the bill’s financial memorandum is the revelation that up to 75,000 council social work and social care staff would be transferred to “care boards”. The number of care boards has yet to be specified.

Care boards would comprise of their own staff and paid boards appointed by ministers. They would incur additional costs of new premises, support services, IT, administration and communications. They would replace existing integration joint boards (IJBs) between councils and the NHS – however, unlike IJBs, their VAT position is unclear.

You may recall the fankle when the creation of a centralised national police force and fire service resulted in the need to pay VAT from 2013 to 2018, until the UK Government granted an exemption – around £170 million was lost over that period.

Here’s what the bill’s financial memorandum says on VAT: “If care boards are not able to reclaim VAT in a similar way, there could be a significant financial impact.

“This could reduce the overall funds available to spend directly on social care support” (paragraph 52).

You have to ask yourself, how would the National Care Service (Scotland) Bill make life better for those who rely on social work and social care services? What does it bring to the table?

As far as I can see, its primary purpose is a power grab from local elected councils to the Scottish Government and new quangos under ministerial control.

Arguably it is a very expensive folly in a cost of living emergency. Care board costs for 2025/26 are formally estimated at £132m to £326m. Why not invest that money in existing service provision and greater support for unpaid carers?

Unison Scotland, the largest union in Scottish local government, has called on councillors to defend local democracy and oppose the bill’s transfer of powers from local authorities.

For Unison’s Scottish secretary, Tracey Dalling, the bill marks the beginning of the end for council services: “This is a massive attack on local authorities as a tier of government. Legal responsibilities are being removed from councils and services put into commissioning and competitive tendering exercises. This weakens accountability for service users. And instead of being able to go to a councillor about services, people will have to apply to a complaints process as they do with an energy company.

“The bill is an outsourcers’ charter. The Scottish Government claim for the National Care Service is that who owns and provides services doesn’t matter – that public, private or third sector are all equally capable and worthwhile.

“These are vital services supporting some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. They need to be publicly run and democratically accountable. Is this an attitude they intend to apply to other public services such as education, health or water?”

The substitution of council accountability with quangos under centralised control sits uncomfortably with the European Union’s (EU) principle of subsidiarity. This principle holds that decisions should be taken at the most immediate or local level possible and as close to citizens as possible. Although we’re no longer in the EU, the Scottish Government supports the European Charter of Local Self-Government and its incorporation into Scots law.

Article 3 of the Charter provides that “local self-government denotes the right and the ability of local authorities, within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population”.

The bill runs counter to Article 4 of the Charter: “Public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen. Allocation of responsibility to another authority should weigh up the extent and nature of the task and requirements of efficiency and economy.”

Social care should be delivered in and for the community. It’s difficult to see how unelected quangos under ministerial control can do that better than elected councils.