There is always a gap between what statistics tell us about public services and the perception of those services by those who provide and use them.
Today in Prime Minister’s Questions we had sustained and vigorous attacks from Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar on policing and wait times issues at National Health Service.
The two opposition leaders have faced a blizzard of statistics no doubt cited to give context, but feeling like the ultimate civil service record to pique the concerns of rank and file police officers and NHS staff which had been widely quoted by Ross and Sarwar.
Several times today Speaker Alison Johnstone had to be called to order as Tory and Labor MSPs grew increasingly infuriated by the response of the FMs to some pointed questions.
On policing, Ross quoted a letter sent to the government by the Scottish Police Federation. He read the letter reflecting officers’ anger over pay negotiations and cited the Scottish police chief’s view that policing was not a priority for the government.
Ross became animated and impatient with the answers to his questions, saying Nicola Sturgeon simply didn’t understand the issues and didn’t face the ‘reality outside your bubble at Bute House’.
In a statistical barrage, the FM cited the police resource budget, the number of officers per head compared to England and the lowest salaries paid to new officers – which are significantly lower in England.
Sturgeon added that the number of police officers had increased in Scotland compared to the cuts in England.
The statistics were meant to convey one thing, that the accusation that policing is not a government priority was clearly false.
Contrasting the situation in England and Wales was an attempt to throw away the Tories’ England record against the Scottish Tory leader.
From the point of view of the debate, this gave the FM a solid statistical basis for its arguments.
The problem with such an approach is that the statistics ring hollow if those on the front lines of a service simply do not recognize the service a politician is describing.
There is no doubt that there is raw anger among officers who are frustrated with the initial salary offer, and there is no doubt that the anger is growing.
I suspect an argument with an overreliance on statistics won’t play well, although the premier was candid in admitting she understood the frustration given the acute cost of living crisis.
Then it was about health and waiting times for cancer patients. The purpose of Sarwar’s question was to find out how many patients had missed the standard 62 days to start treatment.
The Prime Minister again had plenty of statistics to quote but not the one that directly answered his question. He answered it himself saying that 3,057 patients had not been treated within the 62-day period.
He then claimed the Beatson Cancer Center in Glasgow had considered rationing treatment before asking how many people had waited longer than six weeks for diagnostic tests.
Sturgeon responded that at the end of May there were 155,000 people waiting for a particular diagnostic test, but argued that under his leadership there had been a 95% increase in consulting oncologists and a 63% increase radiologists.
According to her, NHS staffing has increased by 23% and A&E performance in Scotland has performed better than in England. The staff was better paid too.
The Labor Party’s accusation was that this is a crisis born of neglect and a wait times trend that began long before the pandemic began.
I guess the question is whether staff feeling the pressure on the front line or patients frustrated with long wait times are reassured by the statistics or whether they just see rolling out such numbers as too defensive an approach from a politician who does not have the experience of those on the front line.
The opposition members did their job today. They held the FM to account and she in turn held her position that all things considered, the police and NHS were doing better in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.
Tonight MSPs are leaving Parliament for the summer recess. This will give them more time to spend in their constituencies where they will no doubt be well sensitized to the concerns of ordinary voters, be they police officers, health workers or patients.
Government business continues during recess. Nicola Sturgeon will be acutely aware that ongoing industrial relations issues rooted in demands for higher wages will exercise her ministerial inbox.
Sometimes the toughest issues lie not in parliament but in the country and the summer of discontent is sure to ensure this break will be far more turbulent than usual for the Scottish government.