Benefits row has neglected priorities
The issue of affordability is obscuring rather than illuminating the debate about universal benefits in Scotland.
Of course, austerity is biting, the public finances are very tight and the outlook for them in future years is not encouraging; few would deny any of that.
But the question isn’t affordability; we can “afford” £50 million for free prescriptions if we choose to prioritise spending £50m on free prescriptions over spending it on something else.
Some universal benefits are, of course, more affordable than others.
Free prescription charges are much more affordable than free undergraduate tuition in exactly the same way as a Mini is much more affordable than an Aston Martin.
We need to get away from the unfortunate mindset of thinking about universal benefits as some sort of homogeneous group of “good things to do”.
They are very different from each other.
In addition to being much more expensive than free prescriptions, for example, free undergraduate tuition is a substantial subsidy to the human capital investment that people make in themselves that, on average, hugely increases their earning powers over their lifetime.
It’s much harder to argue the case that the taxpayer should be subsidising people to make an investment that (whatever its social benefits) will make them personally much more wealthy than they would have been without making it than it is to argue the case that we shouldn’t foot the bill for, say, free personal care for the elderly to provide some dignity in the closing years of life.
Does Johann Lamont have any idea of the likely cost of setting up and running the huge bureaucracy that would be necessary to means-test prescription charges? Nor do I, but my best guess is that it would make a huge hole in any income from such charges, and be a costly waste of time.
On 20 September, John Swinney introduced a draft Scottish budget for 2013-14. Does not the existence of this draft budget, now open to debate by MSPs, offer the opportunity for Ms Lamont and her colleagues to state without equivocation the cuts in those universal benefits to which Labour objects? In other words, let’s have a Labour budget.
The figures are there to be worked on, and if a Labour budget is introduced and the parliament invited to support it, there is no reason why Ms Lamont and her comrades should ever again become embarrassed when failing to raise their hands when Nicola Sturgeon asks them about cuts to specific universal benefits.
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