Michael Russell grasps the thistle of U-turn on universal benefits
EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell was forced into a public U-turn over his opposition to universal benefits yesterday.
The senior SNP minister told MSPs he had been wrong to question the services such as free bus passes and prescription charges in a book six years ago.
The issue has become a key political battleground since Labour leader Johann Lamont last week announced a commission to examine Scotland’s benefits, including the council tax freeze and free university tuition fees, as she hit out at the “something for nothing” culture.
Ms Lamont tried to isolate Mr Russell by quoting lines from a book he co-wrote before becoming a minister in the Scottish Government, during a Holyrood debate on the future of public services yesterday.
The book, Grasping the Thistle, states: “Put bluntly, universality now drags down both the quality of service to those most in need and the ability of government to provide such services. However, our political parties do not have the courage to address the issue for fear of losing votes.”
But Mr Russell made a surprising climbdown in the Holyrood chamber. “I am more than prepared to say today that my experience of the recession and of the loss of 25,000 university places south of the Border make me believe I was wrong,” he said to jeers from Labour MSPs.
Ms Lamont accused the SNP of betraying young people with education priorities, failing to accept the reality of reduced public finances and for wanting tax cuts that would make US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blush.
“The debate I called for is not about universality versus means-testing. It is about what we can and cannot afford. It is about affordability.”
Labour believes the priority, as public services are starved of cash in tough times, is to protect the most vulnerable.
“The SNP do not have a basic understanding of fairness – that is the reality,” Ms Lamont added.
The Labour leader last week questioned why Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should get free prescriptions with a household income of £200,000.
But Ms Sturgeon insisted yesterday that Labour had got its “conclusion” wrong.
“It’s a conclusion that has its roots in the deeply misguided belief of Labour that this parliament should be responsible for divvying up the national cake but have no power to influence the overall size of that cake,” she said. “It’s a conclusion that puts at risk many of the hard-won social policy victories of this parliament.”
Referring to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s recent apology for breaking an election promise on tuition fees in England, Ms Sturgeon said: “Labour must be the first party of record to manage to break its promises from opposition. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.”
But Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown said the country needed to have a debate on the issue. “Doing nothing, if we are honest, is not an option,” he told Ms Sturgeon.
But SNP backbenchers continued the attack, with Stuart McMillan describing Ms Lamont as “Scotland’s Margaret Thatcher”.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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