FREE personal care for the elderly has come to be seen as one of the defining policies of the devolution era in Scotland, and is routinely held up as an example of the distinctiveness of Scottish politics.
It is also frequently used, rightly or wrongly, as a symbol of how Holyrood differs in its moral outlook from the politics of Westminster.
What is often forgotten is how free care was originally rejected by the Scottish Government when Donald Dewar was first minister, and was only reintroduced to the political agenda by Dewar’s successor, Henry McLeish, in the face of opposition from many of his own party colleagues. McLeish’s then wife was a senior social worker, and her passionate advocacy of the policy had convinced him this was the right thing to do.
And yet he was only able to get free care implemented with the help of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, in the face of deep scepticism from some of his Labour colleagues in the Scottish Cabinet. They saw it as a subsidy for the middle class, allowing the comfortably well-off to protect their savings so they could be passed on, intact, to their children, while the state picked up the tab for their care. Following its implementation, however, free care for the elderly has become emblematic of Holyrood politics, and is hugely popular with voters.
At its heart is a desire to see those suffering from dementia being afforded the same parity of treatment – and the same dignity – as people being treated for diseases such as cancer.
What the authors of this policy did not take into account, however, is the fact that some people with dementia – a disease associated with the elderly – are not themselves old.
The campaign waged by Amanda Kopel, wife of former Dundee United and Manchester United football star Frank Kopel, has now brought this anomaly to the attention of Scottish ministers. Her husband is now aged 64, but has suffered dementia for many years. And yet the help with free care afforded to people with exactly the same condition, who just happen to be a few years older, has not been available to his family.
As we report on our front-page today, health minister Alex Neil has now promised to look at ways of closing this loophole. This newspaper commends him for this. The families of those who suffer early-onset dementia should not be disadvantaged simply because their loved ones fell ill so distressingly young.
In the longer term, free care for the elderly poses a challenge to everyone in Scotland, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum next September. The cost to the taxpayer has almost trebled to £450 million in the past eight years, and the projected increase in the number of elderly people has led public policy experts to question whether it is affordable in the medium- and long-term. Whether something is affordable or not depends, of course, on how willing we are to pay for it. And there will come a time soon when voters may be asked to choose: are you willing to pay higher taxes to ensure free care is available to all; or should free care only be available to those without the resources to pay for this care themselves?
It is right that Scottish ministers act now to close loopholes in the current arrangements to ensure a respectful parity of treatment for those who suffer this terrible condition, regardless of age or circumstances. But in the longer term, Scotland faces some difficult dilemmas on whether, in a time of austerity, this touchstone policy takes precedence over all other spending considerations, or whether it needs to be reviewed.
THE debate over ditching some of the most distinctive features of Scots law is heating up. Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill looks determined to press ahead with the reforms suggested by Lord Carloway, which would remove centuries-old conventions such as the “not proven” verdict and the need for corroboration in securing a conviction. The changes are seen as necessary to ensure Scots law is compatible with European human rights legislation. But the proposal has met with stiff opposition from numerous senior figures in the Scottish legal world, including former lord president Lord Hope of Craighead.
Into this debate now steps Police Scotland. As our news story today reports, senior officers say the need for corroboration could prevent the successful prosecution of paedophiles who use the internet for the online grooming of children and the clandestine exchange of images of child abuse. Senior officers may well be correct in their assessment that corroboration is difficult to come by in such cases. But that is the nature of these crimes. Even if corroboration were abolished, there would still be a difficulty in identifying an individual, to the satisfaction of a jury, as the person who posted certain material. The desire of the police for a change in the law is clear. But the test must be whether it would serve justice, not serve the prosecution.