THE council tax freeze, free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions are “damaging the economy” in Scotland, a leading public finance expert has said, after being handed the job of reviewing Labour’s stance on charging for public services.
Professor Arthur Midwinter issued the stark warning after he was tasked by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont with helping to run a policy commission for the party to look at scrapping free universal services and the council tax freeze.
The academic, who for eight years advised Holyrood’s finance committee, claimed that the SNP’s funding of free prescriptions, free university tuition and the council tax freeze were leading to thousands of job losses a year in Scotland’s public sector by starving it of cash.
Prof Midwinter told The Scotsman that charges could “reasonably be applied” to some public services as he insisted that “nothing is off the table” during the work of the controversial policy commission launched by Ms Lamont.
The warning came after Ms Lamont used a keynote speech in Edinburgh to demand an end to Scotland’s “something for nothing” culture and to claim that the “idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie”.
Prof Midwinter said that 18,000 jobs in the NHS and local government had been axed this year alone to fund the flagship SNP policies of the council tax freeze, free prescriptions and free university tuition that Labour previously promised not to reverse. He said: “We are losing jobs in the public sector because money is being taken out of the economy. We have to make use of this money to protect jobs in the public sector.”
Prof Midwinter went on to say that he would devote at least two days a week for up to two years to prepare a series of reports for the commission, which is being co-chaired by Labour MP Cathy Jamieson and finance spokesman Ken Macintosh.
He said that he would examine all the SNP government’s budgets since 2007 and the spending on free services as he warned Holyrood to “get real” on Scotland’s finances.
Prof Midwinter said: “Everything has got to be looked at in this review because of the continued shrinking budget. Nothing is off the table and I’m reluctant to rule anything out.
“All these things are taking money out of public services – money that could be spent on services as opposed to in effect taking money out of the economy and damaging the economy.”
The proposed policy shift away from free public services has already led to opposition within the party, with a member of Ms Lamont’s frontbench and a senior Labour MSP both raising concerns about the move.
Labour shadow minister for youth unemployment, Kezia Dugdale, said: “That it might cost more to means test them than it would to give everybody them for free, so we need to look at the numbers … I think that probably free prescription charges would need to stay.”
The SNP’s minister for local government, Derek Mackay, accused Labour of backing what he claimed was the cuts agenda of the government at Westminster.
He said: “Johann Lamont has let the cat out of the bag. If Labour were to get back in power in Scotland, they would hike the council tax.”