Labour in radical shift away from free services

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont suggested her party will now oppose universal free public services. Picture: TSPL
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont suggested her party will now oppose universal free public services. Picture: TSPL
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SCOTTISH Labour leader Johann Lamont has called for an end to Scotland’s “something for nothing” culture in a flagship speech outlining a policy shift moving the party away from its traditional support for universal free public services.

Ms Lamont announced the controversial switch in Edinburgh yesterday when she launched a new policy commission to look at scrapping free university tuition, free NHS prescriptions and the council tax freeze.

The Labour leader issued a stark warning that “the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie” as she insisted that she would not get involved in a “dishonest auction” with the SNP about the issue of funding public services.

Ms Lamont, in her first attempt to reposition Labour after nine months as leader, questioned whether Scotland could afford universal free services as she suggested that free university tuition and prescriptions were starving frontline public services of much-needed cash.

The dramatic move from the Labour leader came as she warned that there was “now less money around” and that the SNP was funding Scotland’s frontline services on the “never never”.

Ms Lamont suggested that SNP ministers had ignored the findings of the government-commissioned Christie Commission that warned of difficult spending decisions, and of Lord Sutherland – the architect of free personal care for the elderly – who indicated that cuts are inevitable unless taxes fill the gap. The Labour leader also warned that taxes will have to rise or services be cut to maintain popular, but expensive, SNP pledges in areas such as the council tax freeze, as she delivered the speech ahead of next week’s UK Labour conference in Manchester.

She said: “This is the stark choice that Scotland has to face up to: if we wish to continue some policies as they are, then they come with a cost which has to be paid for either through increased taxation, direct charges or cuts elsewhere.

“If we do not confront these hard decisions soon, the choice will be taken from us when we will be left with few options.”

Meanwhile, a joint economic group chaired by senior Labour MP Cathy Jamieson and finance spokesman Ken Macintosh will examine whether Scotland’s free public services are affordable, with evidence gathered from experts such as Professor Arthur Midwinter, a former budget adviser to Holyrood.

The group will focus on free university tuition, free NHS prescriptions and the council- tax freeze – three flagship SNP policies that Labour promised it would not reverse during last year’s Holyrood elections.

Free personal care, concessionary bus travel and free school meals are unlikely to be the priorities of the group, which will produce a series of reports over the next one to two years.

However, there will be no Scottish Labour manifesto setting out pledges to axe free services before the SNP’s proposed referendum on independence in 2014.

There was also a scathing attack on Scotland’s finance secretary, John Swinney, whom Ms Lamont described as “George

Osborne in a kilt”.

Ms Lamont said: “Some might even argue that John Swinney thinks it is in his political interests not to protect Scotland from the Tory cuts, but to let them run free in the hope that the pain they cause ordinary Scots will help him in the referendum.

“I am not going to get into an auction with the SNP. They might cry freedom, but the idea that Scotland is a land where everything is free is a lie. Someone always pays for it in the end.”

Ms Lamont warned that she was “calling time” on what she said was the SNP’s “vision for Scotland on the never never” as she gave the strongest hint yet that Scottish Labour would drop its support for free university

tuition, free NHS prescriptions and the council tax freeze.

She said: “I know that there are families, working hard, on average or above-average incomes who feel they pay enough and are attracted by policies like free prescriptions, free tuition fees and the council tax freeze. I know where they are coming from, but I ask them to look at how they are paying for those free things.

“What price your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E or the life-saving drug they need isn’t available at all?

“What price free tuition fees when your neighbour can’t get a place at college or when university standards are now lower than when they went to uni?

“What price the council tax freeze, when your parents’ care is cut, and your child’s teachers cannot give them the materials they need because there is a ban on something as simple as


However, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Ms Lamont of launching a “cuts commission” and claimed Scottish Labour wanted to pile cost on to Scots to use public services.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Almost one year on from her election as leader and Labour still have no policies of their own to bring to the table.

“Establishing a commission for cuts, but hiding the final conclusions until after the referendum, is simply pushing Labour’s policy problems into the long grass.

“If Johann Lamont thinks that mimicking the Tories on police, prescriptions and tuition fees is the way ahead, she really has

lost touch with the people of Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Ms Lamont, who has launched a separate Labour committee to examine more powers for Holyrood, went on to suggest the Scottish Parliament had sufficient powers to deliver improvements and reforms to the nation’s public services.

She said: “We can change Scotland now. We have the powers in the Scottish Parliament now, to change radically education, health, public services. What we lack is the will.”