THE debate about universal benefits is one in which emotions run high. For some people, the availability of things like free prescriptions and free bus travel for the elderly are signifiers of a civilised country, true to the spirit of the post-war Welfare State. For others, they are an electoral bribe to the middle classes and the wealthy, who could well afford to contribute to public services but who instead are handed a freebie, reducing the amount of cash available to spend on those who need it most. One of the most intriguing aspects of the debate is that each side claims its position is the authentic expression of a socialist Scotland, and the other as a right-wing heresy.
But between the extremes there is a middle ground. On it are camped people who, while questioning, for example, why over-60s get free bus travel when many of them are still in full-time employment, accept that one category of Scots should be indulged regardless of the wealth or otherwise of their household.
That category is the very young, including pre-schoolers and children in the first years of primary school. So crucial are the early years for a person’s health, social development, education and general wellbeing, any money spent on them at this age will be repaid many times over in a smarter, healthier and more socially cohesive Scotland in years to come.
This is why extended nursery school provision is supported by all political parties, and also why recent moves to provide free school lunches for pupils in Primaries 1-3 also found favour across the political spectrum.
It is in this context that our news story today about free vitamins for all under-5s and pregnant women should be considered. The state already pays for vitamins for people in this category if they are in receipt of benefits. Vitamin D is said by doctors to be particularly important for child development. But despite this, and despite campaigns urging other more prosperous parents and mums-to-be to use vitamin drops, a worryingly low proportion of the population does so.
The simple fact is that this is not a widely accepted part of the social norm for what one does during pregnancy and with young infants. The Scottish Government is now saying it is reviewing its policy on the provision of vitamins, and the medical opinion from doctors in this field seems to be strongly in favour of universal provision, with the state – and therefore, ultimately, the taxpayer – footing the bill. The full cost of such a move will need to be assessed, but the argument that spending at this age pays dividends in future years appears to be a strong one.
There is one big caveat in all this. The efficacy or otherwise of vitamins is itself a matter of controversy. Some scientists are firmly of the view that they confer little or no benefit to anyone who has a reasonably healthy diet. Not only that, they believe a surfeit of vitamin supplements could actually leave someone more vulnerable to serious illness, by affecting the body’s natural defences.
As a result there are some scientists and doctors who are deeply sceptical about the entire vitamin industry, seeing it as a multi-billion dollar con. Are the advocates of vitamin supplements for pregnant women and young children 100 per cent satisfied of the benefits? And are they 100 per cent satisfied there are no dangers in this course of action?
These are questions that need to be explored and satisfactorily answered before any ministerial go-ahead. Are the concerns justified in any way? And are they particularly justified when it comes to mums-to-be and the very young? There may be safety issues at stake here that are fundamentally more important than political debates about whether or not universal benefits and services are a suitable use for scarce resources at a time of financial austerity.
Home truths on new powers
WHEN John Swinney, Finance Secretary in the Scottish Cabinet, unveiled his replacement for stamp duty in October last year, it was a landmark moment in the history of the SNP government and devolution in general. Power over stamp duty had been devolved to Holyrood in the Scotland Act 2012, and Swinney’s replacement – the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (LBTT) – would be the first tax levied by the Holyrood Parliament. Not only that, the effect of the tax would be redistributive, hitting the wealthiest and the middle-classes harder than those buying more moderately priced homes. Swinney looked as pleased with himself as his naturally modest demeanour allowed.
Then along came spoilsport George Osborne. In his Autumn Statement in December, the Chancellor decided that a revived housing market was the key to accelerating Britain’s economic recovery, and so he slashed stamp duty for the vast majority of home-buyers. All of a sudden, Swinney’s LBTT didn’t look like such a great deal after all. This week Swinney will revise his figures so that contrast with what is happening south of the Border is less marked. It will be a sobering climbdown for the SNP government, illustrating some home truths. One of these is that even if a power is devolved – or even if Scotland became independent – Scotland’s tax system would always be compared to and judged against the situation furth of the Tweed.
The exact detail of Swinney’s tweak will not be known until he stands up at Holyrood and reveals it. He may have a surprise or two up his sleeve – he certainly has more money to play with than he initially envisaged, after the cut to the block grant expected to accompany the transfer of the tax power was less than expected. But Swinney will struggle to make his new version of the LBTT as redistributive as his original version, and anything deemed as a move away from the left will disappoint those hoping for a more explicitly socialist SNP administration under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Expect more such dilemmas in the future, with Holyrood soon to take control of a range of new powers recommended by the Smith Commission, including income tax bands and rates, and air passenger duty. With new powers come new questions.