Scottish Government should consider means-testing of universal benefits like free prescriptions and free tuition fees – Scotsman comment

Can the Scottish Government justify free tuition fees, free prescriptions and other such universal benefits while making swingeing cuts to education and housing?

As the country faces up to the consequences of a grim “tax and cut” Scottish Budget, questions are rightly being asked about the SNP’s priorities, ahead of the Scottish Parliament vote on the proposals.

Among other cuts, universities and colleges are set to lose more than £100 million and the affordable homes fund is to be slashed by about £200 million, while bankers are warning that high taxes are already putting people off the idea of moving to Scotland. Judith Cruickshank, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, said she had heard “many anecdotal stories about people choosing to remain in cities like Manchester or Newcastle or Birmingham”.

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As the government seeks to fill its £1.5 billion funding gap, it is taking a large amount of money out of an economy that is already struggling. Meanwhile, long-standing policies of ‘free’, or rather taxpayer-funded, tuition fees for students and free prescriptions remain untouched. In addition, Scotland provides free bus travel for those aged under 22, sends free baby boxes to new mums, and there is even talk of a universal basic income – ‘free’ money for all.

In a democracy, it can be a useful thought experiment for voters to attempt to put themselves into the shoes of their elected representatives, an idea formally explored in ‘citizen parliaments’. This can improve understanding of the difficult choices politicians often face and also open up choices they deem off-limits.

To focus on free prescriptions, this policy cost £1.4 billion in 2020/21. However, a 2018 study by researchers at Edinburgh and Exeter universities was lukewarm about its impact, failing to find “sufficient evidence that universal free prescriptions was a demonstrably effective or ineffective policy, in terms of reducing hospital admissions or reducing socioeconomic inequality in hospital admissions”.

Universal benefits are popular and the SNP has made political capital as a result of introducing them. However, in straitened circumstances, where the alternative is swingeing cuts to education and housing, means-testing of free prescriptions, free tuition and other such policies has to be considered. It makes no sense for a government to be overly generous to some and tight-fisted to others.



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