Susan Dalgety: We can’t afford entitlement culture

UNIVERSAL welfare benefits such as free eye tests and prescriptions are not sustainable, writes Susan Dalgety

Nye Bevan, the man who delivered what is probably the world’s greatest ever universal benefit, the National Health Service, used to argue that politics was about priorities.

His priority was to end the fear that stalked millions of British homes before 1945. The fear of unemployment and being unable to feed your family, of falling ill and not being able to afford medical fees, the fear of losing a home because the rent was simply unaffordable.

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In place of this fear, he and the post-war Labour government built a welfare system that promised to look after British families from the cradle to the grave.

Fast forward nearly 70 years and the post-war consensus that welcomed Nye Bevan’s vision of a New Jerusalem, funded by tax-payers, has all but collapsed in the wake of the Great Recession.

The Tory Lib-Dem coalition, spurred on by its desire to reduce public spending so that the country can cut its way to growth, is embarking on the biggest reform of the benefits system since 1945.

In January, that most universal of benefits – child benefit – was withdrawn from families earning more than £60,000 a year.

This month sees the tentative pilot of Universal Credit – a single, monthly payment that merges benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance and tax credits such as those for working families.

And this week, the controversial “bedroom tax” came into force. People who receive housing benefit and rent their home from their local council or housing association face a stark choice: pay a penalty of around £14 a week if they have a “spare” bedroom, or move to a smaller home, if they can find one.

Not surprisingly politicians on the Left are queuing up to condemn the UK government changes to the benefit system.

Even Frank Field, a former New Labour welfare minister once regarded by many as an enemy of the welfare state rather than its stout defender, has called on landlords to “brick up the doors to spare bedrooms” in defiance of the bedroom tax.

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By any measure the bedroom tax does seem an unusually cruel attack on the most vulnerable in our society. Families who have very little are being punished for an economic crisis most definitely not of their making.

But the rightful, and sometime self-righteous, furore that has greeted the introduction of the bedroom tax, is in danger of putting off the deeper discussion that needs to take place about universal benefits, particularly here in Scotland.

Thanks to a lucky combination of a generous Barnett Formula, Gordon Brown’s public spending largesse between 1999 and 2007, and a young parliament, eager to show its progressive tendencies, Scots enjoy the most generous package of benefits in the UK.

And it is not just the most vulnerable households who enjoy the perks of devolved decision-making.

Free bus travel is available to everyone over the age of 60, regardless of income, and with the official retirement age now set to rise to 66 for both men and women by the year 2020, there are going to be an awful lot of workers enjoying a free ride.

Scottish students, even those whose families forked out thousands of pounds a year to take them out of the state education system, get free university education while their English peers have to pay £9,000 a year in tuition fees.

The Labour-Lib Dem coalition, under Henry McLeish’s brief leadership, introduced free personal care for the elderly, a measure that was welcomed by almost everyone at the time, but one that now makes government actuaries quake with fear.

The cost of this benefit, which is available to millionaires as well as people on the basic state pension, has spiralled by 157 per cent since its introduction and is predicted to double over the next two decades.

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Free prescriptions and eye tests cost the Scottish public purse £150 million a year. These particular freebies mostly benefit those of us who think nothing of spending £7.85 on a bottle of wine, the cost of a prescription in England.

Is this public largesse, where middle-class families now believe they are entitled to free stuff, such as bus travel to work simply because they have reached 60, or free education for Lily now that she has left Fettes for St Andrews, sustainable or even fair?

Robert Black, the respected former Auditor General of Scotland, thinks not. He argued recently that we need to revisit much of the free services. “Every pound that goes on bus passes for well-off older people is a pound that is not available for other things,” he said.

And in a landmark speech in September last year, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont argued that Scotland could no longer afford to be the “only something for nothing country in the world”.

People close to her said they did not anticipate that her speech would attract much attention, let alone the furious storm of outrage that ensued.

“George Osborne in a kilt” was one of the kinder insults levelled at her. And the SNP were cock-a-hoop at what they thought was a spectacular own goal by the Labour leader.

One of their major tactics to win Scots over to independence is to promise a welfare state that, as Nicola Sturgeon said recently, will, among other things, abolish child poverty.

A laudable ambition, indeed one that a certain Gordon Brown promised would happen by 2020, even as the world economy was collapsing around him.

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But history may well prove that it is Johann Lamont, with her blunt, but necessary critique of the culture of entitlement, who is following in the footsteps of Nye Bevan.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism,” declared the founder of the welfare state.

Scotland needs to decide whether our national priority should be to properly protect the most vulnerable, or subsidise middle-class lifestyles. We can’t do both.
• Susan Dalgety is a communications adviser and writer, and former first minister Jack McConnell’s head of press