Kenny MacAskill: Time to talk seriously about benefits, universal or not, affordable or otherwise

So, baby boxes will be arriving for every newborn in Scotland. Delivered not by a stork but by the Scottish Government. For some it's a fad, for others a vital part of childcare. I tend to be supportive as its been shown to work in Finland, a country I admire greatly and one which has addressed public health issues and pursued education policies that Scotland could do well to learn from.
Baby boxes indicate a willingness to help every child, regardless of income, get the best possible startBaby boxes indicate a willingness to help every child, regardless of income, get the best possible start
Baby boxes indicate a willingness to help every child, regardless of income, get the best possible start

The boxes are neither a panacea for child poverty nor a cure-all for cot death or other ills. However, their introduction is still indicative of trying to aspire for every child to achieve their full potential. Trying to provide the best start for every child is important and providing for all irrespective of their parents’ income seems reasonable.

However, it’s yet another universal benefit and it raises the question of what should be available as of right to all, and what should be targeted towards those with most need. It’s a debate that has taken place throughout the ages as it is contingent on factors such as prosperity, demographics and population, never mind political mood.

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I’m a supporter of universal benefits though appreciate that not all can be or even should be made available. It’s about balance, which is dependent on the mood and the factors stated previously, amongst others. That’s being tested though at the present moment, as the basis upon which universalism is built has been undermined.

What underpins universal benefits is the ethos that all pay in and all are entitled to receive. Taxes are levied and in return benefits accrue as of right. It’s part of living as a society where contributions are made according to ability to pay, and usage made by right and need. It addresses inequality and increases solidarity.

Moreover, there’s also an expediency argument. The administration price of a prescription charge scheme isn’t huge, but it’s a big share of the income generated. Unless the sum levied isn’t to become scandalously high as with south of the Border, efficacy dictates it’s not worth the bureaucratic burden trying to means test the benefit.

However, as the tax rates not just for the rich but for middle earners have reduced, benefits for all have increased. It’s no longer just the health service and the welfare state that offer universal benefits, but free personal care, the absence of tuition fees and even concessionary travel for the elderly that are now available as of right.

The budget of the Scottish Government is being affected by imposed austerity, as well as being exhausted by these universal benefits. A modest variation in tax rate isn’t plugging the gap when other calls such as funding the bedroom tax are being added. Moreover, the redistributive intention is being lost, as benefit is accruing most to middle and higher earners, whilst those most deprived secure the least – and yet they are the ones that need the most.

I’m a supporter of all those benefits being universal in some shape or form. However, there are limits and there needs to be a political debate about where universalism applies and how much tax is paid in. What isn’t sustainable is a demand for ever more universals benefits without a consequent increase in taxation or a change in who can get the benefit and when. That need not be means tested, but could involve other qualifying criteria.

As things stand the system is fraying. Increasing demands for universal entitlement are being made, yet the resources available to provide them are diminishing. As a consequence, a reduction in what’s provided is accruing and the service provided is withering. Free personal care is the classic example, where the care is being devalued from its intended ethos and replaced by a cursory visit. The absence of tuition fees is mirrored by a lack of grant support for the poorest aspiring to attend, and pressures elsewhere in education.

Even parties that in principle seem to eschew universalism have trumpeted calls for more commitments. Previous Scottish Tory opposition to free prescription charges was abandoned this year, and calls for an extension of free personal care have been demanded. All of these come with a price tag, yet still they seek ever lower taxes.

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Scottish Labour at one stage seemed to attack the very principle of universalism with reference to the “something for nothing” culture, an ill-judged turn of phrase to say the least, given the party’s roots. But now they’ve gone full circle with demands for this and that, from automatic refunds on delayed ScotRail trains, to an insistence on no variation to the concessionary travel scheme, and now free women’s sanitary products.

Opposition parties are good at saying what they want more of, though never what they want less of. That applies whoever is in power, but it is unsustainable and affects the quality of service. A debate must begin, but one in which parties outline not just their view on universalism but what they’re against as much as what they’re for, as well as how it is all to be paid for, if not through increased taxation.

For my own part I remain committed to the ethos of universalism and I am willing to pay more tax for the wider social benefit.

Free personal care despite the challenges of an ageing population needs to be protected, not devalued, even if charges should be levied on any estate left. The time may be coming when a modest tuition fee may be a sensible trade-off for grants for the poorest. Free prescriptions and baby boxes make sense given the costs of administration. On free sanitary products, the Scottish Government is wise to await the outcome of the pilot scheme to consider benefits accrued versus costs incurred.

However, universal refunds for delayed trains are absurd. An apology and steps to improve would be sufficient for me. My bus pass, available all too soon, is no longer sustainable, and harmonising with pension age is long overdue. I’ll happily give up my seat to help provide for youngsters seeking work or young mums balancing employment and child care commitments.

Let the demands cease and the debate begin.