By Bob Duncan
Scottish Labour have been urged to come clean over their plans to cut free personal care in Scotland, after the man set to lead their Cuts Commission confirmed that “we are going to review everything… nothing is off the table.”
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont announced on Tuesday morning that she intended to set up a party working group to examine whether benefits which are currently universal, such as free personal care for the elderly, should face cuts.
The announcement has been followed by two days of confusion and backsliding, as spin doctors and senior Labour figures – including Ms Lamont herself – have been giving reassurances that certain universal benefits would not, or should not, be cut.
In a swift U-turn from Tuesday’s speech, Scottish Labour spin doctors have been briefing the media and others that free personal care, concessionary travel and police numbers will now not be targeted by Labour’s Cuts Commission, which is expected to report its recommendations in 2015.
However, the group chair Professor Arthur Midwinter stated in yesterday’s Herald that “We are going to review everything. It’s not just the areas that have received most publicity. There is nothing off the table.”
Prof Midwinter’s statement would appear to directly contradict the many assurances given by Labour since the remit of their cuts commission was announced.
Meanwhile, in Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon was asked by Johann Lamont if she was prepared to have a debate on the affordability of universal benefits before the referendum on Independence.
Referring to the proposals in her cuts commission, Ms Lamont asked: “I believe that debate about how we make spending choices fair for people across Scotland must happen before the referendum. Does Nicola Sturgeon?”
Nicola sturgeon replied: “That sort of begs the question of why Johann Lamont has set up a commission that reports after the referendum of 2014. Johann Lamont clearly doesn’t have the courage of her convictions.”
However, in her follow up, after accusing Ms Sturgeon of listening – not to her speech – but to SNP spin doctors, Lamont repeated her earlier demand, saying: “Why won’t she have the debate…and make sure we have that debate this side of the referendum”.
This prompted the Deputy First Minister to reply, “Johann Lamont should make no mistake: I relish this debate”.
She went on, “I think Johann Lamont is on fairly dodgy ground, invoking spin-doctors…because within 20 minutes of her making her ‘Brave’ speech on Tuesday, she had dispatched her spin doctors to say she didn’t really mean police numbers – she didn’t really mean bus travel for pensioners – she didn’t really mean free personal care.
“Except Arthur Midwinter, he’s told the truth today, hasn’t he? He says ‘everything is on the table’.”
SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn, Deputy Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee, said:
“Labour’s panicked attempts to row back from their disastrous Cuts Commission announcement have been blown out of the water by the man set to lead it.
“Professor Midwinter has confirmed that literally everything is under threat from Labour, including free personal care – everything which the Scottish Parliament, working across party lines, fought long and hard to introduce, and defines the progressive society in which we want to live and invest our resources in.
“Labour have caused untold alarm to people right across Scottish society – the pensioner who depends on free personal care, families on low incomes who would struggle to pay Labour’s soaring council tax, and young people hoping to go to university who can’t afford fees.
“Labour are now joined at the hip with the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition at Westminster, in their determination to drive through cuts to Scotland’s welfare system, and it is the most vulnerable people in society who would pay the price. This just completely sums up how Labour in Scotland has completely lost its soul.
“Johann Lamont’s speech is also a blow for the No campaign and a boost for Yes, because the ‘Better Together’ parties are all rejecting the track record of success of the Scottish Parliament since 1999 – success that we can and will build on by achieving the powers of an independent country.
“An independent Scotland would be the sixth-wealthiest nation in the developed world in terms of GDP per head – compared to the UK’s sixteenth place – and Scotland is consistently in a stronger financial position than the UK as a whole.
“With independence, we can and will build a dynamic economic and fair society – which invests in the things that matter such as free access to education, services for our old folk, and health care which does not tax sickness: the things that all the No campaign parties have now turned their backs on.”