Labour confusion over universal benefits as party sends mixed messages


  By Bob Duncan
Labour in Scotland has come under more fire today after Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones distanced himself from Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing” attack on universal benefits.
Speaking on BBC Good Morning Wales before addressing the Labour conference, Mr Jones confirmed that free prescriptions would be in his party’s next manifesto and that they can afford the policy.

He added: “It is important that people are able to have a health service that is as comprehensive as possible and that means the treatment is free, you see a doctor for free and medicine should be free as well.”

Mr Jones’ stand is in stark contrast to his leader Ed Miliband who backed Ms Lamont’s approach – which was also backed by the Tories in Wales, as well as the Tories in Scotland.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also hinted at prescription charging when, addressing the party conference yesterday, he reminded delegates that Labour Governments of the past had cut defence and introduced prescription charges.

He said: “let me remind you of […] the summer of 1945 – the end of six hard years of war […] they [the Labour government] made tough and unpopular decisions: to continue with rationing; to cut defence spending; and to introduce prescription charges.”

Commenting, South of Scotland SNP MSP Dr Aileen McLeod – who is a member of the Scottish Parliament Health Committee – said:

“These remarks by the Labour First Minister of Wales are hugely embarrassing for Johann Lamont and Labour in Scotland.  People will be asking why Ms Lamont is being held up as a role model for the Tories in Wales as well as in Scotland, instead of being on the same page as her party colleague Mr Jones.

“Labour in Wales are not going to change their policy on free prescriptions – and are even committed to it in their next manifesto. In stark contrast, Labour in Scotland are in thrall to the party leadership in London, and the ‘ruthless’ approach to cutting public spending set out by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.  No wonder Labour members in Scotland have formed the ‘Labour for Independence group’.

“The SNP are holding true to the ‘founding principles of our NHS’ in ensuring that people have access to a free health service.

“The SNP abolished prescription charges, ending the unfair tax on sickness.

“Where would Ms Lamont draw the line if she got her way in abolishing free prescriptions? I wouldn’t be surprised if the next policy she suggested was to follow the Tory privatisation route and even have people pay to see their doctor.

“As Carwyn Jones rightly said, people shouldn’t need to fear becoming ill.  In a move that has been described as ‘positively Blairite’, Ms Lamont has completely abandoned Labour’s core values and is now looking for ways to implement Tory cuts.

“The fact that Mr Miliband has endorsed Labour in Scotland’s opposition to free prescriptions demonstrates how much the party in Scotland is under the control of the Westminster leadership.  In Scotland, only the SNP are committed to an NHS which is free at the point of need.”

Last week Ms Lamont signalled a policy shift by calling for an end to a “something for nothing” culture.  She said taxes will have to rise or services will be cut to maintain popular but expensive SNP pledges on areas such as the council-tax freeze.

Ms Lamont is expected to continue her attack on universal benefits in her speech today to the Labour party conference being held in Manchester.

She is expected to say: “Last week when I pointed out that Scotland’s families are paying for Salmond’s unsustainable tax break for the rich I was accused of being a Tory.

“I’m not sure if the cap fits with someone who campaigned against Thatcher’s cuts to Scotland in the Eighties.”

Responding early reports of Ms Lamont’s speech, SNP MSP Mark McDonald said:

“The problem for Johann Lamont is that the Tory cap fits her very well – her Cuts Commission speech has been praised to the skies by the Tories in Scotland and even by Tories in Wales.

“In threatening to cut Scotland’s public services such as free personal care, reintroduce prescription charges on the sick, and impose tuition fees, Ms Lamont has become the Tories’ poster girl in Scotland. 

“No wonder Labour members have formed the ‘Labour for Independence’ group.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour leader’s authority has again been challenged after a Scottish Labour MP called for the Scottish government to cut income tax on the same day his leader hinted that her party is considering using new tax-raising powers to pay for some public services. 

Commenting on a website, Ms Lamont said a debate was needed over whether to use the powers and whether people would find it acceptable.

In an interview published on, Ms Lamont hinted that Scottish Labour is considering using the new powers that Scotland will have over income tax.  However, despite already stating that taxes had to increase in order to continue with universal benefits, Ms Lamont refused to confirm tax increases for Scots, instead calling for yet another debate.

She told the website: “If you have got tax powers, you have to make a decision as to whether you would use them, whether people would find it acceptable, that’s why I think there needs to be a debate just now.”

She added: “We will look at the powers.  The Scottish Parliament has been given new powers.  Both the Scottish Government and I am sure every political party will be looking at what the different options are that these now offer and the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with them.”

However, Ms Lamont’s view was challenged by Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray who is the Shadow business Minister, who called on the Scottish government to cut income tax levels in Scotland.

A day after Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called for a similar tax cut, Mr Murray told the Labour conference in Manchester: “The Scottish Government at the moment are quite clearly saying, ‘We can’t do anything to improve the economy of Scotland because we don’t have the fiscal levers to do so.’

Acknowledging that the Scottish Parliament does not have powers over VAT, the Labour MP demanded income tax powers be used, and added:

“Demand is being choked off because of austerity, the best way to get money into people’s pockets, for people who don’t have the power to do VAT, is to do it on income – and that would give the economy an immediate boost and allow people to spend more.