Lamont anti-benefits commission in chaos as front bencher distances herself from cuts

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  By a Newsnet reporter
 
Scottish Labour’s plans for cuts to universal benefits has been plunged into chaos today after a senior Shadow Cabinet member distanced herself from one of the key areas under threat.
 
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Call Kaye’ programme this morning, Labour MSP and Shadow Cabinet member Kezia Dugdale admitted that ending free prescriptions was not something she would support.

Quizzed on the SNP flagship policy, Ms Dugdale, said: “… it might cost more to means test them than it would to give everybody them for free, so we need to look at the numbers [… ]I think that probably free prescription charges would need to stay.”

The admission by the high-profile Labour frontbencher is in stark contrast to her leader’s view that universal free prescriptions is unfair and means testing should be adopted in order to prevent more affluent members of society from benefitting.

In her speech yesterday, and again in media interviews, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont repeatedly attacked the abolition of prescription charges, saying: “What is progressive about a chief executive on more than 100,000 a year not paying for his prescriptions, while a pensioner needing care has their care help cut?”

The apparent confusion over party policy follows panic yesterday when immediately after her speech, Ms Lamont’s party advisors hurriedly had to repair damage after it appeared front line police numbers were facing cutbacks.

Claims that concessionary bus travel was under threat was also denied within minutes of the speech in which she said: “In a budget badged as one wholly focused on economic growth, they [SNP] ducked the tough decisions that may have enabled this. […] For example, spending on concessionary fares increased by 19% over the last four years, while spending on enterprise and tourism has fallen dramatically by 33%.”

The SNP has rounded on the beleaguered Scottish Labour leader, describing her plans to re-introduce means testing and end many of the benefits enjoyed by the sick and elderly as traditional Tory policies, and accusing her of moving her party to the right.

Commenting, SNP MSP Bob Doris, who is the deputy convener of the Health and Sport Committee said:

“Labour’s cuts commission is plunged into chaos and disarray.  Johann Lamont says one thing, her spin doctors say another, and now a senior Labour Shadow Cabinet member is saying something else again.

“Not content with establishing a cuts commission in a lurch to the right which was enthusiastically welcomed by her Tory partners in the anti-independence campaign, the last 24 hours have already seen Ms Lamont’s attacks on three separate policies descend into confusion.

“This hat-trick of U-turns has pulled the rug from under the feet of Johann Lamont’s bid to assert authority on her troubled party.

“Labour’s cuts commission is threatening to reimpose NHS prescriptions – which were a tax on the sick – so why is Kezia Dugdale as a Shadow frontbench minister saying that free prescriptions should stay?  What is going on inside Labour in Scotland?

“People must be asking themselves which of Johann Lamont’s high-profile attacks will unravel next.

“Kezia Dugdale is right.  Axing the tax on the sick was part of the social contract that binds Scottish society together, and which we all contribute to through our taxes.  It is Johann Lamont who is wrong.

“There has been a big backlash from Labour supporters against Ms Lamont’s speech – and having set in train this cuts commission, not even Labour frontbench members can explain it.”

Kezia Dugdale MSP’s comments in support of free prescriptions can be heard at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01mrgrt/Call_Kaye_26_09_2012/ (from 43:40)