Lamont comes under pressure to explain ‘something for nothing’ claim

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP say that Johann Lamont must use today’s debate on the Labour ‘Cuts Commission’ to explain exactly who she believes is ‘getting something for nothing’, having refused to clarify the remarks in the week following her controversial speech.

Repeatedly questioned on Good Morning Scotland on Tuesday, Johann Lamont refused to identify who she believed was ‘getting something for nothing’, and failed to reveal whether she was comfortable with the fact that the Tories agreed with her statements.

On hearing Ms Lamont’s apparent U-turn on the traditional Labour principle of universality, the deputy leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, Murdo Fraser, tweeted:

“Good to see Johann warming to Tory ideas.”

In her interview on Good Morning Scotland, the leader of the Labour party in Scotland also confirmed her support for introducing means testing for many universal policies, stating:

“I think what we need to do is identify need.”

Asked by presenter Gary Robertson if this meant she accepted that the consequence could be means testing, Ms Lamont replied:

“I recognise, yes, because in a secondary school you have a universal provision but you also have targeted need towards children who need extra support in the classroom.”

Last week on the BBC Good Morning Scotland radio programme, Labour’s Holyrood chief whip James Kelly was repeatedly pressed to clarify whether Labour would re-introduce means testing for what are currently universal benefits.  Mr Kelly finally replied:

“We will look at all options.”

Although praised by UK leader Ed Miliband, Ms Lamont’s speech was met with shock and disbelief by many within the Labour party, the party’s traditional support base, and the voluntary sector.  

Until they were abolished last year by the SNP, 600,000 people across Scotland with an income of less than £16,000 were charged for their prescriptions when they became ill, an estimated 8,900 of whom were in Johann Lamont’s own constituency of Glasgow Pollok.

Last week Johann Lamont repeatedly attacked the principle of free prescriptions during the launch of her Cuts Commission, although others in her party have challenged her leadership by voicing doubts over her stance on the issue.

Following Ms Lamont’s speech, Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish TUC Dave Moxham said that her proposal to reintroduce means testing for universal benefits “came as something of a surprise, to put it mildly”, and referred to Ms Lamont’s realignment of Labour policy as an “extreme position”.

Mr Moxham also resolutely defended the principle of universal benefits, which he said the STUC supported “almost per se,” and noted:

“I haven’t heard a clear argument apart from affordability, and there has not been any principled argument, or policy argument, as to why they are bad things.”

Speaking to BBC Radio Wales, Carwyn Jones, leader of the Labour party in Wales, and First Minister of the Welsh Government, insisted there was “no question” that the Welsh Government could afford to continue with its policy of free prescriptions, and said:

“We believe it’s important that we have an NHS that’s free at the point of delivery.  We are not going to change the policy on free prescriptions.”

He added:

“If you see a doctor for free then obviously medicines should be free as well.”

Addressing the Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Jones defended the Welsh policy of free prescriptions and added that the party in Wales was “holding true to Nye Bevan’s vision after six decades”.

Concerns have also been voiced by voluntary sector organisations, worried about the impact of means testing on their client groups, who often consist of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.  

Linda Robertson, of the voluntary sector organisation Age Scotland, said:

“…means-testing has been proven time and time again not to do what it’s supposed to do.  We know that the idea is to target the money at the people who are most vulnerable, who need it the most, but it basically has had the opposite effect.

“There’s so much complexity and expense around means-testing that respected institutions such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Pensions Policy Institute, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have all called it unacceptably complicated, and stigmatizing, and expensive, and called for it basically to be reduced if not done away with completely.

“So we don’t see the point of reintroducing means-testing.  There are other ways of ensuring that those who can afford it pay for it.”

Commenting, SNP MSP Aileen McLeod said:

“Many one-time Labour voters will have been shocked by Johann Lamont’s adoption of Tory dogma when she says that people are ‘getting something for nothing’.

“What is even more bizarre though is that now she will not even say who it is that she thinks is ‘getting something for nothing’.

“Is it the estimated 8,900 people in her own constituency who earn less than £16,000, but until last year had to pay prescription charges when they got ill?

“Johann Lamont may be fond of ducking difficult questions, but she cannot credibly make an outrageous attack of this nature without revealing who it is she thinks is not contributing to Scotland’s social contract.

“When she is being praised to the heavens by the Tories in Scotland and even the Tories in Wales, you would hope she might realise just how badly thought through her Cuts Commission is.

“Instead of Johann Lamont striving to become a poster-girl for the Tories by unpicking the social contract that binds Scotland together, she should be standing up for the thousands of people in her own constituency and across the country that the SNP is assisting in these difficult times.”