By Martin Kelly
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has admitted that her party commission, set up to look at the affordability of universal benefits such as free personal care and free prescriptions, could see the return of means testing.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, ahead of her speech to party delegates in Manchester, Ms Lamont replied “yes” when asked whether a consequence of her attack on universal benefits could see a return to means testing.
The admission by the Scottish Labour leader will add to the controversy surrounding what many are describing as a move to the right after Ms Lamont’s announcement of a party commission to look at public spending commitments made by the Scottish government.
The head of the commission, Professor Arthur Midwinter, has already admitted that nothing is off the table.
There is already a concern that benefits such a free personal care for the elderly, free prescriptions and free tuition will be cut by an incoming Labour government.
An introduction of means testing has already been criticised by some in the third sector who point out that many people may lose out on benefits through not applying due to the social stigma associated with going through such a process.
Others have pointed out that the cost implications of administering such a system would in fact be greater than any savings that might result.
Ms Lamont is coming under increasing pressure over her party’s stance on the universal benefits system, with splits emerging in Scotland and across the UK.
At least one MSP, Kezia Dugdale, has already stated publicly that free prescriptions should remain, whilst the Labour First Minister in Wales has confirmed that free prescriptions will remain and will form part of Welsh Labour’s next manifesto.
Responding to the Welsh First Minister’s comments, the Scottish leader appeared to suggest that either free prescriptions or free tuition fees would have to end, and that both were not affordable.
Commenting on the decision by Welsh Labour to maintain free prescriptions, she said: “In Wales of course, they have tuition fees, they have made a decision on where they want to prioritise their spending. I want that same debate in Scotland.”
However, Ms Lamont’s suggestion of an increase in income tax in Scotland to pay for the benefits has been challenged by a Labour MP who has called for a cut in income tax. Echoing calls by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, Edinburgh MP Ian Murray has publicly called for the Scottish government to introduce a temporary cut in income tax in order to boost the economy.
Responding to the challenge to her authority, the Scottish Labour leader, who is in charge of MPs as well as MSPs, described Mr Murray’s intervention as a contribution to the debate which she claimed was being closed down by the SNP.
Despite having campaign alongside Glasgow Labour in May on a pledge to freeze the council tax for five years, Ms Lamont also attacked the tax freeze claiming it “disproportionately benefits better off people”.
The Scottish Labour leader also denied that Labour’s threat to universal benefits brought them into line with Tory thinking. However there was further embarrassment for Ms Lamont when, immediately after her conference speech, the Welsh Tories tweeted “Well said @JohannLamont”.
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.
“It may be excruciatingly embarrassing for Johann Lamont, but her speech was immediately welcomed by the Welsh Tories, who tweeted ‘Well said @JohannLamont’.
“In threatening to cut public services invested in by the SNP Government 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, Wales, and no doubt England too.
“No wonder Labour members have formed the ‘Labour for Independence’ group – because the Labour leadership in Scotland have no answer to the question of why a Tory-led government that we didn’t elect should be making decisions affecting Scotland, and why Johann Lamont should be the poster girl for Tory cuts.”
Hear Johann Lamont’s full interview here: