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UK Politics

Scottish Labour plans to end free universal benefits

Currently, Scots get free care for the elderly, university tuition and prescriptions

Scots face losing all their free benefits – from free elderly care to tuition fees – following a radical policy re-think by the Scottish Labour Party.

Successive Scottish administrations have brought in a host of free, universal benefits since they were given control over domestic policy through devolution in 1999.

As a result, Scots get many services for free that have to be paid for in the rest of the United Kingdom. These include free care for the elderly, free prescriptions, free university tuition fees, free eye tests, and they have also had council tax levels frozen for the past five years.

But all these advantages could soon be brought to an end following a major shift in policy by the Scottish Labour Party. Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, announced yesterday that she believed many of these universal benefits were both wrong and unaffordable. She claimed that the benefits amounted to little more than electoral "bribery".

Ms Lamont ordered a policy review of all of Scotland's free universal benefits and wants her party to go into the next Scottish elections, in 2016, promising to end some of these benefits.

The Scottish Labour leader declared: "I believe our resources must go to those in greatest need. Alex Salmond's most cynical trick was to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich." And she added: "Scotland cannot be the only something-for-nothing country in the world."

Ms Lamont did not address the fact that previous Labour-led administrations introduced free care for the elderly, free bus travel for pensioners and free eye tests.

Ms Lamont said that changes had to be made because demands for public services were going up as Scotland's population was ageing. She made it clear she feels it unfair that the rich get universal benefits while public services are being cut.

Ms Lamont used the example of someone earning £100,000-a-year getting free prescriptions while pensioner neighbours get their care cut.

She declared: "I am withdrawing from the game where politicians look not at needs but at slogans and ask not how to improve the lot of the Scottish people but what we can bribe them with by claiming it is free."

Ms Lamont's decision to signal such a dramatic change in direction for Scottish Labour will cause some concern within her party. There will be activists who fear that the party will lose votes if it goes into the next election pledging to axe free care for the elderly and free tuition fees.

Ms Lamont acknowledged that there were "hard-working families" who already felt they paid enough for services but she asked them to look at what other services were suffering to pay for the universal benefits.

"What price is your free prescription when an elderly relative spends five hours on a trolley in A&E?" she asked.

The SNP's deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, tried to exploit these internal Labour fears when she claimed that Ms Lamont's internal "Commission for Cuts" would drive voters to the SNP and to independence.

She said: "At a time when people are facing serious wage restraint and rising living costs, the council tax freeze, the abolition of charges for prescriptions, support for higher education, apprenticeships and the elderly are all part of the support we in society give to each other.

"To destroy those shared social bonds, that we all pay for through our taxes, is a disastrous approach for Labour and one that will only increase support for an independent Scotland."