By Bob Duncan
Labour’s ‘Cuts Commission’ has been given a stark warning that any attempts to introduce means testing for free personal care for the elderly would have the “opposite effect” to that claimed by Johann Lamont’s party in that it would ultimately harm the most vulnerable.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, Age Scotland’s Lindsay Scott said that “means-testing has been proven time and time again not to do what it’s supposed to do,”.
Mr Scott pointed out that respected institutions such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Pensions Policy Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, have all called it “unacceptably complicated, stigmatising and expensive.”
In direct opposition to the Scottish Labour leader’s position, Mr Scott also said “the fact that there are really rich people getting payments cannot be used as a reason to get rid of a straightforward scheme that works well for the majority.”
The comments follow a week of chaos and confusion from the Labour Party in Scotland on the issue of Universal benefits. After Johann Lamont announced a working group to look at Universal benefits on Tuesday, her spin doctors immediately tried to claim that free personal care would not be under threat.
However, that was undermined on Thursday when the man set to lead the commission – former Labour advisor Professor Arthur Midwinter – confirmed that “nothing was off the table,” causing alarm to the thousands of pensioners who have benefitted immensely from the policy.
On BBC Radio Scotland's flagship breakfast programme, Good Morning Scotland, presenter Gary Robertson asked Lindsay Scott if it was right that universal benefits could be paid to wealthy people, or “is there not an argument for saying that if some can afford to pay they should?”
Responding, Mr Scott replied: “That means introducing means-testing Gary, and 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.”
Later in the same broadcast, James Kelly MSP - standing in for Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who was unavailable - was asked if Labour's new policy stance spelled the end of the universal benefit. He refused to answer, despite being asked repeatedly by the presenter, Gary Robertson.
When Kelly was then asked several more times if means testing was the inevitable outcome of his new policy, he again refused to answer.
Labour MSP James Kelly interviewed on Radio Scotland
Commenting on the confusion, SNP MSP Aileen McLeod – a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee – said Mr Scott's intervention had "highlighted the real dangers threatened by Labour’s cuts commission to free personal care and older people in Scotland."
Ms McLeod added:
“He is absolutely right to point out the issues surrounding stigmatisation and bureaucracy, which mean it actually leaves the most vulnerable in a worse position.
“We’ve already seen another Labour front-bencher admit this week that she thought there wouldn’t be any benefit to means-testing free prescriptions – that’s why the Scottish Government abolished them for everyone, and exactly the same logic applies to free personal care.
“The more we learn about Labour’s cuts commission, the more worrying it becomes. Instead of looking for ways to protect Scotland’s key social policies, Johann Lamont is simply looking for ways to implement Tory cuts and follow a right-wing Westminster agenda.
“How sad that a party which once proudly boasted of introducing free personal care for the elderly is now looking to dismantle it – no wonder Ruth Davidson has welcomed them to the Tory camp.”
Meanwhile suspicions have been raised that Johann Lamont’s attack on universal benefits was prompted by London bosses after Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announced that a future UK Labour government would be “ruthless and disciplined” when it came to reviewing public spending.
Mr Balls made the announcement days after the Scottish Labour leader claimed universal benefits would be unaffordable due to future cuts to the Scottish budget.
Speaking ahead of Labour's annual conference this weekend in Manchester, Mr Balls told The Guardian newspaper: "The public want to know that we are going to be ruthless and disciplined in how we go about public spending.
"For a Labour government in 2015, it is quite right, and the public I think would expect this,”