Universal services debate

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Finance Secretary John Swinney said the SNP was committed to the "social contract" it had made with the electorate during a government debate on universal services on 16 April 2013

"The government is determined that its focus on ensuring the quality and stability of public services for people in Scotland is at the heart of the decisions that we take," he said.

He highlighted policies such as the abolition of tuition fees, free personal care, free prescriptions, and concessionary bus travel.

"The Government has taken a series of difficult decisions to balance the public finances to ensure that we take wide steps to ensure their sustainability but crucially, in a time of fiscal constraint, to protect the services that matter to the people of Scotland.

"That is the approach this Government has chosen to take to give life to the values that we believe are important for the longer-term benefit of Scotland."

Labour is carrying out its own review of the services, after leader Johann Lamont hit out at what she says is a "something-for-nothing" culture.

Labour's Ken Macintosh said the topic for the debate was chosen with the "express aim, or should I say hope, of embarrassing the Labour party".

He defended his party's review and accused the SNP of "hiding behind the front of alleged universalism while all the while cutting those very services".

He said: "The very reason it is important to look at how we deliver public services in this country is to protect those services. The Scottish Labour party have tried to generate a public debate on public services but we have certainly not come to any firm conclusions in terms of reviewing our stance on policy.

"If the SNP do not join the Labour party and have a genuine discussion about how public services are shaped, we will not actually have services which reflect our values.

"It is already far too easy to fall into the trap that all taxation is bad and it is the duty of government to keep spending to a minimum. Yes, public spending has to be controlled, because it is too important to the way we live our lives to treat irresponsibly."

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats urged the Scottish Government to provide figures showing the estimated cost of universal services for over the next decade.

Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said providing 10-year projections for the likely costs of such services "surely to goodness has to be a starting point" when considering their affordability.

"The debate around universal services is one we must have and the debate would be best served if it was conducted in an open and transparent manner, because what I really think is lacking at the moment in the debate is an evidence base," he said.

"The critical step that is incumbent on the Scottish Government" is to produce projected costs along with an analysis of the benefits.

"With the financial settlement we have at the moment and the demographic challenges we face as a country, to do nothing in my view is not an option. We face a financial challenge that is well known and well documented and is likely to be the case for the next few years.

"Many of the decisions about universal services were taken at a time when we simply couldn't spend all the money that we had as a Parliament. The situation is different now."

Mr Brown also said Scotland is forecast to have 26% more pensioners in 2035, with a projected 82% rise in the number of people aged 75 and above.

"That will clearly have an impact on universal services."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "We do need those 10-year projections so we can look forward into the future and see what the sustainability is of these policies."

The SNP "seemed to believe universalism is a golden principle" despite charging for some services such as dental treatment.

"If you look at what the SNP are doing right now, this Government, they are charging for essential dental treatment. It is free for check-ups but root canal treatment is £37, a single crown is £68. This is basic dental care and it is charged by the NHS. It is not universal.

"Eye treatment is the same. Check-ups are free but treatment, glasses, contact lenses are charged for. So these are not free. They are not universal.

"We don't have the golden principle of universalism. It doesn't apply across the board, so for the SNP to claim only they can defend universalism when they charge for many essential services I think is a false debate and denies reality."

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