Free prescriptions: Carwyn Jones in Welsh Labour pledge

Carwyn Jones tells the Labour conference that the Welsh government is "making a difference".

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Free prescriptions will remain a commitment for Labour at the next Welsh assembly election, First Minister Carwyn Jones said.

Labour's leader in Scotland questioned the need for the policy and other universal benefits.

But Mr Jones said if it was free to see a doctor then so should medicines.

He told Labour's conference in Manchester the Welsh government would "protect" people from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

His defence of free prescriptions comes after Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont called for an end to a "something for nothing culture" in Scotland.

Critics have questioned the value of benefits that are available to the rich and poor alike.

'Legitimate debate'

Their cost and that of other universal benefits have come under scrutiny as the Welsh government looks for savings.

Start Quote

If you see a doctor for free then obviously medicine should be free as well”

End Quote Carwyn Jones First Minister

At the weekend, shadow Welsh secretary Owen Smith said universal benefits were part of the "glue" that held society together, but added there was a "legitimate argument" to be had about them.

Prescription charges were phased out in Wales and have been free for everyone, regardless of age or income, since 2007.

In an interview before a speech to the Labour conference in Manchester, Mr Jones said continuing free prescriptions and free bus passes for the over-60s would be in his party's manifesto for the next assembly election in 2016.

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He told BBC Radio Wales there was "no question" the Welsh government could afford the policy.

"We believe it's important that we have an NHS that's free at the point of delivery," he said.

"We are not going to change the policy on free prescriptions."

Free prescriptions were previously only available to certain groups, including the unemployed who no longer faced the extra cost of medicine if they went back to work, Mr Jones said.

'Nye Bevan's vision'

"They were getting free prescriptions already. If they got a job they then had to pay for their prescriptions," Mr Jones said.

"Quite often that was a significant amount of money for people and lots of people have been helped in that way."

He added: "If you see a doctor for free then obviously medicines should be free as well."

In his speech to the conference he pledged the NHS would continue to be safe under his stewardship, "holding true to Nye Bevan's vision after six decades".

Mr Jones said his administration had preserved the education maintenance allowance, kept tuition fees low and this summer re-graded controversial English GCSEs.

And he told delegates he would remain opposed to UK government suggestions of regional pay in the public sector.

"As a Welsh Labour government, we have worked to protect the people of Wales from the worst excesses of Tory and Lib Dem devastation," he said.

The speech was delivered the day before the Welsh government publishes its draft budget for next year.

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