Scotland politics

Labour's Margaret Curran defends universal benefits review

Margaret Curran
Image caption Margaret Curran said the review of universal benefits was not a betrayal

Scottish Labour's review of universal benefits is not a betrayal of Labour's traditional values, according to Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran.

In a speech to party members earlier this week Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont called for an end to a "something for nothing" culture.

Margaret Curran has defended the policy shift saying it was about "facing up to the truth".

It comes as trade unions have expressed dismay at the benefits review.

In her speech in Edinburgh the Scottish Labour leader questioned a benefits system which sees rich people receiving tuition fees and prescriptions for free.

Ms Lamont accused First Minister Alex Salmond of passing the buck to already stretched local governments and said taxes would have to rise or services would be cut in order to maintain popular but expensive SNP pledges on areas such as the council-tax freeze and personal care for the elderly.

Important issues

Deputy general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Dave Moxham, told BBC Scotland the unions were not consulted prior to Scottish Labour's announcement of the review of universal benefits.

"As far as the STUC was concerned this was something of a surprise to put it mildly," he said.

"We have had discussions with the Labour party over a range of issues but this very specific approach to universal benefits did come as a surprise."

He said it would have been "helpful" if the unions been consulted on the issue, to allow them to contribute to a more "positive" debate.

Image caption Johann Lamont delivered her speech in Edinburgh earlier this week

He added: "Given that within that speech there were some really important issues raised about taxation versus universal benefits I think that we could have helped the Labour party to have the sort of inquiry launched in the kind of way which was framed differently and more progressively, and could indeed have been useful."

Reponding to the STUC's comments, Margaret Curran, said: "We want to have an upfront, honest and progressive debate about the priorities for Scotland. It's about facing up to the truth that we are facing increased demands at a time of scarcer resources.

"The late Campbell Christie, one of our nation's greatest trade unionists, accepted this and the SNP left his report gathering dust on the shelf.

Speaking on the eve of the Labour party's annual conference in Manchester, the shadow Scottish secretary added: "Scottish people will not reward any party that doesn't face up to reality and get to grips with the choices we need to make to secure Scotland's future."

'Positively Blairite'

The SNP said Mr Moxham's comments echoed concerns expressed by other organisatiions, including NUS Scotland and Age Scotland, about Labour's new position on universal benefits.

Mark McDonald MSP said: "It's no wonder that Labour supporters have been so horrified by Johann Lamont's Cuts Commission.

"In a move which has been described as 'positively Blairite', Ms Lamont has completely abandoned Labour's core values and is now looking for ways to implement Tory cuts."

"People in Scotland overwhelmingly back these universal benefits - they define the kind of society in which we want to live. If Johann Lamont won't listen to people like the STUC, then I really don't know who she will listen to."

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