The SNP’s doctrine of free services for all must be revised

The SNP’s doctrine of free services for all must be revised
The National, by Lesley Riddoch
31.12.15

 

What’s going to be the biggest political story in Scotland next year? The likely EU referendum? The even more likely obliteration of Labour at the Holyrood elections? Or maybe publication of the poverty tsar’s “frank and honest” thoughts on the Scottish Government’s strategy for building a fairer society?

 

In any normal year – judging by the contents of her first briefing – Naomi Eisenstadt’s report might be a contender.

 

The child poverty expert, appointed as an advisor to the First Minister in June, has reportedly told Nicola Sturgeon of “policy tensions” around free university tuition, free childcare and universal eligibility for the Winter Fuel Payment. The Oxford University research fellow has apparently questioned the merit of offering free services to “those who can fund themselves”.

 

This reaction might be unexpected from a National columnist – but hooray.

 

At long last a credible voice is challenging the prevailing SNP orthodoxy that popular public services must be free for everyone, even if that means other, more vital services are withdrawn or rationed as a result. Eisenstadt was apparently surprised that one in five Scots is officially poor, and that more than a third of those in severe poverty are actually in work. Of course, their plight is largely due to austerity and welfare spending priorities decided at Westminster, not Holyrood. But that doesn’t let Sturgeon’s Scottish Government completely off the hook.

 

Eisensdadt says: “The commitment of 30 hours of free childcare could be at the expense of the workforce investment needed to improve the quality of early education and childcare. Do the better-off get a disproportionate share of public services, and better quality public services?”

 

Those are fair questions. Don’t get me wrong. Affordable childcare is probably the most important single domestic issue in Scotland. But if the SNP’s insistence on universal free provision actually hinders its rollout, we might wait years or even decades for a scheme that offers a high-quality place to every child.

 

In Norway, middle-class parents make a contribution with a cap of £200 a month. This helps finance the system, pays workers above the minimum wage and ensures standards are excellent. Obviously, the poorest parents are exempt. And since the Kronor is two to three times stronger than sterling, that’s a maximum payment of around £90 per family per childcare place per month. I’m sure many middle-class parents paying upwards of £1000 per month for some full-time places here would welcome such a contributory system. But the SNP is determined to keep clear, blue water between themselves and Labour. Ever since Johann Lamont’s ill-judged critique of Scotland’s “something-for-nothing” society in 2012, the SNP has been careful to avoid the slightest whiff of means testing – even though most countries used as possible models for an independent Scotland have contributory schemes to deliver some public services. To be crystal clear, core services in the Nordic nations are almost always universal and free. It is still illegal, for example, to make a profit out of education in Norway and the Swedish Free School system has foundered, leading to the demise of their conservative coalition government.

 

But even with average tax rates of 40 per cent plus, all the Nordic nations charge some wealthier consumers to access some public services. The SNP’s refusal to even contemplate some charging has been politically smart but strategically evasive and may soon be socially damaging. A bit like John Swinney’s decision to cut council budgets rather than use his new (albeit rigid and inadequate) tax-varying power ushered in before his recent Scottish Budget.

 

Naomi Eisenstadt says it’s “absolutely disgraceful” she is entitled to a Winter Fuel Payment, has called for higher rates of income tax on the rich (a power which is about to be devolved), and “a whopping great inheritance tax” (which isn’t). She might be wrong about the services she’s called into question, but she’s right to start a real debate … because opposition politicians cannot.

 

Labour’s credibility on welfare spending and austerity has been shot since its MPs abstained on key votes and opposed every move to devolve control over welfare spending. Likewise the Tories, who are still toxic in Scotland and not helped by revelations that Margaret Thatcher and Cabinet colleagues viewed the Scots as feather-bedded scroungers. The LibDems are also holed beneath the water-line for supporting the Tories in coalition. It’s clear now that they did delay crazy policies like slashing support for renewable energy and abolishing the Human Rights Act – but refusing to support Iain Duncan Smith’s inhumane welfare proposals would have been braver.

 

The Greens have interesting alternative policies, but must focus on a few to get their message across in a hostile mainstream media environment. RISE will call for higher taxes to fund better universal services but will also struggle to be heard.

 

So will the Holyrood election campaign produce the far-sighted welfare funding debate Scots urgently need? Will anyone advocate the Danish system which justifies higher taxes and increases social solidarity by producing public services which are attractive to the affluent and still affordable to all?

 

Over to Naomi, methinks.