By Martin Kelly
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont has claimed that universal benefits enjoyed by the sick and elderly may have to end and that modern apprenticeships may have to be cut if higher taxes are to be avoided.
In a surprise speech given today Ms Lamont claimed that free prescriptions, free concessionary travel and free tuition for Scottish based students were unaffordable and would be under threat if Labour were re-elected in Scotland.
Speaking to Labour members in Edinburgh, the Scottish Labour leader accused benefit recipients of living in a "something for nothing country" and claimed the culture had to end.
“We need to ask different questions and face up to the honest answers.
“For the last decade Scotland’s budgets have grown rapidly but we are in a new age with less money and more demands.
"We need to say what we want Scotland to be, what we can realistically afford, and how can we, in reality, make Scotland better.” she said.
She added: “I want Labour to lead the debate about how we intend to look after our rising number of older people, how we accommodate people’s desire to have their own home, how to ensure that we can afford to pay for people’s pensions.
“How do we address the current unjust imbalance that exists between the funding of higher and further education; we need to be honest about the sustainability of 'free' higher education, and the impact it will have on academic standards.”
The Scottish Labour leader hinted at a return to means testing and criticised the universality of free prescriptions for chief executives and free University education for the offspring of lawyers and judges.
Ms Lamont also claimed that under Scottish Labour, apprenticeships might have to be cut saying: “We need to be honest about apprenticeships – apprenticeships should be as highly regarded university education. If this means fewer, but better quality apprenticeships, we need to be honest about this.”
However the Scottish Labour leader caused confusion when appearing to suggest that police numbers would also be reduced if Labour came to power, arguing: “We need to be honest that the target of 1,000 additional ‘bobbies on the beat’ is not the best use of police resources when a number of them are filling back office jobs which have been cut.”
Immediately after the speech Scottish Labour officials hurriedly sought to play down suggestions of a cut to police numbers after the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) called the Labour threat a “tragedy” and described such a position as “out of touch”.
The SPF later by tweeted: “@scottishpol Scottish Labour contacted @scotspolfed to confirm continued support for 1000 extra officers. Very welcome message indeed!”
The Labour leader’s comments were seized on by the SNP who described the unscheduled speech as a having been prompted by “panic”.
Describing as “chaotic” the hurried denials by Ms Lamont’s advisors that Labour would cut front line police, the SNP’s John Finnie – a former serving police officer who sits on the Justice Committee - said:
“As if Johann Lamont’s speech wasn’t damaging enough to her party, she has been utterly humiliated by her spin doctors forcing her into a complete U-turn within an hour of her speech.
“Why mention cuts to police numbers in her speech if they aren’t part of the review?
“Her big announcement of a cuts commission which won’t report until after the referendum was ludicrous enough, but having her spin doctors deny something she has only just said in her speech is farcical.”
Ms Lamont explained that Labour would not reveal how the party intended to address the issues she raised until after the 2014 referendum. In the intervening two years, Scottish Labour will instead set up a working group, chaired by Cathy Jamieson MP and Ken Macintosh MSP, which will seek evidence and advice from a wide variety of leading experts and authorities, as well as ordinary people.
Responding to the speech, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Scottish Labour of adopting a raft of Tory policies.
Ms Sturgeon added: "Almost one year on from her election as leader and Labour still have no policies of their own to bring to the table.
"At a time when people are facing serious wage restraint and rising living costs, the council-tax freeze, the abolition of charges for prescriptions, support for higher education, apprenticeships and the elderly are all part of the support we in society give to each other."