19 December 2012
Thank you to Labour's Michael McCann MP and Christine Jardine, a former LibDem Westminster adviser, for helping me pass the time on Sunday evening. We had a civilised Twitter conversation about universal benefits such as free prescriptions.
I'm very much in favour of free prescriptions, but of course any money they cost does have to be found from somewhere, and there's a perfectly valid argument that other priorities ought to take precedence. However, both my correspondents brought out the line about millionaires getting free paracetamol - I haven't costed this fully, but I'm fairly certain that introducing rules to prevent this particular 'abuse of the system' wouldn't raise thruppence-ha'penny in revenue.
The conversation came to an end when I asked for details of costed proposals - how much would be saved once the costs of means-testing was factored in, and what level of family income would trigger the charges. I didn't get an answer.
Michael McCann did get back to me with the following tweet last night though.
My response was to link to an article in the Scotsman - a fairly balanced one - which reported drops in bed numbers but also the Health Secretary's explanation of this.
He responded as follows:
I like to believe there was an implied smiley at the end of his comment! Anyway, I spent a few moments doing research (ie Googling) and found a recent article on the BBC website.
To partially quote it:
"Nobody wants to be in hospital longer than they need to be.
"Our vision for the NHS is that it will be there for people when they need it, providing modern services, focused on preventing ill health, closer to people's homes.
"This means moving away from using the number of hospital beds as a yardstick, focusing on how we can keep people out of hospital, and providing greater integration of health and social care. It is appropriate therefore that hospital bed numbers are reducing gradually.
"The care the NHS provides should also be judged on more than just bed numbers."
Scottish Labour have two problems here. Firstly, understandably, they talk of having a discussion about universal benefits, but do not want to be tied down to specifics this far from an election. Universal benefits should be a topic for ongoing serious discussion, but you cannot claim the high ground on this if you are going to raise spurious points about millionaires and paracetamol, or Fred Goodwin getting a free pass on the number 27 bus. Labour need to start producing some harder information such as "if we charge £X.xx per prescription for any families earning over £XX,000 per year we'd be able to buy and run XXX new incubators". Unfortunately for them, any genuinely useful redistribution of funds is likely to involve prescription charges for families on £20,000 per year, not just millionaires, and that's going to take some selling to the electorate.
Their second issue is that being the party of government in Wales, how can they possibly justify saying that free prescriptions are fine for the Welsh but not the Scots? Surely this has occurred to them - it's the first thing which occurred to me. If they attack the SNP on this they are also attacking the Welsh Government, and when Michael McCann calls me deluded, I can't see how he's not also calling Lesley Griffiths AM (Labour minister for Health and Social Services) deluded too.
Update @ 13:59 - I received the following tweet:
It's a perfect example of one of the ways in which free prescriptions actually save the NHS money, and relates precisely to the number of hospital beds required. In a perfect world we wouldn't need any hospital beds at all, but even in the real world it's clear that a reduction in them can be a) a good thing or b) a bad thing. Taken alone it's not in any way a reliable indicator of the state of the health service. So, I'm not deluded after all! Not on this subject anyway.