Labour councillor argues for review of universal services
A senior North Ayrshire Labour councillor has controversially called for a “frank debate” over universal services, such as the SNP Scottish Government’s concessionary travel scheme, free prescriptions and free tuition.
David O’Neill, who led the Labour administration of North Ayrshire Council until it was defeated by the SNP in 2012, is now President of the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities (CoSLA), the umbrella group representing Scotland’s 32 councils.
In a speech last week to the CoSLA annual conference, Cllr O’Neill said, “The first challenge I feel we have to address is to avoid being seduced by the idea of the value of services being universal. Many people argue that if services are available to everyone then that is fair. Everybody will have equal access to them and will equally benefit from them.
“Of course some of our services have to be universal. Everybody is entitled to services like education, leisure and health, but the truth is that services made available on a universal basis will deliver quite unequal outcomes.
“We know that those people who are already best off are more adept and successful in taking advantage of universal services and using them to secure even better outcomes for themselves. On the other hand, those who are already disadvantaged find universal services much more difficult to access and are less able to translate them into better outcomes for themselves and their families.
“To address this, I believe we must have a far greater focus on services which are specifically designed for particular communities and their circumstances. Services which treat the elimination of inequalities as a driving objective rather than a potential bi-product. I am not against universal services, but I am against the idea that a service is universal if it is delivered and made available in the same way to everybody.”
The Labour councillor for Irvine West argued, “I know that there are different views on this but I think we do need to have a very frank debate about this, particularly in view of the austerity that we will continue to face.”
However, Cllr O’Neill’s controversial view has been challenged by the SNP, which called on Labour’s Scottish leader Jim Murphy to distance himself from the North Ayrshire councillor’s comments.
An SNP spokesperson said, “This attack on universal services by a senior Labour politician shows that the Cuts Commission agenda is alive and well in the Labour party.
“Jim Murphy needs to urgently make clear whether he shares Councillor O’Neill’s views and is determined to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes by taking the axe to key public services.
“When he became leader, Jim Murphy promised to put the findings of his predecessor’s Cuts Commission ‘in the bin’ – yet here we have one of Labour’s most senior politicians calling for an end to universal services.
“It only adds to the confusion and mixed messages around where Labour stands on this issue and shows why people in Scotland simply do not trust Labour to stand up for the policies they rely on.
“Families across Scotland are benefitting from the SNP's social wage - with an eight-year freeze in Council Tax, as well as free prescriptions, personal care, free school meals, a commitment to the Living Wage for all public sector workers under Scottish Government pay policy and the roll out of 600 hours of free childcare for all 3, 4 and vulnerable two year olds. Scotland's students are also saving up to £9,000 per year with fee-free tuition.”
The spokesperson noted, “Jim Murphy can try all he likes to repair Labour’s damaged reputation, but despite all of his announcements claiming that Labour has changed, it is clear they still cannot be trusted with Scotland’s vital universal entitlements.”