The arguments for free services

Hard on the heels of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Labour Party has announced its opposition to services which are free at the point of delivery, including free prescriptions and personal care. Part of this is in a speech by Johann Lamont, part in comments by Arthur Midwinter.

There are many arguments in favour of universal services – services that are available to all, and free at the point of delivery. Here are some of the main ones.


  • People have, or should have, a right to welfare. They do not lose that right if they earn more.
  • Societies which offer equal rights are better to live in for everyone; societies that are less equal are worse to live in for everyone. (See The Spirit Level.)
  • Politics

  • Richer people will not be content to pay for services they cannot benefit from.
  • Separating out services for the better-off means there must be at least a two-tier service. “Services for the poor will always be poor services.” See e.g. T Horton, J Gregory, The Solidarity Society.
  • Practice

  • If entitlement has to be policed, there has to be a mechanism for doing it. Means tests are intrusive, burdensome and expensive.
  • The administration of testing inevitably includes some people who should not be included, and excludes others who should be.
  • Multiple means tests are wasteful and unnecessary; there are better ways of controlling the finance.

It’s difficult to know at what point a shower becomes a rainstorm, but the Labour Party’s shift may indicate the emergence of a new consensus, where the three main parties are all opposed to the principles of the welfare state.

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