UNIVERSAL benefits, such as free prescriptions and home care for the elderly, are fairer, easier to run, boost the economy and must be maintained if Scotland is to prosper, according to a new report.

The study, by left-wing think tank the Jimmy Reid Foundation comes as Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont challenged the sustainability of universalism.

The report said: "Universalism has produced the most effective society civilisation has yet achieved. We reduce that at our peril."

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On the economics, the report said: "Societies which embed universalism into their welfare systems are the most successful on whichever performance index is chosen, including economic growth, prosperity and competitiveness.

"There is a clear and established causal link between equality and sustainable and sustained economic development, and universal benefits are the bedrock of all the European societies who lead the rankings which measure economic success in particular."

The Case for Universalism has been written by Mike Danson, professor of enterprise policy at Heriot-Watt University; Paul Spicker, professor of public policy at Robert Gordon University; Willie Sullivan, vice-chair of Labour think tank Compass; and Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

The report, which echoes many aspects of this week's speech by Nicola Sturgeon, references Ms Lamont and her challenge to the SNP principle.

It said: "When Johann Lamont says we live in a 'something for nothing' society in which the rich benefit from 'freebies' she dismisses the principle of universalism entirely.

"For any politician in Scotland unaware of the implications of rejecting not the limits of universalism but the very principle, they should take some time to consider the philosophical and practical outcomes."

The authors said a rejection of universalism rejects solidarity in favour of consumerism.

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: "The debate Scottish Labour has called for is not one of universalism versus means-testing, rather what we can and can't afford during this prolonged period of cuts to public spending.

"We have asked that there is a proper and informed debate and the choices the Scottish Government is making and the con-sequences of those choices."

The SNP's Bruce Crawford called the report "a repudiation" of Labour proposals, which were about abolishing free personal care for elderly people, no tuition fees for young people, and free prescriptions for ill people.