THE future of the NHS took centre stage at Holyrood as a referendum issue, with Health Minister Alex Neil insisting Westminster privatisation posed a threat to provision of healthcare north of the Border in the event of a No vote.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats, as Westminster coalition partners, were left subdued as Labour took up the cudgels during a Ministerial statement by Mr Neil. The Health Minister said: "We have a Westminster Government that believes in shrinking the state - and passes less money down to us in order to be able to do it.

"I don't think anyone in the chamber can think it's a realistic prospect that further deep cuts through austerity forced on Scotland by Westminster will leave services unscathed."

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But Labour's Neil Findlay called the Scottish Government's claims "the most scandalous deceit of this referendum campaign".

Labour's attempts to defuse this issue were not helped by an intervention by North Ayrshire and Arran Labour MP Katy Clark who wrote to David Cameron on the very subject of privatisation and the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). She said: "I have written to David Cameron urging him to stand up for the public services. TTIP would let companies sue if national governments pass laws that hurt profits.

"This is bad news for our existing public services such as the NHS, or other services that we may wish to take back in to public ownership such as the railways."

As this is one of the key tenets of the argument by the Yes campaign it did not help hold the line that decisions at Westminster had nothing to do with Scotland's ability to steward its NHS.

Bob Thomson, former chairman of Scottish Labour and a member of Labour for Independence, said: "The No campaign need to get their story straight. On the one hand Malcolm Chisholm says the privatisation threat posed by the TTIP is a 'red herring'.

"Yet Katy Clark has written to the Prime Minister on the very point that Westminster's policy could pave the way for private companies muscling in on the NHS. She is right. The bottom line is that the guaranteed way to protect Scotland's NHS and its budget as a public service free at the point of need is to vote Yes."

Mr Findlay said the greatest threat to the NHS in Scotland was the £6 billion of cuts in public spending that would occur under SNP plans to break up the country. He said: "Will the Cabinet Secretary focus on his day job and sort out waiting lists, huge problems in A&E, staffing and bed cuts, a social care crisis, and a lack of GPs, instead of supporting the most scandalous deceit of this referendum campaign to date."