I AM fascinated by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont's suggestions that there should be serious consideration to the end of a range of universal benefits ("Lamont takes gamble on ditching SNP 'giveaways'", The Herald, September 26).

I note she exempts free personal care for the elderly and the bus pass. This suggests she's not forgotten which segment of the electorate is most likely to vote. However, she seems unwilling or unable to understand the hidden costs in administering a means-tested system. She notes that £57m goes on free prescriptions but ignores the costs of about £30m which would be spent administering a system to charge about 20% of people for their prescriptions.

She is wrong to say that this is about rich people getting free medicine. Depending on a person's condition even a wealthy banker would still get free prescriptions as the old system was both means-tested and clinically-driven. One wonders whether her party will also clamber for the complete end to the universal child benefit. As I recall, Labour has always argued that the costs to administer the means-testing and the lack of take-up from people who would find the system too complex or demeaning make such a suggestion counter-productive.

However, it is the fundamental argument she is making which astounds me. These programmes which are, indeed, expensive are nothing compared with the cost of Trident and wedding ourselves to an adventurous American foreign policy. So, Ms Lamont and Labour want a progressive, mature debate about what we can afford but only if it relates to programmes which provide support for individual citizens but under no circumstances is she or her party willing to countenance the sacred cows which sustain Britain's pretence to being a superpower.

She equates the programmes in her sights to the number of nurses who could be employed and the number of schools which could be built or refurbished. How many nurses and schools are represented by the tens of billions earmarked for Trident and ministerial ambition to the greatness that allows UK Prime Ministers (Labour and Tory) the much-desired privileges of riding in Air Force One, playing hoops with the world's most powerful man and, most cherished of all, being able to appear on David Letterman? Progressive is about sparing our fellow citizens the demeaning form-filling necessary for means-tested benefits – it does not mean grotesquely expensive nuclear weaponry.

Professor William G Naphy,

1 Calsayseat Road, Aberdeen.

IN her speech last week Johann Lamont repeated the myth that an independent Scotland would be too poor to look after its elderly and disadvantaged citizens. She appeared ready to abandon many of Labour's own most cherished policies, including the popular universal benefits introduced in Scotland by her own predecessors.

Free personal care and free bus travel for the elderly, free prescriptions for all, free university tuition fees and the council tax freeze might have to be withdrawn because, in Johann Lamont's judgment, Scotland could not afford the cost of these benefits and continuing them might result in the loss of public sector and local authority jobs. What a strange sense of priorities. Let us look at the total cost of these benefits in Scotland's budget for 2012-13. Free personal care will cost £342m, concessionary travel £187m, free prescriptions £57m, tuition fees £220m and the council tax freeze £350m – a grand total of £1.156bn. I suggest that Scotland could easily cover these costs and more if it were making its own policy decisions and collecting all its own taxation revenue and other income.

To take just one example, according to the latest Gers Report for 2010-11 "expenditure for Scotland" includes an arbitrary Treasury charge of almost £3.3bn for our allocated share of UK defence costs, including maintaining Trident, the huge costs (and overspends) of most major procurement contracts, and fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. I am sure an independent Scotland would adopt a less vainglorious defence policy and one more suited to our own needs, at no more than half the annual cost charged by the UK.

That saving on its own would easily pay for all the above social benefits Ms Lamont would deny to those Scots most in need of them, or restrict by imposing means testing. Many other cost savings could be made, and let us not forget the £8bn of North Sea oil revenue which went straight into the coffers of the London Treasury in 2010-11.

Iain AD Mann,

7 Kelvin Court, Glasgow.

BILL Horton (Letters, September 29) is not alone in feeling increasingly uneasy at enjoying free services which he could otherwise afford to pay for. However unless, or until, there is a change in Government policy there is always the option of estimating the financial value of the benefits and gifting some, or all, of this to the many charities which are struggling to make ends meet.

Alternatively he can, as I and many others do, provide pro-bono consultancy advice and support to organisations which provide much-needed services to individuals or communities facing various forms of hardship.

Dr Steve Inch,

72 Stirling Drive, Bishopbriggs.

ED Miliband's reference to the grit and determination displayed by millions of people at the end of the Second World War is a desperate attempt to distract the voters from remembering that it was his party, when last in government, that presided over the start of the financial mess in which the UK now finds itself.

Calling on us all to summon up the "spirit of '45" can be decoded as an admission that life under a future Labour government will be just as grim as it is under the Tory/Liberal Democrat Coalition.

A further illustration of political speak is when proposals to scrap free prescriptions and free university education are described as a benefits review and when a betrayal of Labour's former values is glossed over as "an upfront, honest and progressive" debate.

You quote Margaret Curran, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, when referring to public resources, as saying: "We need to deploy those resources effectively and based on the values that they work for all the Scottish people" ("Curran: Benefits review no betrayal of Labour values", The Herald, September 29).

The values that are currently working for all the Scottish people are free university education and free health care.

Ruth Marr,

99 Grampian Road,


FROM Richard Mowbray's statistics (Letters, Monday October 1) we learn that a mere 31,000 taxpayers, who earn more than £500,000 per year, own such an enormously disproportionate share of the nation's wealth that they pay more tax than the bottom 13.6 million taxpayers.

He doesn't speculate as to where that wealth came from, whether it was earned, inherited or perhaps is the proceeds of some of the enormous bonuses that were "earned" by bankers during the boom years, but no matter.

Perhaps what these figures really indicate is the unfairness of a society which encompasses gross wealth and dire poverty at the same time.

John Jamieson,

7 Monument Road,