Scotland politics

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont attacks free university tuition

The Scottish Labour leader has attacked the Scottish government for giving free tuition to university students while colleges struggle with cuts.

Johann Lamont said free tuition for university students should not be at the expense of the college sector.

She said a drop in college numbers of 18,000 and a cut in bursaries of £900 was a "betrayal" of young people.

The government said Labour want to take opportunity away from working class children who aspire to university.

The exchange came during a Holyrood debate on the public sector.

The motion for debate in Ms Lamont's name claimed that "cuts are currently taking place at both national and local level and having an impact on people's daily lives" and that it is those who are most in need that are often worst affected.

'Uncomfortable ground'

During the debate, she asked: "Is it right that students who can't get a place in a further education college are to pay the price of (education secretary) Mike Russell's policies?

"We do students a great disservice by implying that one set of students is more important than another".

The Scottish Labour leader went on to say that universal benefits such as free bus travel, tuition fees and the council tax freeze had to be considered openly and transparently.

And she was withering in her assessment of the SNP's current policy path, adding: "This dishonest government continues the myth than in an independent Scotland we could have Scandinavian welfare while cutting tax to a level that would make Mitt Romney blush".

The SNP's deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, got to her feet to declare that Scottish Labour "must be the first party on record to break its promises from opposition" and she suggested they were now on uncomfortable ground.

Ms Sturgeon said Ms Lamont's assertion that universal benefits such as free tuition and free prescriptions were part of a "something for nothing culture" was "an insult to those who work hard and pay their taxes".

As she neared the end of her speech in the chamber, Ms Sturgeon turned to the Labour benches and challenged the MSPs to "put their hands up" if they wanted to take away free bus passes.

Consensual note

There were no hands raised from the Labour side, but roars and barracking from across the chamber as the Presiding Officer struggled to keep order.

The Conservative's finance spokesman, Gavin Brown, talked about the annual cost of universal benefits, which he said had an annual bill of £870m.

In an apparent attempt to strike a more consensual note, he said while there was no need to get rid of these policies, he felt the way they operated could be changed to make it cheaper.

And doing nothing was "not an option", Mr Brown said.

Last week, Ms Lamont called for to an end for the "something for nothing" culture as she announced a policy review.

She said that in order to maintain popular but expensive SNP pledges, such as the council-tax freeze and personal care for the elderly, taxes would have to rise or services would be cut.

Ahead of Wednesday afternoon's debate, the National Union of Students in Scotland said it was "deeply concerned by any suggestions of a return to tuition fees".

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