Policies such as free prescriptions 'need value testing,' business expert says

By Adrian Browne
BBC Wales political reporter

  • Published

Free prescriptions, school breakfasts and hospital car parking schemes should be thoroughly reassessed and dropped if they are found not to boost prosperity and jobs, a business expert has said.

Professor Brian Morgan, from Cardiff's School of Management says such Welsh government schemes cost £60m-£100m.

This money could be used for projects like rail electrification, he said.

But the Welsh government said the free policies were "never" intended "to provide an economic stimulus".

People in Wales no longer pay for prescriptions, museum entry and parking in hospitals.

There are also free school breakfasts and bus travel if you are over 60 or have a disability.

These are a series of new universal benefits introduced under Welsh devolution.

Promoted by ministers as "made in Wales" policies, some see them as a bit of a luxury when the economy is weak and the public sector becomes increasingly strapped for cash.

Prof Morgan believes it is time to consider what such schemes mean for the economy.

If the answer is "not a lot", he wants their budgets diverted into projects to boost prosperity and private sector jobs.

He said: "Unfortunately, somebody came up with an idea - why don't we have free car parking in hospitals, free bus passes? Again, great when the money is there, but we're now strapped for cash.

"And these projects, they're not cheap.

"Put together all of what I call the free lunch projects, they come to £60m-£100m, which actually is equivalent to the amount of money we spend on our trunk road system."

An M4 relief road south of Newport, electrification of valley lines trains - two schemes Prof Morgan believes would benefit Wales' economy.

He said: "There is no alternative really now, these difficult decisions are here, they have to be made.

"If we don't make them then I feel we will continue in the wrong direction, in terms of growing from 74% gross value added (GVA) per head down towards 70%. Nobody wants us to go in that direction.

'Staying independent'

"And it is absolutely vital now that the [Welsh] government takes the really difficult decisions and focuses from now on its expenditure profile on things that really matter to the economy and to jobs."

In a statement the Welsh Government said the free policies were "never" intended "to provide an economic stimulus".

The statement added: "These policies were brought into being to improve fairness in access to healthcare and independence for older people - both of which would help to improve quality of life and potentially ease pressure on the NHS in the long-term.

"Our focus is on creating an environment that enables the private sector to grow and create jobs.

"Our Programme for Government aims to support people to live healthy, productive lives and create a safer Wales, with lower levels of poverty and greater equality and prosperity."

Andrew Davies was a senior minister in the Welsh government's Labour cabinet throughout the period when the various free schemes were introduced and has defended the policies.

"In some ways, it's invest to save, because if you can get people staying independent - particularly older people - longer, it keeps them out of the health service, it keeps them out of hospitals therefore you're saving money in the NHS," he said.

"And don't forget, 40% of the Welsh government's budget goes on the health service, so anything that can reduce the demands on the health service is going to benefit not just Welsh government, not just public services but the economy."

Sunday Politics is broadcast on BBC1 at 11:00 BST on 13 May.

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