This is an editorial from today’s Morning Star.
WHAT a revelation of government priorities is its refusal to countenance the abolition of NHS prescription charges in England.
It has no difficulty extending £50 billion to the Northern Rock bank, spending billions on overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feather-bedding big business and the rich by freezing direct taxation and slashing corporation tax.
But Health Secretary Alan Johnson baulks at a mere £435 million that prescription charges are expected to bring in this year.
The Welsh Assembly, which has no independent tax-raising powers of its own, was able to abolish charges out of the block grant it receives from Westminster. The Scottish Parliament plans to do likewise from 2011 and to do so without invoking its right to increase income tax by the equivalent of up to three pence in the pound on the standard rate.
Abolishing prescription charges for England would obviously be more expensive than for Wales and Scotland, but the reasons for doing so are incontrovertible.
First, it would be a minuscule reduction in government income. Second, it would establish parity of entitlement throughout Britain and, finally, it would indicate a trembling step forward to social justice.
After the government’s record of looking after the wealthy at the expense of working people and the poor in recent years, even such a tiny step as this would raise people’s spirits.
The reality that cancer patients are forced to choose between eating, clothes and recreation or paying for their chemotherapy would be a badge of shame for any government.
It is the more so for one that still sports the name Labour, which is historically linked with the establishment of the NHS just 60 years ago.
No matter how often the Department of Health trots out the mantra that people can buy quarterly or yearly prescription prepayment certificates and that people who are likely to have difficulty paying should be protected, the fact is that the system is not working.
It doesn’t work because it is based on the Tory suspicion that drugs will be wasted or oversubscribed unless they have to be paid for.
It is the justification of means testing, which requires an unwieldy apparatus to process applications, check them and investigate suspected bogus claims and for what?
Given that 88 per cent of all prescription items in England are already supplied without charge, why should it be necessary to maintain such an apparatus simply to monitor payments for the other 12 per cent?
The campaign launched recently by Swindon Trades Union Council to win public support for the abolition of all prescription charges throughout Britain and Northern Ireland is clearly an initiative worthy of support.
And it certainly will be supported by trades councils and other labour movement bodies taking up this reasonable demand.
The government will face a choice. It can either agree quickly to fall in line with this proposal to enhance human decency or it can continue to dither, standing in the way of something that is regarded as uncontroversial in Wales and Scotland, and find itself forced belatedly to concede.
It should grasp the nettle immediately and abolish these outdated and iniquitous charges.