Our top priority remains, of course, the promotion of higher levels of economic growth in Scotland. That is important for securing not only prosperity for the citizens of Scotland but adequate funding for our public services.
The top priority for the people of Scotland is the state of our national health service, which they remain concerned about. They are particularly disappointed that the service cannot keep its promise to provide comprehensive free health care to everyone. Given that 75,000 patients in Scotland last year were denied medicines that their general practitioners prescribed for them because they could not afford the £6.40 prescription charge, does the First Minister accept that charging people for NHS services that are paid for from general taxes undermines the NHS and its core values? Does the Executive accept that the vast majority of Scots regard prescription charges as a barrier to universal free health care? Will he agree to scrap prescription charges, which would be in line with a decision by the National Assembly for Wales?
No. The Government must make choices and I believe that the £45 million that it would cost to abolish prescription charges is better used to improve health care in Scotland to ensure that we have faster and more local treatment and that people across Scotland have the best access to staff, equipment and facilities. I remind the Parliament that 50 per cent of those who have prescriptions do not pay for them and that 90 per cent of all prescriptions are free to those who have them. Therefore, a significant percentage of people are already exempt from prescription charges and there is a significant number of prescriptions for which there is no payment.
We keep the levels under review and that is why we are reviewing prescription charges. Anomalies, of course, have built up in the system over the years. For young people and people with certain kinds of diseases, it is right and proper that we review the current system. However, it would cost £45 million to abolish prescription charges and that money is better spent elsewhere.
There were more red herrings in that answer than would be found in a fishmonger's window. Did the First Minister listen to his Minister for Health and Community Care, when he told me last month that 27,000 people on benefits such as disability living allowance do not qualify for free prescriptions? On top of that, tens of thousands of
It is telling that the Scottish Socialist Party thinks that the information that 50 per cent of people who get prescriptions get them free and 90 per cent of all prescriptions are free is a red herring and not important. It is important for every one of those citizens who get a free prescription and who do not have to pay. It is precisely because of anomalies such as those that Colin Fox identifies that we are having a review. However, the impact of his proposed policy and bill would be to reduce the health budget by £45 million, which would mean fewer and slower treatments, fewer facilities, less equipment and fewer doctors and nurses to treat the very people whom Colin Fox identifies. Making decisions in government is about priorities and delivering fair systems that deliver for the people of Scotland. The current balance on decisions on prescription charges is right and I believe that we are going forward in the right way.