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50 Years Ago: Labour and the Health Charges

Anthony Greenwood, now a Cabinet Minister, told Labour’s 1963 Conference, on behalf of the Executive:

“I repeat… the pledge we have given you before this, that we shall remove the existing charges in the National Health Service.”

Again, for the 1964 election The New Britain read:

“The most serious attack on the Health Service made by Conservative Ministers has been the increasing burden of prescription charges imposed by them on those least able to pay. These charges will be abolished. Labour emphatically rejects recent proposals to introduce new charges for General Practitioner services; our aim is to restore as rapidly as possible a completely free Health Service.”

This time they were lucky. Wilson became Prime Minister and Kenneth Robinson Minister of Health. Sure enough, in a few months Labour redeemed part of its pledge. On 17 December Robinson announced the ending of prescription charges “which, since 1952, have created a financial barrier between the patient and the treatment he needs”. He went on to state that in time they would also redeem the other part of their pledge:

“There will remain charges for dental treatment and appliances and those for spectacles. It is our aim to abolish these charges also.”

He did not say that for teeth and spectacles the financial barrier had existed since Gaitskell erected it in 1951.

In 1966, with Time For Decision, Labour faced the electorate, with the declaration that there were some principles they would not jettison “whatever the pressures”. One of those principles was that “even in times of economic crisis those in need should be helped by the state”. They brought forward their abolition of prescription charges as proof.

Less than two years later this principle is jettisoned. Wilson announced the restoration of prescription charges for many people at a rate of 2/6 an item. Far from abolishing the dental treatment charges, as Robinson promised, Labour raises them by 10/-. Charges for teeth and spectacles remain.

(from Socialist Standard, March 1968)

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