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Labour pledges free prescriptions

Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK

Labour has pledged to abolish all prescription charges in Wales if it wins next month's Welsh Assembly election.

The move would benefit around 1.5m people who do not currently receive drugs free of charge.

The decision would cost an extra £30m a year - and opposition parties have been quick to condemn the gesture as an election bribe.

The vast majority of prescriptions in Wales are already free, with only about 11% paid for.

Wales differs from other parts of the UK by offering free prescriptions for 16 to 25 year olds.

People over 60 and those on low incomes are also exempt, as elsewhere in the UK.

The £6 charge for prescriptions in Wales is already 20p lower than in England.

Now First Minister Rhodri Morgan has said Labour would phase it out in stages over the four-year assembly term.

"It was Nye Bevan's great dream and we are determined to make it a reality for every man, woman and child in Wales," Mr Morgan said.

"We have a huge legacy of ill health because of our industrial past.

"This will also feed into our move towards full employment. It will help make work pay, helping people get off benefits and into work. Everyone should have the self-confidence and benefits of working.

"I give my absolute pledge that if we are returned to power on we will sweep away all prescription charges."

The news has been welcomed by the Liberal Democrats - Labour's coalition partners in the present administation - but treated with scorn by other parties.

They have suggested that the news has been deliberately released to deflect attention from first day of the controversial NHS shake-up.

Welsh Conservative leader Nick Bourne said it was a cynical maneouvre designed to distract attention from the real issue, which he claimed was Labour's failure to reduce waiting times for treatment.

There have been repeated calls for the long-term sick - including multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and arthritis sufferers - to receive free prescriptions.

© Copyright 2003, BBC