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The Scottish Conservatives are calling for the return of prescription charges in Scotland to help fund increased recruitment of nurses and midwives, taking aim at a flagship universal-provision policy of the ruling nationalists.

Ruth Davidson, Scottish Conservative leader, will unveil the policy of reversing the Scottish National party’s 2011 scrapping of prescription charges in a conference speech intended to boost a Tory party that has struggled to build political momentum.

Scotland’s free prescription policy is one of the most visible differences of approach between its devolved health service and that of England. South of the border prescription charges will rise 20p to £8.05 in April and by the same amount again in 2015.

In prepared remarks for the speech that has been mainly dominated by discussion of the looming independence referendum, Ms Davidson says restoring charges would allow recruitment of a badly needed extra 1,000 nurses and midwives.

Party officials said ending free prescriptions would save more than £57m a year, with the extra nurses expected to cost up to £36m. This leaves funding left over for improved provision of health visitors.

“People who are earning, who are overwhelmingly happy to make their contribution . . . will know that their small sum will make a world of difference in wards across the country,” Ms Davidson says.

However, the party leader stressed that young people, pensioners, pregnant women and poor people would continue to receive free prescriptions.

Although such groups accounted for 90 per cent of prescriptions written before 2011, the SNP sees scrapping charges for the remainder as one of its proudest achievements.

SNP leaders say prescription charges are a tax on the sick and counter to the NHS philosophy of care that is free at the point of use.

Scottish health officials have suggested the cost of free prescriptions should be set against benefits such as cheaper administration and reduced need for hospital treatment for patients who would otherwise be deterred from taking prescribed medicine and end up needing more expensive medical attention.

Critics say SNP commitment to universal services amounts to subsidising the better off and wastes resources that could be better targeted on needy groups.

The Conservatives are unlikely to have an opportunity to implement their policy in the near future in Scotland, where they hold 15 of the Scottish parliament’s 129 seats.

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