THE long run-up to the vote on Scottish independence in September 2014, in a campaign effectively lasting three years, was always going to provide many twists and turns.
And so it has proved, once again. For months the Yes campaign has made very effective use of the Westminster government’s introduction of a bedroom tax, affecting many thousands of families who claim housing benefit. The tax – or the Under-Occupancy Surcharge, to give its official name – is an almost Dickensian imposition on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and has proved especially difficult for those with disabilities. This newspaper has been happy to add its voice to the chorus of opposition to its implementation.
Lately, the Yes camp has used the bedroom tax deftly, claiming that the only sure way to get rid of it would be to create an independent Scotland where such a barbarity would not be tolerated. Now, as we reveal on our front-page today, that position has been overtaken by events. Senior Conservative sources have told this newspaper the party is to look at devolving power over housing benefit to Holyrood. This would allow a future Scottish Government to scrap the bedroom tax, while Scotland remained within the UK. The Yes camp, it seems, needs to start looking for new flagship campaign issue.
The devolution of housing benefit to Holyrood makes perfect sense and is long overdue. It is one of the loose ends of the devolution settlement of 1998. At that point, some specific powers were retained at Westminster which should, by any rational assessment, have been devolved to Edinburgh so that devolved responsibilities could be fully exercised. It was clearly anomalous to devolve responsibility for housing policy, but not devolve housing benefit. Addressing this now is, therefore, to be welcomed in the name of joined-up government. Other similar wrinkles may need to be ironed out in future.
The Tories’ willingness to devolve this to Holyrood is a useful contribution to the independence debate in a number of other ways. First, it reveals as fatuous the Yes camp claim that “No means nothing” – that any hope of new powers for Scotland after a No vote is futile. This argument already looks threadbare and will become more so as the pro-UK parties firm up their offerings to the voters. Of course, some Yes campaigners will simply say the Tories are lying, and that neither they nor Labour would make good with their promises. But while it is undeniable that voters have little faith in the probity of politicians, that is true across the whole political spectrum. There is little to suggest they have any more faith in Nationalist politicians than any other variety. It is likely, therefore, that they treat the promises of more powers for Holyrood in much the same way as they treat promises of the wondrous glories that await us in an independent Scotland.
The Tory contribution is useful in another way too. It shows that even the most staunch defenders of the Union accept that it is no longer tenable for Westminster to have sole power over the welfare and benefits system. Opinions will no doubt differ as to what aspects of welfare and benefits should come to Holyrood, but the debate now is about which, not whether. This is where the pro-UK parties have much work to do in developing their thinking. This newspaper intends to be a forum for that discussion over the coming 12 months, to help ensure that both offerings to voters in September 2014 are coherent steps forward for Scotland.
The introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Scottish schools has split the educational establishment. Many years in the planning, and with support across the political spectrum, it was intended as a step change in how we prepare our children for the world of work and citizenship. But it has come in for heavy criticism from some educationalists, some teachers and some parents, with the most common complaint being that it lacks the academic rigour of traditional teaching methods.
So it is refreshing to hear a positive voice in the debate from someone with a clear perspective from outside Scotland, and one without a vested interest. As we report today, Professor Andy Hargreaves, of Boston College in the United States, has spoken of CfE’s potential to improve the educational attainment of our children, by giving them the skills to learn and adapt in a fast-changing world.
There was, it has to be said, a “but” in the professor’s comments. CfE hands individual teachers a great deal of independence in preparing lessons. But, as Scotland’s teaching unions are often loathe to admit, not every teacher is a good teacher. There is even an argument that CfE exposes the weaknesses of a poor teacher. CfE can work, and work well. But only if the schools inspectorate keeps close tabs on its implementation.