Leaders: New welfare powers will test SNP

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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Whitehall’s decision to allow working tax credit cuts to be reversed in Scotland will challenge the SNP to live up to its promises

Plans to allow the Scottish Government to reverse cuts to working tax credits and redesign the welfare system in Scotland represent an astute political gamble on the part of the Conservatives.

At a time when the dialogue between Holyrood and Westminster is concerned with extra powers, the move will grant the Scottish Government unprecedented fiscal decision-making powers. It is understood that the change will come about via an amendment to the Scotland Bill.

Scottish ministers will be free to top up any benefit and create new benefits in devolved areas, either by making savings or raising revenue through new tax powers.

Given that the bedrock of the SNP’s successful general election campaign was to fight against the cuts imposed by George Osborne, the transfer of a tranche of key economic levers to Edinburgh gives First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s administration the opportunity to restore benefits to those in need.

This is a bold strategy on the part of the UK government. It knows that hard choices have to be made. Now, it is on the verge of allowing the Scottish Government to experience that dilemma first hand and test Scotland’s resolve when it comes to the enactment of new powers.

Will the Scottish Government want to make use of this powerful resource? Much like the ongoing debate over tax-raising powers, this remains to be seen. As one Whitehall source pointed out, any new power comes at a price: “They [the Scottish Government] will have to pay for it either through using the new tax powers to raise revenue or by making cuts elsewhere and they will have to explain their decisions to Scottish voters.”

But one thing is clear: if the Scottish Government decides against reversing cuts to working tax credits in Scotland, it will be in uncomfortable territory, given how passionately it has railed against the Tory austerity agenda.

Whatever happens, it is to be welcomed that we are about to see changes to the Scotland Bill. There have been concerns that the Conservatives showed little interest in altering the legislation, given that all amendments proposed so far by opposition parties have been rejected. To fail to amend would have been a mistake. Instead, and perhaps unexpectedly, the Conservatives now see the Scotland Bill as an opportunity to see if the Scottish Government walks the walk.

They know that no extra money will be available to finance the reversal of tax credit cuts and the Scottish Government will doubtless argue that the powers are next to useless, given the budgetary constraints under which it must operate. But at a time when all eyes are turning towards next year’s Holyrood elections, will such arguments pass muster?

Scottish Secretary David Mundell will today confirm that new powers on controlling income tax north of the Border will be made available for Holyrood to use by 2017. This revised timetable means parties will have to lay out their plans in their manifestos.

The UK government is effectively forcing the Scottish Government to show its hand. Both sides know that the refusal to make the most of new powers could be electorally damaging. An intriguing battle lies ahead.

Historic wrong is finally righted

Rank and file police officers and firefighters routinely protect the public at considerable risk to their own lives. When tragedy occurs and one of these fine, upstanding public servants is killed in the line of duty, the last thing their family should expect from the government is further suffering at a traumatic and destabilising time.

For this reason, the Scottish Government’s changes to pension entitlement for the partners of police officers and fire and rescue staff should be considered just and overdue measures that will provide comfort to those who have endured bereavement. The move does away with the long-standing anomaly that saw widows or widowers of those killed on duty lose their partner’s pensions if they remarried, formed a civil partnership or moved in with a new partner.

The assumption that an individual no longer requires financial assistance in the form of a late partner’s pension simply because they have entered a new relationship is absurd. Every individual has different circumstances and forming a new union need not bring stability. Indeed, the old ruling actively dissuaded those who had lost their loved ones from finding a new partner simply because of the financial penalty.

In wartime years, it was not uncommon for widows with hungry families to find new providers when it became clear that husbands and fathers would never return home from far-off fields. Many of these relationships were borne out of necessity, but even now, the decision to find a new partner is part of natural of moving on in a life blighted by loss. Whether it be an emotional or practical need, the bereaved should face no disincentive in finding someone else with whom to spend their life.

Thankfully, the government has righted this historic wrong.