Labour in pledge to go beyond powers of ‘the vow’

Gordon Brown, right, and Jim Murphy will promise the vow made. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Gordon Brown, right, and Jim Murphy will promise the vow made. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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GORDON Brown and Jim Murphy will today unveil a new general election pledge to give Holyrood the power to top up and vary the UK’s state pension and welfare benefits.

The former prime minister and the Scottish Labour leader will promise measures that go beyond those set out by the Smith Commission, which was set up to make good on “the vow” to give Scotland more powers made by the main unionist parties in the run-up to September’s vote against independence.

Under the plan, if Labour wins the general election in May, ministers at ­Holyrood will be able to compensate for any cuts made by Westminster to welfare, such as unemployment and child benefit, as well as the state pension, by making up the shortfall.

Mr Brown – who is credited with playing a key role in the defeat of the Yes campaign thanks to his passionate speeches aimed at left-leaning voters drawn to independence – declared the move would ensure the payments “will always be there as a minimum for people in Scotland”.

Labour would also fully devolve housing benefit to block policies such as the so-called bedroom tax, which reduces the income of welfare claimants living in under-occupied homes.

In his first public appearance alongside Mr Murphy since the East Renfrew-shire MP was made Scottish Labour leader, Mr Brown will say a distinct Scottish ­Labour manifesto would include a plan for the most radical transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood within the party’s first 100 days in power.

In Edinburgh today, the fromer PM will say: “Within 100 days, a Labour government will introduce a bill, not just to implement the vow and the Smith agreement, but that we will go further than the vow and further than Smith in five important areas, offering distinctive Labour change in welfare. First, we will maintain the security of the UK benefits system, with UK benefit rates underpinned by the pooling and sharing of resources across the UK.

“That will always be there as a minimum for people in Scotland. If you are starting a family, approaching old age or unemployed, the social security of child benefit, the state pension and unemployment benefit will always be there as a minimum for Scotland.

“But we will go further by ensuring that the final say on benefit levels remains in Scotland by giving the Scottish Parliament a wider power to top up UK ­benefits.”

Demands for the full devolution of welfare benefits by the SNP were resisted by the unionist parties during the Smith Commission negotiations, although the final report called for the devolution of benefits to support older people, carers and disabled people.

The report said the Scottish Parliament should be able to create new benefits in devolved areas and make discretionary payments in any area of welfare.

When Westminster legislation based on the recommendations of the Smith Commission was published last month, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the UK government would hold a veto over key devolved powers, including the ability to “abolish the bedroom tax”.

Today, Mr Brown will say that ­Labour’s plan to devolve key chunks of welfare, such as housing benefit, would prevent policies such as the bedroom tax ever again being introduced in Scotland by a government at Westminster.

The Scottish Parliament would also have the power to introduce new benefits, funded from Scotland, to “meet different circumstances and different choices” on top of the existing guarantees of the UK benefit and pensions system minimum, Mr Brown will say.

The former prime minister, who is to stand down as an MP in May after 32 years, will say: “This will ensure that Scotland is protected from Tory welfare cuts – there could never be another bedroom tax in Scotland – and from benefit cuts caused by a fall in Scottish funding due to, for example, the collapse in the oil price, the inevitable consequence of the Nationalists’ plans for full fiscal autonomy.

“We will go further by ensuring that the Scottish Parliament has the power to introduce new benefits, funded from Scotland, to meet different circumstances and different choices we make in Scotland. These would be on top of the guarantee of the UK benefit and pensions system minimum.”

Mr Murphy has already said Scottish Labour is now fully autonomous from Westminster and will “call the shots” over all policy ­affecting Scotland.

He moved to distance his leadership from UK party leader Ed Miliband, stating after his election that “we do not need, nor will seek, permission from anyone or anywhere in the UK Labour Party about our Scottish decisions. Those days are gone for good”.

Mr Murphy said Scottish Labour candidates would stand on a specific pledge that the additional welfare responsibilities would be devolved to Holyrood by Mr Miliband’s government.

The former cabinet minister said the plan represented the second general election pledge of his leadership, after he promised to fund 1,000 extra NHS nurses in Scotland using the money raised from the UK-wide mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million.

Mr Murphy will today say: “Delivering the vow is a starting point not an end point for Scottish Labour. Smith was a consensus between five parties. A Labour approach to powers, and to the use of powers, will reflect our different values and different ambitions for Scotland.

“We have different values from the Tories on welfare and different values from the ­Nationalists on redistribution.

“If in Scotland we want to do more on social justice, we will have the ability to reallocate funds or raise more money. However, a Scottish Labour Party would ensure that the parliament also has the power to spend more on tackling poverty and unemployment.

“The vow-plus makes the Scottish Parliament the most powerful devolved parliament in the world. A vote for Scottish Labour will deliver Labour home rule where we go further and combine security and social justice.”

SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie MP claimed “panic” was now “setting in at the heart of the Labour campaign” and attacked the party for opposing the devolution of polices such as the national minimum wage.

He said: “This is absolutely farcical from Labour.

“Having claimed authorship of the vow, declared it delivered and called for everyone to move on from the debate, they are now admitting that what is on offer is woefully inadequate and scrambling around trying to make it sound more substantial. But they are ‘offering’ nothing now that they haven’t previously said was already being delivered through the Smith proposals.

“And now the sheer panic setting in at the heart of Scottish Labour is palpable.”