DEPUTY First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday declined to outline how Scotland’s welfare bill would be met in an independence Scotland when she attacked the UK coalition’s plans to cut child benefit.
In a Holyrood debate, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was committed to “universal provision of key benefits”, but failed to say specifically that universal child benefit would be reinstated post-independence.
Ms Sturgeon criticised a UK government overhaul of the benefits system, which will see households where one partner earns at least £50,000 having their child benefit payments withdrawn. Ms Sturgeon described the move as “fundamentally wrong”.
According to Ms Sturgeon, the plans would see 90,000 Scottish households having their child benefit income removed or reduced.
She said: “With child benefit there is a more fundamental point at stake, a fundamental point of principle. I believe that it is fundamentally wrong that it is now subject to a means-test.”
Ms Sturgeon was pressed on the Scottish Government’s plans by the Conservative MSP Liz Smith, who asked: “When you outline your policies for an independent Scotland, are you saying that there will be a commitment to reinstate universal child benefit?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “Well, we will outline our policy for welfare in an independent Scotland and we’ll do that in order to persuade people of the benefits of independence.
“Can I say that our commitment to universal provision of key benefits will be a key part of those policies. And it will also be our aim over time, when we have our hands on the levers of power in an independent Scotland, to ensure we build a welfare system that reflects our values as a society.”
Ms Sturgeon’s opponents interpreted her remarks as a failure to explicitly commit to reinstating child benefit.
Her answer was criticised by another Tory MSP, Alex Johnstone, who said: “I have to take the opportunity to attack the government for what I see as a degree of dishonesty. I believe that they see the need for welfare reform and that while they condemn the UK government for doing it, Nicola Sturgeon quite rightly is delighted that they are doing that job for her before, heaven forbid, she finds herself with her hands on the reins of power. Promises are made, but no explanation about how they will be funded.”
The UK government’s changes to child benefit, which the Deputy First Minister said will push 15,000 Scottish children into poverty, were also criticised by Labour’s Drew Smith. But he warned against Ms Sturgeon’s claims that independence is the answer.
“We are also wary of the promises of parties who have never had to administer a welfare system promising the Earth,” he said.
“The Scottish Government asserts that the only way to protect universal benefits which provide fair and equitable outcomes is to support the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK. Universal benefits on their own do not necessarily produce fair and equitable outcomes.”
Ms Sturgeon reminded parliament that the Scottish Government had announced a package of £5.4m to support those organisations who provide support and advice services to people affected by the cuts.
In addition, the Scottish Government is funding pilot projects to help local authorities prepare for Universal Credit.