Nicola Sturgeon has warned that Labour must up the powers on offer to Scotland in the Smith Commission as the price of SNP support to form the UK government in next year’s election.
The First Minister says the powers set out by Lord Smith last week do not go far enough and urged Scots to use their vote in May’s general election to secure a better deal.
It came as the prospect of an English backlash against the proposed new deal on devolution continues to grow. The chairman of the influential Conservative 1922 committee warned it would be unacceptable for Scottish MPs to be allowed to vote on income tax at Westminster when these powers are handed to Holyrood.
The Smith Commission was set up in line with pledges by the pro-UK parties during the referendum that a No vote would see sweeping new powers handed to Holyrood.
It included representatives of the five main parties in Scotland and reported last week, calling for the Scottish Parliament to be handed power over income tax rates and other levies, as well as some welfare. But Ms Sturgeon has warned that it does not go far enough and the issue now looks poised to dominate the forthcoming general election campaign in Scotland.
The strength of the SNP and the UK Independence Party has left Labour and the Tories struggling in the polls, which suggest another hung parliament could be on the cards.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I’ve said very clearly that an SNP group of MPs in the House of Commons will never put the Conservatives into government; we would never be part of a government with the Conservatives.
“If Labour was dependent on the votes of SNP MPs, then it would have to seriously up its game in terms of the powers that it was promising to the Scottish people.
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“The key message here is that Scotland, by sending a strong team of SNP MPs down to Westminster, can have a much, much stronger voice and a much greater influence.”
It appears unlikely that the SNP would enter any formal coalition with Labour, but could effectively prop up an Ed Miliband government through a “confidence and supply” style arrangement.
The First Minister added: “It’s the power of votes in the referendum in Scotland that have forced the pace to this stage. I think now the Scottish people can decide if they want to use their vote in the general election to up this offer and get more powers devolved to Scotland.
“The referendum showed very clearly that the power over the future of Scotland lies with the Scottish people. We want to make sure that we build on the momentum of the referendum, that we continue to move forward as a country. We want to continue to see more powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
“The best way to secure that is through the Scottish people voting SNP to give us significant influence in the House of Commons.”
With Chancellor George Osborne expected to give Northern Ireland the power to set its own corporation tax rate in this week’s Autumn Statement, Ms Sturgeon insisted that if that happened “then there is no argument that says it shouldn’t also be devolved to Scotland”.
She welcomed the findings of the Smith Commission, which recommended devolving air passenger duty and giving Holyrood some powers over benefits, “as far as it goes”.
But the First Minister said: “I do think there are some significant powers that are not in the Smith Commission that we should have in Scotland. Corporation tax, indeed a range of taxes, are one of them, but also power over the minimum wage, greater powers over the social security system.”
She added that by voting SNP in next May’s UK general election, people in Scotland could seek to win more powers for Holyrood.
Ms Sturgeon stated: “The Smith Commission is welcome in so far as it goes. I think now the Scottish people can decide if they want to use the power of their votes in the general election to up this offer and get more powers devolved to Scotland.”
Tory MP Graham Brady, chair of the party’s 1922 committee, raised concerns about the prospect of Scottish MPs voting on income tax for England at the Commons, when the issue is devolved to Scotland. Asked if such an arrangement would be acceptable, he said: “From my own point of view, I’d say no, it clearly isn’t.
“One of the problems that was created by the devolution settlement in 1998-99 was a gross imbalance. The arrangements were deeply unfair to the people of England.
“That has been a running sore for many years now. I think the further devolution to Scotland is entirely welcome and appropriate. If it’s what the Scottish people want, I have no difficulty with that at all. But it provides both an opportunity to redress that balance and also raises an obligation for us to make sure we have a fair, balanced devolution settlement.”
He added: “In income tax, elements of income tax policy, the bands and the rates, would be devolved to Scotland and I think it would be appropriate that English MPs would have the same choices over those things in England.”
Labour’s shadow Chancellor Ed Balls also admitted the issue needed to be addressed, but warned that creating two classes of MP would weaken the UK.
“There is an issue here, there’s no doubt,” he said yesterday. “The Smith Commission proposals says that the UK Budget will be set by UK MPs. Of course, it’s the case that if you have devolution like this, we need to make sure it strengthens the Union and it’s fair to Scotland and England. On this issue of votes, we need to look at it – that’s why we’re having a constitutional convention.”
He added: “There is an issue of fairness around voting. We need to find a way to solve that and we will in our constitutional convention. But if you start having different classes of MPs, you will destroy the Union and undermine prosperity in every part of our country.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: “The SNP want to increase tax. They should come clean. In the independence white paper, the SNP proposed £450 more tax for low and middle-income earners. The last thing low earners need just now is to pay more tax but it seems that is what the SNP want to do.”
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