A UK minister has said the Scottish Government could exempt everyone in Scotland from the bedroom tax for less than the cost of introducing free prescription charges.
Scotland Office minister David Mundell said the issue, which the UK government calls the spare room subsidy, was the same as childcare, in that it was being used to bolster the SNP’s independence argument, but could be dealt with now.
He told The Scotsman: “The spare room subsidy is not an independence issue, the Scottish Government has the power to completely deal with it now for remarkably little if it is such a priority.
“It is the same as the childcare debate. It is a question of choices on where they want to spend their money.”
Mr Mundell said despite being able to deal with such issues, SNP ministers had decided to make “different spending choices”.
His attack comes as the Scottish Government published a paper explaining why it believes its childcare policy as outlined in the white paper can be introduced only with independence, because under devolution, 88 per cent of the £700 million of revenue generated from getting an extra 104,000 women in the workforce would go to the Exchequer in London.
In a broadcast interview, First Minister Alex Salmond said the document was “a really important paper” and keeping the extra revenue would be “major advance” for Scotland.
On the lost 88 per cent of the estimated £700m revenue, he added: “I don’t believe anybody seriously expects George Osborne to hand it back to Scotland to fund a childcare programme.”
However, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie insisted Scotland was “lagging behind” on childcare with the rest of the UK and said money was already available to introduce it through the Barnett Formula. He added: “This is not a dividing line in the independence debate.”
His comments reflected how some UK ministers think the Scottish Government is trying to move the agenda on to issues which Mr Salmond’s adminstration already has the powers under devolution to tackle now.
Mr Mundell said the Scottish Government had the power to exempt everyone in Scotland who is liable to pay bedroom tax for £40m to £50m – less than the price of scrapping prescription charges, which cost £57m in its first year, 2011-12.
A senior Downing Street source added: “The fact they are turning to issues they have power over already is a sign that the SNP are losing the debate on independence.”
The UK government has given Scotland about £16.5m to help mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax, while the Scottish Government has so far added another £20m.
But Scottish housing minister Margaret Burgess said: “The Tories truly know no shame. Not content with inflicting the bedroom tax on struggling Scottish families, they now say mitigating all of its impact should be paid for out of the Scottish budget – but conveniently fail to state what other area of spending should be cut.
“It’s also unclear how – without having the powers over welfare – the Scottish Parliament can do as Mr Mundell claims. This claim is nonsensical.
“The Scottish Government is already doing all it can to mitigate the worst impact, including the provision of up to £40m to local authorities between this year and next year for discretionary housing payments.”
Academic warns of tuition fees risk after Yes vote
The Scottish Government can only guarantee its policy on university tuition fees will remain in place if the country stays in the UK, an academic has claimed.
Professor Susan Shaw, former vice-principal of Strathclyde University, spoke out as the campaign group Academics Together challenged First Minister Alex Salmond to publish any legal advice he had received on the issue.
Today the group – part of the pro-UK Better Together campaign – publishes a report that will warn plans to continue to impose tuition fees on students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland after independence “would run into significant problems with European law”.
It will claim: “If Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU as a separate state, the rest of the UK will become like any other European Union country.
“As a result, Scotland will be legally obliged to provide university education free to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Even if the number of students from elsewhere in the UK stayed at the same level as today, this would represent a loss of income to Scottish universities of £150 million.”
Current EU rules prohibit states from discriminating on the grounds of nationality.