SCOTTISH Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has said her party would use new powers promised to Holyrood by Westminster to cut tax bills and make major changes to welfare and education.
In her keynote speech to her party’s conference in Edinburgh yesterday, Ms Davidson told delegates that successive governments have taken too much tax from Scots and claimed that future prosperity will be built on a strong and growing working class – who she described as “everyday grafters”.
She promised to ensure “there are more pounds left in the pocket” of Scots as she set out a centre-right agenda for her party at the next Holyrood election in 2016.
She singled out the efforts of “everyday grafters” and called for a shake-up in benefits and reform of an “amoral” welfare state in parts of Scotland.
Ms Davidson said: “Our future prosperity will come from an economy built on a strong and growing working class.
“And when I say a strong working class, I mean anyone who gets up, goes to a job and earns a wage to support themselves and their families.
“The everyday grafters of Scotland. Those hard working people who deserve a Scottish government that values them and their efforts. Who deserve a government that believes in letting them keep as much as possible of what they have earned.
“Too many politicians believe in government money – there to spend as they wish.
“But there is no such thing as government money – only money that governments have taken from taxpayers. And I think successive governments have taken too much.
“We shouldn’t be dipping deeper into people’s paypackets; we should ensure there are more pounds left in the pocket of men and women across Scotland. That’s why the Scottish Conservatives are committed to cutting the tax bills of working Scots.”
Ms Davidson said that Conservative proposals on devolution would be published in May, with the work of the Strathclyde commission – headed by former minister Lord Strathclyde – expected to back new tax powers for Holyrood in the event of a No vote in September’s referendum.
However, she dropped the strongest hint yet that the Conservatives would pursue a tax-cutting agenda under enhanced devolution promised by the main unionist parties. She suggested that Labour and the SNP wanted to dip “deeper into people’s paypackets”.
The plan highlights stark divisions within the anti-independence campaign, after Labour leader Johann Lamont revealed at the weekend that she plans to tax top earners more.
Ms Davidson also praised the UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who is responsible for the controversial bedroom tax, and said that she backed the Tory Cabinet minister “all the way” on welfare reform.
And Ms Davidson claimed that the benefits system was damaging employment prospects in parts of Scotland.
She said: “Because across Scotland – in hidden estates far from the smart West End parts of town – a broken, amoral welfare state left people on the sidelines, watching the world pass them by. People, forced on to benefits because they knew that work wouldn’t pay.
“By building the biggest back to work programme in our nation’s history. By ending the politics of the scrap heap which only looked at what people couldn’t do, but never asked them what they could – we are acting.”
Confirming a pledge to hire more nurses by scrapping universally free prescriptions, she said: “We’ll pay for it by restoring the prescription charge. Not for the young, the pensioner, the pregnant or the poor – they’ll stay exempt as they always were.”
Ms Davidson also called for an overhaul of Scotland’s education system and “more power” for parents to choose schools for their children as well as “rigorous exams” for bright pupils .
She backed making it easier to sack poorly-performing teachers and action over “failing schools” as part of a package of radical reform of education.
The Conservative leader also claimed popular support in Scotland for UK government policies on cutting the deficit and keeping immigration numbers down.
Labour MSP Elaine Smith, the convenor of the party’s Campaign for Socialism, suggested Ms Davidson only wanted to hand tax cuts to the wealthy.
Ms Smith, a Holyrood deputy Presiding Officer, said: “The Tories are deluding themselves if they think for one minute that the working class in Scotland are going to fall for their weasel words and false flattery.
“When Ruth Davidson says that our future prosperity will be built on a strong and growing working class we know exactly what that means under the Tories: the workers grafting and the fruits of their labour lining the pockets of the rich. The recession has been used by the Tories to attack the welfare state”
The Scottish Government criticised the proposal to scrap free prescriptions in order to fund 1,000 extra nurses and midwives in the NHS.
Health secretary Alex Neil said: “This is a ludicrous idea from Ruth Davidson which shows how far out of touch with people in Scotland the Tories still are. It is clear the Tories cannot be trusted with Scotland’s health system.”