THE impact of Westminster benefit cuts in Scotland has doubled to £4.5 billion, SNP ministers revealed yesterday, with a stark warning it will usher in the “last days of the Union”.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the cut amounted to more than £1,000 for every child under 16 in Scotland, branding it the “awful price” of London rule in Scotland.
An independent Scotland would flourish financially, allowing it to reverse the worst of the cuts, John Swinney added on the final day of the SNP’s spring conference in Inverness.
He compared Holyrood’s “triple-A” record since devolution with the UK government’s loss of its top-notch credit status from two agencies recently.
But the figures on benefit cuts were branded “unofficial, crude and misleading” by a coalition spokesman last night.
The latest poll indicates a narrowing of the gap between support for independence and a “No” vote. Support has grown by two points since January to 36 per cent and opposition has fallen by one point to 46 per cent, according to Panelbase.
The SNP’s most senior ministers were speaking days after Alex Salmond revealed that the referendum would be staged on 18 September next year.
Both Ms Sturgeon and the finance secretary drove home the message that only independence could “boost the economy and secure economic growth”.
New analysis by Scottish Government officials was unveiled by Ms Sturgeon, setting out the effect of benefit cuts in Scotland since the coalition embarked on its austerity agenda in 2010.
It shows a far steeper impact than original estimates of £2.5bn of Scottish cuts in the five years to 2015 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Instead, the cost of reductions to the working tax credit, disability living allowance and child benefit, along with a range of other cuts, will be £4.5bn.
“Welfare cuts of this magnitude will cost the Scottish economy 17,000 jobs,” Ms Sturgeon told supporters.
About £1bn of the cuts were likely to hit children, she said. “That’s the equivalent to a cut of more than £1,000 for every child in Scotland under the age of 16.
“So there you have it – the awful price of letting Westminster control our resources and take our decisions for us.
“These welfare cuts are a dagger in the hearts of the fairness and social justice that we hold so dear.”
The SNP government would scrap the “callous and indiscriminate” bedroom tax – “one of the worst policies introduced in Scotland since the poll tax” – after independence, Ms Sturgeon said.
SNP-led councils will block evictions on the grounds of the bedroom tax, it was announced by Mr Salmond on Saturday. It comes as the head of Scotland’s councils branded the policy “extreme and ill-thought-out”.
David O’Neill, the president of Cosla, warned councils could be hit by a “double whammy”, claiming they could see a “massive increase” in people seeking help at a time of reduced resources.
A Scotland Office spokesman urged caution over the SNP’s claims of a £4.5bn cut.
“These figures from the Scottish Government are unofficial, crude and misleading and should be subject to a good deal of scepticism,” he said. “The fact is that the UK spends around £20bn on welfare and benefits in Scotland every year and the Scottish Government has yet to explain how it would sustain that level of funding if Scotland leaves the UK.”
The Scottish Parliament’s record of free university education, free presriptions, concessionary travel for pensioners and the council tax freeze was lauded by Mr Swinney.
“That is a triple-A record at a time when the UK has lost its triple-A rating,” he said.
Scotland, with 8.3 per cent of the UK’s population, contributed 9.9 per cent in tax revenues to Treasury coffers, but only got 9.3 per cent in return, he said.
“The point of becoming independent is to give us the power to boost the economy and tackle inequality,” he added.
Last week’s Budget had highlighted the “choice between two futures that the people of Scotland will face”.
He added: “In these last days of the Union, we have seen the gulf that exists between our ambition for Scotland and the poverty of Westminster’s policies.