Leaders: Welfare devolution | Schools

LAST month this newspaper argued in this leader column that Scottish ­Labour was in danger of writing its own suicide note.
Labour is set to back more devolved powers for Holyrood. Picture: Neil HannaLabour is set to back more devolved powers for Holyrood. Picture: Neil Hanna
Labour is set to back more devolved powers for Holyrood. Picture: Neil Hanna

Our sources at the time suggested that devo-sceptic elements with the party – particularly among its Westminster MPs – were confident of heading off moves towards Labour backing a bold and wide-ranging package of new powers for Holyrood. We argued that such a move would be foolish on a number of levels. Not only would it damage the party’s hopes of preventing Scottish independence in the referendum in September, it would also damage Labour’s prospects at the UK general election next year and the Holyrood election in 2016. Our argument was that Labour was in danger of betraying its legacy as the party that fought for Scottish home rule for a century and delivered a Scottish Parliament in 1999. It would be betraying the mainstream Scottish voters who want more powers for Holyrood, but who have qualms about independence. This is the most sizable body of opinion in the Scottish electorate, and whichever party wins its confidence will not only decide the outcome of the referendum, they will have a head start on the power battles to follow.

Today we report that some – but not yet all – of those battles have been won by those people within Scottish Labour who were arguing for a powerhouse parliament at Holyrood. It is hard to be definitive at this stage, with the discussions still under way. But there is evidence of a sea change in opinion in recent weeks, which can perhaps be attributed to UK Labour leader Ed Miliband taking an interest in the Commission’s deliberations. There seems to have been a realisation that a failure to back a raft of new powers will be a strategic error that could put Labour on the sidelines of Scottish politics for a long time, with implications for the union, for Miliband’s hopes of making it to Downing Street, and the party’s hopes of returning to power at Holyrood. As is often the case in politics, when an appeal to principle has not had the desired effect, an appeal to self-preservation and enlightened self-interest seems to have done the trick.

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Perhaps the most significant development is that a future Labour government would be committed to devolving a range of welfare powers. In the late 1990s, the Labour government was dead against giving Scotland any welfare responsibilities, considering the welfare state to be indivisible. The change of heart is significant and historic. A distinction has now been made between different types of welfare payments. Those deemed to be the bedrock of the welfare state – including old age pensions – would continue to be dealt with on a UK-wide basis to protect what Labour sees as the essential function of social solidarity, sharing risk across all parts of the country. But other parts of the welfare state, particularly aspects closely linked to powers already held by Holyrood – like responsibility for housing and skills – have now rightly come into the frame.

Greater fiscal powers has proved trickier, with devo-sceptic MPs digging in their heels. But the sceptics, although vocal, are a minority. Senior figures in the party are clear that the sceptics will not be allowed to damage the party’s immediate and long-term prospects of winning back the confidence of Scots voters, on both constitutional and party political matters.

This newspaper will reserve its judgment until the details of the Devolution Commission report are made public. What seems clear at this stage, however, is that wise heads have prevailed, with the devo-sceptics’ input into the party’s plans minimised. The compromises will leave Labour with a job to do to head off accusations from the SNP that it is halfhearted about more devolution. Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, will today set out the hurdles any “more powers” proposal will have to clear before they can begin to be believed by the Scottish voters. These include credibility of the powers themselves; unanimity between pro-UK parties on what those powers should be; and certainty on whether they will be implemented. Of course, these hurdles are specifically designed so that the unionist parties will tumble over all three of them, to Nationalist hoots of derision. The great unanswered question is how the voters will respond.

The Yes camp will continue to argue that only a vote for independence can guarantee Scottish control over Scottish affairs. What remains to be seen in the coming six months, however, is whether a Holyrood with new tax and welfare powers – in addition to existing powers over health, education, industry, justice and the ­environment – will be enough to persuade enough Scots to stick with United Kingdom.

Why children should start school at four

FEW parents look forward to the day when they bid a tearful farewell to their youngster for the first time outside the school gates, but fewer still would argue against severing that paternal bond earlier if it was proven to be in their child’s best interests.

The study by the Scotland Institute arguing to lower the age at which Scotland’s children begin formal schooling offers an instructive evaluation of how to improve the nation’s education system from the point of entry.

There is already a sizeable body of research offering resounding proof that investment in early years education improves the wellbeing and opportunities afforded our children, but it is perhaps time to reconsider how we might expand those further by ensuring future generations enter full-time formal education earlier. The independent think tank believes lowering the statutory age to four would bring about myriad benefits, not least providing renewed purpose for an underutilised primary school estate. Its most compelling argument, however, rightly focuses of how such a change would be to the advantage of children, better equipping them educationally and socially for their later years in school, as well as allowing teachers to shape opportunities for learning as opposed to simply providing childcare – important though this is to allowing parents to get back in to the workplace.

How best to serve the needs of our children is an emotive subject which defies consensus, evident in the wildly differing school starting ages across European countries. Yet it is important to emphasise that pupils of four would not be expected to surrender their childhood for the harsh educational realities of long division and French grammar.

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This shift would be especially enriching for those children from disadvantaged backgrounds without early access to nursery education, a demographic prone to falling behind their classmates by virtue of their family circumstances. Such inequality at a crucial time of a child’s development cannot be tolerated in a nation with a flourishing educational pedigree. We need to improve the life chances of every child, and if that means starting them in school at the age of four then so be it. The Scotland Institute’s work deserves close scrutiny.