Leaders: Better Together faces tough job on taxes

Holyrood will be given new income tax powers if Scotland votes No. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Holyrood will be given new income tax powers if Scotland votes No. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A SMALL tweak to the Finance Bill currently going through the UK parliament could turn out to be an important landmark for devolution.

According to a constitutional expert, it suggests the Tories may be about to agree with Labour and the Lib Dems, that Holyrood should have the freedom in Scotland to vary individual income tax rates in different tax bands.

At present, the change is only in the form of “enabling legislation”. But it could prove significant for two reasons. First, it could contribute to a change in the political culture at Holyrood, with more power and responsibility being given to Scottish ministers.

Just now, any use of the “tartan tax” powers would trigger an administrative charge of tens of millions of pounds, making this power effectively unusable. Reforms already under way would remove this barrier, and the new tweak could allow Holyrood the freedom to vary tax rates for Scots of different incomes.

The result? Holyrood could become more accountable for the money it spends, and have greater freedom over how it raises that money. It would represent a far more grown-up and responsible form of politics, with less scope for blaming Westminster.

The second reason this change could be significant relates to the independence referendum. The Better Together parties expect any improvements to devolution to be a boost to their campaign to stop the break-up of the UK.

Their reasoning is simple: polls suggest Scots want more powers for Holyrood within the UK, short of independence. This kind of change could provide that.

But is Better Together right to think this would give it a boost? Current income tax arrangements are already arcane. Recent changes in the Scotland Act 2012 are no better understood, and the new proposed changes even less so. Tell the average voter 
that the “lockstep” could be removed from income tax and you will be met with a look of incomprehension.

The challenge for Better Together is to distil these changes into a message that people will first understand, and then like.

The No campaign’s track record is not good on this.

The much-vaunted show of solidarity from the UK parties ruling out a shared currency union after independence was intended as a masterstroke. Polls later showed that the voters rejected this analysis as a bluff.

Then, last weekend, when the Better Together camp suffered another blow after an unnamed UK minister backed a currency union, pro-UK campaigners took solace in a belief that no-one understood this issue anyway, and that Scottish voters had not yet started paying attention.

It remains to be seem whether Better Together can persuade people to reject independence in favour of more devolution. Are these financial matters really what will swing the referendum come September? Or will it be a decision based more on gut instinct and emotion?

Girl’s death is a tragic loss felt by all

YESTERDAY morning, a 12-year-old Edinburgh girl headed out of the front door on her way to school, just like any other schoolgirl on any other school day. She would never come home. After the tragic accident at Liberton High School, the thoughts of every parent – and anyone who can empathise with what it is to be a parent – are with that Edinburgh family today, as they try to come to terms with what must seem an incomprehensible loss.

There will be time enough in the weeks and months ahead to examine the maintenance record of the school; to scrutinise the decisions that apparently exempted the gym block from recent renovations; to look at whether there were any warning signs that this changing room wall was unstable, and if so what action if any was taken to remedy it.

All these questions will be asked and will have to be answered. Because a school should be, first and foremost, a place of safety; somewhere a parent can leave their child in the confident knowledge that they are being looked after and protected, in loco parentis.

That is for the future. For now, there is a deep sadness to be borne. The school family, and the wider city community, and indeed people of goodwill further afield, will pause, and remember, and mourn. For this girl’s schoolmates, this will be a moment they will never forget, and they will need a great deal of support.

Tragedy is an over-used word, but this was truly a tragic occurrence, all the more so for its apparent randomness. And yet there is a profound solace to be found in communities on occasions such as this, as people pull together to do what they can to shoulder some of the grief, in the hope that by sharing it can be somehow lessened.

Our thoughts are with the family, the pupils, the staff and the community at this most difficult of times.