Tom Peterkin: Housing benefit move could foil SNP

Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Jane Barlow
Labour leader Johann Lamont. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE clamour for a positive case for a No vote in the referendum was in evidence this week when Johann Lamont was the guest speaker at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The Labour leader opened with a speech that was very big on her theme that improving people’s lives ought to be about redistributing wealth within the United Kingdom rather than creating divisions over national identity.

What was not mentioned in any detail during her address was Labour’s plans for what might happen in the event of a No vote.

But when it came to the subsequent question and answer session in front of an audience of the great and the good, it was clear that many wanted to hear what Scottish Labour would offer in terms of strengthening devolution.

It was back in September 2012 that Lamont established Labour’s Devolution Commission. Since then, like the Tories, it has been looking at what new powers should be transferred to Holyrood. By all accounts, this has not been an altogether easy process, with much grappling over what should and what should not be devolved and competing demands having to be balanced.

Until now, there has been little indication of what conclusions the commission, which is due to report at Labour’s spring conference, will come to.

But questioned by members of the audience at the Royal Society of Edinburgh event, organised by the David Hume Institute in conjunction with the RSE Young Academy of Scotland, Lamont at last gave a brief insight into the commission’s thinking. In an attempt to sate the audience’s curiosity about the outcome of a No vote, she gave a pretty clear steer that the commission would recommend that housing benefit should be devolved. Giving Holyrood the power over housing benefit would give MSPs the power to scrap the so-called “bedroom tax” and thus take control over what has become a toxic issue for the UK government and a profitable line of attack for the SNP.

The hope must be that the prospect of MSPs being given control over bedroom tax will neuter Alex Salmond’s argument that independence offers the best way of abolishing it.

The idea is gaining traction (to use that unattractive but politically fashionable term). In fact, it was towards the end of last year that it was reported that the UK government was considering exactly the same move.

Lamont did not elaborate on what other areas of welfare were being looked at. But such items as attendance allowance (which helps support the disabled), child tax credit and carers’ allowance are likely to be on the agenda when the commission meets.

Those hoping for the all-singing all-dancing vision of a positive No campaign will have to wait a little longer, but for the time being they can take some comfort from the devolution of housing benefit.