Monday, February 04, 2013

Willie Rennie challenges SNP on post-independence welfare

Last week the SNP Government held debate in the Scottish Parliament on the effects of the changes the UK Government have made to Child Benefit. Of all the welfare reforms, this is the one I have least difficulty with because it affects people with a household income of more than £50,000 a year.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon moved a motion that
 recognises that it is only through the full powers of independence that it can properly protect the universal benefits that produce fair and equitable outcomes.
The thing is, she wasn't able to give any assurances that under independence, Child Benefit would be restored to everyone. The motion was a sloppy one, something you'd only put before a Parliament where you have a majority of compliant backbenchers. It's embarrassingly poor.

The SNP are very good at telling us how evil any government in London is. What they are not so good at is telling us how independence actually makes this better. They might like to pretend that under independence, money would grow on trees and Scotland would be insulated from every global economic catastrophe, but nobody really believes that. I'd be surprised if all of them do. The SNP has its hands on many levers of power up here - they have complete control over housing yet there still aren't enough homes for those in need. Oh, sorry, I forgot, that's the local council's fault...

Anyway, Willie Rennie had a good go at challenging Sturgeon last Thursday, trying to get something of substance out of her and showing that the SNP's case was far from proven. His speech contains many Liberal Democrat themes - that strong economy in fair society thing again. There's also a very Willie phrase, something which is for him the most important thing - enabling people to get up and get on in life. You do not need independence to achieve those aims. Here's his speech in full:

We know what the SNP does not like: it takes every opportunity to focus on the Westminster Government’s ills. It takes up copious amounts of parliamentary time focusing not on the SNP Government’s responsibilities, but on another Government’s responsibilities and duties. From an almost lofty position, it likes to complain and commentate, but it rarely provides solutions. Everybody would admit that that is a tough task, and the purpose of our amendment is to allow SNP members to set out what they would like the Scottish welfare state to look like. They can tell us which benefits will be cut, which will be increased and which will remain unchanged. They can also tell us whether they would add £2.5 billion to the budget that an independent Scotland would inherit.

From ministers’ rhetoric—I have numerous quotes here—I assume that the full £2.5 billion will be restored immediately.

The debate is timely, given that the SNP’s welfare commission was launched earlier this month and, apparently, will report in the next couple of months. I am sure that commission members would welcome contributions from those on the SNP benches on whether benefits will be cut, which benefits will be prioritised and which will be deprioritised. I am sure that they would welcome SNP members’ deliberations, which could feed into their conclusions.

Benefit recipients will also want to hear from the SNP about what its priorities will be for an independent Scotland’s welfare budget. They will want to know that the SNP’s actions will match the rhetoric. 

SNP members—ministers likewise—have said on numerous occasions that they want reform and simplification of the welfare system, but I have not heard from them one single example of a reform.

I am sure that members will take the opportunity today to tell us.

I am also sure that the SNP’s fiscal commission, too, would welcome SNP members’ comments on how they plan to restore £2.5 billion to the welfare budget. The commission has been tasked with bringing a degree of fiscal credibility to the SNP’s plans for independence. That credibility will be very important as it will impact directly on credit ratings, the cost of borrowing and the sustainability of an independent Scotland’s finances.

I am curious about whether the fiscal commission will meet the welfare commission to ensure a degree of consistency across the numerous commissions that the SNP is setting up. After all, we will want coherence, which previous commissions have lacked, with a commission saying one thing and ministers saying something completely different. That might change this afternoon, but I am not sure whether the Deputy First Minister’s speech indicates that it will. I do not think that the SNP is going to tell us which benefits will be prioritised or deprioritised. Who will be the winners and losers? We did not hear a single word about that from the Deputy First Minister.

I think that, this afternoon, SNP members will seek to prejudge the outcome of the welfare commission’s work and will, as they have done with many other advisers that they have recruited, ignore its conclusions. They have already made up their minds what they do not like—and they do not like to face up to the reality of having to live within their finances. There will be a lack of consistency between fiscal responsibility and their welfare commission. We need costed plans, not uncosted rhetoric.

To be fair, we Liberal Democrats favour a strong economy and a fair society that gives everyone a chance to get on. That is why we have cut taxes for those on low or middle incomes, increased the state pension and introduced a £1 billion youth contract while at the same time—this is critical—restoring the public finances to create the conditions for growth.

We must make it absolutely clear that under Labour the welfare state increased by 40 per cent at a time of considerable economic growth. In the 10 years before 2010, the costs increased from £132 billion to £192 billion. That is simply not sustainable.

We reject the rhetoric of the skivers and the strivers—I say to Drew Smith that we have never embraced and do not favour that terminology. We want an enabling society that allows people to get up and get on. SNP members should take the opportunity this afternoon not just to criticise the UK Government but to set out their plans in detail. If they do not match their actions to their rhetoric, I do not think that they deserve to be trusted.

I move amendment S4M-05521.2, to leave out from “with concern” to end and insert:

“the position on child benefit in the UK; further notes that the Scottish Government has established a working group to advise it on what welfare policies it would be able to afford in the event of independence; believes that it would be sensible for people in Scotland to wait for the conclusion of that review before accepting any assurances from Scottish ministers on this matter; notes that statements have been made by Scottish Government ministers and supporters implying that a full £2.5 billion will be added to the welfare and benefits bill of Scotland after independence; notes that this figure does not include any costing for additional welfare benefits to be recommended for groups such as carers; awaits with interest the details on how such a bill and the additions will be accommodated within the estimated resources of an independent Scotland; in particular, waits to see if an immediate priority will be set out to restore child benefit to those earning over £60,000 in an independent Scotland; believes that, if the full figure of £2.5 billion is not part of costed plans, that would imply that some welfare changes are not proposed for reversal and believes that those should be clearly set out by the expert group, and further notes that the UK Government will have cut the tax bill for a family of two people on modest incomes by around £5,000 over the period.”

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