Independence (Benefits)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 13th June 2013.

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Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

6. To ask the First Minister how much it would cost annually for an independent Scotland to raise benefit payments to a level that the Scottish Government considers appropriate. (S4F-01469)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

As Alex Johnstone should know, we have made two specific commitments for changes that we think are necessary in the context of an independent Scotland when this Parliament gains control over social security. However, I think that we should reflect on the changes that we have already had to make as a result of the imposition of some of the welfare changes from Westminster.

The attempt to cut council tax benefit by 10 per cent, which would have affected 560,000 people across Scotland—including Alex Johnstone’s constituents and my constituents—was luckily avoided by the joint action of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Scottish Government in making up that amount, which cost £40 million. We have now put £33 million into the social welfare fund to boost the emergency loan fund as a result of the impact of the welfare changes being imposed from Westminster. Of course, an additional £8 million is also going to the advice agencies so that people suffering from the policies being imposed by Alex Johnstone’s colleagues at Westminster can get the help and advice that they need.

Those are points in mitigation, but the two policies that we have already announced for an independent Scotland will also offer fairness and justice to the people of Scotland.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I note the First Minister’s careful answer, but it still does not account for the fact that members of his front-bench team and, particularly, his back benchers are making promises to many people in Scotland about what would apparently happen to benefits and welfare should Scotland become independent.

It is essential that the First Minister take the opportunity to lay out which of those promises he intends to keep, which he believes are merely on-the-hoof commitments and what the cost will be. If the cost is substantial, the additional transfer of wealth required within the Scottish economy is something that everyone should be aware of before they vote on independence. Will the First Minister give the commitment to make those figures public?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

Oh yes, I give the commitment to welfare, equity and justice—it will be one of the key arguments in this independence campaign. The cost of the commitments that we have made in terms of abolishing the bedroom tax will be £60 million a year, while moving away from the earnings disregard and giving parity and justice to women in Scotland will cost in the region of £60 million to £80 million a year. We have made those commitments already.

I say to Alex Johnstone that we should look at his argument: the imposition of deep unfairness in the Westminster Government’s attitude to these things; the plunging of tens of thousands more people in Scotland into relative poverty; and the reversal, which I believe the changes will bring about, of the progress that has been made on child poverty in Scotland. Of all the flimsy bases on which the union and the alliance with the Labour Party will stand, that is the flimsiest of them all. People who vote for independence will vote for social justice and progress in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. That concludes First Minister’s question time.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Last week, I asked a question about the inappropriate payment of senior staff at the state hospital. Last week, the First Minister told me that, under the terms and conditions of the Scottish pay reference and implementation group in June 2005 and the terms and conditions for state hospital senior managers in October 2006, I was wrong and everything was fine. He believed that it was acceptable for senior managers to pay themselves as much as £7,000 each in back pay while the pay of front-line staff was frozen.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Can we get to the point of order, please?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Indeed. I am just coming to it.

Last week, I was clear that there is nothing in either document that would allow such payments and that, in any event, they would need to be signed off by the cabinet secretary, not by the chair or the chief executive of the health board—something that has patently not happened.

That, Presiding Officer, was the position last week. This week, of course, the position has changed. Now, the chief executive has been moved and there is an internal inquiry not just about bullying but about shortcomings, procedures and governance processes. I published a letter from Gordon Craig today that is clear about the inappropriate nature of the payments.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we get to the point?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

So, Presiding Officer, I would be grateful to know whether it was in order for the First Minister last week to—perhaps unknowingly—mislead Parliament, or was he misled by his Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing? Will you invite the First Minister to amend the Official Report to correct his evident error?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

As Presiding Officers have said in the past, we are not responsible for the veracity of what is said in the chamber. The content of the First Minister’s responses to questions is a matter for the ministerial code, and that is therefore not a point of order, as I am sure Ms Baillie is well aware.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I apologise for bringing up such a minor matter, but is “mojo” an example of parliamentary language?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

As you said, Ms MacDonald, that is a minor matter and not a point of order.

Before we move to the next item of business, and for the information of members not intending to participate in members’ business, I remind members that the annual general meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Scotland branch is due to get under way at 12.45 in committee room 2. I encourage all members to attend.