Engagements

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 13 June 2013.

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Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

1. To ask the First Minister what engagements he has planned for the rest of the day. (S4F-01456)

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

Later today, I will meet Marilyn Barnes, who is the managing director of the marketing firm Aquira, which I am delighted to announce is creating up to 200 jobs at a new facility in the city of Glasgow. After yesterday’s positive employment statistics and last week’s announcement on sparkling performance on inward investment, and despite a number of challenges in a number of areas and companies, and austerity from Westminster, this has been a good news week for the Scottish economy.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Will the First Minister tell us what—apart from the pound, the Bank of England, the national health service, the armed forces, the monarchy and the welfare state—the United Kingdom has ever done for us?

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

Is not that a question more for those who advocate continuing rule from London over the Scottish people? I think that having rule from London and an austerity budget that was described by former Chancellor of the Exchequer—I am just trying to grasp his name—Alistair Darling as “madness” in terms of economic policy direction, rather makes the case for economic fiscal decisions over tax and spending being made in Scotland.

I also think that many people in Scotland would rather like to stay in one of the 190 countries—out of 200 in the world—that are free of nuclear weapons, as opposed to having the largest concentration of weapons of mass destruction in Europe.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

It is very odd, in that case, that the First Minister wants to reassure everybody that everything will stay the same and that nothing will change.

The mystery is this: if the UK has so much that we want to share, why would we leave it and then ask it to share the things that we have left behind? If the rest of the UK is so monstrous, I wonder why it would want to share those things with us anyway.

The truth is that the First Minister’s current plan would only weaken Scotland. Now his plan is to enshrine a foreign Government’s economic and welfare policies in Scottish policy without Scots having any say whatsoever.

My question to the First Minister is this: he used to say that the pound and the UK welfare state were bad for Scotland, so what has changed?

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

Can I correct Johann Lamont? One of the reasons why we want independence is so that we can have social justice for the Scottish people. I note that only a few weeks ago Johann Lamont said that if she could be persuaded of that point, she would support independence, so let me have a go at persuading her.

One thing that independence will guarantee for the people is that we will not have different rates of benefits from the rest of the United Kingdom. I quote from the Daily Record—a very reliable source indeed—of 4 June:

“Scots could get welfare benefits at lower rates than people in wealthy parts of England under plans being worked on by Labour.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls yesterday raised the idea of a regional cap on welfare, opening the door to variations in a range of social security benefits.”

Not only will independence free us from the bedroom tax that is being imposed by the Tory party, it will free us from Ed Balls’s plans to pay people in Scotland less benefits than people in wealthy parts of England.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

First, that is not what Ed Balls said, as the First Minister knows perfectly well. [Interruption.] We have all learned that just because the First Minister says it does not mean that it is true—[Interruption.]

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

The idea that it is possible for this Government to argue that it will have a greater commitment to social justice under independence, when it has said that it will be tied to UK policies on welfare until 2020, is completely ridiculous. Independent experts have said that it would be impossible to get rid of the bedroom tax on day 1 of independence if we continued with the welfare position as advocated by the UK. It is nonsense on stilts and everyone but this lot—Scottish National Party members—knows it.

Many of us—maybe too many of us—remember a young nationalist rogue in Westminster, who was, when Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson announced a cut in corporation tax, expelled from the chamber for calling the budget “an obscenity”. Now, the all-too-rich irony is that the one thing that the First Minister wants control of—the one thing to which he holds firm and on which he will not shift—is corporation tax. In an independent Scotland, corporation tax would be 3p lower than whatever level the Tories set it at. The benefits? The First Minister reckons that there would be massive 0.07 per cent growth per year—and that is with a 3 per cent margin of error.

I ask again: what happened to that young man who believed in independence, and who now advocates “independence”?

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

Johann Lamont forgot to mention the thousands of jobs that will be created. I know that the Labour Party these days does not care about jobs, and I knew that Johann Lamont would not ask about the matter today, given yesterday’s splendid jobs figures, but I think that jobs are still important to some people in this country, which is why having a competitive rate of corporation tax—and then collecting it—seems to be a good idea.

I have been the first to criticise George Osborne for his lack of direction in collecting corporation tax in this country. However, it has been pointed out to me that non-payment of corporation tax and other taxes peaked under Gordon Brown’s tenure at the Treasury. Of course, we know that the Labour Party is at the moment actively advising people—its own donors—on tax avoidance, so Labour is in a poor position to lecture people on tax avoidance.

Let us get to the guts of the welfare report. What Johann Lamont misunderstands is that the administration of a system does not mean identical policy throughout the system. For example, we currently have joint administration of the student loans system, but there are two radically different policies in Scotland and England. In Scotland, we have no tuition fees—thanks to the SNP—but people in England have tuition fees, thanks to the Tories and the Liberals, and they would have more tuition fees in the unlikely event of the Labour Party ever getting back into power.

Johann Lamont said that I misrepresented Labour policy. I was quoting from the Daily Record. If Johann Lamont has got to the stage at which she thinks that the Daily Record is secretly trying to undermine Ed Balls and the Labour Party by misinterpreting statements on welfare, that indicates a difficulty in her party that goes beyond even my expectations.

The fact is that Ed Balls has accepted the Tory spending plans and he has accepted the Tory cap on welfare. Labour refuses to say that it will repeal the bedroom tax, and here we have it in the Daily Record: Labour wants to pay poor people in Scotland less than poor people elsewhere in these islands. What sort of United Kingdom is that?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

That is simply not true. [Interruption.] Only the First Minister wants a welfare system that is better and that will be funded by cutting corporation tax by 3p. That is completely ludicrous. If it were not for the fact that this is about pensions, people’s wages and the future of our children, we could just laugh at that ludicrous response from the First Minister. Well prepared as it was, it did not respond to the challenge that lies at the very heart of his proposals for an independent Scotland, which would rely on the good will of a state that we will have said oppresses us and from which we will have said that we have to free ourselves.

The question that we face, on which I suspect the First Minister’s own back benchers and party members will also reflect, is this: has the First Minister lost his mojo on independence, or does he—this might be more accurate—simply think that the people of Scotland are mugs? His plans for the currency, pensions, benefits, jobs and mortgages now all hinge on the good will of a country that we would just have made a foreign country by voting to leave it.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I do not know why Mr Swinney is saying that that is rubbish. His First Minister and Deputy First Minister have reassured us that that is what would happen after independence. Perhaps the SNP back benchers might want to set up a breakaway group—“SNP for independence”—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we have a little bit of calm to allow Ms Lamont to complete her question?

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

As we know, the noisier it is, the truer the accusation.

The truth is—the First Minister acknowledges this; indeed he celebrates it—that the UK would control our currency, our economy and now our pensions. Perhaps he has another plan that he is not telling us about. It is all too evident that the current plan is neither independence—

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Indeed.

The First Minister must have another plan that he is not telling us about, because the current plan is neither for independence, nor is it credible.

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

I was waiting for the big punchline, but it never came. It is interesting that we had got to the fourth question before Johann Lamont evinced a spontaneous reception from the Scottish Conservative Party. Alistair Darling managed a standing ovation.

I point out to Johann Lamont her fundamental misunderstanding. She said that it would take the “good will” of the Government in Westminster for it to accept shared administration of the welfare system. The point is that Scotland administers a large part of the welfare system of England and Wales. I do not think that that is “good will”; it is common sense for the Government at Westminster and therefore is consistent the proposals put forward by the welfare expert group.

Let us turn to a specific policy, which I think has more public currency than any other when it comes to the differences between governing in this place and governing from Westminster: the bedroom tax. We know not just from the Daily Record, from which Johann Lamont wants to disassociate herself, but from Helen Goodman, the Labour shadow cabinet spokesperson on the bedroom tax, who made it quite clear on “Daily Politics” on 11 March, that Labour has no plans to abolish or to reverse the bedroom tax. That point was exemplified by Ed Balls when he said only this week that he would accept the Tories’ entire spending plans. In contrast, this Government will abolish the bedroom tax if we are elected as the first Government of an independent Scotland. Not only will we abolish it, we will do so in the first year of that independent Scotland.