By Bob Duncan
Prime Minister David Cameron has undermined the new “better together” No campaign on the very day of its launch, by proposing lower benefits for Scots than those in other parts of the Union.
In a major lurch to the right, designed to pander to disgruntled Tory backbenchers, the Prime Minister outlined his plans for severe reform of the welfare system.
In a speech in Kent, Mr Cameron said he wanted to debate ideas for welfare reform before the Conservatives produced their manifesto for the next general election.
One of the proposals was that levels of benefits would change to reflect the general cost of living in different “regions” of the UK. This would lead to claimants in Scotland receiving less money than those in, for example, Southern or Eastern England. This proposal was dropped from the final text of his speech, but Downing Street insisted it was still among ideas to be discussed.
He also announced measures that could see council house tenants evicted unless they were deemed to be earning an acceptable wage, a measure which would have a much more widespread effect in Scotland than in other parts of the UK.
In addition, David Cameron’s proposals include scrapping housing benefit for the under 25s and removing or restricting some benefits to out-of-work families with large numbers of children.
The PM said he hoped the Lib Dems might agree with some of these ideas so they could be brought in before the next election, which is due in 2015.
"Regional" rates of benefits, which would see people in more affluent regions getting higher payments than in poorer regions, would be likely to prove controversial, particularly in Scotland.
No 10 stressed, an hour before Mr Cameron's speech, that no final decision had been taken but the PM wanted to look at whether "it makes sense if you set all benefits at the national level or whether there should be some local or regional element".
Under the present constitutional arrangement, the Westminster Government has complete control over welfare and benefits in all parts of the UK, leaving the Scottish Government unable to protect vulnerable people from the impact of the proposed changes. This is despite such measures having little popular support in Scotland.
The Prime Minister's intervention comes as an IPSOS Mori poll shows 67% of people want the Scottish Government to take control of welfare and benefits.
A separate YouGov poll for the SNP suggested only 20 per cent of people in Scotland believe it is better to be part of the UK when there is a Tory government in Westminster.
Cameron's speech was in stark contrast to the message put forward at the launch of the revamped Labour/Tory 'Better Together' No campaign.
The campaign is headed by Labour Chancellor, Alasdair Darling, who was at pains to persuade voters that Scotland would be better under a Tory Government in London, than under Edinburgh control.
Speaking this morning to the BBC, Mr Darling said:
"We have influence now, being part of the United Kingdom. I don't want to throw that influence away.
"My argument is not that you couldn't go it alone as Scotland on its own, I'm not arguing that at all. I just think it is better for us to be together in the United Kingdom because we can achieve far more influence and have more clout."
However, the announcements of benefit cuts which are particularly disadvantageous to Scots, on the very day of the No campaign launch, would seem to suggest that this influence and clout is minimal at best. The differential application of VAT relief for emergency services on both sides of the border would seem to reinforce this view.
The launch event for the No campaign featured a number of “ordinary Scots” who gave set-piece interviews to ex Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie.
Responding to Mr Cameron's speech, SNP Work and Pensions spokesperson Dr Eilidh Whiteford said:
“David Cameron’s proposals cement the Tories position as the nasty party of UK politics, and yet today the Labour Party tell us they think it is best for Scotland for the Tories to be in charge of our welfare state.
"Thousands of Scots who now face the uncertainty of UK welfare cuts will be wondering what on earth Labour are doing entering an alliance with the Tories. The big question is whether we will now see regional rates for the state pension, with 1 million Scottish pensioners losing out because we are part of the UK. Can the No campaign guarantee that the Tories won't cut Scottish pensions?
“No wonder polls this weekend show 67% of people want the Scottish Government to take control of welfare and benefits – and not leave this crucial issue to London.
“It is incredible, and acutely embarrassing for Labour, that the prime minister has set out his welfare cuts on the day the anti-independence Labour-Tory pact was launched. Given these latest Tory plans, it is no surprise that only 20% of Scots think that we are better as part of the UK when there is a Tory government at Westminster."