Blair hits back over Scottish assembly

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The Independent Online
JOHN ARLIDGE

Scotland Correspondent

Tony Blair yesterday dismissed claims that Labour was watering down its commitment to Scottish devolution, stating that Labour's support for a tax-raising Scottish parliament was "complete and absolute".

Mr Blair launched a withering attack on the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, who have accused Labour of backtracking on its historic commitment to constitutional reform. He said their claims were "total drivel and nonsense".

An incoming Labour government would set up a Scottish parliament, which would have the power to raise or cut income tax by up to 3p in the pound. The party leader said: "I am completely committed to Scottish devolution, to the Scottish parliament [as] part of a much more sensible form of government of the United Kingdom. I support a tax-raising or tax-cutting power for the parliament."

In an interview with BBC Scotland, he said recent policy shifts on devolution did not mean that Labour was weakening its resolve. Last week the Liberal Democrats, who are working with Labour in the Scottish Constitutional Convention to draw up a blueprint for a Scottish parliament, accused Mr Blair of backtracking.

Senior Liberal Democrats were angry at Labour's decision to drop its plans for all the income tax and VAT raised in Scotland to be used to fund a Scottish parliament. They also expressed fears that Labour would refuse to agree a scheme which would prevent Westminster abolishing a future Scottish assembly. Mr Blair said yesterday Labour's proposed parliament would be entrenched and he dismissed the funding U-turn as insignificant, adding: "We are getting bogged down in ... questions of detail."

Labour would reform certain elements of its Scottish parliament scheme to ensure it worked efficiently, but the party's commitment to the principle of devolution would remain unchanged. He rejected accusations by Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, that Labour's revenue-raising plans amounted to a "tartan tax" which would threaten Scotland's new-found prosperity. Mr Blair said that 3p in the pound represented a "tiny percentage" of the overall budget for a Scottish parliament.

Scots would only have to pay more tax if they voted for parties which proposed tax hikes. "The notion that this is some sort of great tax-raising ramp by the Labour Party is just absurd ... The Scottish Parliament will be elected by the people of Scotland. If they want to vote for a party proposing this or that in relation to tax, then that's up to them. That's the essence of devolution."

Andy Myles, chief executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: "Tony Blair has cleared up our doubts about Labour's commitment to devolution." He said that after the Scottish Constitutional Convention published its blueprint for an Edinburgh assembly on 30 November, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would "go forward to secure for the people of Scotland the strong, effective parliament that they want and deserve."

n Labour should raise the basic state pension, restore its link to earnings and reconstruct Serps, the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme, according to a Fabian Society pamphlet published today by Peter Townsend and Alan Walker, two leading Labour academics.

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