Labour accused of backtracking over Scottish assembly

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The Independent Online

Scotland Correspondent

The Liberal Democrats yesterday accused the Labour leadership of watering down its commitment to a Scottish parliament. Andy Myles, chief executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said that under Tony Blair, Labour "appears to be going soft on a number of vital issues relating to Scotland's constitutional future".

Mr Myles is locked in negotiations with Labour leaders in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a cross-party group which is drawing up a blueprint for an Edinburgh assembly. The Liberal Democrats say that in recent weeks Labour has reneged on long-held constitutional pledges.

They point to the party's decision last week to drop its plans for all the income tax and VAT raised in Scotland to be used to fund the proposed parliament. They also express concern that Labour will refuse to agree a scheme which would prevent Westminster abolishing a future Scottish assembly.

Although Mr Myles believes Labour's Scottish leaders are committed to establishing a powerful Edinburgh legislature with revenue-raising powers, he argues that Mr Blair, who has already ditched Labour's commitment to regional assemblies throughout England and Wales, is weakening his resolve on Scottish devolution.

He said: "In recent Convention meetings there has been a distinct change in tone among Labour ranks. The language is now more cautious, more circumspect. There is smell of backtracking and my fear is that that smell is coming from London, from Tony Blair, who is hyper-cautious about making detailed policy commitments for fear of electoral unpopularity."

Pressure from the Liberal Democrats and other members of the convention had so far prevented Labour from ditching its main commitments, Mr Myles said. But some Liberal Democrats fear that Labour might attempt to abandon key plans, like giving the parliament tax-raising powers.

Although Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, have pledged to grant the parliament the power to raise or cut taxes north of the border by up to 3p in the pound, critics say Labour leaders are worried by charges that they are introducing a "tartan tax".

Earlier this week Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, called on Labour to abandon its revenue-raising scheme after an opinion poll in the Sunday Times revealed that most Scots opposed it. Despite the poll, Mr Myles said the Liberal Democrats would remain committed to a tax-raising parliament. "Labour may be more cautious these days, but we don't want a cautious little parliament. We want a powerful parliament which can make a real difference and we are determined that the people of Scotland, who have articulated their support for devolution over many years, will get one."