THE SNP's key election demand for full fiscal autonomy has been thrown into confusion after Nicola Sturgeon refused to confirm her MPs would pursue it after the election.

 

Labour accused the First Minister of "lacking the guts" to back her own central economic policy after she dodged questions about devo max at Holyrood.

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Out on the campaign trail, SNP Health Secretary Shona Robison attacked planned benefit changes, backed by the main UK parties, which would cut payments for disabled people, while Scots Labour leader Jim Murphy pledged £1billion for the NHS during a visit to the Golden Jubilee Hospital, Clydebank.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, defended his party's record in coalition, saying it had prevented the Conservatives from "veering to the right".

The SNP has been under sustained fire over its demand for full fiscal autonomy, a set-up which would make the Scottish Government reliant solely on taxes raised in Scotland to meet its spending commitments.

The arrangement, also known as devo max, would blow a £7.6billion hole in the public finances if it were in place this year, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank has warned.

Last month the First Minister pledged her party would seek to make Scotland "fully autonomous" economically and fiscally "if the SNP has got significant clout in the next Westminster Parliament".

But yesterday she refused to repeat the promise, issuing instead a vague call for "maximum powers," when she was asked whether the SNP would seek to amend Labour's proposed Home Rule Bill to deliver its policy of full fiscal autonomy.

She said: "The SNP stands for independence-I do not think that that is any secret-and, yes, short of independence, we stand for maximum powers for this Parliament.

"That is what we will argue for."

Her official spokesman later refused repeatedly to confirm the SNP would press for full fiscal autonomy given an opportunity early in the next Parliament.

Labour has promised a Home Rule Bill within 100 days, if the party forms the next government, to introduce a package of tax and welfare powers based on the recommendations of the Smith Commission.

Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour's deputy leader, said: "The SNP are all over the place about their plan to impose extra cuts worth £7.6 billion on Scotland.

"Nicola Sturgeon is clearly ashamed of her plan for austerity-max in Scotland, which is why she couldn't even bring herself to even say the words full fiscal autonomy.

"The SNP need to be honest with Scots once and for all and tell us whether they will introduce full fiscal autonomy through a Home Rule Bill after the election."

Ms Sturgeon pledged to pursue fiscal autonomy on March 10, as official Scottish Government figures revealed the country was £12.4billion in the red in financial year 2013/14.

Scots contributed £400 per head more in tax to the Treasury than the UK average that year but benefited from an extra £1200 in public spending.

The figures indicated Scots would have been £800 per person worse off under devo max.

The outlook has worsened considerably since then as a result of falling oil prices.

Think Tank Fiscal Affairs Scotland said Scots would be £1485 per head worse off this year under a fiscal autonomy set-up.

Ms Sturgeon's shift came after Jim McColl, the leading businessman and member of her Council of Economic Advisers acknowledged that full fiscal autonomy would leave a hole in Scotland's public finances.

He suggested the Scottish Government would have to borrow to plug the gap but said cuts to corporation tax and capital gains tax would boost the economy in the long run.

John Swinney, the Finance Secretary, stressed the policy could not be introduced immediately.

Yesterday, Tommy Sheppard, the owner of the Stand Comedy Club and the SNP's candidate in Edinburgh East, said full fiscal autonomy would leave a "theoretical gap" in Scotland's finances.

He said said governments "always have gaps between income and expenditure" but a fiscally autonomous Scotland could close the gap quickly if it got "stuck in".