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Miss Congeniality

THE Scottish Government is working on plans to scrap the so-called "bedroom tax" after independence, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed.

The Deputy First Minister said the welfare cut, which will slash housing benefit by up to 25% for working-age council and housing association tenants from April, was the most "pernicious" law inflicted on Scotland since the poll tax.

Sturgeon's comments follow much speculation that the SNP would seek to scrap the controversial welfare changes.

The change is expected to affect up to 100,000 Scottish households with more bedrooms than they need – in theory, at least – leaving tenants faced with a choice between paying £50 to £85 extra a month or moving to a smaller property.

But with not enough smaller homes available, social landlords expect thousands of people to fall into arrears, resulting in evictions, homelessness and even higher welfare bills.

Last month, Sturgeon set up an expert group to examine how the welfare system could be changed to reflect "Scottish values" after a Yes vote. Although it will not report until May, Sturgeon made it clear that the bedroom tax was a prime candidate for early abolition if the SNP Government won the first post-independence election in 2016.

Initial Government calculations suggest the annual cost of scrapping it could be £60-£65 million.

In a briefing to the media, Sturgeon said the expert group was looking at how to "reverse some of the things we don't like", adding: "I think the bedroom tax is particularly offensive, for example. I'm not going to pre-empt [the experts]. But ... I think the bedroom tax is one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation ever to be introduced in Scotland since the poll tax in the way it affects people."

She said any change would not be easy, as a series of phased welfare reforms means the system will be in flux until at least 2017, and there would need to be a transition period after independence.

Ending the bedroom tax is complicated by the move to the universal credit from this autumn, which will bundle housing and unemployment benefits together, meaning the housing element would have to be disentangled again. Sturgeon insisted: "There are ways of doing it."

The SNP plan to make a series of pledges during the independence campaign about what the party would do in power in an independent Scotland.

She said: "We won't have a manifesto for the first SNP government in the referendum, because that will be for the election that follows. We will use examples of how we are prepared to ... use the powers of independence if we were elected."

Despite the denial that the pre-2014 pledges would amount to a manifesto, Sturgeon's opponents accused the SNP of cynically blurring the lines between the referendum and the electoral cycle.

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said: "It looks like the SNP are prepared to promise anything and everything to win the referendum but people will expect to see the cost of the SNP promises. Making promises without prices attached is easy but showing that they can be afforded is a whole lot harder.

"The cost of reversing the welfare reforms will be £2.5 billion, not £60m as set out by Nicola Sturgeon."

Labour's Jackie Baillie said: "The SNP are trying to bribe Scotland's poorest. It is the worst type of politics: to tell our poorest to wait just a little longer, vote for separation then wait for 'independence day' ... before action is taken."

... WOMEN VOTERS

WOMEN voters are refusing to support independence in opinion polls because "they're no' daft", according to the woman leading the Yes campaign. Nicola Sturgeon said female voters were instinctively more cautious than male voters, and would take longer to make up their minds in the 18 months until the referendum.

Her comments come amid polls consistently showing support for independence among women runs markedly behind support among men.

An Ipsos Mori survey last week found 41% of men who were certain to vote for exiting the UK, while 61% of women wanted to maintain the Union.

Asked why she thought women were less enthusiastic about independence, Sturgeon said: "I just think women - and this is a horrible, horrible generalisation - are more in caring roles, and worry about the family budget. They just take longer to be convinced, and have to be convinced in order to make up their minds about something that is a significant step."

She added: "My personal opinion as to why women maybe take longer to make up their minds – they're no' daft."

Despite her growing popularity, and Salmond's decline, Sturgeon denied that her role in the referendum had been stepped up as part of a calculation to win over female voters.

"It's really important to have women making the case because women have different considerations, and they see things differently and they have different perspectives on things. But I don't think it's as simple as saying because you have a woman fronting it then women are just automatically going to vote for it. If only it were that easy."

... DEATH THREATS

Nicola Sturgeon has received death threats via Twitter, she revealed. One of the SNP Government's most enthusiastic users of the social netgworking site, with over 23,000 followers, Sturgeon said she had suffered "streams of abuse" from political opponents on the site.

Sturgeon, who leads for the Government on independence and is at the forefront of the Yes Scotland campaign, said inappropriate online abuse was a problem for both sides.

The SNP has long had a problem with so-called "Cyber Nats" – hysterical and undisciplined internet users who shower abuse on critics of independence.

Sturgeon said she loathed such comments, but added the regrettable lack of discipline was not unique to those on the Nationalist side.

She said: "I hate it as much as anybody does when I read rubbish – offensive stupid, downright ignorant rubbish from people purporting to believe the same things as I do - But I genuinely don't think it's peculiar to the Yes or the SNP side."

Revealing the violent and misogynistic material posted about her, she said: "I get streams of abuse from people on Twitter. I tend to ignore it.

"People tweet offensive things about your appearance or what you wear. It's not serious.

"But I did have somebody who ... every time I tweeted something, he would just tweet back with 'kill the bitch'.

"That's all he ever said. I blocked him eventually. No idea who he was. Is that serious, or is it just some kind of lonely lunatic?"

Despite her personal experience, she said social media would be critical to the drive for a Yes vote over the summer.

"A very very substantial chunk of Yes Scotland's campaign plan is around social media. I think it is important and it's getting more important."

She also revealed a Saturday referendum, rather than a Thursday, remained a possibility in 2014.

... AND BANNOCKBURN

THE SNP's Deputy Leader has rubbished the idea that the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn will influence the independence referendum.

Since it was announced last year that the ballot would be in 2014, the London media has claimed the date was picked to capitalise on the Scottish victory over the English.

Robert the Bruce's defeat of Edward II near Stirling in 1314 is commemorated by an annual SNP rally, and SNP conferences still close with the Robert Burns song about the battle, Scots Wha Hae.

But Nicola Sturgeon said the anniversary was irrelevant to the vote, as were the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup that year.

She said: "That whole summer sequence of events is good for the country, with or without the referendum. But I would have hoped the polls would have moved by then anyway."

On Bannockburn, she said: "Do I think it's an important anniversary for the country to commemorate? Yes - If you're asking me do I believe the referendum will be influenced by the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, the answer to that is no."

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