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Scottish tax service at heart of Salmond's plan for year ahead

LEGISLATION establishing a separate Scottish taxman is the heart of Alex Salmond's final government programme before the independence referendum.

Alex Salmond.
Alex Salmond.

His Cabinet yesterday finalised plans to turn the embryonic Revenue Scotland tax authority into an arm's-length body enshrined in statute. Its role will be to collect taxes devolved to Holyrood under the latest Scotland Act.

The new land and buildings transaction tax - the replacement for stamp duty on property purchases - has already been approved by MSPs and is due to be levied from April 1, 2015. The Scottish landfill tax, replacing the UK's levy on landfill, is still being considered at Holyrood and is due to take effect on the same day.

Revenue Scotland will not however collect the new Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT), which remains part of the UK tax system administered by HMRC. The SRIT, which will make up about half the income tax Scots pay, will be set at Holyrood from April 2016.

Ministers created Revenue Scotland last year as a small department within the Government in readiness for the new taxes. The new legislation will ensure it is put on a formal footing, at arm's length from ministers, by the time they are introduced. A consultation on Revenue Scotland's powers was completed earlier this year.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: "This Parliament will still be a spending chamber rather than a revenue-raising chamber. That's deeply harmful to Scotland. It means we can not use fiscal powers to grow our economy."

The plan is among 13 new bills unveiled today by the First Minister as he announced his seventh programme for government and the last one before the referendum.

Other measures  include an end to automatic early release new laws to crack down on lap-dancing bars and strip clubs, to improve witness protection, boost childcare and control air weapons. In addition, ministers will continue to steer 11 unfinished bills through Holyrood.

They include the legislation allowing same-sex marriage, which was passed prior to the recess and which the Government hopes to fast-track through Holyrood over the next six months.

But the package of Bills is likely to be overshadowed by the run up to the independence referendum in September next year.

The Referendum Bill was lodged in March during the last session of parliament.

Opening his address to MSPs, Mr Salmond said: "It is better for all of us if decisions about Scotland's future are taken by those who care most about Scotland: the people who choose to live and work in this country. That's the simple, but compelling, truth at the heart of the case for independence. And the best evidence of it is the record of this parliament."

Other Bills include licensing legislation for air weapons, with the Licensing Bill also setting out to extend regulation for scrap metal dealers in an attempt to reduce metal thefts and introduce an offence of supplying alcohol to under-18s.

Housing legislation will remove right-to-buy for tenants, while also aiming to improve dispute resolutions.

The Government aims to change the way the heritage body Historic Scotland operates, create a new food standards body and make mental health legislation more efficient.

Other legislation will change the laws relating to damages and personal injuries, legal contracts and bankruptcy.

One of the most important will be a Bill to strengthen community planning while simplifying right-to-buy provisions, Mr Salmond said.

As with every year, the Government will set out its spending plans in a Budget Bill.

Mr Salmond said there is a "heavy cost" when decisions are taken by Westminster.

The SNP leader, who has served as an MP, said: "I can tell you from 23 years' experience of Westminster that that Parliament only rarely had the time or inclination to respond to specific Scottish challenges or priorities."

In contrast, "taking decisions in Scotland works for individuals, it works for families and it works for communities" here.

Through the programme for government, the Scottish Parliament will, over the course of the year, "empower communities and create a fairer Scotland, accelerate economic recovery and mitigate the impact of Westminster austerity", Mr Salmond said.

Legislation for a licensing regime for air weapons is bring brought in following the "tragic" death of two-year-old Andrew Morton in 2005, who was shot with an airgun.

Mr Salmond said there is "wide support" for such legislation in light of the toddler's death eight years ago.

"Now this Parliament can finally meet public concern over the issue, finding a Scottish solution to a Scottish priority," he said.

While Mr Salmond argued that the Scottish Parliament needs further powers, he used his statement to reinstate the Scottish Government's commitment to a number of universal benefits such as free bus travel for pensioners, free personal care for elderly people, free prescriptions and free university education.

These form part of the "social wage" which are services "available to everyone because everyone contributes to society".

Some have questioned the affordability of these, but Mr Salmond insisted: "What makes them sustainable is that they are universal, part of a social wage. If they weren't universal then those in receipt of the social benefit would be separated and stigmatised, exactly as is happening with the UK Government's welfare agenda.

"Far from being a something-for-nothing culture, the social wage is a contract we have with the people of Scotland. To suggest this is something for nothing is to mimic the bankrupt, prevailing ideology of the Westminster parliament."

Such measures show "there is no trade-off between living an a wealthy country and living in a good society".

The forthcoming Budget Bill will maintain that approach "while continue to drive recovery and long-term economic growth".

Investment in infrastructure will be protected "in the face of the 26% real-terms cut the UK Government has made" to capital spending in Scotland, he said.

Labour leader Johann Lamont said Mr Salmond is distant and delusional.

"This was an opportunity for him to show us we can take him seriously as Scotland's First Minister. He could do that by bringing forward a legislative programme that met this one crucial test: that it would put the interests of the people of the Scotland before the interests of the SNP," she said.

"With this unambitious, lacklustre and moribund programme, he has completely failed."

She mocked claims that the Bills are radical and said that the independence campaign is keeping the country "on pause".

Ms Lamont, who focused much of her criticism on the First Minister, said: "He tells us this is a parliament which listens to evidence and seeks consensus where possible. If only that were true. For it were true, his ludicrous, ill-thought, dangerous proposals for independence would have been flung out long ago."

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson complained that the year ahead will be dominated by the referendum.

"From the evidence of this programme, there has been time for little else and the governance of Scotland is all but on hold," she said.

The decision to scrap prisoner early release was criticised for not going far enough.

"Long-term sentences, the ones he talks about, account for just 3% of sentences handed down last year," she said.

"With 97% of custodial sentences untouched by the change, it should be no surprise to the First Minister that we will continue to argue that the reduction of prison terms passed by our courts should be in principle a reward and not a right."

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said his party's plan for home rule within the UK is a viable alternative to independence.

"Everyone in this chamber wants the best for Scotland. I am in no doubt about that. We just disagree on how we want to achieve it," he said.

"My support for a strong Scottish Parliament with home rule in a strong partnership with the UK is on the record.

"The stakes are high, the risks are great, but the opportunity to offer a renewed constitutional settlement within the UK is within our grasp."

Green MSP Alison Johnston, whose party supports independence, warned against creating a "mini-Westminster" with too many powers centralised at Holyrood rather than devolved to local communities.

"The First Minister has talked of decentralisation and building strong local democracy. So far, this Government has failed to convince me and many others that they are really committed here," she said.

"I find it deeply ironic that a government campaigning for full independence effectively removed the ability of local authorities to raise the revenue they need to properly fund local services.

"We don't want a mini-Westminster here. Devolution must not stop here in Holyrood."

Labour's Ken Macintosh said the legislative programme suggests that many on the SNP benches have forgotten there are still 1,000 days left in government.

More work should be done to get young people into work, to improve the college sector and to support small businesses and protect workers, using Holyrood's existing powers, he said.

"I worry that today we are debating a plan from a government with only one objective: independence," he said.

"And in the meantime, Scotland unfortunately is on hold."

Conservative Gavin Brown described the programme as "relatively thin" for a majority government which could make fundamental reforms.

"We now have with the SNP, a zombie government," he told the chamber.

"A government so focused on the referendum campaign, they do the bare minimum to exist as an actual government."

SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said the Government has "a record to be proud of and was still driving forward positively to improve the quality of life for citizens".

He said: "But most importantly of all they have a vision for the future which is about hope, aspiration and taking Scotland forward."

 

 

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