By Willie Rennie

This year for the first time new tax powers, set out by the Calman Commission and delivered by the UK and Scottish governments, are available to John Swinney as he sets his budget.

This has meant that, for the first time, questions over how we raise the money that is spent on public services in Scotland have been to the fore; no longer do we only debate how to spend the money granted to us but we also must debate whether we wish to tax more or less too.

Over the past few weeks the difference between the parties has come into sharp contrast. The SNP has announced that local authorities will face another £500 million in cuts that will hammer education budgets and put more pressure on teachers and schools.

But at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday last week, Nicola Sturgeon refused to even consider using the income tax powers to remove the threat.

As it was a Liberal Democrat Secretary of State who delivered these new tax powers, it is perhaps not surprising that we were the first to propose using them to transform education in Scotland. By putting a penny for education onto income tax bands, we would raise £475 million a year.

This would allow us to repair the cuts to colleges, stop the cuts to schools, match the pupil premium policy that has been successful in England in closing the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and poorest backgrounds and increase entitlement to free nursery care for families.

Our approach on tax and spend is consistent with our approach in coalition government with the Conservatives. Unlike the Scottish Government, that government protected the budgets of schools and the NHS. No-one will be surprised that we wanted to spend more on public services than the Conservatives. That was our approach at the General Election where we argued that the Conservatives’ plans for cuts were draconian.

In government, we held the Tories back from doing their worst, which is something that is abundantly clear to everyone now that they govern on their own.

Increases to the personal allowance, championed by Liberal Democrats in government, mean that we can make this transformation in education without hitting the poorest Scots. The SNP opposed these changes in Holyrood and Westminster so its claims to be the defenders of the low paid is a pretty hollow claim. As a result of our tax measures to protect working people, anyone earning less than £19,000 will still pay less tax next year than they have this year under our penny-for-education plan. Meanwhile, those at the top will pay 30 times more than someone on the median wage of around £21,000. This is a fair and progressive measure.

The Labour Party has also suggested using the Calman powers this year to spend on local authority funding. I welcome their contribution. There is a growing consensus that this is the right thing to do.

The reaction from the SNP and the Tories to the LibDem plans has verged on the hysterical. I have been branded a “tax grabber” and been lectured by Nicola Sturgeon in terms that Margaret Thatcher would have endorsed.

This reaction gives the lie to any claims from the SNP that they are the champions of progressive politics in Scotland. It has been clear for some time that the First Minister and her colleagues have made a habit of talking Left but walking Right. Their failure to protect education is the clearest example yet of their doublespeak in action.

US Vice-President Joe Biden once said: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” By these standards, it is impossible for the First Minister to argue credibly that she values education.

The situation in education is so serious that a failure to act would have terrible consequences for children. We need to act now, and we have the powers we need to do so.

For the last five years we have been told repeatedly by the SNP that Scotland needs new tax powers because of Tory austerity. Well, now Scotland has tax powers yet Ms Sturgeon is refusing to use them. It is time that she started delivering on her anti-austerity rhetoric. A penny for education would be a good start.