Top politicians clash at ICAS Election Debate
Tax, scrutiny and skills among key issues at the ICAS Big Scottish Election Debate in Edinburgh.
Representatives of the main parties contesting the Scottish Parliamentary Elections found common ground at the ICAS Big Scottish Election Debate on the need for a strong focus on education and skills, better digital infrastructure and a vibrant economy, but on little else.
Contrasting views on tax and spending, and on the best way to hold the Scottish Government to account, were among the main issues in the debate, held at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel on Wednesday evening (20 April).
The panel, under the chairmanship of journalist and author David Torrance, were: Deputy First Minister John Swinney of the Scottish National Party; Scottish Green Party Co-Convener Patrick Harvie; Scottish Conservative Murdo Fraser; Alex Cole-Hamilton of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Labour MP and Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray.
[I would like to] express my thanks to ICAS members and the organisation for the involvement it’s taken in the formulation of the devolved taxes...and some of the wider policy input...” John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Finance Secretary
Speaking to a packed auditorium of CAs and guests, Anton said: “We are looking for a business environment which will allow an improved economy and a fairer Scotland to actually happen.”
With new powers to set income tax rates and bands, as well as other devolved tax powers, it was not surprising that tax played a key role in the discussion.
Patrick Harvie said the Scottish Green Party advocated splitting the basic rate of income tax in two, so that nobody earning below the average wage – £26,500 – would be worse off, while those earning above that would pay at a higher rate.
He said that there was too much focus on GDP growth, rather than on other measures of economic wellbeing, adding, “growth is not the be-all and end-all”.
He also argued: “Tax is not just about raising revenue, it is about ensuring that wealth of the country is distributed more fairly.”
Murdo Fraser, former convener of Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, disagreed, and told the audience: “The Conservatives do not want to see the tax burden in Scotland raised above that of the rest of the UK.”
He said that too many middle earners were being dragged into the 40p tax bracket and added that business rates should be frozen just as council tax has been.
Scottish Government Finance Secretary John Swinney said that the SNP’s approach is to use revenue to support investment – investment in young people, through education, and investment in infrastructure.
He said: “We are determined to use the resources of Scotland, and the powers of the Scottish Parliament, to tackle inequality; create a stronger economy with greater engagement and participation; improve productivity; and as a result, increase tax revenues available to the Parliament.”
He said that the SNP would raise extra revenue by not implementing Chancellor George Osborne’s move to raise the threshold for the higher rate tax bracket by more than inflation, and added: “We shouldn’t be frightened of taking a different stance on tax from the rest of the UK.”
Both Alex Cole-Hamilton, for the Lib Dems, and Labour’s Ian Murray argued for a bolder approach. They wanted to see income tax increased to pay for investment in education and to offset austerity.
Ian Murray said: “We can’t go on salami-slicing public services… what is the point of arguing strongly for new powers for the Scottish Parliament, only to say ‘Let’s not use them’?”
Alex Cole-Hamilton, a former policy adviser, said: “The Lib Dems are committed… to tackling the crisis in education which has seen Scotland slip down the world education rankings from excellent to average. We need to act early and intervene to help struggling children at an early age; to introduce a pupil premium; and to reverse the loss of 152,000 college places under the SNP.”
The panel also discussed: how to improve scrutiny of the public finances; how to wean Scotland from its dependence on oil revenue; and how to encourage more digital champions.
On the former question, both Ian Murray and Murdo Fraser pointed out that, with no revising chamber in the Scottish Parliament, having a government majority on all the parliamentary committees did not help to hold the Government to account. Ian Murray added that he would like to see a Scottish Office for Budget Responsibility.
John Swinney suggested the idea of elected committee conveners for the Parliament should be explored.
On oil dependency, all the panelists agreed that the Scottish economy needs to be rebalanced. Patrick Harvie stressed that over-reliance on fossil fuels had been a mistake by successive UK governments, and said that more needed to be done to ensure that Scottish businesses had the capacity to meet the demand for decommissioning offshore facilities.
On the subject of encouraging “digital champions”, there was consensus both on the need to continue the roll-out of high-speed broadband through Scotland, and in the appreciation of the work of non-government bodies such as Entrepreneurial Spark in encouraging new tech start-ups.