Scotland politics

Scots parties at Holyrood clash over pensions

The Scottish government has accused UK ministers of "threatening" behaviour and conducting a "cash grab" on public sector pensions.

The comments came during a debate at the Scottish Parliament, as 300,000 Scots workers went on strike over planned changes.

Tories and Lib Dems said the SNP had opted to make the reforms, rather than being forced to.

Labour and Green MSPs did not attend the debate.

Members of the two parties refused to cross a picket line at Holyrood.

Outside the parliament, an estimated 7,000 public sector workers marched by the building and held a rally.

The day of strike action, which came on St Andrew's Day, caused widespread disruption to services, with most schools closed for the day and thousands of NHS appointments cancelled.

It was staged in response to UK government plans on increasing the amount of money public sector workers pay into their pension, raise the age of retirement and introduce career-average pensions.

With severe public spending cuts under way and people living longer, the Westminster coalition has said the changes were needed to stop the pension system going broke.

Mr Swinney, who said he did not support the strike action, told parliament: "The government's concern is that the short-term cash grab by the UK government has undermined the opportunity to secure agreement around affordable, sustainable and fair public sector pensions."

The Scottish government previously asked the Treasury to delay the increase in public sector contributions until a pay freeze was lifted.

That prompted a warning from Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander that every month's delay in implementing the increase would lead to an £8.4m reduction in the Scottish government's budget.

Mr Swinney said: "The Scottish government believes there is a legitimate debate to be had on the sustainability of public sector pensions, but that must be undertaken in a considered way, by dialogue and discussion, not by the type of threatening behaviour we have had from the United Kingdom [government]."

But Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said Scottish ministers had chosen the same route as the UK government.

"Public sector workers got letters from the Scottish government increasing their contributions the same as across the rest of Britain," he told the chamber.

"The Scottish government could have opted to allow people to make the same contributions, but they did not."

Mr Rennie told MSPs: "We've been hearing for weeks that somehow the Scottish government were standing up against the UK government.

"They're not. They're doing exactly the same as the UK government."

Tory MSP Gavin Brown claimed the Scottish government's thinking on pension reform would have left people worse off.

He said a paper produced by the Scottish Public Pensions Agency for the Hutton pension review outlined a series of options.

These included, said Mr Brown, keeping a final salary scheme but reducing benefits, a career average scheme, which was "pretty much" what the UK government was gong ahead with, and a defined contribution scheme, "because it removes the employers risk and places the risk of uncertainty over the value of their final pension with the member".

Image caption Labour and Green MSPs refused to cross a picket line to attend the debate

Mr Brown argued the UK approach was based on "fairness and sustainability" and said of SNP ministers: "They criticise the UK government proposals, but their own proposals go much further than that."

Mr Swinney said the Scottish government had not made a submission to the Hutton inquiry.

Scotland Office Minister David Mundell said: "The Scottish government has played fast and loose on the pensions issue and need to be straight with Scotland rather than continuing to pretend it has no responsibility for the situation.

"It also needs to answer exactly how secure pensions would be under independence, especially since it has been so slow to explain how they would be funded.

"They have made a convenient habit of blaming Westminster for having to implement the pensions changes but that is simply not the case.

"The cost of public pensions in Scotland, apart from those for local government, are met by the UK government. They are paid on demand and all the costs are met by Westminster."

More on this story