Scotland politics

Lib Dems back welfare devolution

alistair carmichael and willie rennie Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Carmichael and Mr Rennie have been addressing Lib Dem delegates

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have given their backing to the transfer of powers over welfare to the Scottish Parliament.

The party had previously argued that full powers over welfare should remain at Westminster.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said he had asked his Smith Commission team to explore the transfer of a major package of welfare powers.

He was speaking at the party's autumn conference in Dunfermline.

The party is currently taking part in the Smith Commission on devolution, which is due to report next week.

Ahead of September's independence referendum, a Lib Dem commission headed by former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell had proposed allowing Holyrood to raise and spend most of its own taxes and borrow on its own terms under the party's "home rule" vision, which would create a federal UK.

But the commission also said it did not believe welfare and pensions should be devolved, and instead endorsed "the retention of a single United Kingdom welfare and pensions system, supporting free movement and residency across the United Kingdom with a common set of living standards and entitlements".

However, Mr Rennie told the conference he had "reviewed" the Campbell commission in light of the referendum.

He said he had been impressed by evidence on the issue put forward by civic groups to the Smith Commission.

Image caption Delegates have been attending the party's autumn conference

Mr Rennie said: "We have seen the weight of submissions from a wide range of charities and experts.

"We have heard about the way that caring services and benefits to people in need could be linked to their advantage in Scotland."

He added: "We know it could mean more decisions can be made here whilst sharing risk and reward with the United Kingdom.

"And I am persuaded by the case for change. It is consistent with our liberal values.

"It reflects the debate in the referendum. And, if we are successful, it will be good for Scotland.

"With good will and effort we will have an agreement next week that we can all be proud of, that meets the expectations and the spirit of the referendum and which can shape Scotland for the better."

The Lib Dem move could enhance the prospect that the Smith Commission will sanction substantial change, BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor said.

It will mean all of the five parties involved in the commission - SNP, Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems and Greens - backed at least some welfare powers being handed to Holyrood.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dem conference has heard a call from Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael for new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to stop the "excuses and the blame game" and take action to tackle inequality.

In his speech to conference he claimed that despite seven-and-a-half years in government with the SNP, Ms Sturgeon has failed to address the problem.

Image caption The one-day conference is taking place in Dunfermline

While Ms Sturgeon has often raised the issue of inequality, the UK government minister said she needs to "move on from words and on to governing".

Mr Carmichael said that the new SNP leader's "commitment to people in Scotland will be measured by her willingness to act" on issues such as inequality, health, justice and transport, and not on "manoeuvring for a second referendum that implies people were too stupid to get the answer right first time".

He told delegates: "On childcare, on housing, on health, the Scottish government has levers it could've pulled. But they chose not to."

"Now that Nicola is in charge, the excuses and the blame game really must stop. As first minister, the priorities are hers to set and the levers are hers to pull.

"If she wants to address inequality, the time is now and the clock is ticking."

Mr Carmichael said that action was also needed on roads, the justice system, the NHS, and mental health services.

And he predicted the Smith Commission could lead to a "further move towards our vision of home rule for Scotland within our shared United Kingdom".

He added: "More powers are coming. On tax, on welfare, on whichever new powers are devolved, the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish government, will have increased ability to act, enhanced accountability to the Scottish people, and the chance to change Scotland for good."

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