ELECTION rivals clashed on issues from tax to trams at a lively hustings staged for Edinburgh’s business community.
The audience quizzed a cross-party panel of candidates on a wide range of topics, which also included Europe, business rates and the new St James Quarter.
The devolution of power for corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Assembly without a similar transfer to Holyrood sparked a sharp exchange between SNP Edinburgh West candidate Michelle Thomson and Liberal Democrat Mike Crockart, who is standing for re-election in the same seat.
Mr Crockart said: “The difficulty we have getting the tax at the moment when multinational companies can move money around between different jurisdictions is bad enough. If we recreate that on a national basis we would have all sorts of problems.” But Ms Thomson dismissed his answer as “spectacularly poor” and they each accused each other of talking “nonsense”.
Ms Thomson went on: “Competition is at the heart of what we do in running businesses. If multinationals haven’t been terribly well-behaved then it’s been under your watch and you’ve had plenty opportunity to do something about it.”
She asked: “How do we create the means for business to thrive and do well? If they can do it in Northern Ireland and other countries, why on earth can’t we do it here if it gives our small businesses, who are the backbone of our society the opportunity to compete with the vastly overheated south-east of England?”
And she said Scotland should also have control of national insurance to allow employers to take on more people.
Labour’s shadow business minister, Ian Murray, seeking re-election in Edinburgh South, said the UK already had the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7 and if Scotland cut was able to cut it, the UK government would follow suit, prompting a “race to the bottom”.
Asked about whether the St James Quarter was an opportunity or a threat, Conservative Iain McGill, standing in Edinburgh North & Leith, said he thought it would bring investment.
But he added: “I have a concern because Edinburgh has not got a great reputation of project-managing big developments well.
“The trams were absolutely farcical and I do fear they’re going to come down Leith Walk pretty soon.”
Phyl Meyer, Green candidate for Edinburgh South, said big development like the St James should allow a certain amount of space for local businesses through incentives or rates relief and the community should have a say in what sort of businesses they would like to see established.
Mr Murray said the development could be a big benefit, but it had to be thought about carefully.
And he said he hoped the tram would go down Leith Walk. “They have suffered all the pain and they’ve currently got none of the gain.”
Evening News deputy editor Euan McGrory, who was chairing the hustings, called for a show of hands on the issue and the audience backed extending the trams by nearly two to one.
The panel was asked what happened if there was referendum on Europe and Scotland and England voted different ways.
Mr Crockart claimed attitudes in England and Scotland were “pretty close” and said he did not believe the UK would vote to leave the EU.
Mr McGill said it would be healthy to have a vote on EU membership, but he believed a good renegotiation could be secured.
Ms Thomson said the EU was “vitally important” for business and she cited a poll showing 54 per cent support in Scotland for remaining in membership but only 40 per cent in the rest of the UK.
Mr Murray said the EU did need reform but the referendum promise was a political fix for the Tory Party.
“Having an EU referendum in 2017 would be an utter disaster for UK business. If you vote Labour there won’t be a referendum on the EU and the question no longer has to arise,”
Business rates – although a Holyrood matter – also sparked debate, with members of the audience branding the current arrangements “ridiculous”.
Mr Murray said Labour’s policy was to cut them next year and freeze them the year after to allow two years for a full review.
Mr Crockart said the current system was “not fit for purpose”. Ms Thomson agreed business rates did need to be reformed but it had to be seen in the context of the Scottish Government budget being cut by Westminster.
Robison slams rivals’ ‘austerity’
SCOTLAND’S Health Secretary has said voters have to decide between the “progressive politics” of the SNP and the “austerity” of rival parties.
Shona Robison hit out at plans to introduce Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to replace the Disability Living Allowance.
The SNP has proposed a modest increase in public spending to halt the proposals. Ms Robison said: “Disabled people have been singled out for savage cuts, which is simply wrong – those losing out will be worse off by at least £1120 a year. SNP MPs will use our clout in a hung parliament to halt the roll out of the botched reforms which are responsible for these cuts.”