Ian Murray: Use Scotland Bill power to create fairer society

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LAST week, Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale MSP, kickstarted the year with a speech announcing a radical policy to help first time buyers get on the property ladder. This policy announcement was possible by utilising the new powers being transferred to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Bill. These powers afford considerable opportunities to those that wield them. In fact, the Scotland Bill will transform the Scottish Parliament into one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.

If Scotland’s politicians use these new powers to their full potential, we can create a fairer, more equal and more progressive society; a society in which where you come from does not determine where you can go.

That is the kind of Scotland I want to see. In order to achieve it, a Scottish Labour government would maximise this by using the new tax powers coming to Scotland to generate additional funds to improve educational outcomes for some of our poorest children. This will not only be transformative for those children but benefit Scotland’s economy.

The last Labour government introduced a 50p additional rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 a year. We did so because we understand that it is morally right and economically practical to ask those who have the most to bear a greater share of the burden when resources are scarce.

The Conservative government scrapped the 50p rate, but from 2017, under the new devolved powers, the Scottish Parliament will have the power to reintroduce it. While the impact on the incomes of those affected will be marginal, the effect on the life chances of those who will benefit could be revolutionary.

At present, children from wealthier backgrounds consistently perform better academically than their less prosperous peers. This is known as the educational attainment gap, and has grown wider under the SNP Government. The practical effect of this gap is that while some primary school leavers are set fair for high school and subsequently, university, others – six thousand, in fact – are unable to read and write properly. As I am sure most fair minded people will agree, a system that allows such disparities is deeply flawed.

The SNP says that tacking the educational gap is a priority; but they have been in power for nine years and have done precious little about it. In fact, they have just cut school budgets again.

A Scottish Labour government would make other choices to make a lasting difference. Rather than cutting budgets we would create funds by reintroducing the 50p rate, and using the additional revenues to establish a Fair Start Fund, providing £1000 of extra money for every pupil from a poorer background. This money would go directly to headteachers and they would decide how best to deploy it.

The SNP will always blame Westminster and say they have no choice, but we say there is nothing inevitable about merely managing Conservative austerity. A Scottish Labour government will not tolerate a society in which the destiny of our children is defined at birth. Instead, let’s leave the old arguments behind, challenge today’s issues directly and create tomorrow’s Scotland by using the new powers at our disposal to take meaningful action. That would open new avenues of opportunity for children, ensuring a better future for them, their families, Edinburgh communities and, indeed, for Scotland.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all readers.

• Ian Murray is Labour MP for Edinburgh South