Iain Gray: ‘Labour not opposed to council tax freeze’

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Labour’s Holyrood leader Iain Gray has created confusion over his party’s stance on council tax by admitting that Labour are not opposed to the idea of a freeze.

The man who will next year vie with Alex Salmond for the role of First Minister of Scotland appeared to support a national freeze in principle arguing only that it needed to be funded properly.

In an unimpressive interview that would have worried party aids Mr Gray also appeared to undermine recent comments from his health spokesperson Jackie Baillie by backing the SNP policy of removing prescription charges.

The leader of Labour’s Holyrood group was speaking on Radio Scotland yesterday when he was asked about his party’s stance in many areas including council tax and prescription charges.

On the council tax freeze Mr Gray revealed: “We’ve never been opposed to the idea of a council tax freeze…”

Mr Gray added: “A national freeze has to be properly funded, if that’s not the case then the consequences will be serious.”

The admission from the Labour leader that his party has no objection in principle to a freeze is at odds with recent comments from senior Scottish Labour figures who have attacked the SNP’s proposed freeze saying that it is undemocratic and benefits the rich.

Mr Gray was then asked whether he supported the SNP’s policy of removing prescription charges and answered: “Prescription charges? – yeh”.

This unambiguous backing for one of the SNP’s key election pledges will come as a shock to his health spokesperson Jackie Baillie who only last week had attacked the SNP plan saying:

“We need to seriously consider if this is the right priority at this time.”
 
Ms Baillie had added: “This policy will cost £40 million – that is 1,500 nurses that won’t be in Scottish hospitals next year.”

The interview heard a halting Mr Gray defend UK Labour’s term in office explaining that whoever was in power would have had to deal the global banking crisis.  Mr Gray also attacked John Swinney for delaying the Scottish government’s proposed budget until the UK cuts had been announced.

Labour’s  Holyrood leader also appeared to both back John Swinney’s estimation of the cuts and disagree with it.

Mr Gray said:
“This is typical of John Swinney, every time there’s a budget or a spending review John tries to produce figures which show its worse than everybody else says”

Mr Gray then said: “John Swinney has an estimate of the figures, that estimate was relatively close to the position we’ve ended up in”

Mr Gray conceded that the Scottish government faced a “very, very significant cut in the resources available to the Scottish government” and added: “Perhaps the capital budget is a little worse than they were saying, the revenue budget is perhaps a little better”.

The Labour group leader also revealed that he agreed with the SNP’s stance on many key areas including the NHS, pay restraint, and free bus travel although he did claim that Alex Salmond’s pledge on a living wage did not go far enough.

Here is Mr Gray’s interview:

Meanwhile:
SNP Treasury Spokesman, Stewart Hosie MP, has stepped up his warning that the UK Government’s planned 25% cut to Scotland’s capital expenditure budget next year alone puts at risk the economic recovery that is underway in Scotland.

During the CSR, the Chancellor announced a £1.3 billion pounds cut to Scotland’s overall budget in cash terms in 2011/12 compared to 2010/11 – including a fall of £800m pounds in the capital budget, which exceeds expectations, and alone threatens 12,000 jobs in Scotland.

Mr Hosie also noted the Chancellor had broken an election promise after it emerged that the NHS capital budget for England is being cut by 17% in real terms over the spending review period, despite the Con/Dem pledge to ‘protect the NHS’.

Commenting, Mr Hosie said:

“Scotland’s economy grew faster than the UK as a whole in the second quarter of 2010 – the highest growth for four years – but the Tories and LibDems threaten to throttle Scottish recovery with these huge cuts to capital expenditure.

“The latest GDP figures show the Scottish Government were right to accelerate capital expenditure to fund building projects.  Scotland’s economy grew by 1.3% in the second quarter – with a strong 10.4% rise in construction, driven by the Scottish Government’s infrastructure investment.

“Recovery is literally being built in Scotland – but the Tories and Lib Dems are taking the wrecking ball to it.

“In their coalition agreement, the Tories and Lib Dems vowed to protect the NHS budget but the small print of the Spending Review tells a different story with a 17% cut to NHS capital budgets over the review period.  This broken promise means a knock-on effect for Scotland through the Barnet formula – one reason why the capital budget hit in Scotland is bigger than expected.

“The events of recent days underline why the Scottish Parliament must have the same financial and economic powers of other nations, so that we can grow our economy and revenues as the only alternative to a decade or more of Westminster-dictated cuts.”