Nicola Sturgeon has insisted there is no delay in the transfer of welfare powers to Holyrood, despite being accused by the Tories of performing a “massive screeching U-turn” on the timetable for taking responsibility for some benefits.
Ruth Davidson pressed the First Minister on the issue after reports that the UK Government may continue to administer some benefits for several years after legislative control for them is passed to the Scottish Government.
The Conservative leader accused Ms Sturgeon, who took on the job of First Minister two years ago, of leading a Government that is “dithering, not delivering” for Scotland.
Ms Davidson quoted the official report from the Scottish Parliament from November 27 2014, when the First Minister was recorded as stating: “I say genuinely to all parties as a Parliament, ask the Westminster Government to transfer the powers as soon as possible.”
But the Tory leader insisted the official report from this session of First Minister’s Questions would say: “Massive screeching U-turn, wait three more years”.
Ms Sturgeon told her: “There is no delay on transferring welfare powers, we have to build a system to ensure we can safely and securely deliver welfare powers.”
She said that would be done “on the timetable we have always said”, and when the Scottish Social Security Agency is up and running her Government would “take better decisions on welfare” than the Conservative administration at Westminster.
The SNP leader continued: “On welfare, what Ruth Davidson apparently appears to be saying is we should take responsibility for delivering disability benefits, carer’s allowance and other important benefits before we have the system in place to actually ensure these benefits can be put into people’s hands or bank accounts.
“She may want to act irresponsibly in that respect but I am going to act responsibly so we can have in Scotland – not for the entirety of welfare unfortunately but for those benefits that are going to be devolved – we can have a fair, humane and dignified welfare system, and how much of a difference will that be to the one that is being presided over by the Conservatives in London right now.”
Ms Davidson used the second anniversary of Ms Sturgeon becoming First Minister to press her over “delay” on a range of issues.
As well as accusing ministers of stalling on the transfer of welfare powers, she also hit out at the time taken for a decision to be made on the future of a primary school.
The parents of pupils at St Joseph’s Primary in Milngavie are seeking to take over the running of the school themselves, after East Dunbartonshire Council decided to close it.
And after an SNP MSP submitted a motion to the Scottish Parliament on the design of Toblerone chocolate bars, the Conservative leader said: “There’s your modern SNP – need a complaint on the size of a chocolate bar they’re right on it, but a decision on a school, wait two years for a decision on a school.”
The First Minister responded: “Let’s not ignore one important fact I know Ruth Davidson will not want to share with the chamber – the reason we’ve been talking about St Joseph’s is that Conservative councillors in that council voted to close St Joseph’s.
“So let me get this right. Ruth Davidson’s approach is that Conservative councillors vote to close schools and then she comes and looks to the Scottish Government to clear up their mess. That clearly is Ruth Davidson’s approach to politics.”
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs a consultation over the governance of schools is under way “where we are specifically looking at how we change the balance of responsibility in education to move to a presumption of decisions being taken in schools”.
She continued: “And the decision on St Joseph’s will be taken in the context of that governance review. That is the right and proper way to do things, not doing what Ruth Davidson is appearing to do today, to turn a blind eye to what her Conservative councillors are doing and then come and ask the Scottish Government to clear up their mess.”
The First Minister was also questioned on how her Government will spend more than £200 million coming to Scotland as a result of the UK apprenticeship levy.
Ms Davidson said industry bodies in Scotland have accused the First Minister of a “leadership vacuum on this issue”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “There is no delay whatsoever, the UK Government decided to introduce the apprenticeship levy without consulting the Scottish Government in any way, shape or form. So we’ve been waiting to find out their plans.
“We have, as Ruth Davidson is aware, been consulting with employers and others about how we best use the apprenticeship levy. The detail of that will be made clear when we publish the budget in a few weeks’ time.”
She also stressed: “While it is important that we use this money, and we will use this money, to support skills and training and employment in Scotland, this is not additional money, the apprenticeship levy is substituting for money that the UK Government was previously using to support apprenticeships. It’s not additional money, it comes through the block grant and it will be replacing money that previously came through the block grant.
“But that said we will make sure we use this money to support training and skills in Scotland. That’s exactly what people would expect us to do.”