SEVERAL of Alistair Carmichael’s general election rivals have rejected his claim that the Liberal Democrats are best placed to look after low-paid workers – with SNP candidate Danus Skene saying the poorest in society had suffered most at the hands of austerity.
Carmichael, who has served as Orkney and Shetland MP since 2001 and has been a cabinet minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, pointed to his party’s “track record of success” in cutting taxes and raising minimum wage levels for those on low pay.
The Liberal Democrat candidate referred to plans to raise the minimum wage to £8.23 by October 2019 – and said people working 35 hours a week would be £263 better off as a consequence of his party’s plans to increase the tax-free personal income allowance to £12,500.
But Skene said any benefits to the low-paid were more than wiped out by the impact of coalition policies such as raising VAT to 20 per cent and massive cuts in spending on public services and welfare.
The SNP contender said he regarded Carmichael’s decision to back a cut in the upper rate of income tax (paid on earnings above £150,000) from 50p to 45p as “a blemish on his voting record”.
“Why did Alistair vote for the reduction of tax for those at the very top end? Why did he vote for the imposition of the bedroom tax?” Skene asked. “Is it acceptable that the poorest elements in society… are the people who pay for the greed and mistakes of the bankers and the wealthiest in society?
“The lifting of the tax threshold, which is perfectly proper, does not compensate for the effect of cuts in public expenditure which amount to £1,500 for every person in the UK.”
Carmichael said the Lib Dems had “fought hard against the Conservatives” to increase the personal tax allowance, which saw 23,200 workers in the Northern Isles receive an £825 tax cut and took 3,600 workers out of tax altogether.
His party is committed to raising the income tax-free allowance to £11,000 by April 2016 and subsequently to £12,500. That would deliver an extra £400 tax cut for full time workers by 2020.
“Everyone knows the best route out of poverty is getting people into work, ensuring they are paid a decent wage and allowing them to keep more of the money they earn,” he said.
“In government my Liberal Democrat colleague, Ed Davey, won accreditation for his department as a living wage employer – still the only government department to do so.”
Carmichael added that his party would “continue to follow a balanced and fair economic plan”, whereas “Labour and the SNP offer more borrowing and economic uncertainty – the nationalists’ plans for full fiscal autonomy would create a £40 billion black hole in public finances, which is hardly likely to help low-paid workers or public services in Scotland”.
But Skene said the SNP was committed to ending austerity by investing in public services and capital spending to stimulate economic growth and tackle the deficit.
“This is straightforward, long-proven Keynesian economics,” he said. “Now is the time to invest in the economy. This is not a question of reckless borrowing. [Nicola] Sturgeon is talking about really very small adjustments that makes paying off the deficit possible.”
Labour’s Orkney and Shetland hopeful Gerry McGarvey said he was disappointed that Carmichael’s party was “still peddling the myth that their plan to address the economic crisis has been balanced and fair”.
“I do not call it balanced and fair that the weak, poor, vulnerable and disabled people have been paying the price for his plan, a plan which has not achieved all he and his coalition colleagues promised. A plan that has failed.”
McGarvey continued: “Labour offers a costed plan that involves the redistribution of the burden, and a redistribution of wealth with the wealthiest beginning to pay their share. That is what I and Scottish Labour call balanced and fair.”
Tory candidate Donald Cameron said it was the Conservatives, at the forefront of the coalition government, who made the “tough but necessary decisions to return us to financial security and ensure that in 2014 Britain was the fastest growing major economy”.
“There are more people in work than ever before; the deficit has halved; and for every lost public sector job in Scotland, three private sector jobs have been created. And only yesterday when launching the Conservative manifesto, David Cameron promised that everyone who earns less than £12,500 will be taken out of income tax, whilst at the same time pledging to legislate that nobody working 30 hours per week on the minimum wage pays income tax on what they earn.”
UKIP candidate Robert Smith said it was “a bit rich for the Lib Dems to claim to be helping those on minimum wage and quote none other than Ed Davey as being some sort of saviour”.
He described Davey as “the very man who helped throw millions into poverty under the heel of the climate change act which he vigorously supported as energy and climate change minister”.
Meanwhile, Carmichael challenged Skene to “come clean” on whether his party plans to hold another independence referendum. It came after SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stopped short of entirely ruling out including a second referendum in the party’s 2016 Scottish election manifesto.
“The SNP are still struggling to accept the decisive vote in last year’s referendum,” Carmichael said, “but it’s high time they accepted the wishes of the majority of Scots who do not want another referendum in the near future.”
Explicitly framing the contest for the Northern Isles seat as a two-horse race, he said “the choice in Orkney and Shetland is now between the SNP and the Liberal Democrats”.
“We know Danus Skene is not allowed to challenge anything his own party says, so he should tell us now what he thinks before SNP policy is fixed and he is bound by it.”
Skene told Shetland News the election was “not a replay of the referendum” but was about Scottish voters having a strong voice in the Westminster parliament.
He said Sturgeon had been abundantly clear that “the only grounds for proposing another referendum would be if there was a significant change in Scotland’s constitutional relationship” – for instance if the Tories win power and go ahead with their plans for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
“If these idiots go for an EU referendum… that is a trigger,” Skene continued. “I genuinely don’t think that is going to happen. I would be quite surprised if anything happens in the next 12 months to get a further referendum into the 2016 manifesto.”
The SNP hopeful said that, while the speed at which the Smith Commission document offering further devolution to Scotland was published “remarkable”, it did not produce a “stable” outcome.
He rejected Carmichael’s claim that it was a “settlement built to last” because it will not leave Scotland responsible for raising all the money it spends, and because it introduces a “sheer muddle” by dividing responsibility for the benefits system between Edinburgh and London. Skene predicts that will “create mayhem”.
“The immediate short term is to get everything that was agreed in Smith, even though that is a pale copy of what Gordon Brown was jumping up and down about”, before pushing for “proper Home Rule” including full control over Scotland’s economic levers.
Carmichael said the SNP’s stance on a future referendum “really matters because during the referendum we know the SNP took their eye off the ball. As a result, public services were neglected – the NHS in Orkney and Shetland was underfunded by £1.5 million this year.”
Asked to address that specific point, Skene said NHS Shetland chairman Ian Kinniburgh had been able to give a “detailed rebuttal to this accusation”.
“Shetland residents are supported by bigger per capita spending due to demographics and the cost of getting services here,” he added. “So it is about the implementation of the formulae which give us, per capita, more than an equal share. Ian Kinniburgh made the point that this has been satisfactorily and fairly implemented.”