David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband before the Queen's Speech on June 4, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Party leaders unite to promise more powers for Scotland

Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems issue joint declaration on "further strengthening" the Scottish Parliament. 

There is no majority for Scottish independence, a situation that is unlikely to change before next month's referendum, but the polls have long shown popular support for greater powers to be transferred to Holyrood. With this in mind, and ahead of tonight's TV debate between Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond, the three main party leaders and their Scottish equivalents have united to promise further devolution in the event of a No vote. 

Here's the joint declaration they've just released:

Power lies with the Scottish people and we believe it is for the Scottish people to decide how Scotland is governed. 

 

We believe that the pooling and sharing of resources across the United Kingdom is to Scotland's benefit in a partnership of nations in which distinct national identities can flourish and be celebrated. 

 

We believe that Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole have been strengthened since the advent of devolution. 

 

We support a strong Scottish Parliament in a strong United Kingdom and we support the further strengthening of the Parliament's powers. 

 

The three parties delivered more powers for Holyrood through the Calman Commission which resulted in the Scotland Act 2012. 

 

We now pledge to strengthen further the powers of the Scottish Parliament, in particular in the areas of fiscal responsibility and social security. We believe that Scotland should have a stronger Scottish Parliament while retaining full representation for Scotland in the UK Parliament. That can bring people together from all of Scotland, from civic society and every community. 

 

The Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have each produced our own visions of the new powers which the Scottish Parliament needs. 

 

We shall put those visions before the Scottish people at the next general election and all three parties guarantee to start delivering more powers for the Scottish Parliament as swiftly as possible in 2015.

 

This commitment will deliver a stronger Scottish Parliament in a stronger United Kingdom.

 

Signed by:

 

Johann Lamont, Leader of the Scottish Labour Party

 

Ruth Davidson, Leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party

 

Willie Rennie, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

 

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party

 

David Cameron, Leader of the Conservative Party

The move is designed to counter the nationalist claim that the only way to guarantee new powers for the Scottish Parliament is to vote for independence. In this respect, it is the reverse of the intervention launched by the economic spokesmen of the three main parties earlier this year when they announced that the UK would deny an independent Scotland permission to use the pound. Having focused on what the country couldn't do after separation (resulting in a largely negative tone), the leaders are now emphasising what it could do as part of the union. 

The Yes campaign will undoubtedly reject their words as too vague (and there are significant divisions between the parties over how far future devolution should go), while others will question why this positive message wasn't delivered earlier in the campaign. But as Darling prepares for what will be a testing debate with Salmond, their intervention will help to shore up his position. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.