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Industry leaders want more detail on independence 'business plan'

Independence White Paper 'not a business plan' but a 'political manifesto' says Icas chief.

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Leading figures in tax and finance have called for more detail from the Scottish Government on its business plan for independence.

The SNP administration's formal document, known as a White Paper, was described as more of a political manifesto than a detailed route map.

Concern was also raised about the clarity of its statements on tax policy.

A range of views, supportive and critical, were heard at a conference set up to look at what the paper means for business, one week after it was unveiled by First Minister Alex Salmond.

Atholl Duncan, executive director at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (Icas), said: "Accountants want to see the evidence. They want to see the numbers; it's in their DNA.

"So as a political document, the White Paper may be deemed by some to be excellent. That's for others to judge. But it's not a business plan, it's a political manifesto."

He questioned central SNP proposals such as growing the economy by cutting corporation tax.

There is "political wriggle-room" in statements about a "timetable" to cutting the rate by up to 3p, he said.

"The White Paper says this will create 27,000 jobs, but lower corporate taxes are not necessarily the main driver. There are many other factors which influence corporate decision making about where people will locate and create jobs.

"That's why we see a corporate tax rate of 30% in Germany and yet it's one of the UK's main competitors for inward investment.

"While lower corporate taxes are a good thing, they don't on their own create thousands of jobs."

It is not certain that the EU or rest of UK would "allow" such a cut in a currency union, he said.

"Our conclusion is that the White Paper gives us more detail but perhaps, as you'd expect from a document of this size, it raises many, many new questions," he said, insisting his organisation will remain neutral in the debate.

David Glen, a tax expert at PWC Scotland, said the wording could be clearer in the White Paper.

"This is one of these points when you look at the White Paper there's a certain level of detail, but perhaps it doesn't go to the level of detail that we all might want," he said.

"You can perhaps understand that; we're three years away. Is anyone going to lay down hard and fast policies?"

But certain phrases, particularly on taxation, require further explanation, he said.

Mr Glen drew attention to a pledge that there will be no need for Scotland to raise the general rate of taxation to fund existing levels of spending.

"What does general rate of taxation mean? Is it basic rate? Is it average rate?" he asked.

"Don't assume your tax is going to stay exactly the same. I think that insinuates that overall it might be the same but there might be some rebalancing throughout."

David Watt, executive director of the Institute of Directors in Scotland, said Unionist political parties have a responsibility to set out what will happen if voters reject independence.

"I'd like to see what they're planning for the Scottish economy," he said.

"There is a bit of a democratic deficit, and it's hard to argue with that in the White Paper, but that's not our concern. Our concern is not about politics, it's about business. There's a business deficit because one side of the argument is not giving us any alternative at the moment.

"No matter how flawed you may believe this White Paper is, you've got to have some other opportunities, and there's very little on that side of the case at the moment."

It is "worrying" that the debate may be based on whether people in Scotland want another UK Tory government, he said.

The White Paper, which runs to around 670 pages, sets out the SNP administration's aims for negotiating terms after a Yes vote on September 18 next year.

It also indicates what an SNP Government would do if elected as the first government of a newly independent country in 2016, with pledges to increase free childcare, scrap the so-called bedroom tax and remove Trident nuclear missiles from Scotland.

Critics say the paper is an uncosted wish-list which fails to answer the big questions on major change.

There is no guarantee that Scotland could keep sterling as currency and questions remain about how hard it will be to renegotiate terms for EU membership, opponents argue.

Finance Secretary John Swinney was among the speakers at the conference, hosted by The Scotsman newspaper. He pressed the case for independence based on a sterling currency zone with the rest of the UK.

"What we have set out is a proposition that enables us to establish a clear and firm sterling zone between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom that enables Scotland to exercise the type of economic and fiscal discretion of a greater extent than is able to be achieved at the present time," he said.

On the EU, he said: "I think it is inconceivable that the EU would seek to do anything other than welcome the five million citizens of Scotland who are already members of the European Union by virtue of our participation in the United Kingdom. Anything else would be essentially an absurd act to be taken in the face of a democratic decision by the people of Scotland."

Phil Anderton, a board member of Better Together, said "canny Scots" decided after 1707 that the Union would open doors to business. The advantages of the UK have been exploited ever since, he told the audience.

"Welcome to the real world of business where there are no wish-lists, there are no assumptions and there are no half-truths," he said.

"What we are talking about is the future of the United Kingdom and Scotland. It's a debate about the governance of this country, not about short-term party political pledges that we hear so often."

In the UK, Scotland enjoys easy access to its biggest market, it has direct power, shared infrastructure, and economies of scale, he concluded.

"If we were back in the boardroom and it was Scottish businesses reviewing the plans, I think they'd say this is a good plan for Scotland," he said.

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