Scottish health secretary Nicola Sturgeon has urged MSPs to reject controversial plans to reform welfare benefits in Scotland. This would be the first time the Scottish Parliament has exercised its power of veto over legislation proposed by Westminster.
IndependenceSturgeon's comments came on the day SNP leader Alex Salmond welcomed civil service boss Sir Gus O'Donnell's views that the UK faces "enormous challenges" if Scotland gained independence.
In his final interview before retiring after 32 years at the civil service, the UK's top civil servant told The Daily Telegraph that the potential break-up of the Union would be the biggest political dilemma for the UK government in the future.
Salmond praised Sir Gus as a "model civil servant" who had been "extremely fair in recognising and respecting the democratic mandate" of the Scottish independence movement. The SNP has promised to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by 2016.
Welfare reformUnder the welfare reform bill, the universal credit system will be implemented which cements the means-tested approach to awarding social benefit payments. It will also affect those who receive contributory benefits and introduce restrictions on contributory employment and support allowances in work-related activity groups.
Sturgeon has argued that the Scottish Parliament should be allowed to legislate on the areas which affect devolved powers, such as school meals and disability driving badges.
Widespread supportThe most recent poll by research agency ComRes showed that 39% of the UK public overall agreed that Scotland should be an independent country. ?In Scotland, 49% of those surveyed supported independence, while 37% disagreed.
Tony Blair set up the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and since then, the debate on whether devolution should lead to full independence has raged on both sides of the border. During Gordon Brown's tenure at the Treasury, expenditure increased by 50% in real terms in the first seven years of the restored parliament. However this has saddled the Scottish Parliament with a dependence on high public spending.
Advocates for Scotland's freedom cite the tax revenues generated by North Sea oil reserves and the future promotion of renewable energy as its core advantages.
According to John Swinney, the SNP finance minister, his administration has already reduced the number of public bodies by 25% and had started a regime of cost cutting and budget reallocation before the UK's Coalition introduced its austerity plans.