Plans for expanding the powers of the Scottish Parliament have developed rapidly since the Scottish referendum. Jim Gallagher takes advantage of the pause afforded by Parliament’s summer recess to take stock of the Scotland Bill’s progress, and consider the stability of increased decentralisation in the longer term.
Parliament’s summer recess is a good time to catch breath and reflect on the breakneck process of the Scotland Bill. This is constitutional legislation, but proceeding at the speed of an express train.
Express delivery of new powers for the Scottish Parliament was promised during the referendum campaign. The pro-union parties promised – in what was to become the Smith commission – to agree plans in very short order; then they made ‘The Vow’ about what those plans would contain (in, of all places, the Daily Record). The timetable demanded draft legislation before the general election, and a bill introduced immediately thereafter. All of this has duly happened.
The Scotland Bill is very similar to the pre-election draft, with changes to address points of criticism. It is faithful to the Smith recommendations: Virtually complete devolution of income tax – Check. Assignment of half of VAT – Check. Declaration of constitutional permanence for the Scottish Parliament, and legislative basis for (what we must still call) the Sewel Convention – Check. Devolving £2.5 billion of benefits – Check. So from any perspective this is major stuff.
Responding to Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny’s analysis of last week’s English votes for English laws proposals, Jim Gallagher argues that the really challenging issue that EVEL raises relates to taxes and public spending.
The analysis by Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny of the government’s proposals for English votes is helpful in setting out what these plans might mean for legislation. I agree with much of their analysis. These are plans at the aggressive, though perhaps not the most aggressive, end of the spectrum. But the really challenging issue they raise is not about laws, but about taxes and public spending.
Not the Barnett formula
This isn’t about the Barnett formula. The idea that Scottish MPs should vote on purely English legislation because it will affect Scottish spending through the Barnett formula is simply wrong. The government has made this even clearer than it already was by explicitly exempting the legislation which determines spending from the new process in its proposals. A lot of nonsense is being talked about this. Even though they might have spending consequences, Acts of Parliament do not of themselves affect budgets. Spending plans will still be voted on in legislative processes in which all MPs – Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish, as well as English – will have a vote. So the discovery by the SNP that they are now entitled to vote on English measures suggests they haven’t read the government’s plans.
Brian Walker explores whether the pro-Union parties can offer enough devolution to persuade voters Scotland will be given priority if they vote No.
On September 18 voters in Scotland will take a momentous decision based on two sets of uncertainty: on independence which is on the ballot paper and on more devolution which is not. A recent survey by the British Election Study suggests 74% of voters want some or a lot more devolution. Only 35% of them are Yes supporters. 57% of No voters actually want more devolution and 50% of all voters believe it will happen if No wins. This is a rising tide the pro-Union parties are desperate to harness.
And so to counter the clearer appeal of independence, the leaders of Scotland’s pro-union parties gathered on Calton Hill in Edinburgh on 16 June to deliver a joint promise of more devolution in the event of a No vote. David Cameron declared:
All the mainstream pro-UK parties believe in further devolution, so whilst we would want to build consensus for a set of measures and legislation, there is no reason why these changes shouldn’t happen early in the next Parliament.
Lib Dem peer Lord Jeremy Purvis, leader of the cross-party Devo Plus group, enthused that all of the major parties were now ‘clearly and unequivocally supporting a stronger Scotland.’
In early July Purvis joined representatives of the other two parties, Anas Sarwar MP, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour and member of the party’s Devolution Commission and Peter Duncan, a communications consultant and former Scottish Conservative MP, for an Institute for Government debate: Scotland in a changing UK: Unionist visions for further devolution after the referendum. Is the impression of chiming pro-union agreement justified?