More crumbs for Scotland

The much-heralded Smith Commission report into further devolution for Scotland was published today, with the results of a two-month five-party investigation on what powers to give the Scottish Parliament finally being set out.

While the Smith Commission’s recommendations are definitely a step in the right direction, and definitely give Scotland more power than it has ever had within the Union, it does miss some vital opportunities to give real and meaningful devolution to the Scottish Parliament.

Let’s start off with the good parts of the Smith Commission report and the headline new powers that they believe Scotland should be given:

  • Income tax rates and bands will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament
  • The first ten percent of Scottish VAT revenues will be budgeted by the Scottish Parliament (although setting it remains reserved)
  • Air Passenger Duty and the Aggregates levy will be devolved
  • The power to regulate Scottish elections (including lowering the voting age to 16) will be devolved.
  • The power over some benefits (such as the bedroom tax) and the power to create new benefits will be devolved.
  • Scottish public bodies will be allowed to bid for rail contracts (leaving the possibility of a nationalised ScotRail)
  • power over speed limits and road signs will be devolved
  • Responsibility over the Crown Estate (government/royally owned land) will be devolved.
  • Control over onshore oil & gas extraction (including fracking) will be devolved.

These powers have been widely called for by Scottish political parties as well as the public at large, and they will allow the Scottish Government far more scope to improve the lives of those of us here in Scotland.

But the report can almost be equally characterised by what is not going to be devolved, or where Scotland will not be given full control but a stronger voice in regulation.

These reserved matters include many of the core functions that the Scottish Government would like to have control over including taxation, welfare, energy and broadcasting.  There is polling evidence to suggest that the Scottish people would have liked what is known as “Devo Max”, devolution of everything except defence and foreign affairs, and this falls very short of that.  In each area Scotland has been given some token representation and influence, but the actual effect of this devolution could end up being very limited.

The Smith Commission report is also rather vague at times, seeming to offer or hinting at new capabilities for the Scottish Parliament but either not stating them explicitly or saying that the issue should be up for further discussion.  While in clause 18 the report says that “It is agreed that nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose” there is no explicit recommendation that gives the Scottish Parliament control over any future referendum on independence – presumably meaning that the Scottish people will need to rely on the goodwill of the Westminster Government of the time once more to have a say on their future.

Another area where there is confusion is on that of abortion.  While the Smith Commission report says that “The parties are strongly of the view to recommend the devolution of abortion” it qualifies this by saying that it should be “considered further” rather than outright recommending it.   The same goes for other reserved health matters including “xenotransplantation; embryology, surrogacy and genetics; medicines, medical supplies and poisons; and welfare foods”.  One of the key ideas of the Vow that saved the Union was that decisions over NHS spending would be made at Holyrood, and although that promise appears to be kept it means somewhat less if Scotland still doesn’t have the powers to control its’ NHS.

Although it would be undoubtedly a good thing if all these proposals are implemented, the enthusiasm needs to be tempered slightly with a bit of caution.  First of all, these are just recommendations – which the current Government or the next Government can choose to do as the like with.  Of course it would be very damaging to their support in Scotland if they were to pick and choose the powers they want to devolve, but neither the Conservatives nor Labour appear to be particularly bothered by the way in which their Scottish support is already crumbling, so what’s a few percentage points more going to do?

Another problem that has arisen since the referendum is that the increased drive for English Votes for English Laws has meant that devolution is now a double-edged sword, with the Prime Minister today repeating his claim that further devolution for Scotland would give him the right to legislate against Scottish MPs being able to vote on some issues at Westminster.  Labour have led the charge against this, but purely out of self-interest as their Scottish powerbase would be annihilated and leave them struggling to form a government.  Even if, and it’s an if, Westminster passes through all devolution measures, it might end up hurting us in other ways.  It’s giving with one hand and taking with the other.

This is without doubt the largest expansion of Scottish power to have taken place since the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, dwarfing the previous Calman Commission’s efforts considerably, but it still doesn’t come close to the Home Rule that Gordon Brown was championing before the referendum.  Only around 15% of welfare spending and 30% of taxation will be controlled by the Scottish Parliament.  The Parliament will only be responsible for raising 50% of its budget.  While it is a big increase on a figure that was around 15%, it still means that Scotland is reliant upon the Barnett Formula where the Scottish Budget is topped up by the UK Government.  This was guaranteed to us in the Vow, and as a measure that keeps Scottish spending at a high level that may seem to be a good thing, but the Smith Commission report suggests that any gains that the Scottish Government makes financially from their new taxes and policies will be offset against the Barnett Formula – so that the budget will effectively stay the same no matter how well Scotland does.  This does not give the Scottish Parliament the fiscal responsibility and accountability that it deserves.

Another problem is that these powers will likely take years to properly implement, with Lord Smith himself putting a figure of three to four years on it.  By then we’ll be two to three years into a new UK Government which could be elected with very few Scottish MPs and a year or two into a new Scottish Government term that has been forced to sit on its hands before making the changes it really wants to.

The Smith Commission report is not manna from heaven in the way that the Westminster parties are trying to spin it, and is substantially weaker than the proposals that the SNP, Greens and I’m sure many of the 18,000 public respondents (including myself) sent in.  It fulfils the promises of the Vow, but does very little more.  It still has to be drafted by Burns Night and introduced after the General Election (even if it is in a diluted form) to fulfil the Vow entirely, and in the increasingly fragmented political landscape that might be easier said than done.  This new devolution will not quell people’s desire for independence, and may even fuel it if it doesn’t produce any real change for Scottish people or, conversely, the Scottish Parliament handles its’ new responsibilities very well.

However, having these new powers for Scotland is undoubtedly a good thing – and many of them are the sort of powers that people up and down this country really want, and will give the Scottish Government the financial and policy levers to change this country for the better.  It isn’t as far-reaching as many would have hoped, but without independence it is likely to be as much as we are going to get from Westminster.

So while it would be easy to criticise and bemoan the weaknesses of the new devolution settlement, I think it’s better to highlight the new opportunities Scotland has from it.  Independence it is not, but it’s another important stepping stone towards the Scottish people ruling the Scottish people with powers that will actually make a positive difference to many people’s lives.  And is that not what we all want for Scotland?

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