Tommy McAvoy on the latest milestone in Scotland’s march towards full devolution within the UK
By any standards, it has been an extraordinary 18 months for Scotland and we are now about to reach another milestone in the history of devolution. The 2014 referendum was certainly unlike any political campaign I’ve been part of; and in the end people voted to remain within the UK. Not on the basis of a return to the status quo but a belief that they would be a member of the union with an enhanced role in how to govern their lives. The Scotland Bill before the Lords today delivers on ‘the Vow’ and fulfils the powers agreed by all parties in the Smith Commission.
The Bill presents a huge opportunity. Not since the 1998 Act has there been a bigger transfer of powers. It is now up to the Scottish Government to ensure that they are used for to the benefit of the Scottish people.
The permanency of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government is beyond question. As a result of a Labour amendment during the Commons stages of the Bill, the government have removed any UK ministerial veto on the new regulation making powers over universal credits. Significant headway has also been made on Gift Aid following concerns that changes to income tax levels in Scotland could cause considerable confusion among charitable donors, as well as financial problems for charities.
From April 2017, the Scottish Parliament will have total control over tax on all non-savings and non-dividends income. Following acceptance of other Labour amendments, the Scottish Government will be able to create new benefits and top-up existing reserved ones. These powers will allow Scotland to raise over 50% of its own expenditure and design a new social security system.
We are also pleased that the restrictive definition of ‘carer’s allowance’ has been removed from the Bill, leaving significant additional scope for the creation of a more generous and expansive benefit. But it was disappointing that Ministers did not table a similar amendment with regard to disability benefit.
Other measures meanwhile, if introduced, would clear up some of the remaining confusion. Labour believes that the most effective way of ensuring this is by establishing a Joint Committee on Welfare Devolution to oversee the transition and implementation of welfare powers, involving members from both Parliaments. Such a Committee would not only be impartial but involve proper transparency – something lacking in the negotiations surrounding the Fiscal Framework. While the Scottish Government has been quick to claim the Bill would be rejected if the accompanying funding is ‘not fair to Scotland’, they have been slower to produce accounts of the meetings held to date. The Joint Exchequer Committee between the UK and Scottish governments promised an agreement would be reached by the Autumn. It's now looking more like January.
Given that the majority of Scotland’s elected representatives at Westminster do not have a voice in the Lords, we face a unique challenge with the remaining stages of this Bill. So I caution those who might demonise what Labour Peers are about to do in the best interests of the Scottish people. I am proud of what we can achieve through the scrutiny and revision of government legislation. I am also a proud Scot. Whatever people may say, those two facts are not contradictory.
The Scotland Bill is a real opportunity to provide a stable, durable settlement, and gives the Scottish Parliament the capacity to create a fairer, more prosperous country. Once it has finished its passage through the Lords we must turn our attention to ensuring the new powers are both devolved and used. But as always, there is more to be done.
Lord Tommy McAvoy of Rutherglen is Shadow Scotland Minister in the House of Lords
Published 24th November 2015