There are two myths going around about what happens following a No vote in the Scottish referendum.
First, it’s said that plans for ‘more devolution’ are unclear. They are not. The three pro-UK parties have different schemes for them, it’s true, but there is a substantial degree of common ground between them. All involve devolution of most or all of personal income tax to the Scottish Parliament. Labour and Conservatives both support forms of welfare devolution, which – among other things – would have enabled Scotland to opt out of the Housing Benefit change that led to the ‘bedroom tax’. The differences do need to be resolved, but there is also a clear route for that, endorsed by the UK Prime Minister in his Aberdeen speech as well as other party leaders: an early process of cross-party negotiations, leading to a white paper by November 2014, publication of draft legislation in early 2015, followed by incorporation into manifestoes for the May 2015 general election, which will give the mandate for delivery of them. That level of political commitment is not easily ducked – and ironically it is perhaps the Conservatives who have the greatest short-term political interest in securing their delivery.
It’s also untrue that these are last-minute proposals All these schemes have drawn on the work I have done with IPPR, and particularly Guy Lodge, through the Devo More project since late 2012. They reflect many months of work and careful analysis of the implications of further devolution, not just for Scotland but for other parts of the UK as well – they haven’t been suddenly ‘pulled out of a hat’.
Details of the key publications from Devo More can be found here, here and here (and there are posts about the financing paper here, the welfare one here and how the programme fits various political traditions here).
Second, it’s suggested that these proposals amount to ‘Devo max’. They don’t. This is usually a rather lazy shorthand from journalists or politicians who haven’t understood what is actually on the table. The extra-devolution schemes, or scheme, will substantially enhance the autonomy of a devolved Scotland within the UK. But the Scottish Parliament is already responsible for about 70 per cent of all public spending in Scotland. The Devo More proposals will take Scotland as close to home rule as is possible in a single state. They will deliver what Scots had clearly shown they’ve wanted for a decade or more – greater self-government in the Union – in a way that works with the interests of people in other parts of the UK, rather than against them.
I’m giving a seminar on Devo More and what it would mean for Wales in Cardiff on the morning of Wednesday 11 June. The full title is ‘Devo More: How fiscal and welfare devolution can benefit Wales and strengthen the Union’, and it is part of the UK Changing Union programme based by the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, under the aegis of the National Assembly’s Cross Party Group on the Changing Union. (Those who haven’t seen them can find the Devo More and Welfare paper here, and Funding Devo More here.)
The seminar will take place at 8.30 am in conference room 24 in Tŷ Hywel, with tea, coffee and pastries provided. To book a place, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE, 12 June: The slides from Tuesday’s talk are now available HERE.
There are interesting changes to the ‘Calman’ model of income tax in the Wales bill (which had its Commons second reading on Monday) and the Finance bill (which had its Commons second reading on Tuesday).
The ‘Calman’ model applies a ‘lockstep’ to the devolved income tax rate, which has to be the same for all three tax bands (basic, higher and additional or 45 per cent). That rate can be 0 per cent, 10 per cent (as it is at present) or some other figure but it must be the same for all three bands – so if the devolved rate were nine per cent, you would have tax rates of 19, 39 and 44 per cent. While this question did not attract particular attention when the Scotland Act 2012 was going through the UK and Scottish Parliaments, it has been controversial in Wales. It was not recommended by either the Holtham or Silk Commissions, and has attracted criticism from the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, the First Minister (who called the power with the lockstep ‘pretty useless’) and the Plaid Cymru and Welsh Conservative leaders.
The provisions in the Wales bill mark a change from the draft bill published before Christmas. Instead of providing for a single ‘Welsh rate of income tax’ across all three bands, the key operational clause now provides for Welsh basic, higher and additional rates and defines each of them separately (see clause 9 of the bill). Clause 289 and Schedule 34 of the Finance (No 2) bill make similar changes to the finance provisions of the Scotland Act 2012. (Both bills also provide for beefed-up arrangements for reports on devolved tax powers by the Comptroller and Auditor General, something that was conspicuously missing from the Scotland bill.)
The substantive policy behind the devolved rate of tax remains the same; the lockstep is still in place, and UK Government policy backs it strongly. But this change creates the legal basis for having different rates of tax for each band, if that policy decision were taken later, by altering the rule regarding what a ‘Welsh’ (or ‘Scottish’) ‘rate resolution’ would be.
The application to Scotland appears to be an inversion of the position that ‘Wales gets what Scotland gets’, which is apparent throughout the finance provisions of the Wales bill. Since what Scotland has is proving politically very difficult in a Welsh context, creating a framework for a possible different approach is an interesting move. In the light of ongoing debates about fiscal devolution to Scotland, though, including the Scottish Labour Party’s proposals to increase the devolved rate of income tax from 10 to 15 points and to allow the Scottish Parliament to vary higher and additional rates upward, there are obvious potential uses on the table in Scotland as well.
UPDATE: There’s coverage of this issue – quoting me extensively – here, which appeared on the front page of Wednesday’s Scotsman, and a cartoon and comment, here. It’s interesting to note a firm denial of the idea that there is any plan to break the lockstep from HM Treasury, reported in the Scotsman story. Ben Riley-Smith of the Telegraph has also tweeted a denial from No. 10. I don’t doubt the policy remains to maintain the lockstep, but also that this creates a smoother path to break it if the policy were to change.
The UK Government has now published its proposals for the implementation of the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report, following its announcement at the beginning of November (and so managed to get its response in just before the anniversary of the publication of the Commission’s report). The Wales Office’s news release is here and the paper itself, Empowerment and responsibility: devolving financial powers to Wales, is here. (Note for government documentation trainspotters: this isn’t a Command paper to be formally laid before Parliament, and certainly not a white paper or even green paper. This contrasts with both Labour and Coalition responses to Calman, and again suggests either that the UK is not taking Wales as seriously as it did Scotland, or that this is a response framed in some haste.)
Unsurprisingly, the paper largely confirms the key elements of the deal announced by the UK Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, previously discussed HERE: devolution of two small land taxes, devolution of 10 points of income tax, but only after a referendum. It confirms that, as for Scotland, aggregates levy may be devolved, but only once outstanding EU state aids issues are resolved, and that air passenger duty will not be. Continue reading
It has been quite easy to miss from Great Britain, but over the last few months there have been the beginnings of a serious debate about devolution finance in Northern Ireland. Until now, this debate has been largely absent there, with the (major) exception of the debate about devolving corporation tax.
I’ve argued before that the corporation tax debate has been rather an unreal one, rooted in a serious absence of basic information and misapprehensions about both the benefits and problems of tax devolution (see HERE and HERE). With the UK Government’s decision in March 2013 to put the issue on hold at least until after the Scottish independence referendum, that debate has at least paused. There still seems to be a belief there, however, that corporation tax devolution is not only viable and practicable but some sort of holy grail for the invigoration of the Northern Ireland economy. (A separate part of the Northern Ireland debate has led to devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul flights, set at a lower level for 2012-13 and passing APD to Stormont’s control from the start of 2013. In practice, there’s only one such flight – a daily one from Belfast International to Newark, New Jersey, in the US.)
Friday’s news had ample coverage of the UK Government’s decision about financing Welsh devolved government, following the Silk Commission’s Part 1 report from last November. No doubt the looming anniversary of the publication of the Silk report triggered a certain sense of urgency. Despite promises that the UK Government would produce its response in ‘the spring’ (and strong hints this would be earlier in the spring rather than later), that has been delayed and delayed. At the end of June, Secretary of State David Jones said it had been postponed until after the summer, and now pretty late in the autumn it has finally materialised.
There has been wide coverage of the UK response. The Western Mail’s article by David Cameron and Nick Clegg is here, and their news coverage is here, here and here. BBC News coverage is here, and analysis here. The Guardian’s story is here. The official Wales Office press release is here, and the written ministerial statement is here.
The party conference season always produces a crop of policy announcements that are meant to be eye-catching. The extent to which these are thought through is often doubtful, though – these are announcements for political purposes, not necessarily to work in the real world. That also means how their devolution implications is addressed is often rather sketchy. Regular readers of this blog will know that concern about ‘devolution literacy’ is a long-standing one of mine, and one which I find has slowly but materially improved over the courts of the 2000s and 2010s.
Either devolution has bedded itself into party-policy framers’ consciousness, or something has changed. When he made his announcement about free school meals for 5-7 year olds in England, Nick Clegg was keen to point out that funding would be given to the devolved administrations to decide whether to follow suit. (The political pressure to do so will be considerable, of course – a lot of parents’ and poverty groups will be asking pointed questions about it.) And that’s all well and good; the Treasury’s Statement of Funding Policy provides that spending on the schools budget has a 100 per cent comparability percentage for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – so any extra spending on that budget automatically triggers a full population-related comparable payment.
Ed Miliband’s widely-trailed announcement about cancelling a cut in corporation tax and instead making one in business rates (strictly, non-domestic rate or NDR) is more problematic. The aim is to favour smaller businesses, which may not be incorporated (or have profits), but which necessarily occupy business premises. Like Clegg, Multiband will apparently announce a change for England, with funding for devolved governments to make a similar cut. The problem is that this is not what the Statement of Funding Policy says. NDR is only 100 per cent comparable for Wales, where a complex England and Wales pooling mechanism currently exists. Even there, there are plans for change following the Morgan Review last year (BBC News summary here, full documentation here). In Scotland and Northern Ireland, NDR is 0 per cent comparable – because it’s regarded as fully devolved. So any decision for England would not automatically trigger comparables for Scotland or Northern Ireland.
There are ways to resolve this, of course. The easiest is probably the messiest – a one-off concession relating to adding a specific block of money to the devolved governments’ budgetary baselines. (If the comparability percentage were changed, it would lead to further complications in future.) Even then, though, there is no guarantee whatever that devolved governments will use the extra money in the way UK Government might desire. (Indeed, the Scottish Government has been imaginative in making use of NDR as an instrument of local economic policy – extra charges for out of town superstores, for example.) But the point is that Miliband’s attempt to make an impression by reshaping where the burden of business taxation falls has run into the practical realities of how the post-devolution, fiscally decentralised UK functions. While Miliband deserves 8/10 for effort in thinking about the problem, it’s only 4/10 for success in doing so.