Those listening to Ruth Davidson’s speech on further devolution (available here) will note that (along with Adam Tomkins) I shall be advising the Scottish Conservatives’ working group reviewing devolution, chaired by Lord Strathclyde. The other members of the group include Annabel Goldie MSP and Alex Fergusson MSP. As the unionist parties all seek to establish how they think devolution should work if there is a vote against independence in 2014, the Conservatives’ initiative in setting up this commission is to be welcomed and I’m pleased to help it as best I can. The establishment of the working group, and Davidson’s speech, show clearly that the Conservatives have embraced the logic of delivering a constitutional settlement that provides greater self-government within the Union, and accords with the clear preferences of the Scottish people.
There’s coverage of Davidson’s speech from BBC News here, Holyrood magazine here, the Guardian here, the Telegraph here, the Scotsman here, the Herald here, and a thoughtful analysis by Alex Massie in a Spectator blog here.
I have accepted the party’s invitation on a non-party basis, and remain politically impartial. I’ve already given evidence to the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ Commission on Home Rule and Community Rule and Labour’s Devolution Commission. I will continue work with IPPR on the ‘Devo More’ project, and to help any other parties or bodies that want devolution advice so long as that doesn’t create impossible time pressures or conflicts of interest.
On Friday, IPPR published my paper Funding Devo More, the fruit of a long period of reflection about devolution finance and how the UK might do it differently and better (that’s available here). It also marks the start of my involvement in IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project.
The aim of this project is to consider how devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be enhanced; how to make a devolved UK work better. That means increasing the scope of devolved powers and responsibilities, but also looking at the Union as a whole and how to improve that. Effective devolution means more self-government, but it also means ‘more Union’; a more effective tier of government that delivers certain functions that devolved governments are unable to, in a way that makes it clear what the Union does for citizens as well as what devolved governments do. That is a far cry from the vestigial sort of entity it has often become in many of the Scottish debates. It’s also a step beyond the current thinking that suggests ‘more powers for Scotland (or Wales) means less for Westminster’; this need not be zero-sum game, if the thinking about what is involved is careful enough. If we are to continue to live in one decentralised country, we will all need to be clearer about which government does what and why.
I’ve explained separately some of the ideas underpinning my financing paper, which will be carried through into the project as a whole.
The ‘Devo More’ project will necessarily be a wide-ranging one, and our next big piece of work is to look at how devolution of aspects of welfare and social security might be accomplished, and what the implications of that will be. Another strand will be the sort of changes needed at the centre of government for is rather different sort of union to work. There is a good deal involved in the project, and those interested should keep an eye on the project’s webpage, which is here.
I’m very glad to be working with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and particularly Guy Lodge, on this project. IPPR have long taken a serious interest in debates about devolution and its implications, including the work they have done recently on developing public attitudes about national identity in England, their ‘Borderland’ project on the implications of change for Scotland for northern England, and how ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster might work. (The same can’t be said for most of the other London think-tanks.) For my part, working with IPPR isn’t a reflection of any political views; as well as formal committees, I’ve advised parties and politicians from across the political spectrum in the past (including Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and hope to continue to do so. It is simply a pragmatic judgment about who has the willingness and the resources to do serious, policy-oriented thinking about the future of the UK. In this respect, IPPR have stolen a march on their rivals.
We held the Funding Devo More launch event in Edinburgh on Friday morning, with Willie Rennie MSP responding on behalf of the Scottish Lib Dems and Sarah Boyack MSP (a late replacement for Margaret Curran MP) responding for Labour. Rachel Ormston of ScotCen also gave a presentation on the key parts of the results of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2012 that bear on the constitutional debate.
My presentation from the launch is now available HERE. Rachel Ormston’s slides – particularly interesting on what she calls the ‘maximalists’, those who want significantly enhanced devolution for Scotland but not independence – are here.
To highlight events and other activities relating to this project for those using Twitter, we shall be using the hashtag #devomore.
I’m also going to be on BBC Radio Wales’s ‘excellent Sunday Supplement’ programme this coming Sunday (27 January) to talk about the report and its implications for Wales. That should be at about 8.30 am.
On Friday, IPPR published Funding Devo More, a major paper of mine setting out an approach to enhanced financial devolution (available here). It is intended first of all to offer a meaningful option for extended devolution in Scotland, where all three unionist parties have said that further devolution will be on offer if there is a vote to stay in the Union in the 2014 referendum. That is not all it does, though; it is also intended to work for Wales and Northern Ireland as well, if they wish to go down the path of further fiscal devolution.
This paper draws on work on both devolution finance and the working of federal systems that I have been doing for many years now, starting with my time at the Constitution Unit in the early 2000s working on its Leverhulme-funded programme ‘Nations and Regions: the dynamics of devolution’, as well as work on Brazil and Switzerland I carried out at Edinburgh University. If nothing else, this indicates how academic research often takes a long time to pay off, and can do so in ways that were unexpected at the outset.
An option like this is badly needed, for two reasons. First, there is clear evidence that it is what the people of Scotland want. They like devolution and want more of it; in particular, they want devolution to affect control of taxation and welfare. That has been shown clearly in numerous opinion surveys, particularly the Scottish Social Attitudes ones, and their 2012 findings just released confirm the point. Outright devolution of those is very difficult within the Union – it would only be possible with some sort of ‘devo max’ approach, which is emphatically not what I am proposing. Apart from anything else, it would not be viable for Wales or Northern Ireland. Significant control of those is, however, possible, and that is what this paper (and the wider ‘Devo More’ project of which it forms the first output) is investigating. Finding practicable ways to ensure devolved control of these functions is part of making sure that Scottish devolution (and devolution elsewhere) matches the aspirations of the Scottish people, a basic democratic goal. It also serves a more constitutionally fundamental purpose; it ensures that government in Scotland (and elsewhere) is, and should remain, legitimate. Devolution in 1998 was, after all, a response to similar problems that arose both Wales and Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s.
Second, it relates to the 2014 independence referendum. An ‘enhanced devolution’ scheme is not on the ballot paper, of course. That is probably right; it would be hard (though not impossible) for a referendum to offer multiple choices to the voters in such a way that it would also establish a clear mandate for independence, if that were the choice of the electorate. Once the SNP committed itself to having a single referendum on independence, it effectively ruled out putting an ‘extra devolution’ option to the voters in the same poll, even though it dangled the prospect of that in front of Scottish voters after the 2011 election. (The situation might be different if the SNP had embraced a two-referendums strategy, as the first poll would be a way of identifying the preferred options not making a conclusive decision. That was the SNP’s choice; by trying to bring a third option into a ‘decisive’ referendum, they muddied the waters so much it was off the cards.)
There are good practical reasons why more devolution could not have been on offer in any event. There was no such scheme on the table, and still is not. You could not prepare for a referendum in which one of the options was essentially undefined until the last minute. (The Welsh referendum on legislative powers in 2011 shows how badly such polls can go if an expected player doesn’t show up.) Such a scheme would need to have agreement across the unionist parties to be viable, as the Calman proposals had. It’s fair to say that before now the unionist parties where in no mood to consider such an option, and many (such as Joyce McMillan, here) question whether they are now. This is only a proposal for a scheme which is meant to work for all the unionist parties; we shall see whether they embrace it, and how enthusiastically they do so. But defining such an option plays into the wider referendum debates by enabling the offer of ‘more powers after a referendum’ to be a credible one. The battle-ground in the referendum campaign is voters who support that; if they do want more devolution but do not believe that promises of it will be delivered after a poll, the risk increases that a referendum will be lost.
Part of what has to define an ‘enhanced devolution’ scheme is what works in the interest of the UK as a whole. This scheme is meant to do that; it is intended to work for Wales and Northern Ireland as well, if they wish to go down the path of fiscal devolution. It is also designed to be ‘union-reinforcing’ rather than ‘union-weakening’, as ‘devo max’ would be, and as devolution of taxes like corporation tax, inheritance tax or fuel duties would be likely to be.
It also offers benefits for England, chiefly because the transfer of fiscal capacity to Scotland and other devolved governments will both enable and require them to finance spending on better services than those in England out of their own resources. Free university tuition in Scotland has become a politically toxic symbol of supposedly generous financing of Scotland. Some of this anger is misplaced, and is to do with choices made by devolved governments – funding, say, free prescriptions at the cost of other functions. But some of it has a point. Transferring a significant degree of fiscal capacity means that, if the Scottish Government wishes to provide an overall higher level of public services, it can do so – but Scottish taxpayers will have to pay for it, and the Scottish Government will have to make the case to its voters for that. That is what autonomy means.
Fiscal devolution does not stop the UK Government undertaking redistribution across the UK, if it wishes. A ‘vertical fiscal imbalance’ – a gap between the revenues a regional-level government can raise using its own tax powers, and its spending obligations – is common in federal systems. In the UK it is unavoidable. There are many taxes which are not suitable for devolution, either because the administrative costs of doing so would be disproportionate, or because of the character of the taxes themselves. Take fuel duties as an example. These are a useful source of revenue (they account for about 5 per cent of total UK tax revenues, proportionally more in Wales and Northern Ireland). However, devolving something so obviously and necessarily mobile would trigger widespread avoidance, tax competition or both, and even then would incur considerable compliance costs, even though the burden of them falls heavily on people who live or work in sparsely-populated areas like the Scottish Highlands or mid-Wales. The same applies to a good many other taxes, which are best left in UK Government hands. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland taxpayers will continue to contribute to the UK as a whole, through a wide range of non-devolved taxes, and it is for the UK Government to decide how to use those.
The recipe I have come up with involves handing over four sets of revenues to devolved governments:
- All personal income tax, including decisions about rates, thresholds, exemptions and relief. There will need to be some practical restrictions on this, if HM Revenue & Customs are to continue to collect income tax across the UK (and there are good reasons why they should), but those should be as minimal as possible for administrative reasons.
- All land taxes. This should be uncontroversial; to a large degree, it has already been accomplished for Scotland through the Scotland Act 2012, and is recommended for Wales by the Silk Commission (and supported by the Welsh Government). Land taxes are not a major source of revenue, but they are a secure and easily devolvable tax base, and are an important instrument of policy as well.
- ‘Sin taxes’, meaning duties on alcohol and tobacco. This faces serious legal problems, but there is such a close relationship between the harm these products can do and other devolved functions, notably public health, that devolved governments should have control over tax levers as well as regulatory mechanisms when dealing with them. They are also quite useful as sources of revenue.
- Assign a large proportion – 10 points, of the 20 currently levied – of Value Added Tax. EU law prevents devolution of VAT, although sales taxes are commonly levied by state or regional-level governments in federal systems. Assigning it – passing the revenues directly to a devolved government, which does not have control of the rate of tax or what the tax is levied on – was considered and dismissed by the Calman Commission for Scotland, and the Holtham and Silk Commissions for Wales. But, if we are looking at going meaningfully beyond that model of fiscal devolution, we have to think again. VAT is a major source of revenue, and in the hunt for ‘devolvable’ taxes the choice of good taxes to devolve is a very limited one. A major consumption tax is an attractive proposition for regional-level governments, and assigning it is the best one can do.
This is not so much the end of my work on devolution finance as establishing a clear starting point. It is impossible to work out a scheme for devolution finance without working out what it is you are financing. I have used the current division of functions between the devolved governments and London for this work, and if there were further devolution of expensive functions (notably welfare benefits, but also policing and criminal justice in Wales) it would be necessary to look at this again. In later work in IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project, we shall be considering those issues; that will mean returning to financial issues afterward as well. But using 2010-11 figures, this model would have put £21.7 billion directly into the hands of the Scottish Government, £9.7 billion into those of the Welsh Government, and £6.1 billion into those of the Northern Ireland Executive. That equates to 60.6 per cent of Scottish devolved spending, 62.2 per cent of Welsh devolved spending and 55.6 per cent of devolved non-social security spending in Northern Ireland. Of that, large proportions would come from wholly devolved taxes: 42.1 per cent of Scottish spending, 44.2 of that in Wales, and 34.3 per cent of that in Northern Ireland. That contrasts with the measures in the Scotland Act 2012, which would devolve taxes revenues accounting for around 30 per cent of devolved spending in Scotland, and the Silk Commission’s proposals, which would account for about 25 per cent in Wales.
Whatever form fiscal devolution takes, it is important to think about it as a package. Devolving one or two taxes on their own increases the risk of government revenues being exposed to serious shocks. That is especially the case with volatile taxes like corporation tax. Some devolved services are simply inflationary in character (notably health). Others are counter-cyclical, with demand increasing somewhat when times are bad (notably education). None of them get cheaper to provide in hard times. As there’s no such thing as a counter-cyclical major tax, stable revenues are needed to pay for them, and if the UK Government is to cease to manage the risk of fluctuations in revenue (which it does at present, through the block grant and formula system), devolved governments need tax revenues that are relatively stable, and if possible that balance the fluctuations among them. The combination of devolved income tax and assigned VAT, in particular, does that. Assigning VAT might not give devolved governments any control over policy levers, but the revenues are relatively stable, act as a counterweight to income tax ones (they shrink and grow on a different cycle), and over time it is a growth tax.
This model is an attempt to make a devolved UK work better; to enable it to be both more devolved, but also more unified. Quite a lot of work remains to be done, but it hard to see that any sort of durable and workable solution would not draw heavily on it.
The report Funding Devo More: Fiscal options for strengthening the Union was published on Friday 25 January, and is available from IPPR’s website HERE.
One reason why this blog has been so quiet for the last few weeks is that I’ve been trying to finalise work I’ve had underway for some time on what I call the ‘more or less federal model’ for devolution finance. The idea behind this project was to see what sort of lessons could usefully be learned from the financing arrangements in federal systems for financing devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; how to extend devolved tax-setting powers in a workable way, and reconcile these with securing an equitable distribution of resources across the UK. That work is now completed, and the paper is due for publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research next week. It’s a detailed and chunky piece of work, drawing on data published in GERS, the Northern Ireland Net Fiscal Balance Reports, and by the Silk Commission, and I hope it will be a valuable contribution to the current debates in Scotland and elsewhere about the future of devolution.
There will be a launch of the event at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on George Street in Edinburgh at 8.30 am on Friday 25 January. Speakers will include me, Guy Lodge of IPPR, Willie Rennie MSP, leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, and a Labour speaker. There’s information about it on the IPPR website here, and anyone would like to attend should email Glenn Gottfried of IPPR at G.Gottfried@ippr,org to book a place.
Guy Lodge of IPPR and I have an article in today’s Scotsman, about the right lessons to learn for devolution finance from the problems of sub-state borrowing in southern Europe. The article can be found here. Below is the original copy we filed, with some hyperlinks added.
DEBT AND FISCAL DEVOLUTION: LEARNING FROM CLUB MED
It was inevitable that the eurozone crisis would cast a shadow over the debates about Scotland’s constitutional future. The SNP have already been forced to rethink their commitment to take an independent Scotland into the euro, opting instead to stick with sterling for the foreseeable future. Developments in Italy and Spain mean the spotlight has now turned on those who support further enhancing the powers of the Scottish Parliament instead of independence. For many the case for handing Scotland greater tax and borrowing powers has been badly damaged by the sight of Valencia, Catalonia and most lately Andalucia – Spain’s indebted autonomous communities – queuing up for bail-outs from the Spanish government. Does the UK really want to replicate the situation in Italy where the central government has been forced to take over the finances of a fiscally autonomous but bankrupt Sicily?
The Treasury – which has just ended a consultation on Scottish borrowing – is clearly looking hard at Club Med’s problems. It no doubt thinks the UK has dodged a bullet by ensuring that devolved governments cannot run up similar debts. But that would be to draw the wrong lesson, getting both the politics and the economics wrong.
In fact, there are two lessons that can be better learned from southern Europe’s current travails. The first is that hard budget constraints – that devolved budgets cannot be open to politically convenient top-ups from central government – are vital. The problem with the Spanish regime for financing the autonomous communities is that regional and central state finances are hopelessly entangled, which means that bailouts are regarded as being on offer, and (outside the Basque Country) powers to set tax rates have never been used to depart from the rates set years ago before the taxes were devolved. Spanish fiscal devolution has involved a slow, incremental deconcentration of tax powers, without ever fully separating the finances or tax powers of each government. Worse, overlaps in functions and political choices by the central government may have driven up borrowing. Catalonia regularly complains that the central state has deliberately under-invested in central government infrastructure functions in Catalonia, using the money saved (much of it generated by Catalan taxpayers) to spend elsewhere. Consequently some Catalan regional spending is needed to fill that gap (it is therefore over-simplistic to regard the problem as ‘regional overspending’ – the central state is also partly responsible for the perilous state of the autonomous communities’ finances).
On Friday 14 September, I gave a presentation at the conference of the Territorial Politics working group of the Political Studies Association. This is a biennial event, and this time it was held in Brussels.
I presented a version of the work I’ve been doing on how a more decentralised approach to devolution finance might work, and also discussed how that relates to wider ideas about ‘enhanced devolution’ particularly but not only for Scotland. I gave it the snappy and glamorous title ‘Devo more, devo plus and so on: extending devolution in the UK, and financing it.’ At least it’s accurate.
Fiscal devolution is the starting point here, but the problem is that it’s hard to design a funding system when you don’t know the nature and costs of the functions devolved. This means that outlining models for ‘fiscal devolution’ at the start of working on schemes of enhanced devolution rather than the end of them is like putting the cart before the horse. The deeply-established fiscal centralisation of the United Kingdom – which goes back at least to the Middle Ages, and which in both Tudor times and the late seventeenth century was key to the power of the English state – is a major factor here. Under the existing model of devolution, health, education and local government services are the most costly functions in devolved hands. For this, I think it’s possible to create something workable through devolving (all) personal income tax, assigning a large proportion of VAT to devolved governments, and devolving the various land taxes and alcohol and tobacco duties (though that will require quite a major restructuring of how those work). That needs to be accompanied by an equalisation grant, and there are some big questions about how that works.
I was asked by the Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, Severin Carrell, to write something about José Manuel Barroso’s remarks about ‘seceding’ states becoming members of the European Union, which suggested that the EU would not automatically accept Scotland as an EU member as a ‘successor state’ to the current United Kingdom. A statement by the Commission President is clearly not determinative of what might hypothetically happen in a few years’ time, let alone what view other EU institutions might take – membership issues will fall ultimately to the European Council to decide. However, Barroso’s statement raises the stakes, raising legal issues (as the ‘state succession’ issue is only part of the legal argument about Scottish EU membership, the other part arising from EU citizenship), as well as political ones. In it, I try to explain the two lines of legal argument, how Barroso’s statement is unhelpful to the SNP’s referendum strategy, and how it seems to reflect a rather narrow view by the Commission of what the EU is about that would seem to be at variance with other activities of the Commission.
The piece has appeared on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site, and can be found HERE. To judge from the volume of comments, it has excited a good deal of interest.
My article on the UK Government’s announcement on the West Lothian question – formally, the ‘Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons’ – was published in Wednesday’s Scotsman. The UK Government’s Commons written statement on the Commission can be found here, and my article (slightly edited for publication) is on the Scotsman‘s website here, and the Constitution Unit’s blog here.
There’s been quite strong media interest in the Commission: I’ve been quoted in stories for the Guardian, here, and the Western Mail, here. I’ve also recorded an interview for this week’s BBC Wales programme Dragon’s Eye about it.
I’ve a short ‘analysis’ piece in Tuesday’s Scotsman about the constitutional implications of the UK Government’s proposal for a section 30 order empowering Holyrood to call an independence referendum. It’s available here.