We already knew, from the coalition UK Government’s Programme for Government and the Queen’s speech, that implementing Calman was a priority for the new government. The issue was raised yesterday at Scottish Questions in Westminster. Michael Moore said that a bill would be introduced in the autumn, and non-legislative measures would be introduced at the same time. Presumably the ‘non-legislative measures’ are the conferrals of extra powers on Holyrood (and indeed the adjustments the other way, relating to charities regulation and insolvency). Most of the other changes recommended are already happening – the revamped use of the JMC framework, the removal of the Prime Minister’s role in appointing a permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, and so forth. At this rate, the main such recommendation left may well be the nomenclature used for meetings of finance ministers – whether it is called a finance ministers’ quadrilateral, or the JMC (Finance). The communiqué from last week’s plenary JMC meeting shows that in substance it’s already treated as a key part of the JMC ‘system’. Even a devolution trainspotter would find it hard to get excited about its name in such circumstances.
Quite what Moore’s announcement means for timing isn’t so clear. As this will be a bill affecting tax and finance, by convention it should be introduced in the Commons rather than the Lords. An October/November introduction may give it a chance of having at least finished its first house by April 2011, so the unionist parties will be able to claim that success before the May elections. But will the greatest opposition come in the Commons – where party discipline is fairly strong, and all three major parties are committed in principle to the recommendations – or in the Lords? Party discipline is famously weaker there, and there are critics of the Calman recommendations on all sides. Nor should we forget that this bill will need a legislative consent (Sewel) motion at Holyrood (see here for discussion), which ‘normally’ should be passed by the time of the second reading debate in the first House. That means that the proposals are going to have to get broad support at Holyrood by no later than November; and that may well be tricky. That consent can’t be taken for granted, given how opinion seems to be moving in Scotland now. Many on the unionist side of the argument appear now to support much more radical forms of fiscal autonomy than they were willing even to contemplate a year ago. It would be easy for a bill based on a narrow view of the Calman recommendations to underwhelm expectations so much that it lost such support.
As that means a serious job of selling the new proposals will have to be done, the UK Government would be well advised to issue a white paper a few weeks before publishing the bill. That will enable the exact nature of what’s proposed to be seen and debated before the matter reaches either parliament. Leaving this to the introduction of the bill proper risks losing the sort of support the package will need to get through. And as the new Secretary of State has already waded into one needless row, this suggests his office needs to show a little more tact in handling some Scottish sensitivities.
While it’s encouraging that the new UK Government is determined to press on with constitutional change, and no allow the matter to drift, there are still serious obstacles to getting this change through – let alone to reaching the sort of form of devolution that the public at large wants.