The Scotland Bill has continued its progress toward the statute book. On Monday 7 March, it had the first of its three days of consideration at Committee stage in the House of Commons. The part I watched was dominated by a rather tedious and introverted discussion of how regrettable MPs thought it would be to lose the ‘drama’ of holding a count on election night. This is scarcely the most important issue raised by the bill, and may not even happen – the bill devolves electoral administration to Holyrood, and the choices the Scottish Parliament makes about that aren’t at issue here. The attention given to such a comparatively minor aspect of the bill is hardly an advertisement for Westminster. The debate did move on to discuss other constitutional provision of the bill, including the devolution of control of airguns, speed limits, and the ‘undevolution’ of insolvency provisions, as well as clauses relating to the courts. All of these were recommendations made by the Calman Commission, rather than the changes that were added by the Scotland Office. Four of the amendments proposed (all opposition amendments – none were introduced by the government) were pursued to a division – all of those supported by the SNP if not by the other parties. The Hansard report of the debate starts here.
More important was Thursday’s debate at Holyrood. Given the support of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, it’s no surprise that the legislative consent motion for the bill was approved. It’s more of a surprise that the motion attracted the support not just of the unionist parties, but the SNP as well (only the Greens and one Labour MSP objected; Margo MacDonald abstained). This was despite the failure of the SNP’s amendment to the LCM, in favour of one more critical of both the principle of the bill and some of the constitutional clauses in it. The LCM as approved is here (and the text of the SNP’s defeated amendment is here).
The debate was evidently a somewhat scratchy affair, but perhaps could have been worse. The record of it from the Parliament’s Official Report is here.
Pauline McNeill (leading for Labour) seemed to think that the reports of the Calman Commission and the Scotland Bill Committee were endorsements of the constitutional status quo, fiscal issues excepted. That’s certainly not the case for the Committee’s report, and the fact that acknowledges the current bill is the start of a continuing process of constitutional development is one of its more encouraging features. She also seemed quite happy with the current division of powers between Scottish and UK tiers of government, overlooking the problems caused for her own party by such UK actions as the refusal to pass to the Scottish Government the amount of attendance allowance foregone by potential Scottish claimants thanks to the policy of long-term care for the elderly.
Murdo Fraser, for the Conservatives, rather gracelessly seemed to think that the row about the Drew Scott/Andrew Hughes-Hallett evidence was about a dislike of rigorous questioning, rather than whether it’s appropriate to ambush expert witnesses. Margaret Mitchell, a Conservative back-bencher, tried to introduce an amendment requiring a referendum on the tax-varying powers – at decision time, this attracted support from the SNP but not her own colleagues (or Labour or the Lib Dems) and so was defeated. Robert Brown, for the Liberal Democrats, suggested that the bill will create a similar framework to that of Spain, Switzerland or Germany (not really – Swiss cantons raise about 75 per cent of their own spending, while Germany practises a highly redistributive system of horizontal equalisation, and the Spanish arrangements are far from trouble-free). Tricia Marwick suggested that the claim that the Parliament will be responsible for 35 per cent of devolved spending is wrong as it includes local government funding (a claim which I’d say is wrong in principle but right in practice). While there were general thanks to Wendy Alexander for her role in chairing the Scotland Bill Committee (and other contributions to the Parliament she’s about to leave), Ms Alexander herself was a notable absentee from the debate. So were the Labour leader, the First Minister and the Finance Secretary – Fiona Hyslop, Minister for Culture and External Affairs, led for the Scottish Government.
What was crucial for the SNP’s support was the fact that the LCM finally approved endorses the Scotland Bill Committee’s report. It therefore calls for extensive if not very clearly specified amendment of the bill at Westminster, and for a further vote by Holyrood to consider the bill after it has been considered by both Houses there. Tactically this is rather a clever move by the SNP; it increases the pressure for those amendments to be made at Westminster, gives the new Parliament a further chance to vote on the matter, after the Scottish elections, while maximising the SNP’s room for manoeuvre between now and then. Equally, it puts a great deal of pressure on the advocates for the bill if the amendments sought are not made. This also offers advantages for the unionist parties, as it enables them to show how their approach differs from that of the UK Government.
The way is now clear for Westminster to proceed to consider the bill, though how much progress it will make before the Scottish elections is an open question.