The report is not a straightforward one to summarise, and I haven’t read it properly myself yet. Broadly, there’s cross-party agreement that the bill needs extensive amendment before the Parliament can give it legislative consent, notably on constitutional issues. A majority (SNP members, with Green support) also oppose the income tax provisions as they stand, have sought full fiscal autonomy and devolution of welfare benefits (for which the bill is a wholly unsuitable vehicle), and much greater control over HM Revenue & Customs including a separate ‘Scottish department’ within HMRC. The SNP and Green members also want ‘joint approval’ of the introduction in practice of the income tax power, to ensure that UK does not abuse the blank cheque a straightforward approval would otherwise give them. This last is likely to be the most explosive point for the UK Government, which has signalled that this is emphatically not on offer.
On the legal issues, there was broad support for the principle that the UK Supreme Court should only exercise powers to determine issues of compatibility issues with the European Convention on Human Rights, and majority (SNP and Green) support for the ‘McCluskey’ recommendations on certification. There was also broad agreement (all parties save Conservative) regarding my own bugbear, the clause on international obligations. A narrower majority (SNP and Green, again) supported withdrawal of the clause providing for reference of clauses but not whole bills to the Supreme Court. A similar majority also sought extensive devolution of broadcasting.
This report would seem to throw the ball back into London’s court, even though the Parliament itself has yet to vote on the bill. There’s broad support for extensive changes to the bill, and a very qualified endorsement of the bill – while the SNP and Greens go further than the other parties, there’s also extensive agreement from the unionist parties about shortcomings in the bill. Coming up with amendments to the bill that might secure legislative consent will not be easy, but it’s very easy for London to lose in this trial of wills (as I explained earlier HERE). This is, after all, a multi-round game; the bill, and the doors it may open to further changes of how Scottish devolution works, are also part of the wider pre-campaign for an independence referendum. The SNP understand that. For the Unionist side, it’s important that they also show that devolution is capable of evolving – that it is, as Ron Davies said, a process not just an event. As both the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey and much longer term evidence show (see HERE and HERE), what Scottish voters want is more self-government within the Union. The Unionist parties need to find ways of delivering that. The fact this is a multi-round game also means that the SNP are more easily able to compromise, since anything they ‘give away’ in this round they can hope to win back in a later one. From the UK Government’s point of view, finding an agreement so that the Parliament can give legislative consent to the bill ought to be possible and is highly desirable. A failure to do so will have very serious consequences. The UK Government needs to do some hard thinking fast about what it should do.
UPDATE, 16 December: I’ve a short comment piece on the bill and what is likely to happen next in today’s Scotsman. It’s available on the paper’s website here, and also on Constitution Unit’s blog here.