Holyrood’s Scotland Bill Committee publishes its report

The Scotland Bill Committee at Holyrood has just published its report.  The report, in two volumes is available here; the Parliament’s press release about it is here. There’s a BBC News report here.

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Scotland, SNP, Westminster

5 responses to “Holyrood’s Scotland Bill Committee publishes its report

  1. Pauline

    absolutly agree with you, Alan about the clause on international obligations , it is inuslting – we adopted ECHR in to our law , we can and should be trusted by any UK Government in this.

  2. Chris Vine

    I can see why legislative consent to income tax devolution is required politically if it is going to work, but I have not been able to understand why it is required by the Sewell convention as you contend, because the Sewell convention is concerned with the UK parliament legislating on devolved matters.

    Surely income tax devolution is not a reserved matter? If it were, the Scottish Parliament could implement it by its own Bill.

    • The Sewel convention doesn’t just apply to the substance of devolved matters, but also to anything which changes the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Executive/Government. I explain that more fully in the ‘page’ about the Sewel convention linked above (also available HERE). It’s this characteristic that means the devolved institutions have a genuinely constitutional status, rather than being subject to change by Westminster in the way that English local authorities are.

      • Chris Vine

        Ah, thank you, DGN10 is interesting. It seems to represent a significant extension of the original statement in the House comprising the Sewell convention. Possibly in its reference to the changing of devolved competences, its authors only had the removal of devolved functions from the devolved institutions in mind, but its text is not so limited.

        By the way, would you mind not falling into the nationalists’ vocabulary of referring to the UK parliament as “London” (nationalists intend it pejoratively, I imagine you don’t). The number of members of parliament representing London constituencies is, as a proportion, relatively small.

  3. Pingback: Wither the Scotland bill? « Devolution Matters

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