Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Bingham Centre review of devolution in the UK

For the last few months, I’ve been working with the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law on a major inquiry into devolution and how it should develop, from the point of the UK as a whole. The starting point has been constitutional: what sort of constitutional system has emerged given the fragmented nature of the process of devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. Our committee has been chaired by Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, Director of the Bingham Centre, and includes such figures as Professor Linda Colley, Gerald Holtham, Sir Maurice Kay, John Kay and Philip Stephens of the FT. (Full details of the committee are here.) Adam Tomkins and I have acted as advisers to the committee.
We’ll be publishing the report on 20 May, with a launch at Middle Temple Hall, and have a number of important recommendations for how the UK should work which we hope will shape the actions of the incoming UK Government, whatever political complexion it may have. Key to these is the need now to think about devolution as affecting the UK as a whole, and what the nature of that Union is – not unitary, but not federal either. No new government can afford to ignore these issues, or fail to try to tackle them.

UPDATE: Anyone wanting to come to the launch should email Sandra Homewood on s.homewood[at]binghamcentre.biicl.org to confirm their attendance. 

UPDATE, 21 May:  The report, A Constitutional Crossroads: Ways forward for the United Kingdom, can now be downloaded here as a PDF file.

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Filed under Devolution finance, English questions, General, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales

An ‘English rate of income tax’: six questions in search of an answer

In a speech on Friday launching the Conservative Party’s ‘English manifesto’, David Cameron apparently proposed an ‘English rate of income tax’, on which voting in Parliament would be limited to English (or non-Scottish) MPs.  (There’s also Telegraph coverage here and BBC News coverage here.)  There’s not much detail about this – Cameron’s speech isn’t available on the Conservative Party website, nor is the ‘English’ manifesto.   But from what we can tell of it, this proposal raises a lot of questions.

The first question is whether this is a move beyond the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment for a veto for English MPs (or English, Welsh and Northern Ireland) MPs on non-Scottish income tax decisions, after the Smith Commission proposals are enacted.  This proposal caused quite a stir  when it was first announced, back in December 2014, and raises the hackles of Labour and other parties (and see also here), but it’s not actually new.  This may just be a rhetorical shift, using heightened language to get news coverage for an old story, but if so it has been publicised in remarkably insensitive terms: what the Conservatives are proposing is not an ‘English rate of income tax’, but relates to Wales and Northern Ireland as well. This may be an attempt to curry favour with English voters, but England is not the only part of the UK it affects.

The second question is what this proposal relates to: the Scottish rate of income tax which is due to come into effect in April 2016, and on which a decision will need to be taken this autumn, or the Smith Commission proposals? The latter probably won’t come into effect until April 2018 at the earliest, so this will not be something that could be put in place for England very quickly, or would need to be.  If the former, it implies very quick action indeed – and it’s hard to see a rationale for excluding Scottish MPs from voting when only the Scotland Act 2012 powers are in effect.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, N Ireland corporation tax devolution, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales

Improving intergovernmental co-ordination: better intergovernmental relations and better devolution

I’ve a report out today on the procedural aspects of intergovernmental relations.  This was commissioned by the UK Changing Union project through the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, and can be found on their website here. Today was also the day when the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee met; it agreed, among other things, a full-scale rewrite of the Memorandum of Understanding.  As this post argues, such a rewrite is overdue. 

Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK Government (and other governments) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘scale up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.

The UK Government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed that to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee. Plenary meetings of that ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, but with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures, and many important issues slip through the net.

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Filed under Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall

‘Constitutional Futures’ workshop at Queen’s University Belfast, 10 October

Along with James Mitchell from Edinburgh and Aileen McHarg from Strathclyde, I’ll be taking part in a workshop on ‘The Direction(s) of Devolution’ in the law school at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday 10 October.  There is more information here, or the flyer can be downloaded here.  Capacity is limited; please email law-enquiries@qub.ac.uk if you’d like to attend.

 

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Filed under Events, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Westminster, Whitehall

‘Devo More and Welfare’ in ‘Scotland on Sunday’

The paper Guy Lodge and I have written on Devo More and Welfare as part of the wider Devo More project is published on Tuesday.   There’s extensive coverage of it in today’s Scotland on Sunday to whom we’ve given a preview of the paper, including a news article here and a comment piece by Guy and me here.

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Filed under Northern Ireland, Policy issues, Publications and projects, Scotland, Wales

An emerging fiscal debate in Northern Ireland

It has been quite easy to miss from Great Britain, but over the last few months there have been the beginnings of a serious debate about devolution finance in Northern Ireland.  Until now, this debate has been largely absent there, with the (major) exception of the debate about devolving corporation tax.

I’ve argued before that the corporation tax debate has been rather an unreal one, rooted in a serious absence of basic information and misapprehensions about both the benefits and problems of tax devolution (see HERE and HERE).  With the UK Government’s decision in March 2013 to put the issue on hold at least until after the Scottish independence referendum, that debate has at least paused. There still seems to be a belief there, however, that corporation tax devolution is not only viable and practicable but some sort of holy grail for the invigoration of the Northern Ireland economy.  (A separate part of the Northern Ireland debate has led to devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul flights, set at a lower level for 2012-13 and passing APD to Stormont’s control from the start of 2013.  In practice, there’s only one such flight – a daily one from Belfast International to Newark, New Jersey, in the US.)

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Filed under Devolution finance, Events, N Ireland corporation tax devolution, Northern Ireland

Inheritance tax, ‘care caps’ for the elderly, and devolution

Inheritance tax (IHT to its friends) is an odd tax.  It doesn’t raise a lot of money; £2.7 billion in 2010-11 according to HM Revenue and Customs, which sounds like a lot of money but was only 0.65 per cent of total UK tax revenues.  It also has plenty of loopholes.  The most important are the seven-year rule (it doesn’t catch anything given away more than seven years before the death of the donor), an exemption on transfers between spouses, and the nil-rate band which taxes at 0 per cent anything up to a specified threshold, currently £325,000 per individual.  The combination of the seven-year rule and the nil-rate band mean that it’s largely an optional tax, hitting the well- and comfortably-off who are disorganised; indeed, the joke in tax classes is that it’s a charge on those who hate their relations more than the Revenue.

So – if the news that IHT is to bear the burden of increasing resources to pay for the new ‘social care cap’ in England is right (see BBC News here, and Sunday’s Telegraph here) – the upshot is rather confusing.  An additional tax burden will be imposed on residents of all parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England – to pay for a benefit only to be experienced in England.  That is anomalous.

There are two ways to resolve this problem.  One is to allocate shares of the extra tax revenues so generated to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since social care for the elderly is a devolved function.  That is attractive, and would be the sort of approach sought by Quebec, where the long-standing demand of the provincial government has been to call for an ‘opt out with compensation’ from expansions of the Canadian federal government’s social programmes.  However, that might not be in devolved governments’ best interests – the tax base that supports inheritance tax revenues is driven by property values, and so hugely skewed toward southern England.  (In Scotland, according to GERS, it only generated 0.4 per cent of total tax revenues in 2010-11.  It’s only 0.37 per cent in Wales according to the Silk Commission report, and 0.33 per cent in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Net Fiscal Balance Report.)  Getting those extra tax revenues from the tax base in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would in fact mean a larger share of a smaller cake.  That’s all the worse for Scotland and Northern Ireland given their ageing populations.

The alternative approach would be to let the Barnett formula take the strain, and allocate to devolved governments their consequential share of increased UK Government spending in England.   This is what Barnett is meant to do, after all – allocate consequential shares of spending on ‘comparable’ functions in England to devolved governments.  It appears that the increased IHT revenue will only bear part of the cost of increasing resources for the care cap, so the rest will presumably come from general taxation anyway.  Using Barnett would in fact put rather more funds into the hands of devolved governments, albeit at the expense of English taxpayers, but in a way that accomplishes a form of equity in distributing shares of the cost of the English policy across the UK.

If the latter is the approach to be taken, it should form part of the Department of Health’s formal announcement.  The pre-announcement briefings have suggested a UK-wide tax to fund a purely English policy, which may make electoral sense for the Conservatives but not much constitutional sense (and that’s without judging whether this policy approach is in fact right or not – given that it has been criticised by Andrew Dilnot as well as Labour spokespeople).  It looks rather like the sort of high-handed approach from Whitehall that has been all too common in the past – and which in the present context strengthens arguments for independence in Scotland.  (Of course, it also sits on top of the UK Government’s exclusion of claims for attendance allowance from beneficiaries of that policy after free long-term care for the elderly was introduced.)  It also suggests that a more nuanced approach to welfare devolution may be hard to implement, because doing so is beyond Whitehall’s habitual ways of working.

What this is not is a case for devolving inheritance tax.  IHT is one of few taxes emphatically not suitable for devolution on fiscal grounds.  Experience in both Canada and Australia of transferring the death/estates duty tax base to the provinces/states was that within a decade, tax competition between the various governments drove the rate of tax to zero across the whole country.  There are few cases where the evidence of fiscal competition cannibalising a tax base is so clear.

Thinking about social care costs is actually a tricky challenge.  It involves redistribution across time as well as space.  At present, devolved governments have the responsibility for providing care, but not the policy or legal instruments to secure its funding.  The way the UK Government has ploughed ahead making policy for England with so little regard for the position of devolved governments has done it few favours.

UPDATE: This post was written just before Jeremy Hunt made his statement in the Commons (which is available here) or the Department of Health published its white paper Caring For Our Future: Reforming care and support, Cm 8378 (available here).  There’s no mention in the white paper of the use of changes in inheritance tax (or NICs transferred from the soon-to-be-discontinued second state pension) to fund the new policy.  Indeed, for that matter there’s no mention of devolved governments or institutions at all.

Yet the white paper notes, without irony, ‘Fragmented health, housing, care and support are letting people down.  A failure to join up also means that taxpayers’ money is not used as effectively as possible, and can lead to increased costs for the NHS’ (p. 16).  Moreover, the DH statement says, ‘A national minimum eligibility will make access to care more consistent around the country, and carers will have a legal right to an assessment for care for the first time.’  All that is true, but applies as much to policy across the UK as that within England.  When directly asked about the devolution implications in the Commons, by Willie McCrea from South Antrim, Hunt stalled, saying ‘different approaches are being tried in all four constituent parts of the United Kingdom and we must look at what is happening in the different parts and all learn from each other.’

The UK Government has set out a policy only for England, which affects devolved governments and their policy functions quite significantly – but without there being any apparent assessment of its impact on them, or the fact that the UK Government possesses and is using policy levers that are not available to them despite their similar responsibilities.  This is simply confused policy-making; and the fact that the financing was discussed in the press and Commons statement, but does not appear in the published documents, suggests it was made rather late in the day too.

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Filed under Conservatives, Devolution finance, Intergovernmental relations, Northern Ireland, Policy issues, Scotland, Wales, Whitehall