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Scotland Act 1998 (Amendment)

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Excellent pronunciation, as ever, Mr Speaker.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a mechanism by which the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and a majority of Members representing Scottish constituencies may jointly determine further powers and responsibilities to be devolved to Scotland; and for connected purposes.

The House has decided that there is a need for English votes for English laws, or EVEL, and now, to keep modernising the House of Commons, in which the Scottish National party is always keen to play a constructive role, and, more importantly, to put Scotland first, it is time to have Scots votes for Scots laws, or SVSL—as an aide memoire, that sounds almost like thistle.

The foundation of my argument and of the call for SVSL comes from a great promiser of devolution who said:

“If Scotland says it does want to stay inside the United Kingdom then all the options of devolution are there and are possible”.

That promiser was, of course, the Prime Minister. Since then the SNP has tabled 80-plus amendments to the Scotland Bill on Report alone and none were accepted—not quite all options, and very far from all possible. The SNP is, as I have said, here to help.

Given that, as I will show, Westminster has failed Scotland, it is time to move to a point beyond that at which we are promised crumbs from the table or we plead for those crumbs—to a point at which we are given the keys to the larder where Scotland’s powers have been deposited since 1707. That would mean that, in line with the Prime Minister’s words, Scotland could choose to take powers fulfilling the solemn promise he broadcast to Scotland just eight days before the referendum: all options of devolution are there and all are possible. That was the premise on which the Scottish people voted for the other option to yes. It was not a no vote. Remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that at the time of the vote the three amigos, as they were dubbed in Scotland, galloped from this Chamber to Scotland. The referendum became a choice between yes and lots of powers, with even a vow thrown in, and/or as close to federalism as possible.

To help, I propose an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 whereby devolution to Scotland occurs first, when Her Majesty’s Scottish Government want the powers; secondly, when the Scottish Parliament ratifies the Scottish Government’s wish; and thirdly, when a majority of Scottish constituency MPs at Westminster agree to that. Those Scottish votes for Scottish laws—SVSL—would complement EVEL in this Chamber. A devolution triple lock, but with an energetic drive. I would not include defence, by the way, but given that the Scottish Government are already moving on foreign affairs, it would seem sensible to let that option be there if chosen by Scotland, so that we can improve our trading situation as a nation.

Some will ask why I want to do this. The latest Scotland Bill has been described to me by an eminent independent legal mind in Scotland as more of a miscellaneous provisions Act—in other words, it is a bùrach. In fact, this is Westminster’s third attempt to tell Scotland, “You’ve had all you’re getting of your powers back; now be happy and stop bothering us.” That has twice clearly been unsatisfactory, and it looks as though it will be unsatisfactory again.

Indeed, the House of Lords would seem to support my point that the Scotland Bill is already failing Scotland. Last Friday, newspaper headlines read “Lords demands halt to Scotland Bill” and “Committee slams detail on fiscal framework”, with a Lords Committee saying that there has been a lack of

“attention to detail or principles”,

the upshot being that the Bill is impossible for it to scrutinise.

In Scotland, the feeling is certainly that Westminster must do better, as it has had three chances and has failed. It has failed three times. The definition of madness is to continue to do the same thing and expect different results. Therefore, to save us from the well-meaning blundering of Westminster we in Scotland feel, to paraphrase Churchill, that Westminster’s virtues are worse than the vices of 2,000 men. We needed amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 to provide us with a solution.

The solution I outlined earlier is based on experience and practice and informed by conversations and observations, one of which took place on 8 April last year when Uachtarán na hÉireann Mícheál D. Ó hUiginn —Irish President Michael D. Higgins— came to address both Houses of this Parliament in an historic first state visit by an Irish Head of State to the UK since the formation back in 1922 of both those equally aged states, if in slightly different guises—that is, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. The experience I witnessed was a real joy.

To set the scene, after the Irish President’s address I had the good fortune over at the Lords to be in what is known as the Robing Room. I was speaking to the President in a healthy mixture of Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic when who interrupted our conversation with the coarser Saxon tongue but the Prime Minister. His words, however, were of honey: he told the President of the magnificent relations he saw between the UK and Ireland—the stuff in all the papers at the time—and how the relationship hardly needed a nudge. It was honey, sweetness, light—hon. Members can add their own mellifluous superlatives. The contrast between the respect for independent, thriving Ireland and the attitude to Scotland, even then—pre-referendum—and especially now, could not be starker: a relationship of relaxed joy towards Ireland as against one of grudging grievance about treating Scotland the same way.

Example tells us it could be otherwise in the British Isles. Between Ireland and Scotland, England and Wales is Ellan Vannin, as it is called in its own Gaelic language, or the Isle of Man, as it is known in the coarser tongue. With a population of 85,000, it has a Parliament that dwarfs Westminster in antiquity and is rivalled only by those of Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the scope of its history—these places being linked by those unlikely but pioneering early lawmakers the Viking Norse, who, it was noted at the time, followed the rule of law more than the rule of a king.

The independence of the UK, Ireland and the Isle of Man vis-à-vis one another has led to higher GDP in these islands than would exist had they all been one state, regardless of where the capital was and where decisions were made—Dublin, Edinburgh, London or indeed at the Tynwald of Ellan Vannin. Hence I am calling for this sensible step to enable Scotland to move forward as Scottish society sees fit, as the Manx and Irish societies already do, and not be held back by the ball and chain of continued Westminster failure of process and policy from a governing party that was not chosen by 90% of the Scottish electorate.

Let us look at a better example for Scotland, away from the crumbs at the table, and towards the open door with the keys to the larder. Let us look to the model of the Faroe Islands and Denmark: a model for London to aspire to now. It is worth recapping what we currently do—and redo—to the exasperation of the Lords and the Scottish people, as I have said. When devolution came to the UK and Scotland in 1999, after decades of chip-on-the-shoulder Tory resistance, it was devolution, driven by Labour, of Departments it thought would not present a problem—health, education, transport. This was in 1997, when Labour ruled supreme at Holyrood and Westminster—the heady days of Blair and “things can only get better”, the days before Iraq.

The next stage of proposed devolution is fragmented and sees Westminster keeping hold of powers and bits and pieces of departmental responsibility, including some welfare and some tax, meaning we can lower air passenger duty but not benefit from the extra revenues that such a change will bring to Scotland. We can have parts of welfare, but we have to deal with benefit cuts being made on the back of the poorest. In essence, we are still just getting the crumbs from the table—and even then only where we cajole enough. Let us make the relationship mature by fulfilling the words of the Prime Minister:

“If Scotland says it does want to stay inside the United Kingdom then all the options of devolution are there and are possible”.

Let us turn the telescope, and instead of getting crumbs from the table, let us open the larder door. That is exactly what Copenhagen does for the Faroe Islands, which can take or leave powers as they want. They have chosen to take everything except defence and justice. For example, their Finance Minister, Kristina Háfoss, within her jurisdiction, which covers 50,000 people, has powers equivalent to those that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has in a jurisdiction covering 60 million people. Given that the Faroese unemployment rate is lower than the UK’s, she is arguably more successful.

The Finance Minister’s party colleague in the coalition Government, the Fisheries Minister, Høgni Hoydal, deals not with Denmark on fisheries but with the entire EU, Iceland and Norway, as they decide the fate of north-east Atlantic fisheries. The Faroe Islands are in Denmark, but not in the EU. Size does not matter, as is proved by the fact that, on fisheries matters, 50,000 Faroese often get the better of 500 million EU citizens. It is not a case of asking Denmark or justifying policies to Copenhagen; it is a case of their own people in their own Parliament deciding what powers and polices they want. This is known as normality.

So let us learn. Let us turn the telescope. Let us help the Prime Minster fulfil his words about all options of devolution being there and possible. Let us cast aside the repeated failures of Westminster. Let the settled will of the Scottish people drive Scotland forward. Let us trust the people: Scots votes for Scots laws.

Question put and agreed to.


That Angus Brendan MacNeil, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, Stuart C McDonald, Stewart Hosie, Stuart Blair Donaldson, Carol Monaghan, Dr Paul Monaghan, Calum Kerr, Callum McCaig, Alex Salmond, Angus Robertson and Brendan O’Hara present the Bill.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March, and to be printed (Bill 101).