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Revised Fiscal Framework

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2016

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Ministers of the Scottish Government on negotiation of a revised fiscal framework for Scotland. (903485)

I have regular discussions with the Deputy First Minister to discuss the fiscal framework. The Joint Exchequer Committee met on Monday, and negotiations are ongoing.

Yesterday the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister listing the issues on which agreement still needed to be reached. They were the method for

“block grant adjustment…set-up and administration costs, capital and revenue borrowing, fiscal oversight and dispute resolution.”

Can the Secretary of State confirm that those are all the outstanding issues on which agreement still needs to be reached?

It was established at the start of the discussions that until everything was agreed, nothing was agreed, but considerable progress has been made on all those issues. I was very pleased to learn from the First Minister’s letter that the Finance Secretary would be presenting revised proposals from the Scottish Government. That is what a negotiation involves: it involves both parties presenting revised proposals as the negotiation progresses, and that is exactly what the UK Government are committed to doing.

The starting point of the fiscal framework discussions is the Barnett formula, which means that Scotland’s public spending per capita is 15% higher than the United Kingdom average. Does the Secretary of State believe that that differential will be maintained in perpetuity?

My hon. Friend’s views on the Barnett formula are well known. I do not agree with them, and nor do the Government. The Government’s position is that the formula will remain, even in the post-fiscal framework environment.

The negotiations on the fiscal framework are in a very sensitive and fragile state, and we must be very careful about the language that is used. However, the Secretary of State has used language like “ludicrous” and “chancing his arm” when it comes to one party to the negotiations, which is profoundly unhelpful. If the Secretary of State and the Scotland Office have nothing to offer the negotiations, will the Secretary of State vow to stay right out of it, and leave those who want to find a solution to try to get those negotiations fixed?

I find it a little odd to take a lecture from that particular hon. Gentleman on moderate language.

I do not think anyone can doubt my commitment to ensuring that we have a negotiated fiscal framework, and I am delighted that, in her letter to the Prime Minister, the First Minister set out her strong commitment to achieving such an agreement, because that is the Prime Minister’s position. As I said at the weekend, both sides have done the dance; now let us do the deal.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to have the successful devolution that we all want, we need a firm and sensible framework for fiscal discipline that will last, and will stand the tests of all the unknown economic vicissitudes that may hit the country? Will he assure us that we will not repeat the mistakes that have been made in Spain, where devolved provinces frequently run up unsustainable debts which they then blame on Madrid, causing great difficulties to Spanish Governments who are seeking recovery?

As my right hon. and learned Friend will recognise, the settlement in Spain is entirely different. I agree with him about the need for a sustainable fiscal framework, but, as the Government have made clear in the negotiations, we are willing to accept a review of the arrangements in a few years to ensure that they stand up to scrutiny, and are seen to be fair to both Scotland and to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Speaker, I join you in congratulating Andy Murray and Kim Sears on the birth of their baby daughter. However, their baby daughter might be winning Wimbledon by the time we get a deal on the fiscal framework. The UK and Scottish Governments have now been negotiating it for more than six months, which is longer than it took to negotiate the Scotland Bill itself, longer than it took to strike the historic international climate change agreement and longer than it took the G20 leaders to negotiate $1.1 trillion of support for the global economy. It is clearly the indexation model that is contentious, so will the Secretary of State tell the House why he thinks the per capita index model is not appropriate for the indexation of the block grant?

I have made it clear in previous discussions that we are not going to have detailed negotiations on this matter on the Floor of the House. I have also said that I very much welcome the fact that the First Minister has indicated that the Scottish Government are going to bring forward a revised proposal, just as we have done through the negotiations. I believe that we are within touching distance of striking a deal and I remain optimistic that we will do so.

The Secretary of State says that he will not provide a running commentary on the fiscal framework, yet both Governments are providing exactly that. The respected economist Anton Muscatelli has said of the fiscal framework:

“I do not understand why it should be such a huge stumbling block.”

The constitutional expert Jim Gallagher has said:

“This fiscal framework is an eminently solvable problem.”

The Prime Minister has spent recent months shuttling around Europe trying to strike a deal on EU reform. Is it not time that he got involved and showed the same enthusiasm for striking a fair deal for Scotland in our own Union as he has shown for the European Union?

The Prime Minister is committed to securing a deal. He has spoken to Nicola Sturgeon about this issue and they have had productive discussions. They are now involved in an exchange of letters, but they are both quite clear that they now want a deal. I am confident, given the position set out in the letter from the First Minister that the Scottish Government are actively engaging in that negotiation process, as are we, that we will be able to get that deal.