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Smith Commission: Implementation

Volume 762: debated on Monday 8 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they regard the implementation of the recommendations of the Smith Commission as an adequate response to the outcome of the general election in Scotland.

My Lords, the Scotland Bill will deliver in full the historic Smith commission agreement to devolve further powers to the Scottish Parliament within a strengthened United Kingdom, as agreed by all the main political parties in Scotland last November. The implementation of the Smith commission agreement shows this Government’s commitment to make the Scottish Parliament one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.

My Lords, before the referendum on 18 September last year, many people in Scotland were led to believe that home rule was on the table. The Smith commission report in no way fulfils any meaningful interpretation of the term “home rule”. In those circumstances, is it not now time to look at new solutions—a balanced constitutional solution for the United Kingdom, on a confederal basis—that can meet the aspirations of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and, indeed, England itself?

My Lords, the Smith agreement was agreed by all five of Scotland’s main political parties. I believe that is the first time in the history of devolution that that has happened. It will create, as I have already said, one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. This Government’s commitment is to deliver Smith in full, and we are doing so. Of course, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, we are open to sensible, evidence-based proposals that others might wish to table. However, I should make two points. It is only just over nine months ago that the people of Scotland voted clearly and decisively to remain within the United Kingdom, with all the benefits that that involves, and we need to respect that. It is also worth making the point that for those who believe in separation, there is no package of further devolution that will be sufficient.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, given that the SNP repudiated the Smith commission proposals before the ink was even dry on them, and given that the three unionist parties—the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties—got only one seat at the subsequent general election, the Smith commission proposals are clearly not going to meet the aspirations of the Scottish people, and that we need a constitutional convention that will provide a solution that meets the needs of all parts of the United Kingdom and provides some stability, so that we can get on with discussing health and education and the things that matter to the people of Scotland?

My Lords, it is not a characterisation I would agree with that the electorate of Scotland repudiated the Smith agreement. Every one of the manifestos of all the main parties, including the SNP, included a commitment to take forward the Smith agreement. Of course, there will be discussions, and I know that there are many views within this House about how best to do that, but the main objective—the Government’s main commitment and priority—is to take forward the commitment we made to implement the Smith agreement.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that, having agreed the Smith commission proposals, the SNP then wanted to go much further: for full fiscal autonomy on the basis of its rather spurious estimate for the future of the Scottish economy. That was based on oil at $113 a barrel. This morning, oil was around $60 a barrel, opening up a £7 billion or £8 billion black hole in projected Scottish public expenditure. Has he received any recent demands from the SNP for full fiscal autonomy?

My Lords, I am not sure exactly where the SNP stands now on full fiscal autonomy. Its position seems to change by the day but I am absolutely clear, and the Government are clear, that full fiscal autonomy would be bad for Scotland. By the end of this Parliament, it would leave a £10 billion funding gap that would have to be addressed by higher taxes or larger spending cuts in Scotland. The noble Lord is absolutely right that one of the benefits of being part of the UK is that which comes from pooling and sharing resources, so that public expenditure remains relatively stable when revenue flows such as oil and gas are so volatile.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Government are honouring their commitment to bring in a Bill to deliver the Smith commission proposals. However, does the Minister accept that when responding to the request of the First Minister of Wales for a constitutional convention before the referendum, the Prime Minister accepted that there would need to be an open, involved and comprehensive conversation about the kind of union we want to see and that, 15 years after the process of devolution started, we should consider the best way to go about doing so? What consideration are the Prime Minister and the Government giving to that very necessary constitutional convention?

It is absolutely right that, in addition to taking forward the commitments to constitutional reform in each part of our United Kingdom, including England, it is necessary to look at how those devolution settlements work as a whole. That is why the Government are committed to reviewing the intergovernmental arrangements and taking them forward in discussion with the devolved Administrations. We will do that, and listen carefully to the lively debate which I am sure will take place on how best we can make our devolution settlements work as a whole.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there are lots of wealthy people in Scotland—landowners, industrialists and so on, not all of whom, by the way, are now members of the Tory party—and will he tell the House what action the so-called radical left-wing Scottish Government have taken to redistribute wealth within Scotland, using their existing tax powers?

The noble Lord makes a very good point indeed. In addition to debating and asking for more powers, the debate should increasingly focus on how the Scottish Government intend to use their existing powers and the very considerable powers that will be coming their way in the very near future.

My Lords, we do not do constitutions in this country. Why do we always proceed in a piecemeal way? What is the Government’s precise objection to the constitutional convention being proposed by other parties?

I do not believe we are proceeding in a piecemeal way. We will be taking forward four strands of constitutional change over the course of this Parliament: change in Scotland, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, and, as I have said, fairness for England. We will listen very carefully to the discussion about how these devolution settlements work as a whole, and I look forward to some lively further discussion in this House.