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Scotland Bill: Fiscal Framework

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made on the Fiscal Framework that accompanies the Scotland Bill.

My Lords, significant progress has been made, not least over the course of the last week, in the discussions with the Scottish Government. As I told the House yesterday, although nothing is certain, a deal is within reach. Discussions between the two Governments are continuing this afternoon and are at an advanced stage. The UK Government remain focused and committed to delivering a fiscal framework that is fair to all parts of the UK. We all want to see the debate in Scotland move from what the powers of the Scottish Parliament are to how those powers can be used. The UK Government are confident that, used well, these powers can further help Scotland to prosper within our United Kingdom.

In light of the Statement being made by the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament at 2.30 pm today, which may still be going on, will the Minister continue with discussions, however difficult the circumstances may be? Will he keep in mind that this House wishes all parts of the United Kingdom to be treated with fairness and that, if there are to be increased powers, these have to be matched by increased accountability? Finally, I wish to say that I have known the Minister for 30 years as a person of great integrity and ability and I wish him every success in whatever discussions lie ahead.

I thank my noble friend for his kind words. I am aware that Scotland’s First Minister is making a Statement in the Scottish Parliament as we speak. The Government will obviously take very careful note of what she says and we will continue to engage constructively until a deal is done. That is what people in Scotland and all parts of the United Kingdom expect us to do. I very much agree with my noble friend that any deal must be fair to Scotland and all parts of the United Kingdom. It is in the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom to have a Scottish Parliament that is more responsible and accountable to the taxpayers of Scotland. I think that, in this House, we can all agree that with power comes responsibility.

My Lords, can the Minister acknowledge that, while he negotiates quietly, the Scottish Government are orchestrating their responses in the full glare of the Scottish media? In those circumstances, there are people in Scotland, including those who want the union to continue, who have some suspicion of the UK Government. Does he not agree that when an agreement is reached—and I hope it will be soon—we have to ensure that an independent commission can assess the fairness across the UK, so that the whole of the UK, including Scotland, can be reassured that a deal will not just be agreed but will be monitored to ensure that it is fair to all sides?

On the noble Lord’s first point, in any negotiation there is always a balance to be struck between keeping the public informed and providing the private space to get the deal done. Our priority has been to do all we can to reach an agreement, rather than to adopt public positions that in some way make it more difficult to reach agreement. With regard to independent scrutiny, I very much agree with the noble Lord, and I am sure that that will be part of any agreement we reach.

Will my noble friend guarantee that we will not proceed with further consideration of the Scotland Bill until we have a clear idea about the financial framework and can judge whether it is fair? It would be quite monstrous, given the history of this affair so far, if we were not to have adequate time to debate the matter.

Obviously, this is a negotiation between two parties, and I cannot give a guarantee on an outcome to a specific timetable. What I can say is that both Governments understand the pressing parliamentary timetables, both here and in Holyrood, and our desire and commitment to see full scrutiny of this fiscal framework.

Can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom Government will not agree to a deal on the fiscal framework that makes permanent the benefits to Scotland of the Barnett formula, while preserving the disbenefits of that formula to taxpayers in the rest of Great Britain?

My Lords, as I said at the outset, we are very conscious that this deal must be fair not only to Scotland but to the other parts of the UK. We will certainly not, because of the pressure of parliamentary time, do a deal at any cost.

My Lords, with regard to the fairness to all parts of the UK, will the Minister accept that no deal will be regarded as acceptable in Wales unless it does away with the iniquitous Barnett formula, as has been recommended by a committee of this House, and replaces it with a needs-based formula as soon as possible?

The noble Lord will be aware of the commitments that were made by all of the UK parties at the time of the last election with regard to the Barnett formula, and I do not have anything to add to that.

My Lords, it is accepted that this is a difficult and complicated situation, but there is a duty on the UK Government and the Scottish Government to come to an agreement. We in the Labour Party are confident that a deal will be made in good faith by the UK Government and the Scottish Government and, in the words of Ian Murray, we urge both parties to “get on with it”.

I say to the noble Lord that we in the UK Government are determined to go the extra mile to ensure that we get a deal.

Will my noble friend confirm his answer to my noble friend Lord Higgins? Will he give an undertaking that the Scotland Bill will not proceed any further until the fiscal framework has been published?

Our priority is to get a deal done so that we have a fiscal framework that this House can scrutinise. That is our first priority.

Is my noble friend aware that, in the end, the one person who did not agree with the Barnett formula was Joel Barnett himself?

The Minister referred to a timetable that must be recognised and adhered to. The one part of the timetable that is within the Government’s control is the passage of legislation through Parliament—not entirely of course, because one can never predict debates, but it is within the Government’s power to decide when legislation will be brought forward and even to extend legislation from one Session to the next. Can he please explain that aspect of the timetable, to which he referred earlier?

We are absolutely committed to getting the Bill through in this Session, and I think that we need to operate to a timetable that will achieve that outcome.