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Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2017

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2017

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016 (Consequential Provisions and Modifications) Order 2017.

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order laid before the House on 19 December 2016 now be considered. The background to this order is the Smith commission agreement and the Scotland Act 2016, which gave the Scottish Parliament significant new tax and welfare powers with responsibility for nearly £21 billion devolved and assigned tax revenues and more than £2 billion in demand-led welfare spending. Indeed, in future more than 50% of the Scottish Government’s budget will come from revenues raised in Scotland.

It is perhaps appropriate that we are debating this order today—the day on which the Scottish Parliament is, for the first time, setting income tax rates and bands for Scotland. It is therefore important that, also for the first time, there will be independent forecasts and analysis of the spending revenues within the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, something to which your Lordships’ House attached great importance during the passage of the Scotland Act. It was also a key objective for the UK Government in the fiscal framework negotiations with the Scottish Government.

Prior to this point, the Scottish Fiscal Commission has merely scrutinised and commented upon forecasts produced by the Scottish Government. This order is therefore made in consequence of the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016, which I shall refer to as the 2016 Act. It was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 10 March 2016 and received Royal Assent on 14 April 2016. The purpose of the 2016 Act was to establish the Scottish Fiscal Commission as a body corporate and to provide for its functions. These include preparing forecasts and assessments to inform the Scottish budget and a duty to co-operate with the Office for Budget Responsibility, so far as is necessary for it to perform its functions. The commission has a board of three commissioners, chaired by Susan Rice—Lady Rice—formerly CEO of Lloyds TSB Scotland, and it currently has a staff of 15. The impetus for the 2016 Act came from the fiscal framework agreement in February 2016 that set out the financial arrangements between the UK and Scottish Governments to underpin the new tax and spending powers in the Scotland Act 2016.

The commission was originally set up in 2014 as a non-statutory body with a main function of scrutinising the Scottish Government’s forecasts for tax revenues devolved to Scotland. From April 2017, the commission will become responsible for the production of forecasts on all revenue from fully devolved taxes and of income tax receipts arising from the rate-setting powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It will also produce forecasts of onshore Scottish GDP. This is important as under the fiscal framework agreement the Scottish Government are being given additional resource-borrowing powers, in part to assist in the management of any additional risks and volatility associated with extra devolution. The borrowing powers come into play if onshore Scottish GDP falls below certain trigger points.

This order is made under Section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for necessary or expedient legislative provision in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. It will have UK extent and will enable the 2016 Act to be implemented in full. It contains provisions about the status of the commission and amends UK legislation which is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Article 2, for example, makes the commission part of the Scottish Administration, allowing for its designation as a non-ministerial department. The effect of this is that the commission will be accountable to the Scottish Parliament. Also, civil servants who work in the commission, which is currently a non-statutory body, will transfer to the new statutory commission and continue to be civil servants. The Civil Service is a reserved matter under Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, so it is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to enact such a transfer.

Article 3 reflects the fact that under the Crown Suits (Scotland) Act 1857 every action to be instituted in Scotland on behalf of, or against, an organisation in the Scottish Administration may be lawfully raised in the name of, or directed against, the Lord Advocate. In order to safeguard the perceived independence of the commission from the Scottish Government, Article 3 disapplies the 1857 Act so that the Lord Advocate, a member of the Scottish Government, should not represent the Commission.

Article 4 places an obligation on the Office for Budget Responsibility to co-operate with the commission. It is required to enable information sharing so far as it is necessary for the commission to fulfil its functions, and is a reciprocal duty to the one I mentioned earlier in the 2016 Act.

Finally, Article 5 amends the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 to disqualify members of the Scottish Fiscal Commission from being Members of the House of Commons. This is to protect the independence and impartiality of the commission and mirrors similar provisions in the Scottish Parliament legislation regarding elected representatives.

The UK and Scottish Governments’ Ministers and officials have worked closely together to ensure that this order makes the necessary amendments to UK legislation in consequence of the 2016 Act and the fiscal framework agreement. I hope that noble Lords will agree that it represents a sensible and appropriate use of the powers in the Scotland Act. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear and lucid presentation of the order. It is a step in the right direction that we on the Labour Benches welcome. It is commendable that both Governments have been able to come together to provide for independent scrutiny of Scottish Government finances. Noble Lords may be aware that some members of the Scottish Government were initially uncertain about the wisdom of setting up an independent body to scrutinise their work, and kept changing their minds. We are glad that they have been brought around to the idea.

As the Minister said, this measure emanates from the Smith commission. I am lucky enough at the moment to have the services of a Hansard intern, a young man from Latvia—one of the countries that escaped the Soviet yoke over the past few years—and he is interested in constitutional matters. The basis for this order is commendable in terms of the agreement reached, and the measure agreed must serve as a model for some constitutional change in different parts of the world. For the first time, there will be independent forecasts and analysis of the spending and revenues of the Scottish Parliament. This is incredibly significant because the Scotland Act 2016 turned the Scottish Parliament into one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. With that responsibility must come transparency, independent scrutiny and accountability.

This order is made as a consequence of the Scottish Fiscal Commission Act 2016, and enables the Act to be implemented in full. We welcome the reciprocal duty that this order places on the Office for Budget Responsibility to co-operate with the Scottish Fiscal Commission. Can the Minister say whether work is already under way to build structures for this co-operation between the two bodies, and whether the OBR is offering advice and guidance on recruitment and impartiality ahead of the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s expanded role?

This order embeds the newly empowered fiscal commission as part of the Scottish Administration and removes any uncertainty about its future. It builds a welcome infrastructure to ensure both current and future Governments are held to account. We look forward to the work the commission will do to shed light on Scottish Government finances now and for many years. This totally justifies the initial implementation of the Scotland Act 1998, which started us on the road to devolution. We welcome this measure.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for this order. He is right to point out that initially the Scottish Government were not persuaded of the need for the Scottish Fiscal Commission to undertake independent forecasting. This was one of the positive outcomes from the discussions in which he and I exchanged many views on the fiscal framework negotiations.

As to the provision of information and advice, the order enables and facilitates the provision of reciprocal information between the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the OBR, and I am sure that that will take place. The noble Lord is right to point out the importance of constituting a Scottish Fiscal Commission that is properly resourced with the right expertise. It is fair to say that there is a relatively small pool of people who have the expertise to carry out this technical forecasting and modelling. I am sure that discussions are going on to ensure that the Scottish Fiscal Commission has the right people to do what will be its important job of making these forecasts and ensuring that the information on which the Scottish Government take their decisions is well founded.

I would like to clear my conscience. I mentioned the Latvian intern but did not mention his name. He is Mr Ralfs Beitans—I feel a bit guilty about using his work and not mentioning him. The Minister’s response indicates the level of co-operation and agreement that has existed between the two Front Benches to deliver a powerful Scottish Parliament, and I am grateful to the Minister for that.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his excellent co-operation during this process. As I said during the passage of the Scotland Act, we will continue to return to this House and the other place to report on the progress of the fiscal framework.

Motion agreed.