This week I spoke in parliament on the findings of the Devolution committee’s inquiry into the UK’s Government’s proposed legislation on further powers.
Here’s what I had to say:
The committee was tasked with scrutinising the previous UK Government’s translation of the Smith commission’s recommendations into proposed law. As my committee colleagues have said, that scrutiny was undertaken in an atmosphere of mutual respect and with an agreed determination to ensure that, as the report said,
“both the letter and the spirit of the Smith Commission’s report”
“fully translated into a legislative package”.
A key conclusion that the committee reached can be found in paragraph 493 of the report, which states:
“In some of the areas … the Committee believes that the current draft legislative proposals meet the challenge of fully translating the political agreement reached in the Smith Commission. In other areas, improvements in drafting and further clarification are required. In some critical areas, the then UK Government’s draft legislative clauses fall short.”
In the time that I have, I intend to outline where the Scottish Green Party is content that the clauses meet the letter and the spirit of the Smith commission’s proposals and where we believe that they do not. I will also stress the need to broaden public engagement as widely as possible as the process moves forward, which Jackie Baillie touched on.
It is fair to say that we are having this debate because, during the referendum campaign, the people of Scotland, regardless of what side they were on, became so involved in the debate about what kind of Scotland they wanted to live in. Some 18,000-plus emails were received during the Smith commission process. Given the tight timescale, it is fairly likely that those emails did not all receive the consideration that they perhaps deserved. We will never have all the time that we wish to have, but there is a little more time now for engagement. That level of engagement illustrates that, as the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations noted,
“If it is to be meaningful and effective, devolution must be driven by the people of Scotland”
“There must be opportunities for the public to influence the process and contribute their views.”
The committee report states as a key recommendation:
“The Committee believes that further public engagement, directly with the people of Scotland as well as representative bodies, charities, industry groups, voluntary bodies etc. is still a vital activity that needs to be carried out and is fully committed to the spirit of the recommendation made by the Smith Commission in this respect.”
“The Committee calls on the UK and Scottish Governments to consider how to commit to the spirit of the Smith Commission’s recommendation in this respect.”
The committee did what it could in that regard to go out and about. It had meetings and engaged where that was possible, but I would like the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament to consider properly how to broaden meaningful consultation. I urge the Government to look at things such as citizens juries and consensus conferences. As colleagues know, the charrettes method has been used with some success in the planning system in Scotland. Those techniques are used across the world to help to solve complex problems without top-down imposition by so-called experts.
As colleagues have stressed, welfare devolution is one of the complex problem areas. At First Minister’s question time last week, my colleague Patrick Harvie spoke of the
“tangible level of fear among so many people in the face of”
“to what remains of the welfare state.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2015; c 16.]
The Engender briefing for today’s debate sets out starkly how gendered the cuts have been. Since the coalition Government started cutting, 85 per cent of the money that has been saved from tax and benefit changes has come from women’s pockets. We want to fix those wrongs that are harming women, children and vulnerable people, but there are genuine concerns that we will not get the devolution of welfare right. Our job has not been made easy by the complex devolution agreement, which could potentially make things even more confusing for people.
The committee report has important recommendations to ensure that we are able to create a system that works. On top of that, women and those who are in receipt of benefits need to be much more involved in the design. Engender calls for the administration of universal credit to be devolved early with a section 30 order. Jim McCormick also pointed out that we need much-improved intergovernmental working if we are going to manage properly those really important areas of shared responsibility, such as welfare.
The Greens called for and welcomed agreement on the proposals for the devolution of unconventional gas licensing, fuel poverty and energy efficiency programmes, and formal consultation on energy policy. I agree with much of what the First Minister said yesterday on energy policy. Scotland needs a stronger voice.
The Scottish Government has a moratorium on fracking, but there should be no delay in the public consultation. It is time for a complete ban with no delay in devolving the licensing regime.
As we have heard, the Crown Estate is another area in which the draft clauses do not deliver the Smith agreement. For some reason, the proposed method of devolution is convoluted—the land reform expert Andy Wightman described it as “opaque, complex and unnecessary”. I strongly support the devolution of the Crown Estate away from Holyrood, but there is no need for overly complex preconditions in an already complex settlement. In effect, the draft clauses allow two Crown estates in Scotland, with one managed by commissioners in London and one managed by whatever sort of local devolution scheme is established. That is entirely at odds with the spirit of the Smith commission and must be rectified.
I welcome colleagues’ openness to the idea of building on the Smith commission. There is too much to cover, but I will make a final point. Devolution must not stop at Holyrood. I did not campaign for a mini-Westminster in Edinburgh. If the past couple of years have taught us anything at all, surely they have taught us that we need to trust our local authorities, our communities and our people with more power.