On Wednesday I spoke in the Democracy and Devolution debate in parliament. I touched on “The Vow”, public engagement and whether the Scotland Bill matches the Smith Commission.
Read on for the full text of my speech.
In preparing for today’s debate, I reread the vow—the historic signed joint promise that was made by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and which was carried by the Daily Record exactly a year ago today. I am firmly of the view that those three Westminster party leaders felt compelled to sign that promise to the people of Scotland following polling on the referendum question, because—let us face it—signing a joint pledge promising “extensive new powers” would not have been on their week-by-week referendum planners.
Whatever our view, however, what we witnessed was people and politics meeting on the front page of a popular national newspaper, and the vow can be considered to be symbolic of an incredible shared experience in which people and politics came together. Within that changed dynamic, which is needed and welcome, people are involved and are taking part and sharing views rather than simply having politics done on their behalf by a few representatives.
In its briefing for today’s debate, the Electoral Reform Society Scotland asks:
“One year on, have we honoured the legacy of this ‘energised and enthused’ nation?”
The ERS, I suggest, thinks not, and I am inclined to agree with it. The ERS and witness after witness at the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee commented on the haste with which this part of the devolution process has progressed. Aileen McHarg, who is a professor of public law at the University of Strathclyde, said that
“It is hardly an original observation to say that the process that has been followed so far has been unsatisfactory.”
It is important to remember what it was like in Scotland in the lead-up to the referendum—how people packed out public meeting halls, how passionate were the pub and kitchen table conversations that were had around the country, and how it felt like we were all part of an important decision. We were learning to discuss and debate issues that matter. That is not divisive; it is empowering.
Today, we will support the Government’s motion and Labour’s amendment. We cannot support Annabel Goldie’s amendment. It asks that we continue to scrutinise the Scotland Bill in an “objective and constructive” way in order to allow the identification of “appropriate” improvements, yet it would delete the reference to the unanimously agreed, objective and constructive finding of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee that the bill does not fully deliver the Smith commission’s recommendations.
The Conservative amendment also says:
“extensive constitutional change is best brought about by building a broad consensus between political parties and governments”.
That is important, but the amendment excludes—or at least forgets to mention—the people of Scotland. Participation takes time and effort, but it leads to a better outcome. I do not think that any considered body of experts charged with securing optimal outcomes for people would have designed the devolution of welfare powers that is currently on offer. I do not dismiss the powers that will be devolved, but there is concern that they are not sufficient or broad enough to help us to make the system work.
The Crown Estate is another area in which the devolution proposals seem to have been designed by someone who really did not want such devolution to happen. When the Smith commission report said that
“Responsibility for the management of the Crown Estate’s economic assets in Scotland … will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament”,
people understood that to mean pretty simple devolution of everything. However, that is not what we are offered. We will have a double-stream Crown Estate and complex transfer scheme, and Scotland will see no financial benefits from assets such as Fort Kinnaird.
In the vow, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg agreed that
“The Scottish Parliament is permanent”.
As we members of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee know, the drafting on that important provision has provided academics with many challenges, and continues to do so.
The Smith commission was hurriedly convened. It delivered its report, and now we debate whether the Scotland Bill delivers the report’s intent and the change that was agreed by the people who represented Scotland’s people on the commission.
We need to insist on and be part of a new type of politics. The people I speak to are not concerned about whether a party leader is wearing a tie; they want to debate the need for the ermine-clad members of the House of Lords. They think that we need devolution of gender politics to this Parliament. Surely that is essential to a new politics.
The further devolution of powers that we are discussing, and the way in which powers are being devolved, mean that positive intergovernmental relations are essential. In evidence to the committee, Jim McCormick said:
“Smith observed that we have weak intergovernmental working”—[Official Report, Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, 19 February 2015; c 4.]
He focused in particular on the impact that that might have on welfare devolution. The sharing of power in relation to universal credit demands a mature relationship and a commitment to work for the greater good. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations agreed that the interconnections would be complex, and pointed out that the people who rely on benefits are often vulnerable.
We look forward to progress at the Scotland Bill’s report stage in the UK Parliament, and we hope that the bill will match the spirit and substance of the Smith commission recommendations. If that is to happen, we need clarity on the Sewel convention, the Crown Estate, welfare benefits, definitions of carers and disability, employment programmes and much, much more. The Westminster Government has much to do to deliver a Scotland Bill that matches the intent of the Smith commission.