Scotland Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:12 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 2:12 pm, 27th January 2011

I will of course observe your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, but when we are talking about powers, it is important that we also discuss our capacity to use those powers effectively. My contention is that the points I have made show why we need to take a step-by-step approach and demonstrate how well we can use our powers, and then hopefully take more of them.

Those who want to go faster have to acknowledge that Scotland's capacity to take on the full responsibility for its own financial affairs is beyond credibility in the present circumstances. The UK is struggling to tackle a massive financial problem, and Scotland has a disproportionate share of that problem in its needs, its share of the national debt and its share in the underwriting of the banks, which has brought us to this pass. The reality is that Scotland's future lies absolutely within the UK, but it is important that we have the power to take appropriate decisions, accountable to the people of Scotland, in ways that can help us make our own contribution to solving those problems in our own way.

As one or two Members have mentioned-it was alluded to by Calman-the transfer of benefits policy to Scotland has been suggested. That might happen in the longer term, but most people would acknowledge that the administration of certain aspects of benefits could be devolved or shared. At the moment, however, Scotland's benefits bill is disproportionate, so the matter is much better shared across the UK, especially during these particularly difficult times.

We have embarked on a fundamental and radical welfare reform, which, leaving aside any controversial aspects, many people recognise has merit if it can deliver responsive benefits, value for work and so on. In the longer term it might be possible for Scotland to take a role in administering welfare, but now would hardly be the right moment to do so, as we are in the middle of a major funding deficit and a major reform programme. We must make common-sense decisions, taking on board what can practically be done now and acknowledging that further transfers could happen in the short term, when we are good and ready. Consideration at a later date can take us further forward.

I should like clarification on two questions that have been raised with me. One relates to the progressive commitment that the coalition Government have made on the threshold level of tax. As a former Treasury spokesman for my party, our commitment to raising the level at which people pay tax to £10,000, starting with £1,000 in the current year and progressing during this Parliament, is dear to my heart. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary in his reply can explain how that will be accommodated in calculating the tax revenues that would accrue to Scotland, or compensated for so that it does not create a disadvantage out of a good and progressive reform.

My second question relates to some aspects of charity law, which are not just peculiar to Scotland. When public authorities are looking to charities and the voluntary sector to take on more responsibilities for delivering public services, it raises questions about their status, and particularly their VAT liabilities. If a local authority or a health board provides services, there is no VAT, whereas if such services are provided by a voluntary organisation, there may be VAT liabilities. That may inhibit the transfer arrangements, which might otherwise be welcome. I acknowledge that that probably involves the Treasury and the Scotland Office, but I would appreciate some clarification if possible.

In the past 20 years, we have embarked on a process of restructuring the UK in a radical and decentralised way. As has been said in the past, devolution is a process, not an end product. No piece of legislation ends it. The Scottish National party wants the end to be independence. That is a perfectly respectable position, but for that, it has to win the support of the people of Scotland, which it is conspicuously failing to do. In the meantime, for those of us who want a stronger Scotland, with more control over its affairs and playing its full part in the United Kingdom, the Bill represents a major and significant step forward. It will, in my view, strengthen the United Kingdom, strengthen Scotland's role and accountability, and perhaps enable the people of Scotland to look to their destiny and say, "We cannot always blame London and other people, we have to use the instruments that we have to help ourselves, and co-operate with others to ensure that we tackle the bigger problems together." That is what the United Kingdom is about, and also what the devolution home rule settlement is about. They are not incompatible; both are essential. The Bill is a positive step forward, and will be beneficial to Scotland and the United Kingdom.