Scotland Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:44 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of John Stevenson John Stevenson Conservative, Carlisle 2:44 pm, 27th January 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. My contribution will be modest, given that I am not versed in the intricacies of the politics of Scotland, although I am learning quite a lot this afternoon. As a Scot who has family in Scotland, I have a great interest in what happens there and I would like to see Scotland succeed. I am also interested in the continuing relationship between the devolved Government and the national Government. Most importantly, I represent a constituency on the border, so I want to be aware of the implications of the Bill for my constituents.

I appreciate that the Bill is primarily relevant to Scotland, but it does have a potential impact in England, and that impact will be most pronounced in the border area, affecting seats such as Berwick-upon-Tweed, Hexham, Penrith and the Border, Workington and, of course, Carlisle. Indeed, in my part of the country, we have an unusual relationship with Scotland in that we were not part of the Domesday book because we were part of Scotland at the time. Subsequently, we had the "Debatable Lands", the reivers, and the movement of the border to Hadrian's wall and so on. Indeed, that continues to this very day with the invasion of Carlisle every Saturday by people coming over the border to shop and for entertainment. I therefore have a slightly different perspective on this debate to many hon. Members north of the border.

There will no doubt be some concern in my area about the Bill and the impact, in particular, of the tax-raising powers. In reality, many of the issues already exist: there are separate laws on housing, inheritance and planning. In some ways, the planning laws have been beneficial to parts of Scotland, with Gretna being an example. Traditionally, licensing laws were different. I remember when I moved to Chester from Scotland, I got a shock when the pub closed at 10.30 rather than 12, but England has since progressed. Scotland was also ahead of the curve on the smoking ban, to its credit. At times, Scotland can be more progressive and innovative. Indeed, those who live on the border are often more aware of the differences between the two countries and the various laws that affect them.

I welcome the Bill and its proposals. They are very much in line with the recommendations of the Calman report, which has broad support in this Chamber. It is also in line with my own philosophical viewpoint and that of the Conservative party-and of the Liberal Democrats-including a belief in localism, decentralisation and financial accountability. Devolution is now an accepted part of our political culture and is generally accepted by most people. Therefore, the issues that we now have to debate are the workings of devolution, how to make it better, how to achieve the right balance and the powers that we give to the devolved Assembly. Giving powers away is very much in line with the localism agenda, including the need for responsibility and the link between spending and taxation. Indeed, in many respects, that link has been missing in the English local government debate as well as in the Scottish one, but I am delighted that the Government are starting to address that issue for English councils just as they are for Scotland in this Bill.

The aim of the Calman commission was to recommend changes to the present constitutional arrangements in three ways-to serve the people of Scotland better, to improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament and to continue to secure the position of Scotland in the UK. It is in terms of those three key points that we must consider the Bill.

As Calman said, the devolution settlement is a "real success" and "works well in practice". In many respects, that outcome is supported by the Bill, which does not dramatically rewrite the devolution settlement, but fine-tunes and adds to it. As hon. Members have said, the key aspect of the Bill is the changes on tax, but it also includes drink-driving limits, speed limits and other measures. I suspect the drink-driving limits and speed limits will be of more interest to those of my constituents who travel over the border.

One omission from the Bill is welfare and social security. It will be interesting to see how the Government approach that in due course, but I appreciate that a national debate on that subject is going on. The reforms that the Government are proposing nationally must have priority.

Income tax is the obvious area that could have an impact on cross-border relationships. There are people who live in Scotland and work in England and vice versa. However, I believe that there is nothing wrong in having different tax rates between different places-we see it at local government level with domestic rates-and allowing the Scottish Parliament to be able to set its own income tax rate creates accountability, responsibility and transparency.

The tax that I am probably most interested in, and the one that gives Scotland a real opportunity to be innovative, relates to old-fashioned stamp duty land tax and how it could be applied to commercial and residential property. If the Scottish Parliament is innovative, that will give it the opportunity to gain a commercial advantage, which could be beneficial to the local economy. However, the Bill is not just about transferring powers; it is also about providing the tools for Scotland to improve itself. The really exciting part of the Bill is that the Scottish Government and Parliament will receive incentives and control over their own economic destiny.

In my view, the Scottish economy needs to have a smaller public sector and a much larger private sector. Scotland needs to grow its private sector, and by doing that it needs to increase its population, build more houses and create more businesses. It will now have some of the tools to achieve that, via business rates, SDLT and income tax. This is a real opportunity for Scotland. If it can grow its tax base, it can reap the benefits. So I welcome the Bill. It achieves the key objectives of the Calman commission. It gives Scotland a greater opportunity to do things differently and, perhaps, better, and interestingly enough, the 2015 election will give the political parties an opportunity to offer different visions of a future Scotland. That is healthy for Scottish democracy and the Scottish Parliament, and will help to strengthen the Union.