Scotland Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:27 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling 3:27 pm, 27th January 2011

I gave up many years ago trying to get into the political mind of the SNP and I do not know if I want to revisit some of those early nightmares I had in trying to understand it.

I want to concentrate on the additional fiscal powers. Some of us in the House are old enough to remember the 1978 proposals of the then Labour Government, one weakness of which was that they contained no taxation powers-no variation to what was then called the Scottish Assembly was to be allowed. To an extent, that lesson was learned when the 1998 legislation was introduced. The plus or minus 3% provision was intended to deal with the flaw in the earlier legislation, which of course failed the somewhat artificial 40% referendum test. The discussion around Calman recognised that the time was right to build on the 1998 Act and devolve more responsibility for revenue raising to the Scottish Parliament.

In addition, the Bill gives us a package of other changes that will enhance the Scottish Parliament's fiscal responsibility, including new borrowing powers, a stamp duty land tax, a landfill tax and, of course, the power to create new taxes, subject to the approval of both the Scottish and UK Parliaments, which I think is a responsible way forward. The assessment of those new taxes, however, must be open and transparent so that it does not feed into the arguments of the conspiracy theorists who will interpret anything less as an attempt to undermine Scotland. However, the Scottish Parliament should recognise, as I am sure it will, that any proposed new tax must be assessed according to its potential impact on economic incentives in Scotland.

I want to raise one area of concern on the new Scottish rate proposals. The implementation and impact of that power must be thoroughly tested and developed, and not only with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, important though that is. I know that the qualification for liability of the Scottish rate will be the same as or similar to those already set out in the Scotland Act 1998. Although we can easily see the implications for the basic and higher rate taxes, people in Scotland must also have clear information on the impact on their tax liability of pension contributions, to which the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South referred, and any unearned income, such as dividend receipts and bank interest. That sounds as though it concerns only a small group of people, but many people in Scotland earn interest through bank accounts and from dividends. I ask the Minister, both today and throughout the Bill's scrutiny, to consider how the current regime of tax credits on dividends, for example, will be managed if there are different tax rates in different parts of the UK.

What discussions have there been about the implications of variable tax? What will happen if someone uses an address for their unearned income, such as a bank based in London, Cardiff, Halifax or wherever, that is different from that used for their individual taxation north of the border? I know that those problems are not insurmountable. There might be issues of detail, but frankly, we want the system to be robust and watertight from the beginning, otherwise the Bill will be nothing other than a job creation scheme for accountants-having been married to an accountant for 39 years, I have no problem with that in principle. The Secretary of State, given his previous career as an accountant, will have some knowledge of how accountants can take a piece of legislation, dissect it and then work their way around it. I hope that those issues can be solved properly so that we can ensure a robust system.

The Bill certainly has some common-sense adjustments to the devolution settlement, such as the licensing of controlled substances and appointments to the BBC Trust, and there are other changes that are welcome in principle. However, greater discussion and clarification will be needed as the Bill goes through the House. For example, the power to set drink-driving limits, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, should be considered. Different limits north and south of the border could cause confusion. Again, that is an issue not of principle, but of clarity. If we are to devolve power on the licensing system for air weapons, we will undoubtedly need a clearer definition of what constitutes an air weapon than that currently specified in the Firearms Act 1968. I assume that the Secretary of State will be having discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that the power that is being handed over will take account of how technology has changed in the intervening years in the manufacture of air weapons.

Let me deal briefly with some of the attacks that have been made on the Bill, which are crystallised in the SNP amendment. It has been criticised for not giving meaningful economic powers, and yet the Scottish Parliament will now be able to raise significantly more income as a result. In addition, there will be additional borrowing powers of up to £3 billion. When there is a cyclical fall in tax receipts, which we might see during a recession, there are powers to manage that problem.

I know that Stewart Hosie is, or appears to be, an expert on all things fiscal, but, although he might be able to identify some of the problems, his analysis and conclusions are sometimes questionable. I advise him that not all of us agree with his suggested outcomes. Of course, we know that all that is code for fiscal autonomy, which in turn is camouflage for independence. I have no problem engaging with that argument, but we have to be realistic and admit that that is what the debate is all about: it is a debate for those who want to see the United Kingdom broken up and those of us who want to see it strengthened through the greater devolution of powers.

I am delighted to support the Bill, and I resent the almost trivialisation of some of its elements. The Scotland Act 1998 was one of the most complicated pieces of legislation ever to go through this House. It had to unpick legislation dating back over 300 years, since the union of Parliaments, so it was not straightforward. Stage hypnotists might not have been at the top of the political agenda, but legislation on stage hypnotists had to be dealt with as part of the Act. Indeed, given the number of hours we spent on it, I wonder how we did not realise that we had given Scotland power over Antarctica. I do not quite know how that slipped through in all those hours, but we should not trivialise the detailed work that had to be done to present that Act and to deliver a Scottish Parliament, or suggest that it somehow undermines the Scottish people's right to autonomy through devolution.

Issues of detail and clarification will undoubtedly need to be debated in the Chamber over the next few weeks, but the Bill is a natural progression along the road that we set down in 1998, and if Donald is up there on his cloud, he will definitely see that it is part of the process, and that 1998 was not just an event.