Scotland Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 27th January 2011.

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Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour, Kilmarnock and Loudoun 4:35 pm, 27th January 2011

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. As Mrs Laing said, this is Burns week, which is a week when people across the world celebrate their Scottish roots. I always enjoy this time of year because people are asking me for advice on how to pronounce particular Scots words, rather than gently-or perhaps not so gently-mocking my native Ayrshire accent. Some of my Scottish Parliament staff have found the transition to Westminster slightly more difficult. At one point, my diary secretary had to explain what was meant by the fact that my diary was "stappit" and I was therefore unable to make a particular event. For the benefit of the Hansard reporters and any translators, I should say that "stappit" simply means very full.

In the past week, the new Burns museum opened in Alloway, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Sandra Osborne, and that superb new venue hosted the Burns humanitarian award ceremony, with Linda Norgrove being a very worthy posthumous winner. With due deference to my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), we Mauchline residents are fond of saying that although Robert Burns was born in Alloway and died in Dumfries, he lived in our village. It was therefore a pleasure to join the Mauchline Burns club to lay a wreath at the Burns national memorial in Mauchline on Burns day this week.

I reassure you that I am not about to continue a treatise on Robert Burns, Mr Deputy Speaker, as there will be other opportunities for that. However, the references to him are relevant, because Burns was intensely concerned about Scotland and the Scottish people and, despite what some SNP Members might claim, not from a narrow nationalist perspective. Burns was an internationalist who looked beyond geographical boundaries and got to the heart of humanity, and that is very much the spirit of Scotland today. We are all proud to be Scots and we will be passionately patriotic at football and on the full range of other areas, but we all know that Scots have made a much wider contribution to the world than simply looking after our own backyard. The vast majority of working-class Scots certainly know that we have more in common with our neighbours who live south of the border in similar communities than divides us.

So when we take forward the debate on the Scotland Bill we must focus on what we can deliver for people in Scotland; this cannot simply be an academic exercise that bears no relation to the lives of the people who send us here to represent their views. I am proud to have represented the Scottish Parliament constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley for more than 10 years, and I will continue to represent it for the next 54 days as I count them down. I hope that, rather than that simply being a matter for the public record, it might help to offer a distinct perspective to the matter in hand, as was the case with my hon. Friend Margaret Curran.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the Bill is broadly based on the Calman commission report, and I, too, wish to put on record my appreciation for what was a thorough and robust process involving a broad section of Scottish civil society. Sir Kenneth Calman has produced a significant body of work in which all those associated with it can take pride. I am in broad agreement with the aims of the Bill-perhaps people will say that that is no surprise-and I will be supporting it. However, as I shall set out, I believe that some aspects of it should be thoroughly and robustly examined, not least by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, and scrutinised in this Chamber.

In the foreword to the White Paper on devolution, Donald Dewar wrote:

"The Government's aim is a fair and just settlement for Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom-a settlement which will be good both for Scotland and the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament will strengthen democratic control and make government more accountable to the people of Scotland."

That was the basis of the Bill that fundamentally altered the structure of power in the United Kingdom.

On 11 September 1997, just over five months after Labour came to power, 74% of Scots voted in favour of the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. On 1 July 1999, the Scottish Parliament was officially convened. That date marked the transfer of powers and devolved matters to Scottish Ministers, and it was a time of immense pride for the vast majority of the Scottish people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East has observed, those of us who were fortunate enough to be part of that day will forever feel that we were part of the history of Scotland. So quick and seamless were the transfer of powers and their incorporation into Scottish life that the enormity of the development and the significance of the change in a relatively short time might not always be acknowledged in the manner that it should be.

Notwithstanding the controversy over the Parliament building, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary-I will call him my right hon. Friend in recognition of the days that we spent in the Scottish Parliament-will recall that some of the other debates in those early days were passionate and had a real energy and enthusiasm for the change that was taking place. That was due in no small part to the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention over almost two decades, as was acknowledged by Malcolm Bruce. The convention was established in 1989 and consisted of representatives of civic Scotland and of most of the political parties. It drew up a detailed blueprint for devolution and outlined the proposals for the directly elected Scottish Parliament, crucially with the legislative powers that were finally achieved. That also formed the basis for the further proposals that were introduced by the UK Government in 1997.

I am proud to associate myself with the achievements of the Scottish Parliament over the past decade. As a Parliament, we set out to change Scotland for the better. A substantial body of work was undertaken, starting with the abolition of a millennium of feudal tenure, with communities being given the right to buy and manage the land on which they lived and worked. This was symbolic as well as practical. We also ensured that our elderly people could live with dignity and respect by introducing free personal care. We led on public well-being in the UK by introducing the smoking ban in public places, which represented a step change in the way we dealt with health issues in Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament also introduced an unprecedented programme of school and hospital building, ensuring that our children no longer had to be taught in substandard buildings and that our sick would no longer be abandoned to Victorian conditions in hospitals. We abolished up-front tuition fees and introduced bursaries for the less well-off students, which resulted in more young people going on to further education in Scotland than ever before. We also introduced a ban on fox hunting. I was particularly pleased with the establishment of a Children's Commissioner for Scotland, for which I had campaigned for about 10 years before I even thought of becoming a full-time politician. The repeal of section 28 was controversial at the time, but now it is completely accepted as having been the right thing to do in the pursuit of equality. It was a Parliament that challenged Scotland to think about its future. It tried to engage every Scot in the challenges that we faced, and it led public debate in civil society. It is a Parliament that continues to ensure that there is a focus on protecting the most vulnerable, and it has made a real difference to the lives of everyone in Scotland.

The Calman commission came along at the right time, however. It published its findings after just a decade of the devolution settlement, and that seems an appropriate length of time after which to offer an initial assessment of how the Parliament has worked, as well as how we need to move on. Since 1999, the devolution settlement has remained relatively static, but I think that that was right at the time, as it allowed things to bed in and allowed the Parliament to take shape. Some minor changes were made. The Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004 retained the current level of representation at 129 MSPs. That was done in recognition of the youth of the Parliament as well as the range of work that it was undertaking at the time. We have heard other examples of minor tweaks, not least the Railways Act 2005-perhaps not so minor a tweak-which allowed Scottish Ministers to prepare a strategy for carrying out their functions in relation to railways and railway services. That was another practical and sensible change.

It is now time, of course, to consider the future. The task that the Calman commission was set was:

"To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better"- for me, that is the critical point-as well as to

"improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament".

That is what I want to talk about now.

The Calman analysis of the current settlement, notwithstanding some of the criticisms we have heard in the Chamber today, is persuasive. England and Scotland have been part of the Union for three centuries but Scotland maintains its own identity and now has its own devolved political institutions. Overall, people would say the devolution settlement has been shown to work pretty well. It has not led to the convoluted or confused relationship with other partners in the United Kingdom that some people thought it might; nor has it led down a one-way street towards independence, as others feared. There are changes that we can and must make in order to take forward this work in the future.

There is cross-party understanding that the financial arrangements lack the financial accountability we will want to see as the Parliament progresses. By depending wholly on the Westminster grant, the budget bears no relation to economic performance in Scotland. As we have seen in recent years with differing strands of opinion in power at Holyrood and Westminster, that can result in friction between Governments. The premise of the Calman commission was that election to the Scottish Parliament should be accompanied not just by being there to divide up the block grant but by having fiscal accountability, too. Under the proposed arrangements, Scotland will become more dependent on and more accountable for the tax revenue it raises.

As we have heard, the Bill replaces the Scottish variable rate of income tax with a new Scottish rate of income tax that will be decided by the Scottish Parliament annually and applied consistently to the basic, higher and additional rates of income tax. The grant from the UK Government will automatically be reduced by 10p in the pound and the Scottish rate will be added to it. In principle, I support the proposed measures, but we must ensure that there is proper and thorough scrutiny of what they will mean as the Bill goes through Parliament.

Under the proposals, the UK will retain control of exemptions and reliefs and Scottish tax revenues will be subject to Westminster control. One concern that has been raised is that when the UK takes decisions such as increasing the personal allowance to £9,000 or eliminating the 50% top rate, that will affect Scottish revenues. We have heard criticisms of that today as well as some attempted reassurances. A critical point that we must reach in Committee will involve ensuring that we receive reassurances about how that will work as well as assurances that it will not cause further problems or lead to unintended consequences, as has been suggested in Scotland.

Borrowing powers will also be introduced, another move that I broadly support. We have heard that from 2015, Ministers will be allowed to borrow up to 10% of the Scottish budget in any one year subject to an overall limit on capital borrowing of £2.2 billion. In principle, that will be a positive step that should allow key infrastructure projects to proceed as and when the Parliament believes they are necessary. The Bill also provides, however, that the Scottish Parliament will be able to borrow £500 million through new revenue borrowing powers when tax receipts fall short of those anticipated. At first glance, that offers limited flexibility and would mean that Scotland could be under pressure to make spending cuts should a significant shortfall arise. I am sure that that will be considered further as the Bill makes progress.

As scrutiny takes place, we must ensure that we consider the financial calculations and the financial implications of Calman in light of our present economic circumstances. That is the right and responsible approach as we continue to scrutinise the Bill. It is not enough simply to say, as SNP Members appear to be saying, that the Bill does not go far enough, so they are going to vote against the extra powers it will give. That is a rather odd stance for them to take. I might have misunderstood them, and no doubt they will correct that misapprehension if I have, but it certainly sounded like that to me.

I hope that one option we will consider during our scrutiny of the Bill is whether the proposal regarding the Scottish Parliament's borrowing powers can be brought forward slightly quicker than the Bill proposes. That is up for debate and would be useful to allow the planning of key infrastructure. It would also have the benefit of assisting what is currently a pretty beleaguered construction sector in Scotland.

Several issues have not been mentioned and I shall mention them briefly before concluding. The measures on licensing the prescription of controlled substances to deal with certain addiction problems make sense and I am sure we will want to consider that issue in more detail in Committee.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East has highlighted, the devolution of the competency over air weapons to the Scottish Parliament will potentially allow the introduction of a different approach and licensing system there. She mentioned my time as Scotland's Justice Minister. In that role, I had discussions with different Home Secretaries-four at the last count-to decide how best to ensure that people in Scotland were protected from those who would use air weapons irresponsibly. We agreed that our approach should not be taken forward in an ad hoc way and should not simply be a soundbite solution that would please a few people but would not actually deliver. That is why I am pleased that we will have the opportunity to scrutinise that issue properly and come up with a workable solution.

As I have said, the financial relationship between the Scottish Parliament, the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK is vital. Let me respond to some of the comments from SNP Members about our scrutiny of the Bill. I do not recall being given much quarter by Labour Back Benchers when I was a Labour Minister in the Scottish Government-I have no problem calling it that although it is technically called the Scottish Executive-and I am sure that during our debates on this Bill, Labour Members will properly seek to scrutinise every clause and line of the Bill to ensure that we are doing the right thing.

We should keep at the forefront of our minds the reason why we are doing all this. It is not a dry, academic exercise only for text books and discussion in learned tomes. It is about making a difference for the people of Scotland whom we represent. We must make the Bill relevant to people because nothing will drive them away faster from engaging in the process than if they believe it is not a Bill for them-that it is only for politicians and will not affect their lives. If that happened, we would lose a considerable amount because we would be moving away from the intention of the late Donald Dewar, which was to make the Government more accountable to the people of Scotland.

There is plenty of public opinion and evidence in Scotland that people want a stronger form of devolution than at present, and they look to us to find the way forward. They might not know exactly the chapter and verse-where they want the t's crossed and the i's dotted in the legislation-but they look to us to take forward the principles and spirit of devolution and to come up with solutions. We have a unique opportunity in this Parliament to reshape how devolution works with a more comprehensive approach, so I welcome the Bill and look forward to our continued scrutiny of it as it goes through Parliament.