Tax Devolution

Oral Answers to Questions — Treasury – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 10th March 2015.

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Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I have had frequent and largely constructive discussions with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, including on the matter of devolution of taxes, as have my ministerial colleagues. The Scottish Minister recently met the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have made huge progress in the area of tax devolution.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

From reading the text of the Smith agreement, it seems to me that we have handed over income tax in particular to the Scottish Government, whereby allowances and bands can be varied. In fact, we have created the possibility of an independent tax system, apart from hanging on to the 20p tax as a kind of fulcrum around which it must work. Has the Treasury looked at the impact that there would be on the UK if there were an entirely independent tax system in the north of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Yes, we have. The hon. Gentleman is right. The Smith commission—rightly, I believe—devolves power over rates and bands in the income tax system. It does not devolve control of the tax base or the personal allowance. One of the bits of work that remains to be done is to ensure that we have a fiscal framework in place around that which means that the fact of devolution does not offer a financial advantage in and of itself either to Scotland or to the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had constructive discussions with John Swinney on that point and on many others. It is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government to make sure that they have competent administrative machinery in place, which they will need next month when the process of the first wave of income tax devolution starts.

Photo of Michael Crockart Michael Crockart Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Is my right hon. Friend, like me, waiting with bated breath for the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures to be published? Does he expect that they will bolster or demolish the Scottish National party’s case for full fiscal autonomy?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Bated breath might be overstating it, but I expect the new GERS figures very soon. In recent days we have seen evidence of the damage that the Scottish National party’s ideas would do to the UK economy—higher debt for the whole of the UK at the end of this Parliament than at the beginning of it, and an extra £5 billion a year being spent on interest payments. Having been defeated on its proposals for independence, which would have undermined and damaged the Scottish economy, the SNP seems inclined to offer the same damage to the UK economy as a whole.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Under the Scotland Act 2012, from April 2016 Scotland will indeed have significant new tax-raising powers. HMRC’s own risk register shows that the risk that Scottish taxpayers will not be identified by April 2016 has risen from amber to red, so can the Chief Secretary tell the House why, despite these being the biggest changes to Scottish tax ever, only 11 full-time equivalent HMRC staff are working on them and, according to Audit Scotland, they rely on a single official in the Scottish Government?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am confident that the resource being applied at the HMRC end of the spectrum is sufficient to ensure that we can deliver the devolution that is planned. That process is going on at present. Stamp duty devolution starts in April this year and income tax devolution the following April. As to whether or not the Scottish Government are applying sufficient resource, effort or people to make sure that the tax system will be competently administered, that is a question for them to answer. I recently signed off the orders to devolve stamp duty, and they will now need to make sure that that is done properly.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Chief Secretary for that response, although it does not entirely fill me with reassurance. Is it not the case that this whole process risks descending into absolute chaos, and is it not time that both the UK and the Scottish Governments got a grip? How many HMRC and Treasury officials have been seconded to the Scottish Government to help clear up the mess? If people have not been seconded, will he now have urgent discussions to see whether that would help?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am afraid that it is a feature of devolution, which the hon. Lady and I both support, that devolved Administrations have to take responsibility for matters that are in their purview. Frankly speaking, it is not for the Treasury to send officials to bail out Revenue Scotland. If it approaches us and says that it does not have enough people, it cannot do it and it is not ready, that is fine. But having discussed the matter with John Swinney and received assurances that he believes that it is in a good position to carry on taking on those functions and to do so properly, that is sufficient for me to sign the orders to hand over the powers.