Clause 24 — Universal credit: costs of claimants who rent accommodation

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 30th June 2015.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle 3:00 pm, 30th June 2015

I want to follow on from some of the issues touched on by John Redwood, particularly his last point about a financial settlement. When debating the earlier group of amendments, he intervened on the Secretary of State to ask whether he would address how the Barnett formula might be adjusted.

In essence, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is corroborating some of the basic questions asked by Dr Whiteford about clauses 24 and 25, which presume an awful lot and raise a lot of questions about what else should be in them and what is happening outside them. The clauses presume a standard of behaviour and courses of action and events in relation to how decisions will be made. For instance, the word “concurrently” is used, but if we look at the sequence of decisions and processes involved, we will see that they do not look very concurrent. There could be distended periods and a lot of dispute and difference. The most important gap in clauses 24 and 25 —both Labour and the SNP have tabled amendments to address this—is that they do not say what will happen if Scottish Ministers and the Secretary of State do not concur on some of the issues.

If we as legislators are going to pass clauses that presume certain standards, the course of events and political behaviour, the question we need to ask is, “And what if not?” The Bill does not answer that question. If there is no agreement between Scottish Ministers and the Secretary of the State on the decisions, timelines, details and other implications, what will happen? We will be in difficulty and we will be told, “Well, the legislation faithfully followed Smith and we couldn’t do any more than that,” but it is clear that Smith is not of itself sufficient to address those questions, so we as legislators must address them. The Smith commission exercise was different from that for which we have responsibility as legislators. It is not good enough for us to say, “We’re not going to answer those obvious questions, because Smith didn’t address them.”

I speak from the experience of having been through the Northern Ireland process, during which we negotiated agreement after agreement and had lots of developments. Often, the Government—by which I mean both parties—would say, “We’re faithfully implementing the agreement,” but it was clear, and many of us said, that it was not adequate for its purpose and that more needed to be done. We were, of course, proved right, so I feel a lot of empathy for Scottish colleagues who are saying that it is not enough to say that the Bill faithfully implements Smith when it does not answer practical, basic fundamental questions.

It is not enough to say, “We’ll see what happens,” or, “We’ll see who goes to the courts first,” because that does not give a proper answer in constitutional terms. Neither would it be edifying to the public, in terms of giving politics any sort of good reputation, if politicians end up blaming each other for their own powerlessness or for the fact that they are delivering confusion.

Again, I speak from experience in Northern Ireland, where, as is the case with this Bill, particularly clauses 24 and 25, there is an image of dual control. There is a degree of devolution, but there is also a degree of control from Westminster and Whitehall. The idea is that it will all be done swimmingly and smoothly, but the fact is that when that does not happen, decisions are not taken and politicians of different parties say that they want to take certain decisions but cannot do so. That blame game does no credit to any of the political institutions or parties. I do not want to see the same sort of presumption being used in this Bill, because it could end up creating a crisis.

Not only are words such as “concurrently” used when the processes are not very concurrent; there is also the idea that the Secretary of State can give agreement and that such agreement will not be “unreasonably withheld.” Who decides what is unreasonable? Whose judgment does that rely on? What is the real motive behind that? There are different views in Northern Ireland as to who is being reasonable and who is being unreasonable.

To return to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Wokingham about the financial settlement and the idea that there would have to be a test of whether it was fair to England, in Northern Ireland, what was supposed to be a devolved legislative decision on welfare has essentially been subject to a budget bullying exercise, not by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but by the Treasury. This Bill is silent on the issue of the Treasury, so I think that an amendment will be needed on Report to address the Treasury’s role.

I know that on paper the devolution of welfare to Northern Ireland is not the same as that proposed in this Bill, but the lesson is salient. The karaoke legislative power that the Northern Ireland Assembly has to pass legislation is such that it has to be delivered according to the words and music passed by this House. If not, the Treasury has told us, “We will claw back your money,” by which it means not the welfare spending, but the devolved budget. The Treasury is interfering in what was meant to be the financial settlement under the Barnett formula.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham asked earlier what would happen in relation to the Barnett formula. He also asked a very good question when he said he agreed with the findings of the Smith commission on devolving aspects of welfare. He pointed out that we had to ask the question: “How far does it go?” I believe that the amendments tabled by Labour and the Scottish National party are an attempt to clarify how far that devolution would go. They would make it clear from the start what paths were open to Scottish Ministers and to the Scottish Parliament. Incidentally, I would have preferred to see more emphasis on the Scottish Parliament in the Bill; all the references seem to be to Scottish Ministers. But that is another issue.

The right hon. Gentleman’s question—how far does it go?—will not be answered by clauses 24 and 25 or by the Government’s rejection of the amendments. Instead, the question will have to be answered on each and every occasion that the Secretary of State is asked how far Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament can go in relation to the available discretion on welfare spending. We should not have to have that constant political checkpoint in place for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers, whereby it will fall to Ministers here to say how far the devolution of welfare should go on each separate decision. That will be recipe for permanent tension and contention. I thought that the purpose of the Smith commission and of this Bill was to ensure that we would be relieved of such contention, both here and in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Parliament should be able to use its discretion to address the merits of the particular benefit changes and innovations that it wants to introduce. Those benefits might relate to cancer sufferers, for example. There could be a specific cancer support allowance that could effectively cut through a lot of the confusion that exists in relation to other benefits such as employment and support allowance. We should let the people in the Scottish Parliament address the question of how benefits can be made to work and to deal with the real problems that people have in Scotland. They could set a good example to the rest of us. They should be empowered and emancipated to concentrate on those issues by these devolutionary measures, instead of constantly having to deal with political crises and political fallout and to wonder what kind of political gamesmanship Ministers in London or in Scotland will be accused of playing in relation to a matter as fundamental as welfare.

Nothing scandalises the public more than the perception that an issue as fundamental as welfare—particularly for people with disabilities and long-term conditions—has become a political football. We have seen that sense of scandal in Northern Ireland, and I do not want to see it repeated anywhere else. That is why the Secretary of State needs to listen to the points raised in the amendments. This is not about political point scoring; it is about ensuring, in the spirit in which this devolution is meant to be extended, that the people in Scotland can address these issues and ideas without feeling that they are getting into serious political quicksand. They do not want to feel that their actions could trigger a demand for another referendum, for example. We must let them put to the Scottish Parliament their own ideas for the betterment of their people without feeling that they could get into an awkward situation.

That would result in the Scottish Parliament working better and in freeing this Parliament of arguments and contention that it does not need to bother itself with. It would also set a very good example to the rest of us who need to sort out our own alignment on the devolution of welfare. I do not want to return to our own situation in Northern Ireland, however. I am not saying that the proposals in this Bill should automatically be translated into a Bill for Northern Ireland. I support most of the amendments that have been tabled, but I cannot pretend that all the new clauses would work in the context of, or be applicable to, Northern Ireland. There would obviously be differences, and I do not wish to presume anything in that regard. Let us get this devolution right, and let us give the Scottish Parliament the chance to get welfare right on its own terms. That would involve no risk or threat to this Parliament, and it would certainly set an example to the rest of us.