20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 11th July 2019.

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Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South 12:57 pm, 11th July 2019

I pay tribute to Pete Wishart, the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, for bringing forward this debate. It is right for us to celebrate 20 years of devolution. Back in 1997, the Scotland Bill was the first Bill that the new Labour Government brought forward from their manifesto. They promised to bring it in early, and it was the very first Bill to be presented to this House. Then we had the referendum in 1999, which gave a yes vote. That is the only time I have ever voted yes in a Scottish referendum, and it is the only time I am ever likely to do so. That referendum brought us the Scottish Parliament. Donald Dewar, who has always been known as the Father of the House in the Scottish Parliament, said at that time this was not about politics and legislation but about what kind of country we were, how we looked upon ourselves and how we were shown to the rest of the world. I think we should carry that through in this debate and in everything we do when talking about the Scottish Parliament.

I was eight when the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999—I am glad that nobody in the House can do maths—but the big question 20 years later has to be whether we now have home rule within the United Kingdom. That is the big question, because for all of us who are devolutionists and not nationalists or Unionists, devolution is a journey. The Calman commission and the Scotland Act 1998 were always a journey and the question has always been about whether the Scottish Parliament should progress and where devolution should go on that journey.

There was lots to celebrate in the first part of the Scottish Parliament in terms of the laws it was able to pass. About 280 laws have been passed since the Parliament came into being, and we should look on that as progress, because there was never any ability in this place to pass anywhere near 280 laws for Scotland in a 20-year period. It is probably accurate to say that 10% of that number could have been passed under the previous arrangements. We have had land reform, feudal law reform, the smoking ban and free personal care for the elderly, as well as proportional representation for local government, which was huge. We have also had world-leading legislation on homelessness as well as more schools, teachers, teaching assistants, nurses and doctors, and the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland. All those things have been better for Scottish life and have cemented the Scottish Parliament as the centre of Scottish politics and the centre of Scottish civic life. Anybody who argues that Westminster is the centre of Scottish politics and civic life has not moved on over the past 20 years, because that can be seen in the way the Scottish Parliament operates.

Now is a good opportunity to reflect on what the Scottish Parliament is delivering. I always thought that the Scottish Parliament should be part of a devolution journey that would provide subsidiarity, and everyone would have a grown-up conversation about the powers that lay at the Westminster Parliament, the EU level, the Scottish Parliament, our local authorities, or even local communities—I firmly believe in the idea of subsidiarity—and about where powers are best placed to lie. I am slightly disappointed that that is not being portrayed by the Scottish Parliament, because all our arguments about powers are never about powers for a purpose, but about powers for where power should lie.

I firmly believe that, since the formation of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish local authorities, which used to be the vanguard of local service provision, have turned into administrative arms of the Scottish Government. That may be by design, or it may be by accident, but we should reflect on that. Councils no longer have the ability to shape the lives of their local services, not only because of significant financial constraints that have been placed on them, both by this place and by the Scottish Parliament, but because they do not have the ability to shape new policies in the way they once did. The Scottish Parliament, certainly in the past 10 years, has sucked up power into Holyrood, rather than being a devolutionist Parliament that moves things back down to local government. Whether a nationalist who believes in independence, a right-wing Conservative who believes in scrapping the Scottish Parliament, or anywhere in between, we should have a discussion about the best place for powers to lie.

Powers are not being used, and it frustrates me that we have not had an honest argument about that. If somebody stands up and says, “We are not using power A because we do not believe that it should be used for the reasons of sorting problem B,” I will argue all day about the principle of that and whether it is the right thing to do, and then the voters can decide. To say that the Scottish Parliament does not have the powers to do something when it does is disingenuous and undermines not just the Scottish Parliament, but the whole Scottish political system and, indeed, our entire civic system.

For example, the Leader of the House was asked a question earlier about the WASPI women, and the Scottish Parliament has the power to do something about that issue. It could look at a whole range of issues. If it so wished, it could set up a commission to look at how to deal with pensioners in Scotland, but it chooses not to use that power. Let us argue about why the Parliament may decide not to choose that or why it wants to choose it, but let us not say that there is no power to do anything about it. Sections 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Scotland Act 2016 say that the Scottish Parliament has the power to introduce any top-up benefit to any reserved benefit, and pensions are a reserved benefit under section 28.

I turn to the questions about what we should do next. Intergovernmental relations is a big one. I fundamentally agree with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire that intergovernmental relations are used as a cover for people to hide behind, rather as a way of having constructive discussions across Governments. Let us look at whether the Scottish Parliament needs a second Chamber. Let us look at whether the Committee system provides proper scrutiny. Let us take an audit of the powers that are being used and the powers that have not been used. Let us look at whether we should examine the subsidiarity and reflect on what other powers should be considered. Let us look at reform of the UK. Let us look at a federal structure or at the House of Lords or at a senate of the nations and regions that could help deal with some of the big issues. Twenty years on, we should sit and reflect honestly and on a cross-party basis.