20 Years of Devolution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 11th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 2:40 pm, 11th July 2019

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to start by conveying the apologies of the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend Lesley Laird. She is not able to be here as she has a medical appointment that she was unable to move. However, it has enabled me to commemorate a memorable anniversary in this way.

I congratulate Pete Wishart, the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, on securing the debate. He mentioned Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, in his opening remarks. I was struck by a quote from Donald:

“Cynicism, together with unrealistic expectation, are the two great bugbears of politics.”

That is certainly a quote that has stood the test of time, particularly when considering the pretenders to the office of Prime Minister at the moment.

It is certainly a privilege to close today’s debate on behalf of the Labour Front Bench. I admit to being a child of devolution. It feels surreal to be standing here not just two years since I made my maiden speech, but after 20 years of devolution. I remember that year very well indeed, because I was very unwell in Yorkhill Hospital. I watched the opening ceremony of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood from a hospital bed. Watching it as a young child, I was struck very deeply in particular by Sheena Wellington’s fantastic singing of “A Man’s s Man for a’ That” by Robert Burns and the great words of Donald Dewar.

In my view and in the round, devolution has been a bit of a mixed bag, as has probably been reflected in the speeches today. When I reflect on the positive changes that have been made during the devolution era, there have certainly been some successes that show exactly why we need a Scottish Parliament and, indeed, a Welsh Assembly. As my hon. Friend Anna McMorrin mentioned, that was hard fought for for many years. My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones mentioned Keir Hardie. Labour has been fighting for home rule for well over a century. It has been at the heart of Labour and progressive politics throughout the party’s existence.

The first great success of the Scottish Parliament that comes to mind is the smoking ban, through the Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act 2005, which was introduced by the Scottish Labour Government in 2005. From what I can remember, I think it is fair to say that that was the first time that the Scottish Parliament truly led the way with reform that was then adopted by the UK Government and rolled out across the UK—a really progressive step. In the light of the decision by this place on Tuesday to legislate for same-sex marriage to be legalised in Northern Ireland, it is absolutely right to put on record the success of the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act 2014, which was introduced by the SNP Government. It was the first legislation of its kind in the UK and a perfect example, mentioned by Stewart Malcolm McDonald, of the Scottish Government leading the way in an area of social policy.

The Scottish Parliament has had other great successes, such as free concessionary bus travel, free tuition for university students and free prescriptions. Those are policies that have changed the social landscape in Scotland for the better. I congratulate every politician of every party who played a part in ensuring that those policies were enacted. Indeed, a litany of achievements have been elucidated in speeches throughout the Chamber today. I think my hon. Friend Ian Murray mentioned that 280 Acts have been passed in the 20 years of devolution.

We have seen innovation in the form of the post-study work visa in Scotland, which was championed by the then First Minister, now Lord, McConnell. He regards that as his greatest achievement in his time as First Minister and it led to the reversal of Scotland’s historical population decline. There have been other transformative policies. The writing off, by Wendy Alexander, of Glasgow’s £1 billion social housing debt transformed social housing for Glaswegians and enabled the mass reconstruction of the city’s municipal housing stock, as David Linden mentioned in his speech.

Sadly, I am not convinced that devolution has been the unequivocal success that many hoped it would be. It is probably fair to say that progress in many areas of domestic policy has stagnated. Education reforms have been a failure. The health and social care sectors have been mismanaged by health boards and Scottish Ministers. We have yet to see a Scottish Government implement what I believe are fundamentally sound policies, such as public ownership of our railways.

On that point, I like to highlight the case of the Cally rail works in Springburn. That is a particular case where devolution has not been a success. I understand the reason is that the Tories are opposed to public ownership. Their long-standing principle of laissez-faire capitalism and free market thinking means that that is not surprising. What is surprising is the fact that the Scottish Government have been completely unwilling to countenance the prospect of public ownership of the Cally. For me, that is exactly the kind of policy that the Scottish Parliament should be focusing on. Indeed, it is in stark contrast to the robust interventionist policies of previous Secretaries of State for Scotland, such as Willie Ross and Tom Johnston. Indeed, one of the first acts of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Executive in 1999 was to ensure the safety and the continued operation of the Govan shipyard.

We have a dangerous level of pollution in Scotland, especially in cities. We have dangerous disparities in income and wealth, which are reflected in child poverty, homelessness, health inequalities and huge disparities in life expectancy between rich and poor, predominantly determined by the postcode in which they live. That has not significantly changed throughout the life of the Scottish Parliament. I remember Jimmy Reid in the early 1990s saying that, depending on which district in Glasgow people lived in, the difference in life-expectancy could be a life sentence. That is a terrible indictment of the failure of social policy.

Growth and productivity have been in decline since 2000 and are still 20% below Government targets. That is simply unacceptable. The Governments in both the UK and Scotland need to robustly address that issue. We have Scottish workers in insecure work earning poverty pay and lacking even the most basic protection against unscrupulous employers. Those who are on benefits have been subjected to vicious Tory austerity, but with little protection from the Scottish Government, typified by the timidity on using the social security powers and enacted in the Scotland Act 2016.

SNP Members do not like to hear that the Scottish Government have done next to nothing to protect people in Scotland from Tory austerity, but I draw attention to the fact that the Scottish Parliament’s independent research body points out that the Scottish Government have cut the budget of local authorities by four times the amount that the Tories have cut the Scotland Scottish block grant. That is the independent parliamentary research body at the Scottish Parliament saying that, not just me. That is typified by the fact that the Scottish Government have cut addiction services by a quarter in Glasgow, despite record, epidemic levels of drug-related deaths in that city.

Rural towns and villages are losing shops and services, and even simple things such as access to cash. Manufacturing and service industries are increasingly owned outwith Scotland, and land ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-rich individuals. The Scottish Government have the powers to ameliorate the worst of those impacts, but, sadly, they have failed to do so in the vast majority of cases. That is why my assessment, and that of the Labour Party, is that the existing powers of the Scottish Parliament must be used more effectively. New powers may well be needed to make a real difference in tackling the problems I have listed above, but not simply to supply more fuel to what Gordon Brown calls the constitutional Punch and Judy show, which we have seen enacted in this debate today and which typifies the attempts to distract from the records of both the Scottish and UK Governments.

I am a firm believer that we must be able to invest in our manufacturing base. To do that realistically, we need more borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament. That investment must ensure that the Scottish people have a stake in any future development and that we are not simply giving handouts to foreign investors who can up sticks and leave whenever they wish to do so, as typified by the Cally. That is why Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, has outlined his desire to have employment rights devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I do not trust the Tories to legislate for a proper living wage, or to legislate to ensure that public contracts cannot be awarded to blacklisted companies. I am not sure that I trust the SNP Government to do that either.

I am a firm believer in the fact that, within reason, power should be as close to the people as possible, and that the principles of subsidiarity should reign, rather than those of separation, as J.P. Mackintosh rightly said, as was referred to by my hon. Friend Martin Whitfield. It is on that point that I want to acknowledge that although devolution has been a mixed bag, with regard to its success, I do not think that the current system of governance in the UK is working terribly well either. I agree that the Brexit process has highlighted the flaws in the devolution settlement, and I do not believe that the settlement currently works for people in Scotland. However, I am not entirely convinced that the SNP’s answer of separation is a way forward either, and the main reason for that is the undeniable fact that the SNP Government are guilty of centralising power in Holyrood and undermining the ability of local government.

As has been mentioned, devolution is a process, not an event, and I believe that its destination lies in further constitutional reform and federation, rather than separation. As Donald Dewar said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament 20 years ago,

“This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves…
today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice for the future.”

That has been a mixed legacy. We have to remember, however, as we stand on the 20th anniversary of that opening day, that it is not an end but a means to a greater end. I wish the Parliament every success in its deliberations over the next 20 years.