Committee (4th Day)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 15th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 1:30 pm, 15th March 2012

I hope the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that I anticipated this very point about devo-max. I intend to cover it very specifically. However, I am driven in these arguments by the political imperative of concentrating most of my political firepower on the arguments for retaining the union of the United Kingdom. I have tested every contribution that I have made to this debate against whether or not it makes that retention more or less likely. I ask noble Lords to join me in concentrating their minds on that issue, to look at this matter in the context of the political circumstances that face us at the moment and to make priority choices. In other circumstances I might well have supported the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, but in these circumstances I do not. I am trying to lay out the arguments.

As I was saying, there is no political movement for such a referendum. There is remarkably complete coherence between the parties in Scotland on the view that there is no necessity to seek a further mandate from the electorate as regards a referendum on these powers. Further, as the Calman commission noted, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, has reminded the House, there is an argument contrary to the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that such a mandate has already at least partially been granted by the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution in which 63.5 per cent of the Scottish electorate agreed with the statement,

"I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers".

That was the question, not plus or minus 3p, or what the consequences would be if this power was or was not used-we know the history of that-but whether the Scottish electorate agreed with the statement,

"I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers".

In a recent report on a referendum on Scottish independence, the Select Committee on the Constitution agreed with the UK Government's position-this comes to the point the noble Lord raised about devo-max-that whereas independence is a Scottish question, devolution-max is not solely a Scottish question and proposals for a significant change to the devolution settlement considered under this title must be addressed only once the issue of secession has been clearly and decisively addressed by a referendum of the Scottish people. Therefore, we need to deal with these things in series and we need to keep our eye on the ball as regards the issue which is foremost in Scottish and UK politics at the moment in terms of the constitution. It is within this public and political discourse that we need to consider the priority of a referendum on the devolution of financial powers. I argue that the conclusions of the Select Committee are of precise relevance to this question. A referendum on the devolution of financial powers as proposed by Calman, and elaborated in this Bill, would in my view be politically misguided and publicly rejected prior to a referendum on devolution.

These are powers which I have said repeatedly the Scottish people want. There is significant evidence of that. I regret that I am not able to refer noble Lords to detailed debates in the other place to advance that argument but I know from extensive consultation with Scottish parliamentarians and Scottish people that the Scottish people want these powers. Much more importantly, they want these powers now because they want them to address issues which are important to the Scottish people now and were made obvious as a priority to them by yet another performance of the Scottish economy that has reversed the previous trend of devolution over the past few years in that we are now behind the rest of the United Kingdom in unemployment and growth. For almost all the period of devolution in Scotland the opposite situation applied. It is only since the SNP has taken control of government in Scotland that we have got into a situation whereby we are falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom as regards unemployment and comparative growth of GDP. Therefore, these powers are needed now.

The future development of the devolution settlement, be that full fiscal autonomy or whatever-there are all sorts of titles-may well ultimately be a question for a referendum, but it is a question that needs to follow the broader one of Scotland's future membership of the union. In my view it cannot coherently be proposed before that. Consequently, these Benches cannot support the noble Lord's proposed amendment of the Bill. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Foulkes far more in advance than I would normally have to do as we will not support his call for a referendum, no matter what the motivation for it is, when we come to that part of our debate in Committee.