Committee (4th Day)

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Lords at 1:45 pm on 15th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 1:45 pm, 15th March 2012

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate and I am grateful to everyone who has spoken. I seem to be somewhat isolated on this issue. I worry about the idea that the tax-raising powers in the Bill will increase the accountability of the Scottish Parliament. As I am sure my noble and learned friend will confirm, had those powers been in place and exercised since 1998 when the Scottish Parliament was established, the block grant which the Scottish Parliament had available to it would have been reduced by many billions. The exercise involves substituting a slice of the Barnett funding with funding that comes from the tax base. If public expenditure is growing faster than the tax base, the result is that far less revenue is available.

Tempted as I am to support the proposals because they would have had the effect of squeezing public expenditure in Scotland substantially and, I suggest, avoided considerable waste and the policies which have resisted reform of the public services, the notion that they would increase accountability needs to be looked at very carefully. It will squeeze the resources available to the Scottish Government over time and, in doing so, put pressure on them to use the tax powers, which by the nature of the gearing effect will result inevitably in Scotland becoming the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom. I venture to suggest that at that point, many people will say: "Why weren't we told this? Why didn't we know about it?". If I am still around, I will take great pleasure in saying: "I suggested that there should be a referendum so that people had a chance to consider these arguments and know what they were being committed to".

I entirely accept that the political classes and the political establishment have got together in the worthy cause of stopping the Scottish nationalists getting control of the Scottish Parliament and taking us towards independence, but I have my doubts about how it will increase accountability. I suggest that my noble and learned friend think about this again. If a referendum was held-I assume that those on both Front Benches are confident that the Scottish people would vote yes to these tax-raising powers, although I suspect that their opposition to the referendum may lie in their doubt that they would-there would be clear consent for the exercise of the powers.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, suggested that a mandate was granted by the referendum on the original Scotland Bill. The noble Lord is quite right to say that the question was:

"I agree that the Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers", but those tax-varying powers were defined in the referendum campaign as being limited solely to 3p on the basic rate. This is far more than tax-varying powers. This is the introduction for the first time of a new Scottish rate of income tax. We are not talking about tax-varying powers here, we are talking about the ability to set a new rate of income tax that the Scottish Parliament chooses.

My noble and learned friend talks about opinion polls and surveys. I venture to suggest that if you go out and say, "Do you think the Scottish Parliament should have more powers?", that is a bit like saying, "Do you love your mother?". Of course people are going to say yes, the Scottish Parliament should have more powers. If you ask them, "Do you think that Scotland should be able to be made the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom?", I think they might have a different view. If you ask them, "Do you think that the Scottish Parliament should be able to take money out of your pay packet?", you might get a different answer.