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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 3:45 pm, 21st March 2012

The consideration of this Bill in Committee in this House has been peppered with expressions of frustration from all parts of the Committee at the way in which we have had to handle this business. I have already had my say in that regard, and I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, to the group of us who have had our say and have expressed how disappointed and, in some cases, angry people have been about what has happened. I do not intend to repeat what I have said in the past, which noble Lords who have heard me speak on this subject before will be pleased to hear.

However, I want to add myself to the list of those who will be shown in the record of today's proceedings as not criticising the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who has not been part of the problem but has been, with many of us, part of an attempt at a solution. I thank him for the fact that we have a Written Statement today, because in the normal timetable of the way in which these complicated matters have to be considered in government-and I know what they are-we would not have had a Written Statement, so he must have persuaded somebody who is fairly senior or fairly influential, which are not necessarily the same thing, to have it prepared for today. I think we are all grateful to him for doing that. I want to record how grateful we on these Benches-particularly the Front Bench but the Back Benches too-have been for the open and transparent way in which the Government and the Bill team have engaged with us on the progress of negotiations with the Scottish Government and in trying to find ways of dealing with these complex and difficult matters in a more efficient way.

Since we last met in Committee, there have been two developments of significance. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, referred to both of them. As my noble friend Lord Foulkes suggested, they both raise some optimism for the future handling of the Bill, but they bring with them their challenges. The Written Statement reflects the outcome of the negotiations. I do not know about the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, but I knew that a negotiation was going on, and I think that, on each occasion that he referred to it, the noble and learned Lord indicated that there would be some negotiated agreement that would potentially involve some change to the Bill, so I expected that.

In my darker moments, I anticipated perhaps greater changes to the Bill than there have been, but I am not entirely sure that we can appreciate the significance of the elements of the negotiation that relate to the financial provisions of the Bill without some significantly greater explanation from the Government and greater time for study of them. I was not aware that these particular negotiations were going on. They adopt into the way that Scotland's budget and the block grant will be adjusted following recommendations from the Holtham report. That report relates to the way in which the Welsh Assembly Government are funded. When I discovered that this morning, I downloaded the executive summary of the Holtham report. It is 72 pages. I do not think my printer would have enough ink in one cartridge to print the whole of the Holtham report.

I have tried to find in that executive summary exactly what this mechanism is and what its implications are. I suspect that I have not succeeded. I suggest to the noble and learned Lord that at some point soon, because we are running out of time, the Government either provide the House with a commitment that we will be given an adequate opportunity to scrutinise properly what amount to significant new details of the process of devolving tax and borrowing powers, or explain the mechanism for doing so, if it can be done in short.

I say no more about that because I broadly welcome the other parts of the negotiation. The parts that are not to do with the financial elements of the Bill are remarkably close to proposals made by those on these Benches for amending the Bill, so we welcome and will support them. However, the bits that relate to the financial elements of the Bill are potentially very complicated. They may be very simple. If they are, they can be explained; if they are complicated, we need to find time because we all want to see this Bill pass in such a way that the legislative consent Motion that has now been agreed is of some consequence.

That element of the negotiations was not entirely in the control of the Government, and I understand that, because the enemy gets a voice, as it were, in these environments, and negotiations take as long as they have to take. They were constrained by the legislative timetable, but it was not guaranteed that they would conclude in time for us to be able to consider them properly. I have no criticism of anyone on the government side. They have reached an agreement, and I am pleased that they have. If it is a good agreement, I will support it.

However, the other part of the understanding we have is exactly as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, explained it. We had a clear understanding that if we postponed, as we did, a discussion of the referendum elements of this Bill to 15 March, which was to be a week after the closure of the consultation, we would get a report on the conclusion of the consultation. This may not be parliamentary language, but because we were messed about we had to use 15 March for something else. Now it is 21 March, so the Government have had more time than they expected to formulate properly their response to the consultation.

I am delighted that the consultation appears overwhelmingly to support the Government's position. Since they consulted, in a White Paper fashion, on the proposal and got support for it, one would have thought that somewhere in the government machinery someone has some idea of what they are now going to do with that support. It would certainly be helpful if we could be told what that is as soon as possible. For example, if it involves the acceptance of the recommendation in paragraph 23 of Professor Tomkins' response to the consultation, which I think we all received copies of, to use the Bill to empower the Electoral Commission to start a consultation now about the content and drafting of the question, that is directly relevant to this Bill. However, it may include not that but other things, and there may be a process entirely outwith the Bill that will be the vehicle for taking forward the outcome of the consultation. It is going to be very difficult for us to have a meaningful discussion about these referendum amendments unless we know that.

In fact, if we knew what the Government were going to do, perhaps we could all go home early-having been here until 10.40 pm the other night, that would be a bonus-so some indication may facilitate the handling of the debate. None of us is interested-well, I may not be able to include everyone in this-in prolonging these matters any longer than necessary. I have done a lot, with the support of my Front-Bench and Back-Bench colleagues, to try to facilitate this Bill so that we can get it done in time and in good order. However, a few minutes spent now on indicating how the Government intend to take forward the outcome of the consultation, even if the noble and learned Lord is not in a position to say so in detail, might make the rest of the day much more productive and efficient for all of us. Of course, it might not.