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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 5:30 pm, 21st March 2012

You have to admire the way that the Scottish Parliament is run. Its committee made 25 major recommendations for changes to this Bill which effectively involve devo-max. They were full fiscal autonomy and a range of other things. Those sat on the table from before Christmas until now. Due to the brilliance of my noble and learned friend, he and his colleagues had a meeting with the First Minister and suddenly everything that the committee said vanished like snow off a dyke. We are told that a procedure will be followed that will result in the Scottish Parliament giving agreement. That really is the accountability that we all came to expect from devolution. We have here one man-the First Minister-deciding what happens and everybody else falling into line. Otherwise, it would not be possible to deliver this.

Fortunately, it does not quite work like that in this House. I have a few points to raise on this issue of legislative consent. The first thing we need on the record is the Government's position on legislative consent. I pressed my noble and learned friend on this before and I hope he will tell us now that he has finished his negotiations. Is the Government's view that legislative consent is desirable but in the absence of it they will proceed anyway, is there a new constitutional principle that we do not do things without legislative consent, or is the constitutional principle that we try to get legislative consent if it is practical? That is very important because it will impinge on the debates that we are about to have on the referendum, where the Government say that they will proceed by Section 30 but Section 30 requires legislative consent. I want to be absolutely clear where the Government are on the issue of legislative consent. In the absence of legislative consent, would the Government still proceed? That is not a perfect example because of course the referendum issue has nothing to do with the Scottish Parliament as it is a reserved power. In respect of non-reserved powers for the Scottish Parliament, where are we on legislative consent?

I want to pick up one thing from the Statement that my noble and learned friend made today on what has been agreed. That is the first section, which says:

"The Government will ensure that changes in the Scottish Government's budget are closely linked to the performance of its economy by adjusting Scotland's budget to reflect new tax powers using the model recommended to the Welsh Assembly in the Holtham Report".

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, who is a man of considerable ability-as we have discovered in the course of consideration of this Bill, as well as from his previous work-has read the Holtham summary, and I expect that he is as unsure of the meaning of that sentence as I am. What does it mean? Does it mean what we have just been discussing and, if so, why does it say,

"changes in the Scottish Government's budget", as opposed to changes in the Scottish Government's income? The Scottish Government's budget is what Alex Salmond dreams up one day and promises the Scottish people, but it has no relation whatever to the Scottish Government's income, as people are about to discover.

The second paragraph says:

"The Government will work together with the Scottish Government over coming months and years to give operational effect to the powers including the block grant adjustment, in a fair and sustainable way and should reach agreement on all implementation issues".

Is this a commitment not to reform Barnett, or to reform Barnett? It is very important that we should be told what the Government have committed themselves to in order to get a legislative consent Motion, which they did not need to get to bring this Bill to the statute book. I congratulate the Government because I had tabled an amendment, which I withdrew earlier, indicating that the Scottish Government should have to pay for the cost of administration of the new income tax system. I am delighted to see here that they have agreed to that. However, it seems very important that we should have clarity from the Government as to what has been agreed on this legislative consent Motion-and I accept that we have moved on since my amendment was tabled.

The last question I have for my noble and learned friend in respect of the legislative consent Motion is: what exactly does this sentence-

"The Government is open to considering what further powers might be devolved after a referendum on independence"- mean? Would that, for example, include giving them powers to decide the thresholds for income tax purposes? Making an open-ended commitment of this kind without specifying it is bizarre, especially in the context of a Bill which delivers extraordinary additional powers that no one seems to know about. Why have the Government agreed to talk about giving further powers, when many of those further powers are already contained in the Bill? When we were discussing these matters earlier in Committee, I was quite firmly and rightly told by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, and by my own Front Bench that we have to concentrate on the key issue, which is whether Scotland wishes to remain part of the United Kingdom. Opening up this question of further powers without saying what they are is a hostage to fortune. I beg to move.