Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 3:07 pm, 22nd February 2016

My Lords, in light of the amendment to the Motion tabled by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, I want to set out the reasons why we should consider Parts 2 and 3 of the Bill today. I start from the proposition that there is a consensus in this House that wants to see the Bill reach the statute book and the fiscal framework to be agreed, and why should that not be the case? The Bill implements not only the manifesto commitments of the Conservative Party, but the commitments made by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties as well. Indeed, as my noble friend so rightly reminded us on referendum night, the unionist parties must deliver on the commitments that they made.

Like my noble friend, I understand that the first step in strengthening bonds of trust in Scotland is to keep your promises and to be seen to keep them. The Government want to see a Scottish Parliament that is more financially responsible and accountable than it is today, and to meet the overwhelming desire of the majority of people in Scotland for a Scottish Parliament with more powers within the United Kingdom. I therefore ask the House to consider carefully whether agreeing to this amendment will help or hinder the passage of the Bill in the process of achieving an agreed fiscal framework that is fair to Scotland and to the UK as a whole. I submit to your Lordships that it would not help. Indeed, it would put both in considerable jeopardy. The fiscal framework negotiations are at a sensitive and critical point. There have been intensive discussions between the UK and Scottish Governments throughout last week. These have continued over the weekend and today. Significant progress has been made and, while nothing is ever certain, a deal now seems within reach. Both Governments are very conscious of pressing timetables for both this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise the fiscal framework before the Bill reaches the final amending stages in this House, and to enable the Scottish Parliament to consider a legislative consent Motion.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth is fond of angling analogies. He has suggested that this is a fishy business and the UK Government are being played by the SNP because it has no intention of ever doing a deal. If my noble friend is right, and I do not think that he is, then the effect of his Motion is to let the SNP off the hook. Why? Because it will become clear to the Scottish Government that in legislative terms—I hope I am not stretching the angling analogy too far—we are running out of line. I therefore ask the House not to let the amendment frustrate what must surely be our priority today: to do all we can to support the achievement of a successful outcome.

I understand, of course, the frustration and that discussions are protracted. I am sure noble Lords will understand that this is a challenging negotiation and it is important to do the right deal. The UK Government cannot be pressured to sign a deal at any cost to meet a parliamentary deadline. I believe it is possible to consider in Committee today, and on their own terms, the merits of parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, and to discuss in detail the outcomes the fiscal framework is intended to achieve. This will help to identify issues we can return to on Report, and I assure the House that there will be ample opportunity on Report to scrutinise the fiscal framework if it can be agreed by then. There is no shortage of information on these issues to inform our debate, whether it is independent analysis or information provided to the House by the Treasury.

I also understand noble Lords’ frustrations at the confidentiality of the process. However, I do not believe that conducting negotiations in public is conducive to reaching a deal. All that happens is that each party paints itself into a corner, making it more difficult for compromise to be reached. Once the fiscal framework is agreed, the Government are committed to providing Parliament with every opportunity to scrutinise it. In particular, any changes to borrowing and fiscal institutions will require legislation and debate.

While I accept that Smith is a substantial devolution package, I note, finally, that it is not without precedent to consider devolution provisions without all the details being available. The last Scotland Bill—a significant devolution package—was considered and agreed by the House before the block grant adjustment mechanism was agreed. I therefore ask my noble friend not to press his amendment and to help secure the passage of this important Bill and a successful outcome for fiscal framework negotiations. I beg to move.