Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Crossbench 3:30 pm, 22nd February 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for enabling us to have this debate on the sorry state of the timetabling for this important constitutional matter. I want to make just three points.

The first concerns precedent. The Bill is the first of a series of devolutions in the UK and obviously precedential in its financial settlement. It is also precedential in terms of all the Bill’s contents. I hope that the one thing where it is not precedential is in the extraordinary process which has led to us being in this debate today. Your Lordships’ House is justly proud of its ability to scrutinise legislation, to bring to bear its considerable powers of analysis to improve that legislation and to test the thinking behind every provision within it. That scrutiny process is multi-layered and the Committee stage is an extremely important layer of it, and I would strongly resist the giving-up of it. The scrutiny process has been honed, through centuries, to the effective peak that there is today.

We aim to produce legislation that will stand the test of time. This Bill is likely to last a very long time, so we need to proceed carefully. I hope that the House will agree with me that, in a constitutional matter such as this, it is especially important that the full spectrum of the House’s abilities are employed, given that it is a new settlement within the United Kingdom and will definitely be precedential on the other devolution settlements under consideration.

I turn to the fiscal framework itself. Quite rightly, the two negotiating parties are not providing a running commentary. I know of no reason to believe that the parties are not negotiating on an entirely bona fide basis, so there can be no blame on the part of one party or another for the slow speed of progress. But slow it has been; and what commentary there has been in the press has emphasised the complexity of the issues. Indeed, that is emphasised in the report of the Economic Affairs Committee. Does the Minister agree that that complexity means there is all the more reason that the full, multi-layered scrutiny process, both in Westminster and Holyrood, is allowed to take place?

Finally, I ask the Minister: what is the tearing hurry? All the parties to the Smith agreement have been treating it as a matter of utmost good faith that they will get to an agreement. For those involved it is an instance of that British maxim, dictum meum pactum. During the Committee stage so far—and I have been present for almost every minute—all the amendments and the debate, from all sides of the House, have been entirely consistent with the Smith commission agreement. Indeed, the only bit in the Bill that seems to be potentially inconsistent is the Henry VIII clause which we will debate later today. We will learn more about that, I am sure. There is a great certainty in this House that the Bill will be enacted, and enacted on a basis that is consistent with the Smith commission agreement. I therefore believe it would be far better in the long term for the citizens of Scotland and the United Kingdom to afford the Bill proper scrutiny, both here and in Holyrood. If that means that it passes into law in May, not March, then so be it.