Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 22nd February 2016

If the House will allow me to make a brief observation about the process, I will not detain it much longer. I believe that this Bill should proceed today to the clauses. It is a balanced judgment: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made a very valid point in saying that the amendments on the Order Paper would not have been meaningfully impacted upon even if there had been an agreement. However, the question is whether there would have been amendments in light of the agreement if it had been made in a timely manner. That means that the Minister needs to give a bit more information when he winds up this short debate on the amount of scrutiny that is going to be afforded to the fiscal agreement, not only in this House but in another place. Half a day of Report stage might not, I venture, be sufficient.

To paraphrase many whom I have heard over the past 24 hours, we need to progress with a heavy heart, because we are in unfortunate circumstances. They are unfortunate because there has been considerable press coverage, even though the Minister had said that this was a negotiation in private. However, the circumstances of these negotiations go far beyond the previous legislation to which he referred. The adjustment of the block grant will now require a permanent and significant constitutional mechanism given the very large extent of the powers that will be transferred to the Scottish Parliament, and it requires considerable scrutiny. Later on we will debate the adjustment, not only for fiscal powers but for welfare powers, and its financial implications. For the first time, the Scottish Government will have current revenue borrowing powers, which, similarly, are part of the negotiations. Most important, however, is that these discussions are pertinent not just to Scotland—the implications will be much wider for the constitutional arrangements we have across the whole of the United Kingdom.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk, who in the Scottish Parliament we always referred to simply as “Lord James”. I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament with him and a member for five years of the Finance Committee, and I know that there is considerable pressure on its processes as well. I will avoid the obvious political ramifications of this, given the imminence of the Scottish Parliament elections. We need to set aside the politics of this, and I commend the noble Lord for doing so when he comes to this House. I will offer only one bit of advice to the noble Lord—I know that he does not need it, as he is more experienced than I am. To negotiate in private with the SNP is rather different from negotiating in private with any other political party across the United Kingdom. Therefore, when he says that he wishes to conduct all of this in private I respect his view, but privacy was not entirely clear in the letter from the First Minister of Scotland when she sought to define the principle of no detriment. There has been scant information from the UK Government as to its view of this. Finally, given that we will now use forward projections, and the significance of these for population, tax revenue forecasts, and so on, simply to rely upon Treasury forecasts and often competing Scottish Government forecasts does not bode well for future adjustments and negotiations.

Therefore, all we have had so far has been in the public domain, whether it has been briefings from the Treasury to newspapers rather than factual information presented to Parliament, or the positioning of the Scottish Government rather than information they have presented to the Scottish Parliament. We may all agree with the concept of fairness to taxpayers but we need to know the details of how it has been defined by each side. The lack of civil society contributions and academic review draws my attention to the fact that we cannot conduct such discussions like this again in the future. The time is absolutely right for a UK independent fiscal commission, given that there are significant implications for Wales, the cities and local authorities, which we are debating in Parliament. For the Government, if it is not Edward I’s contribution, it should be “go home and think again” on some of these issues with regard to reviewing our constitutional frameworks.

I hope that when the Minister winds up he will give more information about the scrutiny that this will be afforded. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury told the Scottish Affairs Committee that he could foresee a situation in the Commons where there would be a day’s debate and the fiscal agreement would be referred to a Select Committee. Will the Minister indicate whether that is still the Government’s intention and what level of scrutiny we will have? When, as I hope, we proceed with this stage today, we need to make sure that the fiscal agreement, with its significant implications for the long term, is afforded proper parliamentary scrutiny.