Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Stephen Lord Stephen Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:00 pm, 22nd February 2016

My Lords, all of this emphasises the need for more open government. We have very limited information on the fiscal framework negotiations and neither Government have won plaudits for transparency and openness. From the UK Government there has been little more than, “We met. Good progress was made,” and possibly, occasionally, an overview of the agenda. I quote from the meeting held as recently as last Friday. This is supposed to be us coming to the end of the negotiations:

“MINISTERIAL MEETING ON SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT’S FISCAL FRAMEWORK – 19 FEBRUARY 2016”— the title takes up more space than the minute of the meeting, which states:

“The Rt Hon Greg Hands MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Economy met in London today. They had a useful further discussion on Scotland’s fiscal framework. The discussion made progress in a number of areas. The two governments have not yet been able to reach an overall agreement”.

This is the sort of information that we as parliamentarians are being asked to rely on. The UK Government appear to believe that this is the best way to conduct these intergovernmental negotiations. I suspect that a major reason for this is the Treasury, which has a long track record of secrecy in all matters and doubtless feels that this has served its purposes well over the decades. The annual Budget negotiations with spending departments is probably the best example of this. By default we accept that the Treasury tends to be secretive, but I do not believe that this makes for good government. The more open we can be, the better. People should be encouraged to get more involved in politics and helped to understand government and the issues facing Governments. Too much is still done behind closed doors. This is a very big issue for the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom. So far everything has been done behind closed doors.

There is another dimension to this beyond the issue of secrecy. At both UK and Scottish levels we have been asked to, “Trust us, we’re the Government”. Governments, however, can be trusted only so far and Governments are ultimately answerable to the people and to the parliaments. Their powers are not, and must not be, unfettered. There can be real advantages to openness, particularly when they are dealing with, and are answerable to, the parliaments.

However much we may wish to support the passage of this Bill, there will come a point when we have to say that we need to see the fiscal framework, at least in its final draft form. This week we are reaching that final point with the Bill. We are supposed to move on from the Committee stage today to Report on Wednesday, but the negotiations between the Scottish and UK Governments are still to be concluded. Indeed, it is widely reported in the media that there is still a dispute. As parliamentarians in this Chamber, we have not been told the detail of this dispute but it is certainly all about the detail of the formula to be used, or indeed which formula is to be used, to calculate the funds to come to Scotland once the new tax-raising powers have been introduced. Surely there is bitter irony in negotiating this with an SNP Government, because with independence there is no formula and no safety net. The situation as we all understand it is that all that is swept aside: goodbye Barnett, goodbye population weighting and goodbye all forms of protection.

It seems inconceivable that we can proceed to complete Parliament’s consideration of the Bill without much greater openness and clarity on this issue and on the fiscal framework and all its clauses in general. Ideally, the terms of a final agreement need to be revealed to us. However, failing that and accepting that the UK Government cannot force a final agreement, we need to see the full draft of the fiscal framework identifying the area, or areas, of dispute and explaining the different proposals of the two Governments. Without that, the progress of the Bill is in serious danger of grinding to a halt, so I am very sympathetic to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth.

My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness has suggested, for example, that we might be able to pass the Bill subject to a commencement order, which would require a legislative consent Motion from the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has suggested another possible approach today in the event that we cannot reach a final, agreed position on the fiscal framework. All these arguments carry considerable force and a lot of work needs to be done on this in the coming hours. However, all of us know that stopping the Bill now, and stopping it in the House of Lords, would have huge practical and symbolic consequences, which could threaten the delivery of the extra powers promised to Scotland ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May. There would be the most profound political consequences. So, as we have listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, we should listen carefully to the Minister’s response.