Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Darling of Roulanish Lord Darling of Roulanish Labour 4:15 pm, 22nd February 2016

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the remarks made by many Members of this House on the importance of the fiscal framework. It is no exaggeration to say that, without it, this entire legislation will fall apart—it is the most important part of the Smith settlement. It is deeply regrettable, therefore, that here we are at the parliamentary equivalent of the 11th hour and we still do not know what it is or what is in it.

Although I have some sympathy with those who are involved in negotiations, I have to say that as a non-Conservative and non-nationalist, I am not altogether sure that I am happy about the prospects for my country—either Scotland or the United Kingdom—being determined by two sets of negotiators, one of which wants to break up the United Kingdom and the other of which, the Conservative Party, has made a series of wrong calls since 19 September 2014. Talking of which, I must declare an interest that I am still the chairman of Better Together, which is in the course of being wound up but has not been quite yet. As I said, I have a great deal of sympathy with what is being said, but it would be a mistake for this House to be seen to delay or block matters today. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, he will give an absolute undertaking that the House will have the fiscal framework by Report, which must be imminent.

This is not just a matter for the Scottish Government and the UK Government. There will be many people outside in different parts of the UK who will have comments to make because this will determine not just how much tax is raised but how the balance is to be achieved between different parts of the United Kingdom and how adjustments are to be made, not just this year but in five years’ time. It would be very difficult to see to whose credit it was, or whose fault it was, that the tax take went up or down from that expected. This will determine who is paying for the welfare measures that are being devolved and, if no adjustments are made to them, who bears the cost of that. Also, it will determine the amount of borrowing and on whose account the borrowing is done. Is it on the part of the Scottish Government? Is it on the part of the UK Government? Is it temporary? What are the constraints? These are massive considerations. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Stephen, said about the Treasury, but the Treasury is not always as curmudgeonly as he might suggest and sometimes has the nation’s best interests at heart—at least it did for a period in the past.

It is important that we get these things right. We cannot overestimate the importance of the fiscal framework, which is why I hope that the Minister, with whom I had the pleasure of working very closely over the last few years and who is, I am quite sure, not the villain of the piece, gives us an undertaking that we will have the fiscal framework.

I struggle to see how it is going to work. If we do not get it right, we could simply be storing up problems for the future and providing rich and fertile ground for those who seek out grudges and grievances as a way of life to feed on for many years to come. I do not want to see that happen, but I am very conscious that discussions are taking place not in the spirit of good will because, at the end of the day, these are two parties with opposing objectives. This is important, and I urge the House not to block the measure at this stage, especially if the Minister can give the undertaking that I think most of us want.