Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 6:15 pm, 22nd February 2016

I rise to speak to Amendment 75A. I was in meetings in Glasgow this morning and came in during the earlier debate on the amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. I heard his rousing peroration; I agreed with it. Had I been in the Chamber in time, I would have wished to speak in support of it. I agree with his “sunrise” Amendment 79H, which I guess he will speak to in a moment.

Mine is a much more mundane matter. My amendment concerns borrowing limits. I find that one of the difficulties of handling the Bill in the absence of the fiscal framework is not so much dealing with what is in the Bill as understanding why things are not in it. I do not know why no provision or regime for borrowing is set out. That is why my amendment proposes the principles for such a regime. It is a key element of the Smith commission report that there should be enhanced borrowing powers for the Scottish Government, and I agree with that. The core of Smith is paragraph 95, where the fiscal framework is discussed. The most crucial element for me, apart from indexation, is the borrowing limits—how is borrowing to be done?

We discussed this in the Economic Affairs Committee, and the report of the noble Lord, Lord Hollick, brings out that the committee did not believe that anybody would believe a no bail-outs rule. The committee firmly believes that it is necessary to be seen to stand behind Scottish borrowing. Scottish borrowing will be cheaper. It is clear to all that the United Kingdom Government stand behind it. The clearest way of spelling that out is to have a provision on borrowing in the Bill. I do not argue that we should set out specific limits in the Bill—that, clearly, is a matter for subordinate legislation, as my amendment suggests. However, it seems clear that we must set out the two categories of borrowing in the Bill, that they will be subject to ceilings, and that these will be negotiated and agreed in consultation with the Scottish Government but will be set by Her Majesty’s Treasury. That seems practical and commonsensical. It makes for cheaper borrowing for Scotland, which is, of course, also cheaper for the United Kingdom, since the United Kingdom will stand behind the borrowing.

If the borrowing is properly conducted, it will be as part of the United Kingdom’s programme. It will get slots in the programme if the United Kingdom wishes to issue bonds. I have no idea how big the increases needed are and what the current limits on Scotland’s borrowing powers are, and the Smith commission does not help a great deal on that. It states that,

“to reflect the additional economic risks, including volatility of tax revenues, that the Scottish Government will have to manage when further financial responsibilities are devolved”—

I agree with that—

“Scotland’s fiscal framework should provide sufficient, additional borrowing powers to ensure budgetary stability and provide safeguards to smooth Scottish public spending in the event of economic shocks, consistent with a sustainable overall UK fiscal framework”.

That is clearly true, but it does not help to define what “sufficient” means. I do not know if this is a matter of controversy in the current fiscal framework talks, but I think we should be told. Is it agreed that there should be ceilings on Scottish borrowing? Is it agreed that that level should be set by the United Kingdom Government in consultation with the Scots? Has that level been set; that is, has it been agreed?

This is talking about current borrowing, but I must say that I think there will be the need for a considerable increase. My view is that “sufficient” is going to be quite a lot more than the Scots now have, although it is inconceivable that it would be sufficient to deal with ensuring “budgetary stability” and providing,

“safeguards to smooth Scottish public spending in the event of economic shocks”.

Let us remember that the oil price on Scottish referendum day was $115 a barrel. That is quite an economic shock, and borrowing in the markets is not a credible way of dealing with it. However, there is a common-sense case for a large increase because of the seasonality of tax income and the need to smooth over the year. That element is clear, but there could be controversy about what the level is, in which case I think we should be told because transparency does matter.

The second kind of borrowing, also covered in my amendment, is borrowing to support capital investment consistent with the sustainable overall UK fiscal framework. I agree that that makes sense. There will be public investment which should be financed by the markets, but I do not know if that is controversial for Her Majesty’s Treasury. I do not know whether the UK Government buy that bit of Smith, or whether there has been a discussion about how much. I do not know whether this is one of the reasons for the hold-up on the fiscal framework, and I think we should be told.