Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I support Amendment 75A moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, on debt and borrowing. The amendment is founded on the principle that the UK is a union, constitutionally and financially. There is a common currency, single monetary policy, single exchange rate and a banking union. We have some banks that pretend their headquarters are in Scotland, but they are not really. The public finances of Scotland and the rest of the UK are inextricably intertwined. A large part of public services has been financed—even under the new arrangements, when they are unveiled—by grants in the UK or assignment of revenues. Departments of Her Majesty’s Government have large budgets that they spend directly in Scotland.
The SNP may not like the fact that the union exists, but it does, and certain consequences follow. When the Economic Affairs Committee took evidence on post-referendum arrangements, there was little appetite by then for full fiscal autonomy. It was always an illusion, but it was thoroughly punctured by the gaps in the oil price. Some witnesses argued that, in addition to sensible arrangements to deal with short-term fluctuations, Scotland could operate a separate borrowing regime, financed by borrowing in its own name. In effect, that would be policed by financial markets and underpinned by a no bail-out rule. As noble Lords have mentioned, debt issued by the Scottish Government would have its own credit rating with its own risk assessment, and if debt issuance was thought to be excessive its cost would rise and the Scottish Government would be forced to respond. However, most witnesses did not believe this model, given the extent to which the two economies are interlinked, and no one really thought that a no bail-out clause was plausible. Most notably, the noble Lord, Lord Darling, told the Committee that the eurozone has a no bail-out rule that we can see “works very well”. I think he was being ironic, but I cannot be absolutely sure. He thought that a no bail-out rule would be,
“unnecessary and downright provocative and actually sound very patronising … I am part of the UK as well; do not tell me I cannot be bailed out by a country that I happen to be a citizen of”.
That was strongly endorsed by the Committee.
During the course of the referendum, there was some loose talk that said, in effect, “Vote for us and we will put an end to austerity”, but even now in Holyrood there is a recognition that although borrowing policy does not have to be identical to that of the UK, it nevertheless has to be consistent with it and supportive of policy for the UK as a whole. Two things follow from that. First, the amount of borrowing year by year cannot be such as to undermine the Government’s overall borrowing objective. Secondly, the stock of debt, relative to some measure of capacity to repay, cannot be such as to raise the spectre that the UK Government might have to intervene. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, stated, this amendment does not seek to specify what those various ratios should be. They should rightly be in secondary legislation. Why, then, is the amendment needed? It is needed to entrench the principle that Scottish fiscal and debt policy cannot be decided unilaterally in Scotland. It has to be related to the policy of the UK as a whole and the limits must be set by the Treasury, consulting the Scottish Government, and should be approved by Parliament. In that way, the amendment fills one of the holes in the Bill, although many are left.
The noble Lord, Lord McFall, mentioned an article, “Sleight of Hand”, by Jim Gallagher, who, as many noble Lords will know, is a former Scottish civil servant and is now a professor. However, the noble Lord did not read the last paragraph:
“So I wonder if this is less about fiscal formulae and more about nationalist politics. It’s becoming pretty clear that the SNP won’t promise another referendum after the next Holyrood election. They think they’d lose. But without it they’ll have nothing to talk about. So maybe their aim is to reject the fiscal framework, whatever is offered and so derail the new powers in the Scotland Bill. Then they can spend the next five years arguing about power, not exercising it”.