Scotland Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 29th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 6:15 pm, 29th February 2016

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 57AB, 57AC, 68, 68A and 68B standing in my name. Amendment 56ZA is a probing amendment giving us an opportunity, for the first time, at 20 past six at night, in the final stages of the Bill, to discuss the fiscal framework. This will be the first opportunity for either House of Parliament to discuss this important measure. The amendment simply states that the proposals for giving the Scottish Parliament income tax powers should not have effect until each House of Parliament has had an opportunity to discuss the fiscal framework.

Amendment 57AB provides for the same matter in respect of the welfare provisions in the Bill. Amendment 57AC provides that a statement should be published on what exactly the Scottish Government have spent the £200 million on which, under the fiscal framework, is being provided to them as a one-off payment to implement the powers, and the £66 million per year being given to them to support the additional powers being provided to them. Amendment 68, on which, in the absence of an indication from the Minister that he is prepared to accept it, I intend to test the opinion of the House, simply states:

“None of sections 1 to 68 may come into force until … the Secretary of State has laid before each House of Parliament a fiscal framework setting out the arrangements and institutions underpinning the tax and spending powers included”,

and that,

“the framework has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament”.

First, I thank my noble friend for the courteous and helpful way in which he has supported us in trying to do our job in this place, which is to scrutinise the fiscal framework. I know of the difficulties that have been caused by the lack of agreement between the Government and the Scottish Government on these matters, but I have to say that this is fundamental to the Bill, and it seems to me that the fiscal framework should be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

I found myself spluttering over my WheetyBangs when I was having breakfast yesterday reading the Sunday Times—it was probably only in the Scottish edition. Mr Jim Gallagher was a very distinguished Scottish Office civil servant indeed. I think I am right in saying that he was private secretary to my noble friend Lord Lang and, previously, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, and went on to be in charge of the Constitution Unit in the Scottish Office, and he is held in high regard by people on all sides of this House. I was very surprised to read his verdict in the Sunday Times, which I shall share with the House. He said:

“The compromise the Scottish government made is that the deal is not eternal. It will be subject to review. The compromise the Treasury made is that they handed over the money … The Treasury gave the Scottish government a deal it couldn’t turn down. How it will explain this to English MPs I have no idea, but that is George Osborne’s problem. From a purely Scottish perspective, you have all the advantages of tax devolution and very few of the risks”.

In the same article, the Sunday Times reported that, “According to well-placed Westminster sources, the deal between the Scottish and UK Ministers was struck amid Tory fears that sticking with the Treasury offer that could have left Scotland £3 billion worse off over a decade would have hurt David Cameron’s chances of winning the June EU referendum”. It strikes me as extraordinary that something as important as the future financing arrangements for the whole of the United Kingdom should be decided in this way and, indeed, that the agreement that has been struck is so unfair to other parts of the United Kingdom. We are talking in the Scotland Bill about trying to provide a permanent and stable arrangement for the future governance and funding of the United Kingdom.

If I may be permitted to make one political point, it is extraordinary, is it not, that in less than a month, had the Scottish people not voted by an overwhelming majority to reject independence, we would be experiencing Scottish independence day, which was set by the former first Minister, Alex Salmond, as 24 March 2016 What a mess we would be in with the oil price of $31. There would be a hole of billions of pounds in the Scottish Budget arising from the loss of oil revenues and other disastrous consequences. Fortunately, we in Scotland are part of the United Kingdom and have the security of the United Kingdom around us.

Therefore, I find it quite extraordinary that in the fiscal framework, the Government have agreed to give the Scottish Government £200 million in a one-off payment to meet the administrative costs of the additional powers contained in the Bill before us. Two hundred million pounds was what the First Minister was telling us throughout the independence campaign for the referendum would be the entire costs of setting up an independent Scotland. It is exactly the same figure: £200 million. Yet they are getting £200 million for taking on responsibility for the powers included in the Bill. I have no idea how that figure was arrived at, but as a taxpayer, I would like to know how it is spent, and one of my amendments refers to the fact that there should be an account for that.

In addition, under the fiscal framework, they are being given an extra £65 million every year, on a continuing basis, to administer the new powers. Again, one wonders why that is necessary, how the figure was reached and whether there will be any accountability for spending it. As I indicated at the time of the Statement, the First Minister appears to have been bought and sold for English gold. Those who remember their Burns will know that it refers to a parcel of rogues in the nation, and the SNP is a parcel of rogues in the nation. They told the country that there would be a one-off referendum and that it could all be done for £200 million, but now in secret they have been passing the begging bowl to my noble friend and requiring huge sums of extra money on the basis that it is needed to survive in the union. Thank goodness they did not get their way, break up the United Kingdom and leave Scotland exposed to the financial difficulties—now apparent even to them—that would have resulted.

This fiscal framework makes a fundamental error. I served with my noble friend Lord Lang and others on the committee established by the late Lord Barnett to deal with what he regarded as a great embarrassment—that his name was associated with a formula that he believed was unfair to the rest of the United Kingdom, and to Wales in particular. We looked at the Barnett formula and concluded unanimously, in a report that stands the test of time, that we should have a system that treated all parts of the United Kingdom fairly, was based on needs and had transitional arrangements for the implementation of the changes for losers and winners. That has been ignored by Governments for political reasons—I understand that—by Governments on my own side and on the other side. I understand the political reasons why it has been ignored, but I cannot understand why, in this fiscal framework, it has been agreed that the Scottish Government will have a veto on any change to the Barnett formula in future.

The arrangements under the fiscal framework say that, after five years of this deal, there will be an independent review. We are not told how independent it will be, how the review will be established or what its terms of reference are—and perhaps my noble friend could explain that in responding to these amendments. Then the recommendations will be subject to the agreement of both Governments. That is Whitehall-speak for saying that the Scottish Government will have a veto. So there is no ability, if the agreement is carried forward, to get rid of the Barnett formula and have a formula that is fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, because the Scottish Government will have a veto. As the Barnett formula is so generous to Scotland, I would be very surprised indeed if the Scottish Government are keen on moving away from Barnett, for that reason.

For those who have not had an opportunity to study the fiscal framework as it was set out, I got my copy at nine o’clock on Friday from the Vote Office. I was most grateful to the officials from the Treasury who gave me a briefing on Friday morning and to the officials and my right honourable friend Greg Hands, who gave a briefing today at lunchtime to take us through the fiscal framework. I have to say that the Statement, which we had on Wednesday, seemed to consist of, “Haven’t we all done terribly well? We’ll tell you what the details are shortly”. The document that has been circulated leaves a whole range of unanswered questions. On how the mechanism will operate, the relevant paragraph is this—and I shall read it to noble Lords so that they are all absolutely clear how this funding is going to work. Paragraph 17 says:

“For a transitional period covering the next Scottish Parliament, the Governments have agreed that the block grant adjustment for tax should be effected by using the Comparable Model (Scotland’s share), whilst achieving the outcome delivered by the Indexed Per Capita (IPC) method for tax and welfare. This will ensure that the Scottish Government’s overall level of funding will be unaffected if Scotland’s population grows differently from the rest of the UK”.

That is very clear, is it not—easily understood? It means that, had those arrangements been in place since 1999, when the Scottish Parliament was established, Scotland would have got the Barnett consequences, 20% more per head relative to England, plus an additional £6 billion. It is more generous in its impact on Scotland—or would have been, looking back.

Secondly, if I go back to Second Reading in the House of Commons and listen to the reasons put forward for this whole adventure, I hear that it was important that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for raising the funds that it spent. That was the argument—and with that would come accountability. But what we have in this fiscal framework is a bit of an adjustment, because the Scottish Government will be protected from population changes, so if the population falls relative to that of England—and the additional amount under Barnett is population-related—they will be protected and the English taxpayer will bail them out.

Throughout the Statement and the Government’s comments publicly on this matter, they have talked about having a system of funding that is fair to all taxpayers, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland. But they must know that fairness is compromised by this arrangement, first, because the income tax yield in Scotland, as the document makes clear in paragraph 18, is less, at 87.7%. So the agreement compensates Scotland for having a lower tax capacity than the rest of the United Kingdom. While they will effect increases under the Barnett formula, because the rest of the UK revenue is going up, the reductions in the block grant will result from lower tax revenues. It is estimated that that will provide Scotland with an extra £350 million in 2020-21. The adjustments to the population are likely to remain an additional benefit.

None of us has had any time to consider this matter properly. I am most grateful to Professor David Bell from the University of Stirling, who is the adviser to the Economic Affairs Committee, which did the report on the fiscal framework. Many noble Lords will know of him; as far as I know, his politics are pretty neutral and he is very distinguished. This is what he has to say about the fiscal framework:

“Scotland’s block grant will be calculated using the ‘Comparable Model’ … This was proposed by Greg Hands in his letter to the Scottish Affairs Committee of February 12, 2016 … The logic behind it is that Scotland’s BGA is increased by its population share of tax increases in”,

the rest of the UK,

“adjusted for Scotland’s lower per capita income tax revenues. (Income tax revenue per person in Scotland is 87.7% of that in the UK as a whole). The adjustment for Scotland’s lower tax capacity implies that the ‘taxpayer fairness’ criterion will not be met by the agreement. There will continue to be a net transfer from”,

the rest of the UK,

“to Scotland when an increase in rUK tax revenues is allocated to increased spending on ‘comparable programs’ with Barnett consequentials for Scotland. This is because Scotland will receive a payment through the Barnett formula that ultimately depends on rUK’s higher per capita tax revenues, but the reduction in its block grant will result from Scotland’s lower per capita tax revenues”.

I could go on—the advice is contained on the website of the Economic Affairs Committee, and I urge everyone who is interested in this to look at it. Basically, what is happening here is a deal has been struck that is not fair to the whole of the United Kingdom; it has been done in secret, and there has been no opportunity for both Houses to discuss it—and there are some anomalies. For example, paragraph 16 says:

“For welfare, and all other spending unless stated otherwise in this agreement, the chosen method will be the Barnett formula”.

If we look at the welfare budget as determined by the Barnett formula—just to show that I am being even-handed—if that had applied from 1997 to 2014, welfare spending in Scotland would be £147 million less. But paragraph 17, which I read earlier, refers to,

“the outcome delivered by the Indexed Per Capita … method for tax and welfare”,

which contradicts what it says in paragraph 16. How is welfare going to be funded? Will it be through the Barnett consequences, or will it be adjusted upwards—and, if it is the Barnett consequences, what happens to the gap that would otherwise appear?

I am conscious that time is getting on and that I have been speaking for 18 minutes on these amendments, but there are a number of other issues in this fiscal framework which remain something of a puzzle. Throughout the conduct of this Bill, I have repeatedly asked Ministers, the noble Lord, Lord Smith, and anyone else who might have an opinion how the second no-detriment principle will work. Paragraph 45 states:

“Specifically, where either government makes a policy decision that affects the tax receipts or expenditure of the other, the decision-making government will either reimburse the other if there is an additional cost, or receive a transfer from the other if there is a saving”.

I read that as meaning that if the Government in Scotland cut the airport tax on Edinburgh Airport and Glasgow Airport, as they currently plan to do, and people no longer travel from Manchester Airport, Newcastle Airport or wherever, the Scottish Government should send a cheque to compensate people south of the border for the loss they have incurred.

Some hope.