Scotland Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 29th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hollick Lord Hollick Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee 7:45 pm, 29th February 2016

My Lords, we have arrived at a rather unsatisfactory situation. We were given the fiscal framework at the end of last week. We have seen no worked examples and have had no opportunities to scrutinise the framework in any detail. The Economic Affairs Committee spent some months evaluating all the aspects of the fiscal framework and, in particular, the various methods that could be used to adjust the block grant. None of them was perfect. Indeed, it was extremely difficult and we concluded that to meet both the requirement for fairness with reconciling the Barnett formula and the various elements of the fiscal framework, somebody would lose out.

The provisional conclusion is that the rest of the United Kingdom will lose out. Our specialist adviser, Professor Bell, spent the weekend trying to unpick and understand the fiscal framework. He concluded, based on the fact that although the Government agreed that the comparable method to calculate the annual block grant should be used, that will in fact not be used. Instead, as we have heard from a number of speakers, the per capita method, which ties the reduction in Scotland’s block grant to the rate of growth of per capita tax revenues in the rest of the UK will be used, but it will be adjusted for the rate of population growth in Scotland.

What does that all mean? It means that, either way, Scotland wins. That seems to me to undercut the whole principle of further devolution whereby you have taxes and take responsibility for how they are spent and how the economy grows. Scotland is essentially having its cake and eating it. As far as the impact of choosing not one but two different methods, which can sometimes contradict one another, to settle the block grant, we have a position of great confusion. That position of confusion will apparently last for five years. Our specialist adviser, Professor Bell, calculates that assuming that tax revenue per capita grows at 4% per annum in both Scotland and the rest of the UK over this five-year period, the Scottish block grant will be £280 million per annum larger by 2021, due to the application of the per capita rather than the comparable method. Further, the comparable method will cost the rest of the UK taxpayers £350 million more in 2020-21 than the levels deduction, which is another method of calculating this, would.

In other words, more than £600 million appears to have moved across the table from the rest of the UK to Scotland, so this is a triumph of negotiation by Scotland and congratulations to them. However, the political consequences are grave for those parts of the UK which, under the Barnett formula, already receive less than they would certainly be entitled to on a needs basis. This creates, quite naturally, for the north-east, south-west, East Anglia, and other parts of the UK a very unsatisfactory position and a very strong case for a complete review of how funding is allocated, particularly in England, which we are seeing is now going for much greater devolution.

The devolution train has left the station for Scotland and is leaving the station for other parts of the UK, but the funding formula to cope with that is frankly broken. It needs to be looked at. Naturally, as I think I inferred from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, other nations will look carefully at the settlement to see whether there is something in it for them.

It is a mess. I will leave it to the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, to decide how we will get out of it, but frankly I believe that the tactics that have been used by the SNP to force this—I can understand the politics and the desire to have this all settled before the elections—have left us in a very unsatisfactory position.

Just one more thing: earlier speeches referred to paragraph 17 of the framework agreement, which says 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”.

I interpret this as being an annual discussion of what the arrangements are. We are kidding ourselves slightly if we think that this will go on for five years and we are in a stable state. This will have to be reviewed each year, year in, year out. Passing a fundamentally important piece of constitutional legislation in the absence of proper scrutiny and debate in both Houses is a very black day.