Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:56 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Lindsay The Earl of Lindsay Conservative 5:56 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, I welcome today’s debate for a number of reasons, one being my involvement a decade ago in the Calman commission, which was tasked with carrying out an inquiry into the first 10 years of devolution in Scotland. It is interesting to reflect on what has been achieved a further 10 years since 2009.

In many respects, Scottish devolution can claim to have been a considerable success. The Scottish Parliament and Government are both central and well-established parts of Scottish life. As we have heard, additional powers have been devolved, including welfare powers. Most notably, and specifically mentioned by a number of speakers, tax-raising obligations have been established with the transfer of significant new tax powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Both the Calman and Smith commissions recommended improving the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, which was not previously accountable to the Scottish electorate for how revenue was raised in the same way it was for how revenue was spent. Greater financial accountability and revenue-raising responsibilities have now been achieved. It is with some misgivings that I acknowledge that important and necessary step, as I now find myself living in the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom.

What has also gone well over the 20 years of devolution in Scotland, though this is less well-recognised north of the border, has been the continuing commitment of United Kingdom Governments to the future well-being of Scotland in not just reserved but devolved and shared matters. The current United Kingdom Government, for instance, have protected the Scottish Government budget, boosting the block grant budget and giving the Scottish Government more money to spend on schools and hospitals. The funding boost to the NHS alone is worth some £2 billion. The current Government are also investing in Scottish cities and elsewhere, with £1.2 billion committed to seven growth deals covering Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Ayrshire, Inverness, Stirling and Tay cities. There are more deals under negotiation, with respect to Moray and the Borderlands.

The UK Government are also supporting some of Scotland’s most vital industries. The whisky industry is benefiting from the spirits duty being frozen for a second year in a row; the North Sea oil and gas industry is benefiting from a tax regime that aims to help its continued recovery from the 2014 oil price crash; tax barriers to new investment have been removed; and work is ongoing to further strengthen the position of Scotland and the UK as a global hub for decommissioning. The Scottish fishing industry is benefiting from the UK Government’s £10 million fisheries technology fund, which aims to help transform the industry and make fishermen in Scotland world leaders in safe, sustainable and productive fishing.

How important is this continuing level of broad support for a devolved Scotland by successive United Kingdom Governments? The answer is that it is vital and will continue to be vital. Scotland’s deficit is more than four times that of the United Kingdom’s and larger than that of any other EU member state. In 2017-18, Scotland’s deficit of £13.4 billion equated to 7.9% of its GDP, compared with the United Kingdom’s deficit of 1.9% in the same period. It should therefore be recognised that, impactful as Scottish devolution has undoubtedly been in changing the political and civic landscape in Scotland over the past 20 years, it none the less owes much to the continuing underpinning strength and substantial support of the United Kingdom and successive United Kingdom Governments.

Mindful of the importance of this interrelationship, I want to touch on one dimension of the two decades of Scottish devolution that, to my mind, cannot be said to be a notable success. In 2009, on the 10th anniversary of Scottish devolution, the Calman commission reported that the need for greater intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary co-operation should be urgently addressed. All the evidence we had taken from other countries with more than one level of government pointed unequivocally to good intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary arrangements being an important element of a stable political constitution, as well as serving the public interest. For good reason, this issue prompted one of the longest chapters in our Calman commission report, and generated some 23 separate recommendations.

That was in 2009. In 2014, five years later, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin, likewise called for better intergovernmental relations when launching the Smith commission report. He said:

“Both Governments need to work together to create a more productive, robust, visible and transparent relationship. There also needs to be greater respect between them”.

The following year, in 2015, the House’s Constitution Committee published a report on intergovernmental relations in the United Kingdom. It was similarly concerned with what it found and, as with the Calman commission, produced a series of recommendations and urged that the issue be urgently addressed.

In a debate in this House in October 2017, after the Government had finally responded to the Constitution Committee’s 2015 report, a number of noble Lords expressed disappointment that intergovernmental relations within the UK remained as much of a concern in 2017 as they had been in 2009. Here we are now, in 2019, still needing to see greater progress achieved in respect of intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary relations.

I do not underestimate the difficulty posed by those happy to see co-operation frustrated for their own party-political purposes; nor am I suggesting that there has been no progress whatever over the past 10 years in improving relations. My noble friend the Minister referred to the progress that has been achieved, but he also talked about the need to refresh and evolve relations. However, I am not quite sure whether refreshment and evolution by themselves go far enough.

If you consider the timeline and take account of the recommendations issued in 2009, 2014 and 2015, you have to be disappointed that we have not achieved more progress between the respective Governments and parliamentary authorities of the United Kingdom and Scotland. Many of the unimplemented recommendations from the past 10 years remain relevant today. Most are relatively modest, most are straightforward and few, if any, require legislation.

The evidence to the Calman commission on the 10th anniversary of Scottish devolution revealed a widely held expectation by business and civic interests that close co-operation between Governments, officials and Parliaments should and would be the norm. I suggest that the 20th anniversary of devolution in Scotland should be marked by a renewed determination by all concerned, on both sides of the border, to deliver the level of co-operation that people rightly deserve as the norm.