Vow Max? Has Smith delivered for Scotland and what about Yorkshire and the North of England?

In the febrile pre-referendum atmosphere, the Daily Record put together a “Vow” signed by all 3 UK party leaders to deliver “extensive” powers for Scotland in the event of a No vote. There would always have been further devolution. This “Vow” just put the inevitable on a more detailed timetable.

A Commission under Lord Smith of Kelvin was put together to deliver on that timetable and has done a power of work in just over two months. They have consulted widely, taking submissions from the five main political parties and many civic organisations and individuals. I managed to get my own submission in at 2 minutes to the deadline.

In the august surroundings of the National Museum of Scotland, Smith and the 10 members of the Commission unveiled the consensus they had reached. I have to say that I have been a little sceptical about this process. I knew that in the interests of self preservation it would have to deliver something credible or we’d be back facing another referendum before we could blink.

The outcome shows just how far both the Conservatives and Labour have had to move. Liberal Democrats have always been in the home rule camp, seeking to devolve as much as practicable on the way to a Federal UK. The Tories wanted to devolve some tax raising power. Labour’s submission was the most timid, with a bit of tinkering around the edges on welfare. Nothing short of independence would suit the SNP. The outcome looks much more like Liberal Democrat policy than anything else.

The Report delivers substantial tax and welfare powers. Full control of income tax bands and rates goes to Holyrood while personal allowances remain at Westminster. The Scottish Parliament will be responsible for raising around 60% of its budget, giving substantial accountability.

On welfare, benefits like Carers’ Allowance and Attendance Allowance are fully devolved, as are disability benefits like DLA and PIP. That’s a big win for the Scottish Parliament. Winter Fuel Allowance and Cold Weather payments will also be devolved, presenting the SNP Government with some challenging choices. They have set a trend for universality, but should people like my husband, over 60 and still in a good job, be getting £200 a year towards heating bills when a family with a disabled child doesn’t?

Benefits which are part of the Universal Credit stay reserved to Westminster. I guess the clue is in the name. Crucially, though, many of the more unpopular factors are devolved so that we can do it differently up here. For example, it won’t have to be paid monthly to Scottish claimants, or Housing Benefit could be paid direct to landlords. The Scottish Parliament will also have control of Housing Benefit and Local Housing Allowance thresholds and will be able to properly rid itself of the Bedroom Tax.

I was slightly annoyed not to see Equalities legislation devolved. I want to see the Scottish Parliament have the power to legislate for better gender balance – or to improve all sorts of diversity. However, the Women 50/50 campaign seem to think that is part of the devolution of the powers over Scottish elections. Scotland will certainly get the power (paragraph 60 of the Report) to set gender quotas to public bodies so it would be anomalous not to have the Parliament subject to similar arrangements.

Michael Moore was the unsung hero of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement which put in place the process for the Referendum. Appointed as one of the Liberal Democrat representatives to the Smith Commission, he has again facilitated a good deal. He made all the running on the welfare stuff, arguing for as much devolution as possible and practicable. You can also see his fingerprints over the Crown Estates stuff, which is pretty significant:

  1. Responsibility for the management of the Crown Estate’s economic assets in Scotland, and the revenue generated from these assets, will be transferred to
    the Scottish Parliament. This will include the Crown Estate’s seabed, urban assets, rural estates, mineral and fishing rights, and the Scottish foreshore for which
    it is responsible.
  2. Following this transfer, responsibility for the management of those assets will be further devolved to local authority areas such as Orkney, Shetland, Na h-Eilean Siar or other areas who seek such responsibilities. It is recommended that the definition of economic assets in coastal waters recognises the foreshore and economic activity such as aquaculture.

Mike was a man on a mission when Secretary of State, determined to get Crown Estates benefitting local communities, telling me in 2011 that he’d had more meetings to try to change things than his ten predecessors.

There’s a good bit of language around how the Scottish and UK Governments should work together better in future. The relationship between the two governments was at its most toxic during the SNP’s first term when Labour were in Government at Westminster. Whatever the SNP might like to say in public, in private, they’ve got on pretty well with the Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State. However, Smith outlines some protocols which should be put in place. It’s surprising they weren’t already. What’s interesting is that a process is set out for consultation on the UK positions at EU negotiations. Scottish Ministers’ views must be taken into consideration in devolved matters.

The final bit of really good news is that 16 and 17 year olds look set to keep the vote they got for the referendum at the 2016 Holyrood election. How much longer before Westmimster wakes up to the inevitable?

The report ends with a whole load of issues which need to be resolved, mostly to do with immigration, outside the Scottish Parliament’s remit. I want to see a framework for resolving  these issues which include support for asylum seekers.

One last point: I’d quite like to know the story behind the fudge on abortion and embryology:

  1. The parties are strongly of the view to recommend the devolution of abortion and regard it as an anomalous health reservation. They agree that further serious consideration should be given to its devolution and a process should be established immediately to consider the matter further.
  2. The devolution of xenotransplantation; embryology, surrogacy and genetics; medicines, medical supplies and poisons; and welfare foods (i.e. matters reserved under Sections J2 to J5 of Head J – Health and Medicines, Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998) should be the subject of further discussions between the UK and Scottish Governments. Those discussions are without prejudice to whether or not devolution takes place and in what form.

If they all agree, why not just devolve it?

All in all, in tone and in reality, this package is Vow Max. It’s to be expected that the SNP, having signed up to it one day are trashing it before the ink is dry, but then they want independence. It’s in their political interest to do that. The Scottish people will be the judge of whether it’s enough. The problem is that they vote before the powers come in and they can see how they work in practice.

Federalism was never going to come out of this. It couldn’t, given that you need the co-operation of the rest of the UK to do that. We need to keep campaigning for a proper UK wide constitutional convention after the election. Similarly, it’s not surprising that people in Yorkshire and other parts of England are spitting mad to see this sort of devolution to Scotland while they get a City Deal. These issues were discussed at length at the party’s last Federal Executive meeting and Paul Tyler is coming to the next meeting on 15th December. He is the parliamentarian that you need to write to if you want to take these issues forward.

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About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem pro UK activist, mum, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger.
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