Scotland's civic groups unimpressed by Westminster devolution plans

By staff writers
January 23, 2015

Civic groups have reacted with scepticism to the UK Government’s command paper on the Smith Commission proposals for devolution to Scotland.

They are concerned that the recommendations of the Commission, which was rushed through hastily and had no time for public consultation, have been watered down even further.

The proposals, launched by Prime Minister David Cameron in his first visit to Scotland for four month, represent an agreement by the three currently largest parties at Westminster.

An accompanying timetable promises a Bill to be included in the Queen's Speech in May 2015, whatever the outcome of the 2015 General Election. But there is at present no certainty as to what that will include.

The most widespread reaction to the publication of the command paper on 22 January from civic Scotland has been one of disappointment.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), which remained neutral during the 2014 independence referendum and has campaigned for 'A Just Scotland', warned that the draft clauses “will not match the intentions of the Smith Commission proposals”.

The STUC said on 22 January, as Prime Minister David Cameron came to Scotland to seek approval for his proposals, that “it is unacceptable that the Scottish Parliament should require Westminster approval to create new benefit entitlements in Scotland.”

The trade union umbrella group added that “given that the STUC was underwhelmed by totality of the Smith Commission proposals, this further watering down of the promise that was made to voters in Scotland is unacceptable”.

The STUC also recommended that the Scottish Labour Party, whose new leader Jim Murphy has welcomed them, “looks very carefully at these clauses and takes a clear view on whether they meet its aspirations and the spirit of the Smith Commission proposals.”

Business for Scotland said: "A devo-light solution that sits half way between what the Scottish people want and what the Scottish economy needs is nothing more than a constitutional fudge – the worst of both worlds."

Equality campaigners are also unhappy. The Poverty Alliance’s director, Peter Kelly, described the draft clauses as “very disappointing”.

He pointed out that any changes to Housing Benefit would need to be agreed by the Scottish Secretary, arguing that “by giving the Secretary of State a veto, the Scottish Government is essentially being stripped of any real powers over this.”

Citizens Advice Scotland said it was “deeply disappointed that the paper states that the migration from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independent Payments (PIP) will continue under current timescales and process.”

The NGO also stated that “the Smith Commission led us to believe the Scottish Government could craft its own welfare system, outside of Universal Credit, taking into account the needs of Scotland. It seems now that offer has been withdrawn.”

The response from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations was scathing, with CEO Martin Sime saying he believed they were "doomed from the outset".

He added: “The fatal flaw in all of this is the failure to make it a people-led process. To be successful, we need to pursue bottom-up devolution steered by what people in Scotland actually want."

There was a guarded but more positive response from David Ogilvie, head of policy and public affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) Scotland.

He gave the process a cautious welcome, saying: “We are particularly pleased to see that the draft legislation looks to improve the way the UK and Scottish governments work together, as well as providing greater flexibility on welfare payments in Scotland, including universal credit and the bedroom tax.

“While this doesn’t represent a solution for the various problems facing Scotland’s housing system at the moment, it should at least increase the range of powers at the disposal of the Scottish government to address them more directly and in a way which is relevant to Scotland.

“However, there is still some way to go before the impact of these extra powers can be made real, so CIH will be maintaining a close eye on the progress of this legislation.”

Patrick Harvie, co-conveor of the largely pro-independence Scottish Greens, who have two MSPs and have trebled their membership since last September, warned that the UK government proposals were inadequate, and that environmental powers, such as those over fracking, could be pre-empted by Westminster action before they went through.

Retiring backbench Labour MP Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister, and an outspoken opponent of full self-government for Scotland, made a response on behalf of his party.

"I am pleased that there are new powers of huge significance in employment and welfare that no one can undervalue with credibility", he claimed. "Two issues have dominated Scottish politics for the past 30 years: the call for action on jobs and social justice. And the Scottish Parliament will now have substantial powers in both areas, as well as in tax matters."

Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader, said that he now wanted far more responsibility devolved to local communities from Holyrood.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies, including Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, said that the draft proposals and command paper showed that Westminster ministers had kept their promise to strengthen Holyrood.

But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that UK ministers would get a veto on Scottish powers in key areas, including the ability to abolish the bedroom tax.

"The legislation published today does not represent the views of the Scottish government, but it does represent some progress," she said.

"However, too much of what the prime minister has set out imposes restrictions on the recommended devolved powers."

Commenting for the pro-independence Scottish National Party, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani said: “The frosty response to the Westminster Government’s command paper from campaigning organisations demonstrates why an urgent rethink is needed. Their disappointment with the limits of the proposals is very evident.

“While we will always welcome additional powers for Scotland, the Smith Commission proposals fell far short of giving Scotland the kind of powers we need to create jobs and make Scotland a fairer country.

“Now the Westminster Government has proposed watering down the proposals even further, by introducing a Westminster veto on Scotland’s ability to make important welfare changes – such as abolishing the Bedroom Tax.

“That is unacceptable and clearly runs against the spirit of what was promised by the Smith Commission."

SNP Parliamentary Trade Union Group Convenor, Christina McKelvie MSP, added: “The Westminster Government needs to rethink its proposals as a matter of urgency and recognise that attempting to hold onto a veto is simply not an option. A strong team of SNP MPs will ensure the Westminster parties are not allowed to forget the 'Vow' they made to the people of Scotland – and will use their clout to push the case for more powers at every opportunity.”

Meanwhile the bipartisan Campaign for Scottish Home Rule warned that the command paper will not deliver home rule, stating “the real missed opportunity in this Command Paper is that it does not deliver a sustainable proposal based on a set of principles that gives Scottish Parliament control over domestic policy; in other words, it does not deliver Scottish Home Rule.”

The beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia, which has offices in London and Edinburgh, made a submission to the Smith Commission, alongside contributions by around 300 civic organisations and 1,700 individuals.

The think-tank highlighted to Lord Smith the need for widespread public engagement on the Heads of Agreement, and certain core principles related to subsidiarity, the localisation of power and a democratic and socially just future which needed to be at the core of an agreement on new powers which represents a truly substantial shift in the current settlement.

"While what is being offered in the UK government's command paper represents some progress on devolution, it by-passes popular participation and still falls well short of the promise of 'home rule' and something approaching 'devo-max' in retain to the Vow made by the three largest Westminster parties before the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014," noted Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.

"Our chief concern is the capacity for meaningful powers to deliver social and economic justice for all the nations and regions of the British isles, the empowerment of communities, and the vigorous participation of civic and faith groups in building peaceful, sustainable and just living conditions for all.

"Judged in those terms there are genuine concerns about these proposals in relation to the confusion of powers, restrictions and vetoes, and a disequilibrium between the responsibility of devolved government and its capacity to deliver. These need addressing. Rushing through legislation without adequate thought and engagement is a recipe for future trouble."

The extent to which these powers give Scotland a real capacity to tackle the challenges that face it, together with an argument between the SNP and Labour on who is best placed to carry a progressive flag and champion Scottish interests at Westminster, is likely to be a significant feature in the 2015 General Election campaign north of the border.

* Proposals for further devolution of powers to Scottish Parliament by three Westminster parties: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/proposals-for-further-devolut...

* Ekklesia submission to the Smith Commission on devolution to Scotland (31 October 2014): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21086

* The Smith Commission: what we said and what has happened (Simon Barrow, Ekklesia): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21100

* More on the post-referendum situation in Scotland: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence

* More on the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015
Views expressed in news briefs and by commentators on GE15 are not necessarily those of Ekklesia.

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