Westminster devolution vetoes will ‘block key changes’ in Scotland

By staff writers
January 25, 2015

The Scottish Government has called for significant revisions to weakened devolution proposals from the UK government published last week, following on from the cross-party Smith Commission agreement last year.

Critics of draft proposals from the current three main UK parties for devolving “significant powers” to the Scottish Parliament, which they pledge will be enacted after the forthcoming 2015 General Election, say that the provisions hammered out under Smith have been “watered down” and in some cases rendered toothless in the new document Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement.

Major voices in the Scottish voluntary sector, which remained largely non-aligned during the September 2014 independence referendum, are among those saying that UK government vetoes on abolition of the bedroom tax, action on joblessness and the creation of benefit entitlements will "block key changes" in Scotland towards a different approach from Westminster on welfare and economic priorities.

For example, Citizens Advice Scotland says it is "disappointed and bewildered" by UK Government response to Smith, and especially the withdrawal of the agreement that the Scottish Government could craft its own welfare system, outside of Universal Credit.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says that an urgent rethink is required across a number of legislative clauses outlined by Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh on 22 January, when he launched the new legislation that the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats say they all agree on.

There has been no public consultation about their proposals, which they intend to push through irrespective of the way people in Scotland vote in the May general election.

The currently proposed welfare provisions in the UK government command paper on devolution do not enable the Scottish Parliament to create new benefit entitlements and require the approval of UK ministers for any changes to Universal Credit – including action needed to end the bedroom tax – the Scottish Government has pointed out.

Similarly, proposals for the devolution of unemployment support would damage concerted efforts to address joblessness in Scotland by devolving only a section of the current support network and leaving important levers in the hands of UK ministers.

Thirdly, Scotland would be tied to the UK’s current austerity framework on fiscal matters. This means that under the plans as currently set out capital borrowing powers will replace rather than augment the existing capital grant.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented in response to the Westminster parties’ published proposals on further devolution for Scotland: “Throughout this process, I have been clear that, despite it falling short of the real home rule powers we need to create jobs and tackle inequality, the Scottish Government would be a constructive participant, working with the UK Government to bring forward what Lord Smith recommended.

“[This] legislation [proposed] does not represent the views of the Scottish Government, but it does represent some progress. However, too much of what the Prime Minister has set out imposes restrictions on the recommended devolved powers and would hand a veto to UK ministers in key areas.

“For example, the proposals on welfare do not allow us to vary Universal Credit without the permission of the UK Government. That means – under the current proposals – we will not have the independence to take action to abolish the bedroom tax.

“At the same time, the power argued for by stakeholders to create new benefit entitlements in any devolved area has simply not been delivered, while the command paper makes clear that, pending devolution of disability support, the roll-out of personal independence payments and the cut to spending on disability benefits will continue.

“This cannot, under any interpretation, represent the meaningful progress on the devolution of the powers we need to design a social security system that meets Scotland’s needs.

“The support for unemployed people also falls short of what Lord Smith recommended, with the provisions set out today narrowly focused on existing schemes.

“And the paper confirms that the Scottish Government will still have to work within the framework of austerity being imposed by the UK Government. It also suggests that Scotland’s capital grant could be replaced by borrowing powers and not augmented by them as was clearly the intention of the Smith proposals.

“In these crucial areas the clauses set out today appear to be a significant watering down of what was promised by the Smith Commission and need an urgent rethink by the UK Government.”

The First Minister concluded: “We remain committed to this process, despite the difficulties we have experienced in getting information in a timely fashion and we will continue to work with the UK Government and other stakeholders to ensure that the changes are made ahead of the Bill being taken through Westminster.

“Ultimately, however, the decision on whether the Smith proposals go far enough in delivering the powers we need to create prosperity, tackle inequality and protect our public services will be for the people of Scotland to take.”

By contrast, David Cameron has delivered an emphatic message to Scotland last week that extra powers “being granted by Westminster” are the end of the road for devolution.

“This is the right resting place,” he said in launching his draft legislation command paper in Edinburgh.

The issue is certain to become a significant 2015 general election issue in Scotland, as the Westminster-led parties look set to dig their heels in to defend their vetoes, while the SNP, the Scottish Greens and powerful social movements demand more change.

* Proposals for further devolution of powers to Scottish Parliament by three Westminster parties - Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/proposals-for-further-devolut...

* Scottish Government: http://www.scotland.gov.uk

* Scotland's civic groups unimpressed by Westminster devolution plans (Ekklesia): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21349

* Top-down legislation on powers for Scotland 'doomed', says SCVO chief (Ekklesia): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21350

* Cameron: No more devolution powers to Scotland after today's settlement (Independent): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-no-more-devo...

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

* More on the Smith Commission from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/smithcommission

* More on 2015 General Election issues from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/generalelection2015
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