15 June 2015

Swinney: "Give us employment, welfare, business taxes, & equality..."

In the House of Commons this afternoon, MPs will be analysing the Scotland Bill line by line, debating the changes MPs want to see made. Like the Bill itself, you may find the list of amendments which have been tabled a wee bit difficult to follow. One of the challenges of reading the Scotland Act is its basic structure.

Remember, the Scottish devolution legislation doesn't operate on the basis of a big list of powers which Holyrood can exercise. Instead, it lists only reserved matters. Unlike a local authority, say, the Scottish Parliament is told only what it cannot do by the Scotland Act. If something is missing from Schedule 5 -- it is devolved. One consequence of this approach is that more powers can be achieved simply by deleting bits of the Scotland Act. But in this Bill, the UK government have not chosen to adopt this straightforward approach. Complex exceptions and qualifications proliferate. Even the Secretary of State seems to be struggling with the detail.

Today, the Scottish Government has also published this more accessible summary of the key additional powers they demand.  Explaining the rationales lying behind these priorities, the paper explains:

So, beyond the textual niceties of whether or not Holyrood "is" or is only "recognised" as a permanent feature of the UK constitutional order, what concrete, substantive changes is John Swinney seeking to make to the Scotland Bill? 

  • enhanced control over employment policy, including the minimum wage, employment law, trade union law, health and safety regulations, and full devolution of employment support programmes.  Although the Scotland Bill proposes to devolve some aspects of employment support for disabled people and the long-term unemployed, the UK government continues to oppose the devolution of these other programmes, all of which are currently reserved matters.
  • greater welfare autonomy; in particular, responsibility for children's and working age benefits; or at least further flexibilities in Universal Credit, including the power to vary the Carer's, Child and Childcare Costs elements and the Work Allowance, and particularly, benefit conditionality and sanctions.  What could this mean in practice? It would give Holyrood power to eliminate some of the harsher rules which Tory welfare reforms have introduced, including the seven day waiting period, and proliferating and unfair use of benefit sanctions which beggar, starve and freeze too many of our fellow citizens. 
  • greater responsibility for business taxes, including employers' national insurance contributions and full control over corporation and capital gains tax, including the ability to vary research and development tax credits and capital allowances for business.  All of these issues are currently reserved,  As drafted, the Scotland Bill proposes to leave them so. 
  • full devolved responsibility over equality policy. Under the current Bill, Westminster is proposing to continue to reserve the Equality Acts -- but to carve out further exceptions to afford Holyrood more wriggle room within them. Like much else in the Bill as drafted, this seems unnecessarily prescriptive, controlling and footery.

Do any of these proposals have a snowball's chance in hell of finding their way into the final draft of the Bill? I hae ma doots. Under the heading of employment policy, in public and in private, the Tories have blown hot and cold on the idea of liberating Holyrood to pursue its own workers policy. The Scotland Bill proposes to devolve responsibility for employment tribunals, for example, which would allow Holyrood to abolish the substantial court fees introduced by the Tories in 2013, which risk pricing workers out of justice.  

But the Labour Party are likely to remain equally unsympathetic to any proposal to devolve the minimum wage, trade union rights, or the laws which protect workers from accident, injury, discrimination and unfair treatment. They seem to believe that not only must resources be "pooled and shared" across these islands -- historic setbacks and defeats must also be shared and distributed as widely across Britain as possible. They would rather that the poor were poorer across the United Kingdom under the Conservatives, so long as the worker or the disabled person in Liverpool and Livingston are equally poor. We must build our gallows high, comrades, vote Labour, and all hang together. 

On welfare and health and safety, the Tory wobble during the Smith Commission process was widely reported in the aftermath of the report. Given that the Bill as drafted explicitly bars the Scottish Parliament from using its top-up powers to mitigate benefit sanctions, it seems unlikely that the UK government will be sympathetic to the idea of freeing Holyrood to undermine the discipline of Iain Duncan Smith's unstinting regime. 

The UK government's attitude remains possessive, unimaginative, and unambitious. The full fiscal autonomy debate remains a political sideshow, an orphan policy which it is clear cannot and will not pass the House of Commons under any circumstances.  We might as well be discussing restoring Holyrood's lost power over the penguins of Antarctica, the good it will do us. Essentially the same cabinet which kiboshed more ambitious plans during Smith continues to serve, albeit with more blue and less yellow in the ranks. Old habits die hard.

Reversal on these critical issues seems unlikely, further disappointments, almost inevitable. 


  1. "But the Labour Party are likely to remain equally unsympathetic"

    Who cares what they think, though? It seems to me that it's entirely down to the Tories. If they can be persuaded on any given point (however unlikely) the job's done. If they can't it's a non-starter no matter how Labour vote.

    1. True numerically -- but I don't think we can entirely discount the attitude of the Labour Party here. There will be significant, residual pressure to ensure the Scotland Bill is cross-partisan, including even Carmichael and Murray if possible. And much of the thin "pooling and sharing" Tory discourse owes its existence to the more intense Labour promotion of those ideas. We saw today that there is a strain of Toryism which would be content to let Holyrood do more or less whatever it likes -- so long as it does so within the confines of the union, oriented towards foreign affairs, defence, etc. You do not seem to find that same strain in the Labour Party, preoccupied as it is with "pooling and sharing" of resources and disasters.

  2. Andrew: ' there is a strain of Toryism which would be content to let Holyrood do more or less whatever it likes -- so long as it does so within the confines of the union, oriented towards foreign affairs, defence, etc.'

    Worth noting it's an old strain : I mind John Young - the popular Tory leader of Glasgow Council at end of 70s (wonderful to relate) - being in favour of Home Rule along those lines, if I remember rightly.

  3. Banging on about FFA is necessary. They promised it us, as the Rev Stu has detailed. So the failure to deliver despite the mandate the SNP won in the GE with it in their manifesto will form a causus belli should the SNP feel they need one. They won't give us FFA even though you voted for it, the only way to get those powers is to vote Yes in the next referendum is how it will go.

    I'm not saying they will run with that, but it will go into the playbook. Note Labour abstained on the crucial FFA amendment despite promising to fight it hard. Wiser heads probably realised how their opposition would have been spun in the election campaign for Holyrood. The SNP have Labour running scared of their own shadow and forced to give up their strategies.

    Labour have taken again to claiming they are the 'party of devolution' too. We won't be hearing much about that after this debate. Too many hostages to fortune have been offered.