The Scotland bill is only one week into its committee deliberations and already we’ve had the political equivalent of Arthur Montford’s stramash in the goalmouth.
I don’t intend to retrace the fallout – the many twists are covered by Go Lassie Go, Devolution Matters and Newsnet Scotland (if I’ve missed anyone, let me know). But it is worth rewinding and recalling why any of it matters.
This is the most important piece of legislation to come before the Scottish Parliament to date. It will result in the Parliament gaining more powers, both constitutional and fiscal, and has the capacity to change our lives and Scotland’s fortunes. It epitomises Dewar’s assertion that devolution is a process not an event, by broadening the scope and deepening the extent to which Scotland is in charge of its own affairs. To that end, the bill chimes with public opinion that shows that most Scots want their Parliament to have more powers. This is reflected in the stance of all the political parties currently represented at Holyrood to a lesser or greater degree, though the bill no doubt goes further than some MSPs would like and not nearly as far as others, particularly the SNP, would prefer.
And therein lies the problem. The contentious political maelstrom within which this bill sits has already swamped the committee’s purpose, namely to consider its provisions and recommend to Parliament what, if any, improvements are required.
Last Tuesday’s stramash highlighted a number of issues.
Firstly, that the bill’s fiscal provisions require significant improvement. All the economists who have submitted written evidence so far – many of whom were involved in the work of the Calman Commission – say so. Concerns have been expressed in written and oral evidence with the income tax proposal, both its formula and the arrangements for collection, and also with the range and type of other taxes to be devolved. Moreover, they all appear to support the Parliament having borrowing powers beyond the scope set out in the bill. It is to be hoped that this expertise is listened to and features in the commitee’s report to Parliament.
Secondly, the normal rules of engagement appear to have been set aside. Committee witnesses were quizzed on written evidence that they had not seen ie the Scottish Government’s submission (nor has anyone else for it is yet to be published by the committee). The submission made by Professor Hughes Hallett and Scott appears not to have been circulated to MSPs before they gave oral evidence nor otherwise made publicly available. Instead a paper not related to the bill process was circulated to members. Committee clerks played some kind of role in all this; it is important to determine what, for they are supposed to be politically neutral civil servants, and how they came to be involved, particularly if MSPs were also involved. Playing fast and loose with convention serves neither the immediate, true purpose of the committee nor the reputation of the Parliament in the longer term.
Thirdly, it reinforced that Holyrood needs to revisit its regulations and guidance on committee procedure and in particular, the role and behaviour of convenors. Currently, a committee convenor can only be removed is if he or she resigns from the role, by an absolute majority vote of the committee or when the convenor ceases to be a member of the committee or an MSP (Standing Orders 12.1.8 and 12.1.10). Complaints about the Scotland bill convenor’s behaviour or expressing disgruntlement with last week’s proceedings are unlikely to result in immediate action. It means convenors can thumb the nose at the rules and behave entirely inappropriately with little prospect of sanction or removal. Not good enough.
These issues can all be fixed. But what to do when our MSPs seem to care more about their own party political interests than the role Parliament requires of them? How else to explain the Scottish Government continuing to ignore the reality of the bill’s content and pushing the case for full fiscal autonomy? Or the bill committee convenor appearing to prefer to trash the reputations of two eminent economists and the political case of her opponents, than to shepherd the technical legislative process so that the best possible outcome for the people of Scotland can be achieved?
The burd gets that this bill does not go nearly far enough in the direction of independence as the SNP would like. So challenge that. Apply the talents and resources of the Scottish Government to making the proposals as good as they can be, taking the powers to the limits the bill allows. And then challenge the opposition to vote those proposals down. It will demonstrate that you at least tried, which is much more productive that shouting from the sidelines for something that the bill cannot and will not deliver. Membership of the SNP involves two things – pursuing independence and furthering the interests of Scotland. Focusing on the latter to deliver a quality Scotland bill with real fiscal and constitutional powers might well result in progress towards the former.
I also get that a tactical alliance between Labour and the Tories might be deemed desirable in order to devolve powers to Scotland, yet keep this kingdom united. But there is a risk that fixating on the latter aspiration by limiting the former neither satisfies the population’s cravings nor results in real substantial powers that work in Scotland’s best interests. Getting caught up in trashing the case for independence by gerrymandering the bill’s process and alienating important expert advice, particularly on the highly complex fiscal provisions, might well result in the worst possible outcome for Unionists: bad law that frustrates the populace and causes more to demand full fiscal autonomy and independence.
But what I don’t get, now that the legislative process has started, is the unwillingness, or inability, of our MSPs to set aside narrow party political interest to ensure that the Scotland bill is as good as it can be.