Today saw the release of the report from the ‘Smith Commission’, which was set up in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum to discuss the devolving of greater powers to Scotland.
This was the result of last minute promises (or ‘the vow’) from the main party leaders in Westminster, in the face of polls that showed a majority of support for Scottish independence.
The vow, and the Commission itself is shrouded in politics and controversy, but I’ve taken a look through the decisions in the report to see for myself what stands out. I’ve tried to take them at face value with my lawyer hat on, rather than look at any of them from an ideological standpoint that supports independence.
Here’s what I’ve found:
The Scottish Parliament
This is a bit of a strange one. Designed to assuage fears that Westminster would dissolve the Scottish Parliament at a whim, it’s nothing more than a symbolic statement. Whilst it’s true that Westminster could theoretically disband the Scottish Parliament (as it is nothing more than a creature of statute), its existence was already guaranteed as much as it could be by constitutional convention. Even with new UK legislation to state the supposed permanence, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty dictates that the decisions of one parliament are unable to bind any other – so it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t already there.
This is good news, with the parties looking to bring these changes in in time to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections. Note that whilst this is a great progressive step that corrects some inconsistencies with our approach to the age of consent in Scotland, the same 16 and 17 year olds will not be able to vote in Westminster elections until they reach 18.
Foreign policy remains reserved to Westminster, which isn’t a great shock really. What’s more interesting is the weak approach to the UK’s involvement with the European Union. When a matter relates to Scotland, the Scottish Ministers views should be ‘taken into account’. We all know what that really means.
Interesting, but nothing to write home about. No mention of the license fee, or any other substantive elements of broadcasting in Scotland. Pretty weak, and something that should have really always been the case.
Remain with Westminster.
Elements of some benefits payments – such as the creation of new benefits – is being given to Scotland. However, a large number of these remain reserved to Westminster. It’s an area that’s relatively long, and not one I claim to have any great knowledge over, so I’ll defer to others for analysis here.
Stays under the control of Westminster. Can’t have Scotland paying a higher minimum wage than the rest of the UK after all, that would be scandalous. Worth noting that Labour were against giving the Scottish Parliament the power to introduce a living wage. Party of the people, indeed.
Equality Act 2010
Reserved to Westminster. Whilst it’s important to ensure that Scotland wouldn’t slip below the standards set out in the Equality Act 2010, that seems less of a plausible threat than future Tory governments in London doing the same thing. On balance, I don’t see why this should remain a reserved matter.
Nothing all that notable here, with the exception of one massive devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament of course:
A bit of a surprise one, given the economic importance of fracking. The powers relating to this will now lie with the Scottish Government. I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this though. Watch this space.
Good, but… bizarre.
This one has received a lot of press attention, but it seems to be a case of wilful blindness to what the powers actually entail.
- Income tax will continue to exist across the UK
- The Scottish Parliament will have powers to vary the rate of income tax
- Any income tax received as the result of an adjustment by the Scottish Parliament will go to the Scottish Parliament
BUT, note the point at the end of 78: that any increase in the amount of money collected through income tax will be met by a ‘corresponding adjustment’ to the amount of money that Scotland receives through the UK. That means that changes to the income tax levels won’t have any real effect on the actual amount of money Scotland gets. This is a clever way to give the impression of the Scottish Parliament getting more powers, whilst making sure they are toothless with regards to delivering any change.
Pretty much all reserved to Westminster, with the exception of Air Passenger Duty. Note that this includes oil and gas revenues. No big shocker there.
The costs of implementation of a separate system would have to be passed back to Westminster, making it a fairly unattractive power to implement.
There are also some changes to VAT, where Scotland will apparently generate income from the first part of any collection, but again this corresponds to a reduction in the amount received from the UK block grant, so it’s not worth even paying any attention to.
You guessed it!
I felt pretty good about the results of the Smith Commission when I read the brief reports coming from elsewhere. I dismissed the cynicism I saw from other pro-independence campaigners as inevitable. However, reading through the report for myself is pretty disappointing.
- No real new powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament
- A couple of minor victories with regards to 16 and 17 year olds voting in Scottish Parliamentary elections
- Some symbolic language, which doesn’t give any further legal status to the devolved organs
- Headline suitable devolutions of certain taxes, which won’t result in any increase in the Scottish Parliament’s budget
The last one is the most galling of all. It means that even if they make use of the powers to modify the rate of income tax, the Scottish Parliament won’t actually receive any more money. Rather, it’s the source of the money that will change, rather than any powers over the level. This is a sham designed to deliver good headlines.
Of course, none of this is binding. Westminster still needs to accept the recommendations, which could be another interesting battle.
You can download the report for yourself here. It’s not too long – only 28 pages. Worth a read for yourself.