Ian Murray: No point having powers if we aren’t using them

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This week saw the debate on Scotland’s future enter a new chapter as the Scotland Bill, implementing the Smith Agreement, continued its passage through parliament.

New chapters bring new opportunities, but they also bring new challenges.

The opportunity is obvious: we have the chance to transfer significant additional powers that will transform the Scottish Parliament into one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.

However, this debate can’t simply be about devolving new powers, but what you do with them: you need to have a vision of the country you want to create. That is the challenge.

My vision of that new Scotland is clear. I see a country of empathy and compassion, where help is always available to those who need it. I see a country free from health and educational inequalities, liberated from the scourge of poverty, where every child, no matter where they are born, has the power to reach their full potential. I was lucky to be given that opportunity and I want everyone to get that chance.

Scotland will receive substantial new powers through this Bill in tax, welfare and borrowing. But it is up to the SNP government to decide to use them.

The Scottish Parliament has so much potential to set a different direction for Scotland – that is what devolution is about. Just look at what has already been achieved. Under a Labour-led Scottish Parliament, we blazed a progressive trail with the smoking ban, free personal care and travel for the elderly, and ground-breaking legislation on homelessness.

But just as there have been some great achievements, there have also been some marked failures.

The SNP has been very vocal in demanding more powers, but what are they doing with those they already have? Take health and education, both already devolved.

Health should always be a top priority of any government. But in recent years, the performance of hospitals against key waiting time targets is appalling. Far too many patients, many older or vulnerable, are waiting well over four hours in A&E, and in some cases longer, often in extreme discomfort. That’s just not good enough. Staff morale is also low.

Education, and eradicating educational inequality, should likewise be a priority. But, in recent years, efforts to close the gap in educational attainment between richer and poorer students have stalled, with the Royal Society of Edinburgh describing the Scottish Government’s progress as “slow and erratic”.

There are other substantial local Edinburgh issues with planning problems, Police Scotland, and the affordable housing crisis that need attention.

Sadly, rather than focusing on these very real problems, the SNP has spent the last few weeks promoting full fiscal autonomy – the policy of only spending what is raised in Scotland.

Full fiscal autonomy would be a disaster for Scotland. Impartial experts say it would blow an additional 
£7.6 billion hole in Scotland’s budget that “would lead to very, very severe austerity”. Worse still, it would herald the end of the UK-wide pooling and sharing of resources, undermining social security and the state pension.

The Scotland Bill is not perfect but it is an opportunity. My commitment is to ensure it is delivered in full alongside additional powers on welfare, jobs and equalities. The Bill also brings with it significant accountability. That is important as it allows the debate to become how powers are actually utilised.

Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South