Nicola McEwen: Fix problems or devo deal won’t last

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Lord Smith of Kelvin has his work cut out. He is the man tasked with securing an agreement on more powers for the Scottish Parliament, following the vow made by the three UK party leaders just before the referendum.

Honouring that vow would require an agreement to be laid out in a UK Government paper by the end of November, with draft law presented to the Westminster parliament by the end of January. That’s legislation at full tilt.

The three UK parties already presented proposals, focused mainly on extending income tax powers. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats support devolving almost all income tax to the Scottish Parliament, including the power to set different rates and thresholds, and are open to assigning a portion of other taxes to the Scottish budget. The Labour Party fears a “Tory trap” that would weaken the fiscal ties that bind Scotland to the rest of the UK – its tax devolution proposals are by far the most modest.

The parties are united in their support of national insurance, pensions and most social security remaining UK matters, but both Labour and the Conservatives back devolving control over housing benefit and attendance allowance to the Scottish Parliament. Labour also wants local councils to have power and responsibility over the work programme – the UK Government’s Welfare to Work scheme.

Even given the breakneck speed necessitated by the vow, it is not difficult to envisage a compromise being found between the three UK parties’ proposals.

But Lord Smith’s commission also involves the SNP government and the Scottish Greens, and will consult with civic Scotland and campaign groups that emerged in the referendum. Many will push for the Scottish Parliament to be granted much more power than the offers currently on the table.

When committing his government to involvement in the Smith commission, First Minister Alex Salmond set tests against which his government would measure proposed new powers: they would need to support job creation, fairness and equality, and a bigger international voice for Scotland. It’s hard to see how the existing proposals of the three parties could pass any of these tests. And yet the consent of the Scottish Parliament will be required for any new devolution legislation.

Even if a political consensus could be secured between some or all of the parties, the devil – as always – will be in the detail. So far, all we have is a set of ideas which have yet to be tested. The academic community will play its part in scrutinising all proposals to emerge from the Smith commission and subsequent legislation. The public should, too.

Any new agreement on tax or social security powers should be accompanied by a clear statement and understanding of how these new powers would be financed, what they would mean for Scottish taxpayers and service users, how year-on-year adjustments would be made to the Scottish Government’s budget to ensure it could meet its new obligations, how and by whom these services would be delivered, and how much power to shape and change systems they would actually entail. Failure to address these issues now would store up problems for the future, and make it unlikely that the agreement reached in the coming months will be a lasting one.

Professor Nicola McEwen is a political scientist at Edinburgh University and Associate Director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change. Along with academics from Edinburgh, Stirling, Aberdeen, Strathclyde and Cardiff, she will be speaking at the event, What Next for Scotland?, on Monday, October 6 at Our Dynamic Earth. Register for this free event at https://whatnextforscotland.eventbrite.co.uk