The Scotland Bill comes back to parliament for its final stages in the House of Commons on Monday. When it passes, it will make the Scottish Parliament the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. Now we need to come together to work out how we use them in the best interests of the country – for example, by topping up tax credits, as Scottish Labour has pledged to do.
The Bill sets in legislation the Smith Agreement, negotiated and signed by all of Scotland’s five major political parties. At the start of the parliamentary process in June the original Bill was deficient in many areas but I brought a raft of constructive amendments to ensure it delivered in full the promises from the referendum last year.
We wanted it to put beyond any doubt that the Scottish parliament is a permanent institution, ensure Gift Aid is protected for our charities with the devolution of income tax, and allow Scotland to design its own social security provision with the power to create new benefits in any devolved area and top up existing benefits like tax credits.
That constructive approach has worked as the government has brought forward a raft of far-reaching amendments that ensures beyond any reasonable doubt that the Vow has been delivered – thanks to Labour.
Inevitably, there are still some issues where we would like a little more and we will come back to those at the next stage in the House of Lords.
The debate now must turn to how our parliament will use these extensive new powers over income tax and welfare.
I welcome that – it is time to stop arguing about the powers we don’t have, and start using those we do.
The Scottish Labour Leader, Kezia Dugdale MSP, has laid out that Scottish Labour would make a different choice on tax credits from the Conservatives. We would use the new powers to ensure that those who are in receipt of tax credits do not lose out from George Osborne’s pernicious work penalty. Why? Because tax credits work. They have lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty and let working families aspire to more than just making it to the end of the month.
It’s why the last Labour government introduced them.
These new powers afford huge opportunities for our future, and that is why I have been positive about them. The challenges facing Edinburgh and Scotland are so great that it’s simply not good enough to have leaders who congratulate themselves on a misbegotten reputation for competence.
There is no doubt that the SNP government will claim that they don’t have the powers and continue to carp and criticise. They can wax lyrical about what they would do with the powers they don’t have but are deafeningly silent on the powers that they do.
Given the much-documented problems with Police Scotland and Sir Stephen House, funding cuts from the NHS, widening educational attainment, lack of support for students from poorer backgrounds going to university, slashing of 140,000 college places, and the mess of local government funding, we need a Scottish government that strives to improve public services, the landscape for our businesses and environment in which we all live.
The Scottish Parliament already has vast powers. The Scotland Bill transfers incomes tax, a suite of other taxes including half of VAT and the majority of social security. Let’s get on and use the powers for everyone in Scotland. Failure to do so would be a significant abdication of responsibility.