The 2014 Smith Commission
Lord Smith of Kelvin engaged with thousands of stakeholders across Scotland during the work of the Smith Commission. The outcome prompted him to make a personal recommendation in the Smith Commission Agreement. He said:
“There is a strong desire to see the principle of devolution further extended with the transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities. The Scottish Government should work with the Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities setting out ways in which local areas can benefit from the powers of the Scottish Parliament.”
The Unionist Government Approach to Scotland
Scottish Secretary David Mundell stated:
“The choices made by the Scottish Government are significant. Serious cuts to local authority budgets, and absolutely no new devolved powers to raise their own funding. In fact the reverse, with the Council Tax freeze retained yet again. Local councils are starved of any powers to raise their own funding and power and responsibility to make their own decisions should be transferred from Scottish government ministers and civil servants to Councillors in local communities.”
Mundell studiously ignores the Scottish government efforts to add powers to local government. See:
b. Workplace parking tax:
Jackson Carlaw, in parliament, complained that “tens of thousands of Scottish workers are to be fleeced for hundreds of pounds a year just because the SNP government can’t say no to six dismal Green MSPs”.
John Swinney responded, insisting that the proposal was about “empowering” councils. He said: “It will enable local authorities to exercise a judgment as to whether they wish to apply a workplace parking levy. The decision will be up to local authorities – it is an example of localism in practice and I would have thought the Conservatives would welcome that. Jackson Carlaw has been found out today, he goes around the country arguing for more powers for local government and when we deliver them, he comes here in an act of rank hypocrisy and criticizes them. The people of Scotland can see through the hypocrisy of the Tories, they can see what the Tories are about, their spots have never changed, they want to cut public spending and they will take the hypocritical way of doing it.”
Typical “push me pull me politics” from the Tory party. The SNP government devolve Tory supported decision making to local council authorities only for the Tory’s to renege on their support. Never trust a Tory.
Local Government Funding
The funding of local government, a crucial part of the civic structure of Scotland, has been significantly reduced over the last decade, in direct consequence of the imposition by the Westminster Tory government of a brutal austerity regime that has caused so much damage to Scottish society.
True to form the Unionist Party’s in Scotland repeatedly lie to the Scottish electorate, rewriting the oracle, transferring blame for the reduced funding of councils away from Westminster to the Scottish government.
Their efforts to deceive are actively assisted by a complicit Unionist backing media, including the BBC, (who accrue £325 million annually from Scots). Biting the hand that feeds it is an apt description.
Capital investment in Scotland dried up between 2008-2015, as funds were directed at major investment programmes in London and the North of England.
The re-elected Tory government was forced by political pressure, to address the lack of capital under funding in parts of the UK, other than England.
It did so through the commitment of new finance to “City Deals”. The deals, funding specific approved developments were to be delivered through local level partnerships, supplemented by appropriately qualified persons from business and other government officials.
Great news, but not for Scots. Huge deals were approved for Northern England (where the Tory’s are weak). Scotland was short changed yet again.
But the Scottish government intervened and allocated finance to Scotland’s “City Deals” correcting and in many cases exceeding the Westminster shortfall.
Double Devo a Warning??
The Smith Commission Agreement was explicit that responsibility for managing the Crown Estate, which is being devolved in the Scotland Bill, should be further devolved to local authority areas such as Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles or other areas who seek such responsibilities and there is an argument that the UK Government should legislate to devolve these and other things directly to Scotland’s local authorities: so-called ‘double devolution’.
An Englishman, ScepticalChymist commented:
“England’s policy towards its neighbours for centuries has been divide and rule. Religion has been the main tool in Ireland; language in Wales. In Scotland, they have persistently, but so far unsuccessfully, tried to stir up highlander/lowlander or similar regional friction. Hold firm, Scotland… and craft your own allocation of powers when you have achieved independence and are freed up from the malevolent influences of the British State.”
The Mundell Myth – Westminster Control is Being Reduced
Attention is being given to the crucial issue of breaking up the Westminster central control monolith, and the Conservative Government is setting the pace and leading the way.
The Northern Powerhouse is breaking new ground. It explicitly models itself on Dutch and German models of metro-area devolution and infrastructure integration.
Already major powers over health, transport and planning have been hewn out of the Whitehall monolith and deposited wholesale into Lancashire. And the Midlands Engine is implementing plans transferring powers to the Greater Birmingham area, and their are plans afoot in urban Yorkshire, suburban Hampshire and even rural Cornwall – the direction of travel for the UK excluding Scotland is becoming crystal clear.
There is now a real risk that the towns and counties of Scotland, will be left behind. The Scottish Parliament has had full control of local government in Scotland for sixteen years. And in that time – what has it done to empower them? What has the Scottish Parliament put forward to match the ambition and vision of the Northern Powerhouse?
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, set out a new and ambitious approach to give real power to cities, counties and towns in England. The approach is bottom up, not top down.
It does not force changes on councils, but rather it establishes a legal framework to allow local councils to shape their own destinies.
Groups of local authorities can come together to agree their own priorities and set their own paths to take over new powers for their area. It could be taking control of local transport, housing, strategic planning, health, social care and skills training to boost growth and improve lives for their citizens.
And with greater powers comes greater responsibility, accountability and scrutiny, in some cases in the form of directly-elected, metro-wide mayors. And it leads inevitably to thought of fiscal devolution from central government to local councils. I’m sure many councils feel that the recent budget settlement shows the pressing need for a debate on that.
The Reality of Mundell’s Transfer of Powers
The 2014 Smith Commission:
Leaked drafts revealed that formally agreed plans to give Holyrood new powers over abortion law, lotteries, and health and safety at work were dropped from the Smith Commission.
The documents showed that a range of major powers were set to be devolved to Scotland as part of the Unionist “vow” made during the independence referendum, but were axed in the final days of negotiations.
They included full devolution of abortion law and the creation of a separate Scottish Health & Safety Executive. Both were downgraded to the status of “additional issues for consideration,” and may or may not be devolved in future.
Plans to give the Scottish Government more control over the treatment of asylum seekers, and a greater say in the governance of the BBC were also removed at the instigation of Unionist parties.
The final draft also included proposals to devolve income tax personal allowances, employers’ National Insurance contributions, inheritance tax, and the power to create new taxes without Treasury approval. However, these were never adopted into an agreed text.
According to sources close to the Commission, Labour, LibDem and Tory members were frequently on the phone taking instruction from their parties in London, with the LibDems and Tories particularly exercised about welfare proposals and Labour more focused on tax.
The Commission chairman, Lord Smith of Kelvin, also appeared to give extra weight to the views of the three main Westminster parties, a source said. “The position that Lord Smith took was that if the parties who were either in the current UK government or might be in the next refused to budge on something, he went with it. The Unionist votes seemed to count for more.”
The BBC revealed that the draft version included late proposals to devolve power to vary Universal Credit. But these were dropped after the UK Cabinet was informed, and only a power to vary the housing cost element remained.
Other powers agreed by the Commission were later cut. The most controversial of these concerned abortion. The decision to devolve had been agreed on a 4-1 basis, with only Labour opposed to it. But during the final day, Labour kept pushing its opposition in meetings with Lord Smith, who then raised it again with the other parties. The Conservatives then sided with Labour and the commitment to devolve abortion was removed.
Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, who sat on the Commission, said: “The reaction against devolving abortion in the final few days surprised and disappointed me. Concerns that Scotland would do the wrong thing and undermine women’s rights are misplaced. The real threat to women’s reproductive rights comes from the voice we hear at Westminster.”
Another missing power was the creation of a separate Scottish Health & Safety Executive. This had long been supported by Labour and the trade union movement, but was removed at the behest of the UK Government. The draft stated: “Power to establish a separate Scottish Health & Safety Executive to set enforcement priorities, goals and objectives in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. This was struck out and relegated to the “additional issues” annex of the final report, which said the Scottish and UK governments should merely “consider” changes.
The final draft also included an agreement that: “The power to permit the creation and regulation of new lotteries in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.” But the final report devolved only the power to “prevent the proliferation” of highly addictive gaming machines known as fixed-odds betting terminals.
Also removed was a statement that said: “There will be greater Scottish involvement in BBC governance beyond the current right to have one Trust member and the current Audience Council Scotland.” (The Herald)
Impact of the UK Withdrawal from the EU
In the UK, the Parliament at Westminster is sovereign. This means the UK Parliament has the power to make the final decision on laws and how the country is run. However, the UK Parliament devolved a limited number of powers to the Scottish Parliament. The institution is able to make decisions in certain defined areas.
In the past the UK Government also had to follow laws made by the European Union (EU). Following the 2016 referendum the UK decided to leave the EU and will no longer have to obey decisions made by the EU in Brussels. It is expected that the UK will have left the EU by the end of March 2019.
To facilitate Brexit the UK Government published a list of areas of responsibility, formally devolved to Scotland, indicating Westminster intent to retain power after Brexit.
The 24 powers include those over fisheries, environmental protections, food regulation and animal welfare. Public procurement rules currently held by the EU will also be kept at a UK level.
Comment: I believe the slippery slope through which Scotland’s flirtation with devolved responsibilities and a parliament to boot is likely to be brought to an end, over time. The Holyrood parliament will be declared defunct and all powers transferred to the authority and control of the Westminster government in Scotland. Scottish Tory MP’s (assuming there are some) will serve in the government. The building has been leased and other plans are being developed. Mundell wins the day.