Today saw the publication of Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement 1 the question is just how enduring is this settlement likely to be? The coalition contends that this delivers the Smith Commission proposals in full and others that it is a watered down version. Whichever is the reality of the situation the success or otherwise of the proposals will not be decided upon for years to come. Indeed with two elections due during the next 16 months the political landscape could look very different by mid 2015 and the next Westminster Government could have radically different ideas. It is debatable whether promises made now could commit a future administration to fully complete the devolution settlement in this form.
The paper is divided into a number of themed sections; each setting out the clauses according to the powers they will grant and explaining what the draft clauses mean in practice. These areas are divided into the following chapters: Constitutional Matters, Fiscal Framework, Tax, Welfare, Public Bodies, Executive Agencies and The Crown Estate, Civil Protections and Advice, Transport and Energy. Few of these are fully explained and the paper makes clear that “further work” will be required on the bill in the next UK parliament. It also makes clear that in addition to the original Smith Commission proposals issues arose in health, immigration, etc which were not fully addressed by the Commission and these require “further consideration”. It looks like there is plenty of room to manoeuvre in this report.
The largest area of contention is likely to be around welfare provision. Universal Credit (UC) for example remains largely reserved. For most in Scotland UC is an odious attack on the poor and disenfranchised and while the Scottish Parliament will be given the powers to vary the housing cost elements of UC it does not control it all. In particular the SG will be able to mitigate the impact of the so called bedroom tax but will not have the power to create permanent entitlement to any new payments beyond the scope of the devolved benefits. The roll out of UC across the board has been at best shambolic and this provision has the potential to make things worse.
Energy policy too has the potential to create a great deal of discord. The gap between Westminster and Holyrood is a widening chasm. Scotland wants to push ahead with renewable energy and Westminster is fond of fracking. Licensing and planning of offshore drilling for oil remains with Westminster while onshore is devolved. The Scottish Government will be consulted by OFGEM when setting out strategic priorities. OFGEM therefore will talk to the SG but has no obligation to take any notice.
The same is true for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Northern Lighthouse Board.
And so it goes on, there are lots of fine words, but as far as I can see a distinct lack of substance.