Now that UK election fever has reached epidemic proportions I thought it may be worthwhile looking back at the Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement1 . There has been little said about the paper in the campaign so far so it is worth just thinking about its contents and the possible consequences for the next administration.
The paper is divided into a number of themed sections; each setting out the clauses according to the powers they will grant to the Scottish Parliament and explaining what the draft clauses of the bill will 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 these also require “further consideration”. It looks like there is plenty of room to manoeuvre and if the UK election result is a Labour led administration with support from the SNP and others, the further devolution of powers to Scotland will have to be much greater than Smith envisaged.
One of the largest areas 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. The proposal is that the Scottish Parliament will be given the powers to vary the housing cost elements of UC and, in particular, the SG will be able to mitigate the impact of the so called bedroom tax. However the roll out of UC across the board has been at best shambolic and this provision has the potential to make things even worse. Two different rates in the same country gives a new meaning to the phrase “benefit tourism”.
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 many others.
The coalition contends that the draft bill delivers the Commission’s proposals in full but to others, mainly the SNP it is a toothless piece of obfuscation. It is clear however that the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament will be dependent on the UK election result. If the opinion polls are to be believed we will get another hung parliament in Westminster and a massive surge in SNP MPs returned from Scotland. Will it be the Tories and a ragbag mixture of UKIP and DUP? Or perhaps it will be Labour with vote by vote support from the SNP and/or the Lib Dems that forms the new Government. Whatever the outcome there will be much soul searching and horse trading before the UK has anything approaching a stable administration in Westminster. Indeed with the Scottish Parliament elections due in May 2016 the entire political landscape could look very different by the middle of next year. The fact remains it will be up to the next administration to deliver the bill.