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Draft Scotland Bill 'falls short'

Published 14/05/2015

The Scotland Office, led by Tory David Mundell, has pledged to hold a parliamentary discussion
The Scotland Office, led by Tory David Mundell, has pledged to hold a parliamentary discussion "where differing views can be heard"

The previous UK government's plan to hand more power to Scotland does not meet "the spirit or the substance" of the cross-party agreement on devolution, according to MSPs from across the political spectrum.

The three pro-UK parties made a "vow" of more powers for Scotland in the final days of the independence referendum campaign, which spawned the Smith Commission on Devolution following the No vote.

Smith's recommendations were translated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition into a draft law for an "enduring settlement" between Scotland and the UK.

But Holyrood's Devolution Committee, which includes Tory and Lib Dem MSPs, has unanimously decided that the draft Scotland Bill falls short of Smith's ambitions.

The Scotland Office, now led by Tory David Mundell following Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael's ejection from government in the election, has pledged to hold a full parliamentary discussion "where differing views can be heard".

Committee convener Bruce Crawford said: "The committee believes that the current proposals do not yet meet the challenge of fully translating the political agreement reached in the Smith Commission into legislation.

"For example, as we heard in our evidence taking, there is no power for the Scottish Parliament to top up reserved benefits despite that being one of the powers highlighted at the time of publication. The committee also seeks reassurance that any new benefits or top-up benefits introduced in Scotland would result in additional income for a recipient.

"The committee is disappointed that the currently proposed legislation sells Smith short."

He added: "In the immediate aftermath of the UK general election, the Prime Minister indicated that he was committed to delivering on the recommendations of the Smith Commission.

"As a committee we call on the new UK Government to consider our report - agreed unanimously - as a matter of urgency and to work with the Scottish Parliament to help ensure that we have legislation that achieves the objectives that all five parties on the committee signed up for."

A Scotland Office spokesman said: "The UK Government is committed to delivering more devolved powers through the package outlined by the cross-party Smith Commission.

"We will work to bring forward a Scotland Bill on this basis and ensure the Scottish Parliament becomes one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world.

"The Secretary of State has been clear there will be a full parliamentary discussion of these issues where differing views can be heard."

Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone, a member of the committee, said: "In light of the general election result the range of further devolution proposed by Smith clearly deserves to be revisited.

"I t is important that as Scotland continues to debate which powers should be transferred from Westminster that we make a real effort to involve wider society.

"The responsibilities of Holyrood should not be decided by party political horse-trading but should instead reflect the aspirations of our people and our communities."

Speaking at a press conference following the publication of the committee report, Mr Crawford said: "This interim report was agreed by us before the general election. It has been published now as a constructive set of proposals to the new UK Government to consider seriously before it holds its Queen's Speech or before any Scotland Bill is introduced.

"Should any Bill be introduced, the committee will expect to begin detailed scrutiny, with a view to recommending that the Bill be given legislative consent by the Scottish Parliament, and it is expected that a decision on legislative consent will be taken in the new year.

"Obviously, it's up to the Scottish Government and the other political parties to make the case as to whether new powers should be added to the package for devolution.

"This wasn't the focus of the interim report at this stage. That said, all five parties were clear that the current proposals do not yet fully translate the expectations of the Smith Commission's agreement."

Conservative MSP Alex Johnstone said the draft clauses are "imperfect" and lack clarity on benefits and welfare.

Liberal Democrat Tavish Scott, who sat on the Smith Commission alongside SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, has demanded the new Tory Government put the full intent of Smith into law.

Mr Crawford commended the "dispassionate" way the cross-party MSPs conducted their scrutiny of the clauses.

Mr Johnstone said: "What we have here, on studying it, is imperfect.

"I would highlight for example the area of tax where there is simplicity and clarity, but comparing that with the area of benefits and welfare there is a lack of clarity.

"The problem is what we have been presented with is hard to interpret - it could mean a number of things in a number of areas.

"Given the very complex situation that will arise when this is implemented, that complexity at the start is not desirable."

Mr Scott said: "It is civil servants that draft clauses, but politicians ultimately have to agree them.

"I know what Smith wanted to do, I know what we negotiated, I know what therefore has to be given effect by incoming legislation that will at some stage this year be put in front of the House of Commons.

"So I have no difficulty whatsover, having been with Linda on the Smith Commission, in demanding that the full intent of what we agreed on a cross-party basis is implemented by the new UK Government.

"It doesn't really matter what has happened in the past."

Mr Crawford said: "We have taken a dispassionate, pretty mature, examination of the clauses compared with what Smith said, and being dispassionate about it is the job of a parliamentary committee."

David Cameron is expected to meet First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for their first face-to-face talks since the General Election when the Prime Minister visits Scotland on Friday, said Downing Street.

Mr Cameron and Ms Sturgeon spoke by phone within hours of the election results coming in on May 8, when the PM restated his commitment to "governing with respect and implementing devolution" along the lines of the cross-party agreement.

Following the brief call, Ms Sturgeon said she "made it clear" to Mr Cameron that "it cannot be business as usual". She later described the Smith Commission template as "a strong starting point" which "does not go far enough".

Mr Scott suggested the Scottish Government fisheries minister should "usually" lead UK fisheries negotiations in the EU, a view he said was echoed by former Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.

"In the Smith Commission, Michael Moore and (SNP finance minister) John Swinney both said there was a logic in the Scottish fisheries minister leading the UK delegation when the Scottish interest was pre-eminent, which it usually is in fisheries," he said.

"There are much stronger inter-governmental relationships that need to be both scrutinised from a parliamentary point of view, but much stronger from an intergovernmental point of view.

"A practical manifestation of that would be, for example, on Europe and EU negotiations, where in that case there is no question that Scotland should play a much higher role."

Labour MSP Duncan McNeil said: "Smith pointed out that there was a need for change in the current system of inter-governmental working.

"We have become very accustomed to a traditional split between reserved and devolved powers.

"What we are getting into now is a completely different range of proposals that demand shared responsibility."

He added: "We are entering a completely new phase of devolution that requires bilateral and multilateral discussions, not just between the Scottish Parliament and UK Government but across the UK."

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