by Jennifer Dempsie
If like me, as a frustrated independence supporter, have been trying to get your head round what Home Rule for Scotland could actually look like, then help might just be at hand.
Up against the ridiculously tight deadline of the Smith Commission, which Lord Smith himself has admitted has a time-table which is “challenging”, a number of experienced individuals from across the political spectrum and out with, came together to make the case for a meaningful settlement for Scotland.
The campaign wants to see three principles established.
Firstly, a Scottish Parliament becoming responsible for raising the £38 billion it currently spends, fairly straight forward. Not exactly full fiscal autonomy but much further than what Smith is likely to come up with.
Secondly, establishing mutual respect between Holyrood and Westminster, which steering group member and former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish said required a “written codified constitution” for Holyrood to entrench its place in the UK political set-up. This would be a Scottish constitution within the UK.
The pre-Indy ref ‘vow’ from UK party leaders said they wanted to see the Scottish Parliament made permanent. However, it’s difficult to see how this can happen without a written constitution for the UK or similar changes at that level without it being just tokenism. For those of us in the Yes movement, the idea of a Scottish constitution was an important part of enshrining who we are as a nation, so in the
absence of independence this may be a decent option benefiting all of the nations of the UK as each nation could look at this option.
Thirdly, calling for a presumption in favour of devolving responsibility to Holyrood. To me, this is the real golden nugget.
The campaign says that Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 should be reviewed and the burden of proof for reserving a power rest with Westminster should it wish to retain that responsibility. So basically, if Westminster wants to retain any powers it has to prove why. An interesting prospect.
This precedent was actually set in the original 1997 Act, but the implementation and practice of it has not exactly been in keeping with its original intent.
If you stop to look at it, a review of Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act it is actually quite a lot and shows how far the cross-party steering group has politically travelled.
There are 70 categories in Schedule 5 ranging from child support, to financial services, broadcasting, currency, nuclear energy, foreign affairs, equal opportunities to some the more obscure such as time and outer space.
Even at present, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have control over those reserved powers which are linked to current devolved responsibilities. That’s why the campaign is calling for, at the very least, the Scottish Parliament to have control over those reserved powers which are linked to current devolved responsibilities.
As is now increasingly becoming the mainstream view, welfare is a crucial area where this should happen as many of the other areas associated with welfare and reducing poverty, for example social inclusion and housing, are devolved. However, because the main powers to address this lie at Westminster, Holyrood can’t properly address the very real and serious problem of poverty in Scotland and can only
tinker around the edges.
According to the Department of Work & Pensions publication, ‘Benefit expenditure & Caseload figures 2013/14’, £14.4bn was spent in Scotland across 18 benefits.
So on the principle that Holyrood should have control over those reserved powers which are linked to current devolved responsibilities, in relation to welfare, would mean key areas like Housing Benefit, Disability Living Allowance, Employment & Support Allowance and Winter Fuel Allowance would be devolved, totalling over £6bn of welfare expenditure to the Scottish Parliament giving the Scottish
Parliament a fighting chance of alleviating poverty.
Poverty has increased in Scotland for the first time in a decade and it is estimated 100,000 more children will be in poverty by 2020.
Whatever package of more powers is agreed by the Smith Commission, if that doesn’t include welfare means they will be missing a trick.
It’s ridiculous that the Scottish Government has spent £35m on mitigating the bedroom tax. To any reasonable person, £35m is a lot of money better spent on tackling the problem rather than damage control for Westminster’s precarious welfare reform.
We know that devolution as it stands just isn’t working for Scotland.
It’s no wonder that member of the campaign steering group, the Very Rev Dr Alison Elliot, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, stated that Scotland currently “isn’t doing devolution properly”.
So, while I hope for the best that the Smith Commission delivers a meaningful home rule settlement for Scotland, I sadly think it just won’t go far enough when you have Labour Party leader hopeful such as Jim Murphy resisting even devolution of income tax, totally out of touch with public opinion. Perhaps that’s why his party is now polling as low as 23% for Westminster election.
That’s why I think the campaign for Scottish Home Rule may be onto some thing, they are about to launch a consultation process to hear what powers included in Schedule 5 of the 1998 act people think should be devolved, or the justification for them remaining at Westminster.
It will be interesting to see how the political parties as well as the Smith Commission respond to this, but as steering group member and former SNP MSP Andrew Wilson said at the launch of the campaign, ‘now is the time to build a bridge not dig a trench’.
This is too big and too important to be left just to politicians, that’s why I think this campaigns sensible moves to establish clear principles for a home rule settlement across the political spectrum and civic Scotland are a welcome step in the right direction.
To find out more go to www.homerule.scot