Over the course of the past few years, people across Scotland have been repeatedly told by the SNP Government that different choices could be made if Scotland had more powers. Yesterday, Scottish Labour laid out one of our first choices – to use the new income tax powers to invest in education and vital public services.
In the next year, Scotland will have even more powers. The result of the Smith Commission was a powerful package of tax and welfare powers that would make the Scottish Parliament the most powerful devolved parliament in the world. The Bill has been making steady progress through Parliament, but the financial deal that backs it up – the Fiscal Framework – has been bogged down in seemingly endless negotiations.
On Monday night, the Scottish Finance Secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury emerged after their eighth round of negotiations with no deal and with the Scottish Government issuing warnings that a deal may be at risk if it is not completed by 12th February. This simply isn’t acceptable.
Ministers – in Westminster and Holyrood – are paid to get the job done, not walk away before it’s complete. People across Scotland will be scratching their heads and wondering how the deal on new powers could fall after eighteen months of negotiation and legislation. That will be the point I’ll be making when we use our Opposition Day debate later today to put pressure on the Government to come up with a deal.
Once the Bill is finalised, it will open up a whole range of choices for Members of the Scottish Parliament –it will extend powers over tax, borrowing and provide the powers to design a new, more humane social security system that suits the needs of the Scottish people. But that will only be possible if the fiscal framework is agreed.
The negotiation of the revised framework is taking place behind closed doors between the UK and Scottish Governments, co-chaired by John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Greg Hands, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Until agreement is reached, the Scotland Bill cannot be implemented.
Initially, all seemed well. But then the mood began to darken. Agreement was supposed to be reached by last autumn. That was then pushed back to February. On Monday, John Swinney spoke of there being a “considerable distance” between the two Governments. It seems the negotiations may be about to hit the rocks.
This is what I have feared for some time. In order to avoid such an outcome, I have consistently asked that papers and minutes of the discussions be released, to shed some light on proceedings, and to enable some much needed transparency and democratic scrutiny. Unfortunately, both Governments have refused to agree to that. Whatever it is they are talking about, they would prefer to keep it private.
It is not right that issues of such importance to the future of Scotland are discussed in this way. Equally, failure to reach an agreement on the fiscal framework will leave the Scotland Bill in limbo, and prevent the passage of considerable new powers to the Scottish Parliament.
That is something I am determined to avoid. I support the Scottish Government in their efforts to strike a deal that is fair to Scotland. But get a deal they must. So I will be using today’s debate to urge both governments to keep negotiating, and ensure that an agreement is reached that will allow the Scotland Bill to be ratified ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May.
For too long now, the political discourse in Scotland has been dominated by endlessly wrangling over the constitution. Agreement on the framework and the transfer of new powers to Scotland will put an end to that.
Ahead of the Scottish Parliament elections in May, we should be talking about the day-to-day challenges that really matter: child poverty, the growing gap in our schools between the richest and poorest children and the chronic lack of affordable housing. Scottish Labour has already started to set out how we would meet those challenges. It is time the SNP did likewise.
Ian Murray is the Labour MP for Edinburgh South