On Tuesday England took a step towards justice. In the Commons English MPs were asked to give consent to parts of the Housing and PLanning Bill, and English and Welsh MPs to other parts, in accordance with the new procedures. It means England does now have a veto over laws that only apply to us. It also means that Parliament has to acknowledge England’s interest and to mention England’s name. We are still well short of Scotland’s freedom to propose what she wants for herself.
The response of the two other main parties in the House was predictably disappointing. Few Labour MPs attended at all. Their front bench spokesman declined the offer to reply to the Minister, though was shamed into the debate later. The SNP complained bitterly that this modest step created two classes of MP, which is simply wrong. I asked the SNP spokesman why it was acceptable to deny MPs from English constituencies any voice or vote on Scotland’s health or education or local government, but unacceptable to give English MPs a veto on what the Union Parliament might wish to do on these matters for England? There was no sensible answer provided.
England expects some devolution for us to mirror the extensive devolution in other parts of the UK. There are two large outstanding issues.
The first is the money. As we move to a world where Scotland will retain her own Income Tax receipts as well as having other Scottish tax revenues, there needs to be a new deal on how much grant Scotland receives from the UK Treasury and how this is calculated. The principle is no detriment to either side. That is the easy bit. How you calculate it is altogether more difficult. Scotland should clearly benefit from raising more money or have to cut spending if it decides to raise less. To what extent should the Union underwrite a drop in income tax revenues because of job losses in the Scottish economy? We are currently living through a difficult period for the oil industry where well paid Scottish jobs will be lost. How do you attribute changes in revenue to tax rate changes and to economic changes?
The second is England’s powers to make her own decisions in areas devolved in Scotland. The devolution settlement will be fairer if England can make her own decisions on how to spend what is in effect our block grant, just as Scotland has full budgetary freedom over her revenues and grant.As we saw on tuesday, the Department for Communities and local government is a department for England. So are Health and Education. These big areas now need to be led in England’s interest with England’s consent.