Yesterday UNISON Scotland launched its latest contribution to the constitutional change debate, ‘A Fairer Scotland – Devolution’.
In the first ‘A Fairer Scotland’ paper we set out our approach to constitutional change. In common with much of the trade union movement, UNISON has not as yet taken a stance on the referendum itself. Instead the union has challenged all parties to the debate to explain how their preferred option will match UNISON’s priorities as laid out in ‘A Fairer Scotland’.
The latest document opens up a debate which has so far focused on fiscal issues and argues that new devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament are essential to create a Fairer Scotland and improve the lives of working people. We start from the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that matters should be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority. Although we also recognise that others powers could be devolved because we would want to do things differently in Scotland, without undermining the principle of solidarity across the UK.
On this basis we make the case for devolving employment matters including, health and safety, public service pensions, employment regulation and equalities. We believe devolving energy would enable the Scottish Parliament to play to Scotland’s generating strengths, while maintaining a democratic say in the UK market mechanisms. Devolving elections, data protection, consumer rights and others, largely tidy up anomalies in the current settlement. In total it adds up to a major shift in legislative powers to Scotland.
While we think it is long overdue that more focus is placed on powers, we have not ignored fiscal powers. We argue that all property taxes should be devolved together with income tax including the power to vary the rate in bands. This could include National Insurance as the link with contributory benefits is becoming increasingly weak and government needs to see the full impact of their taxation policy on people’s incomes.
We also accept that business taxes should remain at UK level. Tax competition is wrong in principle and in any case will be constrained by tightening EU rules in this field. The same applies to consumption taxes (primarily VAT) as EU rules don’t allow variable rates in the same state. There is a stronger policy element to fuel duty, tobacco and alcohol taxes, but given the integrated nature of the UK it is hard to see how these could be set differently in Scotland.
We support fiscal devolution not because of any perceived ‘moral hazard’ in a parliament not raising the money it spends. But rather because under the current arrangements Scotland is pulled, at least financially, by English approaches to public services that have little support in Scotland.
Devolution also doesn’t stop at Holyrood. At a time when there is increasing concern over the centralisation of services in Scotland, it is important that the constitutional role of local government should be recognised in any discussion over devolved powers. Local authorities should have a stronger statutory basis, gaining greater control over their finances including business rates and there should be less ring fencing of council grants.
It is for the Scottish Government to set out the independence ‘offer’ in their White Paper later this year. Equally the pro-devolution parties need to set out what voting No means in terms of extended devolution and that is the focus of our latest paper. The status quo is not an option for the vast majority of Scots.