Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission and the accompanying policy paper provides what has been long missing from the No campaign – a fresh vision for devolution. A vision that provides new powers, but just as important, a start towards setting the agenda for what Scottish Labour would do with new powers – powers for a purpose.
Two thirds of voters want more responsibility for Holyrood and that includes many of those who might vote for independence in September. It would be a disaster for the No campaign if it became a vote between independence and the status quo. However, a failure to reflect the views of most Scots on more devolved powers will be equally damaging if Scotland does vote No in September.
Those who have condemned the report generally support independence and so will never be satisfied with anything short of that. Others, like Reform Scotland, produced proposals that are either unworkable or addressing a right wing agenda that Scottish Labour wants no part of.
Probably the most important recommendations cover devolving additional powers that match existing responsibilities, enabling joined up policy approaches. This includes responsibility for work programmes, housing benefit and attendance allowance. The latter will resolve the loss of revenue to Scotland from free care for the elderly and enable us to address the challenges of an ageing population. Housing benefit would allow the Scottish Parliament to abolish the Bedroom Tax.
Equally welcome are proposals which would allow Holyrood to run the domestic rail network and put a much needed focus on health and safety. The administration of Employment Tribunals would enable us to address the shocking 79% reduction in cases since the introduction of fees that denies justice to thousands. Consumer advocacy is also a sensible devolution as is the enforcement of equalities legislation, something that is being undermined by the current UK government. Moving skills and careers from a poorly performing quango to local authorities is precisely what UNISON recommended at the last reorganisation.
There are other powers that UNISON will continue to argue could be devolved under the principle of subsidiarity and to enable joined up government, including energy, some immigration powers and public service pensions. However, strengthening the Calman proposal on partnership working between parliaments where there is shared responsibility is a sensible move.
Scottish Labour has rightly opposed full fiscal autonomy, particularly business taxes that will lead to a race to the bottom that will only benefit tax dodging companies. Assigning taxes such as VAT is pointless if parliament has no control over the level of tax. Raising 40% of the budget from own resources is not insignificant, particularly when you look at sub-central governments across Europe and the wider OECD. It will put Scotland higher than the Nordic nations, Germany and the USA.
The weakest part of the paper is around income tax. Varying the top rate is a neat political point, but the Scottish Parliament should have the power to adjust thresholds to better reflect the income spread in Scotland. Partly because we should use tax to redistribute income, but also to protect Scotland from the Tory plan to dismantle public services in England.
There is rightly a big recognition in the report of the constitutional role of local government. Devolution should not stop at Holyrood and the Scottish Government has presided over a growing centralisation of public services. ‘Scotland is our local’ may be the view of some in the SNP, but it should not be the approach followed by Scottish Labour. Some of the proposals in the paper need a bit more work, not to say clarity. However, that is rightly the role of the Scottish Policy Forum as they develop a new policy programme, informing the manifesto for 2016.
The report presented to today’s Scottish Labour Conference doesn’t go as far with new powers as I would go. It’s a similar compromise to the White Paper or any other political party proposals. However, it is much more radical on non-fiscal powers than many commentators have noticed. Of course, we should also remember that powers are only part of the story. There has to be the political vision to use them to create a fairer Scotland. The ‘Together We Can’ paper is a good start on that political journey. It’s even become known as the ‘Red Paper’ and has many of our ideas in it.
If nothing else, we now have a positive case for further devolution to measure against the case for independence.