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Is Westminster about to step on Holyrood's toes?

Mark D'Arcy | 10:24 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011

Fun in the Commons today, when Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman will deliver a statement withdrawing the government's plans to sell off some of the forests...

She's on a hiding to nothing after David Cameron rubbished her proposals at PMQs yesterday - and her days in the Cabinet may be numbered. There will also be a statement on the situation in Bahrain. So more excitement than MPs are used to on a Thursday.

Meanwhile, watch out for some rather technical devolution-related exchanges when MPs question the Leader of the House on future Commons business - because there's concern that Westminster's about to step on Holyrood's toes. The Scotland Bill, which aims to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament, including a very interesting extension of Scottish control over income tax, is due to start its committee stage after the half-term break. And because it's a major constitutional bill, that will be taken on the floor of the Commons - a committee of the whole House.

The trouble is that the committee stage will start before Holyrood has given its full verdict on the bill. When such matters are being considered by Westminster, the Scottish Parliament gives its assent through a "legislative consent motion" after having debated a report from a parliamentary committee. That report is expected to be out on 3 March - although close observers note that the committee in question is chaired by Labour's Wendy Alexander (sister of Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas) who has a reputation for, ahem, thoroughness - but will not be debated by the full Scottish Parliament for at least a week after that.

So Westminster will start getting to grips with the detail of the bill, before the parliament affected by it has given its detailed views. Or at least that's the present plan - and that plan may change later today when Sir George Young, the Leader of the Commons, announces the business of the House for the next couple of weeks.

The government's aim is to have the bill through the Commons before Holyrood dissolves for the Scottish elections in May - on the argument that Scottish voters will then have some idea of the kind of powers it will wield. And they do have some real difficulties with the scheduling of parliamentary business, with the knock-on effects of the long filibuster in the Lords, and more and more mega-bills emerging from the different departments (Iain Duncan Smith's benefits shake up is only the latest) finding three whole Commons days for the committee stage is no small matter.

I'm not sure there's a mega row lurking inside all this, but opposition parties will manufacture any controversy they can, and will doubtless seize the chance to accuse the government, once more, of a casual approach to constitutional reform. It may not be entirely their fault, but they've managed to generate a mini-row over a bill that is supported by all parties bar the SNP.

UPDATE: At Commons Business Questions today, Sir George Young announced that the first day of the Committee Stage would be held on Wednesday 7 March. He underlined that the government's intention was to get the bill through the Commons in time for the start of the Scottish elections - adding that Westminster would not normally be bound by the timetable of Holyrood. But he seemed to hint that the committee stage consideration of the key part of the bill, the power to vary income tax, was unlikely to take place before the Scottish Parliament had debated the forthcoming report on the bill.


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