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Archives for July 2010

Big choices ahead

Brian Taylor | 06:57 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

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Perhaps it is the season, perhaps it is the Holyrood recess but I find myself inclined to take a slightly longer view in these musings than is customary.

It seems to me that in Scotland in particular we are about to face a series of choices: each substantial, collectively with the potential to transform.

Firstly, the next session of the Scottish Parliament will be the last before the elections which are due in May. Scotland will choose new MSPs on new constituency boundaries.

That choice will determine whether the SNP is returned to power or replaced. MSPs in their sundry parties may also have to determine whether to forge a coalition.

Viewed from this distant standpoint, SNP / LibDem seems feasible, just, provided the SNP has maintained momentum and not lost ground. Another choice would influence that: the issue of an independence referendum.

When one is tabled at Holyrood, it seems presently certain that it will be thwarted. The SNP would be bound to try again. Could they and the LibDems find a way this time to finesse that dividing point? Does the UK coalition approach with regard to a voting reform referendum offer an option? Maybe not.

Labour direction

Again viewed from this standpoint, it seems likely that Labour would seek to govern alone should they be returned as the largest party. Little enamoured of the LibDems, they would probably prefer to attack them for supporting the Tories at a UK level than coalesce with them at Holyrood.

Plus they have the example of the SNP before them. Nationalist Ministers cannot do all they want: on occasion they appear becalmed. But they are in power with decisions to take and money to spend, albeit at lower levels in the future.

Underlying it all, of course, is the more fundamental question which sustains the SNP and challenges their rivals. Should Scotland opt for independence? Whatever critics say, that is and remains a defining question in Scottish politics. It is in many respects the political fault line in Scotland.

Then there is that choice on whether to introduce the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections. Will that referendum go ahead, as presently scheduled, on the same day as the Holyrood elections?

It seems to me that the UK Ministerial replies to those who object to this timing - including the First Minister - are not yet addressing the points raised.

UK Ministers say that Scots are comfortably capable of deciding upon Westminster voting systems and their choice of MSPs at the same time.

Campaign 'confusion'

Mr Salmond, as a wise politician, would never question the sagacity of Scots voters. Rather he makes other points. In particular, he argues that the campaign - not the vote itself but the prelude - may prove confusing: that there may not be sufficient distinct attention paid to the Holyrood elections or the Westminster choice, that the issues may become blurred.

It may be that UK Ministers can provide a substantive reply to that point. At this stage, for this observer, they have failed to do so.

Whenever the referendum is held, there is then, of course, the choice for Scots along with the rest of the UK. Would AV be better than the present system?

Next, there is the choice - or choices - regarding the future powers of the Scottish Parliament.

UK Ministers, notably the LibDems, are set on implementing Calman on a reasonably short timetable, with a Bill due in the Autumn. There may be changes on the basis of further consideration. But this is Calman. Not Calman Plus. Certainly not Calman Minus.

Scottish Ministers object that Calman on tax was always flawed and that those flaws will be exposed when the LibDem proposal to take those earning up to £10k out of income tax is implemented.

Tax questions

Meritorious on its own that move may be, they will argue, but it will cut the tax base available to Scotland while the alternative revenue raising measures, VAT and NI, will not go to St Andrews House.

Simple, say LibDem Ministers. The Treasury can take account of this disparity in determining the notional sums assigned to Scotland from income tax. This was, broadly, the approach suggested by the previous UK Government's White Paper.

But, say critics, does that not undermine the concept of fiscal autonomy - if the sums allotted are calculated by the Treasury rather than being based upon actual revenue? No, say UK Ministers, the Calman approach will give responsibility and decision-making to Holyrood.

There, then, is another choice. Calman or a move towards full fiscal autonomy. Right now, Calman seems decidedly most likely. Longer term, one may find greater support for autonomy.

For example, it would arguably be logical for Scottish Tories to support such a move: within autonomy, they could credibly argue for low spending and lower taxation.

Spending needs

For now, though, the biggest choice remains the level of public spending. The signs are not propitious for a sane, sensible debate about the method of allocating scarcer reserves of cash.

So far, we have had bickering and back-biting. It is perhaps understandable that Labour, out of power in both Holyrood and Westminster, should indulge so vigorously in such tactics.

It is equally understandable that Ministers in both Holyrood and Westminster choose to return the favour by recalling who was in charge of the Treasury for the last decade and more.

However, spending will have to be cut - and there is a real choice confronting the people and their elected politicians. Not a partisan choice but a pragmatic one.

We can squabble endlessly, allowing money to go to those with the loudest voice. Or we can ask fundamental questions of those who spend public cash. Why do you need that spending at all? What is it for? What does it achieve? Why?

Hopefully, the independent review of Scottish spending will contribute substantially to that process. But it is not their choice. It is not Ministers' choice. It is ours.

Finding the formula

Brian Taylor | 12:39 UK time, Friday, 9 July 2010

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I was once told that every incoming Scottish Secretary was welcomed by the Treasury with the suggestion that there might be a review of relative spending needs across the United Kingdom.

In response, every incoming Scottish Secretary buried said request in the longest, thickest, most tangled patch of grass available.

That is because, on the face of it, a needs review would not be likely to provide benefits for Scotland. In short, Scottish public spending would be cut.

Now, there are many who would argue that such a development is desirable. Few of them, I would suggest, reside in Scotland. Fewer still occupy Dover House.

Of course, the days of unalloyed power for the Scottish Secretary, heady and uplifting as they no doubt were for the incumbents, have long gone. Post devolution, it is the job of the devolved Scottish government to allocate expenditure in Scotland.

However, the funding mechanism still remains in the hands of Westminster - and so it is sensible for Scotland to track opinion on such matters across the UK.

Today the Campaign for Fiscal Responsibility in Scotland is doing just that, commenting upon proposals from an official independent report upon funding in Wales.

The Holtham Commission wants financial powers for Wales which bear some comparison with the Calman Commission for Scotland - although the two organisations have fundamental differences, not least the point that the Welsh version was endorsed by the Welsh Assembly government. Not by its opponents.

Broadly, Holtham wants half of each income tax band devolved to Wales with the ability to vary each rate separately. As for Scotland under Calman, banding, allowances and thresholds would remain with Westminster.

Further, Holtham wants the Barnett Formula scrapped. Its replacement? A calculation based on need.

There have been sundry efforts by a range of parties to collate joint interest between Scotland and Wales, to conflate the different systems and to suggest that the two nations might find common cause. I believe this is steadily becoming a more challenging task.

Wales, collectively, loathes the Barnett Formula, believing that it robs the Welsh of funds. Despite signs of a squeeze, Scotland still gains from it.
Scotland has repeatedly resisted a needs review. Wales is now explicitly demanding one.

This presents a potential challenge for those Liberal Democrat and Conservative politicians to whom it falls to implement Calman. It is also a challenge for the governing SNP and their Labour opponents.

Ideologically, the SNP has an answer - one noted today by the CFR - which is that the solution for Scotland is full fiscal control.

That, of course, prompts different disputes within Scotland as to impact and sustainability.

However, short of such a development, it will be intriguing to watch the UK government attempt to respond to two distinct, if not competing, visions from devolved Scotland and Wales. Perhaps we might be spared the fiction that the two nations are pursuing a common path.

Re a needs assessment, two questions instantly arise. Who would conduct it? The Treasury alone? The Treasury in the lead, taking evidence from the devolved governments? An independent body?

The Treasury would frankly veto the notion of an independent assessment and would be very keen to retain control. In which case, the devolved governments would be obliged to make their pitch.

Secondly, what is meant by "need"? Does Wales need free prescriptions? Does Scotland need free personal care? Or would these be judged to be luxury goods, excluded from an assessment of fundamental need?

One begins to see why the incoming UK coalition government said that dealing with Barnett was simply too complex for now, in these troubled times.
Equally, however, there is ample and growing evidence of disquiet with the current funding set-up.
Despite the apparent eagerness of the coalition to implement Calman at the earliest opportunity, I do not believe that the questions here and in Wales will easily subside.

PS: Contributions for July and August are likely to be limited. Enjoy the silence while you can

Exercising the politicos

Brian Taylor | 18:10 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010

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Nick Clegg appears to have a certain regard for the way Parliamentary matters are handled in Scotland.

For example, his revised plans on how to force a dissolution within the proposed new fixed terms at Westminster seem to be modelled on the Holyrood system.

Indeed, he drew the comparison himself when making his statement on upcoming reforms in the Commons.

But that regard, it seems to critics, goes only so far.

Unwarranted complication

Mr Clegg is intent on holding a referendum on changing the way MPs are elected. He intends that referendum to be held on 5 May next year.

Ring any bells for you? It happens to be my mother's birthday - but it is another clash of dates which is exercising the politicos.

The fifth of May is, of course, the scheduled date for the next elections to the Scottish Parliament.

There are those who say this clash is an unwarranted complication. There are those who say it is an insult to Holyrood. For respect, read contempt, they argue.

Mr Clegg acknowledged these concerns but argued that the public wouldn't wear umpteen trips to the polling stations, that a conjoined ballot would save money and that the good people of Scotland and elsewhere were perfectly capable of handling multiple electoral choices.

Electoral attention

This issue has produced a remarkable concatenation of views. SNP Ministers and their Labour counterparts at Holyrood both resent the Clegg timetable - and have said so.

They point out that the Holyrood elections had to be uncoupled from local elections following evident problems which emerged at the counts.

Further, they argue that changing the voting system for the Commons requires the complete and sole attention of the electorate.

It would be transformational, they argue, and should not be subsumed within another big electoral choice.

Intriguing prospect

Actually, there is a potential clash with the next Holyrood elections too; those scheduled for 2015. (I know, I know, one thing at a time but bear with me.)

If there is to be a fixed Parliament at Westminster, then the next UK election would be on 7 May 2015, the date laid down for the next.......you're ahead of me.

UK Government sources are indicating that they would be amenable to that one being sorted through the Holyrood Presiding Officer using his powers under Section 2 (5) of the Scotland Act to request that the Holyrood poll be moved by one month either way in 2015 (and every second decade when such a clash arises.)

Which, for the astute, instantly generates an intriguing prospect.

If the row at Holyrood is sufficiently intense, would the PO come under pressure to make such a request for next year as well in order to avoid clashing with the referendum?

So what? So this . . .

Brian Taylor | 15:20 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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Albert Einstein knew a thing or two about time.

From his special theory of relativity, many deduce that forward time travel is theoretically possible.

Myself, I cherish his observation that "the only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."

Holyrood seems determined to prove him wrong.

Two significant Bills entered final stage consideration this week.

After that, they are ready to enter the criminal and civil law of Scotland. Which, I hope you might agree, matters.

Yet yesterday we had speeches on key amendments reduced to one minute each as the Presiding Officer tried to get through stage three consideration of the Criminal Justice Bill in the allotted single day.

Likely defeat

Today was worse. Umpteen amendments to the Crofting Bill were read out rapid fire as time pressed. Inevitably, there was a slip-up.

On an Opposition amendment, Roseanna Cunningham lodged an objection by saying: "No."

This would have prompted a formal division and the likely defeat of said amendment.

Trish Godman in the chair didn't hear her, declared the amendment carried and moved to the next item.

Uproar. The clerk - and several MSPs - insisted they had heard the minister lodge her objection.

The deputy presiding officer noted that, in accordance with standing orders, it was what she heard that counted. And she had heard nothing.

As the commotion grew, Bruce Crawford, the wise and sensible minister for parliamentary business, urged suspension in order to sort the issue.

Eventually, he got his way.

Proceedings resumed after five minutes - and moved to next business without any reference to the row nor any attempt to explain to the bemused public.

New register

I understand the controversy was resolved as follows. The contentious Labour amendment (number 93, if you're still following this) was designed to insist upon a further affirmative resolution before part two of the Bill takes effect.

Part Two deals with a proposed new register for crofting. Labour dislikes the plan and, in effect, was seeking to thwart it or, at least, facilitate second thoughts.

My belief is that Mr Crawford secured agreement from others that they would permit the new register to go ahead, on affirmation.

Job done, row over.

So what, I hear you asking? So this. You may not regard the crofting legislation as core to your everyday concerns.

But it is critically important to the economy of parts of our nation.

Is it right that time for final decisions on this legislation is so truncated that the amendments have to be read out at the speed of a bingo caller?

Granting leeway

Ditto the Criminal Justice Bill and its amendments. Not much at stake here. Just penal policy, the rules on jury trial, the detention of children, the retention of DNA and action on knife crime.

More on timing. Once again today so much leeway was granted to - or taken by - the front benches to ask questions of the first minister that there was virtually no opportunity for back benchers to get a word in.

Annabel Goldie essayed an oblique reference to the magnificent "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" (so long and thanks for all the fish) when she suggested the FM had underplayed the row over The Gathering.

She implied that he had been dismissive of those contractors left out of pocket, including hospitality suppliers, and had, in effect, told them: "So long and thanks for the canapés."

Perhaps our MSPs are seeking to live in accordance with another line from the late, great Douglas Adams when he opined: "Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so."

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