Scotland politics

Greg Hands urged to return from break for fiscal framework talks

A spokeswoman for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said an offer was made for Mr Swinney to travel to London early this week for further talks. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Swinney and Greg Hands have spoken on the phone but not face to face

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Greg Hands has been urged to return from holiday for fiscal framework talks.

Mr Hands spoke to Scotland's Deputy First Minister John Swinney on the phone about the financial arrangements underpinning the new Scotland Bill.

But he has been criticised by MPs for going on holiday to at a "crucial stage" in negotiations.

MSPs also want a deal before 23 February so they have time to scrutinise the plans.

Despite months of talks, the deadline for agreement was pushed back earlier this month.

A Treasury spokeswoman earlier insisted Mr Hands would return "at any time" if the Scottish government was "willing to make a substantial move".

But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's spokesman said: "This beggars belief. Having secured an extra week for negotiations, the deputy first minister offered to clear his diary to go to London on Monday and do whatever was required during this week to thrash out a deal.

"We now find out that the reason a Monday meeting was not agreed to is that the UK government's chief negotiator has gone on holiday to France - before even having the courtesy to respond to the revised proposal submitted by the Scottish government last week."

He added: "It is time for the UK government to decide if they are really serious about reaching a deal. Otherwise, they will stand accused of breaking their vow."

Image caption MP Pete Wishart said it was "ridiculous" Mr Hands was away at this stage in negotiations

The SNP's Pete Wishart, who chairs the Scottish Affairs committee at Westminster, told BBC Scotland it was "ridiculous" Mr Hands was away at a "crucial" stage in the talks.

Mr Wishart, who is MP for Perth and North Perthshire, said the decision showed a "lack of respect for the process" and urged him to return to the UK.

And Labour's shadow secretary of state for Scotland Ian Murray said: "It beggars belief that Greg Hands thought he could take a holiday at this crucial stage in the negotiations."

He added: "If the Treasury won't take this seriously, David Cameron must get involved. Both governments must do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to reach an agreement."

Despite months of talks, the UK and Scottish governments have been unable to reach a deal on the fiscal framework for the bill.

The parties disagree on their interpretation of the "no detriment" principle laid out by the Smith Commission on new powers for Scotland, which stipulates that neither the UK or the Scottish budgets should be left worse off by a deal.

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