Vow Max? Has the Smith Commission delivered for Scotland? And what next for Yorkshire and the north?

In the febrile pre-referendum atmosphere, the Daily Record put together a “Vow” signed by all 3 UK party leaders to deliver “extensive” powers for Scotland in the event of a No vote. There would always have been further devolution. This “Vow” just put the inevitable on a more detailed timetable.

A Commission under Lord Smith of Kelvin was put together to deliver on that timetable and has done a power of work in just over two months. They have consulted widely, taking submissions from the five main political parties and many civic organisations and individuals. I managed to get my own submission in at 2 minutes to the deadline.

In the august surroundings of the National Museum of Scotland, Smith and the 10 members of the Commission unveiled the consensus they had reached. I have to say that I have been a little sceptical about this process. I knew that in the interests of self preservation it would have to deliver something credible or we’d be back facing another referendum before we could blink.

The outcome shows just how far both the Conservatives and Labour have had to move. Liberal Democrats have always been in the home rule camp, seeking to devolve as much as practicable on the way to a Federal UK. The Tories wanted to devolve some tax raising power. Labour’s submission was the most timid, with a bit of tinkering around the edges on welfare. Nothing short of independence would suit the SNP. The outcome looks much more like Liberal Democrat policy than anything else.

The Report delivers substantial tax and welfare powers. Full control of income tax bands and rates goes to Holyrood while personal allowances remain at Westminster. The Scottish Parliament will be responsible for raising around 60% of its budget, giving substantial accountability.

On welfare, benefits like Carers’ Allowance and Attendance Allowance are fully devolved, as are disability benefits like DLA and PIP. That’s a big win for the Scottish Parliament. Winter Fuel Allowance and Cold Weather payments will also be devolved, presenting the SNP Government with some challenging choices. They have set a trend for universality, but should people like my husband, over 60 and still in a good job, be getting £200 a year towards heating bills when a family with a disabled child doesn’t?

Benefits which are part of the Universal Credit stay reserved to Westminster. I guess the clue is in the name. Crucially, though, many of the more unpopular factors are devolved so that we can do it differently up here. For example, it won’t have to be paid monthly to Scottish claimants, or Housing Benefit could be paid direct to landlords. The Scottish Parliament will also have control of Housing Benefit and Local Housing Allowance thresholds and will be able to properly rid itself of the Bedroom Tax.

I was slightly annoyed not to see Equalities legislation devolved. I want to see the Scottish Parliament have the power to legislate for better gender balance – or to improve all sorts of diversity. However, the Women 50/50 campaign seem to think that is part of the devolution of the powers over Scottish elections. Scotland will certainly get the power (paragraph 60 of the Report) to set gender quotas to public bodies so it would be anomalous not to have the Parliament subject to similar arrangements.

Michael Moore was the unsung hero of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement which put in place the process for the Referendum. Appointed as one of the Liberal Democrat representatives to the Smith Commission, he has again facilitated a good deal. He made all the running on the welfare stuff, arguing for as much devolution as possible and practicable. You can also see his fingerprints over the Crown Estates stuff, which is pretty significant:

  1. Responsibility for the management of the Crown Estate’s economic assets in Scotland, and the revenue generated from these assets, will be transferred to
    the Scottish Parliament. This will include the Crown Estate’s seabed, urban assets, rural estates, mineral and fishing rights, and the Scottish foreshore for which
    it is responsible.
  2. Following this transfer, responsibility for the management of those assets will be further devolved to local authority areas such as Orkney, Shetland, Na h-Eilean Siar or other areas who seek such responsibilities. It is recommended that the definition of economic assets in coastal waters recognises the foreshore and economic activity such as aquaculture.

Mike was a man on a mission when Secretary of State, determined to get Crown Estates benefitting local communities, telling me in 2011 that he’d had more meetings to try to change things than his ten predecessors.

There’s a good bit of language around how the Scottish and UK Governments should work together better in future. The relationship between the two governments was at its most toxic during the SNP’s first term when Labour were in Government at Westminster. Whatever the SNP might like to say in public, in private, they’ve got on pretty well with the Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State. However, Smith outlines some protocols which should be put in place. It’s surprising they weren’t already. What’s interesting is that a process is set out for consultation on the UK positions at EU negotiations. Scottish Ministers’ views must be taken into consideration in devolved matters.

The final bit of really good news is that 16 and 17 year olds look set to keep the vote they got for the referendum at the 2016 Holyrood election. How much longer before Westmimster wakes up to the inevitable?

The report ends with a whole load of issues which need to be resolved, mostly to do with immigration, outside the Scottish Parliament’s remit. I want to see a framework for resolving  these issues which include support for asylum seekers.

One last point: I’d quite like to know the story behind the fudge on abortion and embryology:

  1. The parties are strongly of the view to recommend the devolution of abortion and regard it as an anomalous health reservation. They agree that further serious consideration should be given to its devolution and a process should be established immediately to consider the matter further.
  2. The devolution of xenotransplantation; embryology, surrogacy and genetics; medicines, medical supplies and poisons; and welfare foods (i.e. matters reserved under Sections J2 to J5 of Head J – Health and Medicines, Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998) should be the subject of further discussions between the UK and Scottish Governments. Those discussions are without prejudice to whether or not devolution takes place and in what form.

If they all agree, why not just devolve it?

All in all, in tone and in reality, this package is Vow Max. It’s to be expected that the SNP, having signed up to it one day are trashing it before the ink is dry, but then they want independence. It’s in their political interest to do that. The Scottish people will be the judge of whether it’s enough. The problem is that they vote before the powers come in and they can see how they work in practice.

Federalism was never going to come out of this. It couldn’t, given that you need the co-operation of the rest of the UK to do that. We need to keep campaigning for a proper UK wide constitutional convention after the election. Similarly, it’s not surprising that people in Yorkshire and other parts of England are spitting mad to see this sort of devolution to Scotland while they get a City Deal. These issues were discussed at length at the party’s last Federal Executive meeting and Paul Tyler is coming to the next meeting on 15th December. He is the parliamentarian that you need to write to if you want to take these issues forward.




* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • matt (Bristol) 27th Nov '14 - 5:23pm

    The party needs to communicate well on this, particularly highlighting the beneficial effects of it being a cross-party commission – and then point hard to the fact that the Conservatives, by trying to short-circuit and prevent cross-party discussions about England, are effectively trying to claim make their majority in England mean they can rule the roost in their ‘back yard’.

    England does not belong the Conservatives. Cameron is the UK PM (without a clear majority in his own right), he is not the English First Minister — until he creates a democratically elected body or bodies on a par with the existing devolved legislatures.

    EVEL is a deception and a con-trick and we need to torpedo it hard.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Nov '14 - 5:52pm

    The elephant in the room of course is why the English ( and in some cases Welsh and N Irish) will have no ability to change the income tax rates in Scotland whereas MPs from Scotland will have the ability to increase our taxes, without having to face any comeback at the ballot box.
    How can that possibly be fair or be something LDs can live with?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 27th Nov '14 - 5:56pm

    Simon, that’s why David Laws has called for a proportional English Grand Committee which would be the fairest way of resolving that particular issue.

  • David Allen 27th Nov '14 - 7:08pm

    OK, so Scotland will now raise around 60% of its budget. What will Scotland be required to spend that money on? What share of the national defence budget, for example, will they now be required to find out of their new cornucopia of wealth? What about things like the Civil List, the Whitehall machinery, the money we spend as a nation on things like border control, and health and safety governance?

    What about prisons – does Scotland have a higher (or lower) percentage of the national prison places than of the national population? and if, for example, Scotland is currently doing more than its “fair share” of locking up British criminals, does it follow that Scotland should now pay more than its “fair share” of the national expenditure on prisons?

    Has anybody worked this all out, and if so, can we see the envelope they used the back of?

    To quote Alastair Darling, and also that other great Scot, Fraser of Dad’s Army – This will all end in tears!

  • Denis Mollison 27th Nov '14 - 8:14pm

    Some good things, including the devolution of Crown Estates to local government, but the emphasis on devolving income tax is worrying. It looks like a major shift – which Tories think justifies disqualifying Scottish MPs from voting on English matters – but is more likely just a poisoned chalice: Jim and Margaret Cuthbert’s analysis – “Responsibility without power”: no way to run Scotland in the Union – looks level-headed to me.

  • Stephen Donnelly 27th Nov '14 - 8:23pm

    Caron: Your headline should probably read ‘Lancashire and the North’. The North West is Britain’s third biggest region behind London and the South East, with almost 2 million more people than either Scotland or Yorkshire / Humber.

  • A) The Scottish MPs don’t vote on Scottish rates either. This is a red herring. All MPs have the same rights. Simon is advocating creating two classes of MPs with different rights, a drastic constitutional change.
    B) Ultimately, Westminster is still sovereign. With a majority vote — even one consisting entirely of English MPs — it could vote tomorrow to abolish the Scottish Parliament. Scotland, by contrast, doesn’t even have the right to decide whether nuclear weapons are based in its own territory.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Nov '14 - 8:39pm

    Stephen Donnelly 27th Nov ’14 – 8:23pm


    And is a compelling reason why we should stand united as that region and not allow ourselves to be tempted by the Labour-Tory-Clegg offer of city states with the rest being entirely subject to the Tories English votes for English laws and continuing Westminster domination.

  • So if income tax is increased/decreased in rUK what will that mean for Scotland? Will there be Barnett consequentials? Surely you couldn’t have income tax raised in rUK with extra money going to Scotland?

  • What a timely comment from Stephen Donnelly today.    Today is Lancashire Day. Not many people now that.

    Lancashire Day is held on 27 November. It commemorates the day in 1295 when Lancashire sent its first representatives to Parliament.


  • David-1 : that would be the anglocentric unionist view. In fact the people are
    I expect that the SNP will revive the Claim of Right very soon (Alex Salmond alluded to it in his final
    speech as First Minister). If you don’t know what it is, you won’t see what’s coming!

  • Julian Gibb 28th Nov '14 - 3:07pm

    Thankfully the LibDems will not be involved in any future developments.
    One seat in Scotland and at best a dozen in England will render the party irrelevant.

    I do not blame the party members directly. However you have accepted and supported the policies of your elected representatives in supporting the Tories. I still find it amazing the level of denial regarding next years GE forecasts.

    “If you fly with the craws, you get shoot with the craws” as we say in Scotland.

  • While your preferred party, Julian, only spreads sunshine and light wherever it goes, of course.

    Anyway, regarding the Smith Commission, this does seem to offer Scotland a far more relevant devolved administration and upgrades Holyrood from being one of the more talking-shoppy sub-nationstate assemblies into being one of the more powerful. This may if successfully implemented take some of the wind out of the nationalist sails.

    However, the Conservative plan to link these recommendations to EVEL is a dealbreaker. Scotland should not be expected to be content with its members in Westminster being effectively barred from taking meaningful part in the UK executive branch. That would simply strengthen the nationalists regardless of what is offered as a result of the Smith Commission.

    The only outcome that makes any sense is for each and every power and responsibility offered to Scotland to be taken out of Westminster entirely. If we can conduct a Commission to sort out a deal for Scotland in a matter of months, such a task for England should not be beyond our collective capacity. Whether we end up instituting regional assemblies, whether we build an English Parliament or whether we just expand the role (and probably scale) of our existing councils and authorities in England, that has to be the answer to West Lothian. Allowing a two-tier system would only hasten the breakup of the UK.

    If EVEL is pressed for by the Tories, we need to oppose it as being nothing but an attempt by them to short-change England into accepting a situation where Westminster hoards control over English matters and people, while allowing the rest of the UK to have a flexible, locally accountable government that responds to their needs. It might even work what with the popularity of the Westminster parliament being so low right now.

  • Jim Forrest 28th Nov '14 - 5:11pm

    “How much longer before Westmimster wakes up to the inevitable?” (On Votes at 16). And how long before it wakes up to the truth that, in equity, any devolved authority giving “English votes on English issues” should be subject to at least the same degree of proportionality as elections for the Scottish Parliament. Don’t hear the Tories clamouring for that one.

  • Is there a particular reason why voting should be restricted to people over 16 ? This seems a purely arbitrary age without any obvious reason for it. Maybe someone could explain.

  • @Carl Gardner: It’s presented as a technical amendment to the law-making process, rather than the drastic change that it is. I think it’s a bad idea, however, not because it’s a drastic change but because it creates an even greater asymmetry of power than the one it purports to solve. I think a much better idea is the devolution of power to one or more English authorities whose primary business is governing England, not trying to turn a subcommittee of the UK parliament into a faux English parliament. If anybody had suggested turning over the government of Scotland to a subcommittee of Scottish MPs, they would have been ridiculed and justly so. UK MPs are elected to deal with matters pertaining to the entirety of the UK. If there are matters that are better dealt with by local authorities, then local authorities competent to deal with them should be erected. A halfway position solves nothing and creates new problems.

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