Scottish Labour’s Constitution spokesperson, Drew Smith MSP, moving Labour’s amendment to the Scottish Government motion on the Smith Commission.
Drew Smith (Glasgow) (Lab):
This is an important and timely debate. I thank the Scottish Government for bringing the motion before Parliament. At the outset, I say that Labour members will support the motion today as we fully support the work of the Smith commission. We welcome the fact that it is now taking forward the work to entrench and enhance devolution within our United Kingdom. That that is happening so quickly after the referendum is obviously welcomed on this side because we were clear before the referendum that, if Scotland chose to remain within the UK, it would be a vote not just for partnership with our closest neighbours and friends in the rest of Britain—and, as the Deputy First Minister suggested, the first-ever democratic endorsement of the union—but a vote of confidence in devolution, as well as the best result for jobs, public services, businesses and people alike.
The amendment in the name of lain Gray makes clear that the contributions of all parties should be noted and welcomed alongside the proposals that the Scottish Government brought forward—after the vote, of course.
The referendum was the biggest exercise in democratic participation that our nation has ever seen. It is, therefore, important that participation in this process is as wide as possible, within the timescales that were set out to the Scottish people, which have been honoured to date, and which we believe must continue to be honoured.
The task is to achieve the greatest possible agreement between the political parties, just as has been done by the pro-devolution parties and our other partners. I hope that, across the chamber, we share an objective of wanting to see the Scottish Parliament strengthened and entrenched in the constitutional settlement that the Scottish people have themselves chosen.
Labour’s proposals for devolution were published some seven months ago, following months of consultation within our party and with academics, trades unions, business and a variety of interested individuals and groups. Many of those groups will make their own submission to the Smith commission directly. Again, we welcome that. Earlier this month, Scottish Labour submitted our proposals, which have been agreed by our annual conference. Along with our proposal for a UK constitutional convention, those changes are what we have already guaranteed will be delivered by the next Labour Government.
Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP):
Will the member give way?
Not at the moment, Mr Crawford.
The other parties have their own commitments and, for the first time, the Scottish National Party has accepted that devolution, and a strong Scottish Parliament within rather than out of the United Kingdom, is the people’s settled will.
Labour’s proposals were developed on the basis that we wished to bring forward powers for the Parliament—
Would Drew Smith describe his party’s proposals as a floor, not a ceiling? In other words, does he recognise that they were minimalist, and is there an appetite on the part of the Labour Party to go further than its submission?
I am about to describe Labour’s proposals, if the Deputy First Minister will allow me to do so. I would simply say that we are not going to—[Interruption.]
The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott):
We are not going to negotiate an outcome to the Smith commission that should rightly take place within the Smith commission.
Our proposals were clearly aligned to progressive purposes. On tax and welfare, the work programme, entrenching the Parliament, housing benefit, the railways, health and safety, access to employment tribunals, attendance allowance, equalities, and double devolution, our desire is to devolve power not just to this place but away from it, to local government and the communities that it serves.
Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP):
Will the member take an intervention?
No thank you, Ms White.
We are interested not in power for its own sake but in the purposes for which it can be used to secure and enhance the devolution settlement and to make a difference to the people we seek to represent.
The Deputy Presiding Officer:
There is too much noise in the chamber. Please allow the speaker to be heard.
There are issues that have been raised in the context of the independence debate, which, as the Deputy First Minister said, showed an explosion in engagement and ideas. That should inform what happens next.
There are also issues that have been debated for longer and over the period of successive Governments. Beyond that, we need to think carefully about the issues that are likely to continue to be of importance, such as our demographic challenge, the inevitable decline of revenues available from finite resources, such as oil and gas, as a major component of our economic success, and the continuing challenge of climate change and our approach to issues such as hydraulic fracking.
Any division of power between different layers of government will create potential inconsistencies and necessitate partnership working between those different levels. Rather than seeing that as a problem to be overcome, we should understand that the instruction that the people of Scotland have given us is to work together—a strong Scottish Parliament and a partnership with the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that the process of the Smith commission and the transfer of powers that will follow it, and the good will that we show to each other, will mean that new partnership arrangements are created between this Parliament and Government elsewhere in the UK, and indeed at the UK level.
Entrenching the Parliament means setting out explicitly that this is a permanent feature of our constitution, endorsed, as it has been, by not one but now two referendums. I disagree with the UK Government’s proposals in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998 but I would regret any suggestion that many of our most fundamental rights should be different, or competing, in different parts of the UK.
Mark McDonald (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP):
Will the member give way?
I would rather make the point, if Mr McDonald does not mind.
There will now need to be consideration of how respect for human rights is best embedded in the principles of this Parliament for the future and how our citizens have the best possible support to access their rights and achieve redress when it is required.
The proposals that we have made to Lord Smith represent Labour’s view but we are absolutely committed to engaging with those with alternative perspectives and, especially, to hearing new ideas on matters that we have not considered previously. Lord Smith himself has asked the political parties to maintain something of a self-denying ordinance, asking them in Scotland on Sunday just this week to let the nominees “get on with it”.
The Deputy First Minister has set out her proposals, as is her right, and the commission will examine them, along with everything else that the others have said. It was suggested in the press this morning that this debate could be seen as an attempt to procure a mandate from the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Government’s view. Of course, we have been here before. Before the referendum, the SNP had a majority in the chamber and the Scottish Parliament agreed to motions supporting Scottish independence. However, that is not what was agreed to by the people of Scotland, because there was no mandate in the country for the Government’s constitutional proposals.
Similarly, there is no majority for any one set of party proposals in the commission. The debate needs to be less partisan. If Parliament is used as an alternative route to the commission in which we have all agreed to take part, we will achieve nothing other than to make constructive discussion more difficult and to damage the good faith that is vital to this process.
I have no doubt that there can be a degree of common ground, for example on issues such as votes at 16, where there is a common goal between the Scottish Government and my party, although not among all parties in the commission. Likewise, there are issues that will be common to those parties that campaigned to secure Scotland’s place in the UK but opposed by those on the losing side. Nevertheless, the correct place for all that to be resolved is in the commission.
This debate is welcome and provides an opportunity to allow the expression of ideas beyond those that are expressed in the party submissions and for their case to be made in more detail. I hope that we will hear more, for example, on how the cause of women’s equality in public life might be advanced in this process, or on the case for real and genuine devolution away from central Government—we have had a period of centralisation in Scotland’s governance—in favour of reinvigorated local democracy. I have been contacted by a number of constituents with specific ideas about what they want to see considered and no doubt others have been encouraging people to make a direct contribution to the commission.
I want to make clear the principles that my party will continue to apply to this process. They have been outlined before and they remain. The process is about enhancing and entrenching devolution within the UK. People in Scotland voted for a strengthened Parliament working in partnership with the rest of Britain, not in opposition or competition to it. That means that we must continue Scottish representation in the UK Parliament. That issue was decided conclusively in the referendum.
It is also our position that the continuation of the Barnett formula must not be put at risk by fiscal proposals that would leave Scotland worse off and threaten the public services that we have a responsibility to maintain.
Throughout the referendum, Labour’s argument was that we could enjoy the best of both worlds: a strong Scottish Parliament backed up by the strength of a UK that, at its heart, is based on the pooling and sharing of the risks that we face and the resources that we have. Across the whole of Scotland, that was the argument that won the referendum and, alongside powers for a purpose, that is what will guide Labour’s approach to this debate.
It is worth remembering where the Smith commission process originated. The commitment of the pro-devolution parties to widening and improving devolution was continually called into question by those who favoured ending devolution and opting for independence. There were constant suggestions and smears of bad faith, but that was in a campaign—these things happen. However, the timetable that Gordon Brown set out was about demonstrating that our good faith would be held to in an immediately testable way. That is what the progress of the Smith commission has already demonstrated and maintaining good faith in the process is what Scottish Labour will stick to in the period ahead.
Devolution is not a consolation prize; it is a prize worth seizing on its own merits.
I move amendment S4M-11301.1, after “Proposals” to insert:
“and the publication of all parties’ enhanced devolution proposals”.
Scottish Government original motion:
That the Parliament welcomes the submissions made to The Smith Commission by all parties involved; notes the publication of More Powers for the Scottish Parliament: Scottish Government Proposals; recognises the importance of all parties working together constructively to agree substantial further powers for the Parliament that deliver a better deal for the people of Scotland; encourages people and organisations across Scotland to respond to the commission’s call for evidence by 31 October 2014; offers its support to the commission in developing proposals for strengthening the powers of the Parliament, and agrees that the people of Scotland must have the opportunity to inform and influence the implementation of these proposals through public participation and dialogue.