Implementing Smith - Devolution (Further Powers) Committee Meeting

Published: 10 December 2014

Devolution (Further Powers) Committee, 11 December 2014 - Evidence from Professor Charlie Jeffery, Professor of Politics, University of Edinburgh

The Smith Commission report was a compromise of often quite divergent positions that was crafted at speed. Already it has been criticised from a number of directions, including from within parties represented in the process (though not, generally, from those directly involved in the process).

Those party-political criticisms have been various and divergent, including: concerns that the report undermines the notion of pooling of risk across the UK that some see as important; concerns that the report falls short of the extent of additional devolution implied by 'The Vow'; and concerns that additional devolution to Scotland is unfair without balancing measures in Wales and, in particular, England.

This diversity of response to the report (alongside other, more positive views) contrasts with the certainty with which the recommendations in the Smith report are put. These recommendations in most cases are put definitively; they 'will be' implemented.

They may be, but there are significant hurdles on the way. There are numerous technical difficulties in the implementation both of fiscal devolution and welfare devolution, which my colleagues David Bell and Nicola McEwen have addressed elsewhere. There are also perhaps more philosophical challenges around the scope to establish the Scottish Parliament as an indissoluble institution. There are also a number of procedural challenges.

A draft Bill is expected to be introduced to the House of Commons by late January 2015. This may (as initially suggested by Gordon Brown on 8 September 2014) achieve a second reading and with it a substantive debate before the UK Parliament session ends prior to the general election on 7 May. It will clearly not have received full scrutiny in the Commons before the next UK election, nor in the House of Lords. Nor will it have received full scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament, which, following the precedent of the 2012 Scotland Act and wider conventions around legislative consent, will need to give its approval to the Bill before it can be enacted.

Many commentators are suggesting that the outcome of the next UK election is the most unpredictable in living memory. That said any ensuing UK Government is likely to include one or more of the pro-Union parties that contributed members to the Smith Commission, and so is likely to wish to take forward any Bill on additional devolution for Scotland. The SNP, a further contributor to the Smith Commission, may also have some say in determining the composition of the next UK Government.

The party-political criticisms of Smith of course have been expressed precisely by figures in these parties: Labour on risk-pooling and perceived unfairness to Wales; the SNP on under-fulfilment of The Vow; and the Conservatives on the need for balancing actions in England. Our public attitudes research conducted both before and after the referendum suggests that the criticisms of the SNP and the Conservatives have considerable traction in public opinion in Scotland and England respectively. There are also some echoes in Scottish opinion of Labour concerns about risk-pooling.

These concerns and their public resonance are likely to be reflected in parliamentary scrutiny and debate, though likely pulling in different directions in Westminster and Holyrood. There may be calls at Westminster to restrict the extent of fiscal or welfare devolution in the interest of pooling risk. There may equally be calls at Westminster - echoing the Prime Minister's initial intervention on 19 September - to make progress on Smith and on English Votes on English Laws co-dependent. The Command Paper on reform in England expected in the next days, and the process of pursuing reform it foresees, may cast some light on this.

Any changes to the substance or spirit of the Smith proposals arising from such debate at Westminster may not find favour in the Scottish Parliament, where there are likely to be pressures from within the majority party to seek power additional to those proposed by Smith. There is scope for divergence between the views of the two parliaments on the implementation of Smith. Lord Smith's confident 'will be' formulations may prove more difficult to implement than he may have expected.

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