SINCE the declaration of the Vow on new powers for Holyrood, a degree of scepticism has surrounded how far it could go in meeting Scottish aspirations.
Many believed the Smith Commission was a “Mission Impossible” that would struggle to achieve a coherent proposal within a unrealistically tight timetable. Others argued The Vow was a panic reaction by the pro-UK parties. And it was always destined to be criticised by the SNP for failing to satisfy demands for maximum devolution.
Given all this, the progress so far has been considerable and impressive – even though, in terms of legislation, we are still on the southern slopes. Prime Minister David Cameron was able to declare in his meeting with Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh yesterday that the much-questioned timetable of the Vow remains on track and that legislation has indeed been drafted before Burns Night – 25 January. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all pledged to ensure the new Scotland Bill becomes law, whoever wins the election.
But detailed scrutiny still lies ahead and formidable work remains to be done, not least in setting up inter-government bodies to determine financial mechanisms to govern the relationship between Holyrood and the Treasury, especially on borrowing powers and setting the level of the block grant.
Both legislatures have to be politically committed to seeing this process through.
Mr Cameron is now keen, as he declared yesterday, “to move on to the next great debate”, on how the new powers should be used. But it was no surprise that the response of the SNP was critical: it was always bound to be so, given the result of the referendum and the reality that enhanced new powers would fall short of the full independence that voters rejected. Ms Sturgeon grudgingly conceded that “some progress” has been made. But she interpreted a requirement for Holyrood to “consult” with Whitehall as a London veto on key devolved powers, and called for an urgent rethink.
There are certainly areas where the language of the legislation can be clarified to underline the primacy of Holyrood’s control in these devolved areas, without losing the sensible need for Edinburgh and London to talk to each other.
But the SNP has been too quick to cry “betrayal”. The timetable contradicts this charge. And while the draft legislation requires Holyrood to operate within macroeconomic constraints set by Westminster, this would still have been the case under independence and a currency union.
While vigilance is needed to ensure that the UK parties stick with their promises through the legislative process, the command paper is a bold step forward for Holyrood, particularly on welfare and income tax, and should be welcomed as a new era in Scottish devolution.
‘Named person’ battle will go on
Controversial legislation by the Holyrood administration to assign a “named person”, such as a teacher or health visitor, to look out for the welfare of every child under 18 has survived a major court challenge. Lord Pentland at the Court of Session yesterday ruled that the challenge mounted by opponents failed on all points and refused to refer the matter to the European Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling.
This will be a disappointment to campaigners – but it is far from the end of the matter. That the legislation has survived this particular challenge does not make this legislation sound or morally defensible.
It is neither. It is one of a number of recent SNP legislative measures that are illiberal and poorly thought through.
Given the strength of feeling the legislation has aroused, it is almost certain that the judgment yesterday is likely to be only the first stage in a long legal and political battle.
The action was brought by the Christian Institute, the Christian charity Care (Christian Action Research and Education), the Family Education Trust and Tymes (The Young ME Sufferers) Trust with the support of academics and individual parents. Campaigners are now preparing for a lengthy and protracted legal battle.
Setting up state-appointed agents to act as if in lieu of parents, in the belief that government employees always know better, marks a major extension of the powers and remit of the state.
It is legislation that threatens an overbearing abuse of state power. And the rush to law, often in the face of mainstream opinion, takes cavalier advantage of the SNP majority at Holyrood.