Leader: Smith commission proposals must be backed

Lord Smith heads up the commission tasked with recommending increased devolution powers. Picture: Neil Hanna

Lord Smith heads up the commission tasked with recommending increased devolution powers. Picture: Neil Hanna

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IN less than a week, we will know what new powers are likely to be devolved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. The participants – Unionist and nationalists, alike – in Lord Smith’s ­commission on greater devolution will (all being well) have agreed a package that will reshape our democracy and further ­empower MSPs.

And, this being so, we can expect legislation at Westminster in the new year that will mean a more muscular Holyrood.

Smith’s commission seems to have been working briskly – and in a spirit of co-operation – to agree measures that will mean a real change to the way Scotland is run.

Those involved in the talks – two representatives apiece from the SNP, Labour, the ­Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens – have been respectful of the process. There has been a refreshing lack of briefing against others; a surprising absence of constitutional point-scoring.

What we have learned about what has taken place is encouraging. The Liberal Democrats are this week to push for a greater transfer of ­welfare powers to Scotland than the party had previously demanded.

It is said that the party’s position was influenced by a submission to Smith from Citizens Advice Scotland. When the commission chairman invited one and all to submit suggestions, there was, perhaps, some concern that this was a cosmetic measure. That CAS has played a part in changing the Lib Dem position suggests that, in fact, the commission is working well.

It’s to be hoped that other parties are as willing to shift positions, not only for politically pragmatic reasons, but because this process has made them better informed about how ­Holyrood can more effectively serve us.

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Scotland’s new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said last week that she would serve on behalf of all Scots, regardless of whether they had voted Yes or No. This she would do by using the ­powers currently available to her, along with those which are soon to come.

Sturgeon’s message was clear and unequivocal and to be welcomed after two months of acrimonious post-referendum political sparring.

We hope that the Scottish Government ­maintains this attitude when it comes to Smith’s report.

The commission cannot deliver all things to all people. Consensus through compromise is all that it can hope to achieve. But that could be a great deal, indeed.

Of course, there will be those who will cry loudly that the commission’s agreement falls short of the powers that they would wish to see, because as we know there are many people who wanted independence, but not the majority of Scots. We must all look at the proposals as ­presented with a pragmatic eye.

The Smith commission presents a real opportunity for everyone, including the Nationalists. Having lost the referendum, the SNP is playing a part in a process that will make it more powerful in government. That is a win for the party, in any language.

Sturgeon’s call last week for a new era of ­political consensus was tactical. She was ­defining herself as different to her predecessor, Alex ­Salmond, at the same time as neutering opposition attacks.

But when it comes to the Smith Commission’s recommendations, consensus must be genuine.

The desire for greater devolution within a strong UK is clear. All of those who have negotiated under Smith have a responsibility to agree a workable package.

And, once they have done so, all parties at ­Holyrood have a duty to turn their attention to what can be done with new powers that provide opportunities for all politicians to make Scotland fairer and more prosperous.

Police accountability a priority for Matheson

THE creation of a single Scottish police force was born of necessity. Huge budgetary pressures dictated the need for a streamlined service that maintained frontline officer numbers.

Despite its unromantic conception, in many respects, Police Scotland has been a success. But there remains concern about the force and its accountability. Yesterday, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie called for this to change. He was right to do so. While it is important that Chief Constable Sir Stephen House is free to make operational decisions based on his professional judgment, it has become evident that necessary checks and balances on the force have not taken place.

The routine deployment of armed officers on the beat became the norm for Police Scotland without either consultation with or explanation to MSPs. House eventually overturned his own operational decision. And it is not just the matter of officers carrying hand-guns that gives cause for concern. A report, published this week by Edinburgh University, shows that armed police used stop-and-search powers 8,000 times in just a year. The use of stop-and-search is seven times more prevalent in Scotland than it is south of the Border.

Former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill may have succeeded in seeing through the establishment of the single force but, despite this significant achievement, he failed for too long to recognise – or confront – the dented public confidence in the accountability of the force.

Scotland’s new justice secretary, Michael Matheson, has been given a position of huge responsibility. It is to be hoped that he has the confidence to deal with Police Scotland that was so sorely lacking in his predecessor.

Matheson’s priority must be to rebuild trust in the police and ensure openness about the decisions the chief constable takes in the name of our protection.

House is an estimable officer with a wealth of experience but he must accept that his actions should be transparent.

Concerns over the accountability of Police Scotland significantly weakened MacAskill and played a part in his departure from government. Matheson should address this democratic deficit as a priority.

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