Carmichael: Westminster can’t veto benefits laws

Alistair Carmichael called for co-operation over the plan. Picture: TSPL
Alistair Carmichael called for co-operation over the plan. Picture: TSPL
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UK MINISTERS will have no veto over any benefits MSPs at Holyrood want to create under the new devolution settlement for Scotland, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has pledged.

In a bid to quash Nationalist claims that Westminster could block major devolved powers, Mr Carmichael said there was “a duty to consult” for both UK and Scottish governments if either administration wants to make changes to the welfare system.

His intervention yesterday follows the publication last week by the UK government of draft legislation to enact powers agreed by the commission chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin, set up in the wake of September’s vote against independence.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney pointed to a clause in Thursday’s “command paper” that showed a date must be agreed by both administrations before Holyrood can create a new benefit.

The clause states Scottish ministers may not do anything that could affect UK universal credit unless they have “consulted the secretary of state about the practicability of implementing the regulations”, and the secretary of state “has given his or her agreement as to when any change made by the regulations is to start to have effect”.

But Mr Carmichael warned that any UK minister who tried to use the “technicality” of timing to “thwart the will of the Scottish Government” would be subject to a judicial review.

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He said: “A duty to consult is in no way, shape or form a veto.

“Having had their consultation, having had their conversation, if the two governments take different views at the end of the day then the Scottish Government is still entitled to go ahead with what they want to do. In no way can this possibly be described as a veto.”

He added: “The second part of the clause only relates to the starting date.

“Now, where you have the Scottish Government continuing to use the UK-wide mechanisms for [benefits] delivery, then I think it is sensible that there should be agreement on a date at which you turn off things.

“That is quite different from the consultation that would be required on the question of setting up the power altogether.

“The agreement of the secretary of state cannot be ‘unreasonably withheld’.

“So if anybody were, at any future point, to try to use a technicality to thwart the will of the Scottish Government, they would not be allowed to do that.

“They would be in the judicial review courts before they knew where they were.”

The Scottish Secretary said they only point on which there is a duty for the two governments to agree is “on the date of implementation”.

“That is for entirely practical reasons about turning off benefits and the computer software that would be required and the rest of it,” he said.

However, Mr Swinney called for the clause to be rewritten.

He said: “My reading of the clause is that we have got to get his agreement.

“My point is, you could quite understandably hear a UK minister say, ‘Look, it’s just not practical for you today to do that change’. And then come back a month later and say, ‘It’s still not practical today for you to do that change’.

“Now, the point of devolution is that when a power is devolved, we are then able to exercise that power on our own terms, on our own decisions, to take the consequences and the benefits of that decision.”

He added: “The Secretary of State is going to have to go away and rewrite that clause to mean what he said.”

Earlier, Mr Swinney called for all parties to support the Scottish Government’s call to the UK government to ensure that the recommendations of the Smith Commission are delivered.

He added: “Scotland should not – and will not – accept anything less, and the people of Scotland deserve all parties in Holyrood to call for the delivery of what was promised to voters.”

A Number 10 spokesman said the draft legislation on more powers for Holyrood was “about co-ordination and co-operation, not a veto”.

He said: “This is about working together rather than manufacturing division.”

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy said that 2015 should be the year when devolved powers “are used for progress not protest”.

He said: “The time to continue arguing over the disagreements of the past is over.

“We now have an opportunity to do use the Smith Agreement to bring real change to build a better nation.

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