Analysis: The transfer of tax powers leaves Westminster with difficult choices of its own

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WITH the Scotland Bill committee’s report, the constitutional politics surrounding the bill start to enter the endgame.

The committee seeks a raft of changes to the bill. The trickiest for the UK government is recommendation 6, that there be “joint approval” of the introduction of the income tax power and related cut in the block grant. This has been a key demand of the Scottish Government, but the UK government has failed to spell out how the cut will be made in the two-and-a-half years since the Calman Commission’s report was published.

Both the Secretary of State and Advocate General for Scotland have signalled it is unacceptable. Michael Moore has said he should be trusted to have Scotland’s best interests in mind when the effect of the new tax power on the block grant is calculated. However, without any clear statement of UK government policy on how the cut will be made (which is simple) or adjusted in subsequent years (which isn’t), it would be an imprudent government or parliament that simply took another’s word on an issue of such importance.

If the parliament insists on this provision – fairly likely, as the SNP have put much emphasis on it – one of five things may happen. The UK government could accede to the request and amend the bill (though that will make for a choppier passage in the House of Lords). If London doesn’t amend the bill, either the parliament will pull back and approve it anyway, or Holyrood will reaffirm its earlier position and vote against the bill. If Holyrood approves the bill, it can pass on to the statute book.

If Holyrood doesn’t approve the bill, either UK will drop it, or Westminster will pass it, despite the Sewel convention saying that such legislation “normally” requires devolved approval. That would put the Scottish Parliament in much the same constitutional position as an English local authority.

So the ball is in London’s court, but it has to remember it is making the pro-Union pitch that devolution works for Scotland. The SNP, on the other hand, know that they can use a narrow approach from Westminster, or the outright failure of the bill, to strengthen the case for independence.

How London responds to this move at Holyrood is going to be interesting to watch. The UK government’s position is much trickier than it may seem.

Alan Trench is an Honorary senior research fellow, the Constitution Unit, University College London.