FURTHER devolution for Scotland should not be linked to home rule for England, the new commission tasked with delivering a package of fresh powers to Holyrood agreed at its first meeting yesterday.
The promise of more devolution to Scotland has sparked calls from the Prime Minister for only English MPs to be allowed to vote on legislation which impacts on just England.
But as part of the principles underpinning the work of the Smith Commission, representatives from all the parties agreed that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional” on the conclusion of David Cameron’s plan to block Scottish MPs from voting on English issues.
The first talks aimed at securing a new deal on more powers for Holyrood were “constructive”, with “important principles” agreed among all parties, chairman Lord Smith of Kelvin said last night.
He said those involved had “committed to work together to achieve a positive outcome”. All five parties represented at Holyrood were involved as the Smith Commission – set up by the UK government after last month’s independence referendum – held its first full meeting in Edinburgh.
In the run-up to the independence ballot, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg pledged in a highly publicised “vow” that substantial new powers would be transferred to Scotland if the country voted to remain part of the UK.
The aim of the commission is to draw up a “substantial and cohesive package of powers” in a bid to bring about a “durable but responsive democratic constitutional settlement which maintains Scotland’s place in the UK and enhances mutual co-operation and partnership working”.
Party representatives at yesterday’s talks in Edinburgh agreed that they would “make no substantive comment on the talks until they have concluded” as part of a newly published agreed statement of principles.
However, The Scotsman understands that key areas of discussion included plans to make the Scottish Parliament entrenched in a move that would mean a future UK government would be unable to scrap or reverse devolution.
Plans to hand the Scottish Parliament power to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in all devolved elections were also part of the opening negotiations. The move is understood to have been broadly supported by the five parties involved.
After yesterday’s talks, Lord Smith – who recently chaired the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games organising committee – said: “I was pleased with our meeting today. We have good people round the table, each with their own deeply held views, who have committed to work together to achieve a positive outcome. We had a constructive discussion and agreed some important principles, which will guide us towards an agreement on a package of substantial and cohesive new powers to strengthen the Scottish Parliament within the UK.”
Under the timetable already agreed for reform, an agreement on recommendations for what new powers should be transferred north has to be reached by the end of November, with draft legislation produced by the end of January 2015. This will then be implemented by whichever party wins next year’s general election.
“I think we will meet the deadline,” Lord Smith said, adding that a “good start” had been made towards securing a deal, but there was “a long way to go”.
He said the talks, which involved representatives from the SNP, Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Green Party, had been “actually very good-natured”, with principles agreed for the detailed negotiations which will take place over the coming weeks.
“We agreed all the guiding principles that are going to form our talks over the next several weeks,” Lord Smith said.
“We went round the table and tried to find common ground on all the issues, and then we concentrated on constitutional issues and we reached quite an area of common ground there. So, all in all, a good start but a long way to go.
“I can’t break it up like a cake and give you percentages [of common ground], but the issue that I can say that we went into in some detail, the constitutional issues – a very broad agreement.”
He added: “I’m very clear that the remit that I have been given is to look at the Scottish issues, Scottish votes if you like, Holyrood and what powers ought to be devolved to Holyrood.
“That’s what I have been concentrating on and that’s what I will deliver on.”
The focus of yesterday’s talks was on the different proposals all five parties have made for further devolution, which have seen the two pro-independence parties put forward the most far-reaching suggestions.
The SNP has called for full responsibility for all taxes to be transferred to Scotland, and for Holyrood to be given responsibility for all domestic spending, including welfare.
Labour’s proposals would see the Scottish Parliament made responsible for raising around 40 per cent of its budget, and would also see the devolution of some elements of welfare policy, including housing benefit and attendance allowance.
While Labour have claimed falling oil revenues mean there would be a £5 billion “black hole” in the Nationalists’ plans, Lord Smith said: “I didn’t hear that referred to in today’s talks.
“We’re going to get a lot of that sort of noise outside this meeting but, I can tell you, all the parties were conducting this in a real friendly spirit. So I am really quite encouraged.”
Practical guidelines for the discussions were also agreed, with these making clear that the parties involved would “make no substantive comment on the talks until they are concluded and the final report has been published”.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont MSP said afterwards that the talks were “yet another important step forward in the process of delivering real change to the Scottish Parliament while maintaining Scotland’s fair and equal voice in the UK”.
She added: “On 18 September, the people of Scotland voted to remain part of the UK and it is vital that, in the following weeks, we all work constructively to strengthen devolution and deliver positive change.
“We believe in powers for a purpose, not just at Westminster and Holyrood, but for local authorities and local communities. The commission cannot become a hostage to the highest bidder, nor to powers for powers’ sake. We cannot end up with a settlement that will see the people of Scotland worse off.”
Former Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie, who is the lead negotiator for her party, said the first meeting and agreement on key principles reached had been “very encouraging”.
Mr Cameron, challenged by SNP MP Angus MacNeil in the Commons yesterday over the pledge to deliver more devolution, said: “I certainly stand by all the promises I made in the run-up to that referendum, and I think Lord Smith is doing an excellent job at looking at all the options for devolution.
“I’m sure we can find a way forward.”