Smith Commission: Westminster consent ‘veto’ risk

SCOTTISH devolution proposals which would force Holyrood to seek Westminster’s consent before introducing new devolved benefits “could be considered or perceived as a veto”, a cross-party committee of MSPs has concluded.

MSPs look on as Lord Smith of Kelvin unveils the Smith Commission report last year. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Ministers in the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat government repeatedly denied SNP claims that the draft devolution proposals gave Westminster the right of veto over Scottish benefits.

But Holyrood’s Devolution Committee, which includes Tory and Lib Dem MSPs, challenged the previous UK government’s view today and urged the new Tory Government to resolve the “veto” issue before a new Scotland Bill is introduced.

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Speaking at a press conference in Edinburgh, committee convener Bruce Crawford said: “We have addressed the issue of the veto, where the committee concluded that there is a case to be made that the draft clauses could be considered or be perceived as a veto.

“Therefore, the committee considered that the issue requires further resolution through the joint ministerial working group on welfare.”

Launching the draft clauses in Edinburgh in January, former Lib Dem Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael and his party colleague at the Treasury Danny Alexander stood shoulder to shoulder and insisted “there is no veto”.

New Tory Scottish Secretary David Mundell told Holyrood’s Devolution Committee in February, when he was still a junior minister in the Scotland Office, that “there is no veto”.

The following month, the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee said the veto allegation was “ludicrous”, in a report signed off by all political parties apart from the abstaining SNP.

Today’s Holyrood Devolution Committee report states: “The committee concludes that there is a case to be made that draft clauses could be considered or perceived as a veto.

“The Committee considers that this is an issue which requires resolution through the Joint Ministerial Working Group on Welfare.

“In effect, this issue provides an early test of the effectiveness of inter-governmental relations. The Committee expects this issue to have been resolved to the satisfaction of both the Scottish and UK Governments before any future legislation is introduced.

“During this process, the Committee would expect the Scottish Government to report to Parliament and its committees on the progress of discussion and specifically before any final agreement is reached.”

Conservative committee member Alex Johnstone said the draft clauses are “imperfect” and lack clarity on benefits and welfare.

Lib Dem committee member Tavish Scott has demanded that the new Tory Government now implement the full intent of the Smith Commission on devolution, insisting “it doesn’t really matter what has happened in the past”.

The committee had agreed earlier today that proposals for more powers for Scotland did not meet the “spirit or substance” of the Smith Commission recommendations.

Earlier today, MR Crawford said: “The committee believes that the current proposals do not yet meet the challenge of fully translating the political agreement reached in the Smith Commission into legislation.

“For example, as we heard in our evidence taking, there is no power for the Scottish Parliament to top up reserved benefits despite that being one of the powers highlighted at the time of publication. The committee also seeks reassurance that any new benefits or top-up benefits introduced in Scotland would result in additional income for a recipient.

“The committee is disappointed that the currently proposed legislation sells Smith short.”