When Gordon Brown orchestrated “The Vow” for more powers for Holyrood, the former prime minister talked about creating a “powerhouse parliament”.
In the heady days in the run up to 18 September 2014, the ‘more powers’ promise was embraced by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. No doubt part of their enthusiasm for Mr Brown’s vision was driven by an uncomfortable feeling that the inroads being made by the independence movement were threatening the existence of the United Kingdom.
In those momentous times, it was difficult to escape the impression that Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband would have done whatever Mr Brown told them, had they thought it would save the Union.
But regardless of how “The Vow” came to life, the main pro-Union parties are now converts to the notion that the Scottish Parliament should be made stronger and more levers put at the disposal of Edinburgh-based politicians.
Many Conservatives, in particular, have overcome their initial scepticism over loosening Scotland’s ties with Westminster. Indeed furnishing Holyrood with a host of new powers over taxation and welfare has become fundamental to the UK government’s attempts to take on the SNP.
For years the SNP’s argument for independence has been fuelled by the notion of a toothless parliament incapable of taking the action to improve the lot of Scots.
Creating a parliament with teeth makes Edinburgh-based politicians accountable to the public and, at last, gave pro-Union politicians an answer to what they see as the SNP’s “grievance” agenda – blaming short-comings on Westminster. Yet despite all this, rows over powers or the lack of them continues to be one of the great themes of Scottish politics.
The latest to rear its ugly head is the current controversy over WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaigners representing females born in the 1950s who will lose out as a result of UK government decisions to raise their pension age.
In a nutshell, the Pensions Act of 1995, introduced by the then Tory government, ruled that the pension age for women should increase from 60 to 65 between 2010 and 2020 to bring them into line with men. In 2011 the coalition government accelerated the timetable so that the pension age for women would become 65 in November 2018 and go up to 66 in October 2020.
Among the most vocal objectors to these changes have been SNP politicians, who have not been shy in condemning the UK government’s “shambolic” handling of the matter. But if the SNP is so concerned about the financial losses incurred by these women, why not use Holyrood’s fancy new powers to do something about it in Scotland? That, at least, has been the question on UK government ministers’ lips as this row has escalated.
When confronted with the UK government’s position, the Scottish Government – in the form of social security minister Jeane Freeman – has disputed that the new powers extend to sorting out the WASPI injustice. So yet again the UK and Scottish governments are at loggerheads over process and an argument about women missing out financially has been turning into an argument about powers.
At the weekend, however, there was the sniff of a break in the impasse following some dogged sleuthing by the political blogger Neil Lovat. Through Freedom of Information legislation he uncovered correspondence between the two governments that appeared to suggest that the Scottish Government had conceded it could act to help WASPI women. The only problem was that the “concession” did not come from the horse’s mouth. It was the UK government’s interpretation of what Ms Freeman had said in a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions.
“It is to be welcomed that you acknowledge that there are powers available to the Scottish Government that could be used to support people before they reach state pension age, including those who may be affected by the equalisation of the state pension age,” was the gloss pensions minister Guy Opperman put on her words. When Ms Freeman’s letter to the DWP was later made public it became clear that her “acknowledgement” was far from unambiguous.
She said it was “hard to see” how powers to create new benefits could be used to help WASPI women, arguing the power cannot be used to provide pensions to those who qualify because of their age. (The UK government saw no reason why it could not be used.)
Ms Freeman suggested it would be inappropriate to use the new power to top up Westminster benefits, because a WASPI woman would have to be in receipt of a reserved benefit to top it up.
On the possibility of using new powers to make discretionary payments, Ms Freeman said such an approach “would not readily allow assistance to the majority of the women most affected”, arguing that their needs would have to be assessed individually. It was perhaps not the acknowledgement trumpeted by Mr Opperman, but Ms Freeman did at least appear to concede things are not entirely black and white when it comes to what the Scottish Government can and cannot do with the mix of benefits it now has under its command.
Even so, experience tells us that this controversy will rumble on and the political posturing will not help Scotland’s 253,000 WASPI women.