As the House of Lords begins to debate the Scotland Bill, this seems as good a moment as any to pause and provide an update on our thoughts about what happens next. The press coverage of the Lords’ reflections over the past couple of days has principally focused on the fiscal framework. The Lords is almost palpably frustrated at being asked to debate some of the detail around the transfer of powers without sorting out the money stuff first.
The Lords’ plan is to push the Bill back to the Commons and demand that the UK Government and Scottish Government sit down together and reach agreement on all things fiscal before the Bill can go any further.
Five things we think you should know.
1. The fiscal framework is important.
The view from the STUC is that “the fiscal framework has the potential to make or break the new devolution settlement”, because it could make a short run difference to Scotland’s public finance of hundreds of millions of pounds, and “this figure could reach the billions over a longer time period”.
This is obviously particularly relevant to the spendier items being discussed, including new social security powers, but the impact would be to Scotland’s block grant, which drives all public spending.
2. Wait and hurry up
The process for the Bill has not become noticeably more transparent since ourearliest complaints about it. After months of tight-lipped Whitehall deliberation, over a hundred amendments laid by the UK Government (and then other parties in response to the UK Government) barely saw daylight before being debated in the House of Commons earlier in the month.
The debate at third reading saw a compelling intervention by Dr Eilidh Whiteford on social security, and then a flash of consensus as women’s representation in decision-making bodies was considered.
3. Quotas, quotas, everywhere
There was a welcome moment of cross-party co-operation as Labour and SNP MPs joined together to vote for amendments to devolve the power to introduce gender quotas to the Scottish parliament and Scottish councils. All of the amendments relating to quotas fell.
4. A Clause 35 moment
Clause 35 (previously Clause 32) of the Scotland Bill, which delegates the power to the Scottish Parliament to legislate around gender quotas on public sector boards, has been tidied up. There had been widespread concerns that the clause didn’t reflect the Smith Commission agreement, or make a great deal of sense.
The Scottish Government seems broadly content with it, although the EHRC and (our equalities law guide) Tim Hopkins, both have specific residual concerns.
5. Social security: disability and carers
The Report stage brought good news and bad news on some of the specifics of our social security asks. Control of carers’ benefits is one of the most significant opportunities related to gender in the Bill. In addition to setting the level of a new entitlement (currently Carers’ Allowance is the lowest of all income-replacement benefits), this will allow the Scottish Parliament to link social security for carers to wider care policy.
The amendment to the clause on carers is also one of very few which was passed last week in the House of Commons. The draft stipulated that carers under 16, in employment or full-time education would not be eligible for a devolved carers’ benefit. Alongside other third sector organisations, we repeatedly called for these restrictions to be removed. Carers’ unpaid work should be recognised and valued regardless of their age or educational or employment status, and locking carers out of opportunities undermines many of their rights, including in terms of health. The amendment is good news, although some concern remains that the current definition, which hinges on “the regular and substantial provision care”, could still exclude some carers that need and deserve support.
There was less positive news on disability, as the UK Parliament retains the power to define disability. This is, in our view, an unnecessary fetter on the Scottish Parliament’s ability to design individual social security benefits.
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