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IFG - ‘Historic day for the UK’s constitution’: what now and what next?

The Institute for Government welcomes yesterday's announcement on the next phase of devolution to Scotland, reached by cross-party agreement.

Lord Smith and his secretariat are to be congratulated on managing this complex process on such a tight timeline.

We are glad to see the report set out clear principles, including that the new settlement should enhance the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, and strengthen cooperation and partnership working between Scotland and the UK.

But the new proposed settlement does more than set out a list of new powers to be devolved. It also contains some very significant constitutional changes, including committing to make the Scottish Parliament and Government permanent institutions, and to put the ‘legislative consent convention’ on a statutory footing.

These changes signal the end of the doctrine of unhindered parliamentary sovereignty and entrench the principle that changes to the devolution arrangements can only be made with the express consent of the Scottish people (via their Parliament). But precisely how this will be made plain in the legislation remains to be seen.

Akash Paun, Fellow of the Institute for Government, said:

“Today is a genuinely historic day for the UK’s constitution. The powers that all parties have now agreed should be devolved will significantly enhance the ability of the Scottish Government to tackle Scotland’s social and economic challenges, also making Scotland more responsible and accountable for its own fiscal decisions.

”While today’s report marks a major milestone, it is far from the end of the journey. There remain significant differences of opinion between and within the parties. The two governments and all the parties must continue to work closely together to ensure that the new settlement is fully thought-through and effectively implemented.”

Challenges ahead

There are four main sets of challenge for the governments to resolve:

  • First, today’s report sets out ‘heads of agreement’ but not a full blueprint for the next phase of devolution. Draft legislation is promised in January 2015 and much work remains to be done before then in agreeing the precise form that the new settlement will take. For instance, how will the ‘legislative consent convention’ be put into a statutory form?
  • Second, the two governments must plan carefully the implementation of the new settlement. Significant powers over tax and welfare are to be devolved to the Scottish Government so the two sides will need to work together to ensure that the necessary systems and capacity are in place to take on responsibility for the new powers. The powers devolved under the Scotland Act 2012 have been phased in gradually over a period of years, so this process should not be rushed.
  • Third, as the Smith Commission report makes clear, the UK and Scottish Governments will need to develop closer intergovernmental and partnership arrangements on a permanent basis to ensure that the new settlement operates effectively. For instance, the report pledges to strengthen the rights of the Scottish Government to be consulted across a range of policy areas (including energy, broadcasting and the EU). The two governments will also need to coordinate carefully in the spheres of tax and welfare policy.
  • Fourth, further devolution to Scotland is certain to raise questions about government arrangements in other parts of the country – including whether a similar set of powers should be offered to Wales, Northern Ireland or parts of England, and also what the implications are for the separate discussion about ‘English Votes on English Laws’. These complex issues will also need to be thought through very carefully, but without disrupting the implementation of Scotland’s new settlement.

It will be particularly incumbent on the UK and Scottish Governments to work closely together to design and implement the new constitutional settlement, and it should be remembered that the new package of powers can only be enacted with the consent of both the Scottish and the UK Parliaments.

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