In this morning’s Scotsman I read that the Prime Minister’s claim that Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in the Commons, had “failed to provide ‘one single example’ of where the Vow was not delivered.” Cameron goes on to say that if “If he can point to a welfare change we promised to devolve that we haven’t devolved I would accept it.”
There wasn’t really a ‘Vow’ – that was confected by the Daily Record – but all the party leaders did make clear undertakings in advance of last year’s referendum. Cameron himself only committed to ” a major, unprecedented programme of devolution with additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. Major new powers over tax, spending and welfare services.”
Most commentators, however, have worked on the basis that the recommendations of the Smith Commission, set up immediately after the referendum, would be implemented. That hasn’t happened. First, the Commission report was vetted by the Cabinet, and key elements were removed before publication. That reportedly removed reference to elements of Universal Credit, Child Benefit and key provisions for jobseekers, including the operation of Jobcentre Plus in Scotland. Then the White Paper failed to implement the Commission report, and the government resisted a long series of amendments to the Scotland Bill. The key differences between Smith and the current Bill include:
- Powers to construct alternative benefits in areas of responsibility. All actions are reserved unless specifically excepted.
- Specification of the terms on which benefits can be established. In most cases – disability, carers, unemployment support – the Scotland Bill specifies the terms of eligibility for benefits restrictively.
- General powers to introduce new benefits; these are still subject to reservation.
- Winter Fuel Payment, which despite claims to the contrary is not devolved within the Scotland Bill.
- The withdrawal of existing powers to make loans, used in Social Work payments since 1968.
The most basic problem with the Scotland Bill is that it treats the task as if it were an agreement to devolve specific benefits, rather than an agreement to devolve the relevant powers. There are some new powers, but as they are all specific and subject to reservation they cannot be considered to be major ones.