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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK


UK Politics: Talking Politics

The Scotland Bill



What powers will a Scottish Parliament have? How will it be funded? And how will it work? BBC Scotland's Political Editor Brian Taylor explains all.

The present proposals

Labour set out its plans in Opposition and is now proceeding to legislate through Westminster, following the consent of the Scottish people in a referendum.

We shall consider that referendum and its impact below - but first the detail of the Scotland Bill which contains the proposal for an elected Parliament to govern Scotland within the United Kingdom.

The Scotland Bill


[ image: The White Paper on Scotland took 60,000 hours to put together]
The White Paper on Scotland took 60,000 hours to put together
The Scotland Bill contains 40,000 words of precise, legislative prose. It apparently took 60,000 person hours of Ministerial and official effort to produce, or one word every hour and a half.

It has 116 clauses. There are eight back-up schedules setting out the consequences of devolution in minute detail.


Donald Dewar speaking at the White Paper' s launch party, July 1997
Yet when Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, stood up in a Glasgow hotel on 18 December 1997, as he published the Bill, he turned his attention in particular to Clause One, subsection one.

It reads simply: "There shall be a Scottish Parliament." The remainder of the Bill is inevitably a little more complex than Clause 1 (1). The Bill translates into legislative language the promises previously outlined in the White Paper that was published in July 1997.

Ministers - and, more discreetly, officials - have expressed a certain pride that they are able to point clearly to the links between the Bill and each substantial promise in the White Paper.

A Scottish Parliament

So the Bill, as with the earlier document, presages a directly elected Scottish Parliament with 129 members. They would be elected by a variant of Proportional Representation with 73 members subject to First Past the Post in single constituencies as for Westminster and 56 from eight top-up regional lists.

The lists would be used to match parties' seats with overall voting share. The Bill indicates that independents would be able to form groups - or even take their chance as one-person lists.

All elected MPs would take the oath of allegiance to the Crown, as at Westminster. Peers are eligible to stand for the Scottish Parliament.

The Bill abolishes the artificial restriction that has guaranteed Scotland a disproportionately large number of MPs at Westminster.

When constituency boundaries are next redrawn - probably in time for the general election after next - it is expected that the number of Scottish seats at Westminster will fall from the present 72 to around 57 or 58.

It had been anticipated that the membership of the Scottish Parliament would then also shrink below 129 - in an effort to keep the constituency boundaries the same for Westminster as for the Parliament in Scotland.

But that proposal was vigorously opposed by other parties and, privately, by Labour insiders. Ministers have now signalled that they are seeking ways to maintain a 129-member Scottish Parliament even after Scotland's numbers at Westminster have been reduced.

Powers

On the main topic - what powers are to be devolved - the Bill proceeds by defining those issues that are reserved for Westminster decision-making.

That reverses the procedure of the devolution Bills of the 1970s which faltered partly from attempting to list in numbing detail those powers which would be transferred to Scotland.

So after devolution Westminster will retain power over - the Constitution including the Crown, foreign affairs including relations with Europe, the civil service, defence, macro-economics including almost all tax and Budgetary matters, social security, child support, abortion, embryo research, broadcasting, pensions laws, the regulation of financial services, the currency, drugs control, data protection, firearms, immigration, national security and counter-terrorism, betting and gaming laws, extradition, competition law, import and export controls, consumer protection including weights and measures, telecommunications regulations, electricity, most oil and gas regulations, nuclear energy, most road, rail, air and marine transport laws, regulation of many professions, health and safety, judicial pay, ordnance survey, time - and, finally, "the regulation of activities in outer space".

Everything else by definition is devolved.

That means the Scottish Parliament will have full legislative and administrative control of domestic issues like health, education, the criminal law, home affairs, local government, economic development, the environment, agriculture, sport and the arts.

The nuts and bolts

The Bill broadly leaves it up to the Scottish Parliament to determine its own working arrangements and legislative approach.

Preliminary work is currently under way through a cross-party committee established by the Scottish Office. But there are a few details of the nomenclature laid down in statute.

In contrast with the title "Speaker" employed at Westminster, Scotland's Parliament will be chaired by a Presiding Officer assisted by an official Clerk. The Presiding Officer will be elected by Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) at the first sitting.

Together with four other MSPs, the Presiding Officer will form the Corporate Body that will administer the Parliament - and will have initial responsibility for deciding whether proposed measures go beyond the scope of the Parliament's competence.

The First Minister

The Parliament will also elect a First Minister - who will head the Scottish government. That government will be formed by an Executive comprising departmental Ministers and Scotland's law officers who will retain their independent power of action in such fields as criminal prosecution.

These Ministers and officers will be appointed by the First Minister subject to approval by the Parliament. In addition, there will be Junior Ministers to provide assistance.

Should the Parliament fail to elect a First Minister within 28 days, the Bill provides that there would be fresh elections. This is not entirely an impossibility given that the proportional representation system might well produce a hung Parliament on Scotland's current voting pattern.

Funding

Funding will come - as at present - by Block Grant from the common UK Treasury. This funding will be channelled through the continuing Secretary of State.

It is envisaged that the Barnett Formula which determines the annual changes in the Scottish budget in relationship to the changes in comparable English budgets will stay.

But the Block and Formula provisions are not in statute. Donald Dewar insists this is quite reasonable, pointing out that the Block and Formula are not presently covered by statute.

Opposition parties however fear the flexibility of such a system and have attempted to amend the Bill to place Scotland's funding on a more fixed basis.

Tax

The Bill confirms that the Scottish Parliament will have the power to vary the basic rate of personal income tax by a maximum of 3p in the pound. There is no power over corporation tax.

The Bill defines those who will come under this variation - should it be operated by a future Scottish Parliament. You will pay if you are a UK resident whose "closest connection" is with Scotland.

This is generally defined by residence or spending the majority of your year in Scotland. A special clause provides that Westminster MPs from Scottish constituencies - who of necessity may spend the majority of their year in London - are nevertheless liable for the tax.

Law making powers

But the big change, the core of devolution, is the power to legislate.

The planned Parliament is not given substance by direct elections or by revenue raising or by political titles or by back-up officialdom. All of those factors are present in local government.

What makes the Parliament substantial is the power to initiate legislation, to reform or abolish elements of the law of Scotland.

For those who have attempted to offer a political response to the imprecise feeling of Scottish identity, that is the key change: that legislation governing Scotland - and the back-up administration - will in future be determined by a popular mandate of the Scottish electorate, rather than a mandate derived from Westminster elections which may or may not match the aspirations of those casting their vote in Scotland.

In addition, it is argued that the Scottish legislative mechanism will become more efficient and effective.

No longer, it is said, will Scottish debates be constrained by the Westminster timetable; tagged on, as they sometimes are, to the end of a long day.

No longer, it is claimed, will the necessary revision and upgrading of Scots Law be thwarted and delayed.

The law of Scotland, it is argued, will get the time and attention it deserves - without encroaching upon Westminster to the occasional irritation of MPs from outside Scotland.



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