Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Friday, 7 December 2007

Devolution heads for 'Phase Two'

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Devolution Phase Two has begun.

Devolution Yes Yes campaign
The devolution settlement is very much back on the agenda

In yet another "historic" vote, MSPs decided by 76 to 46 to set up an independent Constitutional Commission to consider more powers for the Scottish Parliament.

The 46 votes against were, of course, from the SNP who don't want a rival to their "national conversation" on independence.

"There is a desire in Scotland for further change. Devolution is a process not an event," the Labour leader Wendy Alexander told parliament in a special debate on that "historic" Thursday morning with a low sun slanting through the chamber.

And, echoing her St Andrew's day speech, she again used the phrase, "Scotland needs to walk taller in the UK without walking out."

The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon welcomed Labour's "conversion".

"It is a sign of enormous progress that the Labour party, so stout in its defence of the status quo just a few months ago in the Scottish election is now arguing for more powers for the Scottish Parliament," she said.

But she challenged the unionist parties to put the results of the Constitutional Commission to a referendum at the same time as the SNP's planned referendum on independence.

Static devolution only encourages nationalism
Nicol Stephen
Lib Dem leader

It wasn't good enough, she said, for the great and good to agree a new constitution behind closed doors and implement it without consulting the people.

The Conservative leader Annabel Goldie said it was the most important debate of the Scottish Parliament so far.

Ms Goldie told MSPs: "It is the start of devolution phase two, a process which will chart the direction of this parliament and the future of Scotland in the 21st Century."

The Liberal Democrats warned that the new powers for the Scottish Parliament would need to be substantial and include more powers of taxation.

Their leader Nicol Stephen said: "A self-respecting parliament cannot exist permanently on a single grant from another parliament. Static devolution only encourages nationalism."

The new model devolution has been under discussion by the three opposition leaders since the summer.

All we know so far about the new commission is that it will meet early in the new year, it will be led by constitutional experts, it will involve Westminster and it will consider whether some further powers should be transferred to Scotland.

The powers under review are likely to include taxation, firearms law, broadcasting, maritime law, abortion, immigration control, all issues over which there have been disputes with Westminster in the eight years of devolution.

Wendy Alexander
Wendy Alexander is "toughing out" her campaign difficulties

Devo anoraks will know of course that the Scottish Parliament already has taxation powers. It can raise or lower income tax by 3p in the pound, though, curiously, it has never chosen to use the power.

Anyway, the constitutional issue certainly took the heat off Wendy Alexander and her troubles over that donation to her election campaign.

After five days of silence on the issue, she finally walked into Holyrood on Tuesday to face a clicking wall of cameras and declare: "I have never sought to mislead. I am not dishonest. But mistakes have been made and my future has been questioned. It would be easy to quit but also wrong."

She said she was confident the Electoral Commission would clear her of any blame for unlawfully accepting the 950 donation from non-UK resident Paul Green.

She went on to win the unanimous backing of her fellow Labour MSPs.

Money matters

At question time on Thursday, everyone was expecting Ms Alexander to get a roasting from Alex Salmond.

But instead he confined himself to remarking at one point: " I think everybody in this parliament should help the police with their inquiries."

Perhaps he knew that the Electoral Commission was about to publish the party spending figures for the last Scottish elections in May.

They revealed that the SNP outspent everyone else, putting 1.4m into their successful campaign, half of it coming from the Scottish businessman Brian Souter.

No-one is suggesting that there is anything against the electoral rules here, but it does raise suspicions over the influence of one very rich man over political events.

Another very rich man pleased with the outcome of political events is the American tycoon Donald Trump.

His plan for a 1bn golf resort on the Aberdeenshire coast has been "called in" by the SNP government after it was rejected by Aberdeenshire Council, or at least a sub-committee of the council.

Menie Estate
The government has called in Donald Trump's golf plans

The planning application will now be decided by Finance and Sustainable Growth Minister John Swinney.

The economy and tourism committee was in full swing behind the government on this. It declared Aberdeenshire Council off the fairway.

"Scotland has to be open for business," said the committee convener Tavish Scott. "Otherwise we will see large developments like this going overseas."

How this squares with devolving power to local councils, as in the SNP's budget concordat, has yet to be explained.

It may be though that the official reporter, to be appointed to look into the case, will be able to arrange a compromise under which the golf resort can go ahead, but not on the sand dunes, which are a designated "site of special scientific interest".

On Wednesday, Holyrood took another step away from Westminster.

Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced that NHS prescription charges are to be abolished by 2011.

There will be a gradual reduction from the present charge of 6.85 over the next three years.

Labour said it wasn't the best use of 57m a year.

Alex Salmond and Rhodri Morgan
There was a meeting of Scottish and Welsh first ministers

But Ms Sturgeon said the SNP believed in the original principle of the NHS that health care should be "free at the point of need."

Wales has already abolished prescription charges. The Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan was in Holyrood on Thursday evening giving a lecture on "sustainable development" and no doubt he was able to discuss other differences with London with Alex Salmond.

Communities Minister Stewart Maxwell took the next step away from Westminster.

He announced that he's prepared to issue a commemorative medal to be awarded posthumously to the 400 Scottish servicemen who died in the sinking of the troop ship the Lancastria off the French coast in 1940.

The pressure is now on the MoD in London to do the same for the other 3,600 victims of that dreadful and concealed tragedy.

Finally, to the jollier subject of Christmas. A group of carol singing students appeared outside the parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

The tunes were familiar but the words...well the words hurt the feelings of SNP activists because they suggested Alex Salmond was being a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to university funding.

"Bah Humbug," said the SNP activists, in no uncertain terms apparently.

It led the Liberal Democrat leader Nicol Stephen to complain of "SNP harassment" at question time.

I wonder if there'll be any harassment in Phase Two of devolution.

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