Craig Dalzell: Westminster power grabs and the high tide of devolution

“Scotland has effectively reached the end of its ‘devolution journey’. Once Scotland was promised that it would have ‘the most powerful devolved government in the world’ but it seems that the limits of that high tide has been reached and those powers are now retreating by the day.”

AS SCOTLAND slides into the territory of solid and sustained majority support for independence, relations between the Scottish and UK Governments are becoming ever more frosty. Tensions are increasing and the infrastructure designed to facilitate co-operation between the UK Government and the devolved governments is either fracturing or has started to be subverted and turned into a tool to compete with the devolved governments.

This week we’ve seen a breakdown in policy co-ordination in the form of efforts by the UK Government to harmonise the economic regulations across the whole of the UK without regard for the consequences this would have on devolution and devolved policy – in a letter to the UK Government, Scottish Government Minister Mike Russell pointed out that this law could have the effect of overriding Scottish Government policies such as the public smoking ban and minimum alcohol unit pricing as well as ensuring (as is likely to be its true purpose) that Scotland must comply with any post-Brexit trade deals that the UK makes with countries like the US which results in the lowering of health and safety standards on food despite these standards being areas of devolved competence.

The letter from Mike Russell also points out that a lot of these policies are being made by the UK Government not just without considering the impact on Scotland but even without informing the Scottish Government that the policy changes are happening. In a properly functioning devolved democracy, one would except the various Joint Committees designed for this work would discuss the impact of policies and come to some agreement either to change the policy to fit within devolution or to change the structure of devolution to fit the policy goals. Instead, the UK Government is making policy that the devolved governments find out about only when it reaches the newspaper headlines and then expects them either to comply or threatens to simply overrule them and grab the powers to enforce the changes.

This week also saw another example of this breakdown in communications when it was revealed that the Scottish Government has been unable to trace and track people arriving in Scotland from overseas to ensure that they are complying with quarantine orders put in place due to the pandemic. The reason for this breakdown – which may well risk a major public health crisis – was that the UK Home Office refused to send information to the Scottish Government on who and where these people were so that follow up checks could be made.

This issue has since been resolved and checks are expected to be possible from next week but this isn’t the first time that the Home Office has refused to let go of vital data – at least, not to the people who need it. One of the most serious implications facing EU citizens applying to the Settled Status programme is that they have to give up their most personal ID data, including biometric information. They must also sign away their rights to the control of that data by giving the Home Office perpetual permission to give or sell that data to any individual or company, in the UK or abroad for any or no reason and without giving notification to the applicant that this has happened and without giving them the right to see who their data has been given to. The kicker is that if this sounds like a catastrophic breach of data protection rights and you complain to the Home Office then they’ll say that they comply fully with data protection laws. And they do – by enacting a blanket exemption that they have to comply with those laws. They comply by not having to comply.

The Settled Status example doesn’t directly impact on Scottish Government policy at the moment – immigration is entirely reserved – but current SNP policy on independence means that it will likely have significant impacts in the early years of independence.

The current proposals, based on the Sustainable Growth Commission report, state that instead of building up all of the infrastructure required to run currently reserved areas of Government in time for independence day, an independent Scotland would instead negotiate to buy in at least some of those services from the appropriate UK Government departments for an undefined period of time. Whilst the report does call for the construction of a central decision-making body to replace the Home Office (which would also inherit existing UK Home Office structures in Scotland), there is no comment on whether data sharing would be part of the “shared services” agreement. Giving the lack of co-operation on data and information within the current devolved setting, I find it difficult to imagine the relationship becoming warmer and closer post-independence.

Scotland absolutely should be prepared to co-operate with the remaining UK on matters of mutual benefit (and this may well include a Single Travel Area and some level of harmonised immigration policies as is the case with Ireland) but this should be on the basis of two government departments co-ordinating with each other as equals. An independent Scotland should absolutely avoid having to rely on “buying in” services from the remaining UK especially when they do not currently have a proven track record of sharing information vital to the running on those services.

More immediately, the Scottish Government is right to highlight the breakdown in devolution caused by an increasingly uncooperative UK Government and it is encouraging to see stronger statements of intent to resist changes that would be detrimental to Scotland and are being imposed over and above the wishes of the Scottish Parliament. Since the start of the year Common Weal have been calling for an escalating pressure campaign which would highlight these and other failures to respect Scotland so we encourage the Scottish Government to go further and to resist these power grabs even more stridently but we also encourage the plan for independence to not fall into the same traps and ultimately leave Scotland even more vulnerable to such political meddling post-independence.

The Scottish Parliament has often been accused of being little more than a larger scale town council (a sentiment that I feel is an insult to what town councils could do if they were designed properly) but as things stand it appears that the UK Government is determined to make it true. Scotland has effectively reached the end of its “devolution journey”. Once Scotland was promised that it would have “the most powerful devolved government in the world” but it seems that the limits of that high tide has been reached and those powers are now retreating by the day. Scotland therefore has to make a choice: independence and a Scottish Government that can make policy for the Scottish interests or to let the gains of devolution slip away and turn the Scottish Government into a mere administrator of UK Government policy, whether it agrees with those policies or not.