Labour’s Devolution Commission finally meets as Referendum agreement nears

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By Martin Kelly

The Labour party have announced the make-up of their working group tasked with looking at whether the Scottish Parliament needs more powers.

The group, made up of three MPs, two MSPs and one MEP was finally convened seven months after it was initially announced.

The Labour politicians will be joined by academics and union leaders as the group aims to put forward proposals aimed at keeping Scotland under Westminster rule.

The commission will look at more powers for Holyrood.  Also under consideration will be devolving powers to local authorities.  However, there are fears that the Labour Commission will also demand the return to London of powers currently devolved.

Johann Lamont announced the new body in her speech to the party’s Scottish conference in Dundee in March this year in which she said: “We cannot allow ourselves to be boxed into an Orwellian debate – more powers good, anything else bad.”

Labour’s commission follows similar moves by the Scottish Liberal Democrats who are also looking at devolution.  Both parties were forced to consider extra powers for Scotland following the SNP’s incredible victory in last year’s Scottish elections.

Commenting on the launch of the Commission an SNP Spokesperson said:

“Just like Johann Lamont’s Cuts Commission, there are actually more Westminster MPs than Scottish Parliament MSPs on their devolution commission – underlining the fact that Labour’s strings are pulled from London.

“This body is only meeting after it was revealed in the media two weeks ago that there was still no remit or membership for it, and that it hadn’t met once six months after being announced by Johann Lamont.

“Labour’s foot-dragging on this commission reflects the fact that the anti-independence campaign is Tory-led – no wonder Labour members in Scotland have founded the ‘Labour for Independence’ group.  I am confident that people will vote Yes to an independent Scotland in autumn 2014, so that we have a parliament and policies 100 per cent accountable to the people of Scotland.”

Commenting, Johann Lamont said: “I’m delighted that our dedicated group discussing where decision making power should lie in Scotland has started its work.

“For too long, the issue of constitutional change has been about the false choice offered by the SNP. Decision making isn’t just a discussion about Holyrood and Westminster, it’s about where power should best lie to ensure that decisions which affect our communities are made at the most appropriate level, which does mean thinking about our councils too.

“All parts of the Scottish Labour movement have come together to ensure that we offer coherent and fit-for-purpose proposals to the Scottish people which meet their aspirations for Scotland.”

Labour’s commission was announced on the day that reports suggested a deal on the rules governing the independence referendum was close to agreement.

Following meetings between Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, it is expected that a single question will be put to the Scottish electorate.  It is also expected that 16 and 17 year olds will be allowed to take part in the historic ballot.

However, claims by junior Scottish Office Minister David Mundell that final agreement had been reached were dismissed by the Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney who insisted that although substantial progress had been made, there was still some way to go.

Mr Swinney said: “There is still some way to go to get to a final position, and that has to be reached before the Prime Minister and the First Minister can come to any agreement on this question”.

In the event that agreement is reached, it will ensure that the result of the ballot will be legally binding.  The date of the ballot itself has yet to be announced, although the Scottish government has already indicated that it will be held in the Autumn of 2014.

First Minister Alex Salmond is now expected to meet UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday in order to finalise details of the ballot process.

Speaking yesterday evening, a Scottish Government spokesperson said:

“Further substantial progress towards agreement was reached this afternoon between the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Secretary of State Michael Moore. Officials have now been tasked with doing some further work on the final detail of the agreement.

“We are however on track for the full agreement, including the terms of a section 30 order, to be presented to the First Minister and the Prime Minister over the next few days.”