Lib Dems accused of “going backwards” on devolution as party drops plans to devolve key powers


  By a Newsnet reporter

The Lib Dems have been accused of ‘going backwards’ on devolution after media reports revealed that powers previously earmarked by the party for transfer to the Scottish Parliament, have now been dropped from new proposals.

Former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell will launch the Lib Dems’ new proposals for devolution on Wednesday. 

However a copy of the plan obtained by the BBC suggests that it does not include control of oil and gas, which was included in the Lib Dems’ Steel Commission report on devolution, published in 2006.

According to the leaks, the Lib Dems will argue that the Scottish Parliament should collect almost all income tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax and air passenger duty.  However the party will rule out allowing Scottish control of VAT and alcohol and excise duties. 

Mr Campbell claims that his proposals would allow the Scottish Parliament to raise almost two thirds of its spending.  But the most controversial element of the proposals is the suggestion that the Treaty of Union of 1707 should be scrapped and replaced by a new “declaration of federal union” for all the constituent nations of the UK.  The new federal government will have responsibility for foreign affairs, defence, currency, and welfare and pensions.  

Under the plan, new assemblies would be set up for the English regions, however the report acknowledges that support for federalism may be lower in different parts of the UK.  According to the report: “The move to home rule status for Scotland, in which it enjoys a federal relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, is a first stage that can proceed ahead of the rest.”

Mr Campbell’s plan is significantly weaker than devolution proposals which have been previously aired by the Lib Dems.  The SNP have sharply criticised the new report, saying that they go back on promises made by the party in David Steel’s devolution proposals of 2006, which foresaw control of corporation tax and the collecting of Scottish oil and gas revenues, being devolved to Holyrood.

Like the other anti-independence parties, the Lib Dems opposed the inclusion of a second question on extra powers for Holyrood in the referendum.  The party hopes that this week’s report will allow them to claim that they have definite plans for further devolution in the event of a No vote.  

Critics have pointed out that the Lib Dems have made no moves to further their federalist agenda within the current UK Coalition government, and the adoption of their plan depends on the party being returned to power at Westminster with sufficient MPs to force any future coalition partners to adopt their federalist approach. 

The plan is not yet official Lib Dem policy.  The report must be approved by the party’s Scottish conference due to be held later this month.  If approved the report will be passed to a federal party committee for further consideration.  

Mr Campbell’s plan falls far short of devo max, and may not be far reaching enough to persuade devo max supporters to vote No on the basis of the Lib Dem promise.  Devo max supporters envisaged the Scottish Parliament would have control of welfare and pensions, which has been ruled out in the latest report.  Devo max would also see the Scottish Parliament take responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland, although the BBC did not reveal whether this was also included in Mr Campbell’s plan.

Given the Lib Dems’ current dire standing in opinion polls, and its previous record of making electoral promises which it did not keep in office, independence supporters have questioned whether voters will be able to trust the Lib Dems to keep their word this time.

The Lib Dems are now apparently offering devolution of air passenger duty, despite having voted against this in the Commons debate on the Scotland Bill.  The party also voted against allowing the Scottish Parliament to set corporation tax – a power granted to the Northern Irish Assembly.

SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who chaired the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee, during which Lib Dem members voted against devolving corporation tax and a number of other powers to Scotland, said:

“The Lib Dems are going backwards. They have slashed their proposals for Scotland from six years ago and they have blocked the transfer of many of the powers they outline in today’s plan in the recently-passed Scotland Act.

“One of their proposals today is devolving Air Passenger Duty – which was recommended for the Scotland Bill and not delivered, as the anti-independence parties including the Lib Dems voted against it.

“And apart from anything else, after the Lib Dems’ disgraceful broken promise on tuition fees, no-one will believe a word they say on anything ever again. The people of Scotland won’t be fooled by this miserly half-baked offering.

“By the fact that they refused to announce this before now it shows that they obviously they don’t trust the people of Scotland to test their plans at the ballot box.

“Of course, many people in Scotland haven’t forgotten that they were promised a ‘better form of devolution’ in return for a no vote in 1979 – and instead they were given eighteen years of Tory Westminster rule.

“It’s no wonder that the Lib Dem leadership is facing public criticism and resistance from within their party to Willie Rennie’s illiberal and undemocratic snub of Yes Scotland’s wish to buy a stand at their party conference.

“People in Scotland are becoming increasingly aware that the only way to get the significant job-creating powers devolved to Scotland is through a vote for independence. After all, it is far better that all of these decisions are taken by the people who care about Scotland most – that is, the people living here.”