A fresh constitutional settlement to create a “resting place” for Scotland in the UK has run into trouble on the day of its launch after David Cameron pledged to prevent the SNP from flexing its muscles at Westminster by taking part in English-only votes.
In a sign that the uncertainty over Scotland’s status within the UK will reach long into the next parliament, the prime minister pledged in Edinburgh to introduce changes at Westminster to block Scottish MPs voting on the NHS and on some budget matters related to England.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, hit back by making clear that the SNP was prepared for a fight as she called for an “urgent rethink” of separate proposals by the UK government as it delivers its referendum “vow” of “extensive new powers” to Edinburgh.
In a Guardian article, the first minister accused Westminster of reneging on its commitment to give Holyrood a decisive say over welfare policy: “David Cameron’s trip to Scotland saw him claim that the pre-referendum ‘vow’ to Scotland was being delivered in full. Sadly, the reality falls a long way short of that boast.”
The ‘vow’, an attempt to present a united front by the UK government in the final days of September’s referendum campaign, was also under strain as the prime minister’s coalition partners immediately shot down his plans to curb the rights of Scottish MPs.
Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat Scotland secretary, said “English votes for English laws” could only be introduced in the most exceptional of circumstances. “The prime minister has identified the right problem – if he thinks the sole answer to it is some system of English votes for English laws then, in that respect, we disagree,” Carmichael told the Guardian.
The three-way battle between the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP over the future role of Scottish MPs erupted as the prime minister travelled to Edinburgh in an attempt to show Westminster was meeting its commitments which played a key role in defeating independence in last September’s referendum.
“Scotland spoke, we listened and now here we are delivering,” the prime minister said after the launch of the draft clauses of a proposed parliamentary bill implementing the findings of the Smith commission on the devolution of further powers to Scotland. Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband had pledged in the “vow”, published in the Daily Record two days before the referendum, to publish the clauses by Burns Night which falls on Sunday.
The prime minister, who was speaking at the Dynamic Earth science museum in Edinburgh where yes supporters drowned their sorrows on the referendum night, added: “This is absolutely the vow fulfilled with every dot and comma in place.”
Cameron, who showed during the referendum that he was acutely sensitive to charges that the Tories remained a toxic brand in Scotland, left the formal launch of the draft clauses of the parliamentary bill to Carmichael and his fellow Scottish Lib Dem cabinet colleague Danny Alexander.
Cameron tried to uphold his so-called respect agenda with the UK’s devolved administrations by meeting Sturgeon in the Scottish parliament where they began by discussing the terror threat.
But he made clear that he would fight Sturgeon’s plans to play a major role in a hung parliament after the election by voting on the NHS at Westminster even though health is devolved entirely to Scotland. An Ipsos Mori/STV poll this week, which placed the SNP 28 points ahead of Labour, suggested that the SNP could capture 55 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.
Speaking to Scottish journalists after his speech, the prime minister said: “To argue that MPs from Scotland should be able to vote on the minutiae of health or education in the future, I just think she is wrong. If I win the election, the government I lead will put in place the measures necessary to make sure that that key element of English votes for English laws is delivered.”
The new draft parliamentary clauses were “the right resting place,” he said, “because we have now got a very strong Scottish parliament raising a majority of its revenue with more powers than most other devolved parliaments in the developed world. I certainly don’t want to spend the next five years debating: is that the right balance of powers? I want to spend the next five years debating how we help make the Scottish economy stronger.”
Sturgeon, who raised her concerns about the new constitutional settlement in her talks with Cameron, insisted that the UK government was guilty of a “significant watering down” of the Smith commission’s proposals to give Holyrood a greater say over welfare policy. The first minister said that, if implemented, the draft parliamentary clauses would hand the Scotland secretary in the UK cabinet a veto over any proposals by the Scottish government to change welfare by, for example, scrapping the bedroom tax.
The Scottish government pointed to the section in the draft clauses which says that Scottish ministers may not exercise their rights on setting regulations on the rental costs of universal credit claimants “unless they have consulted the secretary of state”. Sturgeon wrote: “That means an urgent rethink is required on several of the legislative clauses outlined by the prime minister if both the letter and the spirit of the Smith commission are to be delivered.”
The prime minister dismissed Sturgeon’s claims. “What Robert Smith [chairman of all-party Smith commission] found was that universal credit should remain as a reserved issue [at Westminster] because it was something for the whole of the UK. He quite rightly recognised that there were elements that it would be appropriate for the Scottish parliament to be able to adjust and particularly this issue over housing and of course the spare room subsidy [the bedroom tax]. I want to put it beyond any doubt that Scottish ministers and the Scottish parliament will have the absolute ability to change that aspect of the universal credit should they wish to.”
Alexander, the Treasury chief secretary,dismissed the SNP’s criticisms. “It is total nonsense,” he calimed. “It is the sort of pathetic, dispiriting attitude you expect from the nationalists. We have delivered the Smith commission in full, delivered on the vow in full – the spirit and the letter.”
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