Public Law

From pre-devolution discussions about how to maintain the (illusion of?) sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament to the Calman Commission – the extent of the Scottish Parliament’s powers has long been a subject which has excited public lawyers.

The current proposals to implement the findings of the Calman Commission are not just a matter of academic constitutional interest though. Politicians, economists and businesses are all scrutinising the practical implications carefully.

The Calman Commission – which was of course a response by Scotland’s unionist parties to the SNP’s National Conversation – reported last year and the UK coalition’s intention to introduce legislation to implement recommendations from the report were confirmed in the Queen’s speech earlier this year.

The recommendations which have been getting the most attention are:

  • Cutting basic and higher rates of income tax in Scotland by 10p in the pound, with a corresponding reduction to the block grant; and
  • Giving Holyrood the power to set a Scottish income tax rate, applying to all bands.

The Calman Commission report stated that these recommendations are intended to increase the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament. They can also be viewed as shifting more power towards Holyrood.

At first glance, it might therefore have been expected that the SNP would be in favour of the proposals. They have, however, indicated that implementing the recommendations would be worse than the status quo. Pointing to the recession, the First Minister has stated that the plans would have lead to a £900 million decrease in the Scottish budget for 2009-2010 and that this would have been made worse by the coalition’s plans to increase personal allowances.

There have been calls (including from the SNP) for greater fiscal powers than those proposed by Calman. This has divided the political and economic experts… and (for me at least) reawakened that old question of how powerful a devolved institution can be without turning the UK constitution on its head.

Speaking of not turning the constitution on its head, it is worth mentioning that the UK government has announced plans to include a ‘sovereignty clause’ in a new European Union bill. The Government are keen to ensure that the “fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty is upheld in relation to EU law” and are proposing a clause to put the matter “beyond speculation“.