First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a tirade of criticism at the Westminster government today, accusing it of failing to meet the needs of Scotland and ignoring her demands for an end to austerity.
After the Queen confirmed more powers for Scotland in her traditional speech, Ms Sturgeon said they did not go far enough.
She said the two governments were now effectively on a collision course over a range of issues – including Europe and Human Rights – and she would step up her fight to get a better deal for Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon has demanded extra powers to those contained in the Smith Commission report. However, the government has rejected her call for control of the minimum wage, employment rights and corporation tax.
While clearly offering to deliver on more devolution through a “strong and lasting constitutional settlement” the Queen’s Speech also included a pledge to create “one nation” and “to bring different parts of our country together” which were seen as a deliberate snub to the separatists.
Ms Sturgeon, clearly stung by the failure to get any of her measures included, said: “The Scottish Government is always ready to be constructive in implementing legislation where we can find common ground with the UK Government but we will also provide tough scrutiny of any proposed legislation,” she said.
“The key problem with this Queen’s Speech as far as Scotland is concerned is that it does not take account of the dramatically changed political circumstances we now find ourselves in.
“As a result, it is abundantly clear that the priorities this UK Government have outlined in the Queen’s Speech are not the priorities of the Scottish Government.
“At a time when people are suffering the impact of austerity – with the most serious effects falling on some of the most vulnerable in society – we believe it is quite wrong to continue with an economic policy which involves more savage cuts to welfare provision.
“We have made clear that the deficit can still be reduced and ultimately eradicated while at the same time making modest increases in spending to invest in the economy and public services, and we will continue to make that case and to oppose austerity.
“We will also stand firmly against any moves to increase privatisation of the NHS – an issue that effects the funding for the whole of the UK – as well as ensuring that the funding the NHS requires is provided in full.”
The First Minister added: “The Scotland Bill must deliver the Smith proposals in full, but that must not be portrayed by the UK Government as some kind of concession – delivering Smith would only be fulfilling the pledge they have already signed up to and the promise they have made to the people of Scotland.
“In addition, we believe the massively changed political circumstances in Scotland provides a mandate for substantial further powers beyond those recommended by the Smith process, and we will continue to make a strong case to the UK Government for those powers to be delivered.
Concern over EU bill
“On the issue of Europe, we will make a powerful and positive case for Scotland and the UK’s continued membership of the European Union – including the ‘double-lock’ mechanism that we propose which would require majorities in all four home UK nations before any withdrawal from the EU. We will also push for a referendum that is fair to all, by giving the right to vote to 16 and 17 year-olds, and to the citizens of all EU countries who are resident here.
“When it comes to human rights legislation, we will continue to make clear our opposition to proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act, and to any attempts to further diminish workers’ rights.
“While the proposals on the Human Rights Act appear to have been delayed, today’s Queen’s Speech makes clear the UK government is still committed to its repeal. We believe that is wrong and deeply misguided, given the protection the Act affords to ordinary citizens in a whole range of areas.”
Unsettling for business
Her comments followed the Westminster government’s commitment to give the Scottish Parliament new powers over tax and confirmed its plan to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Both moves were seen as unsettling for businesses north and south of the border.
The Scottish government will be able to raise 40% of the country’s taxes and allocate 60% of public spending. The Scotland Bill, due to become law by next February, will give Holyrood control over thresholds and rates of income tax, Air Passenger Duty and the first 10% of VAT.
As a result of the reforms the Barnett Formula, which determines how much the Scottish government receives, will be cut.
The commitments were contained in the Queen’s Speech which included 21 bills focused on working families and the constitution. Westminster will not raise income tax, national insurance or VAT. Pledges were made to help the lower paid.
The government will increase the real value of the state pension and strengthen the rights of victims of crime as well as giving the authorities more access to internet data.
It also confirmed that a referendum will be held on Britain’s membership of the EU and that it will devolve powers to the northern cities which will elect ‘metro mayors’.
But the government deferred its plan to scrap the Human Rights Bill, instead opting to consult on a Bill of Rights.
Pensions experts were pleased that measures will be introduced to secure the real value of the basic state pension, “so that more people live in dignity and security in retirement.”.
They believe this means the triple lock – which pledges to increase the state pension by inflation, wages or 2.5%, depending on which is higher- will be protected until 2020.
The Queen, in her address, said the rules of the House of Commons would be changed to ensure that only MPs representing English constituencies could vote on legislation affecting England alone.
Business reacted cautiously to the extra powers for Scotland to the uncertainty now hanging over Britain’s membership of the EU.
David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said: “The Scotland Bill heralds a fresh chapter of devolution, with substantial additional powers and economic responsibilities for Holyrood and the Scottish Government.
“The retail industry is the country’s largest private sector employer, and the SRC will work to ensure those powers being devolved which affect the industry are implemented in a sensible and cost effective manner, in order to minimise administrative complexity and cost.
“Devolving more powers, however, shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself. Scotland is a good place to do business, but it could be better. Business needs to remain fully engaged in the emerging debate about how these new powers ought to be used positively to encourage greater levels of private sector investment and job creation, as it is too important to simply leave to politicians. For us the priority is simple, use the devolved responsibilities to support consumer confidence and make it easier and less costly for retailers to invest, grow and hire.”
Andy Willox, the FSB’s Scottish policy convenor, said: “The Smith Agreement, to which we and many others contributed, made it clear that the Scottish Parliament is set to become a more powerful actor in the Scottish economy. It will be critical to small businesses in Scotland that parliament gets right the legislation that turns that agreement into law.
“Further, we must see any administrative burden of further devolution borne by the tax authorities and not taxpayers and enterprise. We’ll need our parliamentarians to understand and thoroughly test how every clause will work in practice – not just on paper. Devolution should give different authorities the powers to boost their local economies however difference itself can’t become a barrier to trade.”
Liz Cameron, Chief Executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Obviously the Scotland Bill will change the nature of the accountability of the Scottish Parliament by delivering significantly extended Scottish powers over tax and revenue. What is important for businesses is that these powers are used to support the investment that we are making to grow and to create high quality productive jobs in Scotland.
“There is a strong case for the UK Government to devolve Air Passenger Duty immediately thus allowing the Scottish Government to cut it and enabling Scottish airports to better compete internationally for new routes and services. This would help businesses to reduce costs and help develop our global connectivity as we look to build international trading opportunities.
“We would hope that the political debate over further devolution for Scotland as this Bill progresses focuses on the pressing need to support business and grow our economy. These should be the priorities for all of Scotland’s politicians in the months ahead.”
On the European Union Referendum Bill, she said: “There is an important debate ahead on the nature of our relationship with the European Union. This is the principal overseas market for many Scottish businesses, with almost £13 billion in exports heading to Europe from Scotland each year. With a population of over half a billion people across 28 nations, it is important that we maintain strong trading links to Europe whilst addressing some of the more negative and restrictive aspects of EU membership, such as hindering our local businesses from winning public sector contracts.
“Between now and the referendum, Scottish Chambers of Commerce will be undertaking extensive research with businesses across Scotland to gauge business attitudes toward EU membership. The views of businesses will be important in order to properly inform the public debate on our future with Europe and the economic opportunities of leaving or reforming the EU will require to be articulated.”
Grant Thornton UK’s Managing Partner in Scotland, Kevin Engel said: “The Scotland Bill, devolving further powers, should give business some long term certainty in Scotland and the Scottish government the tools to build a vibrant economy.
“The commitment to implement in full the proposals agreed unanimously by the Smith Commission provides business with a stable agenda; however further uncertainty will be introduced if the Government promises devolution of further unspecified powers in the future; better to agree additional powers now (which could enable a more cohesive set of powers to support economic growth) in a single, conclusive devolution Bill which business can plan for.”
John Allan, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses said: “The economy is on the right track to create jobs and growth in the UK. The Government must maintain its course, strengthening the enterprise landscape to support ambitious businesses to boost productivity and jobs.
“However, Ministers must stick to the path of fiscal discipline and continue to drive down the deficit. We want to continue to see a stronger economy while the cost of doing business must be lower and easier, ensuring growth in every nation and region of the UK, not just London and the South East.
“With the UK set to debate its relationship with Europe, it is vital we truly understand the business case for staying in or leaving the European Union. The Single Market is important for many businesses in the UK – however, some are concerned about the EU’s approach in a number of areas, especially regulation.
“The referendum will inevitably bring a period of uncertainty, which should be resolved as soon as possible. However, we must also ensure there is adequate time allotted to fully explore the options on the table. Small businesses must be able to fully understand and participate in the debate – discussing the economic case and what meaningful reforms are achievable before deciding how to cast their vote.”