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People and Communities: Taking forward our National Conversation

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Executive Summary

  • Choosing Scotland's Future began a National Conversation on the type of government which will best equip Scotland for the future. This paper continues that conversation, discussing health, children, housing, law and order, and the safety and social policy aspects of transport. These are areas where the devolved responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and Government are extensive but are nevertheless constrained in some respects by the limitations of the current devolution scheme.
  • Scotland's law and legal system have been distinct from that of the rest of the British Isles since long before the Union of 1707. Their integrity and independence were enshrined in the Treaty of Union. The distinctiveness of Scotland's education system is also long-established, with different examination systems from those in the rest of the UK and longer degree courses. More recently, devolution has seen different Scottish approaches to the National Health Service - avoiding the competitive model developed south of the border - and to law and order, housing and transport policy.
  • All these areas have seen significant progress during the ten years of devolution. Examples include the ban on smoking in public places, free personal care for the elderly, an ambitious policy on homelessness, Curriculum for Excellence, the Air Discount Scheme and record investment in policing giving Scotland the highest ever police numbers and lowest levels of recorded crime in almost 30 years.
  • Despite these successes, gaps in the range of policy levers available to the Scottish Parliament have been evident. These include the reservation of social security benefits, which for example, limit the Scottish Parliament's ability in housing to provide solutions to distinctly Scottish challenges - such as our colder climate and more people living in rural areas. In addition reservation of the appropriate penalties for offences results in the Scottish Parliament not being able to take account of, and address Scotland specific patterns of drug consumption.
  • The report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution, although constrained in its remit from considering the opportunities of more substantial constitutional reform, made some modest but welcome proposals for additional devolution. These include responsibility for restricting use of air guns, Stamp Duty Land Tax and powers relating to drink driving limits. The Commission also recommended that when dealing with asylum seekers, relevant UK authorities recognise the responsibilities of Scottish authorities for the well-being of children in Scotland.
  • The Scottish Government has welcomed these proposals and pressed the UK Government for early implementation. However, in the view of the Scottish Government these recommendations do not go far enough. It seems inconsistent, for example, that under the Commission's recommendations Scottish Ministers would have the ability to determine a drink driving limit in Scotland, but not that to set differential limits and that the Scottish Parliament should be responsible for legislation of airguns, but not firearms generally.
  • It also seems inadequate that while the Commission proposed devolution of Stamp Duty land tax the majority of Scottish tax revenue would continue to be determined by the UK Government. In practice, the devolution of only a small subset of taxes could increase uncertainty in Scotland's finances, because the Scottish Government is not allowed to borrow or adjust other taxes should the tax base change.
  • "Devolution max" would enable the Scottish Parliament to enact primary legislation on almost all issues. Foreign affairs, defence and aspects of macro-economic policy would remain reserved. While many of the opportunities for the policy areas in this paper delivered by devolution max, would be similar to those delivered by independence, in practice, the real level of autonomy provided may be limited, given the implications of the UK and not Scotland, being the sovereign state. Constraints on Scottish policy making would remain for key aspects of economic policy and the negotiation of international agreements would remain reserved.
  • It is the Scottish Government's belief, therefore, that independence presents the best future for Scotland. An independent Scotland would have a full set of policy making tools, allowing it to ensure alignment of all policy in Scotland. For example, currently, housing policy is affected by decisions on Housing Benefit, and children and childcare policy is influenced by levels of support for carers. Housing Benefit is decided and managed at a UK Government level, while support for carers is determined at a Scottish and UK Government level. This mix of responsibilities is confusing for those in receipt of social security benefits, and at times results in Scottish government policy and the design of social security benefits being misaligned.
  • Independence would of course not inhibit mutually beneficial cooperation agreements with the residual UK, building for example on the existing cross-border arrangements to enable specialist health treatments.