MSPs yesterday agreed to the passage of the Scotland Bill at Westminster to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
The bill, which represents the outcome of the Smith Commission proposals following the independence referendum, devolves new powers particularly over tax and welfare to the Scottish Parliament and is expected to conclude its passage at Westminster next week. Its progress was in doubt until the Scottish and Westminster Governments reached agreement on the financial settlement to underpin the new settlement, but the Parliament accepted the unanimous recommendation of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee that despite certain reservations as to whether the bill fully reflected the Smith report, its provisions should be accepted.
Speaking afterwards, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “While the package does not go as far as I or many others would wish, we will use these new powers to build a stronger Scottish economy, tackle inequality and ensure all of our people have the opportunity to flourish. I believe that the more we exercise self-government here in Scotland, the more the benefits become clear and the stronger the argument for extending our powers becomes.”
However the Law Society has called on the UK Government to use the remaining stages of the Scotland Bill to ensure that the Sewel convention is fully incorporated into law.
The Smith Commission recommended that the Sewel convention should be put on a statutory footing. The convention, which has operated since 1999, means that the UK Parliament will not legislate on devolved matters or changes to the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament or the executive competence of Scottish ministers without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.
The Society believes that, as currently drafted, the bill fails to accurately reflect how the convention has operated to date by only requiring consent on UK law affecting devolved matters.
Michael Clancy, the Society's director of law reform, explained: “The Scotland Bill does not fully reflect how the Sewel convention has been understood and operated since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999. We believe it should include a requirement for the consent of the Scottish Parliament where UK legislation changes the competence of the Scottish Parliament or the competence of Scottish ministers.
“There are good constitutional reasons for incorporating all elements of the Sewel convention to safeguard the constitutional position of the devolved institutions. The Scottish Parliament’s Devolution (Further Powers) Committee has reported that this failure in the bill to incorporate all strands of the convention will only cause difficulty in the future.
“We hope that the UK Government will now adopt amendments which would fully implement the Smith Commission intention. There is still time left for the UK Government to take on board these concerns, and we urge the Government to change the bill at third reading in the House of Lords on Monday 21 March.”