Mind-melting questions

In the chamber

There has been a lot of complaint in the media that the general election is boring. Not in Scotland, it’s not. We could hardly feel more at the centre of things. The election focus that built up while members were out and about in their constituencies over the Easter recess continued as they returned to parliamentary business and I expect that we will only see more of it between now and 7 May. First Minister’s question time on Thursday saw fierce exchanges between the First Minister and Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson respectively. Kezia Dugdale majored on an SNP general election candidate’s twitter feed, and Ruth Davidson picked Lord McCluskey’s comments on corroboration. Shortly after Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister the media were bemoaning the lack of conflict at FMQs; while Thursday was very polite, it was hardly what could be described as consensual.

In committee

Easily the most fascinating committee meeting last week was the Finance Committee’s meeting on Scotland’s fiscal framework. It was an example of the extraordinary complexities that underlie further devolution. The convener began the meeting as follows:

I open by saying to Jim Cuthbert that his Holtham indexation relative population growth equation caused a lot of chat in the pub last night. A lot of the lads disputed some aspects of the equation and the findings. No doubt we will continue that discussion tonight while watching the football.

You will more readily understand the tone in which that comment should be read when you see the equation that the convener is referring to: Holtham2 For a more in-depth look, you can consult the committee’s papers for the meeting of 22 April 2015. I’m just glad that no-one read the equation out for inclusion in the Official Report! John McLaren, from Fiscal Affairs Scotland, who was the other witness on this subject, described the issues under discussion as

mind-melt questions.

Those among us whose maths stops short of that equation might agree. Jim Cuthbert, who is from the Jimmy Reid Foundation, pointed out that under the existing regime mistakes made in the Treasury had both advantaged and disadvantaged Scotland, but that getting to the bottom of those errors was difficult because of the lack of openness and transparency. He cautioned that,

We are now moving into a much more complicated system where we are still trying to make basic changes to link changes in the block grant to public expenditure in the rest of the UK or in England, while at the same time we want to discount parts of that public expenditure because it gets publicly funded in England by its own resources. Trying to work around that is horrendously complex, so if under the previous system we did not know what was happening to the tune of billions either way, in future the potential for argument and mistakes will be immense. It looks like an almost unworkable system; it is certainly one that is fraught with difficulty and dispute.

As well as agreeing on the complexity of what lies ahead, John McLaren and Jim Cuthbert agreed that the Smith commission was too hasty. John McLaren said:

It is clear that the Smith commission was done in haste, but it was also demanded in haste, so Smith was meeting his remit.

Jim Cuthbert’s view was:

The Smith process was done in far too much of a rush—it was seven weeks from beginning to end. It is just not possible to redesign a constitution in seven weeks. It is a botched job in some important respects, but in other important respects, it is a remarkable job. A group of politicians were brought together under an accountant: the result is, in many ways, a remarkable political document.

The last word went to John McLaren and is, as the convener said, a point well made:

As we have seen, the matter is complex. Despite the convener’s experience in the pub last night, the issue is not being debated, and it is certainly not understood outside. When the final solution comes, I do not know how much of a surprise it will be to the Scottish public. Some way to get across what is involved and to get feedback on whether that is what people want would be beneficial. I am not quite sure how that would be done. We have had the referendum and we have had Smith. Now we must give people something that they may not understand or want—or that they may want but not exactly in the form given. Increased interaction with the public would be good.

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