Queen unveils new devolution measures for Scotland and Wales

Plans for more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales were announced by the Queen today.

Presenting the Government’s legislative programme for what will be the final session of Parliament before the General election next year, the Queen made a number of announcements likely to be of significance to Scotland and Wales.

For Scotland, she announced:

“My Government will take forward proposals in the Final Report from the Commission on Scottish Devolution.”

On Tuesday, the Times reported that the Government will publish a White Paper designed to strengthen the powers of the Scottish Parliament, based on the recommendations of Sir Kenneth Calman in his report on the future of Devolution in Scotland.

The Commission, supported by all major parties, published its recommendations in June. They included:

• Recommendations that Holyrood should take responsibility for raising half of all income tax in Scotland. The UK Treasury would deduct 10p from the standard and upper rates of tax for all those living in Scotland, handing responsibility for that portion of taxation to the Scottish Government and Parliament. As a result, Scotland would then see a substantial cut to the £32 billion block grant it currently gets from London.

• Recommendations that Scotland should gain new powers, including in relation to national speed limits, drink driving laws, airgun control, stamp duty, landfill tax, passenger duty, run elections in Scotland and sea life nature conservation.

The Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, has made clear that the Government would seek to implement in full the Commission’s recommendations. Responding to the announcement, the SNP’s Leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson MP, concluded that “time is up for the Calman Commission”.

He said:

“Anything less than a full commitment to transfer powers to Scotland ahead of the general election will expose the Calman Commission as a deceit practised on the people of Scotland – and Jim Murphy as the man responsible for the ‘Calman con’.”

In July, the Times reported that if elected next year, a Cameron led Government would not begin the process of strengthening the powers of the Scottish Parliament until at least 2015.

The electorate in Scotland now seem to have a clear choice at the next election. An SNP committed to full independence, a Labour party committed to a strengthened Scottish Parliament and Government, and a Conservative party less than enthusiastic to see further powers devolved in the near future.

In her speech, the Queen also pledged that the Government would devolve more powers to Wales. Her announcement followed the publication by the UK’s former Ambassador to the UN, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, of his All Wales Convention report. Commissioned by both Labour and Plaid Cymru when they went into coalition in Cardiff Bay in 2007, Jones has concluded that a referendum should be held to provide the Welsh Assembly with full powers to pass primary legislation.

Under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006, the Welsh Assembly can only pass primary legislation by applying for a Legislative Competency Order and having it approved by the Welsh Secretary, Parliament and the Privy Council. Such a situation is, in Sir Emyr’s view, “cumbersome and slow”.

The convention noted, however, that selling such increased powers to the public in a referendum campaign would not be easy. The report commissioned a poll which found that 47 per cent of people would back greater powers for the Assembly in a vote, with 37 per cent against.

The proposals within the document received near-universal support from all political parties in Wales, with Plaid Cymru’s Deputy Leader in the Assembly, Helen Mary Jones, concluding that the report marked an “historic day for Wales”.

In the One Wales agreement drawn up when they entered into coalition, both Plaid Cymru and Labour committed themselves to staging a referendum on greater powers for the Assembly before the elections in 2011. The only potential roadblock is that of Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who has made clear his opposition to a referendum, stating that the Welsh Assembly Government already enjoys significant powers.

Given his openly sceptical stance, it begs the question as to whether Mr Hain is completely committed to further devolution to Wales as stated in the Queen’s speech today. Furthermore, given the enthusiasm with which Jim Murphy appears to be advocating substantially greater powers for Holyrood, why is such enthusiasm somewhat lacking in relation to Cardiff Bay in the heart of Whitehall?

One is clear is that a decade on, not only is devolution here to stay, but that future Governments in Westminster will have to become increasingly used to a less powerful Whitehall.

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