UK

Tom Gordon: The latest plan to help the Union sums up its tin ear

THERE was a good adjournment debate in the Commons on Tuesday from Kenny MacAskill.

The Alba MP and former SNP justice secretary made a vigorous case for decluttering the Lord Advocate.

It was a troubling anachronism that the holder of the office, be they ever so saintly, faced conflicts of interest by being both chief legal adviser to the Scottish Government and the head of the prosecution service, he said.

As the Lord Advocate’s remit is protected under the 1998 Scotland Act, he asked the UK Government to step in and amend it, and so help create a separate head of public prosecutions, as in England and Wales.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC suggested a simple solution – give Holyrood the power to split the Lord Advocate’s dual roles as it sees fit.

Not so fast, said Scotland Office minister David Duguid. While the UK Government could in theory do that, “in practice we would want to ensure the Scottish Government have put their proposals to the Scottish Parliament for scrutiny”.

Only then, and presumably depending on whether the UK Government approved, would it consider the next steps “as custodian of the devolution settlement”.

Anyone reading today’s report from the Institute for Government (IfG) will have a hollow laugh at that description and the demand for details up front.

For yet again, a respected voice is warning that, far from guarding devolution, the UK Government is disregarding and devaluing it. And yet again, Brexit is at the heart of it.

When the UK was a member of the EU it received substantial transfers from Brussels in the form of ‘structural funds’ to support investment and jobs in its more deprived areas.

The allocation from 2014 to 2020 was just under £10billion, with Scotland getting around £100m a year.

The money was divvied up on the basis of local incomes, employment and population density, with England getting the least per head, then Scotland, then Northern Ireland, with Brexit-voting Wales the most by far.

Now that’s gone, the Government is offering its own replacement – the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF).

It was supposed to do much the same as the EU funds, but over time (and the Government has been talking about it for four years) its objectives have been changed to fit the “levelling up” and “assertive unionism” agenda of Boris Johnson, the IFG concludes.

Before Brexit, the UK Government said it was “appropriate for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to take responsibility” for spending their particular slice of the EU funds, showing that it was “committed to devolving powers” where appropriate.

The UKSPF flies in the face of that.

Instead of leaving Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh to administer the money, as before, it will be centrally run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, bypassing the devolved governments.

One goal is to speed up and simplify a slow and bureaucratic system, but there is also an overt political angle – to “bind together the whole of the United Kingdom” by handing cash straight to councils and businesses, in the hope voters are awed by Union largesse.

“Ministers will operate the UKSPF through a single UK-wide framework, using new powers under the UK Internal Market Act 2020 to disburse money directly to local partners across the UK.

“This means the devolved governments are expected to play a marginal role in allocation decisions within their own territories, even though the fund will spend money on matters that lie primarily within the responsibility of the devolved governments, such as transport, skills and economic development,” the IfG says.

Although how generous this pork-from-above will be remains to be seen.

Initially, the Tories said the UKSPF would “at a minimum” match the structural funds in each of the four nations. But last year this was changed to the “total UK-wide funding” being the same, meaning the pot could be divided very differently, with the suspicion that a far larger share will go to England and Tory red wall seats.

The IfG warns the UKSPF could therefore backfire, undermining devolution and fostering resentment.

It could also lead to duplicated effort, fragmentation of services, funding uncertainty, and blunder into Northern Ireland politics, where the EU scheme was finely tuned to “secure vital cross-community support”.

Rather than act as a showcase for the Union, the UKSPF seems likelier to be a symbol of tin-eared insensitivity.

As if to guarantee this, the ministry in charge is one of the most clueless about devolution. Spending 99.6 per cent of its budget in England, it has “operated almost entirely as an English rather than a UK department [and] has little experience of working within the devolved territories or knowledge of the distinct policy context in which the UKSPF will operate outside of England”.

The UK Government knows all this.

In 2018, it said the UKSPF would “of course respect the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. Last year, it merely said it would not “drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement”, not exactly setting a high bar.

Overall, and with just a few weeks until the UK Government is due to publish a full investment framework for it, the IfG found “basic questions regarding the UKSPF remain unanswered”, including the size of the fund, the national allocations, the allocation criteria and its governance.

“The lack of consultation and information sharing makes it hard for devolved administrations to budget effectively and will make it more difficult to ensure that the UKSPF and devolved schemes to support skills and economic development complement rather than compete with each other.

“To date, UK ministers have not discussed these points much with devolved administrations, even though the UK government’s plans represent a major change when compared to how structural funds were administered.”

So not just the sort of power grab that’s grist to the SNP mill, but a power and cash grab under cover of fog.

Also on Tuesday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove talked to the Lords about independence. “Should there be a referendum in the future, it is important that we learn lessons from the 2014 referendum,” he said.

Based on the UKSPF, the lesson his Government appears determined to learn is how to lose next time.



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