The Scotland Bill is currently in committee stage in the House of Lords. Coming in the wake of last year’s referendum, the Bill is intended to provide Scotland with a robust set of devolved powers within the United Kingdom. To this end it includes greater fiscal powers, including borrowing and income tax variation, as well as greater discretion over spending.
These powers are welcome, and highlight the historic opportunity for reform which the Scotland Bill represents. It is important that we recognise the rarity of this opportunity, and be as bold as possible with the reforms we propose.
The area I think is in critical need of addressing is Holyrood itself. As it stands, Scotland’s unicameral constitutional set up is inadequate.
Having only a single chamber drastically reduces the checks and balances needed in a mature democracy. It makes the likelihood of flawed legislation being passed much greater, because it does not provide a restraint on a majority government.
The importance of this restraint has been illustrated clearly during the past weeks in Westminster over the issue of tax credits, where the House of Lords challenged the government’s planned cuts. This was bad legislation, forced through the Commons by a Tory majority, and the Lords fulfilled their constitutional duty by forcing the Chancellor to reconsider and eventually scrap his plans.
It is this sort of check which Scotland badly needs, or else it is vulnerable to similar legislation.
That is why I am tabling an amendment to the Scotland Bill which will provide for the creation of an upper chamber at Holyrood, a Scottish Senate. This Senate will be empowered to function much as the House of Lords does in Westminster:
- to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny;
- to consider and propose amendments to legislation agreed by the Scottish Parliament for future consideration by the Scottish Parliament before it is able to receive Royal Assent;
- to debate and make resolutions on devolved matters;
- to set up committees with the power to call or require Scottish Ministers to give evidence on any devolved matter.
Crucially though, a Scottish Senate will be elected. The House of Lords does great work, but its present system of selecting peers is undemocratic and anachronistic.
A Scottish Senate, comprising of 46 Senators elected from across the regions of Scotland, will provide a democratic, legitimate and effective guarantor of good government in Scotland.
For some time now, Holyrood has suffered from an increasing lack of accountability, stemming from a lack of checks and balances built into the system, and made worse by one-party rule. The Scotland Bill represents an opportunity to insert sensible structures which will guarantee Scots a legislature which not only represents them, but also protects them from misgovernment.