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Scottish Independence Debate / Lib Dems: more powers are ‘good news’ for isles

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael says the Smith Commission proposals are "built to last".

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has hailed legislation for further devolution of powers to Edinburgh as a “momentous day in delivering Home Rule for Scotland within a strong United Kingdom”.

 Following the cross-party Smith Commission’s work throughout the autumn, 44 draft clauses have now been proposed including handing power over income tax bands, some areas of welfare and employment programmes, borrowing and air passenger duty to Edinburgh.

Carmichael said the Scottish Parliament would now be responsible for raising 50 per cent of its spending. He feels it is “an agreement which was built to last” and honours the hotly disputed “vow” made by unionist parties prior to September’s independence referendum.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the settlement represented “some progress”, but left the UK Government holding a “veto over key devolved powers” including the ability to abolish the bedroom tax. The Scottish Government is left having to “work within the framework of austerity being imposed” from Westminster.

The package was a “significant watering down of what was promised” and required an “urgent rethink”, while Sturgeon said it also fell short in hampering Edinburgh’s efforts to tackle joblessness by “leaving important levers in the hands of UK ministers”.

Carmichael said there were several plus points for Shetland residents, most notably “double devolution” which should hand control over the Crown Estate’s rights to the seabed around the islands to the community.

He said Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who was part of the Smith Commission, had won that concession – and it was “no secret that the SNP didn’t want that to be part of the agreement, so we will need to be watching very closely”.

“We’ll have control over how we use the seabed, which brings with it a tremendous range of opportunities because I’m pretty sure the people of Shetland will be much more creative and forward-leaning in their use of the seabed,” Carmichael told Shetland News.

His reading of the proposals is that “if we’re managing the seabed [within Shetland] we should get the income from it”. It is not 100 per cent clear what mechanism will be used to administer the funds, but Carmichael expects it is most likely to be done by Shetland Islands Council.

“If we are to exploit that more effectively, it would be outrageous that the money would then be stolen by Edinburgh,” the MP, also Scotland’s Secretary of State, added.

Carmichael feels Shetland is in a stronger position following the creation of an islands desk within the Scotland Office. Council officials, including Peter Peterson, have been in both Edinburgh and London recently to gain a better understanding of how the UK Government operates.

He said the SNP response to Thursday’s announcement had been “disappointing, if not particularly surprising”, and questioned how Sturgeon could claim the extra powers would prevent her from doing away with the bedroom tax given “she has been boasting for the last eight months” about having done just that.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, pictured with MSP Mike Mackenzie in Shetland last summer, feels government attempts to tackle welfare problems and unemployment will remain hampered. Photo: Shetnews/Neil Riddell

“It just doesn’t add up,” he said. “Their claims of a veto are utter nonsense, and it just, I’m afraid, shows that within the SNP there’s still an appetite for generating grievance and continuing to fight the referendum campaign instead of telling people what they want to do with the powers of the third-most powerful devolved legislature in the world.”

Many working within charities and voluntary organisations in Shetland privately believe that greater control over benefits and welfare than those currently on offer are needed to tackle poverty north of the border.

Sturgeon protested that power to create new benefit entitlements had not been delivered, while “pending devolution of disability support, the roll-out of personal independence payments and the cut to spending on disability benefits will continue”.

Carmichael largely echoed Prime Minister David Cameron’s view that this represents the “end of the road” for devolution – though he did note that you “never say never in politics”.

He said: “If people want to spend more money on welfare, they have either the choice of raising taxes or putting more money into welfare from some other service. That’s exactly the sort of debate that we want to have.”

Responding to the announcement, Scott said new powers for Holyrood were good news but they “must be passed on to local government across Scotland and to local areas”.

“The Scottish Government must immediately pass the responsibility for policy and revenue raising [from the Crown Estate] to Shetland,” the MSP said. “That is a vow they have made and I fully intend to hold them to it.”

He added measures including the creation of a Scottish welfare system with a budget of over £2.5 billion and votes for 16 and 17 year olds were a “substantial package” and “good news for Shetland and Scotland”.

Scott called on the UK and Scottish governments to work together. “That is what Shetland’s fishing, agriculture and energy industries all need right now. It will be a big test of the Scottish Government. I hope they are positive and supportive of these really important changes.”

Sturgeon said the SP Government remained “committed to this process” and would continue working with the UK Government and others to ensure changes are made ahead of the bill going through Westminster.