Devolution is harming Scotland- The Sunday Times

Jason Allardyce, Sunday Times, 19 April 2009

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According to Geoff Mawdsley, director of the think-tank Reform Scotland, the very people devolution was intended to help in education and health are those who have suffered most. Mawdsley claims more children from deprived backgrounds, no less intelligent than wealthier counterparts, could have achieved their potential if MSPs had been prepared to embrace approaches that extended choice. OECD research shows competition between schools improves attainment.
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\r\nHe also claims the difficulties of the NHS in Scotland are largely caused by its highly centralised monopoly status. He cites Denmark, a country with similar cultural problems to Scotland due to high levels of smoking and drinking, too much fatty food and too little exercise. Maintaining state funding but devolving the operation of healthcare from central control to local councils has led to a service more responsive to local needs.
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\r\n“The debate doesn’t have to be about privatising everything. The polarisation of debate that we always get is unhelpful,” says Mawdsley.
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\r\nThose involved in the devolution process insist there have been successes, such as in the area of justice.
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\r\nRadical public health measures like banning smoking in public places has the potential to finally help curb Scotland’s chronic cancer rates while freezing the council tax has left families better off.
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\r\n“Devolution was intended to enable decisions to be made in Scotland which could be different from England so one shouldn’t be surprised if there are differences,” said Lord Foulkes, the Labour peer and MSP.
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\r\n“But I do think, particularly in the last two years [under the SNP]but also to some extent previously, John [McLaren]’s conclusion that a lot of the decisions have tended to be populist rather than evidence-based is probably a reasonable conclusion.”
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\r\nFoulkes says the decision by Henry McLeish’s Lib/Lab administration to introduce free care for the elderly was a good example and it is “ironic” if the life expectancy gap between Scotland and England has grown in spite of what amounts to “subsidising private nursing homes”.
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\r\nThe MSP says the “jury is out” on whether it was a mistake for Scottish ministers not to pursue the health and education reforms attempted by Blair but there is one Westminster approach he would like Holyrood to take to help politicians make tougher decisions.

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The Scottish parliament’s proportional representation voting system, he believes, has been central to some of the flawed populist policies of recent years because no single party holds the balance of power. Moving to first-past-the-post, he argues, would let ministers take the right decisions, even if they are unpopular.
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\r\nMawdsley and Fraser believe a bigger problem is the lack of incentive for MSPs to spend money wisely while their £33 billion budget comes wholly from Westminster. For as long as Holyrood has fewer financial powers than local authorities, Fraser says, it will continue to lead to wasteful policies.
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\r\n“Politicians who only have the power to spend money without having to worry about where it comes from are never going to be as responsible as those who also have to keep an eye on the income side of the ledger,” he warns.
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\r\nThe SNP argues that full independence remains the answers, despite the current financial travails of some other small nations like Ireland.
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\r\n“This report shows that devolution cannot realise Scotland’s full potential, which is why we need to move towards independence,” said Alex Neil, a nationalist minister.
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\r\n“Clearly, it places Scotland at an unfair disadvantage which we can overcome if have the powers over own economy and our own purse strings.”
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\r\nA measure of financial autonomy, at least, is an idea whose time appears to have come, with all of Scotland’s parties now in support. The Calman commission, charged with reviewing the powers of the parliament, is expected to propose a model that would enable Holyrood to keep at least a proportion of taxes raised in Scotland. The next Westminster government, of whatever hue, will be expected to legislate to make it happen.
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\r\nTen years on, while MSPs and civic Scotland prepare for a celebration of self-praise and backslapping, Lee McMullan can’t help feeling bitter.
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\r\n“I think it’s good for Scotland to have its own parliament, it means Scots can say their capital is Edinburgh, not London, and feel less dependent on England. “But it didn’t make a difference for my education. I don’t know what happened to all this money thrown at the system. The only difference I noticed was that maybe my teachers’ cars got a bit nicer after devolution.”
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