The commission on the West Lothian question looms, sort-of

Thursday’s UK Government announcement about the long-proposed ‘commission on the West Lothian question’ is more of a non-announcement.  The Commission was of course promised in the Coalition agreement of May 2010, but precious little has been heard about it since then.  The use of a commission suggested an attempt to kick the issue into touch more than anything, as it’s not a pressing issue once the Conservatives are in office and it’s a bone of contention between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.  In this, it has clear resemblances to the commission on the UK bill of rights, finally established in March and which produced a rather sketchy issues paper in July.  Mark Harper’s brief statement is available here.  There news reports from the BBC here and the Scotsman here (though they don’t add much to the statement).

Clearly the pressure of Harriet Baldwin’s bill on territorial extent clauses, and the need to throw some red meat to the Conservative back benches, has led to an announcement that … there will be an announcement in due course. A remit will be set out in October.  It’s not clear whether members will be announced then, or later.   This sequence of announcements that don’t have anything new in them is all rather reminiscent of the ongoing process surrounding the ‘Ap Calman’ commission in Wales, of course.

The most interesting point is that the Commission is to be composed of independent academic experts.  Some (notably Robert Hazell) have suggested this would be a task best discharged by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, including senior parliamentarians from both Houses (and presumably all parties).  That would have called for very careful management to avoid party differences leading it to a stalemate.  Instead, the choice has been made to try to depoliticise it (though there is to be consultation with the Speaker and input from the parties.   However, as the issue is of its nature highly political, it looks as though the key decisions will fall to be resolved by politicians after the Commission has reported.

(This post also appears on Alan Trench’s blog, Devolution Matters, which can be found here.)

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