Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. Two of the most fundamental questions concern what policy powers such a body would have and financial arrangements. Jack Sheldon suggests that an English Parliament would be likely to have policy and fiscal powers resembling those of the Scottish Parliament, and that a new funding formula would be required to cover the costs of devolved services. These developments would have major implications not only for England but also for the other parts of the UK.
Since last autumn Professor Meg Russell and I have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually work in practice? Two of the most fundamental questions, which have major implications for other aspects of institutional design, concern what policy powers an English Parliament would have and what kind of financial arrangements would be possible. This blog post focuses on these questions.
What English Parliament supporters have said
English Parliament supporters emphasise restoring equality among the UK’s nations, in light of what they see as the unfairness of present devolution arrangements. It is thus unsurprising that they have often set the powers of the Scottish Parliament as a benchmark. The Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) state prominently on their website that they campaign for an institution ‘with powers at least as great as those of Scotland’. This demand has been echoed by MPs who are in favour, including David Davis, Frank Field and John Redwood. In the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum Redwood wrote that ‘As we seek to put into legislation what Gordon Brown called Home Rule for Scotland we must do the same for England’.
To the extent that they have addressed finance, advocates of an English Parliament have focused on criticism of the Barnett Formula, which provides more generous per capita government spending in Scotland than in England. Eddie Bone of the CEP has linked the continued use of the formula to ‘closures of A&E departments and council services across England’. Frank Field has likewise been highly critical of the formula, saying that ‘it is totally unacceptable that the poor in [his] constituency should be less well supported than the poor in Scottish constituencies’. Proponents have said less about what sort of financial arrangements they envisage following an English Parliament’s establishment.
The existing responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly are clearly the most logical starting point when considering possible powers for an English Parliament.
The most obvious powers that such a body would be likely to gain are those held by all three existing devolved legislatures. Currently these are exercised for England by the UK parliament, subject to ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This category includes health and education, as well as many other areas of domestic policy (see the left-hand column of Table 1 for a fuller list).
More complex issues are raised by the possible transfer of powers relating to policy areas currently devolved to some of the UK’s devolved legislatures but not others. The most important policy areas in this category are devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland but not Wales.
Devolution of policing and justice poses particular challenges. The combined England and Wales legal jurisdiction has been a barrier to devolution of these areas to Wales, and would also be an important factor when considering devolution to England. Because these matters are devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, achieving parity would require the jurisdiction to be split, something a report published by the Wales Governance Centre and the Constitution Unit in 2015 indicated would be a ‘major political decision’ with ‘cost implications’. An alternative may be to instead establish ‘distinct’ but not separate jurisdictions, as is the policy of the Welsh government. Under this model the shared jurisdiction would be divided between the courts and laws of England and of Wales, but the judiciary and administration of justice would remain shared (see discussion here). This would allow for a degree of devolution in these areas, but some aspects of the justice system would continue to be ‘England-and-Wales-only’ responsibilities of the UK parliament.
Another area in which powers have been devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland but not to Wales is welfare. In Northern Ireland the welfare system has been fully devolved from the outset of devolution (in practice subject to the ‘parity convention’). In Scotland devolution of welfare powers is more recent and more limited, but significant powers were devolved in 2016. These powers have not been extended to Wales, and indeed devolution in this area was explicitly rejected by the Silk Commission which reported in 2014 on further powers for Wales. However, it seems inconceivable that the UK government could continue to be responsible for aspects of the welfare system in Wales if they were devolved to England as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland. Hence making an English Parliament’s powers in this area mirror those of the Scottish Parliament would make changes to the powers of the Welsh Assembly inevitable. Northern Ireland’s arrangements would also have to change as the ‘parity convention’ could not continue to operate as it currently does.
Further uncertainty about the possible powers of an English Parliament results from Brexit. Powers in areas such as agriculture, the environment and fisheries are currently devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, they are exercised subject to EU law and in practice the devolved institutions have only a limited responsibility for implementation, acting within EU frameworks. There is not yet any agreement between the UK and devolved governments on what arrangements should replace this (see previous blog posts here and here). Whatever system is finally arrived at, it is highly likely that were an English Parliament to be established it would have the same policy powers in these areas as the other devolved legislatures.
Table 1 lists likely devolved and reserved powers, and powers that might or might not be devolved to an English Parliament depending on how the issues mentioned above were resolved. Even if only those powers in the left-hand column were devolved this would make an English Parliament extremely powerful from the outset. In practice it is likely that the pressure to achieve symmetry with Scotland would result in many powers in the middle column also being devolved. This would have significant implications for Wales and Northern Ireland. Having such a powerful body representing 85% of the UK’s population would also lead to concerns about the stability of the Union, of the type frequently expressed in relation to the possibility of an English Parliament in the past (e.g. by Gordon Brown and Vernon Bogdanor).
Table 1: Possible policy powers of English Parliament and UK parliament
It follows from the demand for symmetry with Scotland that an English Parliament would be likely to have similar fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament. This is something that has been specifically demanded by proponents such as John Redwood. However, this would again have major implications for Wales and Northern Ireland, neither of which currently has fiscal powers equivalent to Scotland’s (see Table 2). The same powers would likely be devolved to them in parallel with devolution to an English Parliament as it is hard to imagine the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer setting taxes for Wales and Northern Ireland only.
Table 2: Fiscal powers of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly
Even if an English Parliament had significant tax-raising powers some form of transfer from central government would be required to cover the costs of devolved services. The Barnett Formula could not be the mechanism for this, as it is based on the UK government’s spending on England-only functions, which would no longer exist. A new formula would therefore need to be decided on, which would apply across the UK. A big question would be how much of a redistributive element should be built into this formula, providing for transfers from the UK’s wealthier nations to its poorer nations. Such ‘horizontal transfers’ are common in federal and highly decentralised systems overseas, but the type of criticisms frequently levelled at Barnett (including by English Parliament proponents) suggest explicit redistribution between the nations would be controversial. To avoid such criticisms, it would seem essential that the new formula should be based on a robust measure of ‘need’, so that each government had the resources available to provide a similar level of service. This kind of change has frequently been recommended by proponents of reform to the existing devolution finance arrangements (see McLean, Lodge and Schmuecker 2008, Select Committee on the Barnett Formula 2009, Trench 2013). But it would not be straightforward to achieve, which partly explains why Barnett continues to be used despite having been criticised for years.
A key conclusion from this discussion is that the establishment of an English Parliament would have major implications not only for England but also for the other parts of the UK. In particular, it would be likely to result in Wales gaining additional powers (including some that have previously been rejected) and an overhaul of financial arrangements, with the challenging question of replacing the Barnett Formula needing to be faced. These issues have not so far received much attention from either critics or proponents of the English Parliament idea, but they ought to be taken seriously. They could ultimately prove to be major obstacles on the road to creating such a body.
About the author
Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project. He is also the editor of the Constitution Unit blog.