A Constitution Unit project has been examining options for an English Parliament. One factor that must be taken into account is implications for the UK’s central political institutions. Focusing on the separately elected model for an English Parliament, in this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell suggest that there would inevitably be substantial implications. Both the UK government and parliament would need restructuring, and there would be pressures to move towards more formal federalism.
Since autumn 2016 we have been working on a research project exploring options for an English Parliament. Various earlier posts have covered some of our findings, and our detailed report will be published very shortly. In this post we summarise some of our conclusions on implications for the UK’s central political institutions, including the UK government and parliament. We suggest that, in contrast to the relatively modest changes at the centre that resulted from devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, an English Parliament would require substantial institutional restructuring.
For the sake of simplicity we assume here that an English Parliament would mirror arrangements in the existing devolved areas – that is, a directly elected body to which an executive headed by a First Minister would be accountable. Our report will also consider the implications of the dual mandate model for an English Parliament, under which the English legislature would be composed of Westminster MPs for English seats. While some of the issues covered here do not apply to that model, our report discusses how it too would have major consequences for the centre.
A necessary starting point in considering implications of an English Parliament is the powers that would be retained at UK level. Policy powers and financial arrangements for an English Parliament were covered in a previous blog post; in summary, its policy powers would probably be similar to those of the devolved legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Given the design of UK devolution, with policy areas such as education and health almost entirely devolved, this means that the legislative competence of the UK parliament would reduce very substantially.
Nevertheless, the UK’s central institutions would continue to have important responsibilities. Areas such as foreign affairs, defence, international trade and national security would remain reserved. Immigration, most welfare benefits and many aspects of economic regulation could also be expected to remain central government competences, and the UK government would probably still have a role in setting frameworks for areas such as agriculture and fisheries. Despite a degree of fiscal devolution, the UK level would also be likely to remain responsible for many of the main forms of taxation. In practice, a key financial lever at the disposal of central government would be its responsibility for providing some of the funding for the devolved level, including to an English Parliament, as discussed in our previous blog.
We therefore reject the suggestion made by some English Parliament supporters that the UK government and parliament would be left with little to do. However, the UK’s central institutions would cease to have responsibility for a wide range of highly salient domestic issues, including health and education. This would unavoidably lead to changes to the structure of government, and almost certainly to parliament too.
The UK government
The UK government’s structure would continue to be determined by the Prime Minister, and therefore be subject to variation. But we can set out a plausible structure, based on existing departments, for illustration (see the Table).
Possible departmental structure and responsibilities of UK government following establishment of a separately elected English Parliament
|Treasury||Economic policy, budget setting and financial control|
|Foreign and Commonwealth Office||International relations|
|Home Office||National security, counter-terrorism, immigration, policing**|
|Defence||Armed forces, defence procurement, defence personnel|
|Work and Pensions||Non-devolved social security benefits, pensions|
|Justice**||Courts, prisons, criminal law|
|Infrastructure||External transport, energy, communications|
|International Trade||Trade and investment policy, free trade agreements|
|International Development||International aid programmes|
|Environment and Food*||Agriculture, environmental protection, fisheries|
|Intergovernmental Relations||Oversight of devolution|
|Cabinet Office||Co-ordination, miscellaneous policy responsibilities|
|Law Officers’ Department||Legal advice|
Notes: The lists of responsibilities in this table should not be taken as comprehensive.
* The exact role of this department would be affected substantially by the nature of post-Brexit arrangements in these areas (see chapter 6).
** Only if policy powers in these areas are reserved to the UK parliament.
The biggest differences from the current structure would be the absence of the Department for Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government – all of which currently have almost entirely England-only responsibilities. In addition, some departments that currently have a mix of UK and English responsibilities might be consolidated into a Department for Infrastructure. A key question would be what to do about the territorial departments, whose merger has long been called for. Creating an England Office would complicate arrangements, so it would be sensible to take the opportunity to create a Department for Intergovernmental Relations (although pressure to retain cabinet representation from each nation would no doubt persist). Overall, the kind of departmental structure illustrated would result in a cabinet of around 15 members rather than the current 23. The reduced responsibilities of some departments would lead to a more substantial reduction in the total number of ministers, perhaps to around 60 rather than the roughly 120 there are now.
The consequences for the UK civil service of creating an English Parliament would clearly also be major. The staff of some whole departments would need to transfer to the English government, while other departments would be slimmed down. These changes could create pressure to move to formally separate civil services for each of the four devolved territories and for UK central government (at present only Northern Ireland has a separate civil service).
The UK parliament
The UK parliament (including both the Commons and Lords) currently has more members than any comparable legislature. This would become far harder to justify if a significant portion of the UK parliament’s responsibilities transferred to an English Parliament, comprising a new layer of elected politicians. A reduction in the size of the House of Commons would therefore seem appropriate, and there would also be questions about the size, structure and continued existence of the second chamber.
Starting with the Commons, a guiding principle is that there should be sufficient backbenchers to serve on committees and that the institution would not become overly dominated by the government and opposition frontbench. This could be achieved by a body of between 300 and 350 members. With approximately 60 ministers in total, as indicated above, around 45 would sit in the Commons (assuming the UK parliament remained bicameral). With a similar number of frontbenchers from the official opposition, plus more from minor parties, the total number of frontbenchers would be around 110, leaving the majority of members available to perform backbench roles. A body of this size, combined with an English Parliament of 300 members (the number we have suggested elsewhere), would avoid an overall increase in the number of elected politicians.
With respect to the Lords, the chamber’s size is already controversial, and there would be pressure for it to reduce in size in line with the Commons. More fundamentally, ‘devolution all round’ would reignite debates about the merits of replacing the Lords with a territorially-based second chamber – which would be in line with common practice in decentralised systems. However, implementation would be challenging in the UK, given England’s dominance in terms of population size. Territorial chambers classically perform a role of protecting smaller units, which are often deliberately over-represented. But any over-representation of the smaller devolved areas would provoke controversy in England, particularly given that it could give parties such as the DUP and SNP what some would argue was ‘disproportionate’ influence in UK affairs. Lords reform on any model has long proved extremely difficult to achieve. A more radical alternative would be for the UK parliament to become unicameral, as has been suggested by some proponents of an English Parliament (see UKIP’s 2017 manifesto and proposals from Frank Field MP). But unicameralism would be at least as challenging to agree, and out of step with international norms in decentralised states.
A federal UK?
The biggest question is what effect establishment of an English Parliament would have on the UK’s overall territorial structure and stability. As already indicated, creating such a body with similar powers to those of the existing devolved legislatures would very substantially reduce the policy levers available to the UK government and parliament. At the same time, it would create a powerful English First Minister whose political profile could easily rival that of Scottish First Ministers, and even of the UK’s Prime Minister. The combination of England’s size and the pattern of the existing devolution settlement hence create significant challenges.
The new arrangements following the establishment of an English Parliament would almost certainly be referred to as ‘federal’ by some politicians and media commentators. In many respects the UK’s institutions would indeed strongly resemble those in federations. But it would be difficult for the UK to meet the strict academic definition of federalism in the absence of a codified UK constitution which ‘entrenched’ the rights and powers of the sub-state institutions. Calls for a codified constitution would almost certainly be made, but this kind of fundamental change would again be very difficult to agree, requiring a major national debate.
While devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales was possible with only minimal reforms to the UK’s central governing arrangements, establishing an English Parliament would require a radical overhaul. Agreeing changes of the type outlined in this blog post would be extremely challenging; but should a decision be made to create a separately elected English Parliament these issues would unavoidably need to be faced. Given their magnitude, such questions would demand a wide-ranging national debate about the UK’s constitutional and territorial future. This might be best facilitated through a ‘constitutional convention’ involving citizen participation.
Our detailed report on Options for an English Parliament will be published in early March.
About the authors
Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the University of Cambridge. He was previously a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project.
Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.