Constitution Unit researchers have been working on a detailed project on Options for an English Parliament, whose final report has just been published. In this post, report authors Meg Russell and Jack Sheldon reflect on the key design questions associated with the two main models for an English Parliament, and how proposals for such a body relate to wider political questions about the UK’s territorial future.
The idea of an English Parliament has a long history, but has been particularly actively lobbied for over the 20 years since the creation of devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Originally an idea mostly taken up by politicians on the right, the proposal has recently begun attracting greater interest also from those on the political left. Supporters seek closer equity with the existing devolved areas, including more explicit representation of English interests, accountability for England-wide policy-making, the airing of English ‘voice’, and a forum where English identity can flourish. Yet some serious concerns have also been raised about the prospect of an English Parliament, most centrally fears that an elected body representing 85% of the UK population would become too dominant, stoking territorial tensions and destabilising the UK Union itself.
Starting with these aspirations and concerns, we have examined the available evidence from UK and overseas experience to explore the options for an English Parliament – on a Nuffield Foundation-funded project, which has just produced its final report. This sought neither to advocate for or against establishment of an English Parliament, but to tease out the kind of design decisions needed, and their likely implications. We identified that two primary models have been proposed for an English Parliament – which we call the separately elected and dual mandate models – and focus our analysis primarily on these. Proponents of both have set out relatively little detail about what in practice would be involved. But if an English Parliament is to be viable, some kind of blueprint is clearly required. We hope that our analysis will help to illuminate this debate, and provide useful insights for both supporters and sceptics of the idea of an English Parliament. Our conclusions relate not just to the institution itself, but to the knock-on effects it could have on UK-wide institutions and on UK territorial politics as a whole.
A key conclusion is that if the UK had planned from the outset to work towards ‘devolution all round’, with more symmetrical arrangements, reform in the 1990s would probably have developed rather differently. Famously, UK devolution took place in a haphazard and piecemeal way, rather than being driven by any kind of ‘grand plan’. The devolved areas represented only a small fraction of the overall UK population, meaning powers could be distributed without major knock-on effects for the UK’s central institutions. Crucially the settlement involved a high degree of separation between devolved and non-devolved competencies. In other decentralised states there are frequently extensive ‘concurrent’ or shared powers between the central and sub-state level, allowing the centre to retain significant control over key areas such as health and education. But in the UK central government wields many of these powers only with respect to England. Devolving them to an English Parliament would hence have a very substantial effect – meaning it is not just England’s population share that raises questions about the UK’s stability following establishment of an English Parliament.
The separately elected model
The most obvious model for an English Parliament is to create a new, elected institution separate from the UK parliament – as exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This arrangement would be transparent, and offer clear lines of accountability, distinct English representation and ‘voice’. It might also help facilitate development of distinct English political identity, and new modes of government (e.g. in terms of parliamentary procedures, government organisation and citizen engagement) distinct from those at Westminster.
Our report considers the likely powers to be devolved to an English Parliament, and the possible financial arrangements (also see this earlier post). We conclude that a separately elected body would probably need equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament; otherwise, the UK parliament would be left with a complex patchwork of powers. But avoiding such complexity would demand greater symmetry between the existing devolved bodies, so the UK parliament wasn’t left, for example, with vestigial powers on Wales-only matters. Hence establishment of an English Parliament could require changes to the settlements in other devolved areas. It would also require a new devolution funding formula, since the current Barnett formula (based on UK government spending for England) would become defunct. Negotiations over both of these matters would inevitably prove complex and contentious.
A separately elected English Parliament would be accompanied by a separate English government, likely headed by a First Minister. The English First Minister and government would be powerful and high-profile. Whitehall departments like Health and Education would effectively transfer wholesale, creating a large English civil service. It is the prospect of such bodies that makes some fear instability, caused by an over-dominant England.
While some proponents might like a new, separately elected English Parliament to occupy Westminster (with the UK parliament located elsewhere) this seems unlikely in practical and symbolic terms. It would be important to the UK’s stability that its parliament wasn’t seen to have been usurped. It is hence more sensible to plan for an English Parliament located outside London; but the choice of this location could be contentious.
While the other devolved legislatures are unicameral, the greater size and diversity of England could justify establishment of a bicameral body – but a unicameral English Parliament seems more likely, for pragmatic reasons. To provide sufficient members to serve on the front and backbenches this unicameral chamber might have around 300 members. Notably, unlike those who campaigned for establishment of the Scottish Parliament, proponents of an English Parliament have said very little on procedural matters such as legislative processes and committee systems, or potential to create a ‘new politics’. One thing that would significantly affect both culture and outcomes is the choice of electoral system for an English Parliament. Use of the Westminster ‘first past the post’ system seems very unlikely, while elections using a similar ‘additional member system’ to that used in Scotland and Wales would result in hung parliaments and regular coalition governments, which might be either Conservative- or Labour-led.
Some of the biggest questions about establishing a separately elected English Parliament relate to the knock-on effects for UK-wide institutions. The UK government would shrink, and there would likewise be pressures to shrink the UK House of Commons, alongside major questions about the future of the House of Lords. These are large – and potentially intractable – issues.
The dual mandate model
In contrast to the separately elected model, the dual mandate model, whereby English MPs sit for part of the time as the English Parliament, appears achievable more incrementally – which may make it seem more probable. Proponents present this as a natural next step from the current system of English votes for English laws (EVEL) at Westminster. Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh MPs would be excluded from England-only business, and distinct English accountability forums (such as public bill committees, select committees and question times) would develop. As an incrementalist solution, it is possible that this model could be achieved by gradual drift rather than deliberate policy design. But our analysis suggests that it could have serious unintended consequences.
The biggest questions facing the dual mandate model concern the role of government. Leading proponents argue that creation of a separate English government is unnecessary, and the UK executive could instead remain responsible both for UK and England-only matters. This would, of course, mean that the desire for English ‘voice’ would go partly unmet – including in intergovernmental negotiations, such as those currently ongoing over Brexit. Furthermore, a parliament without a government creates major questions about accountability. In fact, a dual mandate body would not be a ‘parliament’ in the traditional sense, as the confidence relationship would not exist. If English MPs lost confidence in the government they could not remove it from office.
On other matters, the dual mandate model appears to avoid some of the upheaval required by the separately elected model. But this couldn’t be wholly dodged. For example, while a dual mandate English Parliament would not strictly require division of Whitehall departments between England-only and UK-wide matters, doing otherwise would compromise parliamentary accountability. There are particularly big questions about the role of the Lords, given the impossibility of identifying distinctly English peers. One option would be to remove it from English Parliament business completely, but this would require new and more robust procedures than currently exist in the House of Commons – particularly regarding legislation.
Despite the seeming incrementalism of the dual mandate model it would – like its separately elected counterpart – create a large and powerful English body, albeit within the confines of Westminster itself. Despite lacking a First Minister, or separate building, the anomalies created might well stoke territorial tensions, and resentments in the existing devolved areas, equal to those created by a separately elected body.
Our analysis suggests that there are some very major obstacles to establishment of an English Parliament under either of the two models most commonly proposed. This raises the question of whether there are alternative solutions that could help to address the valid concerns raised by proponents of an English Parliament, for example in relation to the lack of a distinct ‘English’ voice during intergovernmental negotiations, or the criticism levelled at the current system of EVEL that there is no clear forum where a distinct English political culture can develop.
Some embryonic alternative proposals for different kinds of English Parliament do exist. For example, some have expressed interest in an indirectly elected body, building on structures of local and regional government. But the presence of such structures is currently extremely patchy. Coordination of different kinds, for example between the recently established ‘metro mayors’, could begin to speak for England, but only for certain parts of it and is in relatively informal ways. A more systematic process of regional devolution within England could enable more robust coordination – but is not currently on the political agenda. Forums such as these could deal with some grievances expressed by English Parliament campaigners, and concerns from opponents that an all-England body could feel almost as remote as does Westminster. But they feel at best like distant ideas.
So are there other means, short of an English Parliament, of dealing with the key grievances of proponents? Some possibilities have been floated in opinion polls, for example a Secretary of State for England. In addition some alternative suggestions – such as creation of an English grand committee – have been made for strengthening English ‘voice’ at Westminster. This could certainly not be described as a ‘parliament’, but could provide accountability – for example on how England’s interests are being considered in the Brexit negotiations.
Future prospects and implementation issues
At present, Brexit is soaking up all attention in British politics, with little opportunity to address much else. But the months and years ahead will see complex and potentially fraught territorial negotiations over the distribution of policy competencies currently held by the EU. The fact that Whitehall ministers must speak for both the UK and for England in such talks has potential to aggravate concerns on all sides – meaning the question of English representation, and greater equity, seems unlikely to go away.
Brexit has illustrated how a seemingly straightforward decision – to leave the EU – can lead to significant, and partly unforeseen, complexities. It demonstrates the wisdom of looking several steps ahead when taking big policy decisions. The decision over an English Parliament should be seen in a similar light. Sometimes presented as little more than a slogan by proponents, establishing such a body would have profound effects, across the whole of the UK. That isn’t a reason to reject it, but to think it through with care. In Robert Hazell’s words, England remains the ‘gaping hole in the devolution settlement’. But moving to a system of ‘devolution all round’ would require serious consideration of the territorial nature of the UK state, of a kind that has been largely dodged since devolution. While arrangements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1990s were constructed piecemeal, the same approach cannot – and should not – apply to creation of an English Parliament, which would fundamentally change the powers of the UK government and parliament, and demand far more robust intergovernmental arrangements. In order to cement a new settlement, many would argue for a move to formal federalism, with the powers of both levels of government carefully negotiated and enshrined, and perhaps also more shared powers between different levels.
Our report hence argues that the lingering concerns about lack of English representation and voice should be taken seriously, but must be considered within a broader context of the UK’s territorial future. Unlike the citizens of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, residents in England have had little opportunity to debate their governing structures. Some have suggested addressing this through a referendum on establishing an English Parliament. But referendums offer little opportunity to get to grips with the kinds of complexities discussed above. Any such exercise should be preceded by more detailed deliberation on the various options identified in our report.
In terms of next steps, there is a clear need to discuss the territorial options for a post-Brexit UK. Such discussions would be well suited to a deliberative citizens’ convention. The primary participants should be English representatives, but it might be embedded within, or subsequently spark, a broader exercise involving others throughout the UK. Its starting point would need to be the full range of options on the table – from an English Parliament on either model to local government reform, regionalism, or other forms of representation such as a Secretary of State for England and/or English grand committee. This would be a challenging venture, but questions as large and important as these deserve serious deliberation, and careful answers.
This post has been adapted from the Conclusion of the newly-published report Options for an English Parliament, which is available to download from the Constitution Unit website.
About the authors
Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.
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.