Options for an English Parliament: lessons from existing decentralised states

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Last year the Constitution Unit began work on a project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As part of this research we are examining arrangements in other decentralised states, particularly those which are federal, to draw out lessons for the design of political institutions were an English Parliament to be established. Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell summarise some early findings.

Last autumn we began work on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As outlined in a previous blog post, calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been dismissed by academics and mainstream politicians. However, in recent years the salience of questions concerning England’s constitutional status has increased and as a result the idea has gained new supporters. Despite this no detailed analysis of the design options for an English Parliament – including key questions such as its possible powers, structure and location – has previously been undertaken. We are aiming to close this gap and plan to publish a report in late 2017.

As part of our research we are examining constitutional arrangements in existing decentralised states, including those which are federal. In this blog post we present some early findings from a survey of arrangements in the 22 states that are listed as federations by the Forum of Federations. The establishment of an English Parliament would not necessarily imply a federal arrangement for the UK, but certainly something like it – with separate legislative institutions for the four historic nations. When drawing out comparative lessons, looking at existing federal states is therefore an obvious place to start.

What are federations and when are they established?

The term federalism covers a wide range of political systems in which legislative powers are divided between state and sub-state levels (see Dardanelli and Kincaid, 2016, for further discussion of the definition). Among the 22 federations listed by the Forum of Federations there are 11 parliamentary systems, nine presidential or semi-presidential systems and two that fall into none of these categories. Even within these categories there is great variation in institutional structures.

The classic early federations – the United States, Australia and Canada, for example – were comprised of existing autonomous political systems. ‘Coming together’ federations of this type remain more numerous than ‘holding together’ federations formed from previously unitary states (for discussion of this distinction see Stepan, 1999). However, the latter category has grown in the post-1945 period. Examples of ‘holding together’ federations include Belgium and India, whilst Spain – though not strictly a federation – has moved in an increasingly federal direction. Were it to move in the direction of a more federal structure the UK would not, therefore, be out of step with developments elsewhere.

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Brexit, federalism and Scottish independence

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As the UK withdraws from the EU, is this the opportune moment for a restructuring of the Union along (con)federal lines? On 13 February, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, Federalism, and Scottish Independence’, to explore this question further. The panel, chaired by Kenny Farquharson, consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Kezia Dugdale and Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Seema Syeda reports.

Opening the Constitution Unit’s seminar on ‘Brexit, federalism and Scottish Independence’ on 13 February, Kenny Farquharson declared that ‘Brexit is a painting that has not yet dried’. After the EU referendum result exposed a nation fractured along the lines of geography, age, wealth, and education the full consequences are yet to become apparent. The divisions now manifest in UK society are troubling enough to satisfy the worst of cynics – yet, in the greatest constitutional upheaval the UK has seen in decades, some have spied an opportunity.

Might the transfer of wide-ranging powers from Brussels, not only to Whitehall but also to the devolved administrations, provide an opportunity to revitalise our democracy through a newly federal UK? Important competencies relating to agriculture, fisheries and the environment will, unless the UK government legislates otherwise, return to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. Both the devolved and central governments will therefore see a dramatic increase in their powers. Brexit, as ‘wet paint on canvas’, in a continuation of Farquharson’s vividly imagined metaphor, might be an opportunity to restructure the relationship between the UK’s four constituent nations.

These possibilities were discussed by a panel which consisted of Professor Jim Gallagher, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale and former Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly member and Wales Office minister Baroness (Jenny) Randerson. Kenny Macaskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish government under Alex Salmond, was also due to attend but unfortunately could not make it due to unavoidable business in Scotland.

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English votes for English laws one year on: a critical evaluation

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On 28 November the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar in parliament to mark the publication of a major new report by Professor Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover evaluating the first year of the new English votes for English laws procedures in the House of Commons. Kenny and Gover summarised their findings before two respondents, Roger Gough and Oonagh Gay, offered their thoughts on the report and the EVEL system. Dominic Walsh reports.

In his speech in Downing Street following the Scottish independence referendum David Cameron drew attention to the ‘English question’. ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland’, the then Prime Minister said, ‘and now the millions of voices of England must be heard’. With this in mind a set of procedural changes to the workings of the House of Commons, known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ or EVEL, were proposed by the Conservatives at the last general election. These were implemented through changes to standing orders in October 2015.

There was great fanfare about the introduction of EVEL at the time. Over a year on, however, it appears to have faded almost entirely from the public view. How has the procedure worked in practice during its first 12 months? Has it been a success so far, or have criticisms of it been vindicated? These questions are addressed in a new report published jointly by the Centre on Constitutional Change, the Mile End Institute and the Constitution Unit, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. This was launched at a Constitution Unit seminar held at Westminster on 28 November. What follows is a summary of the event; the authors, Daniel Gover and Professor Michael Kenny have written a separate blog post outlining their report in more detail.

Overview of the report

Michael Kenny introduced the event by outlining the aims of the project. These were to evaluate EVEL’s first year of operation, to examine whether the evidence bears out the criticisms made of EVEL, and to explore options to make EVEL more legitimate and transparent. He also gave some background by summarising recent historical trends which gave rise to the adoption of EVEL as policy by the Conservatives.

By and large, Kenny argued, EVEL has worked as intended thus far. However, major issues of legitimacy remain. The partisan division in the Commons vote introducing the measure was stark: every single MP who voted in favour was a Conservative, and all who voted against belonged to an opposition party. This may raise concerns that EVEL will not survive a change of government – particularly as the procedure was introduced through changes to standing orders rather than legislation, meaning that it could be repealed or suspended through a single vote. Kenny also added the caveat that the current Conservative government has a larger majority in England than in the UK as a whole and so the system has not yet been ‘stress-tested’ in circumstances where different English and UK majorities on pieces of legislation are likely.

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What might an English Parliament look like? The Constitution Unit is consulting on the design options

Jack_SheldonMeg-RussellThe Constitution Unit has recently begun work on a new project examining the design options for an English Parliament. This was once seen as an unrealistic proposal but support has grown in recent years and it therefore now deserves to be taken more seriously. Nonetheless many major questions about what an English Parliament might actually look like remain unaddressed. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell set these questions out and invite views on them through a consultation that is now open and will close on 27 January 2017.

Calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been rejected by academics and mainstream politicians. Although a Campaign for an English Parliament was set up in 1998, as the devolved institutions were being established for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the idea did not get off the ground. A central argument has been that such a parliament, thanks to representing almost 85 per cent of the UK’s population, would, in the words of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, result in a Union ‘so unbalanced as to be unworkable’ (para 531). As critics such as Vernon Bogdanor (p. 13) have pointed out, no major existing federation has a component part this dominant, and unbalanced federal systems (e.g. the former USSR and Yugoslavia), have tended to fail. Elites have thus often proposed devolution within England, rather than to England as a whole, as the preferred solution to the ‘English question’, and considered an English Parliament an unrealistic proposal. As the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell wrote in 2006, ‘An English Parliament is not seriously on the political agenda, and will never get onto the agenda unless serious politicians begin to espouse it’.

Growing salience of the English question

But various factors have increased the salience of questions around England’s place in the devolution settlement, and the idea of an English Parliament has gained new friends as a result. One factor is the gradually greater powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly beyond those bestowed in the 1990s – including legislative powers in an increasing number of fields and significant tax-raising powers. This means that a growing amount of business at Westminster concerns England (or sometimes England and Wales) alone. In turn, this brings the famous ‘West Lothian question’, concerning the voting rights of MPs elected from the devolved nations, more to the fore. The Conservative government consequently introduced a form of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) in 2015, through changes to House of Commons standing orders. But the new arrangements have been rejected by opposition parties, so might not survive a change of government. Furthermore, the version of EVEL that has been introduced does not actually prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from vetoing English-only legislation. It is therefore far from clear that this will prove to be a satisfactory long-term solution.

Another contributing factor is growing interest in the future of the Union pre- and post- the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Various unionist politicians, pundits and other political observers have considered how Scottish demands for greater autonomy may be satisfied within the UK, and federalism is being increasingly discussed. The EU referendum result has led some such as Professor Jim Gallagher (Director-General, Devolution Strategy at the Cabinet Office from 2007–10) to suggest that the devolved nations, whilst remaining within the UK, might each pursue different relationships with the EU post-Brexit. Heavyweight political support for something similar has come from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. The threat of a second Scottish independence referendum, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and repeated since, means the government needs to take such proposals seriously. This would clearly require the consequences for England to be addressed.

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EVEL is unlikely to offer a sustainable solution to the West Lothian question

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Last month the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report on English votes for English laws in which significant doubts were raised about whether the new standing orders are a sustainable solution to the West Lothian question. The committee’s chair, Bernard Jenkin, outlines his committee’s findings and argues that the government should adopt a comprehensive strategy for the future of relationships between Westminster and the UK’s component parts.

At the outset of this parliament it was clear that the newly formed Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC), given its renewed remit in constitutional affairs, would have to look at English votes for English laws (EVEL).

The issue of Scottish MPs influence in Westminster was controversially amplified during the 2015 general election campaign, when the Conservatives focused voters’ minds on the possibility of SNP MPs holding the balance of power. During our evidence sessions, we were told of increasing dissatisfaction with the constitutional status quo in England and the anomaly whereby Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on matters affecting voters on England yet are unable to vote on these subjects as they affect their own constituents thanks to devolution.

Evidence suggests that of all the potential remedies to the ‘English question’ that have arisen from devolution, the principle of English votes for English laws commands consistent and substantial popular support, both north and south of the border. However, PACAC’s report ultimately concludes that while this may be true, we have significant doubts that the current standing orders are the right answer to the so-called West Lothian question, or that they represent a sustainable solution. They may be unlikely to survive the election of a government that cannot command a double majority of both English and UK MPs.

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Sunday trading and the limits of EVEL

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Yesterday MPs defeated the government by 317 votes to 286 on its proposals to relax Sunday trading rules. But although the policy would have applied only in England and Wales, the votes of Scottish MPs proved decisive. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny discuss the territorial dimensions to this episode, and why the recent ‘English Votes for English Laws’ reform did not help the government to pass its legislation.

Yesterday’s decision by MPs to reject government proposals in the Enterprise Bill to devolve Sunday trading rules to local authorities was a rare example of a government defeat on the floor of the Commons. But what makes yesterday’s vote contentious and important is that it brought to the fore a territorial angle to British politics that has already risen in prominence since 2014’s Scottish independence referendum. Earlier this week the Scottish National Party announced that its MPs would vote against the Sunday trading provisions – even though the policy would only have applied in England and Wales (while responsibility for comparable legislation in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Parliament). In yesterday’s division, MPs voted by 317 to 286 to delete the provisions from the bill. Had Scotland’s 59 MPs not participated in the division, the government would have won by 21 votes.

The Sunday trading vote highlights an anomaly in Westminster representation post-devolution that many assume the current government has resolved. In the 1970s, Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian (and a staunch opponent of devolution), posed his now-famous ‘West Lothian Question’: why should Scottish MPs continue to vote on matters affecting only England, when English MPs cannot participate in comparable decisions affecting Scotland? Following the 2015 general election, Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, announced that the government was now ‘answering the West Lothian question’ through a package of reforms known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL). He explained to the Commons that the change would give English (and English and Welsh) MPs ‘a decisive say on matters that affect only their constituencies’.

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A constitutional convention for the UK? What we can learn from two pilot citizens’ assemblies

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In October and November 2015, Democracy Matters conducted an experiment in deliberative democracy by convening two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. On 10 February, Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, presented preliminary research findings from the project at the Constitution Unit. Adem Ruggiero-Cakir and Johnny Runge report.  

The idea of holding a constitutional convention in the UK has gained prominence since the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, and the dominant proposal for the design of such a convention has been some kind of ‘citizens’ assembly’. Citizens’ assemblies have been used in other countries, but the UK had not experienced one. That has changed with the convening of two pilot citizens’ assemblies in a project conducted by Democracy Matters and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Two models of citizens’ assemblies were tested: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, was a ‘pure’ citizen assembly (drawing on the Canadian model) comprising 32 members of the public; Assembly South, based in Southampton, was a ‘mixed’ assembly (drawing on the Irish model) comprising 23 ordinary citizens and six local councillors. Both assemblies met over two weekends to explore questions concerning devolution of powers to their local areas. The project had two main aims: 1/ to assess whether citizens’ assemblies can strengthen democracy in the UK, and build knowledge on how best to structure and organise such assemblies, and 2/ to investigate what members of the public think about devolution when given the opportunity to learn about and debate the issues in depth.

Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, both members of the Democracy Matters team, presented their preliminary findings on 10 February. In assessing assemblies’ impact on democracy the speakers evaluated four areas: the representativeness of assembly members, the quality of discussions among assembly members, the impact of the experience of taking part on assembly members, and the impact on the wider political process. There was then a briefer discussion about what the assemblies revealed about public opinion on devolution.

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