The recently announced McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question has the potential to be a significant factor in the constitutional and political development of the UK. Whether it makes things better or worse will depend a lot on how it goes about its work. The initial omens are not good.
The Commission derives from the May 2010 Coalition Government agreement to “establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’”, itself derived from a similar pledge in the Conservative manifesto, and a more general one in the Liberal Democrat manifesto about the place of England in any new constitutional arrangement. The Government’s thinking, as it developed, was set out in Parliament by Ministers, culminating in the announcement on 17 January.
I and others have already commented on the narrowness of the Commission’s remit, and its prospects for ‘success’, however that is measured. These are important issues, because, for example, if its report is seen to be timid because of its inherent restrictions, it could inflame rather than quell the claimed resentments inEnglandabout the current situation. Not to mention the possibility of it being largely overtaken by any move towards Scottish independence….
The recent announcement said that the Commission will begin its work this month, and it is understand that the members will meet for the first time over the next few weeks. As far as I can see, no further details have been released. So, perhaps there is still time for a few suggestions on its structure and operation:
Sponsorship: The Commission is described by Ministers as “independent” and “non-partisan”. Be that as it may, it is wholly a Government exercise, supported by Cabinet Office staff – albeit with, according to Ministers, some initial consultation with House authorities. Sadly, but wholly true to form, the idea that such a Commission, solely examining Commons procedure and practice, should actually emanate from Parliament rather than Government is, almost literally, unthinkable to the Westminster/Whitehall political and media classes. It is probably too late for such a fundamental change, but, at the very least, the sponsorship of the Commission should be shared equally by the House and the Cabinet Office, including resourcing and staffing support (the Cabinet Office probably still has a senior Commons Clerk on secondment to liaise on parliamentary issues). The Commission should report to both the Speaker and the Deputy Prime Minister. Its contact details, including website, should reflect its independent status, and not be seen as a Government outpost.
Public Engagement: The Commission should operate at least as openly and inclusively as we now expect from such an independent, expert public sector inquiry. Westminster, following the lead of Holyrood and the other devolveds, is becoming more ‘publicly engaged’, so any reform inquiry should, at worst, match the openness of a Westminster select committee – a fairly undemanding standard. The ministerial announcements make no mention of this, so the implication is that it is to be an exclusive, private inquiry, engaging solely with “experts” (as last month’s announcement put it). What is needed includes an accessible website containing all relevant information and scope for interactivity; the early publication of a consultation paper or ‘issues & questions’ paper on which to invite evidence and comments from the public; public sessions (ideally all around the UK), and interim reports describing the Commission’s thinking. There may well be scope for ‘private seminars’ and similar standard inquiry devices where discussion can be free and frank, but these should complement, not replace, public evidence-gathering and operation.
Parliamentary engagement: There needs to be formal engagement, in an open and transparent manner, with the House of Commons at all levels. Quiet words with selected officials, committee chairs, whips and the like through the ‘usual channels’ may still be seen as acceptable parliamentary practice at Westminster even today, but it is not good enough for such an important inquiry. Even the narrow remit of the Committee engages the interests of the House authorities, its various committees, party groups, individual Members and others. Similar engagement should take place with the UK Government, and the devolved parliaments/assemblies and administrations, which all have genuine interests in the Commission’s work. The thorny issue of the Sewel Convention – a relevant parallel to the West Lothian Question, from a legislative procedural perspective – was eventually dealt with reasonably clearly some years ago, when parliamentary committees north and south of the border finally cooperated openly to tackle it.
Whether the Coalition Government’s aim in setting up this Commission is to ‘solve’ the West Lothian Question or to kill it off as a running sore, the more legitimate the Commission is seen to be by the public and politicians alike, in terms of its structure and operation, the better chance, however slim, of some sort of positive and productive outcome.