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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Scotland has voted for the union and for distinctiveness. Delivering both could present acute challenges

Jim-Gallagher

After a dramatic referendum and UK general election, the Scottish remain divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, while the English are becoming increasingly vocal in the devolution debate. Jim Gallagher considers the possibilities of a constitutional relationship that will satisfy Scottish aspirations and also be acceptable to the UK as a whole.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Within the last year the Scottish people have said two apparently contradictory things. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, and they want to be represented by the SNP. In Holyrood, the SNP exercise dominant control over both Parliament and government. In Westminster, they will be the overwhelming Scottish voice, but will control nothing.

The partisan politics of the general election have been extraordinary. The Labour vote collapsed, and the SNP showed remarkable skill in building a coalition of voters, some for independence, others perhaps against austerity. But this tells us less about overall Scottish attitudes on either question than meets the eye. Scotland remains divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, and not on the lines you might expect. Many independence supporters are anything but high spending socialists.

Constitutional challenges

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An English Constitutional Convention could benefit both main parties in the face of the UKIP threat

Meg-Russell

Last week Robert Hazell set out some of the options for a possible UK constitutional convention. Here Meg Russell proposes some more specific answers to the questions that he posed: for example on what a constitutional convention should be tasked to do, timescale, and membership. She suggests that a more limited convention than Labour proposes, to a faster timetable, could offer a compromise to the benefit of all main parties.

Context

Last week on this blog Robert Hazell set out the alternate options for a UK constitutional convention. Such a body has been proposed by various democracy groups (such as the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy) since before the Scottish referendum. Immediately afterwards Labour leader Ed Miliband threw his weight behind these calls, proposing that a convention should meet in autumn 2015. The idea also has the support of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. In the Commons debate on devolution earlier this week William Hague indicated that the government was prepared to consider the proposal (col. 179).

Yet behind this apparent consensus there are huge splits between the parties, and the debate was otherwise highly polarised along party lines. Immediately after the Scots had voted Prime Minister David Cameron raised the issue of so-called ‘English votes on English laws’ at Westminster (a long-standing Conservative commitment), on which Hague is now chairing a Cabinet Committee and promising action by late November. Labour alleges that this is amounts to sorting out the constitution in haste ‘on the back of a fag packet‘, while Conservatives view Miliband’s convention plan as ‘the long grass‘. Labour clearly has the most to lose from ‘English votes on English laws’, given its relative strength in Scotland – and is thus reluctant to engage with the Cabinet committee process. The Liberal Democrats are at best ambivalent, making it doubtful that any proposals will get through. It is tempting for the Conservatives to make political capital out of this. But party political game-playing on both sides carries major risks. First, allegations and counter-allegations followed by failure of the Westminster parties to agree may simply fuel grievances and boost the UKIP vote. Second, inaction could leave the UK in a very difficult position after the May 2015 general election. Should Labour win the greatest number of Commons seats without being the largest party in England, immediate cries of ‘crisis’ could ensue.

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UK constitutional reform: No means Yes?

Meg-Russell

Although a Yes vote would have meant a very obvious change to the existing constitutional structure of the UK, the consequences of the No vote will still be complex and profound. The outcome has already put contentious issues such as the West Lothian question back on the agenda, writes Meg Russell.

This article originally appeared in the Observer. A version is available on the Guardian website.

The constitutional consequences of a Yes vote in Scotland would have been momentous, leading to months – possibly years – of fraught negotiation with uncertain consequences. But the consequences of no for the rest of the UK may, paradoxically, be even more complex and profound.

Since establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 the ‘West Lothian question’ – Scottish MPs voting on legislation not affecting Scotland – and wider ‘English questions’ have rumbled on but rarely reached centre stage. They were temporarily sidelined by announcement of the independence referendum. Had Scotland voted yes, their urgency would have declined. Controversies over Scottish MPs at Westminster would clearly have ended with their departure, however painful that might have been.

A No vote was always going to put these issues back on the agenda, particularly because the status quo ante was not an option. Under the Scotland Act 2012, a No vote was already to hand substantial new powers to the Scottish Parliament, particularly over taxation. During the campaign, political leaders went far further, promising additional devolved powers including on welfare and tax. This has angered Conservative MPs.

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“ENGLISH VOICE FOR ENGLISH LAWS”

20th May 2013

When the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly were established by law between 1998 and 1999, no English institution was created in parallel. England therefore continues to be governed and legislated for by the UK Parliament only, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ruled by their devolved competencies on all matters that are not reserved for Westminster. But a problem arises in such an asymmetrical framework of devolution: the question of why MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can vote on laws that apply only to England, while MPs from England do not have reciprocal influence on devolved issues. This problem, well-known as the West Lothian Question, is still unresolved. To address the question the Coalition Government set up the McKay Commission, which released its report on 25 March 2013.

Evidence from the Future of England Survey (FoES, 2011 and 2012; see McKay Commission’s Report, 2013: 16-17) clearly shows that the vast majority of people in England see the current state of English decision-making as wrong or unfair. Some solutions for the West Lothian Question have already been suggested. The most radical involve either entirely abolishing devolution, or maintaining the status quo and essentially ignoring the problem. Other proposals include 1) strengthening local government in England, 2) establishing English-based parliaments, either one for the whole of England or several regionally, or 3) electoral reforms aimed at either the introduction of proportional representation or a reduction in the number of non-English MPs at Westminster. None of these alternatives is free of substantial objections.  Perhaps the most significant barrier to implementing one of the above changes is the high cost of implementation.

According to the polls, the preferred solution of those English people surveyed (FoES, 2012; in McKay Commission’s Report, 2013: 18) is a rather different and perhaps less costly one: “English votes for English laws”. This would require that laws applying to England be passed only if a majority of MPs from England is in favour, or that a double-majority, or “double-lock”, be introduced by which legislation could only be passed if there is both a majority of MPs from England and a majority of the House of Commons as a whole in favour. The problem with such solutions is threefold: 1) they essentially create two classes of MPs, violating the notion of equal representation, 2) identifying English laws is difficult given that there are few laws which solely pertain to England, and 3) even laws that solely pertain to England often affect the rest of the United Kingdom, considering how large England is relative to the other regions.

The Commission, however, has tried to address these problems by ensuring that all of Parliament has the capacity to protect UK-wide interests. They propose application of the principle already applied in Parliamentary discussions of devolved issues: listen first to the opinion of the concerned part. In other words, “decisions at the UK level with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of English MPs”(McKay Commission’s Report, 2013: 36-38). The idea behind the proposal is to improve the accountability of the decision-making process by clearly separating English and UK-wide interests. Hence, where a government tried to ignore the English outcome in the chamber, it would be running the risk of paying the price for doing so at the next election.

As noted by Professor Charlie Jeffery and Sir Stephen Laws in their seminar at the Constitution Unit last week, the Commission has provided a political solution for a political problem.  By advocating the adoption of a convention whereby English MPs would be given privilege in debates over English issues but not in votes, the McKay Commission hopes to address the West Lothian Question while still giving MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales a say on those issues.

At first, the solution seems fairly pragmatic.  It seems to resolve the mains issues with a kind of “English voice for English laws” solution, while avoiding the costs that would be entailed by creating regional parliaments in England or changing the electoral rules. That said, the McKay Commission’s solution is, at best, partial.  It is not clear on which bills English MPs would be given priority, or what the mechanism would be for making this decision, though some proposals have been already submitted (McKay Commission’s Report, 2013: 52-62). Furthermore, since MPs from the devolved regions will still be voting on English laws, one could argue that the McKay Commission’s solution is more of a band aid, meant to appease the English constituent, than a real solution.  Only time will tell if the McKay Commission’s band aid will be adopted, or if English constituents will demand more substantial action.

McKay Commission Report: Parliament on the Sidelines … Again

28th March 2013

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I looked at the creation and operation of the McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, criticising the fact that it was set up unilaterally by the Government, despite dealing with a core issue of parliamentary procedure.

Sadly, its newly-published report confirms this executive-centred approach to parliamentary reform.  The key section entitled ‘next steps’ (paras 248-9) contains phrases like “We envisage that the Government would first make an assessment of our proposals and put before the House..” and “When the House has expressed its views, we suggest that the Government should move for a select committee to advise the House on the details..”

Announcing publication of the report on 25 March, ministers said: “We will consider seriously and constructively this report and provide a substantive response to it in due course.”

The initial response from parliamentary officers and committees was ….. [fill in the blank].

Presumably Parliament is expected, as usual, to sit back quietly and wait for its executive masters to work out how it should operate.  The idea that one of the Commons’ select committees dealing with House matters (given the current Political & Constitutional Reform Committee’s inquiry into the ‘Wright Committee reforms’, we currently have 2 of them, ie it and Procedure Committee) should do a brisk inquiry into the subject of WLQ and the McKay Report, independently of Government’s own deliberations, is presumably far too revolutionary for the current House.  Ditto for some sort of initiative of this sort by the Speaker.

Or perhaps they will surprise us all?

The McKay ‘West Lothian’ Commission: Two Cheers?

In a post last month on this Blog (here) I looked at the new McKay Commission on the West Lothian Question, and especially at its status and operation, given that it  was set up, and is sponsored, by Government, not Parliament. It argued that, despite this provenance, to have any credibility and utility it needed to demonstrate independence, openness & transparency, and real public and parliamentary engagement. This includes a genuinely open evidence-taking process, and transparency through, for example, a live website and an initial ‘consultation paper’.

The Commission met for the first time in late February, and it seems some of this minimum agenda has been adopted. For example, there is now a website – note the word ‘independent’ in the address, akin to that of the Silk Commission on devolution in Wales, a similar Government established and resourced commission. It is, at this early stage, a bit thin, but potentially it can be used as the engine of its operation in much the same way that the impressive, content-rich Silk Commission site has developed.

The crucial tests are those of openness & transparency and of genuine, evidence-based engagement with public and parliaments. For example, the Cabinet Office press release on 17 January suggested that the Commission “will be expected to call experts to give oral or written evidence.” The website front-page now invites “submissions and enquiries from those with an interest or views on the West Lothian question”, though its 2 March press release (hands up, all those who spotted this!) is a bit more engaging, stating that “the Commission is keen to hear from those with views on the subject of the West Lothian question” and quotes its Chair, Sir William McKay, as saying that “the Commission had a productive first meeting and will be meeting again soon to develop its thinking and initiate arrangements to progress its work.”

Does this mean that it is starting with a genuinely blank sheet of paper, within the terms of its remit, or that it is to be largely expert-driven, with a veneer of public engagement? We must hope the former, ie not just ‘transparency’ (“look, but don’t touch”) but genuine ‘openness’. That requires a more positive and engaging approach than has been suggested thus far – again the Silk Commission (and earlier devolution inquiries like Calman or Richard) can provide a model to learn from. If the Commission is not in a position yet to issue a consultation or ‘issues & questions’ paper, as a focus for its inquiry, it could state that it intends to do so, as a prelude to formal evidence-taking or public/parliamentary consultation.

That the Commission requests submissions by 13 April is potentially concerning, unless this is just intended to be a preliminary phase, prior to a more formal consultation/evidence-gathering process which includes the public. However, the Commission said on 2 March that its next meeting will be in late March and “it is planned that evidence will be heard by the Commission in April, May and June. Dates and locations of forthcoming meetings will be published through the website over the coming weeks in March.”

There remains the thorny issue of the extent of its remit. Even apart from what ministers say is expected to be excluded (especially devolution funding and Commons representation), the Commission needs, initially, to set out very clearly and openly how wide or narrow it sees its terms of reference. Will they include, for example, ‘Sewel Convention’ aspects, or inter-parliamentary relations? Will they take account (and if so, how?) of the three devolution ‘settlements’ as being dynamic processes, as with the current Scotland Bill, the Silk Commission and the looming Scottish Independence Referendum, so that their proposals are adequately flexible and robust to accommodate conceivable developments in the coming years?

So, two cheers for now, and a hope that the third cheer will be soon deserved.