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English votes for English laws: the Government's proposals on English devolution

19 December 2014
In the fallout of the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, which resulted in the UK political parties promising further devolution for Scotland, the UK Government has begun to consider in detail the issue of English devolution, or "English votes for English laws", traditionally known as the "West Lothian Question".  The Prime Minister, following the outcome of the referendum on 19 September, said "the question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian Question – requires a decisive answer".

The West Lothian Question is essentially this: how can it be right that a Scottish MP can vote on matters applying only to England, while that same MP, or any other MP in the UK Parliament, cannot vote on matters applying only to Scotland where they have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

This issue has been debated ever since the first devolution of power to Scotland in the 1970s, but interest has recently been reignited since the Scottish independence referendum.  The debate has now widened to a consideration of all manners of decentralisation of power from central government in Westminster to local communities, with some calling for a "constitutional convention" to be held to consider these issues.

On 16 December 2014, the Government, published a Command paper (the "Command Paper") setting out proposals for further devolution and decentralisation in England.  The substance of the paper is set out in its last chapter, where the respective proposals of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats can be found.  These proposals are considered below.

The West Lothian Question

In its proposal, the Conservative Party states that it agrees with the principle that decisions that have a "separate and distinct effect for England (or for England and Wales)" should "normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England and Wales)".  It proposes three options for achieving this principle, on which it will consult and plans to make an announcement in early 2015:

  • Reformed consideration of Bills at all stages: this would involve a Bill being certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as applying to a particular part of the UK, and participation in all stages of the legislative process in relation to that Bill would be restricted to only those MPs from the relevant part of the UK.
  • Reformed amending Stages of Bills: under this option, the Committee and Report stages of the legislative process of a Bill relating only to a particular part of the UK would be restricted to MPs from the relevant part of the UK.  The Third Reading of a Bill would be voted on by the whole House of Commons.
  • Reformed Committee Stage and Legislative Consent Motions: under this option, the Committee stage would be restricted to MPs from the relevant part of the UK, the Report stage would be taken by all MPs and then an "English Grand Chamber" would vote between the Report Stage and the Third Reading on whether to grant their consent or veto the Bill, or the relevant parts of it.

The Liberal Democrats broadly agree with the principle behind the Conservative party's proposal, but disagree about the way to achieve it.  In particular, they propose "a new parliamentary stage before third reading" in which a committee of English MPs, composed on the basis of a proportionate representation of the votes cast at the preceding General Election (as opposed to on a first past the post basis), would vote to approve Bills only affecting England (a mechanism they refer to as a "Double Lock").

There are a number of areas identified by the Command Paper that remain unresolved or where there is, or is likely to be, disagreement between the UK's main political parties.

  • The mechanism for deciding whether a Bill is "England only" or "England and Wales only" could be technically complex and politically sensitive.
  • The basis on which MPs are entitled to vote on England or England and Wales only matters will have considerable implications for the relative representation of the political parties and therefore will be an area of contention.  The disagreement concerns whether England only matters should be voted on by:

a) all MPs for constituencies in England on a first past the post basis – this would tend to favour the Conservative Party, who are traditionally proportionately better represented than the other main parties in England under the first past the post system; or

b) a proportionate number of English MPs from the different political parties – this option is favoured by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as it would allow better representation of their parties on England only matter than the first past the post system.

  • Should the mechanism by which England only matters are voted on have binding effect or be merely advisory?  The former would allow English MPs an effective veto over Bills, or parts of Bills, affecting only England.
  • There may be implications for the future practice of Government.  Rules affecting the entitlement of certain MPs to vote could affect the parliamentary majority of the party (or parties) in Government.  This may mean that a Government will only have a parliamentary majority on certain issues.  The Command Paper states that this could lead to Government "approaching legislating in a different way", or exploring "the scope for greater non-legislative activity".
  • The Command Paper states that consideration would need to be given to whether MPs with constituencies near the borders of the UK's constituent nations, which may rely on services over the border, should be entitled to vote on matters in bordering nations.

English decentralisation

The parties' proposals set out in the Command Paper in relation to English decentralisation are less detailed than in relation to the West Lothian Question.

The Conservative Party aims to "extend community rights… strengthening social and civic responsibility and building social capital", "extend and strengthen transparency and accountability", introduce metropolitan mayors where locally supported.  It also believes that there should be "greater use of direct democracy, such as allowing local people to hold local referendums on local issues".

The Liberal Democrats propose a "radical approach" to English decentralisation; "Devolution on Demand".  This proposal would provide for "areas" (a term that is purposefully wide so as to include cities, counties and regions) to be able to demand certain powers "from a menu of options" to be devolved from central government if they satisfy certain criteria.  Such criteria would include meeting targets in relation to population size, administrative competence, local democratic mandate and transparent and accountable governance structures.

As identified by the Command Paper, there are a number of outstanding issues to be considered further.  These include, in particular, whether local variation in the way services (sometimes referred to as the "postcode lottery") are run should be a feature of future decentralisation and the implications of further devolution on the ability of central government to legislate and manage the economy.

Constitutional Convention

All three of the main political parties have indicated that they are in favour of holding a "constitutional convention" to consider the merits of a wide range of political reforms, such as electoral reform on voting age and the case for a written constitution.  Such a convention would allow stakeholders outside of party politics and from across the UK to participate in the debate about a future constitutional settlement for the UK.

Unfortunately, however, the terms of reference of such a convention are likely to be subject to as much debate as the reforms themselves.  Notably, the Conservative Party has stated in the Command Paper that any such convention should not delay the implementation of devolution in Scotland and equivalent changes in the rest of the UK.

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