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24 September 2014

Can cross-party consensus be found on solving the English Question?

How to answer the West Lothian Question in practice.

By Akash Paun Akash Paun

The West Lothian Question must be answered, says the Prime Minister. Why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English (and Welsh) business in the Commons, while the reverse is not possible, due to devolution? David Cameron’s favoured solution is the so-called “English Votes on English Laws” (EVEL) idea, with restrictions imposed on the rights of Scottish (and presumably Welsh and Northern Irish) MPs to participate in proceedings on English affairs. The Leader of the House of Commons William Hague is now charged with working out the details.

Cameron’s political calculation is clear. With Labour holding 41 out of 59 Scottish seats and the polls looking tight, next May’s general election could well return a Labour government with a majority dependent upon Scottish MPs. The election might even return two competing majorities: a Conservative one in England, and a Labour one across the UK as a whole.

When in government, Labour’s answer to the West Lothian Question was – some said – to “stop asking the damn question”. But Labour won a majority of English seats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 so this was largely a non-issue. Scottish MPs could vote on “English” matters, but other than on occasional votes with a high number of backbench rebels (notably on top-up fees and foundation hospitals), they did not determine the outcome.

But if a post-2015 Labour government were reliant on its Scottish MPs for a majority, then the case for reform would be significantly strengthened. In such circumstances, would it be legitimate for Labour to – for instance – repeal the Health and Social Care Act over the heads of the majority of English MPs? Or to introduce a mansion tax that applied only in England?

Labour’s (and indeed the Liberal Democrats’) preferred solution to the English Question appears to be greater subnational devolution, perhaps within a new federal constitutional framework. There are good reasons to decentralise power from Whitehall and Westminster – England is a highly centralised state. But as an answer to West Lothian, this idea lacks basic credibility, since not even the most committed de-centralisers argue for a separate health service, national curriculum, university tuition fees regime, income tax system and even legal jurisdiction for each of England’s regions (however defined).

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Nor does the creation of a wholly new English Parliament pass the credibility test. The Palace of Westminster has housed England’s Parliament since Norman times. Breaking it up into separate English and federal legislatures might be more coherent than the status quo but smacks of overreaction to what is just one more oddity in our uncodified constitution.

And so we return to EVEL. How might this work? The government set up a commission to answer that very question under the chairmanship of Sir Bill McKay, a former Clerk of the House of Commons. His proposal was for the creation of new stages of the legislative process in which only MPs from England (or England and Wales – depending on the business at hand) could participate. And bill committees would be composed of English MPs representing the balance between the parties in England (not in the House as a whole).

This is a perfectly implementable set of reforms. But McKay also recommended that the House as a whole should have the final say, meaning that English amendments could be overturned. So will English Conservative MPs be satisfied that this goes far enough?

A harder version of EvEL would be to bar Scottish MPs from the process altogether, or to require a “dual majority” of English and UK MPs, when English business is on the table. One major criticism of this approach is that it could produce a government unable to pass legislation in core policy spheres such as education, health, policing and justice unless it can garner the support of sufficient opposition MPs. This would indeed be unusual. But it is what all governments must do to get bills through the House of Lords. We also already have a coalition government, whose legislative programme is necessarily a product of inter-party negotiation.

The decline of the two-party system makes coalitions and minorities more likely in any case, so EVEL might simply create an additional need for inter-party negotiation and compromise before certain types of legislation can be passed.

Of course there are complications – determining which bills should be classified as “England only” is not simple. And there would be potential for the opposition to cause havoc with a government’s legislative programme – but they would then have to answer politically for their choices (as Congressmen in Washington DC must do if they block a President’s Budget).

EVEL is not a reform that should be rushed into. Any such change should be based on cross-party consensus and should pass the public legitimacy test (it should not be seen as one party rigging the rules of the game in its favour). William Hague has a tough job ahead of him.

Akash Paun is a fellow of the Institute for Government, where he is a leading a programme of work on Governing after the Referendum, exploring the future of devolution and the UK

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