The ‘West Lothian Question’ continues to rage on following the Independence Referendum last year, and it has been exacerbated by the Smith Commission. What is the solution? A clear majority of Scots voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, whatever you believe about why people voted in that way is irrelevant; that is the situation we are in.
The Conservative Party has outlined a policy to deal with the West Lothian question which is, quite frankly, entirely unworkable. Trying to police exactly when Scottish MPs can and cannot vote on particular laws will be almost impossible. Even in devolved areas, legislation passing through Westminster can have a direct impact on Scotland (and not just via the Barnet Formula). Often, there will be parts – or even just a few sections – in a Bill passing through Westminster that extend to Scotland. It is entirely ridiculous to suggest that Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on legislation directly affecting their constituents, simply because the bulk of it deals with a devolved area. It would be a nightmare if you started removing those sections from Bills and putting them in separate Bills – you’d effectively be doubling the work of the UK Parliament.
It gets even more complicated when it comes to Cabinet positions. Will a Scottish MP be prevented from being Prime Minister because that would have them setting the agenda in devolved areas for England? What about Home Secretary? Policing is devolved to Scotland, but that is only part of the Home Secretary’s responsibilities: immigration and national security remain two of most significant elements of that role which are not devolved. What about Secretary of State for Health: the NHS is devolved, but the regulation of the health professionals (for example) is not. When it comes to Transport, much of that is devolved; however, there are areas (particularly around regulation) which are not. The list could go on. If it is not to apply to Cabinet positions, then why not? Is there any real difference between setting the policy that the legislation seeks to enact. What does this do for Collective responsibility in the Cabinet?
Then there is the Committees proposal: how will that actually work in practice? Will Scottish MPs be prevented from sitting on certain committees? Simply excluding them for the committee stages for certain Bills would be a nightmare situation. The make-up of committees is determined according to the make-up of the House of Commons. It could mean that Committees no longer represent the make-up of the Commons when you start excluding certain members from the Committees. Committees could become completely farcical; especially when it comes to Bills that include bits applicable to Scotland – would those MPs be allowed to participate in the Committee then? If not, why not? Will it mean that Committee sessions will have to stop and start frequently?
Moreover, this could not possibly apply only to Scottish MPs: what about MPs elected to represent Northern Irish constituencies or Welsh constituencies? The West Lothian question, as it is known, also applies to those situations. It certainly does appear as though the proposal put forward by William Hague would exclude those MPs as well as Scottish ones, but undoubtedly the reporting focusses on Scottish MPs. However, if you do extend this rule to Northern Irish and Welsh MPs as well things would become even more complicated and much more messy – the devolution settlements for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all very different. There are things which Scotland has (and will soon have responsibility for) which Northern Ireland and Wales do not, equally Northern Ireland has responsibility for matters that Wales and Scotland do not. As for Wales, from memory, it currently has the poorest devolution settlement; but it has responsibility for issues that its MPs vote on in the Commons for England. The same issues then arise with the Cabinet as discussed above. Keeping track it all will become nothing short of a nightmare!
In short, the proposal by the Conservative Party is a fudge (and an utterly terrible one at that!).
So, what is the answer? There is no going back to the pre-1999 situation; that much is certain. The legislative bodies for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are here to stay. The only real answer is to move towards a more federal structure. There needs to be an entirely separate English legislative body and the powers of the national legislative bodies (those being the Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the newly created English one) would have to be aligned so as not to have the ridiculous situation we currently have of different national legislative bodies having different areas of competence.
Whenever the question of an English Parliament is raised there are often cries of “we don’t need more MPs”; that’s probably true. However, if you were creating a separate legislative body for England with its own members, the number of MPs required in the UK Parliament would be significantly less: there would be absolutely no need for there to be 650 people elected to the House of Commons. They could easily represent much larger constituencies because they would be dealing with far fewer matters than is currently the case. Overall, there might be a slight increase in the number of elected representatives to ensure fairness, but that shouldn’t stop us from moving in that direction. It’s certainly not a quick fix, but it is a far fairer and much better solution that the fudge announced by William Hague today. Yes, it will take time and yes there will be a financial cost to it in the short term (a separate English legislative assembly would likely need its own place to meet – unless you abolish the Lords and have it sitting in there), but really this should have happened in 1998!
What exactly this would look like is a conversation that would have to be had. All parts of the UK would have to work together to work out what should be handled by the National legislative bodies and what should remain handled by Westminster. There are obvious things that would need to be handled at a UK level such as Foreign Affairs, Defence, National Security, Immigration and the currency. There may well be other areas where it would be beneficial to be handled at a UK level, but unless we have the conversation we will never know.
It was clear that whatever the result of the independence referendum in Scotland that there would be significant constitutional change in the UK; that remains the case and it is both a conversation and a process that we cannot walk away from; we certainly cannot try and fudge it!