English pauses for English clauses begs more questions than it answers

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph leaked news about the Conservatives’ supposed answer to the West Lothian Question: the fact that Scottish- (and Welsh- and Northern Irish-) elected MPs can vote on legislation affecting England only whereas MPs for English constituencies can no longer do the same for much of the corresponding legislation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which is now dealt with by devolved parliamentary bodies in those countries.

The Tory ‘solution’, according to the report, is what Gareth Young has dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’: Scottish MPs can vote on English legislation at the initial second-reading stage of parliamentary scrutiny; but only English MPs would get to vote during the detailed committee stage of the legislative process, where changes can be effected. At the third and final reading, all MPs could once again vote, but a new parliamentary undertaking would prevent any party using Scottish votes to block amendments made by English MPs.

This is a watered-down version of what was already a compromise: the so-called ‘English votes on English matters’ option, which would have prevented Scottish MPs from voting on English bills at any stage of their passage through Parliament. It’s basically the Tories trying to have their English cake and sell it to Scotland: preventing Scottish MPs from having a real say on English bills while appearing not to, so as to try and convince Scottish voters that there is any point in continuing to send MPs to Westminster rather than running Scotland entirely from Holyrood as an independent country.

It’s a completely nonsensical and unworkable solution, and there are many questions that the Tories’ answer to the West Lothian Question begs, such as:

1) Would it actually prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs having an undue influence over English bills? The fact that MPs from those countries couldn’t effect changes to bills at the committee stage does not prevent them from influencing those bills or, indeed, determining their whole content. After all, we have a Scottish PM and several senior Scottish ministers, who are the real movers and shakers. The Tory proposal does nothing to prevent them from making laws for England with no accountability to English voters.

2) Is it even possible to separate out ‘English clauses’ from clauses relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? In an analysis elsewhere of the government’s recent statement on its Draft Legislation Programme for the parliamentary session beginning in autumn of this year, I point out that there is sometimes a bewildering complexity about which UK countries different parts of the same bills relate to. On occasions, indeed, it could be the case that the ‘territorial extent’ (as it’s called) of bills would vary on a clause-by-clause basis.

How would a Tory, or indeed any, UK government resolve this so that it was clear which bills or parts of bills related to England only? Now if the answer to that question was to make a much clearer distinction – consistent across all of the countries of the UK – between devolved and reserved areas of governance, then it would make it much more obvious to the public that England was the only UK country without its own parliament to deal with exclusively English matters. This might be a good, if unintended, consequence of the Tories’ proposal. But in reality, they’re far more likely to continue to obfuscate about which bits of governance are English and which bits are British (or part-British) as the Labour government has done. In which case, in order to prevent parliamentary procedure on such variable-country bills collapsing into near-paralysis, they’re going to end up having to involve Scottish MPs at the committee stage, given that UK-government bills are meant to be a coherent whole whose impact on the whole of the UK needs to be considered, even if only part of them directly affect Scottish MPs’ constituents. And do the Tories really think that continuing with such a dishonest, messy fudge is going to satisfy English voters? Or, conversely, if a more rigid exclusion of Scottish MPs from ‘England-only’ deliberations were enforced, do the Tories think this will endear Westminster to the Scottish electorate?

3) Is ‘English votes on English matters’ actually about MPs at all? The Tory proposals constitute a new insult to English voters by implying that, so long as English-elected MPs can determine the shape of English legislation, this addresses the democratic deficit for England. It doesn’t. The reason: it continues to deny English people a vote on England-only matters, while Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters are able to vote on policies specifically for their countries. What is more, voters in these countries also effectively get a vote – in general elections – on policies for England, while English voters have no such influence on corresponding policy in the devolved nations. Consequently, voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a greater democratic say than those in England over laws and political decisions that affect them, while having an undemocratic influence over laws that affect English people.

Now if any of the major parties conceded this point, they’d have to agree that a proper, separately elected English parliament was the only answer to the West Lothian Question. But this would create a federal UK where voters in each country elected parliaments dealing with nation-specific issues, while separate elections were held for a UK-wide parliament dealing with issues on which the UK nations pooled their interests and sovereignty.

As this is the only fair solution to the English democratic deficit, but none of the parties want to admit to it, just wait till the general election and let’s see if any of them offer a set of policies in their manifestoes that is for England alone – even in areas of governance where the Westminster Parliament’s competence is limited to England. Of course, they won’t, because then the total illogicality and injustice of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters electing MPs on an English policy agenda (alongside policies relating to the whole of the UK) would be blown apart.

Let’s not have two elections and two parliaments in one. The English people deserve a parliament that – in Gareth Young’s words – will answer the question of “who speaks for England, and on whose behalf”. If the Tories’ proposals do turn out to be the same as those leaked by the Telegraph, then at least we know that the answer to that question is not the Conservative Party.

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6 Responses

  1. As Gareth has said, only the English can answer the English Question. Usually, however, it is Scottish commentators, MPs or academics who are asked. It is asked more in the Scottish press than in the London papers and more often in their Scottish editions. While Scotland, Wales & N. Ireland were asked in a referendum if they wish to have a devolved national government the English have not been offered one. While Gordon Brown recognised the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government that best suits their needs,
    in England the wishes of Unionist MPs remain paramount and the English people have to sit by the Parliamentary table waiting for Ken Clarke to throw them a constitutional scrap. David Cameron has said that he does not want to be PM of England. Fine, let someone else do the job.

  2. The unknown quantity is the Barnett Formula, because at present there are English-only bills whose outcome determines the block grant to Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland).

    It would be unconstitutional to prevent non-English MPs from voting on legislation that affects the spending on the concommitant ares up in Scotland, even though those MPs have no say in that concommitant legislation.

    In the event of ‘fiscal federalism’ or fiscal autonomy’ or whatever you want to call it, this problem can be overcome because Scottish MPs at Westminster no longer have any justification to vote on English legislation because that legislation no longer determines the monies due to the people that returned them to Westminster.

    However, when Scottish MPs no longer have that mandate, then there is absolutely no justification for them to vote on English legislation. No justification at all, no matter what stage of the bill they are voting upon.

    Somehow I doubt that the Democracy Task Force will go into this aspect. They’re likely to be light on the detail because their rationale is to undermine Brown and New Labour.

  3. Just a nitpick. The creation of a devolved English Parliament would not create a federal UK, it would give us a UK with 4 sub-Parliaments dealing with devolved matters but which could on any issue simply be overridden by the UK Parliament.

    A federal UK would mean a new constitution in which the powers of the national Parliaments and the Supra-National UK Parliament were clearly defined and more to the point, clearly separate.

    A confederal UK would be looser still.

  4. A proper federation would require a written constitution.

  5. @ David B. Wildgoose,

    Yes, you’re quite right: an English parliament would not necessarily mean a federal UK. I think what I wrote was shorthand for saying that I think an English parliament – whether Scotland were still part of the UK or not at that point – would probably require the establishment of a federal UK with a written constitution. I just couldn’t imagine an EP working as a devolved body as it would end up being the senior partner to the UK parliament in many ways; and there’d be too much of a power struggle between the leading party / -ies and first minister in England, and the governing party / -ies and prime minister for the UK.

    In a federal set up, as I envisage it, the national parliaments / governments would be sovereign, and any power the UK parliament had would effectively be delegated upwards and pooled by the national governments (rather than devolved downwards by the UK government, which would be the sovereign entity in a devolved arrangement). Maybe that’s what you understand by a confederation, though?

  6. […] a critique of the Tories’ proposals, see my post on the previously leaked version. It’s a pretty tawdry compromise and an exercise in […]

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