Saturday, November 19, 2011

The West Lothian Question

The Government is to consider the 'West Lothian Question', or the English Question'. In the 19th century it was probably referred to as the 'Dublin Question'. It refers to MPs representing Welsh constituencies (or Scottish or N Irish constituencies) voting on legislation which applies to English constituencies, while they (together with 'English' MPs) may not vote on the same issue as it applies in Wales. A current example which demonstrates relevance today - I can vote on any legislation relating to organ donation in England, but will not have any say on the same issue in my own constituency. This is a constitutional anomaly. This blog post asks whether any constitutional change can be introduced which reduces the degree of anomaly. At present, I'm not convinced that it can.

The answers to the West Lothian Question, are many and varied, but fall under three general headings ;

1) A federal UK, involving an English Parliament;
2) Two categories of MP ensuring only English MPs are able to vote for English laws:
3) Fewer MPs in parts of the UK with devolved Parliaments, reflecting the lesser responsibilities.

Lets consider these options in turn.

1) Federal UK. There is a certain logic to this. There is much support for an English Parliament - in England. But it would not be like any other federal state that has ever been successful. 84% of the population would live in one of the four 'federal partners'. Inevitable England would so dominate that it would soon cease to be federal in any meaningful sense. And there has been no work done on the balance of power between the UK and English Parliaments, or how they would relate to each other. Constitutional lawyers tell me that such a one-sided federalism has never succeeded anywhere in the world in history.

2) English votes for English laws. To many, including me, this seems the best answer if change there must be. The problem is the complexity, and near-impossibility of deciding what policy areas Welsh MPs should be barred from voting on. For example, English health policy matters impact hugely on my constituency, because the DGHs that serve Montgomeryshire are in Shropshire. And increased specialist care means that perhaps only one or two hospitals in the UK will be able to provide certain treatments. The same cross-border difficulties would apply in every policy area. At least unemployment would fall as civil servants were recruited to manage the system!

3) Fewer MPs representing devolved nations. Much the easiest answer to deliver - but not favoured by me. The voice of Wales should not be lessened when dealing with those issues that remain with the UK Parliament - for example, the decision to go to war. Traditionally, the Welsh 'voice' at Westminster has been more reluctant to intervene militarily on the international plane. The same principle would apply across all policy areas. This is just not acceptable.

So where are we by now. The West Lothian Question is a constitutional anomaly - to which the only obvious answers are the creation of other constitutional anomalies. Its a case of which is the least bad option - not much of a basis for such a major constitutional change. Seems to me that we should think long and hard about whether the West Lothian Question should be asked.


Jake said...

I think all parties just have to sit and wait to see what happens in Scotland, and annoyingly if independence happens I think the Lothian question would disappear.

1. is my favourite- it wouldn't make the UK any more federal than it is at the moment. Taxes would still be paid to London and the spread out- this is not federalism.

2. is just a nightmare. What would happen? would there be bouncers outside Westminster ensuring Welsh MP's don't go into the chamber. And again how do you decide what is 'english'. Although student fees effected England alone- it has dramatic effects for Welsh policy, due to funding, barnett and Welsh students going over the border.

3. well this is just ridiculous- where would it end? just 10MP's from Wales. This would be crazy as stuff such as taxes are still done in London.

I agree that federalism would be difficult UNLESS England was split. But frankly, I see no alternative!

One thing I know: no Government has the b**ls to tackle this- be it Labour or yourselves. And that is the fundamental reason why it is the nationalists that drive this discussion.

well I find it strange in Scotland that Lib's, Cons and Lab are just "anti independence" yet they won't reveal what model they want. You cannot go into a referendum saying 'we dont want this' without telling us what you really wan- why can't the Lib's just say they want a full federal UK for example?

The same in Wales- we know that Plaid want independence (eventually). But what on earth are Lib, Lab and Con's policy? Really I have no idea!- is it the status quo, federalism.... can you shed some light!

Carwyn wants more devolution- but leading to what?! It's all very vague!

D Pimborough said...

It's all a bit irrelevant these days as we are all part of European Union but I thought this was the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Afterall even if they did become independent it's not like we'd end up having monitored borders (oh I forgot Offa's Dyke and Hadrian's Wall perhaps they could be rebuilt with a Heritage Lottery fund :o).

It's petty grandstanding by some lazy politicians who use the nationalist card to try and build themselves a powerbase and inflate their egos rahter than work with the National Govt. for the National good.

God help Wales if we ever had independence :o(

glynbeddau said...

Surely you can't sk this question without adding three more solutions.

4. Abolish all the devolved legislative bodies. Which at the moment looks the least popular or likely solution.

5. Devolve power to English Regions on a similar basis . Doesn't seem have much support in England.

6. Wales and Scotland to be Independent countries and full members of the EU or UN. What ever you may think based on your own arguments this may well be the only long term option.

Tim said...

I think the WL question is critical. When during a hearing held by thye commission prior to the referendum earlier this year I said that the situation in England was FAR more important I received short shrift. That the extra runway at Heathrow was only voted in using Welsh and Scottish MPs was dreadful. Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. This debate has to take place.

Glyn Davies said...

Jake - No reason why it should disappear, though the likelihood of anything being passed without a majority in England would greatly reduce. And it was not the 'nationalists' that included this issue in the Coalition agreement ! I'm not sure Carwyn Jones does want any more meaningful devolution. He wants more money, but not any financial accountability, which brings with it real reponsibility.

DP - Again, its not the Nationalists who have driven this. The Commission to consider the WLQuestion has been established by the Coalition Government, and its been a policy of the Conservatives through most of the time since devolution.

Glynbeddau - I only listed the options that the Commission will be realistically looking at. I do not think Welsh Independence or Assembly abolition will feature. And I don't think regional assemblies/parliaments thoughout England will feature either. My post was not intended to be theoretical, but what I expect the Commission to actually consider next year.

Tim - the debate is going to take place. I've thought about it because I'm taking part in a Total Politics panel discussion on it on Wed.

Just_Say_No said...

Glyn, your posting highlights the dangers that John Major spoke of prior to Labour's half baked plans for a Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.

Anonymous said...

You appear to be under the impression that the border between Shropshire and Montgomeryshire is the only one in Europe. Spare a thought for the NHS patients in Kent to go for hip replacements to France. It's one of the Tories flagship NHS policies of 'choice' in England. Victory in the European court for those languishing on an England NHS waiting list. It turns out it's cheaper to do too, as the English NHS is already overburdened with 'market' considerations. You may consider the 'English votes for English laws' not an option, but somehow every other democracy in Europe some with all borders of a landed nature but they manage to cope. I think GlynBeddau hit the nail with option six, but it doesn't mean that Westminster are currently incapable of deciding what clause of legislation pertain specifically to England.