The commission on the West Lothian question looms, sort-of

Today’s UK Government announcement about the long-proposed ‘commission on the West Lothian question’ is more of a non-announcement.  The Commission was of course promised in the Coalition agreement of May 2010, but precious little has been heard about it since then.  The use of a commission suggested an attempt to kick the issue into touch more than anything, as it’s not a pressing issue once the Conservatives are in office and it’s a bone of contention between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.  In this, it has clear resemblances to the commission on the UK bill of rights, finally established in March and which produced a rather sketchy issues paper in July.  Mark Harper’s brief statement is available here.  There news reports from the BBC here and the Scotsman here (though they don’t add much to the statement).

Clearly the pressure of Harriet Baldwin’s bill on territorial extent clauses, and the need to throw some red meat to the Conservative back benches, has led to an announcement that … there will be an announcement in due course. A remit will be set out in October.  It’s not clear whether members will be announced then, or later.   This sequence of announcements that don’t have anything new in them is all rather reminiscent of the ongoing process surrounding the ‘Ap Calman’ commission in Wales, of course.

The most interesting point is that the Commission is to be composed of independent academic experts.  Some (notably Robert Hazell) have suggested this would be a task best discharged by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, including senior parliamentarians from both Houses (and presumably all parties).  That would have called for very careful management to avoid party differences leading it to a stalemate.  Instead, the choice has been made to try to depoliticise it (though there is to be consultation with the Speaker and input from the parties.   However, as the issue is of its nature highly political, it looks as though the key decisions will fall to be resolved by politicians after the Commission has reported.

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6 Comments

Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Legislation, Lib Dems, Scotland, Westminster

6 responses to “The commission on the West Lothian question looms, sort-of

  1. I can’t see how this commission can come to any other conclusion than recommending an Assembly for England. The English matters voted on by English MPs is impractical because of the very plausible situation of the Labour party winning an overall majority in the UK, but the Conservatives having the majority in England. Whose program of government will be implemented in England? Which party will form the government?

    The only resolution to that conundrum that I can think of is to have a separate government for England that deals only with those devolved matters. Are there any alternatives?

  2. Angus McLellan

    THe WLQ label doesn’t help as it obscures the longer history of the problem. Gladstone and others faced it when considering Irish Home Rule. And wasn’t it at the root of Disraeli’s comment that “England is governed not by logic but by parliament”?

    An English parliament could indeed solve the problem, but only at the expense of a large reduction in Westminster’s authority, Would MPs really vote themselves into – relative – insignificance? Or should we imagine Westminster being used by the English Parliament three days a week and by the UK Parliament on the other two, with the same cast of English MPs appearing in both productions? On the other hand, masterful inactivity might be best. Events may yet reduce the scale of the problem, by removing Blackburn, West Lothian, from the UK.

  3. Geoff, England

    MPs from English constituencies forming an English parliament part of the time, and then joining MPs from the other three countries to form a ‘Union’ parliament? It’s unlikely to work, because on the Engish-only days, they will still be accosted by MPs from the other nations, not to mention whips, who will be only too willing to ‘advise’ them that, by voting in England’s interests, they could jeopardise the ‘Union’. It’s pretty clear that the Brits’ interests will prevail over English interests. (The two are usually incompatible.)

    As for Scotland voting to leave the ‘Union’, I just can’t see it happening, much as I hope it will, as I’d love to see the nations of these islands all independent and, consequently, having a far more mature relationship.

  4. Emyr

    One of the things that puzzles me about this issue is how you deal with the fact that Westminster is still sovereign over the devolved legislatures.

    This means that Westminster is still able to legislate in relation to Scotland, Wales and N.I. on all devolved matters.

    If we were to move towards a position where (as a matter of law) only MPs for English constituencies can vote in Parliament in respect of certain types of legislation, I can hear the question being asked as a matter of logic (pace Disaeli) why shouldn’t it be at least as firmly entrenched that they can’t vote in Parliament on certain types of legislation which do not affect England, and which are within devolved legislative competence?

    The next logical step is to ask whether, in those circumstances, the MPs for Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish constituencies should have the power to make Acts of Parliament alone.

    • As regards Emyr’s points: there are some very complex constitutional issues about the interaction of devolved and non-devolved legislative powers. But the statement that ‘Westminster is still sovereign over the devolved legislatures’ isn’t quite right. While many in Whitehall have resisted it, and no doubt many in Parliament are uneasy about it, the Sewel convention means that Westminster’s sovereignty over devolved matters and devolved powers is limited. Changes to those require the consent of the devolved legislature, as we’re seeing through the current debates over the Scotland bill. (Michael Moore appears to have said in his evidence to the Holyrood Scotland Bill Committee that he would withdraw the bill, or allow it to lapse, if Holyrood’s approval were not forthcoming – an important acknowledgement of the convention’s constitutional standing as well as the political necessity for it. See here.

  5. William Grant

    Since the majority of the UK population still wish to remain united at the moment, the only way to resolve the West Lothian Question is to delegate politicians from the rest of the UK to sit in the devolved legislatures (including the London Assembly) according to respective shares of the Westminster vote. For example, cut Ediinburgh to 124 members with 11 deawn from England.and Wales.

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