Why It Matters
Devolution is the most significant means by which the relationships between Westminster and the four nations of the United Kingdom are now organised, with the exception of England.
The asymmetry of these relations is leading many people to rethink the role of MPs from devolved regions at Westminster and whether or not England itself should have its own devolved government.
Devolution is often suggested to be the first stage on the road to independence. The commitment to a referendum on Scottish independence arguably supports this claim.
Devolution involves the delegation of state power by national government to a sub national level. In the UK, this means the transfer of powers from the UK parliament in London to assemblies in Cardiff and Belfast, and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly were established following referendums in each nation in the 1990s.
Devolved powers are decisions that used to be taken by the UK parliament but that are now made by the devolved institutions. Reserved powers are decisions that are still controlled by Westminster. The extent of devolved powers is different in each nation.
The Important Debates
THE WEST LOTHIAN QUESTION: what representation should a devolved region have in Westminster?
In 1977 Tam Dayell, MP for West Lothian, asked whether it was acceptable for members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to vote on legislation which only affects England. Since the devolution of powers created legislative bodies to enact laws in these three regions, the question has become all the more pertinent.
The Coalition Government announced the intention to establish a commission of independent experts to consider how best to resolve the West Lothian Question in 2011.
There are a number of options for the representation of devolved regions in Parliament, all of which are problematic:
1. NO REPRESENTATION AT ALL
This is arguably unfair, because the people of all three regions continue to pay taxes to the central government and therefore should have representation there.
2. THE ‘IN AND OUT’ SOLUTION: representation, but exclusion on particular subjects
One solution is to allow MPs from devolved regions to remain at Westminster, but be excluded from matters exclusively concerned with matters from the other regions. Thus, a Scottish MP would not be allowed to speak or vote on matters exclusively concerned with England, Wales, or Northern Ireland. However, there may be problems defining what is a matter ‘exclusive’ to one particular region.
The Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill 2010-11, a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Harriet Baldwin MP proposed a variation of this solution. The Bill reached a Third Reading in the House of Commons (a considerable feat for a Private Member’s Bill).
Ms Baldwin speaks about the provisions of her Bill:
Both the ‘no representation’ and the ‘in and out solution’ options raise significant political concerns. The Labour Party has always needed the MPs returned from Scotland and Wales to maintain a majority in Government.
The ‘in and out’ solution could create disruption in cases where the ruling party holds a slim majority in Westminster, and the composition of the government might change depending on the matter being debated. For instance, on a matter affecting only the English, it might be that a Labour government could not muster a majority, and so ‘the government’ might shift to the opposition. This might force a Labour administration to introduce all of its legislative proposals across the entire nation in order to take advantage of their full base of MPs.
3. REDUCED REPRESENTATION
This is the solution which has been used historically. For instance, after the establishment of a Parliament in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish MPs in Westminster continued to have full voting rights. However, their number was reduced to 13, or about two-thirds of what Northern Ireland should have had in Westminster on the basis of population.
One answer, then, might be to allow MPs from devolved areas to retain full voting rights, but reduce their number by some specified proportion. Doubtless the extent of this reduction would be difficult to decide.
4. LEAVE THINGS AS THEY ARE
This approach would recognise that asymmetry between regions in the UK has long been present, and need not be answered.
THE ENGLISH QUESTION – Two key aspects:
1. DOES ENGLAND’S PLACE WITHIN THE UNION NEED STRENGTHENING?
Two common suggestions on how to achieve this are the creation of an English Parliament and the introduction of English votes on English laws:
a) An English Parliament
There are a number of practical problems associated with the establishment of an English Parliament;
- Given that English MPs make up 80% of all Westminster MPs, and make law for 85% of the UK, an English Parliament would seem an unnecessary replication of the UK Parliament. What would be the role of the English Parliament, and what impact would it have on the role of the UK Parliament? Similarly, where would the English Parliament be located?
- An English Parliament would also create, in effect, a federal system; but it would be a federal system which was highly asymmetrical, with one constituent unit—England—being dominant. It would, in effect, be more important than Westminster.
b) English votes on English laws
Concerns raised about this proposal are largely political. Given the reliance of some governments on their MPs in Scotland and Wales to provide them with a majority in the House of Commons, preventing those MPs from voting on certain policies could make it difficult for elected governments to implement their legislative programmes.
2. DOES ENGLAND’S GOVERNMENT NEED DECENTRALISATION?
If the concern raised by the English question is that power is too distant from the English people, then one potential solution is regionalism. However the Blair government’s attempt to create a regional assembly in the Northeast (an intended precursor to a wider program of regionalism) failed, raising doubts as to the public’s willingness to see this solution introduced.
Does the funding of the devolved regions need to be reviewed?
There is widespread criticism of the Barnett formula and the way in which funding is set for the devolved regions:
- In terms of public expenditure, the per capita spend is lowest in England. Many English people raise the concern that they subsidise the devolved regions at their own expense.
- Many in the devolved regions argue that the Barnett formula takes no account of the real needs of each region and its people.
- The white paper issued by the Scottish government on 30 November 2009 – “Your Scotland, Your Voice, A National Conversation” notes ‘the Scottish budget depends on unilateral decisions by the United Kingdom Government on spending in England. For example, the implementation of efficiency savings across the United Kingdom Government, and reductions in Department of Health baselines in England in the 2009 Budget, resulted in the Scottish budget being cut by £500 million in 2010/11.”
The Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos in 2010 both contained proposals for changing the formula. In the 2011 Coalition Agreement, however, the parties indicated that any change would have to wait for ‘stabilisation of public finances’ (with a theoretical date set of 2015, at the very end of the current Parliament).
Union of England and Wales
Union with Scotland
Union with Ireland
Speaker’s Conference to consider devolution held
Anglo – Irish Treaty signed – 26 counties of Ireland effectively become the Irish Free State; 6 counties remain to become Northern Ireland
Government of Ireland Act passed – establishes Northern Ireland Parliament with broad powers of legislation
Scottish Covenant calling for devolved government signed by 2 million Scots
Direct rule is imposed on Northern Ireland; the Northern Irish Parliament is suspended
The Royal Commission on the Constitution (the ‘Kilbrandon Commission’) reports, recommending devolved legislatures for Scotland and Wales
Referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held
Scottish Constitutional Convention holds its first meeting
Scottish Constitutional Convention publishes Scotland’s Parliament, Scotland’s Right – a call for devolved government
Referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held, with majorities in both areas voting in favour of devolution; introduction of proportional representation at devolved level 1998
Scotland Act creates a Scottish Parliament able to pass laws on devolved matters and with tax-levying powers
Wales Act creates a Welsh Assembly able to implement laws
Good Friday agreement signed; referendums held in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic later ratify it
Northern Ireland Assembly suspended
Referendum on regional government for the Northeast of England fails
Government of Wales Act enables Welsh Assembly to enact ‘measures’ on devolved matters
Power restored to the Northern Ireland Assembly
Northern Ireland Assembly takes control over policing and justice
Welsh referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly produces a decisive ‘Yes’ result on low turnout
Scotland Act, the largest transfer of fiscal powers to Scotland since the formation of the United Kingdom.
Year agreed upon by the British and Scottish governments for a referendum on Scottish Independence.