Thursday, July 11, 2013
Equal Citizenship: a fair deal for Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England
Comments in a number of papers about the proposal to give MPs representing English constituencies a veto over legislation which only affects England have been misrepresented the plans as some kind of attack on Scotland and Wales. This is absolute nonsense.
The proposals are part of a package which will also see further powers devolved to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. They are designed to ensure Equal Citizenship.
Cast your mind back to the disgraceful imposition of "Top up" fees on students in England by the Blair government in 2004. This did not affect students in Scotland because this aspect of education policy in Scotland had been devolved to the Scottish parliament.
The majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament voted to make alternative arrangements for students from Scotland, and Top-up fees were not imposed at that time on students from Scotland. MPs from England had no vote on this and nor should they.
But by the same token, fairness ought to have demanded that MPs from Scotland did not vote on the equivalent measure for England. But they did. And the measure, which was a breach of Labour's 2001 manifesto every bid as bad as the Lib/Dems' more recent broken promise on student fees, and which was opposed by the majority of MPs representing England, was imposed on students of England thanks to the votes of MPs from Scotland.
This was a constitutional outrage.
There are a number of ways this issue, once known as the "West Lothian Question" could be corrected. One would be to scrap the devolved assemblies and go back to a unitary UK - I don't know anyone who supports that.
At the other extreme, if the UK were completely broken up, which I don't support, it would resolve the problem, though if Scotland votes for independence the "West Lothian Question" would still affect Wales and Northern Ireland - perhaps we'd have to rename it the "West Powys Question.".
A second solution would be an English Parliament. There used to be a few very vocal supporters of this idea but the public appears not to be keen on the idea of another layer of government, which might, other things being equal, mean perhaps 500 more politicians.
The third solution, which is what the government appears to be about to propose is to give MPs representing England, as a group, more say over laws which only affect England. The effect of the measures which are apparently about to be proposed in the near future will be:
1) To devolve more powers to the Scottish parliament, and more to the Welsh Assembly bringing it roughly into line with the Scots parliament, and
2) Introduce a "fourth reading" stage for "England Only" legislation, e.g. bills which only affect England because in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the issue has been transferred to the devolved assemblies.
3) The fourth reading will involve an "English Grand Committee" consisting of all the MPs representing seats in England and will ensure that legislation which only affects England requires the support of a majority of those MPs.
Note that this not only does not affect the right of Wales or Scotland to determine their own affairs, it increases it as more powers are devolved.
The only people who suffer from this would be the Labour party, whose blatant and ridiculously unfair gerrymandering of the constitution a decade ago would be corrected.
They will whine that it's not fair that a Labour government with a small majority over the UK but no majority in England might not be able to carry out their policies in England on the issues which have been devolved.
This is absolutely and utterly ridiculous: Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the issues concerned can be devolved to Scotland and Wales without destroying the UK, they can be devolved to England without destroying the UK either.
If MSPs from Scotland can decide on, say, tuition fees in Scotland without being told what to do by MPs from England, then MPs from England can make the same decision for tuition fees in England without being told what to do by MPs from Scotland. If an issue has been devolved and Labour don't have a majority in England, they should not be able to impose that policy in England unless they can persuade enough MPs for a majority in England to vote with them.