Devolution must go beyond Westminster

Yesterday in parliament, William Hague announced four options to address the “English votes for English laws” issue. They are:

  1. Barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs
  2. Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill
  3. Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them a effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading
  4. A separate Lib Dem plan to establish a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote.

David Laws was sitting beside William Hague yesterday during the announcement and added a note of disagreement afterwards:

Devolution and localism must go beyond Westminster. Up and down the country, citizens want change that reflects their local needs and circumstances.

We cannot have a debate about devolving greater powers to nations without also considering how we give local areas more power.

If we agree it is right to give the 5 million people in Scotland and 3 million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot ignore the 5 million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment

It is disappointing the Conservatives are not supporting our proposal for ‘Devolution on Demand’ which would give more powers to the English cities, counties and regions – especially places like Cornwall and Yorkshire.

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33 Comments

  • David Pollard 17th Dec '14 - 9:18am

    Completely agree with David Laws.

  • The first, second and third paragraphs of the David Laws quote are spot on. It’s such a crying shame that the Lib Dems appear to have adopted a grossly unfair and arbitrary policy of “x on demand” which could easily be the worst possible solution (assuming that devolved powers ever get to the table). I’ve said this before in other discussions here on LDV:

    Devolution on Demand, or indeed anything on demand, equates to “first come, first served”. First come, first served means that those who organise themselves the quickest get what they want. It means they choose the borders they want and maybe even the powers they want. Where does that leave everybody else who is slower off the mark? Up the proverbial without a paddle, that’s where. There is nothing more prejudicial and unfair than first come, first served. It means that the large urban areas (Manchester and B’ham areas) can organise themselves as devolved “regions” with no regard for what can or can’t happen in the less densely populated areas elsewhere in the country or right on their doorstep. To allow the cities to hive themselves off from their surroundings is to treat the more rural areas as second-class, ecomonically weak areas with no revenue base to support a fair devolution of powers to those citizens who will be left run by a remote Westminsters whilst Mancunians, Scots and Brummies get whatever they like.

    So, here we are, a party of fairness and equality, promoting a policy of “quickest takes all”, and “cities are more important than rural” and “we don’t care if some areas get devolved powers which might be prejudicial to other areas getting similar”.

    Yuk, it’s pathetic.

  • The crucial point is that Devolution is a process not a thing, the “On Demand” formula encourages Local groups to grab what Power they can, while the window of opportunity is still open. It goes without saying that we will be fighting to keep the window open but we cant know if we will succeed in that.

  • I found this interesting on BBC regarding what is an “English” Law..

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30497707

    While the Barnett formula remains the basis for setting the centrally provided funds to Scotland / Wales it would appear that their Westminster representatives should have some say… So not as simple as the Tory plans..

  • As so often the words of Mr Laws are very carefully chosen. His actions betray something rather different.
    When he says — “.. Devolution and localism must go beyond Westminster. Up and down the country, citizens want change that reflects their local needs and circumstances. We cannot have a debate about devolving greater powers to nations without also considering how we give local areas more power.”. What exactly does he have in mind to do?

    Mr Laws has not been in the forefront of opposition to the Manchester and Sheffield back door deals arrived at in secret meetings with Labour City Bosses. Where was the attempt to fit those arrangements for the people of Manchester and Sheffield to “reflect their local needs and circumstances” ?
    The people of those two so-called City Regions were not consulted or involved.
    Mr Laws acted one way and then spoke another.
    This is not devolution of power, the is deception and the cynical exercise of power.

  • matt (Bristol) 17th Dec '14 - 12:05pm

    The Smith Commission should be regarded as having precedence over the McKay Commission – having devolved a high level of powers to an electorally accountable body for Scotland, the questions dominating Westminster should be:
    – What is the body or bodies that should receive similar powers for England and what is the timescale?
    – Why should these powers not be at the full level of the Smith Commission proposals?

    This is unfinished business going back to 1885. Conceding devolution to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but worrying about England afterwards is like the Church of England agreeing women can be priests and only worry ing about the implicaitons for Bishops afterwards.

  • I can’t see how Westminster can be represent the UK and decide on English only matters. There’s a conflict of interests as monetary decision taken in England effect the whole of the UK. Parliament has to be separate from an English assembly so there is no possibility of confusing the interests of England with those of Britain. An English assembly should be kept well away London. The Midlands are smack bang in the middle of England so I suggest Birmingham as it is England’s second largest city. .

  • Tony Greaves 17th Dec '14 - 2:16pm

    There is very little difference between the interests of “England” and the interests of the UK, or other parts of it.

    EVEL is nonsense. The four options put forward by Mr Hague just show what nonsense it all is.

    The answer is a progressive programme of devolution within England, starting with Cornwall and the North of England. The problem is that there is no consensus on how to do it, within this party, between the parties, across England, across the North of England, or anywhere else except perhaps Cornwall.

    So a constitutional convention is needed in the North of England and in England as a whole. The Scottish Convention took ten years from gestation to the first elections of the Scottish Parliament. So it won’t happen quickly and any quick answers will be at best a cul-de-sac and at worst seriously bad. But the process needs to start.

    Tony

  • All well and good. The problem isn’t the lack of consensus around devolution for England. It’s because the public don’t really care that there’s no consensus. The real problems will come if the Scottish Parliament gets the power to set its own income tax and Scottish MPs retain their power to vote on English income tax rates. Any implementation of this recommendation will mark the beginning of the end of the UK.

  • “If we agree it is right to give the 5 million people in Scotland and 3 million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot ignore the 5 million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment”

    Oh David Laws, I could kiss you.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Dec '14 - 8:42pm

    Watch it, you’ll get accused of unwanted attention and harassment…

  • I get the distinct feeling we’ll end up with a confusing mix of devolved and regional assembles that will look a bit like the LibDem party organisation (see https://www.libdemvoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/lib-dem-organisation.jpg) with lots of opportunity for no real accountability behind the façade of democracy and localism…

  • David Evershed 18th Dec '14 - 12:24am

    EVEL and devolution of powers within England are separate issues.

    We should not be using a long and complicated debate about how we might devolve powers within England to delay making a decision about EVEL.

    When Scotland decides its own income tax rates there would be a conflict of interest if Scottish MPs were to then vote on English income tax rates. Particularly when the Scottish Labour constitution is to be changed to put Scotland first (rather than the UK).

  • Peter Davies 18th Dec '14 - 6:58am

    EVEL and devolution of powers within England are the same issue: “Who should exercise outside Scotland, the power that the residents of Scotland exercise there?”. EVEL presupposes that there will be English Laws. Proper devolution means there won’t be.

    The big question is “who decides what constitutes a region?” The obvious democratic answer is the residents of that region. Unfortunately, that means we can only start drawing up the electoral roll after the referendum decides who is eligible.

  • Tony: I’m sure that David is quite capable of rebuffing my joking advance should we ever actually be in the same room and the need arise. More seriously, I think the power differential between him and myself is entirely on his side, and given that I am (and always have been) a firm advocate of informed enthusiastic consent, I think I’m completely safe from harassment accusations. Even more seriously: given your public positions on various other matters in the same vein I find that response in incredibly poor taste. Still, as a liberal I suppose I can’t really condemn you for being tasteless…

  • Tory EVEL plans are simply about ensuring Labour (assuming the SNP don’t wipe them out completely) are less likely to be able to form a government, and if they do so it will be weaker, by depriving their Scottish MPs of a vote in parliament.

    There are many ways of dealing with devolutions of power, a parliament where England’s MPs have a veto on any government, to the exclusion of Scotland, is not one anybody reasonable should be supporting.

    Regional parliaments in England, of similar population to Scotland/Wales seems reasonable. Although Labour tried this previously, but it was rejected in a referendum.

    Which begs the question, do people care about this when their spending power is being cut, inflation is rising faster than wages, houses are becoming ever more expensive and the government are cutting public services to the point where more and more people find it increasingly difficult to cope?

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 10:12am

    g

    Ah yes, the old “people don’t care about democracy, they just care about their standard of living” argument. It’s true — sensible people care less about how a government is chosen than about what the government does. Only fools, however, believe that the latter is not seriously influenced by the former. Democracy matters, even when it’s not the first thing on everyone’s mind.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 10:17am

    Oh, and by the way, it may be true that “Tory EVEL plans are simply about ensuring Labour are less likely to be able to form a government”; but then, I think Labour’s opposition (which you enthusiastically take part in) is simply about making it more likely that Labour is able to form a government. That’s politics. Whichever side one decides is right in principle will still gain the party advantage as a result. In this case, I think it’s pretty obvious that the principle of self-determination that most people here support accords better with the Tory position. There is no good reason in principle why voters in Scotland should have a say over the English health and education system when the converse is not true. Your partisan concerns do not change that.

  • Malcolm Todd

    There is no good reason in principle why voters in Scotland should have a say over the English health and education system when the converse is not true. Your partisan concerns do not change that.

    There is a very good principle. MPs vote on things that do not affect their constituents all the time. The vote on HS2 for example. Under your logic anyone not on the route have been excluded from voting.

    Besides, the government in Westminster is the UK government. By excluding Scottish MPs from being able to vote, you prevent them becoming Ministers where they might have to oversee decisions not applicable in their constituency, and then Westminster is no longer a UK government, but an English government that takes decisions on behalf of Scotland. The only solution to such a scenario is full independence for Scotland, and that has been rejected by the people of Scotland.

  • Devolution on Demand would produce a mess of illogical boundaries and, for example, if Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol or indeed Norwich applied successfully to take powers on relatively narrow boundaries, that would leave meaningful devolution for the small town and rural areas around strangled at birth. Equally, if the decision was made purely by a vote of the council(s) or even a single, simple referendum, then outlying areas whose people did not want to be part of the devolved authority (but maybe of another) could well be swept in regardless, outvoted by the big city population.

    The fairer route is through a Constitutional Convention deciding the outlines and setting the parameters for a Devolution Commission which would take evidence and make soundings, for example in Yorkshire on a devolved region or three city regions.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 12:46pm

    g
    There is a very good principle. MPs vote on things that do not affect their constituents all the time. The vote on HS2 for example. Under your logic anyone not on the route have been excluded from voting.

    Sorry, no. That makes no sense at all. There isn’t a separate competence for transport; there’s a national decision on where to put a particular facility — everyone’s affected by that decision, and everyone has a say. What you’re ignoring in this (even though it’s right there in the extract from my comment that you quoted) is reciprocity. That’s absolutely central to the notion of democracy. I get to have a say over the rules that govern your life and you get to have a say over the rules that govern mine. It doesn’t apply just to those things that are equally relevant to both of us.

    Look: the “rights” of Scottish MPs are irrelevant to this. All that matters is the voters. The point of MPs is that they are meant to represent the voters — the people for whom they are legislating are the people to whom they are accountable. When Scottish MPs vote on laws, regulations and budgetary provisions that do not apply to their own constituents (not “happen to not apply” but actually cannot apply because they are constitutionally barred from making those decisions in that area) then that fundamental democratic principle is abrogated: they are legislating for people to whom they are not accountable. You might not think that’s important, but can you not see that it is what is happening?

    As for Scottish MPs becoming ministers — well, if members of the House of Lords can be ministers I don’t see why Scottish MPs can’t be ministers for England-only ministries. But they should certainly be seen in that light. It used to be considered unacceptable — though there was no constitutional bar — for a non-Scottish MP to have a job in the Scottish Office. I think it should be similarly unacceptable for a non-English MP to have a ministerial job in what is, in effect if not in name, the English Department of Health. That doesn’t exclude Scottish MPs from government, though it does restrict the posts they can reasonably hold. And so what?

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 12:47pm

    “The only solution to such a scenario is full independence for Scotland”

    I meant to add — no, it’s not. Another obvious solution is parallel devolution for England, i.e. a properly federal system.

  • Glenn Andrews 18th Dec '14 - 1:02pm

    Surely regional parliaments would be easier to sell if rather than arbitrary lines with regions called South-east or suchlike we had regions with some cultural resonance; such as Cornwall, Wessex, Mercia, Yorkshire, Northumbria, East Anglia etc.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Dec '14 - 1:17pm

    What culturally resonant region would Birmingham belong to? Or Buckingham? Southampton? And are you sure we all agree what the borders of Mercia or Wessex should be?
    According to this site, the whole of England was once divided into Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria (inconveniently including bits of Scotland) and Cornwall. I don’t think it’s very practical today.

  • andrew purches 18th Dec '14 - 2:30pm

    Malcolm Todd: You are not quite right – Saxon England was carved up into the “Heptarchy”, which could well be a historic and somewhat romantic answer to the current conundrum. Forget the bureaucratic regional division, along with the artificial creation of possible powerhouses up North. The Heptarchy it should be: self administering states within the Kingdom: being, Northumbria,Mercia,East Anglia, East Saxony (Essex), Kent, Wessex and Cornwall ( or West Wales ). That leaves of course the Borissia state of Greater London to be responsible for all foreign matters, and the redistribution of all taxes raised in the Kingdom,by the City Fathers. Or something like that anyway. The Palace of Westminster is now structurally rotten, as are its occupants – do we really need any of them ?

  • Glenn Andrews 18th Dec '14 - 2:41pm

    Malcolm;
    Sorry for taking so long getting back to you – I was on lunch…. I can see what you’re getting at there – here in Cheltenham for example we would generally consider ourselves to be of the South-west although it’s a close call (as a kid I was served by South west gas and midlands electricity)….. however, if a collection of neighbouring county council’s are in agreement (taking my own region as example say, Gloucestershire,Bristol,Wiltshire,Somerset, Dorest & Devon) forming a regional parliament …. though many would disagree – hence the need for a constitutional convention I guess.

  • matt (Bristol) 18th Dec '14 - 3:37pm

    Can I make a small additional point about EVEL which I don’t think I have seen elsewhere?

    What would happen to House of Lords reform if EVEL were enacted? Would EVEL have to be written into the sturcture of a new Senate if wholly or partially elected? If partially elected how would this apply to the unelected members of the new second house? Can all unelected members be assumed to be neutrally ‘British’ (what about CofE Bishops, if retained?)

    Basically, this is not a solution, this is a dog’s dinner with a great many unpondered connsequences. English devolution, whether national or regional, is at least a darn sight better pondered over.

    EVEL only makes sense in a Union parliament where no issues are devolved, so the House of Commons would be divided for certain issues into Grand Committees for each constituent ‘nation’ or ‘region’; this was considered in the past as a way of managing business, but largely unpursued. Where regions have already been devolved their own powers (as is now undisputably the case), EVEL is not a solution, it is a complication.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Dec '14 - 4:34pm

    I sincerely wish fellow members would stop bringing up the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as being likely solutions to the question of (much needed) devolved regional government. The borders of these pre-Norman conquest kingdoms were in a constant state of flux unless defined by something major such as the River Humber. West of the Pennines, the borders between Mercia and Northumbria shifted over time and were also over-written by the Viking kingdom of York. If we were to adopt the pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Lancashire north of the Ribble would be in Northumbria and south of it in Mercia. This does not make much sense in 2014.

    And as proud Northerner, I must point out to Andrew Purches that the Northumbrians, Mercians, East Anglians etc were all Angles. These kingdoms covered most of England – hence the name. The Saxons lived predominantely in those southern areas with the -sex suffix.

    Let local people and their representatives decide this question! People are much more likely to associate themselves with their village/town/city within a post-conquest county.

    For Liberals and Democrats an English Constitutional Convention is surely the only sensible path to reach a fair and lasting settlement.

    EVEL is simply a Tory manouver to neutralise Labour – and with their premature adoption city-regions Labour and some of our own MPs are playing right into their hands.

  • The easiest way out is for Westminster not to try to decide on a governmental structure for England, but rather to authorise the convention of an English assembly, proportionally elected by English voters, which will have the primary responsibility for determining the nature and extent of the devolved units within England. This will also avoid questions about why Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs are voting on English boundaries.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Dec ’14 – 4:34pm

    I agree there is a lot of nonsense talked about the Saxons and government. This includes the claims often repeated in my borough that six Saxon kings were crowned here. It is a myth. Most of them were nowhere near Kingston when they were crowned.
    The myth is mostly Victorian fantasy (but don’t tell our local Tourist Information people that I told you)

    I recommend the ‘Times Complete History of the World in Maps’. It illustrates how at one time in the Saxon era Strathclyde stretched so far South that it had a border with Wales on the River Dee.
    As late as 1200, Northumberland and Cumberland and northerly bits of Lancashire were part of Scotland.
    Morecombe Bay was a convenient dividing line between Scotland and England.

    Stephen Hesketh, Tony Greaves and Simon Banks make sensible comments on a proper path to devolved power in England. Those sensible suggestions point a way forward. Myths about Saxons do not even provide a good guide to the past.

  • The consideration of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, whilst limited by the practical considerations others have pointed out, they do raise an important point, namely what is a sensible region. Consideration of this lead me to review the re-establishment of Federal Germany after WWII and the role the Basic Law and specifically Article 29 played in the the creation of the 16 modern Länder. I suggest there is much we can learn from the German approach.

  • Roland 18th Dec ’14 – 9:59pm

    Roland I am guessing that your research into the beginnings of what came to be commonly known as West Germany, revealed that principle participants in the design of a Federal Republic were UK civil servants.

    The “German approach” was in many ways a very British approach to setting up a federal system. 🙂

  • JohnTilley – Thanks for the confirmation, I did suspect that I was suggesting something similar to what was promoted to industry in the 80’s, namely that we should look at Japanese manufacturing because it was so good, but many failed to grasp that the Japanese had taken western ideas (which we largely left on the shelf) and put them into practise.

    So going back to European ‘federalism’, is this yet another idea that our fore fathers sewed and we now wish to distance ourselves from?

    My main point was that if we really want to take regional assemblies etc. seriously we need to have an all encompassing approach rather than a piecemeal approach, which is what many are calling for.

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