LibLink: Sam Ghibaldan: Time to end constitutional quirk

england-flagEnglish votes for English Laws has become the great rallying cry of the last week ever since David Cameron decided it was appropriate to use the exact moment that almost half of the 85% of Scots who voted in the referendum said they wanted to leave the UK to pick a fight with Ed Miliband over what has been traditionally called the West Lothian Question. Sam Ghibaldan was Special Adviser to two Liberal Democrat Deputy First Ministers in Scotland and he has some advice for Ed in an article in today’s Scotsman.   He urges him to stop prevaricating and embrace the potential change.

First of all he sets the context:

In the 18th century, of course, the whole political system was largely corrupt and the rotten boroughs provided yet more opportunities for bribery. The West Lothian Question does not do that, thankfully, but it is nevertheless a serious democratic aberration, pushed back to the top of the political agenda by the independence referendum.

The concern is something we British like to think of as our own: fairness. Why should Scottish – or for that matter Welsh or Northern Irish – MPs, vote on English issues, when their English counterparts cannot vote on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish ones?

The answer to that – they shouldn’t – is so obvious that most Scottish voters, let alone English ones, oppose their MPs voting on English issues. It is one of those rare constitutional questions that chimes with the electorate, appealing directly to their inherent sense of justice.

Then Labour’s reaction comes in for criticism:

The Tories are positively salivating at the thought of running a twin-themed campaign, contrasting their economic competence to that of Labour and portraying Miliband as discriminating against English voters, refusing them the same rights as their Scottish brethren. In marginal seats south of the Border, that could make things very painful for Labour; it could even cost them the election.

Caught between those conflicting political realities, Labour’s response to David Cameron’s raising of the English question has been shambolic. Claims that there are dangers in having different categories of MPs has simply given the impression that Labour would put party interest before that of the voters.

So what should Labour do? Stop faffing and call for an immediate UK Constitutional Convention says Sam:

Miliband would be better leading, taking the credit for change, than going down both in the forthcoming election and in history as the defender of the indefensible.

To get on the right side of the argument, he must take a stand on the principle that decisions should be taken by the MPs representing those constituencies affected by them. No constituency, no vote.

The right forum for that – as Miliband and the Liberal Democrats have suggested – is a UK Constitutional Convention, along the lines of that in Scotland in the 1990s. For perhaps the first time, it should look at the messy UK constitution in the round, considering how all the different bits should fit together, balance each other and complement each other.

It is not, after all, just the question of the votes affecting the four nations; how should the London Assembly fit into this jigsaw? What about the English regions? Given its strong identity and distinct legal system, is there a case for an English parliament? And what should be the role of a reformed House of Lords?

He concludes that it’s better to be Earl Grey than the Duke of Wellington. You can read the whole article here.

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  • Surely the issue is that NO MPs vote on devolved issues in Scotland Wales or NI. MPs are supposed to vote on non-devolved matters. Why should Scottish, Welsh etc MPs play second fiddle to English ones in being excluded from some non-devolved issues while English MPs get to vote on all non-devolved matters? Vernon Bogdanor’s piece earlier in the week sets out more sophisticated arguments. If England and English people had been so worried about this issue, why didn’t they agitate for devolution earlier?It isn’t the fault of Scottish MPs that English people took no previous action, is it?

  • A constitutional convention sounds a good idea… the snag is that, to do this properly, would take a while, and we might well need an interim solution as a stop-gap… and to find a way to stop the interim solution becoming the permanent one.

    I am sure that Devolution to the English regions is the way to go, so that MPs in Westminster are broadly all living in a world were similar powers have been devolved.

    An English Grand Committee might be an acceptable interim solution, but It muddles things badly for MPs for constituencies in England to be, in effect, elected to an English legislature and a UK one, where the national and UK legislatures are different for Scots and Welsh.

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Sep '14 - 3:20pm

    “English votes for English laws” via a grand committee can work, it is just my second preference to a separate English parliament or big regional assemblies in England.

    I came out strong against it because we just seemed to be fudging the democracy all over the place and this just looked like another small fudge to me.

  • David Evershed 27th Sep '14 - 3:44pm

    SNP already take the honorable position of not voting on English laws.

    It’s time for Labour and Lib Dem MPs for Scottish constituencies to also take the honorable position when it comes to voting on English laws.

  • Daniel Henry 27th Sep '14 - 3:52pm

    Good advice.
    Let’s hope that Ed is bold enough to run with it.

    Calling for people to determine the constitution rather than a politicians stitch up is a powerful argument for a convention.

    I also hear that UKIP and the Greens back it too, leaving Cameron quite isolated in his own plans.

    I really, really hope that it wins out!

  • “Why should Scottish – or for that matter Welsh or Northern Irish – MPs, vote on English issues, when their English counterparts cannot vote on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish ones?”

    As usual, this question is put in a totally misleading — one might even say false — way. One might more reasonably ask “Why should MPs from constituencies in Scotland be deprived of having the same rights to vote on non-devolved issues that MPs from constituencies in England have, because the “English” MPs cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament just like the “Scottish” MPs?”

    Apparently some folks are dead set on creating the impression that all Scottish MPs are ex officio MSPs as well, and therefore get “two votes.” That is completely false. All MPs, regardless of what part of the UK their constituency lies in, are entitled to vote on UK matters that have not been devolved to a local parliament or assembly. If you want to devolve some of those to an English level, then the answer is to create an English assembly or assemblies, not to arbitrarily deprive some MPs of the rights they justly have by virtue of being elected.

  • Peter Hayes 27th Sep '14 - 4:14pm

    Should the English have the same voting system as Scotland. Does anyone believe the Tories and Labour will give up FPTP?

  • stuart moran 28th Sep '14 - 6:05am

    David Evershed

    I do not think the SNP are doing it for honourable reasons – it helps their arguments that they should be a separate country. The SNP and Sinn Fein do not vote on English (or even British matters) purely for political reasons

    I am fed up trying to explain to people like you, who come along with a simplistic view – I cannot see how you differ from a UKIP activist – which makes a good soundbite but does not address the complexity

    Tim13 expresses it well – we have a UK Parliament, based at Westminster that votes on all non-devolved powers. There are different aspects of Irish, Scottish and Welsh which get voted on based on what is devolved

    The WLQ is irrelevant to Westminster as it is a UK Parliament and votes on all legislation put before it

    This situation has been there since 97 and there were some tentative (and inadequate attempts) attempts by Labour to address it and absolutely no proposals since 2010. If it was a large enough problem to panic legislate before an election then why was it not important enough to do properly from 2010

    I believe that a LD is in charge of constitutional change – can you point me to a speech of document where this ‘problem’ is addressed as a matter of urgency prior to the referendum?

  • Galen Milne 28th Sep '14 - 9:31am

    What is required here are a good number of our politicians aca “turkeys voting for Xmas “! Will the real democrats take one step backwards?

  • @Stuart Moran – thanks for your explanation.I’d been toying with asking why LD MP’s representing Scotland shouldn’t voluntarily abstain on certain issues ,pending the outcome of any Convention.I appreciate that you’re fed up with having to deal with people whose intellect isn’t as towering as your own but I was wondering whether you or perhaps another contributor could clarify the following –
    Is it the LD position that we think the current situation is fair or unfair?
    If the answer is fair why bother with a Convention at all?
    If the answer is unfair how do you then deal with the obvious second question which will be “why don’t your MP’s abstain?
    Do LD’s think change is inevitable and if so why wouldn’t it be better electorally to jump before we’re pushed?
    Do LD’s think the electorate will be believe a “LD pledge”that things will change after a Convention if it isn’t backed up by action beforehand?
    Will UKIP and the Tories draw attention to our perceived vested interest in retaining the status quo?
    Do bears….?.Oh sorry still smarting from being likened to a UKIP supporter.
    Now I’ll try to answer your question.
    I believe that EVEL will be a major issue at this election because
    1 Cameron has linked it to devo – max enabling the tories to play this card whilst denying that they’re doing so to gain political advantage.
    “it’s perfectly simple for Scottish MP’s to only vote on issues, which are national issues it’s not technically difficult.It’s only a matter of will”
    Anne Marie Trevelyan Conservative PPC Berwick upon Tweed, 25/9/22014
    2 UKIP enjoy a far higher profile than before and it’s a perfect issue for them to exploit.

    Can anyone help me out with this lot,( preferably without patronising the backside off me)! Thanks.

  • stuart moran 28th Sep '14 - 11:40am

    Dean W

    My intellect is anything other than towering but then it is all comparative isn’t it….

    I am not a LD member but an ex-voter and my opinions are mine and mine alone – I am not sure what the current party view is

    To answer your questions

    i. I don’t know ask them…my view is it is neither fair or unfair, it is how it is – but also that powers should be devolved to the English people as they are to the other countries. Also it should be approved by referendum to check that the English are happy with the proposal

    ii. A convention would enable the best solution to be found – not just a knee-jerk politically prejudiced view

    iii. The Parliament is the UK Parliament and it is inappropriate for abstention on matters put before it. The UK Parliament should not be used as an pseudo-English one.

    iv. I am not a LD – all I would say that any decision made in haste will probably be the wrong one. I have advocated constitutional reform on all levels but none of the parties have pushed it. Including the Tories who haven’t made a sound about this since 2010…

    v. No idea and frankly don’t really care

    vi. I don’t believe it is the LD (or Labour) who particularly advocate the status quo – we could ask the same question of the Tories concerning the HoL and the monarchy. This is purely done at this time in order to put Labour on the back foot. No thought or rigour has been involved. Personally I think the HoL is more of an anachronism than the Scottish MPs – will non-English peers, bishops or UK tax avoiders still be allowed to vote as well?

    Your view is that it will be a major issue – I disagree. I have no idea why you quoted a Tory PPC in support of your argument – is that supposed to convince me? UKIP are looking to exploit many things, doesn’t mean it makes them credible

    The problem with this issue is that on the face of it it looks simple but in fact it is complex. The role of the UK Government will diminish greatly if there is a regional English Government – not a problem in itself but how do we manage the transition. If there is an English Parliament then in what form? Regional or a unitary body? What powers does it have? What is the relationship with the councils? What is the voting system used? There are many questions

    You seem to advocate this English Grand Committee approach but I have seen no details on how this would work. Constitutional experts think that it is far more difficult to do than the Tories would have you believe- but you seem to take the word of Cameron and some unknown PPC over these people…….

  • Does anyone care about EVEL or Scotland any more?

    We have a nice new shiny war to entertain the Westminster Bubble. All sorts of war porn can fill the news. Breathless BBC reporters will be telling us about clinical strikes and our brave boys and the occasional brave girl from the UAE.

    55% of the Scots bought the Establishment line and as a result 100% of Scotland will now be put on the back shelf and forgotten about.

    EVEL was always just one stone with which Cameron could hit two birds, Miliband and Clegg.

  • @Stuart Moran Thanks for your reply. Key words that you seem to have overlooked ,”pending outcome of a Convention”.
    Consequently not sure how you’ve concluded that I’m endorsing DC’s line.
    Quote from the PPC was not to support what she said but rather to illustrate the point that she was already trying to make this an issue for 2015.
    Other than that as a non LD I appreciate yours is a personal view..As a LIB Dem hoping to prevent A-M T getting herself elected I really hope that the Party are going to come up with something more than ,It’s neither fair nor unfair it is what it is.Oh but we’re in favour of a Convention to discuss the issue.Can’t see that working for us.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Sep '14 - 6:37pm

    John Tilley is right as usual. Anyway what are “English issues” – most legislation affecting “England” is actually for England and Wales, but the English nationalists who rant on about “English votes for English laws” don’t care tuppence hapenny for Wales

    Re: Why English votes for English laws is a kneejerk absurdity (page 38, today)

    “English votes for English laws” is indeed nonsense. As well as the complex financial interactions within so much new legislation, well described by Vernon Bogdanor in the Guardian this week, the procedural complexities would be ridiculous.

    Most large new Bills cover the whole of the UK, with different clauses applying to different countries and combinations of countries. For instance the recently passed 232 pages long Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act has sections and schedules which variously extend to England and Wales only; to England and Wales and Scotland; to England and Wales and Northern Ireland; and to all four countries. Some Bills even have clauses that only apply to Scotland!

    Second reading debates and votes in the Commons would have to involve all MPs. Would there then be different subsets of MPs at committee stage? Or different ones able to vote on amendments at Report, each wearing an appropriate badge for the benefit of the tellers? In any case the principle could not be applied in the House of Lords where almost all members are “United Kingdom peers” wherever they live.

    The idea is just scurrilous and potentially quite dangerous right-wing populism.


  • Tony:
    How is it in this ‘United Kingdom’, that Scottish MP’s can vote through legislation for £9000/annum, for English student tuition fees, whilst they go home to their constituents who pay *zero*, for their Scottish student constituents?
    When you have resolved that gross anomaly, you will be starting to get close to a fair system of true devolution.

  • stuart moran 29th Sep '14 - 6:23am

    John Dunn

    How many Scottish MPs voted for tuition fees at £9000?

    I think that was the policy of the English dominated Conservative Party

  • @JohnDunn – re: Tuition fee’s
    You’re confusing the setting of tuition fee’s with who pays. Scottish universities do charge tuition fee’s, a “Home-Scotland” student still has to apply to Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) to get their tuition fee’s paid by the Scottish government.

  • “You’re confusing the setting of tuition fee’s with who pays.”
    I’m confused?…. Really ?
    An English graduate walks away with £40,000 debt
    A Scottish student walks away with *zero* debt.
    It’s the English student who is confused. And their understandable and angry confusion is,…. Why Lib Dems did the dirty on them, after promising that they wouldn’t? Is it going to be future LibDem policy to rescind those English student debts, by matching Scottish policy on funding tuition,…and if not, why not?

  • John Dunn – My understanding is that the £9,000 tuition fee cap applies to the whole of the UK. The UK government has left it to the various assemblies (eg. Holyrood) to allocate additional monies – within the constraints of their budgetary responsibilities, if they so desire, to assist with the repayment of tuition fees (and/or maintenance costs).

    A concern is the UK government has permitted Holyrood to discriminate against the Union , by effectively allowing it to treat it as if it were outside the EU (EU students get the same terms from SAAS as “Home Scotland” students). This is something we need to stamp on very hard, particularly as Scotland has voted to remain in the Union.

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