Devolution in England

Should England have a Parliament?

The West Lothian Question

The system of local government in the UK is still based on the -tier system which was created in the 19th Century, based on county and borough councils and — at a lower level — district councils. However, there have been numerous reorganizations since. Foe example, the Greater London Council — from 1965, and six other metropolitan councils followed for England's main urban areas (the West Midlands, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and Merseyside). These authorities were abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986 largely because they were Labour controlled.

In the 1990s single tier of local government known as `unitary authorities' replaced the two tier structure in some areas.

Inspired by the American city model and a desire to devolve power the Blair government aimed to recreate a democratically elected strategic authority for the capital. This led to the establishment of two new institutions from 2000: an elected mayor with executive powers (an idea inspired by large US cities), supported by the Greater London Assembly. They share oversight of policy areas such as policing, transport and economic development. The first mayor, Ken Livingstone, introduced a congestion charge for drivers entering central London in response to increased traffic and air pollution. By 2015 a further 17 urban areas, including Bristol, Liverpool and Greater Manchester, had decided to adopt the elected mayor model.

Further progress towards devolution in England stalled because there was no significant popular demand for 'more government' and regional identity has not strong in England. There was some administrative devolution and the Blair government created unelected Regional Development Agencies. Their purpose was to promote economic development on behalf of central government. The government tried a referendum on a regional assembly in the North-East. The idea was heavily defeated when put to the test, with a 78 per cent 'no' vote in 2004. People were not persuaded that they needed a possibly another layer of additional bureaucracy, with few powers to make a real difference to regional regeneration.

The coalition abolished Labour's Regional Development Agencies but tried to breathe life into the concept of regionalism by combining local authorities in so-called 'city regions'. These new bodies, which included Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool city regions, were given strategic powers over transport and economic development and health. They were intended to play a part in the creation of what George Osborne as Chancellor called the 'northern powerhouse, a plan to drive growth in the north of England through improved transport links and investment in science and innovation. The devolution of powers to new urban authorities was part of this project.

The idea of an English parliament has little public support. The 'English votes for English laws' measure was intended to stem demands for a more fundamental overhaul of devolution arrangements.

What is the West Lothian question?

Most simply put, it asks why Scottish, Welsh or indeed Northern Irish MPs have the same right to vote at Westminster as any English MP now that large areas of policy are devolved to national parliaments and assemblies in areas such as health, housing, schools and policing.

Often translated as "English votes for English laws", the question also comes up if non-English MPs become UK ministers and push through controversial England-only measures, even as their devolved government rejects them.

The question itself is famously attributed to the then Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, who raised it in 1977 when Jim Callaghan's Labour government proposed a devolved assembly in Edinburgh.

It rarely mattered, since Labour's majority in England was usually large enough. There were two incidents when loyal Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs were needed to vote through Labour government policies because so many of their English colleagues rebelled.

In a vote to set up foundation trusts in the English NHS, Blair's majority was cut to 35 because many English Labour MPs rebelled or failed to vote; Blair needed 67 Scottish and Welsh MPs to push the trusts through. Blair needed similar levels of loyalty in January 2004 to introduce tuition fees, a policy firmly rejected in Scotland.

Is the answer EVEL - English Votes for English Laws ? The new procedures were approved by a Commons vote in October 2015 and used for the first time in the House of Commons in January 2016.[28][29]

The revised process is:

  • The Speaker judges which parts of a bill relate to just England, or England and Wales

  • An England-only committee stage considers bills deemed "England-only in their entirety"

  • Membership of this committee reflects the number of MPs each party has in England

  • Where sections of legislation relate only to England or England and Wales, the agreement of a Legislative Grand Committee composed of all English, English and Welsh or English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs, is required

In November 2016 the Centre on Constitutional Change published a report on the operation of the procedures during their first year, arguing that EVEL has avoided many of the problems predicted by its critics and recommending some improvements.As a result of the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party lost its House of Commons majority, but had a majority of 60 on English issues. The Conservatives later regained a majority of 81 seats in the 2019 general election, at the same time winning 345 out of the 533 seats in England.

Post-2015 Examples of the West Lothian Question

9th March 2016 – The Conservative Government proposed to relax Sunday Trading Rules in England and Wales. The Government’s motion was defeated by 317 to 286 votes. Had 59 SNP MPs not voted against the change, the government would have won by 21 votes. The SNP did this despite the issue not directly affecting Scotland.

14th March 2018 - 8 DUP MPs voted with the Conservative Government to remove thousands of Free School Meals in England. Their decision would not impact their constituents in Northern Ireland, as this is a devolved issue.