West Lothian question

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The West Lothian question,[1] also known as the English question,[2] refers to whether MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, sitting in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, should be able to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The term "West Lothian question" was coined by Enoch Powell MP in 1977 after Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian, raised the matter repeatedly in House of Commons debates on devolution.[3][4]

In 2011 the Government of the United Kingdom set up a commission to examine the question.[5] The Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, chaired by former Clerk of the House of Commons Sir William McKay, published a report in 2013 which proposed various procedural changes, including that legislation which affects only England should require the support of a majority of MPs representing English constituencies ("English votes for English laws").[6][7] Following the election of a Conservative government in the 2015 general election, new parliamentary procedures and an English Grand Committee were enacted.[8]


The underlying constitutional issue was raised by William Gladstone in 1886. During his speech on the first Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 he said:

If Ireland is to have domestic legislation for Irish affairs they cannot come here for English or Scottish affairs.[9]

The "West Lothian Question" itself was first posed in 1977 during a British House of Commons debate about Scottish and Welsh devolution proposals. In the 14th November sitting, Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian, asked,

For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate ... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?[10]

To illustrate his point he chose the example of a member of parliament for West Lothian who could vote on matters affecting the English town of Blackburn (in Lancashire), but not on matters concerning the Blackburn in his own constituency. The name "West Lothian question" was later coined by the Ulster Unionist MP Enoch Powell in a response to Dalyell's speech, when he said "We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian question."[11] Today, the question is more commonly assumed to refer to the anomaly that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland members at Westminster can vote upon English matters, while MPs for English constituencies have no influence on affairs which are devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.[12] Dalyell was a vocal opponent of Scottish devolution in the 1979 and 1997 plebiscites. A devolved Scottish Parliament was created in 1999 after a clear majority voted in favour of devolution in the second referendum.

Legal status

The Scottish Parliament was formed by statute, the Scotland Act 1998, and is thus a creation of Westminster. No sovereign status on the Scottish Parliament is conferred, and the act has not changed the status of the Westminster Parliament as the supreme legislature of Scotland, with Westminster retaining the ability to override, or veto, any decisions taken by the Scottish Parliament. The Westminster Parliament remains the sovereign body; powers are devolved rather than transferred to the Scottish Parliament. The ability of all Westminster MPs to vote on Scottish legislation has not been legally diminished by devolution, as made clear by Section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, which states that the legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament do "...not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland".[13]

Legislation relating to reserved issues such as defence, national security, foreign policy and monetary and economic issues are voted on by all the MPs at Westminster to ensure consistency across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament is not able to pass laws on these issues itself, as they were not devolved. The West Lothian question is not involved in this situation, as all parts of the Union have a say roughly proportional to their population and all are equally affected. During devolution, a convention was created to manage the power of Westminster to legislate on matters within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. This is known as the Sewel Convention, and the related Scottish parliamentary motions are now known as Legislative Consent Motions (previously Sewel Motions).[14] These motions (of which there are around a dozen per year) allow MPs to vote on issues, which among other things, are within the Scottish Parliament's legislative competence. The Sewel Convention states that the Westminster Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

English votes for English laws

Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, it has been suggested by Conservative MPs that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on matters that do not affect Scotland.[15] In July 1999, Conservative Party leader William Hague said that "English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws ... People will become increasingly resentful that decisions are being made in England by people from other parts of the UK on matters that English people did not have a say on elsewhere ... I think it is a dangerous thing to allow resentment to build up in a country. We have got to make the rules fair now."[16]

In establishing foundation hospitals and increasing student tuition fees in England, Scottish votes were decisive in getting the measures through.[17] The vote on foundation hospitals in November 2003 only applied to England – had the vote been restricted to English MPs then the government would have been defeated.[18] Had there been a vote by English MPs only on tuition fees in January 2004, the government would have lost because of a rebellion on their own benches.[19] Students at English universities are required to pay top-up fees, but students from Scotland attending Scottish universities are not. The legislation imposing top-up fees on students in England passed by a small majority of 316 to 311. At the time, the shadow education secretary Tim Yeo argued that this low majority made the passing of the law "completely wrong" due to Scottish MPs voting to introduce tuition fees that Scottish students attending university in Scotland would not have to pay.[20][21] A small part of the bill did relate directly to Scotland.[22]

Following his election as Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, David Cameron established a "Democracy Taskforce" chaired by Kenneth Clarke. The taskforce's final report "Devolution, The West Lothian Question and the Future of the Union" proposed a possible solution to the West Lothian question. The proposals called for changes in procedures in the House of Commons for the passage of bills relating only to England. Under the new procedures, all MPs would participate in the first and second readings of these bills, but only English MPs would participate in the committee stage consideration of the bill. All MPs would vote on the final bill at report stage.[23] An amendment proposed by Malcolm Rifkind suggested that the second reading and report stages of bills would require a "double majority" of both the House as a whole and of English MPs.[24]

Labour politician Jack Straw has speculated: "I say to the Conservatives that if they start to take a mechanical approach, this so-called 'English votes for English laws' approach, then they will break the Union."[25]

McKay Commission

The May 2010 coalition agreement between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats provided for a commission to be established to consider the West Lothian question.[26] In September 2011, the Government announced that the commission would be established in the near future and that it would consist of "independent, non-partisan experts". The new commission would examine how the House of Commons and Parliament as a whole could deal with business that affects only England and is devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The commission would not look at reducing the number of MPs from the other three constituent countries or financing of the devolved institutions.[5]

The McKay Commission reported on 25 March 2013.[6][7] It concluded that changes were needed because of the perception that England was disadvantaged under the current devolution arrangements, and proposed that Commons decisions with a "separate and distinct effect" for England should "normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs sitting for constituencies in England". This principle should be enshrined by a resolution of the House of Commons. The Commission also proposed a number of changes to procedure, including allocating specific parliamentary time to proposals for England. The government said it would give the report "serious consideration".[27]

On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland voted against independence in a referendum by 55% to 45%. Shortly after the outcome of the vote was announced, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated that the "question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer." He announced the appointment of Lord Smith to lead a commission to develop proposals for constitutional reform to be included in a Bill to be published in January 2015.[28] Labour refused to engage in cross party discussions about the issue.[29]

Developments after the 2015 general election

The governance of England featured in the 2015 general election manifestos of the three major political parties. The Conservative manifesto supported the idea of "English Votes for English Laws", with England only legislation requiring approval from an English Grand Committee prior to its Third Reading. In the case of legislation applying to both England and Wales, a joint sitting of the English Grand Committee and Welsh Grand Committee would be required. It proposes a separate English rate of Income Tax and rejects regional governance in England.[30][31][32]

The Labour Party manifesto stated that it was time to "consider how English MPs can have a greater role in scrutiny of legislation that only affects England" and suggested that an English Grand Committee stage for legislation could be considered.[33] The Liberal Democrats manifesto proposed that England only legislation be considered by a committee of MPs with membership based on share of the vote in England. It proposed a system of "Devolution on Demand" where councils or groups of councils could request further powers from Central Government. It supported the principle of an assembly for Cornwall.[34]

The Conservatives won an overall majority in the election and formed the government of the United Kingdom. On 2 July 2015, Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, announced proposals to change standing orders to give MPs representing English constituencies a new "veto" over laws only affecting England. The proposed process is:[35]

  • The Speaker will judge which parts of a bill relate to just England, or England and Wales
  • An England-only committee stage will consider bills deemed "England-only in their entirety"
  • Membership of this committee will reflect the number of MPs each party has in England
  • Where sections of legislation relate only to England or England and Wales, the agreement of an English Grand Committee or a legislative grand committee, composed of all English and Welsh MPs, will be required

On 9 July 2015, Grayling said that, following two days of debate in July, a final set of standing orders would be tabled and voted on after the summer recess.[36] Labour said the "reckless and shoddy" plans had descended into "chaos" while the SNP said it was a "shambles".[37] The new procedures were approved by a Commons vote in October 2015[8] and used for the first time in the House of Commons in January 2016.[38][39]

Other possible answers to the question

English devolution

English parliament or assembly

The creation of a devolved English parliament or assembly, with full legislative powers, akin to the Scottish Parliament is seen by some as a solution to this problem,[40] with full legislative powers also being conferred on the existing Welsh Assembly. The Westminster (United Kingdom) Parliament would continue to meet and legislate on matters of UK-wide competence such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and economic matters with the parliaments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland legislating locally. However, opponents of this proposal argue that it would simply add another layer of government and an 'expensive talking shop'.

Lord Falconer, the former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, has stated that he believes that an English Parliament would "dwarf all other institutions."[41] Peter Hain, who campaigned for a Welsh Assembly, warned creating an English parliament or trying to stop Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters would break up the Union.[42] Chuka Umunna suggested in July 2015 that the Labour Party should support the creation of a separate English parliament, as part of a federal United Kingdom.[43]

Regional assemblies

The Labour government of Tony Blair attempted to address part of the West Lothian question by introducing English regional assemblies with no legislative powers. Originally, it was planned that these would be directly elected. The London Assembly was the first of these, established following a referendum in 1998, in which public and media attention was focused principally on the post of Mayor of London.[44] Ken Livingstone was the first directly elected Mayor of London. He started his victory speech with "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago", making it clear he saw the London Assembly as a recreation of a similar London wide authority to that of the Greater London Council, which he had led before it was abolished in the 1980s.[45]

Further progress was thwarted when a referendum in the North East rejected the proposal for an elected assembly in November 2004[46] leading to the shelving of similar proposals for other English regions. The Regional Development Agencies were all scrapped by March 2012 with their powers and functions being transferred either to local government or in the case of London, the Greater London Authority.

Increased powers to English counties and cities

Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan have proposed that all the powers currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament should also be devolved to the English counties and cities. This would mean that the situation of Scottish MPs voting on policy which only affected England would no longer arise, because parliament would no longer be responsible for areas of policy which affected only England. Therefore, parliament would have to choose to make policy either for the United Kingdom as a whole, or not at all. Carswell and Hannan write: "All the fields of policy currently within the purview of the Holyrood Parliament should be transferred to English counties and cities (thereby, incidentally, answering the west Lothian Question)." [47]

Dissolution of the Union

Another solution might be the dissolution of the United Kingdom leading to some or all of the constituent countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) becoming independent sovereign states. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which campaigns for Scottish independence, won an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament in the 2011 Scottish election. A referendum was held on 18 September 2014, with the electorate rejecting independence by 55% to 45%.[48] In Wales, Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru holds Welsh Independence as a long-term aim. In Northern Ireland there are no mainstream political parties calling for an independent Northern Irish state, but parties calling for a united Ireland include Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Reducing the number of Scottish MPs

During the existence of the Parliament of Northern Ireland (1922–1972), the number of MPs elected from Northern Ireland to Westminster was below the standard ratio of MPs compared with the rest of the UK.[49] During periods when the predominantly unionist MPs from Northern Ireland deprived Labour of working majorities, Conservatives supported the principle that "every member of the House of Commons is equal to every other member of the House of Commons".[49] Scotland traditionally enjoyed a greater number of MPs per head of population than the rest of the UK, but this advantage was reduced significantly at the 2005 UK general election.[50][51] Under boundary reforms proposed by the Conservatives, there would be 50 Scottish seats out of a UK total of 600.[51] An argument against the idea of having a lower number of MPs, in return for more devolved powers, is that if the national parliament takes important decisions (such as waging war) then people should be fully represented.[51]

See also


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  2. "Scottish referendum: What is the 'English Question'?". BBC News. BBC. 19 September 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  10. "SCOTLAND BILL". millbanksystems.com.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  23. [1][dead link]
  24. [2][dead link]
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  26. [3],
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  40. Campaign for an English Parliament,
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  49. 49.0 49.1 Bogdanor, Vernon (24 September 2014). "Why English votes for English laws is a kneejerk absurdity". The Guardian.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  50. Allardyce, Jason (4 May 2014). "Cut urged for Scots MPs if No wins poll". Sunday Times. Retrieved 23 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading

External links