The obvious democratic imbalance in the post-devolution settlement is the absence of an English parliament. The Scots, Welsh and the Northern Irish have devolved assemblies which are steadily increasing their formal powers and political permanence through the development of a political class concerned only with their own home country. The English neither have a parliament nor the prospect of one, for no House of Commons party is committed to creating an English parliament.
This is no small matter because the absence of a parliament robs England of a national political focus and voice at a time when other parts of the UK are growing ever more strident in their demands through their devolved political institutions.
But the imbalance is far more than simply the lack of a Parliament. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, despite their devolved powers, still retain cabinet representation, grand committees, select committees and special question times devoted to their local affairs.
The Scottish Grand Committee is made up of all MPs sitting for Scottish seats. It has rarely met in recent years because the powers given to the Scottish Parliament mean that Bills passed at Westminster affecting only Scotland are rare. However, the committee has not been abolished and could be reconvened.
The Welsh and Northern Irish Grand Committees are still regularly functioning bodies because their assemblies have lesser powers than those of the Scottish Parliament. That may change in the case of the Welsh Grand Committee because of the extension of powers voted for in the recent Welsh referendum. The Northern Irish and Welsh committees debate issues relevant to their countries. This can be a very wide-ranging remit as it can include such business as the effects of a Queen’s Speech on the two countries.
The Welsh committee consists of the 40 Welsh MPs, and up to 5 others. The Northern Ireland Grand Committee includes each of the 18 MPs in Northern Ireland, together with up to 25 other MPs.
The Celts have a second bite at the Westminster committee cake, for there are select committees for each of them, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee.
To complete the Westminster representational hat-trick, there remains within the Cabinet Secretaries of State for each of the Celtic countries.
What does England have? Absolutely nothing: no Parliament, no devolved powers, no Grand Committee, no select committee, no question time, no secretary of state in the Cabinet.
Most obnoxiously MPs from non-English seats can vote on English matters even where, as is often the case with the Scottish parliament, English MPs cannot vote on equivalent legislation for parts of the UK other than England. Thus Scottish MPs voted for Foundation hospitals and increased university tuition fees in England, despite the fact that neither measure will be introduced into Scotland because the devolved Scottish political establishment is against them. The Welsh will be joining the game as they have just voted yes (2011) to the Welsh Assembly receiving similar powers to those of the Scottish Parliament.
Not content with denying the English a voice, the Blair government attempted to begin the process of political Balkanisation in England by announcing in 2003 that referenda for assemblies in the North East, the North West and the region of Yorkshire and Humber would be held. According to the draft Regional Assemblies Bill of 2004, the assemblies would have had much inferior powers to the Scottish Parliament and inferior powers to those of the Welsh Assembly.
The Blair government tested the water with a referendum for a North East Assembly in November 2004 believing that this was the English region most likely to vote for an assembly and if they did this would act as a spur to other regions to follow suit. The ploy failed so miserably, with voters rejecting the an assembly by 696,519 votes to 197,310, that plans for further referenda were dropped.
But although elected assemblies were not established in England, the process of setting English regions against one another was put in hand shortly after the Blair Government was formed through the creation of Quangos. Eight English Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were established under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. These were for: the East of England, East Midlands, North East, North West, South East, South West, West Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber.
A ninth RDA, the London Development Agency, was established in July 2000 following the establishment of the Greater London Authority (GLA). The first eight RDAs are responsible to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) ministers. The London Development Assembly is responsible to the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.
What do RDAs do? Here is the LDA website description:
“Our aim is to create better futures for London’s citizens by delivering projects that will help produce a prosperous, inclusive and sustainable city.
Working in close partnership with the Greater London Authority, London boroughs, businesses and the third sector, we have:
•provided practical advice and help to Londoners and to London’s businesses
•promoted London on a world stage – most recently at the Shanghai Expo
•helped set up the first two of the Mayor’s academies
•won recognition and international acclaim for our regeneration activities
•enabled London to start making significant cuts to Co2 emissions through our climate change programmes
•put projects in place that have helped thousands of Londoners benefit from the impact of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games” (http://www.lda.gov.uk/our-work/index.aspx)
There most significant role is probably their administering of the EU Regional Development Fund disbursements to English regions.
All the RDAs are scheduled to be abolished by March 2012 (http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/economic-development/englands-regional-development-agencies), but it is not certain that this will happen, because in the face of opposition from the Lords over the Public Bodies Bill which authorised ministers to make the decision (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldbills/025/11025.i-ii.html) the Government has conceded that Quangos will not be abolished without parliamentary scrutiny.
The RDAs will be superseded by Local Enterprise Partnerships. These concentrate on much smaller areas than the RDAs. The Coalition Government describes them as:
“Local enterprise partnerships are locally-owned partnerships between local authorities and businesses. Local enterprise partnerships will play a central role in determining local economic priorities and undertaking activities to drive economic growth and the creation of local jobs. They are also a key vehicle in delivering Government objectives for economic growth and decentralisation, whilst also providing a means for local authorities to work together with business in order to quicken the economic recovery.
“As local enterprise partnerships are based on more meaningful economic areas, they will be better placed to determine the needs of the local economy along with a greater ability to identify barriers to local economic growth.” (http://www.communities.gov.uk/localgovernment/local/localenterprisepartnerships/)
To date the Government has announced 30 partnerships that are ready to establish their local enterprise partnership boards. These are:
Birmingham and Solihull
Cheshire and Warrington
Coast to Capital
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly
Coventry and Warwickshire
Enterprise M3 (North Hampshire/West Surrey)
Greater Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough
Kent and Greater Essex and East Sussex
Leeds City Region
Leicester and Leicestershire
Liverpool City Region
Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derby, Derbyshire
Oxfordshire City Region
Sheffield City Region
South East Midlands
Stoke and Staffordshire
Thames Valley Berkshire
West of England
York and North Yorkshire
Until these bodies are up and running it is impossible to say exactly what powers they will have or what the relationship will be between them and national government.
As part of the Balkanising of England agenda of the recent Labour Government, English Regional Grand Committees were established in November 2008. However, these no longer exist because the Standing Orders that set up these committees expired in April 2010. With the exception of London, the regions of the UK that were covered by a Regional Grand Committee were the same as those administered by the RDAs. London was omitted because it has an elected assembly and mayor.
The nearest any mainstream party has come to offering England any redress for the democratic imbalance is to call for “English votes for English laws”, that is, laws which affect only England should be decided by only English MPs. This idea surfaced as far back as 1999 when William Hague made it official Tory policy. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/394997.stm). David Cameron has also supported the policy. (http://www.heraldscotland.com/english-votes-for-english-laws-would-damage-union-1.847545).
After the Coalition Government was formed in June 2010 Nick Clegg was given the task of considering the matter (http://toque.co.uk/nick-clegg-charged-considering-west-lothian-question)
To date no concrete proposals have been made or the matter been seriously discussed in Parliament. I have emailed both Cameron and Clegg asking what the Coalition’s position is without eliciting a reply. It is reasonable to assume that the question has been kicked into the long grass.
“English votes for English laws” is no remedy for the disadvantage under which England currently suffers, but it would act as a catalyst for an English Parliament in two ways. First, if the matter was done honestly, the majority of the UK Government budget would be decided by English MPs because most is spent in England. That would create an impossible tension between a UK Government and the English majority if the UK Government could not form a majority from English seats alone. Second, the mere fact of having to concentrate on English interests would create a sea-change in the mentality of the English political elite. MPs sitting for English seats would be unable to ignore the essential unfairness of the present situation because English voters would expect them to do something about it.
There are dangers with “English votes for English laws”. One way it could be fudged is by declaring many Bills which are obviously affecting England alone to be matters of UK importance. There would also be ample opportunity to push legislation through without the procedure being invoked on the grounds that it is EU deriving from the EU. It is conceivable that the process could be emasculated whilst leaving Westminster politicians free to say the “West Lothian Question” has been solved, a tactic which would not remove the problem but could suppress public debate about it. Nonetheless, it is the only realistic way forward those who want an English Parliament and Government for the foreseeable future. Consequently, it is a tactic (not an end in itself) which should be supported.