Sir Malcolm Rifkind spoke at the CPS this week about The Unfinished Business of Devolution. I wasn’t there to hear it, but ConservativeHome has a good write-up here.
Rifkind is right that the West Lothian Question – the constitutional anomaly that means Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on issues that only affect English voters, while their own constituents are governed by devolved institutions – needs to be addressed. It’s a basic issue of fairness. Tuition fees, the ban on fox hunting and foundation hospitals were all forced through Parliament by non-English votes, even though they only applied to England.
Rifkind is also right that his proposed solution, a grand committee of English MPs who would consider, amend and vote on English-only legislation, is better than the fudge Ken Clarke’s ‘Democracy Taskforce’ is considering. But it still doesn’t go far enough – it lets an unrepresentative government continue to control the policy agenda.
I think there are two options. The first is to establish an English Parliament, as I recommended in this ASI Briefing. It need not amount to gross over-government or excessive cost as Rifkind fears. The new English Parliament could be made up of all the existing English MPs in the UK Parliament, sitting in the House of Commons for ‘English sessions’. This parliament would elect its own First Minister who would appoint a cabinet to exercise the devolved powers (existing government departments would simply be transferred from the UK government to the English one).
The second option is more radical and localist. Rather than have devolved powers exercised by an English Parliament, you could shift authority closer to the voters and put counties in charge (as I suggested here). Parliament would then be free to focus on the real affairs of state like foreign policy, security and defence – which is what it should be doing anyway!
Either way, it’s important that the devolved authorities set their own taxes and spend only revenue they themselves raise. That discourages profligacy, rewards efficiency and increases accountability.
As Rifkind says, it’s about time we dealt with the unfinished business of devolution.