Report on devolution and the governance of England

24 May 2009

Devolution has changed the system of Government of the United Kingdom irreversibly, according to the Commons Justice Committee, but has left England’s government highly centralised and, in the view of many, in need of fundamental change.

In its report published today, the three-party Committee analyses the "English Question" and the possible answers to it, pointing out that hardly anyone among its witnesses was content with no change, but that there is no consensus on what the changes should be.

Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP said:

"Devolution has radically changed the way Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are governed and is changing the governance of the United Kingdom, but England, which has 84 per cent of the population, is the unfinished business of devolution - stuck in a pre-devolution time warp, while the rest of the UK has moved on. The funding formula is also a relic from earlier times, taking no account of the current need of the various nations and regions of the United Kingdom”.

On England, the Committee says that different types of solutions can be suggested for the many different questions which fall under the broad heading of the english question. First, there are those solutions which seek to address the constitutional imbalance seemingly brought about by devolution, for example, through the creation of an English Parliament. Second, there are those solutions which seek to amend the role, practice and status of Westminster as a means of addressing the West Lothian Question, for example, schemes of English votes for English laws. However, others consider that the west lothian question could be best addressed by a change in the party political balance at Westminster, for example, through reform of the electoral system or a reduction in the number of MPs from Scotland and Wales. These approaches could be described as all-England solutions. The final category of solutions are those which attempt to tackle the centralised nature and relative size of England through decentralisation or devolution within England. What is clear is that different solutions address different aspects of the question.

There is no consensus about solutions to the "english question", or the range of questions which arise under that heading. Each suggested answer has its own problems and limitations, and while some attempt to address issues around centralisation, others attempt to address the west lothian question. Those which deal to any major extent with the west lothian question, like an English Parliament and English votes for English laws, raise significant problems in a state where one of its constituent territories has 84 per cent of the population.

The implications of having an English Government and First Minister as well as a United Kingdom Government and Prime Minister have not been the subject of much public discussion and are politically significant. Approaches which make the UK Parliament into a federal parliament or treat English laws differently at Westminster raise questions about the nature and role of the second chamber which need to be considered as part of the discussion of Lords reform: clarification would be needed about whether, and if not why, the Second Chamber should consider "English" laws when it did not consider the laws of Scotland.

These are major political as well as constitutional questions which are for Parliament as a whole to consider. It is our belief that as devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland develops in profile and substance, Parliament will come under pressure to consider these questions.

On Wales the Committee agree that that there is a legitimate role for Westminster in scrutinizing draft Legislative Consent Orders to check whether they are in order, what their scope is, whether the drafting is clear and precise and whether the legislative competence can or should be devolved under the terms of the Act. However, the process in Whitehall is less clear and we are also concerned about the lack of transparency of the role of the Secretary of State in determining whether or not he would lay a draft Order before Parliament. We recommend that the Secretary of State produce a protocol outlining the principles that would inform such a decision, and the maximum timescales within which a decision should be made.

On relationships between Scotland, Wales and Whitehall the Committee agree that while the awareness of devolution in Whitehall has improved since … 1999, there is no doubt that there is still a considerable way to go in achieving consistent and effective practices in dealing with devolution issues across all Whitehall departments. This should not only involve a full and comprehensive understanding of the policy areas that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales, but also full appreciation and consultation so that Welsh and Scottish interests are taken into account in policy making in reserved or non-devolved areas which will have an impact on the UK as a whole.

On the Secretaries of State the Committee note that many have questioned whether it is justified for those parts of the United Kingdom which have devolved government, and only those parts, to have individual Secretaries of State in the Cabinet. As relationships between the administrations mature, the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland has clearly decreased, and the question of the continued separate existence of that office must be raised. However, the Government of Wales Act 2006 gave the Secretary of State for Wales a role in legislating for Wales. This process is still relatively new and bedding down, and any proposals for fundamental change to the role of the Secretary of State would have to take this into consideration.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries are now "part time", combining the post with UK departmental responsibilities, illustrates that the reality of change has been accepted, and it is significant that many of the arguments in favour of retaining the positions are essentially political, focusing on either perceived advantages in a territory of having a "champion" in the Cabinet, or the potential political disadvantages of abolishing the position. It is clear that the role of the territorial Secretaries of State has changed beyond recognition and that it is not likely to remain central to the functioning of devolved government or to seem consistent with the logic of devolution.

On United Kingdom Government the Committee said that the political and economic context has changed significantly during the past decade, and we welcome the re-convening of the Joint Ministerial Committee as the most appropriate mechanism for inter-governmental relations. However, there is still more to be done in order to achieve a robust framework for inter-governmental relations. We conclude that this framework, supported by a streamlined centre responsible for devolution policy and strategy across Whitehall, would equip the United Kingdom with a more efficient and effective system for territorial management in the UK post-devolution.

The Committee conclude that the Barnett Formula is no longer fit for purpose and that reform is overdue. We urge the Government to publish its position as a matter of some urgency and to proceed to devise a new formula which is needs based, takes into account regional disparities in England as well as in Scotland and Wales, is transparent and is sufficiently robust to enable long-term planning.

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