Friday, 27 March 2009

Regional devolution for England

In this post I will argue that the best solution to the so called 'West Lothian Question' (ie. the constitutional anomalies arising from the devolution settlement that was implemented in the UK in the late 1990s) is the adoption of a system of regional government for England.
As I commented in my first post on this blog, a parliamentary system of 'English Votes on English Laws' would introduce as many new problems as it solved by potentially creating a parliament within a parliament, with one party being in power in the larger body (the official UK parliament) and another holding the majority in the smaller entity (the de facto English parliament.
The establishment of an actual English Parliament could also lead to problems, as the population it served would be about five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together and its geographical territory would also be larger than that of the others. The Unted Kingdom would have become a type of federation, with one of its members dwarfing (and thereby, very likely, dominating) the other three.
By giving powers to regional authorities (perhaps the same powers as the Welsh Assembly or even the same as the Scottish Parliament, with a Government and a First Minister for each region) not only would the 'West Lothian Problem' be solved but also the power of each citizen would have increased as government would have been brought that much closer to the people.
The main arguments that I have heard or read against regionalisation are (a) that it is undemocratic and would involve regional agencies appointed by central government, (b) that it would 'break up' England into a number of small administrative units, instead of having a unified national parliament like Scotland and (c) that it would create a situation whereby various parts of the UK are forced to compete with each other for favour or funds from central government.
Objection (a) has no bearing on my argument, as I am arguing for regional authorities which would be elected by the populations they serve and be accountable to their electorates (as well as being under the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament, which is itself, of course, accountable to the UK electorate).
As for objection (b), by bringing in regional government we would be in a situation where there was no overall government for England, but where all parts of the UK were subject to the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament. This is basically the situation all of the UK was in for almost 300 years until 1999 and most people in England didn't have a problem with the fact that there was no one political body representing England during that period. It is only the democratic anomalies resulting from devolution in Scotland and Wales that have led to the desire of some people for an English parliament as a way of addressing the perceived unfairness. With the democratic deficit resolved by powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament being given to the English regions, I believe that any existing demand for an English parliament would fall away once again.
As for objection (c), that regional government would lead to competition for favour or funding from the UK Government, well, isn't that what already happens with local government? And don't different parts of England already compete for these things, anyway, through their elected representatives in the UK Parliament? Competition isn't necessarily always a bad thing anyway, and much of the problem could be resolved by giving the power to raise taxes to the Regional Parliaments, enabling them to be largely locally funded rather than having to get money from Westminster, although there would be a role for central government in guarding against any glaring regional inequalities and in helping to prevent the tendency of resources to be concentrated in and around London and the South East.
I'm not in favour of central government imposing regional devolution on the population of England against their will and I realise that the people of the North East overwhelmingly rejected the idea of regional government when John Prescott tried to sell the idea to them. However, I think the objections may have been in part to do with the fact that the form of regional government that New Labour were proposing involved taking powers away from local councils and also with the perception that this was another tier of politicians being imposed on people, with a concomitant burden of bureaucracy and taxation. In principle though, I see no reason why people might not be persuaded to support a truly democratic, fair and accountable system of regional government for England, with powers migrating downwards from central government towards the regional bodies, as a way of returning a sense of fairness to the UK constitution post devolution.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

NHS Constitution for England

The Westminster Parliament is currently debating the Health Bill (introduced 15th January 2009) which, amongst other things, proposes that "all NHS organisations, as well as third sector and independent organisations providing NHS care, should be legally required to take account of the NHS Constitution in performing their NHS functions."
Yet the NHS Constitution itself states that it "applies only to the NHS in England. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for developing their own health policies."
It may not, in itself, be a big issue but it still seems wrong that whole swathes of MPs will be voting to enshrine into law something that their own constituents have opted out of.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Cameron wants to play Happy Families with the UK

Last night David Cameron came to Watford to speak to members of the local community in an unscripted question and answer session as part of a series of meetings under the banner of 'Cameron Direct' which are being broadcast live over the internet on the Conservative Party website. Incidentally, I think this is a healthy development, a return to 'hustings' type politics and away from the stage-managed, spin-ridden performances we have come to expect in recent years.
I am not a resident of Watford, but I work there and one of my colleagues is a Tory councillor and she agreed to smuggle me in. I was determined to ask Cameron a question in connection with his recent decision to adopt Ken Clarke's proposal for an English Grand Committee to make unchallenged amendments to laws affecting only England (a half-hearted and relatively ineffectual non-solution, in my opinion, to the problem of asymmetric devolution) and after half an hour or so I managed to catch Mr. Cameron's eye and was allowed to ask my question.
The question I put to him was, "If you win the general election, will you be fair to the people of England and bring in 'English Votes on English Laws', or will it just be 'English Votes on English amendments', as Kenneth Clarke is proposing?"
(I realise that EVoEL isn't the best solution to the WLQ but I wanted to highlight the fact that the Clarke proposal falls short of even that.)

Here is the full text of Cameron's response to my question, interspersed with my thoughts in italics:

"Well, I think the Kenneth Clarke plan is the right one, I mean let me first say what I won't do. I don't want to have an English Parliament. We've got, frankly, enough politicians, paid enough, with enough big salaries and all the rest - we do not want a whole new English Parliament alongside the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament (sic) and the existing Westminster Parliament.
- Thanks for telling us what we do or don't want, Dave. No need for a constitutional convention, then -
So, how do we deal with this issue that you rightly raise of when, um, English - given that Scottish MPs (sic) in the Scottish Parliament deal with health, education and housing
- erm, don't forget policing, justice, the environment, arts, agriculture etc -
- how do we deal with the issue that when the Westminster Parliament is looking specifically at English health, education and housing, that English MPs have the decisive say. How do we that? Well, I think the Ken Clarke plan is a very good one. We don't want to create a situation where there are two classes of Member of Parliament, and make it too divisive.
- I'm tired of hearing this argument. There are already two classes of MP. Those who can vote on domestic matters affecting their own constituents, ie. English MPs, and those who can't, ie. MPs for Scottish or Welsh constituencies -
We want to keep the United Kingdom together, I think that's important. But what Ken has said in his proposal to me is, look, when the Westminster Parliament's talking about education you just make it sit as a Grand Committee with just English MPs that discuss that bill, and have a convention that when it comes to the whole House of Commons at the end of the process that they don't overturn what the English MPs have done,
- He's trying to make it sound like Scottish / Welsh / Northern Irish MPs won't be able to vote on English legislation, but that's not true, it's only the amendments made by English MPs that will be protected -
and I think this idea of conventions and processes working in our flexible constitution has worked very well over centuries and I think we can make this work as well. What I don't want to do is kind of have a big row between England and Scotland.
- Who said anything about a row? Dave, do you really think the people of Scotland are going to get stroppy if they're not allowed to participate in governing England's domestic affairs, even though they have their own Parliament and Government for Scotland? -
This is the United Kingdom, it's like a family, and I want to keep the family together. Families fall out over lots of things like money and arrangements like this and I don't want to inflame the situation so actually we end up seeing the United Kingdom become the disunited Kingdom. I want to try and keep the family together
- Surely the best way to keep a family together is to treat all the members fairly -
because I think we are more together - England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland - than we are if we start to break up."

I sat politely through all this, waiting for Mr. Cameron to invite me to respond to his answer, as he had done with all the previous questioners (and did with those who came after me). I wish now that I'd just butted in and interrupted him, because when he'd finished his response he just moved straight on and took another question. To me, this is a sign that he is aware of the weakness of his position and doesn't really want to discuss it.
I think the Tories want to palm off the policy they have adopted as not really being any different from straightforward 'English Votes on English Laws', so as to give the impression that if they come to power then the West Lothian Question will have been satisfactorily answered, which is rather dishonest in my opinion.

The whole question and answer session can be viewed here. My question is at approximately the 32 minute mark.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

There is power in a Union

Many of those who support the idea of an English parliament consider themselves to be English Nationalists, a term which I certainly would not apply to myself. Some see the enemy as the Unionists, those who continue to believe in the idea of Great Britain and who retain a loyalty to the concept of the United Kingdom.
I think this attitude is mistaken and I see no antipathy between a belief in the continued viability of a unified Britain and the notion of constitutional fairness. The architects and supporters of the unfair devolution settlement are the real nationalists, for they are the ones who have seen to it that the 'United Kingdom' is no longer united. They are the ones who have ensured that the UK parliament now contains two classes of MPs - those who can legislate on domestic matters affecting their own constituencies and those who cannot because such matters are now the remit of the devolved parliament/assemblies. They are the ones who refuse to extend equal privileges to all the constituent nations of the UK and who have created a situation whereby the degree of democratic influence a UK citizen has over how he/she is governed depends on whether or not he/she lives in one of the 'proud, historic nations' of the UK or merely in one of the 'regions'.
The people responsible for asymmetric devolution have put the interests of individual UK nations above those of the UK as a whole. To wish to help limit the damage and remedy the unfairness by advocating equal constitutional rights for all citizens of the UK makes me, far from an English nationalist, a believer in, and supporter of, the United Kingdom.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Great minds think alike

Not too long ago, the Conservatives were a divided party, riven by disagreement and factions. Under David Cameron's leadership, however, they have found a new unity of mind and purpose - so much so, in fact, that on the matter of England's democratic deficit it seems that some Tory minds think completely and utterly alike. Just look, for example, at the similarity between the response of Shadow Justice Minister Dominic Grieve to a letter from the CEP's Gareth Young and the letter I received on the same day (3rd March) from my MP, Mike Penning (Conservative, Hemel Hempstead) in reply to an email from me.
And, even more amazingly, this article on the website conservativehome by Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczyinski contains a passage which is completely identical to one in the letters mentioned above ("I do agree with David Cameron on this issue. Ken Clarke’s proposals strike a balance between giving the English electorate the accountability they deserve, and preserving the UK as a single state.")
How refreshing to see such unity and togetherness amongst politicians. Looks like David Cameron really has put an end to 'Punch and Judy politics', at least within his own party.