Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents




Is the answer to the English Question an English Parliament?

  As the previous chapters have shown, proposals such as Regional Assemblies, an English Grand Committee and "English Votes on English Matters" have provided, at best, partial solutions to the English Question. The previous chapter also concluded that an English Parliament similar to that of Scotland's could provide an answer to the English Question. However, the idea of an English Parliament has never been properly investigated or given adequate scrutiny by the leading devolution academics. Academic accounts have tended to dismiss the idea without discussing it, often giving the reason that the idea remains too far from the political mainstream.51 This chapter will give the idea of English Parliament the scrutiny it has so far not been given.

  There are many issues and questions surrounding the idea of an English Parliament, some of which relate to each other and therefore it can be difficult to deal with the issues separately. However, the issues can be put into two broad categories: external and internal. The external issues concern how an English Parliament would affect other institutions, such as the House of Commons, the House of Lords, English local government (including Regional Assemblies), the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as well as the European Union. Internal issues are those concerning an English Parliament as an institution in itself—what powers it should have, how it should be funded, what electoral system should be used, and where it should be located. These questions intertwine with each other, but mostly the issues will be dealt with separately.

An unbalanced, federal UK?

  The creation of an English Parliament would see the near completion of a "devolution all round" situation in the UK. It is generally accepted that, were such a situation to occur, the UK will have become a federal state.52 It is with this fact in mind that one of the main arguments against the creation of an English Parliament is made, that "there is no successful federation in the world where one of the parts is greater than around one-third of the whole. England, with four-fifths of the population would be hugely dominant... it would be grotesquely over-balanced, with the English Parliament as important as the Westminster Parliament".53 This was echoed recently by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, when he responded to calls for an English Parliament in a speech on devolution. Lord Falconer argued that "[t]he English Parliament would control the greater part of the economic power of the UK. It would be the dominant political force", and that such a situation would see the break up of the UK.54 Similar arguments that devolution would lead to the break up of the UK were made in the process of creating the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National Party supported devolution to Scotland as a stepping stone towards full Scottish independence, while the Labour Party introduced the plans in an attempt to quell Scottish Nationalism. The Conservatives opposed the plans fearing it would break up the Union. None of the parties could claim to have the definitive answer of how the future would play out, and the same could be said today. While the Lord Chancellor believes an English Parliament would see the end of the Union, the Campaign for an English Parliament (CEP) believes its creation is vital to saving the Union.55 With regard to the specific point that there is no example of a successful federation where one part is larger than around one-third of the whole, it must be stressed that Britain's situation is somewhat unique. It has been in existence for nearly 300 years, the vast majority of this time as a unitary state. England has been hugely dominant throughout Britain's history because of its relative size and wealth, so England dominating the Union would be nothing new. Indeed, Hazell recognizes that in the United Kingdom today, "England dominates".56 Devolving power to England would not increase England's ability to dominate the Union. In fact, with many areas of policy such as Health and Education devolved to Scotland and Wales, England's ability to dominate the other nations of the Union has been reduced. There is also the argument that a situation in which England did not dominate the Union would be ignoring England's population size (83% of the UK) and would therefore be undemocratic.

  Hazell also argues that an English Parliament would be more important than Westminster, but with powers clearly divided between them, it is difficult to envisage how an English Parliament would be more important except in relation to those areas of policy devolved to it. Even where powers are not clearly divided, the English Executive would undoubtedly become a part of the existing Memorandum of Understanding and four main Concordats57 between the UK Government and the devolved institutions, which help ensure the smooth conduct of intergovernmental relations. A further help to this is that it would be a rare (but not impossible) occurrence for there to be different political parties in power at Westminster and the English Parliament, given England's majority of MPs at Westminster. On top of all of this, as is the case with the Scottish Parliament, Westminster would remain sovereign and would retain the right to legislate for England in any way it saw fit, although an agreement similar to a Sewel motion would be appropriate.

The effects on Westminster

  Another criticism of the idea of an English Parliament is that it will be another layer of government resulting in yet more politicians. The distaste for the idea of more politicians was clear in the rejection of a North East Regional Assembly in 2004. Any plans for an English Parliament would have to make clear that it would not mean more politicians.

  Of course, the creation of an English Parliament would see the role of English MPs at Westminster considerably reduced. With the devolution of significant powers away from Westminster, the present number of MPs would not be necessary to carry out the functions of a Parliament that only dealt with specific reserved matters. To be clear on just how significant the reduction in number of Westminster MPs should be, it must first be made clear what powers an English Parliament should have. The answer to this is quite simple: it should have the same powers as were granted to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act in 1999. This would mean that the UK Constitution, Foreign Policy, Defence, Employment legislation, Social Security Policy and Transport safety would remain as matters reserved to Westminster. With Westminster only dealing with these reserved matters, the number of MPs would have to be significantly reduced. The exact number would be difficult to define without research into how much Parliamentary time is usually taken up with matters that would be devolved, but an interesting comparison is with that of other legislatures across the world. The House of Commons, with 646 members, has one MP for every 91,000 people. If Welsh constituencies were brought into line with Scottish and English constituency sizes (one MP for every 70,000 voters), then Wales would have 34 MPs and the House of Commons would have 640 members, one for every 92,000 people. This appears quite a lot compared with, for example, the French Assemblée nationale (577 members, one for every 103,200), the Spanish Congresso de los Diputados (350 members, one per 114,000) and the US House of Representatives (435 members, one for every 647,000 people).58 It is clear that, even without devolution all-round, the House of Commons is a large House. Full devolution to England (and Wales) would highlight the situation further. It would not be inconceivable for the House of Commons, following devolution, to reduce its numbers by at least one-third (to around 426 members,59 one for every 138,500 people), half (321 members,60 one for every 184,000 people) or perhaps even two-thirds (213 members,61 one for every 277,000 people). All options would produce a lower MP-constituent ratio than France and Spain, but even the most extreme reduction would not bring the MPconstituent ratio anywhere near the levels of the US.

  As well as the House of Commons having a much-reduced role, the House of Lords would also be affected in the same way. Currently, legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament is not subject to scrutiny from the House of Lords, and so it can also be presumed that the same situation would occur with the creation of an English Parliament; legislation passed by an English Parliament would not go to the Lords. There is already an on-going debate about whether the House of Lords should be an (indirectly or directly) elected House, or stay unelected. This debate would not necessarily be affected by the creation of an English Parliament, but it would be certain that the House of Lords would have to be reduced in terms of numbers from the current 693 members.

Local Government and the European Union

  Another area that would undergo significant change would be the regional level of government that has evolved rather slowly from the 1960s onwards but rapidly gathered pace after 1997, only to be effectively killed off after the 2004 North East referendum.62 The creation of an English Parliament would be an opportunity to disband this tier of undemocratic government, transferring powers either to the new Parliament or back to the tier of local government they were originally taken from. The effect that the creation of an English Parliament would have on local government is therefore an important one, as it would see the local decision-making process brought back closer to the people. As for Regional representation, there is no reason why an English Parliament could not have Committees for each of the English regions to act in the same way as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Committees worked in the UK Parliament prior to devolution. There could even be Ministers for each of the Regions within the Parliament.

  Leading on from this, an English Parliament would be able to take over the work performed by Regional Assemblies in the European Union, providing the English regions with a stronger, unified voice not only within the EU but also within UK Rep. The lack of democratic legitimacy has hampered English regional efforts to influence the process of the formulation of EU policy both in the EU and within the UK (see chapter 1), but an elected English Parliament would not be constrained so. An English Parliament would also be a much stronger force than individual regions in applying for EU structural funds. Currently, the English regions apply separately for funds and are therefore in direct competition with each other.With London and the South East undoubtedly able to shout loudest, there is a danger for poorer regions such as the North East to lose out. An English Parliament would therefore not only be a stronger lobbying force, but also better placed to distribute the funds more evenly across England. However, if EU structural funds were to decrease, the way the English Parliament was funded would be crucial.


  The issue of how to fund the Scottish Parliament was a contentious issue at the time of creating the institution and continues to be a difficult issue.63 Whoever has to decide how an English Parliament should be funded will have to decide which is more important: UK macroeconomic priorities or fiscal autonomy for the devolved institutions. If the former is perceived as more important, then an English Parliament will be funded in a similar way to the Scottish Parliament by a block grant from the Treasury with the option of varying income tax by up to 3p. If the latter, then the devolution of tax policies would have to occur.

  There are arguments both for and against the devolution of power over taxes.64 The current situation leans towards the arguments for maintaining UK macroeconomic policy as the top priority, but a federal UK would have to find a more evenly balanced agreement. Central to this would be two things. First, a review of the Barnett Formula to find a fairer means of distributing resources between the nations of the UK, preferably a system based on the needs of each nation rather than the population figures. A change in the Barnett Formula could have a significant impact on the annual resources available to England. If spending per head had been equal across the UK in 2004-05, England would have received an extra £12 billion.65 It is clear that, if an English Executive were to be successful in securing a fairer deal for England, the financial cost of an English Parliament would certainly be worth it, even if only a fraction of the £12 billion were to be retrieved. Second, the creation of a formal arbitration mechanism to resolve differences between devolved and central Government, as presently the devolved institutions have no legal right to challenge Treasury decisions. Recent problems have been resolved amicably mostly because the same political party has been in power at Westminster and in Scotland and Wales,66 but this will not always be the case.


  The location of an English Parliament is an important issue for those who fear that one based in the capital would be "like another form of London dominance".67 There is no reason why an English Parliament would have to be based in London. The CEP does not have a formal policy on where an English Parliament should be located, arguing that it should be for the elected members of that Parliament to decide.68 However, the CEP does argue that an English Parliament could be located in the Midlands or the North of England. If this were to be the case, it "could bring about the biggest transfer of employment, cultural and media power and activity, and political power in all England's history".69 Such a decision would not harm the capital, as "such an event would save London and the South East from the self destruction its success is threatening it with".70 At worst, London would still not be a loser, as it would retain its position as the seat of the UK Government, "in which ultimate and effective power would remain".71 Of course, an English Parliament could be based in London and the UK Parliament be moved to a more central location within the UK.


51  Sandford and Hetherington, (2005), p 103.

52  For an excellent explanation of the UK as a federal state, see Darren Foster, England Disadvantaged: Time for the Secret People to Speak (Greenwich: University of Greenwich, 2005) pp 29-36.

53  Robert Hazell, An Unstable Union: Devolution and the English Question (State of the Union Annual Lecture, London: The Constitution Unit, 2000) p 8.

54  Speech by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, at the ESRC Devolution and Constitutional Change Programme Final Conference, (London, 10 March 2006).

55 (see answer to question 16), 26 April 2006.

56 Robert Hazell, (2006b), p 37.

57  Memorandum of Understanding and Supplementary Agreements between the United Kingdom Government, Scottish Ministers, the Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee, Cm 5240 (London: The Stationery Office, 2001). The Concordats are: the Concordat on Co-ordination of European Union Policy Issues; Concordat on Financial Assistance to Industry; Concordat on International Relations; Concordat on Statistics.

58  See Rogers and Walters, (2004), p 19.

59  A UK Parliament of approximately 352 English, 39 Scottish, 23 Welsh and 12 Northern Irish seats.

60  A UK Parliament of approximately 265 English, 30 Scottish, 17 Welsh and 9 Northern Irish seats.

61  A UK Parliament of approximately 176 English, 20 Scottish, 11 Welsh and 6 Northern Irish seats.

62  For a brief history of the development of regional government up until 2004, see John Tomaney and Peter Hetherington, English Regions: The Quiet Regional Revolution? in Alan Trench (Ed), Has Devolution Made a Difference? The State of the Nations 2004 (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004).

63  See James Mitchell et al, Scotland: Maturing Devolution, in Alan Trench (Ed), The State of the Nations 2001: The Second Year of Devolution in the United Kingdom (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2001) pp 65-68.

64  See Bell and Christie, (2001), p 149.

65  Based on figures from HM Treasury (2005), p 113 and compared with population figures on p 134.

66  See Bell and Christie, (2001), pp 147-151.

67  Robert Hazell, (2000), p 8.

68  Campaign for an English Parliament, Critique and Proposals: Contribution of the Campaign for an English Parliament to the Liberal Democratic Party's Consultation Paper on Devolution and Local Government (paper No 75), (2005) p 15.

69  Ibid p 15.

70  Ibid p 15.

71  Ibid p 15.

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