Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Campaign for the English Regions

  As you know, I accompanied other members of the Campaign for English Regions, who gave evidence to your committee in Newcastle earlier this year. I agree with the further evidence they have submitted and the general statement that the only long term solution to the dilemmas posed by the "English Question" resides in the introduction of elected regional government within a new UK constitutional settlement.

  However when we met, there was some discussion of the "West Lothian Question" and I wondered if it would be helpful just to reiterate some points. The idea of an asymmetrical state is not a problem and until last year's elections, with the exception of Northern Ireland, the Party which formed the Government of the UK, also formed the major or major coalition partnership in the Government of Scotland and Wales. However the principle of devolution will be tried and tested by the minority SNP Administration in Scotland and the Welsh Labour-Plaid coalition and subsequent developments to strengthen both assemblies.

  One thing that would mitigate clashes within this devolution settlement is a fairer representation of not only the differences between member countries of the United Kingdom but the similarities. Cohesion is built on recognising communality as well as conflict.

  The voting systems to be used in the English regions would have been, in order to pass the test of a referendum, more pluralistic. The precedent had already been set in the Greater London Assembly, which although judged to be local government by some is actually an English region with its elected governance, Wales and Scotland. However Westminster elected in the House of Commons and non elected in the House of Lords fails to represent the voting strength of the political parties in the UK.

  The House of Commons depends on an electoral college where each constituency contributes all its vote for government and on legislation to one MP whether or not they have a majority mandate and neglecting large minorities within each constituency. So we have results which give a false snapshot of the country in question. There were always Conservative Voters in Scotland and Wales but they were not represented among the parliamentary representatives and continue to have a very small voice. The PR system in Scotland has allowed the actual strength of the Conservatives to be represented in the Scottish Parliament and similarly in Wales.

  It was the late Robin Cook, a Scottish MP representing a Scottish constituency, who identified the difficulty of having a Scottish MP become a Minister dealing with devolved matters such as Education and Health. He also just before he died identified the fact that there were more Conservative voters than Labour voters in England as a whole although the picture painted by the first past the post system was over 90 MPs majority for Labour over Conservative.

  We cannot solve what is also called "the English Question" by artificially exaggerating the difference between the nations of the UK state. The Parties need to come together and there should be input from citizens as well as politicians, perhaps in the form of an elected UK constitutional convention, such as Australia used to decide whether to establish a Republic. A more proportional system would for the first time allow Surrey Labour voters, urban Conservatives and Liberal Democrats wherever they exist to be represented in a more representative UK parliament. It would dilute the differences between party representation in urban and rural areas, and help to soften the distinctions rather than aggravating them between the nations of the UK.

  On the replacement of the House of Lords, elections, on a proportional basis from the English Regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are likely to produce a better picture than the current unrepresentative gearing towards London and the South East discovered in research undertaken by the Campaign for the English Regions. Such an Upper House or Second Chamber may help to dilute the problem but risks casting light on the remaining dilemma in the House of Commons. Ministers representing constituencies where their remit is dealt with in a devolved assembly can be justified and this problem will not entirely be eliminated. There is a possibility, however, that any governing Party will under a new voting system be able to draw on MPs, to become Ministers, from a greater geographical spread.

Mary Southcott

May 2008

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