Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 141-159)


19 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q141 Chairman: Peter Facey and Michael Knowles, we are very grateful to you for coming. You have heard, of course, the previous witnesses, which helpfully gives you, as it were, a flying start in exploring the arguments. Michael Knowles has a particular point which has not been represented in the evidence from witnesses so far and Peter Facey's evidence may overlap into more with evidence that we have heard already. Just to start off, two distinct aspects to the English Question have been identified: England's place and status within the United Kingdom and whether there needs to be decentralisation within England. Do you agree and which of these is more significant?

  Michael Knowles: Both are significant, Chairman, and both are equally the English question. I have never been on one of these things before so I will have to look at my notes. You do not mind?

  Q142  Chairman: No, not at all.

  Michael Knowles: And the one should not be set against the other. The English Question is most definitely about the role and status of England within the Union. I do not know how many of you MPs understand this. I am saying that, listening to the discussion. England constitutionally and politically does not exist but Scotland and Wales now politically and constitutionally exist, and that is a grievance, which was not mentioned by any of these three establishment speakers. There was no English Question before the 1998 devolution legislation. The legislation brought in the English Question, so, yes, we want England to have the same constitutional and political recognition as Wales and Scotland have. The two Welsh MPs here I am sure are pleased that their country has now got separate political recognition. We want the same. I hope you appreciate that, and that only the English Parliament can do that, just as only the Welsh Assembly has done it for you. At the same time we are democratic in another respect. We want decentralisation within England as well because we have this democratically grotesque situation in England now, that almost every detail of government is here in Westminster. That does not apply to Scotland and that does not apply to Wales, so that therefore is as big an English question as the one I have just mentioned. We want an English Parliament which is physically and directly separate. That is the first bit of decentralisation, the most important one, that we have an English Parliament which is elected separately and exists separately, whether it is in Manchester, Derby, Stoke.

  Q143  Chairman: We are going to return to that particular question.

  Michael Knowles: But you understand that it is both?

  Q144  Chairman: Oh, yes. I want to give Peter Facey an opportunity to comment on this question but do not worry; we will return to the point you were making.

  Peter Facey: There is an extra element which has not been mentioned. There are both the national question and the question of decentralisation. There is also a density question, which is about the confusion between Englishness and Britishness. The example I always give is that if you watch the English rugby team play Wales you listen to the Welsh anthem being sung. The anthem on the other side is God Save the Queen.

  Michael Knowles: Yes, exactly.

  Peter Facey: The peculiarity of singing the UK anthem at fellow citizens in a sporting event for me sums up some of the questions of the English cultural question. It is also when you hear the questions about being proud to be Welsh and proud to be Scottish. At the moment in the Britishness debate you are not hearing in England the same "proud to be English and proud to be British as well", and so I would say there are three elements and I think they are equally important: the centralisation of power in England, not just within the United Kingdom, the national question itself, but also this soft question, which may not be a question of legislation but for many people in England strikes a chord.

  Mr Turner: I will not read the whole thing that Professor Bogdanor said, but he emphasised the role of electoral disparities, as the Union has always done. How would you respond to Professor Bogdanor's statement and what are your views on the potential risks involved in attempting to address the English Question?

  Q145  Chairman: You may recall this was a statement he made, and we quoted it at him earlier, in which he said that the English do not need to beat the drum or blow the bugle and if they do they will strain the settlement because they are in such a strong position anyway.

  Michael Knowles: But that was a very strange thing, I thought, for the Professor to say. I just thought to myself, "What does he know about the reality of politics in this country?". All the English MPs are not here to represent England and the British Welsh MPs are not here to represent Wales or represent England. You represent political parties. You do not unite across the national boundaries. You divide on political grounds. In England in addition we have never had an English party, different from Scotland and Wales. We have never had it. We do not look at it in that way. English politics are on economic lines. Scottish and Welsh politics are also, of course, but they are also on national lines. Our politics have always been on economic lines and so I just do not think he is in touch with the parliamentary system, besides which, of the so-called English MPs, 40 or 50 of them are not English anyway, so there is a lot of confusion in what he has to say. I just felt, listening to Professor Bogdanor and previously reading some of his stuff, that he is a kind of King Canute. He has not recognised the reality of what has happened since 1998, that the three countries have now been separated because of the legislation, and he is hankering after a past that is not going to return. We have a Union now of three distinct countries. One, England, has got no political existence but the other two have and they have got home rule. That is the English Question. England has no political existence and England has no home rule. The other ones do.

  Q146  Chairman: Peter Facey?

  Peter Facey: Theoretically, Professor Bogdanor is right, that there are 528 English MPs and they can outvote MPs from other parts of the United Kingdom, including the fourth bit, Northern Ireland, but the reality is that this place splits on party lines, on policy lines. The example which was given in the earlier session was that if at the next election a government is returned with a majority based effectively on MPs from Scotland and Wales and, because of the present political make-up of the United Kingdom, this is going to be the Labour party, in those circumstances it will depend on MPs from Scotland voting through legislation in England. That, I think, is the fundamental difficulty with Professor Bogdanor's position, even though, yes, he is right: there are more English MPs than there are Scottish or Welsh MPs. The problem when it comes down to it is that, if there are more Conservative and Liberal Democrat English MPs than there are Labour MPs but Labour has a majority in Westminster, that is when it becomes a real political issue. On the question of risk, which was the second part of the question, yes, there are risks in dealing with the English Question (or questions) and we should not pretend that there are not, but the bigger risk for me personally is the group which says, "Do not ask the question", because I think we have now got to a point where doing nothing is probably worse than doing something, that if we simply stay where we are and we let circumstances develop and we get into that crisis point it is very difficult then to do something, so now, when the issue is not as burning, is the time to deal with it. If it becomes a constitutional crisis because you effectively have England being governed by a party which is perceived, by the media at least, or elements of the media, as being not English but foisting policies on from elsewhere, then it becomes very difficult in a core, logical way to deal with the issue, and therefore we need to deal with it now, even though there are risks.

  Q147  Mr Turner: Is it necessary for the Members to be separate from Westminster here? Can Members here perform both functions or is it necessary, as I think Michael Knowles suggested, that they should be separate in performing that role?

  Peter Facey: I am not in favour of an English Parliament. I think part of the solution has to be a Westminster part of the solution. I happen to think there is also a bigger part which is to do with the decentralisation of power within England, which we may come on to later, but I do not think you can say that there should not be a national element, and how that is done we can discuss but there needs to be a national element, not just another element. If you created an English Parliament separately from that my fear is that you would have decentralisation from 60 million to 50 million and, in the case of the decentralisation I want to see, you would not get to that bit. History has shown that once you are given power you spend time wrestling down more power and you do not tend to give it away, whereas if you look at Scotland, the Scottish Government (as I suppose they now call themselves so I will call them that) have not yet decentralised power to Scottish local government. In fact, you could argue with the questions around the council tax that they are actually taking power away, and therefore, as someone whose agenda is to decentralise power a lot further, for me the worry is that you create an English Parliament and I will spend 20 years trying to get power out of it, so I would rather have that power first before an English Parliament. That is my concern.

  Chairman: Michael Knowles I think will have a good opportunity to deploy his argument against that in answering Alun Michael.

  Q148  Alun Michael: Indeed, I think this question, in view of that, should be posed to Michael Knowles in the first instance. Given that we have got a London Assembly, given that more people in London identify with London than with England, and, given that considerable powers have been devolved to London, including police and transport, is it not clear that the English Question is a misnomer; it is the England-outside-London question, so why is the idea of an English Parliament the right answer to the question?

  Michael Knowles: I sometimes wonder what people in North Wales might say about Cardiff.

  Q149  Alun Michael: As a North Walean I can tell you if we can have extended time for me to explain it to you.

  Michael Knowles: But, you see, there are a lot of statements you have made which you have not backed up with any particular evidence, for instance, they feel that they are Londoners more than English. You have not produced any statistics on that.

  Q150  Chairman: Professor Bogdanor produced some evidence.

  Michael Knowles: Facts, facts, facts. This is why, as I see it, there are too many questions and issues in what you ask in a sense, but this is what I want to put to you, that an England which is elected separately and physically separate is so important. Just consider if an English Parliament was in Derby or Stoke or Manchester or Leeds or wherever and you were not just concentrating on London and the north east of England. If that happened you would witness in this country the biggest and most radical transfer of economic power, cultural power, employment development and media development out of London and the south east into the rest of England. If the British Parliament were just here and the English Parliament was in another part of England the transfer of power, the decentralisation of power, would be radical and would be second to none. That is the point I would like to make to you.

  Q151  Alun Michael: Sorry, are you saying that if we had an Assembly for London that would be a Parliament for England without London?

  Michael Knowles: No. London is the capital of England at present. London feeds on the rest of England. London does not have devolution by any stretch of the imagination. It has not got legislative powers. It is just another form of local government, just the same way as the Assembly for the north east, which Prescott and Co wanted to impose, had no legislative powers. In fact, Professor Bogdanor made that point: it would be impossible to run any state with nine different legislative assemblies with the powers of the English Parliament. No; let us just get it straight: London has not got devolution; it has got another form of local government. As people have said to me time and time again, when they voted for a London Mayor they thought that was all they were doing, voting for a London Mayor, a new form of local government in London.

  Q152  Alun Michael: Can I ask both of you, in the event of the creation of an English Parliament what would you see as the role of the House of Lords?

  Peter Facey: The problem is you are putting to me something which I do not advocate. I think having a unitary English Parliament within the bicameral system would be difficult. I would like to come back to your point about London though. The reality is that London is a mess in the sense that the legislation talks about the Government but all the infrastructure of the GLA and the Mayor are regional. It has an electoral system which is unlike any other electoral system in English government. It has councillors, the GLA members, who have five times the constituents of Members of this House. I accept it is a very weak form of regional government. I call London "the region that got away". We had two regional referendums. London voted yes, the north east voted no. The people of London have said that they want a form of city government, and the City is larger than a lot of Member States in the European Union, and it should be given more powers, and one of the things which the Government could do is come back to the governance of London and, in terms of the powers that the Home Secretary has over policing and education, transfer those to the Mayor. It is not about breaking England up but about giving London self-government over the things which concern Londoners. I have lived in London; I now live outside, and the concerns in London are very different from the concerns where I live in Cambridgeshire. It should be given that power and it has already voted for it so why not, in the same way that the Welsh Assembly is now going through a debate about future powers, have the same process in London and then have a referendum in London later to say whether that settlement is acceptable to Londoners? The idea that because London voted yes and the north east voted no London has to stop I do not think is appropriate. In terms of the role of the House of Lords, I think that is a question for those people who advocate an English Parliament, not for somebody like me who thinks that your powers should be decentralised first.

  Q153  Chairman: Michael Knowles, what do you think?

  Michael Knowles: There is, of course, misrepresentation here. When Peter mentions that there were two votes, one in the north east and one in London, the one in the north east was definitely formally for a regional assembly, but at the time the one in London happened there was no talk of a regional assembly. It was just for another form of local government, for the Mayor. There was no discussion of it being a region. On the issue of the House of Lords, the House of Lords—

  Peter Facey: Your organisation has campaigned for it.

  Q154  Chairman: I would like to hear what Michael Knowles thinks about the House of Lords issue because it is quite important to judging the English Parliament issue.

  Michael Knowles: The House of Lords is a very ancient English institution, is it not, and I think what it represents should be retained whether it is an English Parliament or we still have it with the British Parliament. The Scottish and the Welsh do not have it. There has to be a check upon legislation. There has to be that longstop. That principle should exist. It is an English principle; at least, it is not a Scottish one because the new Scottish system of government, which was brought in really through the thinking of the Scottish Constitutional Assembly, does not have it. The second chamber, whichever way we do it, should be retained because you need that longstop.

  Q155  Chairman: But it is currently a United Kingdom body. It does not have any power over the legislation in the Scottish Parliament, but on your proposal it would have.

  Michael Knowles: No, we have not given any thought, quite frankly, to that. It is no good making it up. We have given no thought whatsoever to the relationship of the House of Lords to the Scottish Parliament. That I thought would be something for the Scots to make up their own minds about. We are concerned about what happens in England, that England is recognised both politically and constitutionally and has the same status within the Union as Scotland and Wales.

  Q156  Chairman: Just to get this clear, on matters that concern England alone is your proposal that the House of Lords would retain a role like the role it has now, in which case England would be different from Scotland, or would it confine itself to United Kingdom matters and not deal with any of the English Parliament legislation?

  Michael Knowles: It is proceeding along the road in which there might just be a very strong argument for a separate set-up. This Committee should give consideration to setting up an English constitutional convention in which these matters should be worked out. They are very complicated. We are just thinking of what should be with an English Parliament and we are saying that with an English Parliament on the English principle, the historic principle, that there should be a second chamber. How that would impact upon Wales and Scotland with the present House of Lords, which is a British institution, I think is beyond our brief but it is not beyond the brief of the British Parliament, so you should give consideration, if anything comes out of this meeting, to setting up an English constitutional convention or a British constitutional convention because you rushed—and when I say "you" there were some members on the other side—that 1998 devolution legislation through, in my opinion. The West Lothian question would never have arisen if you had given it sufficient thought. You never gave any thought to the impact upon England. That is the point I tried to make in my submission to you, which I presume everybody read very carefully. No thought was given to that and so you get Lord Irvine and others, and Lord Falconer saying only two weeks ago in the House of Commons in a Hansard meeting, that the best thing to do with the West Lothian question—he repeated what Lord Irvine said—was just to ignore it and it cannot be ignored. As I said, the resentment is building up. It is there.

  Peter Facey: I think if you had an English Parliament the House of Lords or the second chamber would effectively become a UK second chamber. I do not see how you could have the House of Lords functioning as the second chamber for a devolved parliament at the same time as functioning as the second chamber for the United Kingdom as a whole. If you devolve power I do not think you could have a body in this place having two functions.

  Q157  Alun Michael: It is an interesting issue, which is the question of scrutiny, because the House of Lords provides that element of scrutiny in the legislation. I think with the unicameral Assembly of Wales we are now with the legislative powers actually seeing some issues of scrutiny coming to the fore, which the Welsh Affairs Select Committee members are wrestling with, so it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

  Peter Facey: It is why in lots of cases which have devolved assemblies they have two chambers, such as in the United States lots of states have two chambers. I think there is a strong argument for having a second chamber elsewhere for scrutiny. I do not think you could use the same chamber for the UK and for England or for Wales or for Scotland or for Northern Ireland.

  Q158  Chairman: Or for England alone.

  Peter Facey: Or for England alone. If you devolved power to an English Parliament, which is not what we are arguing, you could do it as a bicameral model or you could do it as a single model, but there would be a new bicameral chamber, not the existing one.

  Q159  Julie Morgan: Michael Knowles, some critics have argued that the creation of an English Parliament would be the fatal blow to the "United Kingdom". What is your view on that?

  Michael Knowles: Who is arguing that, did you say?

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