Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-175)


19 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q160  Julie Morgan: I think quite a lot of people.

  Michael Knowles: Oh, I am sorry. I thought you said I was arguing that.

  Q161  Julie Morgan: No, not you. Others have said it would be a fatal blow. I thought this was something you could be asked for your view on.

  Michael Knowles: I think quite the opposite, actually. I think an English Parliament would be the salvation of the Union if you want to stop this resentment which is building up, and there is resentment. I do not know to what extent the ordinary MP speaks for the ordinary person in a conversational way.

  Q162  Chairman: We are normal people, you know.

  Michael Knowles: You might do. I have met a lot of MPs in my time but what I mean to say is that when you hear the person sitting opposite you on a train coming down here the day before yesterday saying, "The first thing I would do is get rid of that Scottish Prime Minister. Boot him back to Scotland, that Scottish Prime Minister, and boot that Scottish Chancellor of the Exchequer and we will look after our own affairs". That is building up. That is being said because of what is going on with prescription charges and all the rest of it. I think I will read this; it is very short: "It will indeed be the establishment of an English Parliament, its powers constitutionally restricted to domestic English matters, which will reduce even further the possibility of any English dominance within the Union. England will not be able to interfere in the internal affairs of Scotland and Wales. Their internal affairs will be constitutionally reserved solely to the jurisdiction of their own Parliament without fear of interference, not just by the English but by the Union Parliament itself." That outcome will be a very balanced, stable and harmonious union if the people of Wales after all these centuries know that the people of England cannot interfere in their internal affairs, if the people of Scotland after all these centuries know that the people of England cannot interfere in their internal affairs, and if we know that the people of Scotland, as we have experienced with the West Lothian question, cannot interfere in ours. At the same time we are always in one Union because we are just one little country. We are only a little island and we are joined at the hip, but if we have that recognition of our separate nationality but we are all British, and we know there are restrictions on what each can do, the relationship is exactly the same to each other and to the Union, I think we are looking at a balanced, stable and harmonious Union.

  Q163  Julie Morgan: There are not very high profile politicians coming out in support of an English Parliament. Why do you think that is?

  Michael Knowles: They are not doing it?

  Q164 Julie Morgan: No, not that I know of.

  Michael Knowles: In many ways, to be quite frank, as we say within ourselves, you are on a good thing here. It would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. You could get away with a Scottish Parliament for the most part easily because it is only 16% of the population. If you have an English Parliament you are talking about 80% of the population. That would be a most radical change. People do not want more MPs. They do not want more money spent on Members of Parliament. In fact, they would have much less if they could get away with it. What there will have to be is a much reduced British Parliament restricted to reserved matters and no more MPs dealing with English matters than are at present in the House of Commons. That is a very radical change but it has got to come about because if you do not do something like that we, the English, are not going to put up with this for ever, you know. We are not going to put up with the prescription charges when a person in his constituency a yard on the other side of the boundary can have free prescriptions, or if we have a situation where a Scottish student can come to an English university and does not have to pay the fees and an English student goes up to Scotland, to Aberdeen, and has to pay the fees. We are not going to put up with that for much longer and we should not have to put up with it. If you MPs here were to get up in your constituencies and say to your English constituents, "This is the situation we are in", there would be anger. It is just because you are sitting on it and repressing it that they say, as we have heard here,—

  Chairman: I do not think we have seen much repression this afternoon.

  Daniel Kawczynski: On this point of politicians, you say you do not want any more politicians. I certainly do not want any more politicians. In fact, over the last three years I have said to my constituents, any group that I have gone to see I have said to them—

  Chairman: Can we have a brief question please?

  Q165  Daniel Kawczynski: Would it not be better to have an English Grand Committee here for English MPs to vote on only English matters, because by creating an English Parliament you are setting up another layer of politicians and already your average constituent is dealing with a huge number of different politicians on a daily basis?

  Michael Knowles: An English Grand Committee was brilliantly described by all three people you had before. It is chaos, it is silly, you would make a mockery of Parliament, no two ways about it. The only good thing about English votes on English matters and an English Grand Committee is that it is the first recognition that has been arrived at inside this Parliament that this is an English Question. They are addressing the fact that England is different. It is the first step, you might say, towards recognition of the problem. It is the wrong solution but at least they are addressing the question. On the other one I have just answered, if there is a British Parliament and a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Parliament they must not have collectively any more MPs than we have at present. That we would have to be very ruthless about because people do not want any more. Look at the situation. The only reason the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were set up, if you gave it any thought in 1998, was that the Scottish Members of Parliament have had their responsibilities reduced by about 50-70%. They were transferred to the Members of the Scottish Parliament. If their salaries had been reduced accordingly they would never have got that through Parliament. What did they do? They created another 129 Members of Parliament for Scotland and they kept the Scottish Members on full salary. You would never get away with that in England.

  Q166  Chairman: Peter Facey on this point?

  Peter Facey: On the question of?

  Q167  Chairman: The Grand Committee.

  Peter Facey: I think we need to recognise that there would need to be something done at Westminster. On the face of it English votes for English matters is appealing. I think it is very difficult to do in practice. Certainly an English Grand Committee, in the same way there used to be a Welsh Grand Committee and a Scottish Grand Committee, would at least be a first step as a way of recognising England's place in the Union. I have never advocated that the north east or London are the same as Scotland because there is a difference between English regions and the other parts of the United Kingdom in the sense that the north east is not a nation; Wales is a nation, and therefore treating them exactly the same way you get this idea that there is a plot to destroy England. I do not think there is a plot to destroy England. I simply would not be involved in any plot to destroy England and I am proud to call myself an Englishman, but I think having a parliamentary vehicle which deals with English concerns is a sensible way forward. I would hope that most of the powers for the things that we deal with would be decentralised further than that and not sit there because my problem fundamentally is that if you simply replaced the two, having the powers of this place transferred to an English Parliament does not deal with the concerns of your constituents or where I live; it simply replaces them with another centralised body. Even if England became independent and the rest of the Union ended I would still be sitting here calling for decentralisation of power because from the point of view of England where I live I do not want power centralised; I want power driven down.

  Q168  David Howarth: I just want to follow up what Michael Knowles said about prescription charges. One of the problems for me in what he is saying is this. How, Michael Knowles, can you be sure that if there were an English Parliament it would have a different policy on prescription charges from the present one? Surely the change of policy on things like prescription charges in Wales came about because a different electoral system in Wales led to a different composition of government, whereas if the English Parliament were to be elected on a first-past-the-post basis, it would be likely to have a different policy on that issue from the one that we have now.

  Michael Knowles: I used the issue of prescription charges and tuition fees as an example of the difference, but if we have an English Parliament it is up to the English MPs in that Parliament to make their own decisions. They might decide, given it is 80 million people, that it cannot afford it.

  Q169  Chairman: They might decide something else was a higher priority. The difference is endemic in either system, is it not?

  Michael Knowles: There might be just different priorities, as you say, but at present the situation is that the evidence is building up the other way. It is cancer drugs and all the rest of it. Everything that is happening now is building up in the opposite direction and England has got no voice. That is the thing—England has got no voice. None of you sits in this Parliament representing England. If we have an English Parliament, like the Scots have a Scottish Parliament, they represent their country. Look at the legislation. The words are, "This Assembly will be the forum for the concerns of the Welsh nation". Nobody objected to that notion. We found that was quite okay for Wales. Why can the English not have, "This Assembly", or "This Parliament", or whatever you want to call it, "will be the forum for discussion of the concerns of the English nation"?

  Q170  Dr Whitehead: Peter Facey, in your evidence you suggested that devolution in England should take the role of directly elected regional government but not necessarily on the existing regional boundaries. Do you think that sort of radical devolution, and you have suggested in several of your responses this afternoon that that is the way you are looking at the English Question, would in itself be a solution to the English Question or not?

  Peter Facey: It is part of a solution. I think you cannot address the governance of England without dealing with decentralisation. We have to find a way to bring governance closer to people to give people more control over the services they have and a way of dealing with the fact that in the parts of England I have lived in in my lifetime, whether it be Devon, Stoke-on-Trent, London or Cambridge, their concerns are very different. The concerns of Stoke-on-Trent are very different from the concerns in my village in Cambridgeshire. To have a situation where everything runs from a central point, whether that be an English Parliament or a UK Parliament, I think is part of the fundamental problem, and therefore finding a way forward on devolution which fits within the nature of England is essential. I think one of the problems with the route we have gone down for decentralisation is that we have created government regions where even the one I used to live in in the south west has no recognition on the ground. Devon does not necessarily feel in the same region as the northern parts around Bristol. We also get this idea that you have to break England up into large units which can be given the same powers as Scotland and Wales. Kent has 1.3 million people. That is 300,000 people less than Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland already is regarded as big enough to have those powers. Kent has more people in it than 10 US states and those states, the smallest one being Wyoming, have more powers than the Scottish Parliament, so the idea in terms of decentralisation is that we have to somehow create these large units. I am not against it if the people in the north east want to have it on a regional basis but we must find a way forward which is flexible enough to allow those units to be choosing, whether those are government regions, collections of existing local government units or in some cases individual councils at the moment. Where you live, the county of Hampshire, again is a very similar size to Northern Ireland and if you include in it the unitary authorities it is larger than Northern Ireland, so we need to start thinking about some of our counties and local units as the vehicles for devolution and then look at bringing government below that down as well, not simply to have the idea that to do devolution in England we have to always create new units. Where that is appropriate, yes, but we also have to say that where there is demand that can be to existing units.

  Q171  Dr Whitehead: Except you might say, of course, that the English county system was designed by the Plantagenets—

  Peter Facey: Or King Alfred or whoever.

  Q172  Dr Whitehead:— and does not necessarily in itself reflect what people think of this regionalism, for example, in the question of South Hampshire/North Hampshire. The purport of the question would be that if you had regional devolution in the way that you have described, as you said in your submission, there is nothing that you could see an English Parliament do that could not be done by that sort of radical devolution?

  Peter Facey: Yes, unless you are talking about separation of the Union.

  Q173  Dr Whitehead: And if you then decided that that devolution would not be based on the existing government regions, and I agree there would be a difference in identity between Lands End and Tewkesbury and Bournemouth and the south west, for example, how would those regions then emerge? Would it be by affirmation? What would happen if you got left out of all the regions? Would you be a bit upset about that?

  Peter Facey: What we are toying with the idea of is having an English devolution enabling act, which says, "These are the powers which have already been devolved elsewhere in the United Kingdom", and if powers are then devolved later it could be be added to it, where they could be called down. They could either be asked for by existing local authorities, and if they met certain criteria they could be given to them, subject to a referendum endorsing it, or central government could say, "We would like you to have this, subject to a referendum", or, the third option, the people themselves could call for those powers. We have already had a situation in Cornwall where, at the time when there were attempts to have a south west regional government you actually had 50,000 people, approximately 10% of the Cornish population, sign a petition for a Cornish regional assembly. If they had been calling for a Cornish mayor they could have had it because it was more than the 5% threshold for a Cornish mayor, but because it was for a Cornish regional assembly they could not have it. If we changed that and used that mechanism and said, "The powers are there for you if you want them, and if you want them you call for them", then we can answer that question. One of the problems is that the Scots and the Welsh have something which we do not or cannot have. If Michael is correct and he can get 5% of the English population to sign a petition demanding a referendum for an English Parliament, I am not opposed to having a referendum on the English Parliament. I happen to think though that if other places call for the power to be below that, in the principle of subsidiarity, they should not be able to take it back without the express approval of the people of Stoke-on-Trent or London or wherever. It would be a flexible approach to devolution which deals with the history of our country of England in terms of its different respects but also gets away from this victimhood idea and says, "The powers are there for you. They come with responsibilities. If you take on these powers there are consequences, but they are there for you if you want them", and if the people of Hampshire or the county council decide that they want them and they can win a referendum, all good to them. The same would apply to London, et cetera. I accept there may be places left over.

  Q174  Dr Whitehead: Which is what has happened in California.

  Peter Facey: The option would have to be that they could either join in with another area if they want to or they would continue with being governed by the United Kingdom Parliament. It is a messy way of doing devolution but I happen to think it goes with the grain of the governance of England.

  Q175  Chairman: Michael Knowles is under time constraints, and so are we. Do you have another couple of minutes? We do not want to make you miss your train. I will shorten it by asking a question which Mr Sharma would otherwise have asked. Have you got anything special you want to say on the Barnett Formula?

  Peter Facey: I think it needs to be addressed but I do not think it is a solution in itself.

  Michael Knowles: I think it should just be scrapped. I think there is no other way round it than to scrap it and treat every person in the United Kingdom equally. That is what I think. It was brought in to enable, as I understand it, under Wilson, some very wily Glaswegian MPs who wanted to hold—right; I will leave it. I think it should be scrapped.

  Chairman: We must let Michael Knowles catch his train and my colleagues who have further supplementaries will have to be disappointed on this occasion. Thank you to both of you very much for your clear exposition of your views.

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