Devolution and Exiting the EU: reconciling differences and building strong relationships Contents

5The English Question

69.Where does England fit into the UK’s constitutional arrangements? How should England be governed now that there has been significant devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? The issue underlying these questions has become known as the “English Question”.98 Professor James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at University of Edinburgh, told us that by far the biggest asymmetry in the devolution settlement relates to England.99 The position of England within the UK constitution, as Professor Wyn Jones put it, “is the elephant in the room that we constantly ignore”.100

70.Professor Richard Rawlings, Professor of Public Law at University College London, referred to the conclusion of the Report of Kilbrandon Commission, which rejected devolution to both England as a whole and to any English region.101 The Kilbrandon Commission found no advocate of UK federalism that “succeeded in producing a federal scheme satisfactorily tailored to fit the circumstances of England”.102 The report also found that federalism would require either a dominant English Parliament or English regional assemblies, which raise their own questions of powers and imbalance.103 Professor McEwen, noted that the UK is unusual in its asymmetric distribution of power and “the absence of devolution within England is a barrier to developing the processes of co-decision that you sometimes see in federal states or more uniformly decentralised states.”104

71.By population, England is much larger than the other nations that make up the Union. Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister of Wales, acknowledged the issue of England’s size in relation to inter-governmental decision-making mechanisms. He said that it would not be right to have a situation where the sheer size of England is ignored.105 The House of Lords Constitution Committee reported in 2016 that the disproportionate size of England would be likely to become a major obstacle and source of instability and that there was no comparable federal system worldwide.106

Brexit and devolution in England

72.In this report, the term “devolution” is used in its broadest sense, as it is widely used, not just to include the devolution of legislative powers, but also to include what would more precisely be described as “decentralisation”, through the increased delegation of powers and functions to local government.

73.Dr Sarah Ayres, Reader in Public Policy and Governance, University of Bristol, told us that the questions arising from what has been described as the “unfinished business of English devolution”, including the lack of a clear constitutional settlement for England, are likely to come to the surface post-Brexit and the answers to those questions could yet go either way.107 She considered that the UK withdrawal from the EU has the potential to either “further marginalise or, by contrast, appease an increasingly disenfranchised ‘English political community’”.108

74.While there has been progress in English devolution with the introduction of metropolitan mayors and combined authorities, Dr Ayres argued that the danger was that the momentum would be lost due to the focus on Brexit. She did, however, think that Brexit could be viewed as an opportunity to deal with the long-standing English Question.109

75.Councillor Kevin Bentley, Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Brexit Task and Finish Group, also considered that leaving the EU presents England with new challenges but also new opportunities.110 He said that Brexit is a “golden opportunity to change things … it is a chance to write a new chapter in the unwritten constitution”.111 On this basis, he thought that greater powers and funding should be devolved or, at least, decentralised, to local government.112 Rebecca Lowe, Director of FREER, also told us that Brexit represents an opportunity to address important normative questions about the idiosyncratic nature of representation in the UK. She thought that much could be done to give real power to local authorities within the existing decentralised system and she advocated fiscal decentralisation and taxing powers.113

76.Dr Joanie Willet, Lecturer in Politics University of Exeter, told us about research that shows that a desire to take back control from Brussels underpinned the vote for Brexit but that this feeling was rooted in people’s overall desire to take back control of their local areas and have a meaningful say in the governance of their local areas.114 Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North, also told us that in many areas of England there is a strong sense that people are being ignored, not only by Brussels, but also by Westminster, and that “Brexit was a cry of disempowerment”.115

77.These expectations of empowerment in England following Brexit would, however, need to be managed carefully. Dr Willet told us that the language of devolution was important. In most people’s minds, devolution means something which looks like the legislative and executive devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. She argued that calling the executive decentralisation to the city regions (in the shape of new mayors and combined authorities) “devolution deals” could lead ordinary people to think that these new city regions would be able to do more than they actually have the power to do. This mismatch in expectations could have profound consequences for the momentum of devolution to the English cities and regions unless a clearer understanding of this decentralisation is set out.116

Devolution or decentralisation in England

78.The extent of “English devolution” is very limited in comparison with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.117 In 1998, a referendum was held in London, the result of which was a 72% vote in favour of the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and an elected Mayor of London.118 As part of the then Labour Government’s constitutional project for England, regional assemblies were planned in North East England, North West England and Yorkshire and Humber. While referendums were planned in all three regions, only the one for North East England took place. This was defeated by a majority of nearly 78%, stalling devolution within England for over a decade.

79.Immediately after the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron, announced, that in addition to the devolution of further powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, his Government would look to “empower our great cities”.119 “Devolution deals” were negotiated between the UK Government and local authorities around England, with the first being announced for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in November 2014.120 The Rt Hon George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, outlined the purpose of the deals saying,

We will hand power from the centre to cities to give you greater control over your local transport, housing, skills and healthcare. And we’ll give [you] the levers you need to grow your local economy and make sure local people keep the rewards. But it’s right people have a single point of accountability: someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. So, with these new powers for cities must come new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils. I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.121

The uneven devolution of power in England

80.The powers and funding that are part of the “devolution” deals are agreed on a case by case basis between the UK Government and the devolved authority.122 The core powers that have been delegated to areas such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority include: restructuring the further education system; business support; the Work Programme; EU structural funds; fiscal powers; integrated transport systems; and planning and land use. These “deals” are conditional upon Treasury approval. They transfer substantial responsivity for spending and delivery, but not legislative or financial autonomy.

81.The evidence we have heard on “English devolution” has shown that the landscape of local government in England is very complex. The LGA pointed out that with combined authorities, mayors, counties, districts, boroughs and cities as well as unitary councils, there is no standard model across England.123

82.Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Rt Hon Andy Burnham, Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Rt Hon Sadiq Kahn, Mayor of London, all agreed that there had been progress towards devolving power over some policy areas such as transport. In other areas, however, the competence and powers were more decentralised than devolved, the difference being that while execution was the responsibility of a lower tier of government, power and policy direction was still retained by central Government. Moreover, Rt Hon Sadiq Khan told us that devolution was usually effected through an Act of Parliament and brought proper resources and proper autonomy, whereas decentralisation usually involved no legislation—the central Government could simply change its mind and take power back at a later date.124

The push for further devolution in England

83.Andy Street advocated adoption of the model of English devolution described by Rt Hon Michael Heseltine, Rt Hon George Osborne and Rt Hon David Cameron, involving financial devolution that would give English regions a single fund which they could spend as they wish.125 Rt Hon Andy Burnham also argued for a single fund for discretionary spending, rather than funding streams decided by the Government. He argued this would allow funding to be allocated according to local priorities rather than the priorities of central Government, and stressed that “it is not devolution if it is imposed”.126

84.This process of decentralisation allows lower tiers of Government to focus on policies that are a priority for the local area but may be a low priority for national Government. Both the LGA and all three mayors who gave oral evidence to us identified powers relating to skills and training as an area ripe for immediate decentralisation.127 Andy Street told us that these powers were necessary for the West Midlands properly to pursue their local industrial strategy responsibilities.128 Rt Hon Andy Burnham said that skills may be quite a low priority for central Government, but local business places it at the top of the list at the local level.129 Rt Hon Sadiq Kahn told us that in Greater London he was able to coordinate local employers and local education providers so that young people were getting the skills they needed to get jobs in their local area.130 He argued that the metropolitan mayors are in a far better position to understand the needs and requirements of local employers than an education provider talking only to the Department for Education.131

85.The Minister said:

It is not a question that I have personally considered and, in fairness, that would be a matter primarily for the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for BEIS to decide whether and how to take forward.132

The UK Government’s two hats and the representation of English regions

86.The difficulty of the position of the UK Government as having to represent the interests of England (and its regions) as well as the UK as a whole was an issue raised throughout the inquiry. Professor Charlotte Burns, Professorial Fellow University of Sheffield, said that leaving the EU would highlight the asymmetries inherent in the constitutional settlement, and in particular emphasised that “there is no formal representation for England in the devolution settlement, which can lead to English and UK interests being conflated”.133 Professor Rawlings described this situation as the UK Government’s “two hats”, as it wears at the same time the hat of the UK-wide Government and the hat of the Government of England. This dual role also creates dual concerns: on the one hand that the UK Government will prefer the interests of England over those of the other constituent nations of the UK;134 and on the other hand, that the different regional and local interests in England will be ignored by a UK Government acting for the whole of England.

87.As evidence of the first concern about preferential treatment, Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM, First Minister of Wales, gave the example of fishing quotas skewed by Whitehall, intentionally or unintentionally, in favour of England.135 Referring to the second concern about regional and local interests in England, Andy Street, said that the English regions’ voice has not been heard as loudly as Scottish and Welsh voices in discussions with the UK Government.136 He pointed to the absence of institutions representing the English regions to match the institutions of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and offices of First Ministers. He did, however, express optimism that, while Mayors do not have the same formal powers as other devolved administrations, they are starting to be viewed as champions and spokespersons, representing the English regions at the national government level.137 The Minister said that his ministerial colleagues and their teams hold meetings with local government and Mayors, and it is their role to factor in English considerations to the overall UK position.138

88.Andy Burnham agreed that Mayors and Combined Authorities have started to strengthen regional voices in England.139 He stated that the UK Government does not represent the interests of the different parts of England effectively due to a London-centric approach. The voices of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London had all clearly got stronger through devolution, but “as those voices have become louder, the people in the rest of England are saying, ‘What about us?’”.140 Devolution, he said, “clearly works”, so the next move should be to extend devolution in England so that “more areas have more have more power to write their own stories” and the governance of England could be rebalanced in favour of cities outside of London.141 The Minister said the UK Government was open to proposals and that cities have presented themselves as the most obvious candidates for devolution so far. However, he said the “real challenge is what devolution means outside the cities.”142

89.However, Rt Hon Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, argued that there is a mistaken assumption that London gets everything, which stems from a confusion between London and Whitehall.143 He agreed with Rt Hon Andy Burnham that the democratic deficit in England has given rise to an increasing number of people looking at the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and wanting the same quality of representation.144 Rt Hon Sadiq Khan did not think that the UK Government could fairly represent the UK and England at the same time, and argued that there needed to be English representation on bodies like the JMC to advocate for England and its regions at times where the interests of the UK and England were not identical.145 The Minister said:

It is the responsibility of the Secretary of State and his or her ministerial team to make sure that English interests in the round are properly factored into their consideration of what the overall balance of the UK approach ought to be. It is exactly the same as currently applies when any Department is devising and then framing its approach to a particular piece of EU legislation.146

90.We heard a substantial amount of evidence on the need to find a fairer and more effective way of representing England within the constitutional apparatus.147 Andy Street was unsure about exactly what the appropriate format for this would be, but argued strongly that English regions need a seat at the table.148 Rt Hon Andy Burnham advocated for English representation on bodies like the JMC, but also said “there should be a permanent committee of the English regions”.149 Rt Hon Sadiq Khan was open to the idea of a committee of the English regions, saying:

The key thing is to make sure that the Government are hearing what our needs and aspirations are, but also for us to meet regularly … The frustration that the Metro Mayors and I have is that it is almost like we are sometimes treated like a voluntary group going to the Government with a begging bowl, and we want to move away from that to have a relationship where the Government realise that any big decision they take should have Metro Mayors around the table, because it affects our communities as well, on whatever area.150

91.At a time when devolution has become an established feature of the UK constitution, the question of England’s place in the constitution needs urgently to be addressed. A failure to do so risks a sense of increasing disconnection of the English people from the political system. As part of the Government’s devolution policy, there must be a clear statement of how the different parts of England are fairly and effectively being represented. Consideration should be given to extending the existing decentralisation of powers and funding to combined authorities and mayors to a greater number of areas. Moreover, the Government should draw up plans for how decentralisation to more rural areas of England might effectively be pursued.

92.The Government should consider whether devolution for England should mean the devolution of whole areas of competence and not piecemeal powers and functions. While a reserved powers model may not be appropriate for England, powers might be conferred on lower tiers of government in discrete areas that can clearly be identified.

93.Devolution of areas of competence should also include the devolution of the administrative responsibilities and funding for these areas. By devolving powers, the Government could ease the pressure on Whitehall capacity by allowing decisions in appropriate areas to be made and functions carried out at the most appropriate possible level of government. The Government should start by considering devolving the issue of skills and training away from Whitehall to the local level, with the requisite budgets.

94.The problems caused by the dual role of the UK Government as the Government of both the UK and England could be eased by including separate English representation in inter-governmental mechanisms such as the Joint Ministerial Committee Structures. Representation of the English regions on the Joint Ministerial Committee should be given except in specific circumstances when a meeting at national-only level is necessary and appropriate.

98 Q438 [Ayres]

101 The Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969–73

102 The Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969–73

103 The Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969–73

106 Tenth Report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee 2015–16, The Union and Devolution, HL149, 25 May 2016

108 Sarah Ayres (DEU0031)

109 Q438 [Ayres]

113 Q438 [Lowe]

114 Q438[Willet]

115 Q438 [Cox]

117 The Greater London Authority, Commons Library briefing paper 05817

118 The result was: Yes – 1,230,715 (72.0%); No – 478,413 (28.0%). Turnout was 34.1%.

120 As of 2016 13 deals were agreed, but three of them subsequently collapsed. Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, West Yorkshire, Cornwall, North East (rejected), Tees Valley, West Midlands, Liverpool City Region, Cambridgeshire / Peterborough, Norfolk / Suffolk (rejected), West of England, Greater Lincolnshire (rejected).

121 HM Treasury, “Chancellor on building a Northern powerhouse”, 14 May 2015

122 Devolution to local government in England, Commons Library paper 07029

125 Q610 [Street]

126 Qq742–743 [Burnham]

133 Professor Charlotte Burns (DEU0014)

134 Q16 [Rawlings]

135 Q202 [Jones]

136 Q625

137 Q625

139 Q706 [Burnham]

140 Q726 [Burnham]

141 Q726 [Burnham]

146 Q830 [Lidington]

Published: 31 July 2018