This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution
Date Published: 31 October 2022
This is the report summary, read the full report.
The current state of the governance arrangements for England is a significant and pressing problem that has been neglected by successive Governments for too long. There is an urgent need for significant reform to the way that England is governed. It is important that governance arrangements are established that not only work effectively, but that can be seen to work effectively, in order to strengthen and restore public trust in the functioning of our democracy at all levels.
While our evidence demonstrated that, given the opportunity, there are local leaders throughout England who are willing and able to successfully deliver for their areas, there are serious problems with the current arrangements that prevent the effective delivery of policies and services that are desperately needed in local areas across England. We identified six main areas of concern:
(1) The current governance structures in England are far too complex, with 333 local authorities split between two-tier (county and district) and unitary authorities, with some areas (9,000–10,000) having additional town and parish councils. Some areas are also now covered by an intermediate level of government such as a combined authority or the Greater London Authority. In addition to this, there are also national bodies and agencies that intersect with service delivery at the various levels.
(2) The complexity of the governance arrangements in England has created a patchwork structure that is a confusing and opaque system that people simply do not understand. It is not clear to people where decisions are made, where accountability lies, and, consequently, how policies and services can be adapted to the needs of local areas and local people.
(3) The governance arrangements for England (and the United Kingdom as a whole) are some of the most centralised among democratic countries in the world. The key question this raises is whether decisions are being made in the right place to provide effective government for the people of England. The evidence we received clearly demonstrated that, both practically and democratically, the overly centralised governance arrangements in England are problematic. The balance of decisions is weighted too much to the centre and this leads to suboptimal decisions being made. We found that the dominant reason for continued overcentralisation is a prevalent culture in Whitehall that is unwilling to let go of its existing levers of power.
(4) The current funding arrangements for local government and combined authorities are ineffective. One of the main levers of power used by central government over local counterparts is control of the purse strings. In particular, we found that the ubiquitous process of bidding for pots of money should be ended as it is wasteful of precious local resources that could be utilised more effectively.
(5) There is significant geographical inequality in England, with some areas being considerably worse off than others in terms of investment and opportunities. This is a concern that the Government clearly identified and prioritised in its focus on ‘levelling up’. Our evidence suggested that, in order to properly address this inequality, there needs to be a shift in the Government’s approach away from the current focus on metropolitan areas towards better considering how rural and coastal areas can be given equal opportunities.
(6) People in England have a low sense of political efficacy, meaning that they do not feel political and social change is possible, and in particular they feel that their participation in the political process is unlikely to bring about change. The fact that people in England increasingly feel that their voice is not being heard is a serious concern. This must be heeded as a warning sign for the health of democracy in the United Kingdom.
While the devolution arrangements for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales first introduced in 1998 now mean that whole areas of policy in those nations primarily rest with the devolved institutions, there has been no corresponding change for England. This means that the UK Government has retained the role of governing in these policy areas of England alongside their role in governing for the whole of the UK. There is now a legitimate degree of uncertainty about how England fits into the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The introduction of devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales fundamentally altered the UK’s constitutional arrangements, and while the effects of this for England have been less immediate, the more the institutions in devolved nations have become an established part of the UK’s constitutional architecture, the more awkward and potentially problematic the position of England becomes.
It is possible that a future general election could return a party with a majority in the House of Commons which does not have a majority of English seats. This raised the question of a UK Government passing legislation for England without the support of the majority of its parliamentary representatives (an issue commonly known as the ‘West Lothian question’). The English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) procedure, introduced in 2015 to address this issue, has now been repealed. We suspect that the removal of EVEL will go as unnoticed as the procedure itself during its lifetime, and while we support the removal of the EVEL procedure, we lament the symbolism that underlies its removal. While the Government’s position of ignoring the West Lothian question may be sustainable for so long as the current parliamentary arithmetic holds, this is not a long-term solution. It is not inconceivable that a future general election might render the West Lothian question one that cannot be ignored and doing nothing in the meantime solely on the basis of the current parliamentary composition risks being viewed as constitutionally negligent.
The second related question is how distinct English interests are represented within the UK Government. England is the only part of the United Kingdom that is now solely governed by the UK Government, with UK Ministers covering policy for both England and for the UK as a whole. This situation gives rise to two contradictory perceptual issues: first, that the UK Government is perceived as essentially being the Government of England, and acting in English interests first and foremost; and second, that the UK Government is set up to govern for the whole of the UK and so is not set up to appropriately ascertain and act on the distinct interests of England, or different parts of England, as opposed to the UK as a whole. There are difficulties inherent with UK Ministers simultaneously being ‘Ministers for England’ when discharging their duties. It is entirely possible that a situation could arise where the interests of England and the UK diverge, and it is not clear how a Minister would or indeed should mange such a conflict of interest. We have called for the policy on this to be set out clearly in the interests of transparency. Ultimately, it is clear to the Committee that the question of England cannot continue to be ignored and so we call on the government to bring forward proposals for how the distinct interests of England can be effectively represented in the legislative process and within UK Government and UK Civil Service structures.
Given the urgent and pressing need for reform of the United Kingdom’s governance arrangements, we also considered what the obstacles to such reform has been. We found that while there was overwhelming support for reform, there was less agreement on what that reform should be. We identified three main interconnected reasons why reform of the governance arrangements for England has proven so difficult in the past:
(1) There has been an absence of a vision for the future governance of England; instead, there has been almost permanent administrative reconfiguration, with new policies changing with each new government. Our evidence suggests that, ultimately, if reform is to be meaningful and successful, there needs to be a singular, agreed-upon vision for the direction that future governance arrangements should follow.
(2) The two main political parties in the United Kingdom have historically held divergent views on this matter, with the Conservative Party viewing England as a whole and the Labour Party being more ready to think regionally about England. It should also be noted, however, that we also heard that there has often been division within political parties about how to move forward.
(3) There has been a lack of agreement concerning how England should be sub-divided in any potential governance reform programme, with the often-competing considerations of functional areas versus concepts of historically, culturally, and geographically bounded areas making it difficult to reach any sort of consensus when previous proposals have come forward.
If meaningful reform is to take place, it must address all these issues, which have previously acted as impediments to wholesale reform, otherwise the unsatisfactory pattern of short-term and partial measures will continue.
The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper should be commended for its willingness to openly identify many of the problems we have identified, and the publication of the White Paper has helped push the issue up the political agenda and into the public consciousness. The proposals in the White Paper are, however, not sufficient to address the problems with the current state of England’s governance arrangements. There are no easy answers to what models of reform would be successful or would satisfactorily address the issues that we have touched upon in this report. While there is unanimous agreement on this Committee that real, meaningful, and urgent changes need to be made, there is a range of different views about what these changes could or should be. Successive governments have tinkered on the edges of these questions and problems, and unfortunately, we feel the Levelling Up White Paper is destined to continue that pattern.
A different approach is needed in order to deliver meaningful, long-term reform of the governance of England. We have taken the unusual step of making a recommendation not only to the Government, but also to the Opposition and other parties in House of Commons: The Government should bring forward, and the opposition parties should support, the establishment of a Bill to create a cross-party Commission on the future governance of England that is funded by and responsible to Parliament. The Commission should have the remit to draw up proposals for reforming the governance arrangements for England, addressing the questions of England’s place in the Union, and proposing legislation to implement these proposals.