I drew Lucky Number 7 in the Private Member's Bill ballot and have chosen to tackle an issue that I think we need to resolve early in this Parliament. This is the so-called “West Lothian Question”, where MPs for Scottish constituencies can vote on issues which may only apply to English and Welsh residents. With a referendum approaching on devolving further powers to Wales, the problem may soon become even more pertinent.
I approach the West Lothian issue as a devoted supporter of the Union and a great believer in localism. In a coalition government with a strong localist programme of legislation, I think it will be helpful to establish early on how this issue will be addressed by the government.
The Conservative manifesto stated:
“Labour have refused to address the so-called ‘West Lothian Question: the unfair situation of Scottish MPs voting on matters which are devolved. A Conservative government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries.”
Now, of course we did not win an overall majority to implement this pledge, but the issue still remains on the government’s agenda, albeit perhaps further down the line. The coalition programme for government states:
“We will establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question”.
Initially, I thought it would be quite a simple bill to formulate. However I was advised that it is actually quite difficult to devise legislation in this area as it must not “trespass on exclusive cognisance” – the component of parliamentary privilege that means that Parliament has control of its own affairs. The best way to tackle the question is actually by a change to Standing Orders.
But with the ingenuity of the Clerk in Charge of Private Member's Bills, my Private Member’s Bill requires the Secretary of State, when preparing draft legislation for publication, to do so in such a way that the effect of the legislation on England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is separately and clearly identified.
The simple idea here is that this will allow it to be clear at the beginning of the legislative process which territory is affected. The relevant change in Standing Orders should then be clear for each piece of legislation.
I hope that by allowing Members to debate all the issues arising from this vital constitutional question, we can identify and point to a solution for the long term that cements both localism and the Union.
I also hope it will be helpful for the coalition when issues come up – tuition fees spring to mind – where there were significant differences between the coalition parties’ manifestos. The Liberal Democrats hold more seats in Scotland, where a different approach to tuition fees is taken. Clarifying the West Lothian question may help to diffuse this issue for the coalition.
I am grateful to David Davis, Tracey Crouch, Bob Stewart, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Damian Hinds, David Tredinnick, Charles Walker, Peter Bone, Chris Heaton-Harris and Richard Graham for supporting the bill on the order paper, and I encourage colleagues from all parties to attend the Second Reading Debate on Friday 11th February next year to make their contributions to this important subject.