Imagine if the May 5th national referendum on the Alternative Vote is carried by a majority of votes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England votes No.
Imagine if at the next General Election, no party wins an overall majority and a coalition is formed that relies on a majority of MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England gives another party a majority.
Neither of these scenarios is remote or implausible. Lord Forsyth has written about the first scenario here, while the latter was a possible outcome at the General Election last May and was seen by some as a viable alternative to our present coalition Government.
Both these entirely plausible scenarios illustrate a growing problem. With more and more matters devolved to Stormont, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, Westminster legislation increasingly affects England only. Yet all Westminster MPs vote on all legislation.
With the recent Welsh referendum and the Scotland Bill currently before Parliament, the range of devolved responsibilities has increased significantly under this coalition government.
Which brings me to the issue which on St George’s Day I am re-naming the English Question – its current Westminster shorthand is the ‘West Lothian question’ – but it is a dilemma which has challenged law-makers and constitutional scholars for decades.
What if a piece of England-only legislation at Westminster were to be brought in and passed against the wishes of the English electorate’s MPs? This is a constitutional crisis waiting to happen, and the best time to prevent a crisis is well before it happens.
The Conservative manifesto stated:
“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.”
The Coalition programme for Government states that the Government will establish a Commission to examine the West Lothian Question. However, every time I have asked Government ministers at the dispatch box when this commission is to be established, I get a stalling answer.
That is why I have brought in a Private Member’s Bill called the Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill. It is unique in this Parliament, being the only piece of legislation that has successfully reached the committee stage without Government support.
The Bill simply requires each piece of draft Government legislation to spell out which parts of the United Kingdom are affected and what the effects the legislation has on the Barnett formula – which guides the amount of money allocated to each of the four nations from Government funds – or any successor to this formula.
Deliberately, the effect of my Bill stops at this point. But with this piece of preparatory legislation in place, Parliament could then decide how to use it. For example, the House could agree new rules that called on the Speaker to certify that a particular piece of legislation affects only England. Rules could be agreed as outlined in the Conservative manifesto to require the consent of the relevant MPs.
Indeed, I can’t see how the West Lothian Question can be resolved without legislation along the lines of what I am proposing. I know the Government is making a range of major public service and constitutional reforms as well as sorting out the country’s finances. I understand it has got a lot on its plate. However, I do think this important constitutional anomaly needs to be resolved before we have a constitutional crisis.
In the absence of any concrete proposals coming from the Government in the foreseeable future, I urge colleagues to support the Bill at report stage and third reading when it returns to the floor of the House on a Private Members’ Bill Friday later this year.