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West Lothian Question

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to take steps to resolve the West Lothian Question in the light of the impending grant of further taxation powers to the National Assembly for Wales and the forthcoming Scottish referendum.

My Lords, the coalition’s programme for government included a commitment to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question. In January 2012 the Government set up the commission on the consequences of further devolution for the House of Commons. This commission reported last spring and Ministers are currently giving the report the serious consideration that it deserves.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but surely the SNP cannot be allowed to make a bet that it cannot lose if it fails to win the referendum. Why should Scottish MPs continue to have the right to vote on exclusively English affairs?

My Lords, this is not a new question. Some Members will remember Tam Dalyell very well. I do not think that there are many Members still in this Chamber who will remember the debates in the 1886 home rule Bill on whether Irish MPs should still have full rights once home rule had been granted for Ireland. This is a question that is not only to do with Scotland; Northern Ireland and Wales also come into it. The imbalance between the size of England and the other nations is important, but there is little support in England for the idea of a separate English Parliament.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that whatever the outcome of the referendum in Scotland, there is a pressing need for a more coherent, balanced and transparent settlement that is fair to England as well as the devolved nations? In the context of the report to which he referred, will he give a commitment that the Government will move forward rapidly, once the outcome of the Scottish referendum is known, to get changes made to resolve these difficulties?

My Lords, the noble Lord has not asked me about the Silk commission but he will be aware that we are still discussing the extent of devolution with the Welsh Government. He will also be aware that England is at the moment a highly centralised state. The Government are happily discussing with a number of cities devolution to major city areas within England. I remind the House that the population of the local authority area of Birmingham is slightly larger than the population of Northern Ireland, so this is an important question for England as well.

My Lords, I declare an interest as one who took part in these debates. It is 20 or so years ago since the question arose; is it not surprising that we have no new answers?

My Lords, some dilemmas never go away. We have an asymmetrical system of devolution in this country and we have to make it work. As someone who has spent most of his political career in the north of England, I have doubts about the imbalance of advantage within England itself, but that is another issue which we will debate another time.

My Lords, I do not have the advantage of my noble friend in remembering personally what happened in 1886, but I keep in close touch with Mr Tam Dalyell. I suggest that it would be very wise to take advice from Mr Dalyell on this issue. He still has the same vigorous intellect we all remember fondly and I am sure that he could bring some wise counsel to bear.

My Lords, I am very happy to pass on those best wishes to my good friend Tam Dalyell. However, is not the West Lothian question a misnomer? Should it not be called the English democratic deficit? Surely the way to deal with it is not to tinker with procedures in the House of Commons but to look at ways to resolve the democratic deficit within England, have more devolution within England and move towards some kind of federal, or quasi-federal, Britain?

My Lords, I think that I took part in my first debate on the question of an English Parliament at a conference in Edinburgh in 1968. It is not a new question for any of us here. The problem is that while you can begin to carve up parts of northern England into recognisable regions, once you get down to the south-west and the south-east there is not easy agreement within England about the sort of devolution you would have.

My Lords, while it is undoubtedly the case that the West Lothian question in its many guises deserves consideration, does the Minister not agree that many other constitutional conundrums cry out for resolution? In particular, under the Barnett formula, the Welsh people are unjustly deprived of about £300 million per annum. Looking at it in the wider context, is there not an overwhelming case for setting up a royal commission to look comprehensively into the relationship of this House to the Commons and the Commons to this House, and of Westminster to the devolved Parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

My Lords, the noble Lord may be aware that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons has, indeed, recommended the idea of a constitutional convention in a recent report. As someone who used to study the British constitution, I have to say that, on the whole, we have preferred to patch it, make do and then put a bit more in rather than attempt a complete redesign.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the very positive aspects of devolving further taxation and fiscal power to the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament is greater fiscal accountability for those institutions? As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, I agree with that entirely. Does my noble friend agree that the best answer to the old question of the West Lothian question is to address the issue that it is actually a Westminster question, and that the answer to the old question is perhaps the old solution of British federalism?

My Lords, that was exactly the question I was debating with Russell Johnston in Edinburgh in 1968. There is more appetite for fiscal devolution in England, which means restoring to the cities and local authorities a great deal more autonomy in collecting and spending money themselves.