By Alison L Young
Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law, University of Cambridge
It may seem odd to talk about devolution to England. We cannot point to a distinct ‘English’ Parliament. The Westminster Parliament enacts legislation for the United Kingdom and for England. It can also enact legislation for specific component parts of the United Kingdom – e.g. for England and Wales, for England, Wales, and Scotland, or for England, Scotland, or Northern Ireland (to cite just the most common combinations).
However, as was made clear in relation to Covid, it is not unusual for there to be specific laws for England and for these to diverge from those applicable in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This raises two questions. First, should England have its own Parliament? Second, are there any reasons to devolve power in England – e.g. to counties or regions?
An English Parliament?
Westminster is composed of 650 MPs, representing constituencies across the whole of the United Kingdom. Of those 650, 59 are MPs representing Scotland, 40 representing Wales and 18 representing Northern Ireland. This can give rise to a problem. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs vote on legislation enacted in Westminster. But what happens if the legislation being enacted by the Westminster Parliament only has effect in England?
This means that Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs have a say in English law on issues that have been devolved – e.g. health. But English MPs do not have the same ability to vote on Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish laws on subjects that have been devolved, as these would be enacted by the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) and the Northern Irish Assembly.
This problem is referred to as the ‘West Lothian’ or the ‘English’ question, after Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian, who first raised this issue in 1977 in parliamentary debates concerning the possibility of devolving power to Scotland. It is also not just a theoretical problem that taxes constitutional theorists and political scientists alike. It can have real practical applications.
The government may need to rely on votes from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs to approve controversial laws for England, particularly when the government has a small majority in the House of Commons. Arguably, NHS foundation trusts and university tuition fees may not have been implemented in England without votes from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs.
A solution to the West Lothian question was eventually implemented in October 2015 – English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). This established a procedure where legislation that affected only England, or only England and Wales, needed to be agreed to by a majority of English MPs, or a majority of English and Welsh MPs, as well as a majority of the House of Commons as a whole. However, EVEL ended in July 2021.
It was seen by some as too cumbersome and by others as being rarely needed or used, there being few situations in which the speaker certified that a Bill was ‘English’ or ‘English and Welsh’ only, thereby triggering the distinct EVEL procedure. Moreover, there is a smaller need for a specific procedure when the Government has a large majority, and therefore there is no real divergence between their ‘English majority’ in England and their majority across the UK. Problems have also arisen less frequently as the Scottish National Party members of Parliament tend to abstain from voting on issues that do not concern Scotland. It seems unlikely, then, that EVEL will be restored in the near future.
Devolution to regions of England?
As well as having no English Parliament, England also does not have any regional Parliaments. However, that does not mean that every decision concerning England is taken by the Westminster Parliament. Some issues are decided by local government institutions – e.g. local authorities will determine when and how refuse is collected and recycled, which roads are repaired, and how local schools are structured.
We do not really think of most institutions of local government as having devolved powers. This is because they are not responsible for developing distinct laws for certain areas of England. You will also find local government institutions in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Where this is currently a form of devolution in England is where there are larger institutions of local government with an elected mayor. London, for example, has a form of devolution. Powers are granted to the Greater London Authority and people living in London vote for a London Mayor – currently Sadiq Khan. There are also combined authorities to which powers have been devolved by the government, where there are also elected mayors. These are in: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; the Liverpool City Region; North East; North of Tyne; South Yorkshire; Tees Valley; West Midlands; West of England and West Yorkshire.
Each of these combined authorities has different devolved powers, determined in specific negotiations. These, in turn, differ from those of the Greater London Authority. None of them have powers as great as those of the devolved legislatures. However, this does not mean that elected mayors cannot have a large influence. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, voiced strong opinions and clashed with the Westminster Government over the impact of Covid restrictions. Dame Cressida Dick resigned as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, citing as one of her reasons that she had lost the support of the London Mayor. The London Mayor also has a say in the appointment of a new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, although the power of appointment rests with the Home Secretary.
Devolution in England is not an easy issue to resolve. Problems arise when it comes to thinking about establishing an English Parliament. England is much larger than Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in terms of population, geography, and gross domestic product. It is therefore difficult to construct a fair system of devolution. How can we give a sufficient voice to English interests without the drowning out Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish interests?
The Conservative Party manifesto promised full devolution across England. In February 2022, the Government produced a White Paper: ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ which includes a commitment to ‘extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England’. It is likely that this will involve building upon the models found in the Greater London Authority and the combined authorities, perhaps devolving more powers than are currently possible.
Whatever form is chosen, for it to succeed it requires central Government to listen to and take account of local and regional voices and vice versa, fostering a spirit of co-operation as opposed to competition – being willing to govern from the bottom-up as well as from the top-down.
- Michela Palesi: ‘Ending England’s Democratic Deficit’
- Baroness Ann Taylor: ‘Respect and Co-operation: building a stronger Union for the twenty-first century’
- John Denham, ‘England and the Union: Time to think again’