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System of government in England in need of serious overhaul, say MPs

31 October 2022

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee calls on Government and Opposition to set up a Parliament sponsored cross party commission to decide long-term solution.

The governance arrangements for England are not fit for purpose and in urgent need of comprehensive reform argues a new report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

The UK Government wields too much power in England, with a Whitehall culture “unwilling to let go of powers”, and an instinct to “control the purse strings”. This causes people in England to lose out on the benefits of having policies adapted to local areas and needs.

The report describes the current governance system, which includes local government and metro mayors, as a “patchwork” and “opaque”, leaving citizens wondering about which democratic representative or institution is accountable for decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. The system has created “geographical inequality” and led to a feeling amongst people in England that they can’t influence political or social change, which represents a “warning sign for health of democracy”.

The Government’s plans for devolution deals in its Levelling Up White Paper are not sufficient to address the significant and pressing concerns identified by the Committee and the White Paper itself. Previous attempts to reform the governance arrangements for England have been “piecemeal and uncoordinated” and MPs say a new approach is needed.

During the inquiry, MPs heard ideas for reform ranging from setting up an English Parliament to extending the current mayoral system. There is no clear consensus from the evidence on the best approach, but MPs identify “overwhelming support” for reform. The Committee has taken the unusual step of recommending to both the Government and the Opposition that this problem is taken out of party-political debate by calling for the establishment of a cross-party commission to develop a sustainable, long-term solution.

Chair's comments

Chair of PACAC, William Wragg MP, said:

“The levers of power have been stripped away from local levels of government throughout the twentieth century, leaving people in England with a less locally-focused and democratically-accountable system of governance.

“Despite successive Governments’ attempts to devolve more power to regions in England, the UK Government retains ultimate control of funding and decisions for England. Recent events demonstrate how the people of England can be left without important decisions being taken about their local areas at a local level.

“We urgently need an overhaul of governance arrangements to empower local decision-making and restore public faith in accountable local governance. It is important that such long-term, fundamental reforms are not controlled by any one party. That is why we are calling on the Government and the Opposition to set up a cross-party commission to develop proposals for sustainable and durable governance arrangements for England.”

Action that should be taken now:

  • Government should bring forward, and opposition parties support, a Bill to establish a cross-party Commission on the governance of England.
  • Move to a long term substantiable funding model for local government in England. Put an end to the system of bidding for pots of money from the UK Government.
  • Bring forward proposals for how the distinct interests of England can be represented effectively both within the legislative process and within Government and Civil Service structures.
  • Update Cabinet Manual for how a Minister should manage a conflict of interests between their role as a UK Minister and a Minister for England

MPs say that the Government’s approach to ignore the current situation where polices and laws that affect England only could be brought about against the votes of the majority of English MPs risks being viewed as “constitutionally negligent”, as a future general election may return a government that has an overall majority in the Commons but not a majority of English seats.

Further information

Image: PA