Written evidence from Anthony Sutcliffe (EDE 42)

 

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution

 

 

I am submitting this paper in order to contribute some new ideas around devolution to an English Parliament. I am submitting this paper in my capacity as a citizen, not as a representative of any organisation.

 

Proposal

  1. This paper proposes that in addition to devolving significant powers to city regions and other local government units powers should be devolved to an English Parliament, representing all of England. (I refer to city regions and other local government units as cities and counties respectively, but this is without prejudice to the final form that local government takes).
  2. The members of the English Parliament should be drawn from the assemblies and councillors relating to city metro areas and county councils; these members of the English Parliament would appoint a government in much the same way that the UK Parliament chooses its government today.
    1. Where the metro areas do not currently have an assembly, this implies one would need to be created. These assemblies will be necessary in this case in order to provide democratic accountability for the new local powers.
    2. Choosing indirectly elected representatives for the English Parliament that will protect the Union including: the mandate of indirectly elected representatives cannot be used to threaten the direct mandate of the UK government (see section 15); and it will help to keep devolved powers at the city and county level so that there are relatively fewer English devolved powers at England level that can be used to threaten the Union (see section 16).
  3. Each assembly would be allocated a number of English Parliament representatives proportionate to its population. The assembly would elect representatives from its members in proportion to the underlying popular vote.
  4. The table below, taken from the UCL Constitution Unit paper “Options for an English Parliament[1] shows a possible set of powers that could be devolved to an English Parliament.

 

  1. It is not necessary to devolve all of these areas to an English Parliament in one go or indeed all of the powers in any one area listed above. Instead, initially, an English Parliament might act primarily as a coordinating body between the existing local government areas on issues such as health and social services, housing and planning and education which we might expect to be devolved significantly to local government. These powers can be extended over a glidepath of 5 years to allow teething problems in the English Parliament to be ironed out.
  2. A key plank of this proposal is to require that some powers, that are devolved to the English Parliament, should require assent from a second chamber – possibly the House of Lords. England as a whole is very large relative to the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom. Where the impact of decisions of the English Parliament have a strong enough impact on other UK nations, it is reasonable for a unionist body (as I shall assume the English Parliament to be) to seek amendments from an all-UK body or even to allow the relevant legislation to fall.
  3. In the scenario where English legislation was deemed to have extra-England effect, the House of Lords (or even the House of Commons) would act as a revising chamber just as the Lords does today. This would allow an all-UK body to help to reshape English legislation that would otherwise have a detrimental impact on the Union. However, the English Parliament would have a similar power to the Parliament Act, allowing it to force through legislation after a sufficiently long period if legislation is blocked by the second chamber. A unionist English Parliament would not seek to do this, however, preferring to amend legislation so as not to harm the Union.

 

Why Devolution to England

  1. The purpose of creating an English Parliament is to rectify imbalances in the UK constitution and to give greater political voice to England. England is a nation as much as Scotland or Wales or indeed anywhere else. Surely then, England deserves a political voice as much as Scotland or Wales?
  2. Moreover, there is clear polling evidence that an English Parliament is popular. The graph below, taken from a John Denham article[2], shows that an English Parliament receives majority support amongst those English residents who are more English than British and who are equally English and British.

 

While there are majorities against for the more British than English groups, these majorities are smaller than the more English than British and equally British and English groups. Moreover, the more British than English groups are smaller than the more English than British groups as shown in the graph below[3]. However, the English Parliament would need to encourage a form of civic pride in order to encourage those identifying more strongly British than English to feel genuinely represented.

  1. One obvious way to rectify the constitutional imbalance in the UK to asymmetric devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is to devolve to an English Parliament.
  2. Asymmetric devolution is not only a matter of identity but has negative consequences for the Union and practical consequences particularly in light of Brexit. Consider the Internal Market Bill. Where there are intergovernmental negotiations between the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and UK institutions, the UK government will be acting for England. It is all too easy to see that a compromise decision (as most decisions between the governments will be) could be construed by Scottish Nationalists as the UK government imposing its will on an unwilling Scotland while (some) English residents might see the compromise as the UK government selling out England to satisfy the Scottish Nationalists.
  3. The only sensible way to defuse these tensions is to make the devolution settlement symmetric. Since reversing devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is politically impossible but also undesirable, the only symmetry available is to devolve to England.

 

Benefits & Mitigating Risks to the Union

  1. A key benefit of this proposal to the Union is the clear separation between the responsibilities of the UK parliament and the devolved parliaments. Each parliament will have its own mandate from its own voters with no cause for any parliament to accused of having a conflict of interest as described in point 11.
  2. As noted in points 6 and 7, subject to determining the threshold at which English Parliament legislation would require the assent of a second chamber, the approach described would give an explicit opportunity for Union considerations to be taken into account. Depending on how the threshold is set, the English Parliament could have genuine legislative power or could be constructed mainly as a means of providing political voice to England.
  3. The indirect election of English parliament representatives provides several benefits. Firstly, the English first minister, and his or her government, might be feared to have a bigger mandate than Prime Minister and government of the UK. Indirect election, however, means that the mandate of the English government would be considerably weaker than the UK government. Therefore when they clashed this would lend a considerable moral weight to the UK government.
  4. Secondly, electing English Parliament representatives from city assembly members and county councillors means that the representatives’ electorates are incentivised to maintain power at the local level rather than “sucking up” powers from local government over time. This will help to prevent an English Parliament becoming a threat to the Union in the future.
  5. Thirdly, giving the English Parliament representatives a clear link to existing regions in England provides an interesting flexibility to provide England level governance in some circumstances and regional representation in others. There are many English issues such as health and education which will have strong England-wide components as well as local government components of governance.
  6. Meanwhile, the intergovernmental negotiations over agriculture regulation, say, resulting from the Internal Market Bill could take place between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and subsets of the English Parliament. Representatives drawn from the parliament to represent, say, each of the NUTS2 regions so that there were a number of nations and regions that were of approximately the same size. This would mitigate much of the concern around other UK nations being “pushed around” due to England’s size.

 

Other Points to Note

  1. A common objection to an English Parliament is the resentment at the idea of “more bloody politicians.” A benefit of this approach is that the politicians would be drawn from the existing set of politicians. A new institution would be created but no new politicians. With the reduced business in the House of Commons it would be possible to reduce the size of the House of Commons. But including this point in the proposal is unlikely to aid the cause of voting the proposal through.
  2. The simplest means of creating an English Parliament is to operate the dual mandate model, where English MPs in the House of Commons vote on England only matters, as suggested by John Redwood. There is much to be said for this approach as it would be simple to implement, which is an important feature in making anything happen at all. However, it is difficult to imagine a step that is more likely to cause voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland feel like the Westminster Parliament is really an English Parliament imposing unwanted laws on non-English parts of the UK. This is likely to damage the Union, while I believe one of the key features of this proposal is strengthening the Union.
  3. That said, in the dual mandate model and the proposal in this paper, separating England only matters from UK matters is complicated by the existence of Barnett consequentials. A key part of creating an English Parliament with any means of setting its own fiscal agenda is to amend the Barnett formula so that it becomes a UK government matter unrelated to English Parliament spending. Instead, the UK government should use its own tax raising powers to provide a degree of fiscal equalisation between either the nations of the UK or perhaps between sub-national regions. This approach would need to be phased in over time with English Parliament fiscal decisions more constrained at the start of its life.
  4. Finally, for those who are interested in these matters, there is a pleasing symmetry between early English Parliaments and this approach. The original House of Commons was formed of burgesses and knights sent from town and county courts[4] to represent their towns and counties in discussions with the King. This proposal contemplates a similar arrangement, selecting representatives from members of city and county assemblies, this time elected with (indirect) popular support, thereby representing a modern form of the original Commons.

 

 

November 2020


[1] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/sites/constitution-unit/files/179-options-for-an-english-parliament.pdf

[2] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/is-there-route-to-english-parliament/

[3] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/is-it-the-english-or-the-british-question/

[4] “Court” here does not have the meaning we are familiar with. The county court in the thirteenth century was an institution made up principally of local gentry and magnates that dealt with judicial, tax and other administrative matters rather than specifically being a court of law.