Leader: The English question demands a fair answer

Smith Commission report brought up an interesting question. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Smith Commission report brought up an interesting question. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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LURKING unanswered at the back of the ever-increasing devolution of Westminster powers to the Scottish Parliament has been the West Lothian question, which now really ought to be called the English question: why should Scottish MPs continue to vote on matters which affect England only, when ­English MPs have no such rights over similar matters affecting Scotland only?

The Smith Commission proposals have made it imperative to find an answer to this question. That is because there are few ­political matters which have such a direct impact on voters as income tax. And now that it seems probable the Scottish Parliament will become responsible for what Scottish income taxpayers will pay, many English MPs are agitating that Scottish MPs should no longer have a say in deciding what English income taxpayers pay.

The Labour Party believes it has produced an answer to the English question. It is that parliamentary legislation which affects England only, or England and Wales, should have the committee stage of the bill (where bills are given detailed line-by-line consideration with votes to change bits MPs don’t like) considered by English, or English and Welsh, MPs only.

Unless English voters are extraordinarily tolerant, this won’t work. After a committee stage, a bill goes back to the full House of Commons for final debate and vote. At that point, MPs, and indeed governments, can and do amend legislation. Since those votes would include Scottish MPs, it would be akin to the Scottish Parliament having to submit its final legislation to Westminster for approval.

Finance bills, which contain budget plans including income tax, would be a particular problem. Either they would have to be deemed all-UK bills in which case there would be no English votes on English income tax, or they would have to be split into two – one part containing measures affecting all of the UK, and another containing proposals which do not affect Scotland, such as income tax changes.

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Quite apart from this being an unwieldy process, it opens up the possibility of the government’s proposals for income tax in the rest of the UK outside Scotland being defeated and the government losing control of its principal tax-raising mechanism. This would have adverse macroeconomic effects, the biggest being the possibility of increased borrowing costs.

Of course, there is a political game afoot. It is possible, perhaps even probable, a Labour government would depend on its Scottish MPs for its majority, but unlikely, indeed currently impossible, that a Conservative government would so depend on Scottish votes.

This political imbalance does not, however, excuse Labour from having to devise a ­solution which actually answers the problems and is fair to English voters.

Edinburgh loves trams (and buses)

Unintended consequences are usually bad. But in the case of the Edinburgh tram, they can be good. Not only is the tram line carrying more passengers than was expected, but the city’s buses are also seeing more people using them.

In the first six months, the tram has carried 3 million passengers. There are questions, as yet unanswered, about how many of these people are entitled to concession fares, but as it was predicted to carry 4.5 million people in its first year, this still means the number of passenger journeys are a third more than was forecast.

There is more good news. Critics predicted it would simply lure people off buses. But city buses have carried 3 million more people since the tram started operating compared with the same period last year.

The likeliest explanation is that non-bus users imagine journeys on them to be unpleasant. Should they give the tram a try, they discover that public transport is a lot more pleasant than they expected. This encourages them to give the bus a try, and they find it is a lot better than they feared too.

This also means that one expected consequence of the tram – greater use of public transport – is turning out to be much better than was thought. Though there are no figures on the amount of private car journeys in the capital to hand, it also seems likely that car usage will have dropped.

This provides three environmental bonuses – less burning of hydrocarbons in car engines, fewer emissions from them, and improved air quality. Is it possible that public opinion will now think the tram is well worth all the construction disruption? In truth the final verdict on trams will be based on whether they are a financial success or drain.

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