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The West Lothian Question: Labour MPs want answers

GORDON Brown is facing demands from his Scottish MPs to take action over the so-called "West Lothian Question", with some calling for the resurrection of English regional assemblies as the solution, The Scotsman can reveal.

The Prime Minister has resolutely refused to get involved in the debate over Scottish MPs' voting rights, despite a sustained campaign by the Conservative Party, which is starting to mobilise and inflame public opinion in England.

The Tories say it is wrong for Scottish MPs to vote on English matters at Westminster now there is a Scottish Parliament and Westminster has no control over domestic Scottish issues. They want to ban Scottish MPs from voting on English issues, creating an English Grand Committee in the Commons to decide English domestic policy.

To date, Scottish Labour MPs have largely stayed out of the debate, but some have now gone public with demands for action, increasing the pressure on Mr Brown to do something.

Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow South West, said there were two related issues that had to be looked at: the balance of devolution and the financial settlement, which gives Scots about 1,500 more per head than England. Both were being used to stir up anti-Scottish opinion in England, he said.

He went on: "I think the proposals that we had before for regional assemblies seemed to me to be a way forward.

"The 'English votes for English issues' proposal is a recipe for some degree of chaos. We should be looking for some way of devolving power to the English regions. The first time we had a referendum for the Scottish Par-liament, we didn't get it - so just because the referendum in the north-east [of England] went against the plan, it doesn't mean it should be rejected completely.

"I also think the time is right for a review of financing across the various areas of the UK. The present arrangements are particularly bad for the north-east and north-west of England. I would not be unhappy to see that formula re-examined."

English regional devolution was proposed by Labour when it took power in 1997, but it took until November 2004 for the first referendum. Voters in the North-east rejected the idea, bringing a sudden halt to the plans. London is the only part of England to have its own assembly, and there are no plans for any in other parts of England.

But some Scottish MPs believe that would be a good way of appeasing English anger over devolution, as well as giving the English regions more autonomy.

David Hamilton, the Labour MP for Midlothian, thought England needed to be "devolved" further. He said: "I understand the frustrations people have, but this has to be a long-term solution. We need to sit down and talk right through this to come up with a solution which will stand the test of time.

"I do not believe you can play around with the constitution - you can't put sticking plasters on it. In the long term, England needs to be devolved and to develop its own strategy and the [UK] parliament then covers the four nations' parliaments. It will take time.

"There is no way you can dilute the voting rights of any MPs, as [Tory MP] Malcolm Rifkind wants to do. This is not a Scottish problem; it's a UK problem, and there is no simple, easy answer."

He went on: "I would do away with the House of Lords and put the English parliament in there; then we [in the Commons] would become the reforming parliament for the UK."

Michael Connarty, the Labour MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, believed the government had to take action because of growing resentment south of the Border. He said: "Yes, I think we should do something about it and in a non-partisan way. People get cheesed off when they think they are being stitched up by politicians and they will get cheesed off by the Tories winding up English nationalism.

"There must be a conversation about this. We cannot pretend it is a suitable situation now in relation to Scotland or in relation to England.

"One issue which is causing a great deal of unhappiness is the Barnett Formula; we cannot get away from that. In education, the disparity between what some authorities in the south-east of England get and what Scottish authorities get can be as much as 1,500 per pupil."

Other Scottish Labour MPs were more cautious. Anne Begg, the MP for Aberdeen South, said Spain had managed to operate effectively with asymmetrical devolution - different regions with different powers - so there was no reason why that could not continue to work in the UK.

She added that regional assemblies for England might have been an option, but the English had backed away from that.

Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for Falkirk, said he could see why the issue had become so important but that did not mean the government had to step in and take action.

Rosemary McKenna, the MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, said she was concerned about the tone of the debate, particularly the "anti-Scottish" campaign she claimed was being driven by the Tories.

However, she did not see the need for urgent action. "There have been anomalies in Westminster since the day it was created. This is another one we will have to live with," she said.

The growing unease on the Labour benches shows how successful the Tories have been in stirring up what would normally be a dry constitutional issue into a hot political topic.

There is a perception in some parts of England that Scots are getting a whole series of advantages, such as on prescription charges and tuition fees, and that these are being paid for by English taxpayers.

This argument is fuelled by the use of statistics showing how much more Scotland gets per head of population for public services under the Barnett Formula - even though the Scottish Government has to make its spending decisions on the basis of a finite pot of money, and has to find the money from other sources if it wants to provide services free.

One of the reasons the Tories want the creation of an English Grand Committee - effectively an English parliament - is they believe they would have a majority and would be able to control English domestic policy.

Labour oppose it for the same reason, aware that a Labour government at Westminster could be neutered, unable to enact any English domestic legislation if the Tories had a majority among English MPs.

The Liberal Democrats prefer a federalist option, leaving Westminster as the UK's federal legislature, in charge of defence, macro-economics and foreign affairs, and devolving equal power to the constituent parts of the UK.

Until now, Labour has maintained the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are stable and do not need to be changed. But the intervention by some of its Scottish MPs shows that opinion is starting to shift.

A spokesman for the UK government said ministers did not accept the Tory proposal of English votes for English laws. He said the Prime Minister had made this clear when he told the House of Commons in July: "While we will listen to all proposals to improve our constitution in the light of devolution, we do not accept the proposal for English votes for English laws, which would create two classes of Members of Parliament - some entitled to vote on all issues, some invited to vote on only some. We will do nothing to put at risk the Union."

It is understood there are no plans to resurrect proposals for regional assemblies throughout England.

Named by Enoch Powell, with a little help from The Scotsman

Tam Dalyell

ALLOW me to recall the genesis of the dreaded WLQ. Like all politicians, I am a man of a certain vanity, but insufficient vanity to have christened a constitutional dilemma and political minefield after my constituency.

It was in 1978. For 47 parliamentary working days, the House of Commons was discussing the Scotland and Wales bills.

On every clause, and sub-clause, and amendment, I droned on portentously: "How can I vote on education matters in Accrington and not Armadale, West Lothian? How can I vote on local government matters in relation to Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian? How can I vote on health matters in Liverpool but not Linlithgow?"

And, with all sorts of variations, I posed the problem of accountability in terms of being able to do something about West Bromwich but not in the same area for the electors of West Lothian, who were responsible for sending me to the House of Commons.

On about day 35, when I posed the question for the umpteenth time and uttered the words "it cannot be asked too often", an exasperated John Smith, the minister on the Front Bench responsible for steering the legislation through the House of Commons, blurted out from a sedentary position: "Oh, yes, Tam, it bloody well can be asked too often!"

Enoch Powell then intervened, saying, "we have grasped the significance of the issue which the Honourable Gentleman for West Lothian raises in every debate on the bill, and so often repeats", so let us (with heavy irony since it was the last thing he wanted to do) save time and give it the sobriquet of the West Lothian Question.

I am often asked these days what my answer is to the West Lothian Question. Had there been an answer, those extremely able ministers John Smith and Bruce Millan, then secretary of state for Scotland, and their clever civil servants, the late Sir John Garlick and Sir Michael Quinlan, would certainly have found it within a week.

The problem is that you cannot have, on a stable basis, a subordinate parliament, in part, though only part, of a kingdom which, above all, you wish to keep united. The colourful Dalyell-Smith-Powell exchange did not escape the attention of the then young political correspondent of The Scotsman and former political editor of the Daily Telegraph, George Jones. He referred to the West Lothian Question in his text, and it was picked out by The Scotsman sub-editor of the night.

Had it not been for this report, I suspect that the clash would have gone wholly unremarked, submerged in the oceans of print of the committee stage of the Scotland and Wales bills.

The Scotsman was further involved. The then editor, the late and, in my opinion, the great Eric Mackay invited me to go to his office to discuss the whole issue. He was passionately on the side of devolution, but, being a considerable editor, thought it worth his while to talk seriously to his arch- opponent. It was on account of this meeting that there were various Scotsman leaders written, to the best of my belief, by the elegant pen of Eric Mackay.

It also helped that I was the first MP, let alone Labour MP, to be asked to go to see Brian Thomson, the boss of DC Thomson, who adopted the shorthand of the WLQ in the Dundee Courier and Sunday Post .

The truth is that perhaps some kind of modus vivendi would have allowed the Scotland Act to limp along. And it is a "perhaps" because, before the 2005 election, huge tensions were building up over matters such as student fees and long- term care of the elderly.

No longer. Not in the least to my surprise, Alex Salmond is skilfully creating an arc of irritation among the English, who perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they are paying to allow Scots to get advantages not available in England.

So, in my opinion, we have arrived at an inevitable referendum, this time covering England and Scotland separately. From my point of view, I fear the majority vote in England might be "if the Scots are girning so much and costing us, let them go".

In Scotland, I would like to see this as one of the questions put: "Do you wish the Scottish Parliament to remain in being, in the certainty that, if it does remain in being, the consequence will be the break-up of Britain?"

Q & A

Q. What is the West Lothian question?

A. It is a constitutional paradox that arises out of devolving powers to only one part of the UK. The key issue is whether it is right that an MP representing a Scottish seat in the House of Commons can vote on measures like health or education for England, when they cannot vote on these issues when they have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Q. Who first called it the West Lothian question?

A. Although associated with Tam Dalyell, it was given this name in 1978 by Enoch Powell, then a Unionist MP. Mr Powell gave it that name when he said that MPs finally grasped the importance of the issues Mr Dalyell, then the MP for West Lothian, raised during the debates on the proposed Scottish assembly in 1978.

Q. Is it a new question?

A. No. The issue of the status of MPs in a system of devolution has been discussed since the first debates over Irish home rule which began in the late 19th century.

Q. Have more recent governments tried to come up with solutions?

A. Yes. During his first government between 1964 and 1966, Harold Wilson protested when the Unionist parties supported the Conservatives in opposing the nationalisation of the steel industry, although the measure would not affect Northern Ireland. The then Prime Minister asked Elwyn Jones, the Attorney General, to devise a solution where Irish members would vote only on Bills and clauses with UK-wide territorial extent, but considered the matter too complex.

Q. Did the devolution legislation of 1978 try to deal with the West Lothian question?

A. Yes, against the then government's wishes, it provided for a further vote after 14 days where the votes of Scottish MPs were decisive in passing a Bill which did not relate to Scotland. According to House of Commons research, the idea was to give the Commons time to reconsider the issue. However, the Scotland Act 1978 was not endorsed in the 1979 referendum. A majority voted for the proposed assembly, but not enough people did so to pass the 40 per cent rule, which required that number of the total electorate to vote in favour.

Q. What did the Labour government elected in 1997 do?

A. It did not address the central issue. Scottish MPs can still vote on matters that are now purely English. But it did eventually cut the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59. The change, part of the Scotland Act 1998 which created the Scottish Parliament, took effect at the 2005 UK general election.

Q. Has the West Lothian question ever mattered in recent Commons votes?

A. Yes. In the case of both the establishing of foundation hospitals and agreeing student tuition fees - both controversial policies which do not affect Scotland - Scottish votes were decisive in getting the measures through. Had there been a vote on English MPs only, the government would have lost because of a rebellion on their own benches.

The West Lothian Question: what they say

"I say to the Conservatives that if they start to take a mechanical approach, this so-called 'English votes for English laws' approach, then they will break the Union"

Jack Straw

"We do need to deal with the question of English votes for English laws, where MPs don't have control over health or education or housing in their own constituencies "

David Cameron

"It is an anomaly that Scots MPs vote on matters that affect England, but English MPs do not have similar influence over Scots law because it has been devolved to Holyrood"

Chris Huhne

"It has to be addressed. It will fester and eat away the aggregate of mutual benefit that we feel as part of the UK. We simply cannot ignore it because it will become a lurking difficulty"

Annabel Goldie

 
 
 

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