Friday, 16 April 2010

More on the West Lothian Question

Victor Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford University, has been opining again, this time in an article in today's Times, mainly centering on what he thinks will be a Liberal Democrat break-through in the election in May. Certainly Nick Clegg seems to have done quite well in yesterday's TV debate and it does make the election an intriguing one. Professor Bogdanor's main thesis in the article is (and has been in the past) that proportional representation in the House of Commons is the way to go.

At the same time, he has taken another opportunity to take a swipe at the Conservative party's policy on the West Lothian Question which now features in their manifesto, namely to have an English Grand Committee for domestic legislation, such as on health, education and local government, which only applies to England or to England and Wales.

He says this about the manifesto:
"'A Conservative Government', the manifesto declares, 'will introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries' — in short, English votes for English laws.

"The trouble is, however, that any issue at Westminster involving the expenditure of public money is of concern to Scotland, since it may affect the level of taxation in Scotland and also, indirectly, the level of Scottish public expenditure. Scotland is financed through a block fund, the size of which depends, through the Barnett formula, on expenditure in England.

"Were a Conservative government to cut expenditure in a devolved area such as, for example, education, there would be a knock-on effect north of the Border. The Scots would have to cut their own expenditure on education, whether they wished to or not. It is for this reason that MPs from the devolved areas currently retain the right to vote on what might seem to be merely English domestic affairs."
This is the "Barnett consequential" argument. The trouble is that, as I have mentioned before, this analysis is wrong. It as if, by repeating it often enough, it becomes right.

First, the Tory policy is for an English Grand Committee, not "in short, English votes on English laws". Under the Tory policy no Bill applying only to England or England and Wales could pass its second and third reading stages without a majority of all members of the House of Commons, including Scottish and Northern Irish members. If Scottish members don't like a particular proposal, they can vote to block it.

Secondly, were there to be a cut in education spending in England, it does not mean the Scottish government would have to do the same to its education expenditure, as expenditure is not hypothecated in this way. The block grant paid into the Scottish Consolidated Fund is calculated globally by reference to all expenditure on matters in England which are devolved in Scotland. Were the Scottish block grant to be reduced because of cuts in expenditure in England on education, the Scottish government could choose to maintain education spending at the expense of something else: but in fact Scottish block grant would not be cut at all unless a cut in the English budget for education were to be used either to fund UK-wide expenditure (for example, defence and foreign affairs) or were to be used to cut general taxation. Were it to be used to cut general taxation, the Scottish Government could decide to maintain levels of taxation in Scotland by exercising its right to raise income tax by up to 3p in the pound (which the Scottish Parliament already has the power to do and does not rely on Calman), so providing the revenue which they would otherwise lose by the UK tax cut.

Thirdly, as I have previously mentioned, service legislation on, say, education would only very rarely have a direct effect on spending. It is the annual expenditure votes for the services concerned which determine that, on which all members of the House of Commons can and do vote. (For more information on how so-called supply works, see this.)

Lastly, both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties now have proposals to replace the Barnett formula with a needs based formula. Were that to be done, the argument (poor as in my view it was to begin with when examined critically) falls flat on its face.

1 comment:

HomeRuleforEngland said...

I suppose he has to write something to justify his fee, however ill informed it is!
I wonder if 'they' will come up with the usual fill a page nonsense for St Georges Day. What is Englishness etc.
We never see articles on St Patrick's Day about what is Irishness etc.