Friday, 9 September 2011

Commission on the West Lothian Question

A junior minister, Mark Harper, made a written statement to the House of Commons yesterday about the Commission on the West Lothian Question. The statement said this:
"The coalition programme for government set out our commitment to establish a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’.

I can now give the House more details on how that commission is to proceed.

The Government are clear that the commission’s primary task should be to examine how this House and Parliament as a whole can deal most effectively with business that affects England wholly or primarily, when at the same time similar matters in some or all of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are lawfully and democratically the responsibility of the separate Parliament or Assemblies. The commission will not examine financing, which is being dealt with separately through various processes led by Treasury Ministers, nor does it need to look at the balance of parliamentary representation, given that Parliament addressed historic imbalances in representation between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom in legislation earlier this year.

Given the commission’s focus on parliamentary business and procedure, the Government believe that the commission should be comprised of a small group of independent, non-partisan experts with constitutional, legal and parliamentary expertise. We will also wish to consult with Mr Speaker and other parliamentary authorities on how the commission can best address this. We will also ensure that there is a full opportunity for the parties to have their say following the completion of the commission’s work.

We will bring forward formal proposals, including the terms of reference for the commission, after the conclusion of this short process of consultation and further deliberation. I expect that this will be in the weeks after the House returns in October."

This statement says virtually nothing. It does not set out the membership of the Commission nor its terms of reference, and says very little that the government has not previously said in written answers that it would do, first by last Autumn, then by last Christmas and then by this Autumn. The main purpose is to get Harriett Baldwin to withdraw her Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill, a private members ballot Bill which has made unexpected progress and is due for its Report stage today.

It appears that this "Commission" is to be barely a commission at all. It will treat its considerations on the West Lothian Question as concerned only with how the House can "deal most effectively with business that affects England wholly or primarily". If only efficiency rather than issues of democratic accountability and fairness are to be considered, there is a simple answer which does not require a commission at all - leave things as they are. But the West Lothian Question, as devolution itself, is about more than efficiency, and its compass ought to be larger than that of a committee on procedure in the House. It shows that Cameron himself is largely uncommitted to this, notwithstanding his statements before the last election and indeed the Tory manifesto itself.

The statement was odd in another way. It rules out one suggested answer to the West Lothian Question, which is further to reduce representation from the devolved nations in the House, as was done in Northern Ireland after the Stormont Parliament was set up in 1924. I am not too fussed about that, since it seems to me to be a fairly half-baked idea to begin with, but it does show how the government is closing down the options and the commission's remit before even its terms of reference have been decided and it has begun its work.

As readers of this blog will know, in fact I think there is a relatively straightforward answer to this, which is to have a double majority requirement at Third Reading in the House of Commons for any separate Part of a Bill with only limited territorial extent, namely a majority in the whole House and in the territory to which the Part of the Bill extends. In the first instance, while this is being tested out, it could operate as a safety net in the same way that the House of Lords does, by comprising only a power to impose a delay of one Session where there is no territorial majority. This would enable a government to get its business done where it really thinks it needs to. I have previously explored this here, here, here and here.

If I was Harriett Baldwin faced with this I would not withdraw, but a new back bencher under pressure can find this difficult. It looks as if Labour, who are politically advantaged by current arrangements, have decided to talk her Bill out anyway. A private member's Bill is a public Bill debated in government time, and unless she can get sufficient members to attend to force a closure motion, Labour will find it quite easy to talk it out of time.

Update1: Harriett Baldwin has decided to press on because of the lack of detail in the statement. So she will now have to try and get it through Report stage without it being talked out on amendments.

Update2: Labour didn't manage to talk it out, but they won a vote against it 40-24, so it will proceed no further.

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