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We need to tackle two English questions

Clive Betts
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A constitutional commission would be welcome, says the chair of the communities and local government select committee

Promises made by all political parties to the Scottish people with regard to extra devolution must be delivered.

They cannot wait for questions about voting powers in parliament or devolution to the rest of the UK to be resolved.

This does, however, lead on to the English question, or in reality, the two English questions. 

The first is why Scottish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters affecting England when MPs in England cannot vote on the same matters in Scotland. 

The second is, if extra powers are devolved to Scotland what about devolution in England? What should happen to London, with an economy bigger than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, or Greater Manchester, which has an economy similar in size to that of Wales?

The creation of an English parliament has been proposed as a way to solve the issue of Scottish MPs voting on English questions and also to deal with devolution in England. For those who live in the north of England, however, it is clear that transferring powers from one parliament in Westminster to another parliament in Westminster is not devolution at all.  

While the format of devolution in Scotland is relatively easy with powers transferring to the Scottish parliament, it is more complicated in England. Previous proposals to devolve powers to regions with elected assemblies is no longer being seriously advocated. The regions, in any case, are simply areas of administrative convenience with no real economic entity or particular affinity. In the south-west, Bristol is as remote from Cornwall as London is from Leeds.  

We should therefore look to build on existing local authorities as the way forward. London already has agreed structures and in the other major cities the concept of city regions has developed. In my own city of Sheffield, the city region comprises districts from South Yorkshire and also north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire, cutting across traditional regional boundaries and basing governance on the economic realities of a travel-to-work area.

The governance arrangements for city regions have been based on the model of the combined authority initially pioneered in Greater Manchester and now adopted in several of the largest cities.  

I welcome the idea of a constitutional commission to map out the way forward for devolving powers within the UK as well as resolving the issue of the voting powers of MPs.

While a constitutional commission should not be an excuse for holding up the devolution of powers to Scotland, neither should it hold up devolution within England. Ultimately devolution is not likely to create a symmetrical federal system in the UK, so we can make a start in devolving powers to the combined authorities of the city regions and to London without compromising the more comprehensive review of a commission.

Just as Scotland is receive extra tax-raising and spending powers, similar proposals need to be offered in England as well. The London Finance Commission and the communities and local government select committee have detailed proposals for the devolution of council tax, business rates, stamp duty and fees and charges which have been welcomed on a cross-party basis by the mayor of London, the London boroughs, the eight largest cities outside London and the city regions. 

Devolution is not simply about giving local authorities the power to spend money but also the powers and responsibilities for raising money as well.  

Devolution is also not just about making decisions at a more local level by politicians; it also about the participation and engagement of communities in these decisions, helping to reinvigorate the democratic process. The Scottish referendum demonstrated the electorate’s disillusionment with Westminster and devolution throughout the UK could help in rebuilding the trust that has been lost.

Finally, let’s return to the question of Scottish MPs voting on English matters. If widespread but varied devolution takes place, we have the prospect of MPs not merely from Scotland and Wales but also from London and the other cities voting on matters that have been devolved within their areas. However, the simplistic idea that MPs cannot vote on matters that are devolved in the constituencies they represent is fraught with constitutional difficulties. 

If we are not careful we are going to end up with a Balkanisation of Parliament and whole groups of MPs with different voting rights. Every bill would have to be scrutinised by law officers with different clauses being voted on by different combinations of MPs. 

The unsustainability of a situation where a government had a majority on some issues but not on others is obvious to see.

Clive Betts (Lab), chair, communities and local government select committee




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