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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Half measures will undermine devolution

Tory Leader David Cameron's insistence that he will push ahead with his plan to bar Welsh MPs from voting on England- only issues, underlines how little he understands about devolution in Wales.

There are two principal and one minor objections to the proposal. The first is that Welsh devolution is not a settled event as with Scotland. Over the next decade the Assembly will accumulate powers at an uneven rate, but even where they assume responsibility for a service they might not take it all on. Thus there will be a large number of Bills that continue to have an impact on both England and Wales, even though large chunks of the subject matter have already passed to the Assembly to deal with. It will not be easy to resolve that and there will be circumstances where particular clauses might impact on Wales but Welsh MPs are excluded from voting because of a poor understanding of asymmetric devolution by whoever arbitrates on these matters.

Secondly, whenever legislation has an impact on public spending, even where it is quite clearly England-only, it will also impact on the money available to Wales through the block grant. This is because Wales receives a 5.9% consequential of any spending increase or reduction on devolved matters. Thus Welsh MPs may be barred from voting on a measure that might slash millions of pounds off the cash the Assembly has to spend in their constituency.

Finally, there is the issue of border MPs, whose constituents use English services (and vice versa) because they are more convenient for them. They could well find themselves unable to influence the future of those services and thus be unable to properly represent their voters.

David Cameron is taking a black and white view of a complex constitutional issue purely to attract votes in Middle England. Jealousy and envy are not good a basis for policy nor for determining the future of our constitution.

The Tory leader is in danger of turning Tony Blair's half-hearted mess into a complete hotch-potch. If he is really serious about achieving equality for MPs and dealing with the West Lothian question in a comprehensive manner then he has only one way to go and that is forward. Further devolution, that will give English regions parity with Scotland and Wales, will produce a genuinely Federal Britain and consign the West Lothian question to the dustbin of history.
I've seen border constituencies mentioned in relation to Scotland too and I think it's a bit of a red herring. "Scottish constituents might use an English hospital" goes the argument, but "English constituents might use a Scottish hospital", which is just as valid, would be a reason not to have a Scottish Parliament at all. Welsh people using English facilities isn't a reason for Welsh MPs to vote on that issue if English MPs can't vote on the issues affecting corresponding facilities in Wales that might be used by their constituents on the English side of the border.

It's an argument against any level of devolution where neighbours may be disenfranchised.
"Further devolution, that will give English regions parity with Scotland and Wales, will produce a genuinely Federal Britain and consign the West Lothian question to the dustbin of history."

Yes, but if you want to avoid the break-up of the UK... blah, blah, rubbish, bollocks you hear from those against the people actually having power.
In other words, hear, hear! :-)
Yes I can see that argument Will. It is the reason why I termed that particular point as being 'minor'. I think that the other more substantive issues are more serious.
Broadly I agree that MPs only able to vote on different matters is a mess, but I think forcing the English regions into devolution isn't a workable solution. The regional assemblies offered were little more than super county councils (and the Greater London Mayor and Talking Shop sorry Assembly are really more akin to a metropolis wide form of local government than regional devolution) and understandably the only one actually put to the people was overwhelmingly rejected.

There's also very little affinity for most of the regions - five have to resort to purely geographic names which is hardly a sign of preexisting natural links and communities! One could detail the problems on the current boundaries endlessly - most of the South East looks more to London than to each other, a large (geographic) part of the North West probably feels more affinity with the North East than with Liverpool-Manchester (and probably feels it would be listened to more in a "North East" Assembly), the West Midland-South West border partitions the Three Counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire and so forth.

Then there's the point, never really adequately addressed since 1950 (and often not really discussed), that one isn't just a citizen in the house where they live. London in particular has vast numbers of commuters from outside the boundaries who are affected by the decisions of the Mayor, yet do not have a say in electing and removing him. (Similarly there are a good number of neighbouring towns who are impacted.) In a UK Parliament having an MP helps resolve this, but regional devolution exposes the cross border issue far more widely. The old property franchise was hardly the best form of democracy, but did at least offer a partial solution to this matter (witness the way voting is still done in the City of London). With so much cross regional border commuting in England this needs to be thought through before running off to create new tiers of government in response to perceived imbalances.

Personally I'm inclined towards a significant reduction in the number of Scottish and Welsh MPs - say 40 and 32 (there could be undersized seats but these would have to be compensated for within the countries) - who could vote on all matters. This compromise solution worked for Northern Ireland for over fifty years. (And what was the reason for increasing the number of MPs? None other than reversing devolution!)
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