A VOICE, NOT A VETO SAYS THE MCKAY COMMISSION
The McKay Commission, appointed to consider the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, reported on Monday. We concluded that decisions taken by UK MPs with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for England.
To some, this suggests that MPs from Northern Ireland (as well as Scotland and Wales) might have to forego their right to decide on legislation for England that comes before the House of Commons. But this is not the case.
Under our proposals, no MP from Northern Ireland would have their rights reduced. Instead of considering how to limit the rights of MPs from constituencies outside England to vote on English issues, we explored new ways of listening to the collective voice of MPs representing England or England-and-Wales when shaping laws that relate to their territory. In essence, we want all MPs to retain the right of final say, while allowing for the voice of England to be heard.
As an independent 5-person Commission we based our findings on the principle that informs the devolution settlement here, as in Scotland and Wales. This is the principle that the UK Parliament will ‘not normally’ legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature. In other words, issues over which the Northern Ireland Assembly has jurisdiction are decided by MLAs, unless they give Westminster explicit consent to legislate on those issues. A recent example is the Assembly’s agreement to reforms of estate agency business in Northern Ireland as part of a UK-wide bill.
We suggest that a similar principle be adopted for England. The devolution arrangements are already marking out some legislation as being of relevance to England only. Yet, this is not sufficiently recognised in existing arrangements. Tuition fees, for example, were applied to England in 2004 with the help of MPs from Scotland voting in support of the Labour government’s plan, even though the measure was opposed by a majority of MPs from England.
We found a growing discontent among the public in England for such scenarios. Independent research shows four in every five people in England believe that Scottish MPs should not vote on laws relating to England. And, over half believe that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public money, compared with one-quarter of English people who think that Northern Ireland gets more than it should from taxpayers. Politically, too, more than half of the English want some form of England-specific procedure for making laws for England.
This sense of English grievance was supported by oral and written evidence to us from a wide range of individuals and organisations across the UK. The stabilising of devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland and strengthening of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales has sharpened this sense of unfairness among the public in England. It became clear to us that there was a need for transparent, accountable procedures whereby legislation of particular relevance to England could be identified, and the views from England expressed.
If our recommendations are adopted, MPs from England will have the opportunity to make their own views known on legislation relating to England during the passage of a bill. All MPs would have a final say, with the views of MPs from England known. This preserves the right of Parliament to make the final decision.
MPs from Northern Ireland, then, together with all other MPs, will retain their right to have the final say on issues affecting England, and will be able to inform their voting decisions with knowledge of what MPs from England think about these matters. At the same time, MPs representing English constituencies will be given a stronger voice when concerns directly affecting the interests of England come before Parliament.
Previous suggestions for solving the West Lothian Question have ranged from a stand-alone English Parliament to special procedures in the House of Commons known as ‘English votes for English laws’. These, and other, solutions would have the effect of making MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales redundant. At best, they would become second-class MPs. Our recommendations avoid this consequence by guaranteeing that all MPs retain the final say. MPs from England are given a voice, but not a veto.
Professor Yvonne Galligan, Queen’s University Belfast
Member of the McKay Commission