Monday, October 29, 2007

English Votes by English Laws by just another name

I'm with Gareth Young rather than Iain Dale over the Tories' plans for an "English Grand Committee" as set out in yesterday's Observer.. With all due to respect to the superior intellect of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, this is simply the old policy of English Votes for English Laws dressed up in new clothes.

As Gareth points out on the Campaign for an English Parliament Newsblog, not the least problematical aspect of the proposal is the idea that the Speaker would have to rule on which bills, or parts of bills, were English-only, or English-and-Welsh-only on those areas which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament but not to the Welsh Assembly.

"If, as suggested, it is up to the Speaker to decide what is and what is not English legislation then the impartiality of the Speaker will be compromised. A brief look at Gorbals Mick’s record on impartiality should alert people to the dangers of this. Even if it were up to some higher, or more impartial, authority than the Speaker to designate bills as English-only then it would inevitably cause arguments before the bill is even drafted."

To be fair to Iain Dale, he is a supporter of the CEP and he argues that an English Grand Committee would be a stepping stone towards that eventual aim. Possibly in the longer-term, but I would argue that in the shorter-term, the introduction of further assymetric devolution into the constitution will actually make things worse rather than better, and make it more likely that the end of all this will not be a union of four equal autonomous nations but four wholly independent states.

That said, the distinction between an English Grand Committee and an English Parliament will probably be lost on most voters. The Tories will doubtless get some public support for this, simply for being seen to do something about the problem while Labour continues to bury its head in the sand.

The upside for Labour is that, with the next election not due until 2009, Gordon Brown has 18 months to expose the policy as unworkable, and maybe even to come up with an alternative proposal that is, although if I knew how he could dothat without handing his Scottish heartland over to the SNP lock stock and barrel, I'd probably be sitting in his chair.

Scrapping the Barnett Formula would take much of the current heat out of the issue, but Brown cannot now do that without handing a huge propaganda victory to Alex Salmond. The sensible time to have done it, as he was warned at the time, would have been in 1998/99, when Labour was still reaping the benefit of the devolution dividend.

I have taken a fair amount of mockery down the years for taking an interest in this subject - when my son was born the joke in the Lobby was that he would be fed on Barnett Formula Milk - but I always knew it would become a big political issue one day, and now it has.

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md said...

So what is your suggestion Paul? I know that it's a hackneyed old argument, but surely something has to be done about the fact that Scottish MPs are able to vote on an issue (say charging tuition fees for university students) that generates a cost for those living in England but has no impact on their own electorate. I don't know the answer myself, but this proposal seems to be a sensible starting point for the discussion.

Anonymous said...

As I recall you were the first Journalist in England to call for an English Parliament a number of years ago.Believe me I would know,
I've followed this saga relentlessly.
I expected New Labour to cave in there and then.
I hope one day you are awarded a
Cross of St George for your role
in bringing fairness and equality to England.

Toque said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence. It won't be hard to shoot down this Tory policy.

In fact it looks as if they will do it themselves.

Brit Spin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hopi Sen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hopi Sen said...

Ah, found a way to make my comment come under my own name!
Ignore previous deleted comments, and apologies for clogging up space!

Paul- loathe though I am to open up Barnett formula discussion with you (you'll be delighted know that talking to you on the Barnett formula was one of the toughest times of my week back in my time as a labour hack), just wanted to make one point- the government did make one significant change to the Barnett formula in 98/99.

This was to link population changes to the change in formula every year rather than whenver censuses were taken, which has the effect of regularising the barnett squeeze. (Scottish per cap expenditure no longer goes up because of population flight).

Truth is no government could "scrap" Barnett (by which I mean redistributing current Scottish and Welsh and NI funding on another basis) the screams of pain would be too great, and the challenge of then opening up a needs based review, would be awful- everyone would have the begging bowl out and be making special pleading. Could you rejig barnett to bring expenditure levels into alignment more quickly? Be interested to see what you'd propose in this area...

Ted Harvey said...

For Labour there is supreme irony in both Barnett and devolution for Scotland (and, OK, a bit to Wales).

They were both intended as a fix for Labour to underpin it's hold on Scotland.

Barnett, arguably did little more than feed perceptions of a system of public tax largesse and bribery for Scottish votes. It did not work because meantime the Scottish electorate became increasingly aware of the huge and disproportionate loss of long term oil revenues as the cost of remaining in the present UK setup.

Devolution has in fact broken the near-hypnotic bond there seemed to be between the urban Scottish working and middle class voter and
Scottish Labour. The longer the SNP stays in Office and doesn't actually screw anything up too much, the more settled this break-with-the-bond will become for many ex-Labour Scottish voters.

Incidentally, I do not agree with hopi sen when he says 'no government could scrap Barnett'. Here in Scotland there has been a long-time dawning that the Barnett settlement was already in demise and that despite Westminster Governments of either persuasion having extended it, it has to be re-negotiated sometime soon. But that neads to be on the basis of equal partnership and a genuinely equitable settlement - not because, suddenly, Daily Mail land in England is being force-fed the story that Barnett is 'subsidy for the Jocks'.

If the Westminster Governments are unwilling to reform Barnett and address further UK-wide devolution
it is because of their failure of intellect and idealogical basis on which to forge any renegotiation.

Failure to tackle these major issues will result, I believe, in a continued and accelerating weakening of the Union.