In the latest blog from our Legislatures in Uncertain Times conference, Meg Russell and Jack Sheldon discuss the model for a dual mandate English Parliament and ask whether what it proposes is a parliament at all.
Calls for establishment of an English Parliament have been made for years, particularly following Labour’s devolution in the 1990s to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Initially such proposals were largely confined to the right of politics, and appeared a relatively fringe interest. But in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, and the new powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, proposals have also begun to be heard figures on both the political left. Nonetheless, advocates have rarely elaborated on their proposals in detail, and there are many unresolved questions relating to the likely powers, functions, structure and composition of such a body. Since autumn 2016 we have been working on a research project exploring the options, and our detailed report is due to be published shortly. Here, we concentrate primarily on the key institutional questions raised by what we call the ‘dual mandate’ model for an English Parliament, which some proponents suggest could be implemented as an incremental next step from ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). We ask whether this model for an English Parliament is as innocuous as it looks, and indeed whether what it proposes is a parliament at all.
Models for an English Parliament
The most instinctively obvious model for an English Parliament is to create a completely new body, elected separately from the House of Commons, to mirror the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Variants of this separately-elected model have been proposed by such figures as David Davis, Frank Field and Paul Nuttall. It is also favoured by the Campaign for an English Parliament, founded in 1998. Establishing such a body would be a big decision, entailing significant political upheaval and cost. The idea has many opponents, including experts such as Vernon Bogdanor and Adam Tomkins. A key concern is that a new elected body representing 85% of the UK population would, in the words of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “introduce a destabilising asymmetry of power”. For all of these reasons, adoption of this proposal continues to appear politically unlikely.
The second model is what we call the dual mandate model, which is presented as a more incremental change. Here Westminster MPs representing English constituencies would meet as an English Parliament at certain times. Proponents see this as building on the existing EVEL procedures, creating a far clearer delineation at Westminster between England-only and UK business (and thus dealing once-and-for-all with the famous ‘West Lothian question’). The most prominent supporter has been John Redwood, but similar arrangements have also been proposed by MP Andrew Rosindell, Welsh AM David Melding, journalist Simon Heffer and writers from the Adam Smith Institute think tank. Nonetheless, this model is rejected by the Campaign for an English Parliament as ‘English Parliament lite’.
In this post we focus on key institutional design questions raised by the dual mandate model. The questions regarding the separately-elected model are more obvious (e.g. powers, electoral system, location), and could readily draw on experience from elsewhere in the UK and overseas. But there is no precedent for the type of institution envisaged in the dual mandate model, and much would therefore need to be worked out from scratch. We highlight some key questions raised by the model, but do not promise to answer them. Indeed, some may be unanswerable.
A fundamental question concerns the extent to which non-legislative tasks would be performed by a dual mandate English Parliament. Proponents have tended to focus almost exclusively on votes on English legislation. However, separating English and UK business seems to imply going further than that. Some government departments, for example Health and Education, already have exclusively England-only responsibilities. It would therefore seem logical that these should be scrutinised by English Parliament select committees, comprised only of English MPs, and that their ministers should answer questions in the English rather than UK parliament. Likewise there might be opportunities for urgent questions, statements and general debates on English Parliament days. Soon attention would turn to government departments with a mix of UK and England-only responsibilities (such as Transport). Pressure would probably follow to split these in order to ensure scrutiny in the appropriate venue.
Another key question relates to sitting patterns. Members and (almost certainly) a chamber would be shared by the English Parliament and UK House of Commons, so the two could not meet at the same time. Proponents have suggested dividing time either in terms of days or weeks. Separate sitting weeks would be more practical for MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who could avoid travelling to Westminster in English weeks. But this would lead to significant ‘scrutiny gaps’, during which no parliament was sitting to discuss one or other type of business. This probably demands some sitting days each week for both institutions, despite the inconvenience to non-English MPs.
There are also challenging questions about the legislative process in a dual mandate English Parliament. In particular the role of the House of Lords has thus far been unaffected by EVEL, but it would seem strange for an English Parliament’s legislation to be considered by a second chamber containing non-English members. However, as the Lords Constitution Committee has noted, there is no ready way of distinguishing ‘English’ peers. An alternative would be for the dual mandate English Parliament to be unicameral (like the other devolved legislatures), but that would require a more robust legislative process than that in the current House of Commons, for example with a stronger role for specialist committees. Such variation could become quite complex for MPs, staff and outside observers.
There are various other knotty questions of this kind about sharing facilities with the House of Commons. For example, should the Speaker of the House of Commons double up as presiding officer of the English Parliament, or should it elect its own? The former would become problematic if the Speaker represented a non-English constituency. Would the two have their own Liaison, Procedure, Petitions and Backbench Business Committees? To what extent would the institutions have their own dedicated staff?
A parliament without a government?
The main proponents of a dual mandate English Parliament suggest that part of its simplicity would be the lack of need for a separate English government; the UK government could instead continue to serve as both the UK and English executive. But this seemingly ‘simple’ solution raises major questions of its own.
The most obvious consequence is that a UK government commanding a majority in the House of Commons might lack a majority in the English Parliament. On three occasions since 1945 a Labour government has held a majority of UK seats, but only a minority of seats in England (1950, 1964 and October 1974). Should this reoccur following establishment of a dual mandate English Parliament the government might well face frequent defeats, and struggle to pursue its policy agenda in England.
More fundamentally, the principle that the government requires the confidence of the legislature is the defining feature of parliamentary (rather than, for example, presidential) government. For example, Strøm, Müller and Bergman point out that this is ‘a system of government in which the Prime Minister and his or her cabinet are accountable to any majority of the members of parliament and can be voted out of office by the latter, through an ordinary or constructive vote of no confidence’. But this would not formally be the case in a dual mandate English Parliament. This raises the question of whether such a body can properly be described as a ‘parliament’ at all.
Proponents of a dual mandate English Parliament sometimes suggest that political problems might be avoided by the party with a UK majority but no English majority seeking a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement to govern England (e.g. Melding). However, this might not always be politically possible – most notably if a Labour government needed to seek Conservative support. In any case, such an arrangement would raise new problems. If it became convention that governments had to command both a UK and an English majority this would effectively give English MPs a veto on who could govern the UK. Neither MPs nor members of the devolved legislatures from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have such a power, which would create a major anomaly and guarantee strong objections from these areas – creating new threats to the territorial integrity of the UK.
A dual mandate English Parliament has been presented by some of its proponents as a next small step to resolve outstanding constitutional anomalies from devolution. The current EVEL procedures (which are based on a ‘double veto’) make it possible in principle for non-English votes to be decisive on an England-only issue, which could lead to renewed calls to go further and exclude such MPs altogether from Westminster’s English business. Of the two main models for an English Parliament the dual mandate model is hence probably the best placed, in the tradition of British constitutional incrementalism, to become a reality. But should a government decide to proceed with implementing such a change it would create an institution without precedent, and open up the kinds of challenging questions that we have flagged. It would potentially create significant instabilities – in the interests of creating a body which, in the absence of a separate English government, should probably not be considered an English Parliament at all.
Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the Cambridge Institute for Public Policy where he is working on the ESRC-funded project – ‘Between Two Unions: the Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit’. Previously, Jack was a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project. Follow Jack on Twitter: @ja_sheldon