MPs split on how to take devolution forward

To sneak it out at midnight 01 on a Bank Holiday is hardly a rousing vote of confidence in the Commons report, Devolution: A Decade On.
” Fundamental change” is needed to the regional governance of England which is “stuck in a devolution time warp.” They hint an elected Lords might have a role in representing the nations and regions and better liaison is needed between the Scottish, Welsh and and NI administrations and Whitehall. They’re right there: it’s a real pain to work out how health, education policies etc., are diverging and to compare notes to make them more effective. And yes, reform of the Barnett formula for financing the regions is “long overdue.” So what’s new? The Justice Committee MPs confess they can’t agree what to do next – nor, they might have added but don’t say, with the party machines allow them to agree for party political reasons. This sad outcome is further evidence that MPs need a real job to do other than fiddling their expenses. The Scotsman flatters the committee by carrying a report. Summary below the fold. 22 May 2009 / Embargoed until 00:01 on Sunday 24 May 2009


In its report “Devolution: a decade on” published today, the three-party Committee analyses the “English Question” and the possible answers to it, pointing out that hardly anyone among its witnesses was content with no change, but that there is no consensus on what the changes should be.

Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP said:

“Devolution has radically changed the way Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are governed and is changing the governance of the United Kingdom, but England, which has 84% of the population, is the unfinished business of devolution—stuck in a pre-devolution time warp, while the rest of the UK has moved on. The funding formula is also a relic from earlier times, taking no account of the current need of the various nations and regions of the United Kingdom”.

“The implications of having an English Government and First Minister as well as a United Kingdom Government and Prime Minister have not been the subject of much public discussion and are politically significant. Approaches which make the UK Parliament into a federal parliament or treat English laws differently at Westminster raise questions about the nature and role of the second chamber which need to be considered as part of the discussion of Lords reform: clarification would be needed about whether, and if not why, the Second Chamber should consider “English” laws when it did not consider the laws of Scotland”.

“These are major political as well as constitutional questions which are for Parliament as a whole to consider. It is our belief that as devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland develops in profile and substance, Parliament will come under pressure to consider these questions”.

On relationships between Scotland, Wales and Whitehall the Committee agree that “while the awareness of devolution in Whitehall has improved since … 1999, there is no doubt that there is still a considerable way to go in achieving consistent and effective practices in dealing with devolution issues across all Whitehall departments. This should not only involve a full and comprehensive understanding of the policy areas that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales, but also full appreciation and consultation so that Welsh and Scottish interests are taken into account in policy making in reserved or non-devolved areas which will have an impact on the UK as a whole”.

(As so often, Northern Ireland is left out).

The Committee conclude that the Barnett Formula is ”no longer fit for purpose and that reform is overdue. We urge the Government to publish its position as a matter of some urgency and to proceed to devise a new formula which is needs based, takes into account regional disparities in England as well as in Scotland and Wales, is transparent and is sufficiently robust to enable long-term planning”.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London