The West Lothian Question is a topic of lively discussion in British politics at the moment. David Cameron has been touting the idea of ‘English votes for English laws,’ and he asked William Hague, the Leader of the Commons, to chair a Cabinet committee on the subject. Although Labour was asked to contribute to the committee’s work in the hope of finding cross-party consensus, they claimed that the whole thing was a stitch-up and refused to take part. However, two members of Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet recently waded into the fray with their own answer to the West Lothian Question.
In an article for Politics Home, Hilary Benn (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) and Sadiq Khan (Shadow Secretary of State for Justice) argue that England-only legislation should be considered by a special committee of MPs representing English seats. This is hardly a revolutionary idea–the Commons already has Grand Committees for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the McKay Commission made a similar proposal last year. But there’s a catch: the whole House will probably have the power to overturn the English Committee’s decisions (unlike the House of Lords, the Commons can revisit issues that have been decided in Committee).
Without the means to enforce its will, the English Committee might end up being little more than a glorified debating society. If the English Committee has a different political complexion from the Commons as a whole, the two bodies might find themselves at loggerheads. For instance, how would a Labour-dominated House respond if a Conservative-dominated English Committee tried to cut welfare spending? But as long as MPs from outside England have the final say on English matters, the West Lothian Question will remain unanswered.
Looking at the bigger picture, this proposal would place England at a constitutional disadvantage. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have a great deal of latitude over devolved issues. While it’s theoretically possible for the UK Parliament to overrule them, the chances of that happening are slim (by convention, the UK Parliament will only legislate on devolved matters with the consent of the national legislatures, and that convention is likely to be enshrined in law in the near future). An English Committee isn’t really a viable substitute for a proper devolved government that can make autonomous decisions.
The West Lothian Question is notoriously difficult to answer, and that makes it tempting for politicians to seek minimalist solutions. But if Labour is serious about reforming the constitution, they’re going to have to display a lot more ingenuity than this.