28 October 2007

Rifkind's East Lothian Compromise

Today's constitutional debate has its roots in the unfinished business of Scottish devolution and picks up on a proposal presented at the start of the month by Sir Malcolm Rifkind to a conference fringe meeting in Blackpool.

Since Labour first started creating havoc with the country's historic institutions, there has been an unresolved issue of why Scottish MPs can vote on issues that only affect England but that English MPs cannot vote on issues that only affect Scotland. The former lord chancellor, Derry Irving, maintained that the best answer to this so-called "West Lothian Question" (it was first raised by Tam Dalyell, the former West Lothian MP) was not to ask it, for fear of damaging the Union. Such a position is, of course, untenable.

Sir Malcolm's suggestion, dubbed the "East Lothian Compromise" as the MP for Kensington and Chelsea still regards his house at Inveresk in East Lothian as his main residence, is to create an English Grand Committee, similar to the long-established Scottish Grand Committee, which would allow English MPs exclusively to consider English domestic legislation. Less simplistic than an "English votes on English issues" policy, such a committee would not have the executive powers of a full English Parliament and whatever it decided would theoretically be subject to the will of the entire Commons. However, there could be a convention whereby Parliament would agree never to overrule the committee's decisions, in the same way that Westminster is precluded from exercising its power to overturn decisions by the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland assemblies.

Rifkind is to be applauded for his creative plan and, when Kenneth Clarke's democracy task force reports to the Conservative Party, it can only be hoped that it finds such workable solutions to all areas of Labour's constitutional vandalism, such as its unfinished reform of the House of Lords.

ON SECOND THOUGHTS: And yet ... do we really need another committee when the simple alternative would be to devolve to county councils those powers that have been devolved to Scotland, thereby negating the whole West Lothian question and re-empowering local democracy in one swoop?


Steve said...

Thanks for the details. The BBC 10 o'clock news didn't even mention an English Grand Committee but just spun it as a populist reannouncement of an old "English votes on English laws" commitment that could threaten the Union.

The Stonemason said...

I fully agree with your statement that New Labour reforms have wreaked havoc with the constitution. Our Constitution, whereby the powers of Crown, Lords, Church and Commons were balanced with equal representation from across the whole nation. There was need for reform with the waning of the powers of Crown, Church and aristocracy and the rise of business - but not the wholesale restructuring that has been done so badly.