Ian Lucas MP - Regional Committees in the House of Commons: A Positive Response to Make Devolution Work across the United Kingdom
Published: Tuesday 12 March 2019
- Devolution: England
Theresa May’s Government is paralysed. Even on the central issue of Brexit, the Government she leads is incapable of presenting, let alone, delivering policy. The Regional Prosperity Fund is her model for delivering public investment across the UK after the UK leaves the EU. However, no detail has been presented of how the fund would work. This must be addressed urgently. Under the Coalition Government, the Conservatives seized the political initiative on devolution in the run up to the 2015 General Election. Their policies of “English Votes for English Laws” and the “Northern Powerhouse” were direct responses to the political concerns of voters in England to the perceived advantages given to voters outside England by the post-1999 devolution settlement. Both initiatives been resonant politically but limited in their practical impact. Nonetheless, for the Conservatives, especially in the 2015 General Election, they worked. The Conservatives secured an overall majority in 2015, not just by taking seats from the Liberal Democrats in the south of England, but also by holding seats in the North of England which Labour had expected to win.
The Conservatives succeeded in presenting themselves as champions of both devolution in England and of the North. Both “English Votes for English Laws” and the "Northern Powerhouse”. Both policies have survived through two General Elections as concepts and have contributed to the Conservatives retaining the political initiative on devolution in England. The development of Growth Deals and the establishment of elected Mayors, not just in parts of the North, but also in the West Midlands and Bristol and other regions of England has taken the agenda forward, though impetus on this agenda has now slowed.
The momentum behind the Conservative English devolution initiative began to falter following the 2015 General Election, as the complexity of asymmetric governance arrangements became apparent. It stalled further following the arrival of Theresa May in Downing Street and the departure of George Osborne, the driving force behind the “Northern Powerhouse” policy. Ministers like Jim O’Neill left the Conservative Government shortly after Osborne and the new Prime Minister has never, even at her strongest, conveyed enthusiasm for a devolution strategy within England. The result of the 2017 General Election and its erosion of the Prime Minister’s political authority lessened development of devolution policy England still more, with so much of the Government’s attention focussed on leaving the EU.
In response to the Conservative initiatives, Labour struggled, in both the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, to develop a coherent devolution policy for England. In both 2015 and 2017, Labour’s English regional devolution policy was underdeveloped. There were tensions displayed within the Labour Party between directly elected mayors and Labour local councils and a confused general response to “English Votes for English Laws” and the “Northern Powerhouse” as policy initiatives. Though devolution under a Tory Government continues to promise far more than it actually delivers, it still seems that the political initiative in the area rests with the Tories as Labour struggles to construct a coherent, consistent vision of devolution within England
2. Devolution in England: A Close-Up View from Wales
I have been MP for Wrexham since 2001 and, therefore, have direct experience of devolution in Wales. Wrexham is a constituency on the north Wales/England border and is close to, and influenced by the great northern English cities of Liverpool and Manchester. Both cities are within one hour's drive of Wrexham.
North Wales is part of a unique economic region in the United Kingdom - one that crosses a national border. It has an economy which is integrated with that of north-west England and has services, in both the public and private sector, which are delivered and, planned to be delivered, across the border. Hospitals such as Christies in Manchester and Walton and Alder Hey in Liverpool provide the highest quality health care to people in North Wales.
The devolution settlement established in Wales in 1999 has always struggled to accommodate North-East Wales. There has been a tension between those wishing to construct intra-Wales services, for example, proposing, at one time, treating NHS patients from North Wales in Swansea, over three hours away, and those who are relaxed with a model of treating patients from Wales in hospitals in England, less than an hour away.
Just as the Welsh Government has struggled with these policy issues in the past, now the UK Government is encountering the tensions of devolution in England, trying to integrate the inflexible concept of "English Votes for English Laws" with the practical reality of, for example, patients from Wales being treated in English hospitals. There are representatives elected from North Wales on the boards of Hospitals in England but, under the EVEL provisions, MPs from Wales are excluded from stages of legislation affecting those hospitals in Parliament. The reality is that the Conservative Government's position does not reflect the position on the ground, though the practical impact of EVEL remains limited.
The Conservatives have refused to apply the governing principle of EVEL to the other devolved jurisdictions: Thus, we have no "Welsh Votes for Welsh Laws" in the UK Parliament, no "Scots Votes for Scots Laws" and no "Northern Irish Votes for Northern Irish Laws". For there are, even with devolved jurisdictions in existence, matters still dealt with by the UK Parliament that are particular to specific parts of the UK. For example, broadcasting in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is not devolved so that legislation relating to S4C and BBC Alba will still be dealt with by the UK Parliament. The result is that a majority of MPs from Wales and Scotland could take a different view on these politically sensitive areas from MPs in England yet still be outvoted by them on issues affecting Wales and Scotland alone. This is illogical and unfair.
The Conservatives' EVEL proposals would be much more compelling and persuasive if they allowed MPs from the United Kingdom outside England the same rights as MPs from England. That the Conservatives will do not do so reveals their true agenda: not to deal with the unfairness of different models of devolution within the UK but, rather, to send a political signal to voters in England that they are doing something, albeit something limited, on the issue. For the practical impact of EVEL is very limited indeed: even in this Parliament where the Conservatives have no overall majority, there will be no areas where Tory English MPs will be outvoted by MPs outside England. It is, in addition, deeply ironic that the Conservatives are now relying on votes from the Democratic Unionist Party to maintain their overall majority in Parliament, even though those MPs are excluded from some legislative measures which are ruled to apply to England only.
The EVEL provisions, perhaps by accident, do, however, include an idea of great significance and power, one that can be built on to help address the complex constitutional challenges posed by devolution right across the UK. That idea of the creation of an English Grand Committee within the House of Commons is central to the policy’s operation. I believe that this idea should be developed further by politicians who want to see real, sustainable reform of the House of Commons and take it further by the creation of Regional Committees across the UK.
3. Devolution across the UK: Regional Committees in the UK Parliament
The public do not want more politicians. At the heart of Tony Blair's defeat in the campaign to set up a Regional Assembly in the North East of England was the powerful image of such an institution being a "White Elephant", doing nothing useful and costing a fortune. The Conservative EVEL rules help present us with an opportunity. For the creation of an English Grand Committee, made up of MPs who are already elected, sets up a body capable of scrutiny with no additional elected, costly members. We should consider this as a model for scrutiny of legislation and budgets by Regional Committees, not just in England, but across the UK.
As an MP from Wales, I am very conscious of the differentiation of roles for politicians created by the devolution settlement across the UK. Some political roles are devolved to the Welsh Government, the most prominent of which is health. Yet, my constituents have limited appreciation of the level of Government which deals with their issues. Frankly, they do not care. They think that if they have a problem and it is of sufficient importance for them to go to their MP about it, he should deal with it. This view does not only extend to matters devolved to the Welsh Government. Barely a weekly surgery goes by without an issue being brought to me which is the responsibility of the local council and I deal with it. I know that my Parliamentary colleagues in England and elsewhere do the same. Yet the Parliamentary process makes little concession to either the devolution settlement or the developed role of MPs as constituency advocates. Politicians at different levels of governance operate as if they were on different floors of an office block which governs: local government on the ground floor, in devolved jurisdictions, MSPs, AMs or MLAs on the second floor, MPs on the third floor and MEPs, at the moment, on the floor above them. The time is right, in appropriate cases, to put those representatives on the same floor to scrutinise together in the interests of our constituents. The EVEL proposals, suggesting the creation of a separate Parliamentary Committee on a geographical basis to deal with appropriate legislation gives an indication of how to achieve this.
For many years, I have advocated, as an MP from Wales, MPs and AMs working together on joint committees for the benefit of our constituents. The health issues set out above are examples of issues that need joint work to reflect the reality of NHS provision. There has been great resistance to this proposal. Some see it as undermining the principle of devolution. But devolution is not separatism: it is incumbent on those of us who want devolution to work to work together, not separately, to make it work in practice. We must leave separatism to the nationalists.
Parliament and the devolved legislatures need to, in their procedures, recognise the role of devolved institutions by incorporating them into the scrutiny process. It must also recognise that this will mean MPs working in joint committees with MSPs, AMs and MLAs and with local government. Such committees must, of necessity, be constituted on a regional basis. Just as the Conservatives propose creating a Committee of MPs in England in its EVEL proposals, Labour should go one step further and propose the creation of committees of MPs on a regional basis within England to scrutinise matters relating to that region. In England, this will mean extending committee membership to local government leaders. In Wales and Scotland, this will mean Scottish Parliament and Assembly Committees admitting MPs and Parliamentary Committees admitting MSPs and AMs as well as, where appropriate, local government leaders. In the devolved jurisdictions administrative responsibility for the committees could rest with the devolved Parliaments.
In appropriate cases, such committees could even extend across national borders, so that a committee could deal with issues which transcend boundaries, reflecting the reality of the situation on the ground for my constituents in, for example, the cross-border region on the England/Wales border part of which I represent.
Such committees will more accurately reflect the present governance of the UK. Governance is a process which integrates different levels of government and these committees will do the same.
4. Devolution within Wales: the Next Steps
As further powers are transferred from Parliament to the National Assembly for Wales, or Welsh Parliament as it will become, calls have increased for an increase in the size of membership of the Welsh Parliament. But the public in Wales, or anywhere else, do not appear to want more politicians. There is, however, a need for both stronger structures for Government at all levels within Wales and for stronger scrutiny of the Welsh Government. Both could be achieved by the development of regional structures within Wales.
There is a massive concern in North Wales, a concern which has existed since the birth of the National Assembly in 1999, that the Assembly serves south-east Wales, and Cardiff in particular, very well, but has not delivered for distant areas of Wales.
Under a new First Minister, the Welsh Government has appointed a Minister for North Wales and that Minister will be accountable to a North Wales Regional Committee. Membership of the Committee should include not just AMs but MPs and representatives of local government in the area. All have their own democratic mandates and can contribute to more strategic policy development for North Wales. There is a very strong appetite in the area for such a body. I established the All Party Group for North Wales/Mersey/Dee in the UK Parliament in 2015 and it has been enthusiastically supported not just by politicians at all levels of Government but also by business, universities and other regional organisations. It set up a forum which led to the formal establishment of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, now playing a crucial role in the delivery of a North Wales Growth Deal.
In this way, the need for more accountability is resolved without more politicians and a more cohesive, effective regional body is created within North Wales.
I have no doubt that this model can also be applied in other parts of Wales, as well as, if demanded, everywhere else in the United Kingdom. It could begin to address the complex patchwork of regional bodies which have emerged in a disparate, uncoordinated way in the last 5 years.
Devolution: The Thirst for Change
Recent political history shows us that there is a thirst for regional roles in UK politics. Following their initial steps on EVEL and the Northern Powerhouse, the Coalition and Conservative UK Government created Ministers with regional responsibilities. As well as the long-established Scotland Office, Wales Office and Northern Ireland Office, the Government has introduced a Minister for the Northern Powerhouse. The development of Regional Growth Deals has led to a succession of Ministers being given, formally in some cases, informally in others, regional responsibilities. Parliament, as well as the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, should, equally, be operating on a regional basis, both to scrutinise the executive roles of regional Ministers and to act as a conduit between Government at a national and at a local level.
The success of the establishment of the All Party Group for the North Wales/Mersey/Dee region has convinced me that there is a demand for a place where the interests of a particular geographical region can be discussed, developed and advanced. It means that MPs, local government, business and other important institutions within that area can be part of a body which is not summoned on an ad hoc basis, but is permanent.
The concept of regional representation in Government is not new. As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown introduced Regional Ministers in England. Though abolished by the Coalition Government in 2010, they had provided a focus for local government to connect with central government. As a Business Minister in 2009-10, I dealt with Regional Ministers, especially in connection with economic development matters.
The Coalition UK Government created a Minister for the “Northern Powerhouse” and some other areas of England, as well as continuing with the established UK minsters for the nations of the UK. It is, by stealth, adopting the model which existed before 2010. Such Ministers, however, need to be accountable. It would make much more sense, rather than have some areas with geographical representation and some without, to have an ordered arrangement of regional Ministers, accountable to regional committees in the House of Commons with those committees formally linked to local government and other important regional bodies, including, in England, Local Enterprise Partnerships. Where appropriate, we should establish committees of elected representatives, MPs, AMs and Councillors who can hold the appropriate Ministers to account and drive forward the agenda to improve economic, transport and public service connections within their area. We need to create flexible political structures which respond to the reality of the lives of our constituents.
An ordered arrangement would also address a serious anomaly developing in the current Conservative devolution arrangements within England. At present, the development of elected Mayors focusses attention on city areas at the expense of towns and rural areas. My own experience is that it is necessary to have political structures in place linking towns in order to create the capacity for strategic transport and economic initiatives. Regional Committees of the House of Commons can offer such a structure, one without which progress for those areas is nigh on impossible. My own experience is that even the creation of a less formal All Party Group for a region in Parliament can bring local authorities, politicians at different levels of Government, business and other important local institutions together to achieve real progress. So much more could be achieved by the establishment of formal Regional Committees.
These Regional Committees can work with the UK Parliament and also the Parliaments and Assemblies of the nations in the UK.
The tragedy of so much of the constitutional reform since 1999 is that it has tinkered in a piecemeal way with our constitution, without considering impacts on our constitution as a whole. Though there is, in my view, an unanswerable case to establish a Convention addressing the UK Constitution as a whole, I believe the introduction of Regional Committees in the House of Commons, and in the devolved institutions, working with other regional bodies, can begin the process of addressing the huge political and economic imbalances which exist at present and are creating huge resentment in the nations and regions of the UK. The Government has suggested the establishment of a Regional Prosperity Fund following Brexit. Little detail of its role and structures exists. It could work with Regional Committees of the House of Commons as part of a long overdue shift towards the development of better structures to bring fair wealth distribution across the UK. Such an innovation is long overdue.