Do you remember what you were doing on Monday the 30th of June 2003? I do. I was in Parliament Square at the Families for Hunting Vigil, holding a big sign that said ‘Give us a honk for hunting’. A vote was going through the House of Commons to ban hunting entirely in England and Wales. It had already been banned in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament.
It was my first exposure to devolution and the ‘West Lothian’ question. I was sixteen years old and it seemed incredible to me that 72 Scottish MPs could vote on something that was absolutely nothing to do with their constituents. It’s no understatement to say that this vote was one of the major reasons that I chose a career in politics.
I became a researcher (and later Special Adviser) to David Jones MP and it was a privilege to spend five years fighting on Clwyd West’s and Wales’ behalf in Westminster. At first I lumped Scotland and Wales together when thinking about the relations of the devolved administrations and the Westminster Parliament, but to view Wales and Welsh devolution through the prism of Scotland and Scottish devolution does Wales an enormous disservice. It also fundamentally misrepresents the differences in the relationships the different regions have with England.
Less than a twentieth of the Scottish population live within 25 miles of the border with England. In Wales it’s closer to half. But for a few road-signs, you wouldn’t know you were passing from one country to another. And relations across the border are often better than between North and South Wales. The Deeside industrial area and enterprise zone in North East Wales, as an example, looks to Liverpool far more than Cardiff for its economic links. A patient with serious cardiac needs would far more likely be treated at Broadgreen in Liverpool than a cardiac specialty unit in Cardiff.
But with this in mind, how would you conceivably organise for Welsh MPs to be denied the right to vote on issues that supposedly affect England alone? Who would make the choice? Would the Speaker, or the Leader of the House of Commons be expected to play referee on every single vote? Would Welsh MPs have any appeal against a decision that stopped them voting on an issue deemed to concern England only?
Health is a devolved matter, and yet at any one time thousands of Welsh patients are being treated by the English NHS. In addition to this, decisions made on health spending in England directly affect the ‘Barnett consequential’ received by the Welsh Government for health expenditure in Wales. The Coalition ring-fenced the health budget; a future Government may not. Are we really asking Welsh MPs to not vote on issues that affect the treatment of their constituents – and that have funding implications beyond the annual Barnett-ised settlement?
Regional transport policy is another area of concern and the development of high speed rail links in the North West of England is far more likely to impact upon Welsh MPs than London ones. Are we prepared to stop Welsh MPs voting on what looks, on paper, like an England only issue? Would we accept a proposal to block London and South East England MPs from voting on an infrastructure project in the North West? No, I thought not.
There is a democratic deficit in the United Kingdom, but it’s not what people think it is. It is the lack of English representation in Wales that marks the serious problem with our system, not the over-representation of Welsh and Scottish MPs at Westminster. Mark Harper MP’s constituency of the Forest of Dean is disproportionately affected by Welsh Government decisions on healthcare. A great many of his constituents are, by fluke of geography, counted as English voters but served by the Welsh health system. He currently has precious little recourse against the Welsh Government for general policy decisions or individual medical decisions that negatively impact upon his English constituents.
This is the real democratic loophole that must be addressed, but tampering with the way MPs vote in the House of Commons is not the answer. This deficit can be resolved far better by the creation of a regularly convened cross-administration committee, similar to the Joint Ministerial Committee, at which MPs from England could seek redress or clarification from Welsh Assembly Members and Ministers from the Welsh Government.
The vote in Scotland this Thursday, regardless of its outcome, has started a conversation within the United Kingdom that was long overdue. It is a conversation that must adequately address the issues of all the principle regions of this glorious family of nations because only then can we begin to get along better with each other. For my own part, I sincerely hope that Scotland elects to stay and contribute to that conversation.
Lauren McEvatt was a Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales