Westminster to examine ‘West Lothian question’

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by a Newsnet reporter

The Westminster Coalition Government has announced that it will set up a commission of independent experts in order to investigate and settle the so-called ‘West Lothian question’ which asks whether Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should be barred from voting on measures in the Westminster Parliament which concern only England.  

This would see Scottish MPs banned from voting on purely English health or educational issues amongst others, such as the controversial proposals for top up fees for English students rammed through Westminster under the Blair administration in 2004.  The measure was only passed thanks to the votes of Scottish Labour MPs.

In a written statement to MPs, Constitutional Reform Minister Mark Harper, Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean in Gloucester (pictured above), said that the committee would be non-partisan in its makeup and would focus on parliamentary procedures at Westminster.  The members will be  chosen for their constitutional, legal and parliamentary expertise.  The commission will not consider the funding of the different parts of the United Kingdom, which is being considered separately.

Neither will the commission examine the question of the numbers of MPs returned to Westminster from each of the four nations.  This was dealt with by legislation earlier this year.  Under these measures Scotland will see the number of Scottish MPs reduced from the current 59 to 52.

In his statement Mr Harper said that formal proposals for the commission and its precise remit and terms of reference will be announced in October.  

Tackling the issue was a part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems.  Feelings on the subject run particularly high amongst certain Conservative MPs, whose party has only a single seat in Scotland.  Labour MPs continue to defend their right to vote on purely English matters.

The Government’s original plan was to unveil the commission and its remit in October however they were pre-empted by a Private Member’s bill put forward by backbench Tory MP Harriett Baldwin, which has passed through almost all the clearance procedures and is shortly due to come before the House of Commons.

Ms Baldwin’s bill would require all legislation to contain a clear statement of how it affects England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including financial implications.

The MP for West Worcestershire told the BBC: “I think it’s a question that needs to be answered in time for the next general election.

“The situation at the moment – I would call it an English constitutional issue – is that with more and more power devolved to Wales, to Scotland, to Northern Ireland you have more and more legislation coming to Westminster which really only affects England.”