West Lothian question

West Lothian question
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The West Lothian question refers to issues concerning the ability of Members of Parliament from constituencies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to vote on matters that only affect people living in England. This has occurred because of the devolution of power from Westminster to the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies and Scottish Parliament.

The question was first posed on 14 November 1977, by Tam Dalyell, Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for the Scottish constituency of West Lothian. During a British House of Commons debate over Scottish and Welsh devolution he said:

For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate ... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

He illustrated his point by pointing out the absurdity of a Member of Parliament for West Lothian being able to vote on matters affecting the English town of Blackburn, Lancashire but not Blackburn, West Lothian in his own constituency, due to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and its effects on Scottish local government.

The name "West Lothian question" was coined by the Ulster Unionist MP Enoch Powell in his response to Dalyell's speech: "We have finally grasped what the Honourable Member for West Lothian is getting at. Let us call it the West Lothian question."

In September 2011 it was announced that the UK government was to set up a commission to examine the West Lothian Question.[1]


The situation since the Scotland Act of 1998

Executive power hierarchy

The Scottish Parliament was formed by statute, the Scotland Act 1998, and is thus a creation of Westminster. No sovereign status on the Scottish Parliament is conferred, and the act has not changed the status of the Westminster Parliament as the supreme legislature of Scotland, with Westminster retaining the ability to override, or veto, any decisions taken by the Scottish Parliament. The Westminster Parliament remains the sovereign body; power is devolved rather than transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

As a consequence, the ability of all Westminster MPs to vote on Scottish legislation has not been legally diminished by devolution, as made clear by Section 28(7) of the Scotland Act 1998, which states that the legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament do ...not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland.[2]

During devolution, a convention was created to manage the power of Westminster to legislate on matters within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. This is known as the Sewel Convention, and the related Scottish parliamentary motions are now known as Legislative Consent Motions (previously Sewel Motions).[3] These motions (of which there are around a dozen per year) allow all English, Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scottish MPs to vote on issues, which among other things, are within the Scottish Parliament's legislative competence. The Sewel Convention states that the Westminster Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters in Scotland without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

Reserved matters

Legislation relating to reserved issues such as defence, national security, foreign affairs and monetary and economic issues are voted on by all the MPs at Westminster to ensure consistency across the whole of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament is not able to pass laws on these issues itself, as they were not devolved. The West Lothian question is not involved in this situation, as all parts of the Union have a say roughly proportional to their population and all are equally affected.

Parliament of Northern Ireland

A situation akin to that presented by the West Lothian question did exist between 1921 and 1972, when there was a Parliament of Northern Ireland that legislated for Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland continued to send MPs to Westminster, who could vote on matters affecting only Great Britain.

However, during this period Northern Ireland had disproportionately fewer MPs than would be expected from the relative populations, with the numbers cut from the 29 elected at the 1918 general election to 13 from the 1922 general election and later to 12 with the abolition of university constituencies in 1950.


The West Lothian question causes controversy in British politics. Polls suggest that Scottish voters are agreed that the situation is unfair.[4]

In establishing foundation hospitals and agreeing student tuition fees — both controversial policies which do not affect Scotland — Scottish votes were decisive in getting the measures through[5]. The vote on foundation hospitals in November 2003 only applied to England – had the vote been restricted to English MPs then the government would have been defeated.[6] Had there been a vote by English MPs only on tuition fees in January 2004, the government would have lost because of a rebellion on their own benches.[7] Students at English universities are required to pay top-up fees, but students from Scotland attending Scottish universities are not. The legislation imposing top-up fees on students in England passed by a small majority of 316 to 311. At the time, the opposition education secretary Tim Yeo argued that this low majority made the passing of the law due to Scottish MPs voting to introduce tuition fees that Scottish students attending university in Scotland would not have to pay.[8] However, a small part of the bill did relate directly to Scotland which is fact often omitted from the arguments that it was carried by Scottish MPs voting on an English and Welsh-only bill. [9]

Proposed solutions

English votes on English laws

It has been suggested that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting on matters that do not affect Scotland.[10] In July 1999, the then-Conservative leader William Hague said that "English MPs should have exclusive say over English laws ... People will become increasingly resentful that decisions are being made in England by people from other parts of the UK on matters that English people did not have a say on elsewhere ... I think it is a dangerous thing to allow resentment to build up in a country. We have got to make the rules fair now." [11]

Kenneth Clarke's Democracy Taskforce

Following his election as Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron established a "Democracy Taskforce" chaired by Kenneth Clarke. The taskforce's final report "Devolution, The West Lothian Question and the Future of the Union" proposed a possible solution to the West Lothian question. The proposals called for changes in procedures in the House of Commons for the passage of bills relating only to England. Under the new procedures, all MPs would participate in the first and second readings of these bills, but only English MPs would participate in the committee stage consideration of the bill. All MPs would vote on the final bill at report stage.[12] An amendment proposed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggested that the second reading and report stages of would require a "double majority" of both the House as a whole and of English MPs.[13]

English Grand Committee

As a slight variation on the proposal for English votes on English laws, Sir Malcolm Rifkind proposed that an English Grand Committee, along the lines of the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees (made up of all the MPs from the relevant nation) to be formed to debate on the effects of legislation on England.[14] Described as the "East Lothian answer", the plan would allow English MPs to discuss "England only" bills in a grand committee that would then vote on the bill. A new convention would be established so that the whole House would not overrule the committee's decisions. Rifkind claimed that his solution would prevent the creation of two classes of MPs that English votes on English laws could result in.[15]

English devolution

English parliament

The creation of a devolved English parliament, with full legislative powers, akin to the Scottish Parliament is seen by some as a solution to this problem,[16] with full legislative powers also being conferred on the existing Welsh Assembly. The Westminster (United Kingdom) Parliament would continue to meet and legislate on matters of UK-wide competence such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and economic matters with the parliaments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland legislating locally.

However, opponents of this proposal argue that it would simply add another layer of government and an 'expensive talking shop'. Scottish Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, has stated that he believes that an English Parliament would "dwarf all other institutions."[17] South African-born MP Peter Hain, who campaigned for a Welsh Assembly, warned creating an English parliament or trying to stop Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on England-only matters would break up the Union.[18]

Regional assemblies

The Labour government has attempted to address the West Lothian question by introducing English regional assemblies with no legislative powers. Originally, it was planned that these would be directly elected. The London Assembly was the first of these, established following a referendum in 1998, in which public and media attention was focused principally on the post of Mayor of London.[19] Ken Livingstone was the first directly elected Mayor of London. He started his victory speech with "As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago", making it clear he saw the London Assembly as a recreation of a similar London wide authority to that of the Greater London Council, which he had led before it was abolished in the 1980s.[20]

Further progress was thwarted when a referendum in the North East rejected the proposal for an elected assembly in November 2004[21] leading to the shelving of similar proposals for other English regions. The Regional Development Agencies are due to be scrapped in March 2012 with their powers and functions being transferred either to local government or in the case of London, The London Authority.

Dissolution of the Union

Another solution might be the dissolution of the United Kingdom leading to some or all of the constituent countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) becoming independent sovereign states.

The principal party that campaigns for a dissolution of the Union is the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won an outright majority in the 2011 election. The SNP are likely to pass a referendum bill during this term, resulting in a referendum on Scottish independence held within Scotland. Since decisions made at Holyrood concerning major constitutional issues are not binding on Westminster, an independence bill passed in the Scottish Parliament would not be legally valid unless endorsed by Westminster.

Labour politician Jack Straw has speculated: "I say to the Conservatives that if they start to take a mechanical approach, this so-called 'English votes for English laws' approach, then they will break the Union."[22]

In Wales, Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru holds Welsh Independence as a long-term aim. In Northern Ireland there are no mainstream political parties calling for an independent Northern Irish state, but parties calling for the reunification of Ireland include Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Abolishing the devolved bodies

The abolition of the devolved Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly would also fundamentally address the anomaly created by their establishment.

It would be highly controversial in Scotland, where the referendum passed by a large margin, and was passed in all 32 council areas of the country. Recent opinion polls have shown that support for abolishing the Scottish Parliament is running below 10%, which is far lower than the figure that voted No in 1997. While the Welsh Assembly was formed as a result of a very slim majority in the 1997 referendum, support has since grown for the Welsh Assembly, and in favour of Wales having an Assembly.[23] In the 2011 referendum on devolving law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly, a clear majority for further powers was seen to affirm public support for devolution.[24]

Another consideration would be the potential implications that abolishing the Northern Ireland Assembly would have for the nascent peaceful settlement to the Troubles.

All the main political parties have stated that devolution cannot be reversed without the consent of the electorate in the country concerned. The trend among the three bodies is towards further or full independence and not towards being drawn back into the union further as the various referenda and votes on devolution have shown.

Reducing the number of Scottish MPs

There is also the option of cutting the number of Scottish MPs even further, as happened to Northern Irish representation during the existence of the Parliament of Northern Ireland when the number of MPs from Northern Ireland seated at Westminster was below the standard ratio of MPs compared with the rest of the UK. It is argued that Scotland would trade a reduced voice for Scotland in exchange for Scottish MPs being able to vote on English matters, which therefore may form an acceptable solution. However, while such a solution would have attraction to England, it is difficult to see how accepting reduced voting strength on major issues affecting Scotland in exchange for a say in matters not applying to Scotland could be an attractive trade from a Scottish perspective.

Future developments

The May 2010 coalition agreement between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats provides that a commission will be established to consider the West Lothian question.[25]

See also


  1. ^ "Answer sought to the West Lothian question". BBC News Scotland. 8 September 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14831619. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  2. ^ "Scotland Act, section 28(7)". Opsi.gov.uk. 2011-02-18. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/ACTS/acts1998/80046--c.htm#28. Retrieved 2011-02-26. 
  3. ^ Sewel Motions[dead link], Scottish Government website
  4. ^ Devlin, Kate (4 December 2007). "Scots don't want MPs voting on English affairs". The Daily Telegraph (London). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/news/2007/12/04/nfunding504.xml. 
  5. ^ Gallop, Nick in The Constitution and Constitutional Reform p.27 (Philip Allan, 2011) ISBN 978-0-340-98720-9
  6. ^ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-big-question-what-is-the-west-lothian-question-and-can-it-be-resolved-satisfactorily-406571.html
  7. ^ http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/uk/The-West-Lothian-Question-Labour.3538800.jp
  8. ^ "Blair wins key top-up fees vote". BBC News. 27 January 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3434329.stm. 
  9. ^ "Scottish Devolution and West Lothian Question". BBC News. 19 September 2006. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A13484928. 
  10. ^ If it's English vote for English law, the UK's end is nigh, The Guardian, June 12, 2006
  11. ^ "English votes on English laws", BBC News Online, July 15, 1999
  12. ^ http://www.toque.co.uk/witan/docs/DTF_Answering_the_Question.pdf
  13. ^ http://www.toque.co.uk/witan/docs/ClarkeVRifkind.pdf
  14. ^ "Tories Ponder English Only Voting", BBC News Online, October 28, 2007
  15. ^ MICHAEL SETTLE, Chief UK Political Correspondent (2007-10-03). "Party leader welcomes Rifkind's 'elegant' West Lothian Answer". Herald Scotland. http://www.heraldscotland.com/party-leader-welcomes-rifkind-s-elegant-west-lothian-answer-1.843791. Retrieved 2011-02-26. 
  16. ^ Campaign for an English Parliament,
  17. ^ A possible answer to this might be an English Parliament consisting of all the 529 English MPs, a sort of 'English Grand Committee' - For the Majority Party in Parliament might not have the majority of English constituencies.No English parliament — Falconer, BBC News Online, 10 March 2006
  18. ^ http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/06/28/peter-hain-warns-banning-welsh-mps-from-english-votes-will-destroy-union-91466-28952850/
  19. ^ 'Overwhelming vote for Mayor', BBC News Online, 8 May 1998
  20. ^ Paul Waugh and Andrew Grice. Ken reclaims the capital, The Independent 6 May 2000
  21. ^ North East votes 'no' to assembly, BBC News Online, 5 November 2004
  22. ^ Hamish Macdonell and Gerri Peev (2007). "The West Lothian Question: Labour MPs want answers". The Scotsman. http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/uk/The-West-Lothian-Question-Labour.3538800.jp. Retrieved 2010-05-12. 
  23. ^ "Majority back law-making assembly", BBC News Online, February 2009]
  24. ^ "Welsh referendum: Yes vote to 'settle assembly issue'", BBC News Online, March 2011
  25. ^ [1],

Further reading

  • 'Devolution: the end of Britain?', Tam Dalyell, Jonathan Cape, London, 1977
  • Devolution in Britain Today, Russell Deacon, Manchester University Press, 2006
  • Report on devolution and the governance of England, House of Commons Justice Committee, 24 May 2009
  • A Stronger or Weaker Union? Public Reactions to Asymmetric Devolution in the United Kingdom, Professor John Curtice, University of Strathclyde, Publius — the journal of federalism, Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2006, Oxford University Press (PDF file)
  • The West Lothian Question, Oonagh Gay, House of Commons Library SN/PC/2586, 26 June 2006 (PDF file[dead link])

External links

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