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Addressing the West Lothian Question

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 12:04

By Harriett Baldwin MP, West Worcestershire

The “West Lothian Question” has been the subject of debate for some time and has been particularly salient since Devolution.

As a devoted supporter of Unionism and a great believer in localism, I have watched this debate from the outside and when I was elected to represent the people of West Worcestershire I was eager to play a greater part in this debate.

Like many of my colleagues, I entered the ballot for a Private Members Bill more out of optimism than anything else. However, when I drew lucky number seven in the ballot I was keen to seize this opportunity to address an issue that had been downgraded from a manifesto commitment to a ‘review’ in the Coalition Agreement.

When I campaigned during the election, I stood by our commitment to look at the West Lothian Question – something which had been swept under the carpet by the previous Labour Government.

Our election manifesto promised that ‘a Conservative Government will introduce new rules so that legislation referring to England, or to England and Wales, cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries’.

The Coalition Agreement’s only nod to the West Lothian Question was a proposal to establish a commission. I believed it would be helpful to give my parliamentary colleagues the chance to debate this issue and establish early on how it could be addressed by our Government.

Initially, I thought it would be quite a simple bill to formulate.  However, I was advised that it is problematic to devise legislation in this arena as it must not “trespass on exclusive cognisance” – the component of parliamentary privilege that means that Parliament has control of its own affairs.  The best way to tackle the question is actually by a change to Standing Orders.

But with the ingenuity of the Clerk in Charge of Private Member’s Bills, my Private Member’s Bill requires the Secretary of State, when preparing draft legislation for publication, to do so in such a way that the effect of the legislation on England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is separately and clearly identified.

The simple idea here is that this will allow it to be clear at the beginning of the legislative process which territory is affected.  The relevant change in Standing Orders should then be clear for each piece of legislation.

I hope that by allowing Members to debate all the issues arising from this vital constitutional question, we can identify and point to a solution for the long term that cements both localism and the Union.

I also hope it will be helpful for the coalition when issues come up – tuition fees spring to mind – where there were significant differences between the coalition parties’ manifestos.

I am grateful to colleagues who have already expressed their support and those who wish to meet with me to discuss this important constitutional issue and I encourage colleagues from all parties to attend the Second Reading Debate on Friday 11th February next year to make their contributions to this important subject.