The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in Parliament is holding an inquiry looking at the future of devolution in the United Kingdom, in the light of the Scottish referendum result. Among the questions the Committee will be considering are how devolution should be taken forward in Scotland, and whether England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be offered the level of devolution that has been discussed in relation to Scotland. Nigel Sollitt, Chair of YDM, has made the submission below.
Deadline for written submissions is Thursday 23 October 2014
Devolution, But Which Devolution?
Submission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
The Future of Devolution after the referendum.
Written by Nigel Sollitt, Chair, Yorkshire Devolution Movement
The referendum on Scottish independence has put beyond doubt that these isles are discontent with the current system of centralism under Westminster and Whitehall. The degree to which that discontent is felt is demonstrated by the fact that, despite Scotland already having devolved powers to a greater extent than any other part of the UK, independence was only averted by the way just over 5% of voters voted.
Had it not been for the late promise from London of more far reaching powers if Scotland remained in the Union, that small percentage of voters may well have voted the other way and the Union be heading for dissolution. Since that promise was made, the call for greater devolved powers has been echoed by Wales and Northern Ireland who, like Scotland, have also enjoyed devolution since 1999.
But what of England?
Surely no right-minded person would dispute that the United Kingdom should be a union of equals and that that must include democratic equality? Yet, the UK is void of such equality and has been for the past fifteen years! Of the four Government Regions of the UK to enjoy devolution, Scotland has more decision making powers than any whilst N Ireland and Wales have more than London which, in turn, is the only Government Region of England to be devolved at all. England is the only one of the four home nations to be without devolved power and of the twelve Government Regions of the UK, all eight without devolution are in England!
Far from democratic equality, this demonstrates a UK with four tier devolution ranging from no devolution to something approaching devo-max. For the UK to be a union of equals all its citizens must enjoy equal opportunity, not only to devolved power but to similar degrees of devolved power. As things stand, the imbalance is such that whereas all other nations and Government Regions of the UK can make representations on this matter through their respective devolved seats of power, England and all but one Government Region of England have no devolved seat of power to do even that. These imbalances must be corrected!
Correcting the Imbalances:
A starting point in correcting the imbalances is to look at the parts of the UK that already are devolved and identify which empowers and represents people most. Once that has been identified, UK-wide democratic equality could be achieved either by replicating it throughout the UK or by scrapping it where it currently exists and replacing it with something else throughout the UK.
With the current public demand for greater devolution of powers, any government proposing to replace existing devolution with something offering less would be a government committing political suicide. The only realistic choice therefore is to offer to the whole UK either the best powers and representation that currently exists or something that offers even greater powers and representation. To do neither would allow the democratic inequality within the UK to remain unresolved and the disharmony that that causes among the British people to continue!
As already mentioned, of the four devolved seats of power that exist within the UK, the Scottish Parliament enjoys by far the greatest degree of powers. Being a directly elected parliament, the model in Scotland gives transparency and accountability. Its MPs are chosen by the people to represent them in an open arena rather than to make decisions behind closed doors. As the people of Scotland identify themselves as ‘Scottish’, the ‘Scottish’ Parliament also represents their identity.
None of the other three devolved seats of power in the UK offers greater powers and representation in any respect than that enjoyed in Scotland and each of them falls short of Scottish powers and representation in at least one respect. The standard of devolution enjoyed in Scotland is therefore clearly the best that currently exists in the UK therefore, as a minimum, is the standard that should be enjoyed by all citizens of the UK in order to resolve the current democratic imbalance.
But is it the best standard to adopt?
Alternative Levels and models of devolution:
Whereas there is no ambiguity whether referring to Scotland, N Ireland or Wales either as a nation or as a Government Region because each is both, England is one of the four UK nations but comprises nine of the twelve Government Regions. ‘Regional devolution’ therefore means something quite different to England than it does to any other UK nation. In addition to national or regional devolution, the case of England is further complicated by proposals for devolution to traditional counties; sub-regional level such as districts or City Regions and to super-regional level such as ones based on the pre-Norman Earldoms of England (Wessex, Mercia etc). Then there are the models of devolution that have been proposed: These include directly elected parliaments/assemblies, directly elected mayors, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Combined Authorities and Empowered Local Authorities.
Comparing the Alternatives to Devolution in Scotland:
To compare the alternatives to devolution in Scotland we need to compare them in terms of the identified aspects and various models & levels of devolution:
Degree of Power:
Scotland has the power to pass both primary and secondary legislation on all matters except foreign affairs, defence, immigration, constitution and social security. Unlike devolution elsewhere in the UK, Scotland also has limited tax-raising powers that were recently extended by the Scotland Act 2012. It is inconceivable that powers of such quantity, variety and magnitude could be dealt with in any arena other than a parliament or assembly. If they could, the need for a UK Parliament to deal only with the reserved matters must be at least questionable and the need for the current devolved parliaments/assemblies even more so! So to achieve democratic equality purely on the basis of ‘degree of power’, England must also have parliament(s)/assemblies either at national level or at sub-national level (e.g. each region/traditional county, super region etc) in order to deal with that degree of power.
Transparency, Accountability and Representation:
Neither LEPs, Combined Authorities, Empowered Local Authorities or City Regions would offer the transparency, accountability or representation that is enjoyed by the people of Scotland. Each of these models has varying combinations of the following shortcomings: decisions made behind closed doors, decisions made by people who have not been chosen by the public they serve and decisions made for which no-one is clearly accountable. In the Scottish model, on the other hand, MPs are directly elected by the people they serve and they represent them in an open arena where accountability is clear and appropriate action can be seen to have been taken where necessary. Parliaments/assemblies are therefore clearly the best model to achieve democratic equality in terms of transparency, accountability and representation.
As the people of Scotland identify themselves as ‘Scottish’, the ‘Scottish’ Parliament directly represents their identity. The identities of the Welsh, Northern Irish and Londoners are also directly represented by their respective parliaments/assemblies. This is because devolution was offered to each of them at the level that reflects their identity.
Identities are determined by centuries of heritage and history; they already exist. It should therefore be the identities of people determining regions, not regions imposing non-identities upon people. Not paying due consideration to identity has already met with opposition, particularly from those parts where identities are strongest. For example, in Cornwall, 50,000 people petitioned the government for a Cornish Assembly and the Cornish have successfully campaigned for National Minority status. In Yorkshire the Yorkshire Ridings Society was founded in protest of the boundary changes of the Local Government Act 1972, ‘Humberside’ and ‘Cleveland’ have been abolished due to local opposition, permanent signs have been positioned to mark the boundary of the traditional county, Saddleworth Parish Council refuses to yield the White Rose as its symbol despite coming under a Lancashire authority and the people of Yarm are currently battling to return to Yorkshire administration from Stockton Borough Council.
To achieve democratic equality in this respect then, in deciding the level to which power is devolved, due consideration must be given to the identities of people and the level must reflect those identities as much as viably possible.
An English Parliament would obviously have all the attributes and capabilities of the Scottish Parliament. However, from a regional perspective, to devolve from Westminster to an English parliament would simply be to replace one remote, central seat of power with another. It would still leave London as the only devolved Region within England. Also, there are very strong identities within England such as ‘Cornish’ and ‘Yorkshire’ which an ‘English’ parliament would fail to represent in the same way as the ‘Scottish’ Parliament represents ‘Scots’ or the ‘London’ Assembly represents ‘Londoners’. (See ‘Representing Identity’ above)
Whilst devolving to super regions may provide some improvement in some respects compared to an English parliament, whether that would be sufficient to be acceptable by the people of any super region proposed will depend on how the various parts of that super region relate to it. For example, if a parliament for the North of England sited in Manchester was proposed, the Yorkshire people are likely to reject it for not representing their ‘Yorkshire’ identity, the people of Northumberland are likely to reject it for it being sited too remotely and the people of Liverpool are likely to reject it for being sited in a rival city.
Regions and traditional counties:
At ‘Representing Identity’, above, the point was made that to achieve democratic equality in that respect, the boundaries of regions should be determined, as much as viably possible, by the identities of people rather than false identities being imposed on people by politicians deciding the regional boundaries. Some regions created by the Government may either sit well with the identity of the people within them or their people have insufficient sense of regional identity to be particularly concerned. Other regions created by the Government, however, do not sit well with the identities of people at all and they would choose boundaries for their region that exactly matched the boundaries of their traditional county.
This is certainly the case in both Yorkshire and Cornwall and even the Lincolnshire folk in the ‘Yorkshire and the Humber’ region would prefer to leave that region to be with the rest of their county-folk. So in order to achieve democratic equality in respect of representing identity, the boundaries of the regions themselves need to be revised in order to accommodate that equality.
Like either an English parliament or a super region Parliament, parliaments/assemblies for regions/traditional counties would offer all the attributes and capabilities of the Scottish Parliament. However, unlike them, regional/traditional county parliaments/assemblies would also bring democratic equality by resolving the issues of remote, central seats of power; London being the only devolved region within England and, representing identities (given that the regions are revised as discussed above).
One final consideration here: With London being an established devolved region since its people voted in favour of a devolved assembly in 1998, regional devolution in England is already underway!
LEPs, Combined Authorities and Empowered Local Authorities:
None of these are adequate to deal with the same quantity, variety or magnitude of powers that the Scottish Parliament deals with. (See ‘Degree of Power’ above). None would offer the transparency, accountability or representation of parliaments or assemblies. (See ‘Transparency, Accountability & Representation’ above). Neither do they represent the identity of people. (See ‘Representing Identity’ above)
It would be absolutely impossible for City Regions to correct the democratic inequality that currently exists. England is not a city nor is it made up entirely of cities! In fact, by far the majority of communities either in England or in any of its regions and counties are not cities. Therefore this model of devolution would exclude by far the majority of communities from devolved empowerment and representation. Far from improving matters, devolving power via city regions would cause disharmony between communities within counties and regions in addition to the disharmony that already exists between the UK’s nations or Government Regions. Also, it is City Regions where elected Mayors might be an option, however, the idea of elected Mayors was recently resoundingly rejected!
Conclusions So Far:
On considering all the foregoing points, the following conclusions are drawn:
1. There are currently democratic imbalances between the various parts of the UK at both national and regional levels in terms of degree of power and representing identity.
2. In correcting those imbalances, democratic equality in terms of transparency, accountability & representation should also be achieved.
3. The model and level of devolution most capable of delivering democratic equality in terms of degree of power, representing identity and transparency, accountability & representation is devolved parliaments/assemblies at regional level.
4. Regions should be determined by the identities of people, not imposed on people by politicians and therefore the boundaries of existing government regions need to be revised, particularly where identities are strongest, such as the traditional counties of Yorkshire and Cornwall.
5. The degree of powers that are devolved to each region of the UK should be consistent throughout the UK.
Devolution Beyond and Before the Regions:
The delivery of devolution should not stop at regional level, it should filter right through to the lowest level that needs it. The basic principle must be to devolve appropriate powers to the appropriate level. The introduction of a regional assembly gives the opportunity to review local government at the same time to ensure that happens.
This would allow issues at each level from individual settlements to the region as a whole to be dealt with without needing to seek permission or go cap in hand to a higher level.
As Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are both nations and Government Regions of the UK, this model could be applied to all the UK nations. In the case of England only, a national parliament would not be required as, between UK and regional parliaments, there would be very little, if anything, for an English Parliament to deal with.