The “West Lothian question” has been presented as being in some way difficult to understand. Putting aside those people who make it difficult by stating it incorrectly, it‘s actually quite simple.
1 In the olden days, legislation passed by the UK parliament at Westminster applied to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (hereafter, the UK) in its entirety. That is, to the countries England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course specific pieces of legislation might be applicable only to, say, towns and cities, and not the rural areas; or to coastal regions as opposed to inland. But the applicability of the legislation, where relevant and appropriate, applied across the UK.
2 Then came various forms of devolution and with it complexity. Some—but, crucially, not all—of Westminster’s powers, to the extent that they applied to Scotland, were devolved to a Scottish parliament. (Fewer powers were also devolved to assemblies in Wales and in Northern Ireland, but considering this is not really relevant to Scotland, I will resist the temptation to go there.)
See this BBC page for a nice, simple list of those powers devolved to the Scotland parliament, and those retained (or reserved) by the UK parliament.
The main areas of legislation that were devolved are health, education, local government, most aspects of criminal and civil law, social work, housing and planning.
The main areas that are retained at Westminster are defence and national security, foreign policy, immigration and nationality, economic and monetary policy, energy, employment legislation and social security.
3 The creation and staffing of the Scotland parliament at Edinburgh did not involve any changes to the structure and workings of the UK parliament, albeit there would have been a slight reduction in the amount of work the UK parliament would have to do. The creation of the Scottish parliament required the election of members (MSPs).
4 So Scottish constituencies continued, and continue, to send members of the UK parliament (MPs) to Westminster so that they can represent their constituents on retained matters, as well as (different) members to Edinburgh to represent them on devolved matters. Quite right too, of course.
The breakdown of Scottish MPs by party at the 2010 general election was (and still is):
Labour Party 40
Liberal Democrats 11
Scottish National Party 6
Conservative Party 1
5 However, there is a problem. Scottish MPs are permitted to vote on all legislation passed by Westminster whether not it affects Scotland; so they vote on a range of England only laws, for example those affecting the NHS in England. In fact, almost invariably, they will be required to do this by their party organisations.
6 English MPs cannot, by definition, vote in the Scotland parliament, of which they are not members. This means that English (and Scottish) MPs at Westminster can only decide legislation in the retained subjects as it affects Scotland. So, English MPs cannot vote on Scotland-only legislation, for example that affecting the NHS in Scotland.
7 But Scottish members of the Westminster parliament cannot vote in the the Scottish parliament either (for the same reason), so they cannot vote on legislation on devolved matters, such as health and education, even if it affects their own constituents.
8 The West Lothian question is therefore really a statement:
Scottish MPs can vote on legislation which wholly affects English constituencies, but English MPs cannot vote on legislation which wholly affects Scottish constituencies.
It is possible to rephrase the above as:
Scottish MPs can vote on legislation which wholly affects English constituencies in areas including, but not restricted to health, education, local government, most aspects of criminal and civil law, social work, housing and planning; but English MPs cannot vote on legislation in the same areas which wholly affects Scottish constituencies.
Just one example. In England students have to pay tuition fees of up to £9000 per annum at college or university. Students in Scotland don’t pay tuition fees. Scottish MPs can vote in the Westminster parliament to raise the tuition fees of English colleges and universities to, say, £12000 pa, but English MPs cannot vote in the Scottish parliament to introduce fees, because they are not members of the Scottish parliament (MSPs) to which powers over education have been devolved.
To their credit, MPs who are members of the Scottish National Party abstain from votes which do not affect Scotland. But other MPs, and in particular those of the Labour party, who form the majority, do vote in Westminster on these matters.
So, the questions to resolve are:
1 Is it fair that Scottish MPs can vote on legislation which wholly affects English constituencies, but English MPs cannot vote on legislation which wholly affects Scottish constituencies?
Or, put more politically, can we get away with this situation any longer?
2 If the answer is no, with what do we replace it, and how?
(Incidentally, it is too tedious to rehearse why this question is called the West Lothian question; Wikipedia has a good enough explanation.)
to be continued..
> blog: Referendum: Clearing up the mess—1: the numbers
> blog: Referendum: Clearing up the mess—2: the “Barnett formula”