England’s response to devolution: The Report of the McKay Commission

Published 21/05/2013   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons or the ‘McKay Commission’ was established in January 2012 to consider ‘how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales’.

This enabled the Commission to address issues arising from the ‘West Lothian Question’. This generally refers to the issue of MPs from the devolved areas of the UK voting on English matters, while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in policy fields for which the devolved institutions would now be responsible. In addition, the Commission’s terms of reference allowed it to look at ‘The English Question’ which relates to a wider set of concerns about the general balance and stability of the UK’s territorial constitution. ‘The English Question’ emanates from perceived anomalies in the UK’s current constitutional arrangements, provided for by devolution, which are seen to be particularly unfair to people in England. In particular, the evolution of the governance arrangements in the devolved nations has resulted in an increase in English-only UK Acts, even though the House of Commons has not adapted its structures in relation to the making of law for England from that which applied prior to devolution. This in turn has led to concerns that English interests currently lack their own political voice, which has been bolstered in recent years by public attitude surveys conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the National Centre for Social Research. The report recommended a range of suggestions, recommendations and conclusions on how the House of Commons should change in response to devolution. These include: The development of an England specific legislative process on the basis of a constitutional principle that ‘decisions at the UK level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or ‘England and Wales’)  should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or ‘England and Wales’)’. This does not, however, amount to clear cut ‘English votes for English laws’ as the report concludes that MPs from outside England should not be prevented from voting on matters before the House of Commons. That practical improvement should be made to streamline the way in which the House of Commons is informed of a devolved body’s agreement, or otherwise, to an LCM. That a House of Commons Devolution Committee should be established to report to the House on circumstances arising from the development of an ‘England-specific legislative process’ and to have referred to it LCMs received from the devolved legislatures to bring it to the attention of the House. Despite mixed reactions to its publication, the Commission’s report is significant as it encapsulates how England is developing and emerging as a political entity in response to devolution and may form a significant milestone in debates relating to the UK’s constitutional future. Further information about the McKay Commission’s report is available in the Research Service Paper: England’s response to devolution: The Report of the McKay Commission.

Article written by Owain Roberts, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.