'West Lothian question' Bill fails

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Indy Politics

A Tory backbencher today failed in her bid to take a step closer to answering the so-called West Lothian question.

Under Harriett Baldwin's proposals, draft Government legislation would have clearly specified which parts of the UK it would affect - a move which could potentially change the way MPs deal with laws only relating to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Bill would place a duty on secretaries of state to "ensure that the legal and financial effect of that legislation on each part of the United Kingdom is separately and clearly identified".

The Government opposed the move, stating a new independent commission of experts set up yesterday to look into the thorny constitutional issue signalled it had not kicked the problem into the long grass.

Constitutional Reform Minister Mark Harper said he did not want the issue to "fester" and develop into a "crisis".

"The Government intends to deal with this matter and not kick it into the long grass, as some have feared," he added.

Mr Harper asked the MP for West Worcestershire to withdraw her Legislation (Territorial Extent) Bill but Mrs Baldwin refused, telling MPs that ministers must deal with the issue before the next General Election.

In the end, MPs rejected her Private Members' Bill by 40 votes to 24, Government majority 16.

Opening its third reading debate, Mrs Baldwin declared herself a "wholehearted supporter of the union" and told the Commons: "There are increasingly large numbers of legislation which come before this House that affect England only.

"If this House continues not to tackle that particular issue, it will become increasingly an issue our constituents find extremely distressing."

The West Lothian question - named after the constituency whose MP, Tam Dalyell, first raised the issue in 1977 - has led to growing calls for "English votes for English laws" since Scotland and Wales were granted devolution in 1997.

English MPs are not allowed to vote on many matters which are now devolved to UK assemblies and there has been a long-running debate on whether the same should apply the other way round.

Labour MPs said they spotted a number of problems with Mrs Baldwin's Bill.

Shadow justice minister Helen Goodman said the legislation was "badly drafted, it's full of technical problems and we don't accept the principle which underlies the Bill".

She added: "Mrs Baldwin's underlying concern is clearly that people are taking views on legislation which affect parts of the United Kingdom which are beyond the parts of the United Kingdom which their constituency is in.

"If that is her concern, she should have presented a Bill which made that case."

Her colleague Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) said the proposals meant that it would be up to the Secretary of State putting forward a piece of legislation which areas of the country it affected.

He said: "The current Government... might seek to use this Bill to exclude members unfairly in order to get legislation through.

"That is why the idea that the Secretary of State should be the person under this Bill who decides which pieces of legislation are English-only or Welsh-only or English and Welsh-only is quite frankly both ludicrous and sets out with a loaded table."

The Cabinet Office restated the Government's opposition to the Bill, arguing that it was unnecessary.

A spokesman said: "The Government already sets out the way legislation affects the different nations of the UK and therefore the proposed Bill will add nothing of benefit to the process.

"Putting the details in primary legislation potentially makes the process more burdensome.

"That is why the Government remains opposed to the Bill. We have a commitment to set up a Commission, and set out further details on this to Parliament yesterday."