Thursday 26 May 2016

The Union and Devolution ~ House of Lords Constitution Committee

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has published its 10th report of session 2015-16 - The Union and Devolution (pdf - 144 pages).  Underlying the report is concern for the future stability of the United Kingdom as a UNION in the light of devolution of power.  At the start of the report is this assertion: "The four nations of the United Kingdom are stronger united than apart. The Union has brought stability, peace and prosperity to the United Kingdom."   


The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been a feature of British politics for many years. The late 1990s saw the creation
of the Scottish Parliament and Administration (Scotland Act 1998) and a National Assembly for Wales (Government of Wales Act 1998).  The present Northern Ireland Assembly also dates from 1998 - the arrangements are explained at Northern Ireland Assembly.  One of the latest developments for England is that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 enables devolution of far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.  The devolution settlements have been altered from time-to-time by later Acts of Parliament such as the Scotland Act 2016.  The result is that a complex legal and administrative structure has been created.

Risks to the Union:

The report seeks to set out what the Union is for, how it has been affected by devolution and where the risks to the stability of the Union might lie. It looks at how the Union might be strengthened following the stresses of two decades of ad hoc, piecemeal devolution. A number of principles are set out which the Committee considers should underpin any further devolution of power within the UK.  The committee also proposes a number of specific measures that, if implemented by the Government, should ensure that any further proposals for devolution are dealt with in a coherent manner that strengthens, rather than destabilises, the Union.

Much of the devolution legislation arises from reaction to political pressures such as the Scottish independence movement.  Stresses on the stability of the Union as a whole have resulted.  The report notes the reactive approach  taken to devolution by successive governments and expresses concern that government has not adequately considered the cumulative impact of devolution on the United Kingdom.

The Committee calls on government to fundamentally reassess how it approaches devolution. What affects one constituent part of the UK affects both the Union and the other nations within the UK. 'Devolution needs to be viewed through the lens of the Union, with appropriate consideration given to the needs of, and consequences for, the Union as a whole.  Chapter 5 of the report recommends how this might be done.


The "Barnett Formula" does not escape criticism.  This formula deals with the allocation of public expenditure from HM Treasury to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  A useful discussion of the formula is at House of Commons Briefing Paper 7386 (13th April 2016) and at Devolution Matters - The Barnett formula and the funding of devolution.  The Committee recommended that government reconsider its use of this formula and establish a mechanism that takes into account the relative needs of different nations and regions in allocating funds.

A few other points:

The report notes (para 149) that the outcome of the EU referendum could have a destabilising impact - e.g. suppose Scotland votes Remain and England votes Leave.   Changes to human rights protection could affect the devolution settlements and relations with the government (para 149).  The committee was opposed to full fiscal autonomy for any nation or region of the UK (para 267).  Federalism is rejected (para 275) - "For a federal structure, the overwhelming size of England is a major obstacle and likely source of instability ....."  Chapter 8 looks at the governance of England but an English Parliament is not seen as a viable option for the future governance of England (para 376).  A review of the procedures in Parliament for "English Votes for English Laws2 (EVEL) will come at a later date though the committee notes that this issue has not been satisfactorily resolved. (Comment: Perhaps it cannot be resolved short of there being a federal solution which is, as already noted, rejected by the committee).

A short blogpost cannot do justice to this detailed report and a full reading is recommended.  It is a masterful survey of how the present situation has developed and makes sensible suggestions for the future.  Professors Mark Elliott and Stephen Tierney look at some of the main findings in the report at Public Law for Everyone blog.  (They are legal advisers to the Constitution Committee).

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