Commission tries to answer the West Lothian question

In the age of devolution, we are never far away from another commission, convention or committee. Who can forget the Richard commission, the all-Wales convention, or the Silk commission (parts one and two)?

But today's commission in the spotlight is the McKay commission, set up by the coalition government to look at the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons.

Its job was to try to find an answer to the West Lothian question, the Welsh version of which asks if it is fair for Welsh MPs to continue to vote on issues such as health and education in England when English MPs have no say on those issues in Wales.

The McKay commission suggests the answer to the question should mean that laws affecting England alone are no longer passed in the Commons without the consent of a majority of English MPs.

That consent could be gauged during early stages of the legislative process; non-English MPs would still be allowed to take part in final votes on laws affecting England after a majority of English MPs had given their consent.

What difference would it make in practice? Labour did win a majority of seats in England under Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson (1966) and Tony Blair (1997, 2001 and 2005). McKay writes: "Only in the short-lived parliaments of 1964-66 and February-October 1974 was the party with a majority of MPs from England (the Conservatives) in opposition."

That may be true, although once could argue that it's more relevant to look at whether the party/ies that formed the government had a majority as that's the key to get legislation through.

So, in October 1974, Labour won the election but only held a minority of seats in England, having to govern with Liberal support from 1976 to 1979. And yes, Tony Blair may have won a majority of seats in England but he had to rely on the votes of non-English MPs to get his university tuition fee policy through the Commons.

I would argue that the McKay rule would make it more difficult for a Labour government at Westminster - without a landslide majority - to change health and education policy in England. It is possibly Ed Miliband who has most to worry about from today's report.

The coalition, which commissioned the report, says it will give it "very serious consideration" before responding.

The Conservatives have previously flirted with the idea of "English votes for English laws", a solution that would be popular among Tory MPs.

It is far from certain that the coalition will adopt the McKay solution. Montgomeryshire Tory MP Glyn Davies once suggested: "The West Lothian question is a constitutional anomaly - to which the only obvious answers are the creation of other constitutional anomalies."

Perhaps, as one (Labour) former lord chancellor put it, the best way to deal with the West Lothian question may be not to ask it.

(I updated this blog on Tuesday, March 26 in the light of some of the comments below)