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Friday, January 15, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT


UK Politics

What future for Scots MPs?



By David Porter, BBC Scotland Parliamentary Correspondent

Anyone who happened to chance across this column in the past would have know that I was fond of saying that although the Scottish Parliament will not come into operation until this summer, devolution had in many respects already happened. Well, with a new year, you'll be pleased to hear that I've not changed my mind. Many decisions affecting Scotland are already taking place in Edinburgh and Scottish Office ministers are spending more and more time of their time away from Westminster. That's partly because much of their work is based up in Edinburgh and partly because a number of them want to be elected to the new Parliament - so it's politically advantageous to be making announcements and being seen to be active.

So devolution may already have happened in all but name, but that doesn't mean that it is now a closed issue at Westminster. The repercussions are still being felt and indeed over the coming months as the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly grow closer the rumblings are likely to grow ever louder.

With that in mind, a House of Commons investigation into the consequences of devolution is set to be launched. Ostensibly it will look at how devolution will affect life at Westminster. On the face of it could be a rather anodyne inquiry. But as so often it will not be that simple nor probably that uncontroversial. As part of its inquiry into devolution, the Procedure Select Committee will look at the case for curtailing the rights of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs at Westminster. It'll consider whether MPs representing constituencies outside England should retain the right to intervene and vote in debates on English legislation after the establishment later this year of the Scottish parliament and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland (the so-called West Lothian question). Any proposal that could effectively create two classes of Westminster MP would be highly controversial.

The chairman of the procedure committee, Nicholas Winterton, says that personally he's opposed to reducing the rights of any MPs elected to the Westminster, just because they happen to represent constituencies in Scotland or Wales which have devolution. those wanting changes to the present arrangement argue the case thus: if Scotland has its own Parliament which decides issues such as health and education why should Scottish MPs at Westminster be able to vote and participate in English health and education matters when English MPs have so corresponding say in such events in Scotland.

But Mr Winterton is a realist. He knows that any investigation into devolution and the knock on affect for the House of Commons could not duck such an issue. He'll also be aware that there is a body of opinion wishing to curtail the rights of Scottish and Welsh MPs to intervene in matters that do not direct affect them. He knows, too, that some of the evidence taken on the matter could be pretty lively.

The committee will also take evidence concerning how much time should be allotted to Scottish matters at Westminster after the Edinburgh Parliament is set up this summer. At the moment MPs have 40 minutes once a month to question Scottish Office ministers on the floor of the commons concerning their areas of responsibility. After May this year, virtually all those matters will become the responsibility of the new Parliament in Edinburgh. Many say they'll be no need for such a question time in future. However, some ministers, mindful that they govern for the whole of the UK, want to see it retained even if it's in a somewhat truncated form.

This is likely to be something the procedure committee will want to question the Leader of the Commons about when Margaret Beckett gives evidence to them. The chairmen of the Scottish Grand and Scottish Affairs committee will also be asked to comment on how they see their roles post devolution. It's also possible that the Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, may also be called to give evidence. So devolution may indeed be well on the way, but the repercussions are by no means settled.



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