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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 05:29 GMT 06:29 UK


UK Politics

Westminster will never be the same

Parliament: facing unprecedented change

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, one thing is certain - "British" politics will never be the same again.

Devolution will have a profound effect on the way the Houses of Parliament carry out their duties.

It will come as no surprise to learn that, for the most part, the government and the authorities still have little idea of how to address these issues.

No-one has any trouble identifying the problems associated with devolution, and everyone agrees procedures in Westminster will have to change.

But there is little chance the issues will be resolved before the new bodies have started to meet, raising fears of a short-term constitutional shambles.

The powerful procedure committee of the Commons is currently investigating the knock-on effects of devolution and has already published an interim report.

A final report, which should address the most fundamental issues, is expected within the next couple of months.

Ignoring problem

Top of the list of problems is the age-old "West Lothian question" - named after MP Tam Dalyell who used to sit for that constituency and who first raised the question.


[ image: Dalyell: question still unanswered]
Dalyell: question still unanswered
He wanted to know why Scottish MPs, given their own parliament, should still be allowed to vote in Westminster on legislation that will affect England, when English MPs will not have the same rights over laws north of the border.

The simple answer is that the government has chosen to ignore the problem, or refuse to admit that it exists.

Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, recently told the committee: "We are all members here. We are all elected on the same basis and must have the same rules and freedoms."

MPs faced "a choice of two evils", the anomaly of the present system and the "even less desirable" alternative of giving some MPs different rights in the same parliament, she said.

So, for the foreseeable future, members of the Scottish Parliament will be able to continue voting on issues that affect England while the reverse will not be true.

Labour has, at least, attempted to tackle the other historical problem of Scotland's and Wales' over-representation at Westminster.

The government is committed to reducing the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to about 58 after the next election - with a similar reduction in Wales.

Questions cut

But what is still unclear is whether the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees - which have given the two countries their own voice in Westminster - will continue.

The procedure committee wants them abolished and it is difficult to see what function they would fill after devolution has taken effect.

Similarly, the monthly Scottish and Welsh question time on the floor of the Commons, may be dramatically curtailed.

Many of the questions MPs would once have put to the respective secretaries of state will no longer be admissible because many of their responsibilities will have transferred to the assemblies. So it is possible question time will be shortened.


[ image: Dewar: Scottish secretary's job will go]
Dewar: Scottish secretary's job will go
Probably the most symbolic move, however, will be to abolish the Welsh and Scottish secretaries of state.

This may not happen immediately, but it is inconceivable that the jobs will remain once the countries have their own "prime ministers".

It is likely a single new secretary of state with responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be created in the cabinet.

Finally, of course, the expected Labour victory in the polls will spark a minor Cabinet re-shuffle with Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar and Welsh Secretary Alun Michael being replaced.

Although MPs can sit in both their national assemblies and in Westminster, they cannot take up a ministerial post.

There have even been rumours that Tony Blair might use the re-shuffle to undo the heavy Scottish bias in the Cabinet.

The ultimate effect of all this is likely to be that - while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get a more powerful voice - Westminster will become even more marginalised.

The government is already under constant attack for by-passing the Commons, and devolution will make that process easier.



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