Does the ‘West Ealing Question’ exist?

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The West Lothian Question draws attention to the fact that, following devolution, English MPs are unable to vote on matters devolved to Scotland, but Scottish MPs can vote on the same matters with regard to England, as they are still decided in the UK Parliament. This has led for some calls for ‘English votes for English laws’ – in other words, restricting or ending the voting rights of MPs from Scotland on matters before the House of Commons which only affect England.[1]

It has been suggested that, in view of the existence of the Greater London Authority (GLA), an analogous situation could apply with regard to MPs from London. Although certain matters have been devolved to London, London MPs are still able to vote on these same issues when they apply elsewhere in England. This idea has been described as the ‘West Ealing Question’.[2]

The nature of devolution in London is such that this issue does not arise at present. However, it could arise if proposals for fiscal devolution to London (or indeed to other parts of England) were to go ahead.

Why the ‘West Ealing Question’ is muted

Critically, both the West Lothian Question and the ‘West Ealing Question’ relate to matters considered by the House of Commons – in other words, primary or secondary legislation. They cannot be said to apply to executive decisions made by the UK Government or its executive agencies, unless these require Parliamentary approval.

The GLA has many powers over policy areas such as transport and housing which are not available to local authorities elsewhere in England, where they are normally exercised by central government. However, the fact that the GLA holds powers that are exercised by the Government elsewhere in England is not enough in itself to provoke a ‘West Ealing Question’. For this to arise, the GLA would need to hold decision-making powers which were exercised by Parliament in regard to other parts of England. Unlike the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the GLA has no power to pass either primary or secondary legislation. There are no matters which the GLA decides in London but for which Parliamentary approval is required elsewhere in England. The transport powers exercised by the GLA in London are held by central government and local authorities elsewhere in England.

Future scenarios of a ‘West Ealing Question’

A number of proposals have recently been made for devolution of fiscal powers to local areas. The London Finance Commission report, Raising the Capital, proposed that ‘London government’ should retain all revenue from a suite of property taxes, and be able to:

  • ‘vary the main rate’ of business rates across the capital, and set the business rate multiplier. The multiplier would be ‘linked to the rate of council tax’;[3]
  • Require the Valuation Office Agency to revalue properties; determine the number of bands and tax rates.[4]
  • Set tax rates, banding and discounts for stamp duty, capital gains tax, and ATED.[5]

Proposals have been made during 2014 for similar powers to be passed to other cities or metropolitan areas in England: see, for instance, the City Growth Commission’s Powers to Grow; the IPPR’s Decentralisation Decade; and ResPublica’s Devo Max – Devo Manc.

For England as a whole, each of these matters is currently approved, in one form or another, by the House of Commons. Therefore, if the system were to be changed so that control of any or all of these taxes vested in London government, but their level in the remainder of England or the UK was decided by Parliament, the ‘West Ealing Question’ could arise with some force.

For instance, a scenario could unfold where London MPs’ votes could be decisive in raising capital gains tax for the rest of the UK, whilst the Mayor decided to lower it in London; or a council tax revaluation could be commenced in London, but not in the rest of England, which might lead to higher or lower revenues for local authorities in London.

It would be possible for other types of devolution of power to provoke a ‘West Ealing Question’, depending on how powers were divided between levels of government: for instance, if the GLA took on powers to pass secondary legislation in particular policy areas. Such a scenario could also lead to ambiguities over whether matters were ‘London-only’ or whether they had knock-on effects elsewhere, a difficulty which has also been noted with regard to the West Lothian Question.

Conclusion

The concept of a ‘West Ealing Question’ does not at present arise as a result of the debates around ‘English votes for English laws’; but it has the potential to become a live issue under circumstances such as those outlined above. This does not, however, point to one particular answer to the question.

Mark Sandford

[1]     Opinions differ on how this could be made to work in practice. The key contribution from the Government is the report of the 2013 Mackay Commission.

[2]     This phrase was used on Twitter on several occasions in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish referendum on 18 September 2014; see also HCDeb 14 Oct 2014 c177; LGIU, Localism in a hung parliament, October 2014.

[3]     London Finance Commission, Raising the Capital, 2013, p. 65

[4]     Ibid., p. 67

[5]     Ibid., p. 69. ATED (annual tax on enveloped dwellings) is an additional charge on company-owned domestic properties of above a certain value.