Election 2015

Election 2015: Does the heart of England want more say on English matters?

Meriden sign

The Conservatives have set out a timetable for "English votes for English laws" if they win the election. Labour wants a constitutional convention on the issue. But do the English want more say on English matters?

Meriden may be a small place in the West Midlands, but it boasts a pretty big title.

An ancient monument on the village green marks the "traditional centre of England".

It's not the only site that stakes a claim to the exact middle of the country. It depends on who is measuring, and how.

But it serves as a suitable spot to survey what the heart of England thinks about whether the English want more controls over their own affairs.

"It depends what you mean by English laws and English issues, but clearly people think it's bonkers that Scottish MPs can vote on big issues that affect only England, like health and education policy, but England don't have any reverse rights," says 55-year-old training consultant David McGrath.

Nick Hone, 64, shares a similar sentiment. "Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have had their own devolution, and we've been left behind. I believe each country should have its own autonomy," he says.

The men have different ideas about how this should happen. "Why not get together and have a UK-wide debate?" says Mr McGrath. "I think we should have a federal system like Australia and Canada," suggests Mr Hone.

Image caption David McGrath says it's "bonkers" that Scottish MPs can vote on big issues that affect only England

The conversation is part of a wider debate.

Despite the devolution of powers to Scotland in the late 1990s, Scottish MPs at Westminster can still vote on issues affecting England only, such as its health and education policies. English MPs have no such power over Scotland.

This constitutional anomaly - known as the "West Lothian Question" - has always vexed many voters and MPs. Last year, the British Social Attitudes report found that 62% of English people believe Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on English laws - and the proportion who agree "strongly" has risen over the past decade.

The perceived unfairness was compounded by the Scottish referendum, when Scotland was promised more powers over things like income tax rates and air passenger duty. A YouGov poll last September, when the referendum was held, claimed the proportion who did not want Scottish MPs to vote on measures affecting only England had risen to 71%.

Political parties have been coming up with proposals ever since.

The Conservatives want the line-by-line scrutiny of new bills to be reserved for MPs from the nations affected by the legislation, with a new grand committee of all English MPs - or English and Welsh MPs where appropriate - approving any legislation relating only to England. On Friday, David Cameron also pledged an "English rate of income tax".

Labour want the issue to be considered along with other potential changes by a constitutional convention after the election.

The Liberal Democrats favour a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only to England, with its members based on parties' share of the vote.

Some of these plans appeal to people in Meriden.

"I personally believe deciding some things on a nation by nation basis makes sense - I can't see how other countries know our problems, and we are not always aware of theirs," says 64-year-old Jane Isham.

But others think it would be hard to divvy things up that way.

"You can't take issues in isolation. Policies and laws rarely just affect one part of the UK. How does Parliament operate when EU legislation is applicable in Scotland but not in England? It could be incredibly complicated to go down that route," says 48-year-old Doug Bacon.

The McKay Commission, which carried out a review of the West Lothian Question for the government, said there were many ways in which laws applying only in England, or England and Wales, could still have "consequential effects" in the devolved nations. Meanwhile, House of Commons Library research says it is "not a simple matter" to count England-only bills.

Image caption Jane Isham is concerned Westminster could become a two-tier Parliament

Mr Bacon also thinks reform could be expensive. "The real question is what would the cost and composition of these committees be, and how effective would they be?".

It's a very valid question, according to Alistair Jones, a politics expert from De Montfort University. He thinks English votes for English laws could potentially create the "biggest shake-up in modern history".

"We could have a position where we elect a government nationally that can't do anything because of an English Committee that can block everything.

"For example, you could have a Labour Lib Dem coalition in parliament, but you could have a Conservative-dominated committee, that's got a conservative majority. That would be gridlock - nothing would get done," he says.

Labour - which arguably has a lot to lose if Scottish MPs are stripped of the right to vote over England-only matters, as it held 41 of Scotland's 59 MPs in 2010 - has also said some of the Conservative proposals risk creating "two classes of MP".

That's something that worries Mrs Isham. "If you start giving some MPs more votes than others, you start getting a two-tier Parliament, and that's not going to work," she says.

Eve Boomer, 69, has another concern. "If we continue going down that route it could signal the end of the United Kingdom. We've always got on well as united, but once it starts to fragment, then we're stuffed, there's no going back," she says.

But are voters concerned enough about English matters for it to become an issue at the ballot box?

Maz Crawley, 60, says it will play a part in her vote because she also has concerns about the direction of travel. "It would be a tragedy if the United Kingdom was broken up," she says.

However, Mr Bacon says there are much bigger issues that will influence where he marks his cross.

"There is no general appetite among the public to have more bureaucracy or politicians. I also question whether it is an issue that politicians are trying to sort out for own benefit, to retain power, or is it genuinely an issue to address the wishes and needs of the population?" he says.

The candidates for the constituency are:

  • Ade Adeyemo (Liberal Democrat)
  • Alison Gavin (Green)
  • Chris Booth (Independence from Europe)
  • Mick Gee (UKIP)
  • Tom McNeil (Labour)
  • Caroline Spelman (Conservative)

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