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English MPs start Holyrood backlash

By BENEDICT BROGAN

ENGLISH MPs are drawing up proposals that could force a dramatic reduction in the role and rights of Scottish MPs in what is being seen as the first clear sign of a devolution backlash at Westminster.

The Government's campaign to regain ground against the SNP in Scotland looks set to be accompanied by an equally vicious battle to prevent what one MP warned was the "undermining" of Scottish interests in London.

As the Scottish Office's new campaign chief, Helen Liddell, used first-day interviews to play up the links between Scotland and England, Scotland's 72 MPs face the prospect of losing what little influence they will retain at Westminster once Holyrood opens for business.

The Commons Select Committee on Procedure, made up exclusively of English MPs, has agreed to hold an inquiry into the consequences of devolution for the way Scottish business is conducted in the Commons.

It could mean an end to Scottish Questions, the abolition of the Scottish Select and Grand Committees, and the restriction of the right of Scottish MPs to introduce private legislation.

It could also resurrect the question of Holyrood's financial independence by recommending formal scrutiny of the way the Scottish Parliament spends its annual 14bn allocation from the Treasury.

In a letter from Tory chairman Nicholas Winterton, the committee's members have been asked to spend the summer considering a "number of detailed concerns" as part of a wide exercise to redefine the relationship between Westminster and the new devolved bodies in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast.

Other issues he raises are the possibility of consultation between the House of Commons and the devolved assemblies, the prospect of co-operation between Westminster and Holyrood on European legislation, and the question of how departmental Select Committees should deal with devolved matters.

The move is being seized on by the Tories as a way of retaliating for devolution. It has alarmed Labour MPs staying on at Westminster, who fear their status is about to be sharply downgraded.

The creation of the Scottish Parliament will already leave Scottish MPs with no voice on devolved matters. The only policy areas retained by Westminster on which they will be free to speak are macro-economic policy, social security, defence, foreign affairs, and constitutional affairs.

One Scottish Labour MP warned: "This is dangerous stuff. It could undermine further our voice at Westminster, which will already be sharply reduced. The Government should watch this one carefully."

Tory MPs, who are increasingly talking up an English nationalist line, expressed private delight at the prospect. "This is exactly what should be happening now that devolution is inevitable," one said.

Financial scrutiny has been ruled out by the Scotland Bill, but Scottish Office Minister Henry McLeish has stressed his commitment to creating a tough financial watchdog regime for the new Parliament.

David Davis, the former Tory Minister who chairs the powerful Public Accounts Committee, last night endorsed the need to give Westminster oversight of the Scottish Parliament's finances.

"You can delegate power, but you can't delegate accountability. If you are the Parliament that raises the taxes, you are responsible for where those taxes go.

"Whether I have the powers to or not, the taxpayer who elects me can reasonably demand of me value for money.

"You have to make funding as local as possible and as transparent as possible, otherwise you are going to get all sorts of English nationalists starting to cause trouble," he said.

Ministers are conscious of a growing awareness among English MPs that devolution will have consequences for the balance of power, both at Westminster and within the United Kingdom.

Mrs Liddell, who is boning up on Scottish education as part of her ministerial brief, signalled yesterday she was determined to play up the value of Scotland's relationship with England while taking the SNP to task for "shaking their fist at Tony Blair".

She said: "Everything they've ever said will be looked at, but we'll also remind people that we can have the best of both worlds. We should have the best of British. Our agenda is partnership.

"If you say New Labour is more English than Scottish, then you are saying Scots aren't bothering about education, about health, about welfare reform.

"Scots have aspirations too, not just the English. They want a nice life for their family, and that is what Tony Blair is delivering." - July 31