A body now called the English Parliament first arose during the thirteenth century, referred to variously as ‘colloquium’ and ‘parliamentum’. It shared most of the powers typical of representative institutions in medieval and early modern Europe, and was arranged from the fourteenth century in a bicameral manner, with a House of Commons for the knights of the shire and burgesses and a House of Lords for the spiritual and temporal peers. The ‘English’ parliament (which also included representatives from Wales) ceased to exist as part of the parliamentary Act of Union of 1707 between the two kingdoms which created the Parliament of Great Britain.
Following the first elections to the newly created Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999 England was left as the only nation in the United Kingdom with no separate representative body, although the Northern Ireland Assembly has been subject to periods of suspension.
Consequently, some have advocated a new English Parliament, entirely separate from the British parliament, to counteract what they see as a democratic imbalance. Provision for such body exists in Tony Benn’s Commonwealth of Britain Bill.
Alternatively, some would have this parliament take the form of an English Grand Committee in the United Kingdom House of Commons rather than as a new body with separate elections, while some see it as replacing the House of Commons, with a reformed House of Lords being the sole UK chamber.
Since the Welsh Assembly has no primary legislative powers, the introduction of an English Parliament would mean that the Assembly would gain legislative competence and become a Welsh Parliament. Apart from Plaid Cymru (which wants outright independence), none of the mainstream UK parties supports this – though some would like to see it have more teeth, there has not been many calls for Wales to have its own sexual offences legislation or commercial laws. Scotland and Northern Ireland already have separate legal systems and laws, so the delegation of legislative authority did not cause any such issues.
The Labour government favours the establishment of regional governments, claiming that England is too large to be governed as a sub-state entity (having over 80% of the UK’s population). In some regions, notably the south-west and south-east there is little interest, but in the north of England there is growing support. A referendum on this issue was held in North East England, on 4 November 2004, when the proposal was rejected by the voters by a margin of nearly 4 to 1. Planned referenda in Yorkshire and the Humber and North West England have been delayed due to issues with all-postal ballots, and whilst the UK government has stated it still intends to hold these referenda, many commentators expect that they will now be dropped. Consideration has still to be given to what powers regions would be granted, and what impact this may have on the powers of counties or central government.