English Votes for English Laws – what does it mean for Wales?

10 October 2014

Article by Alys Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image from Pixabay.  Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

On the day after the Scottish Referendum the Prime Minister stated:

“I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.

So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.

I hope that is going to take place on a cross-party basis. I have asked William Hague to draw up these plans. We will set up a Cabinet Committee right away and proposals will also be ready to the same timetable. I hope the Labour Party and other parties will contribute.”

The Cabinet Committee for devolved powers, met for the first time on the 25 September. Its remit is to consider devolved powers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside new powers for Scotland. The Committee is chaired by William Hague MP, who is currently Leader of the House of Commons. The other members are:

  • Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP
  • Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander MP
  • Michael Gove MP, Chief Whip
  • Baroness Stowell, Leader of the House of Lords
  • Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael MP
  • Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith MP
  • Minister of State for Schools and for the Cabinet Office, David Laws MP
  • Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP
  • Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb MP.

Most of the press coverage about the committee has focused on the issue of “English Votes, for English Laws” (EVEL) but overwhelmingly in reference to Scotland. However, Wales Office Minister Alun Cairns MP was reported as saying:

“We are a family of nations and the model for Scotland isn’t necessarily the right model for Wales.We don’t have to be hamstrung by the model that is going to fit Scotland.Therefore the solution between the influence of MPs will be different, and that’s the detail that needs to be worked through.”

So, how would EVEL affect Wales? There are no straight forward answers because several differing proposals for EVEL exist. The UK Government set up the Mackay Commission to consider the West Lothian Question in January 2012 and it reported in March 2013. It recommended that no MPs should be prevented from voting on any Bill, and the right of the House of Commons as a whole to make final decisions should be preserved. However, there should also be scope for additional roles for MPs from England (or England-and-Wales). Mechanisms suggested include:

  • Bills should routinely indicate their territorial scope;
  • an equivalent to a legislative consent motion (LCM) in an English (and Welsh) Grand Committee or on the floor of the House of Commons before second reading of a Bill;
  • use of a specially-constituted public bill committee with an English or English-and-Welsh party balance is the minimum needed as an effective means of allowing the voice from England (or England-and-Wales) to be heard.

However, others, for example, John Redwood MP, are arguing for a separate English Parliament, although he appears to be advocating an English parliament within the Westminster parliament rather than a separate Parliament as advocated by the Campaign for an English Parliament.

As the UCL Constitution Unit pointed out in its Bluffer’s Guide to the English Question,  the difficulties of implementing EVEL are considerable, at both a technical and political level.

Firstly, there would be difficulty identifying those English laws on which only English MPs would be allowed to vote. The territorial extent clauses in Westminster Bills typically extend to the UK, Great Britain, or England and Wales. Many Bills vary in their territorial application in different parts of the Bill. For example, the Serious Crime Bill currently before Parliament demonstrates the complexity of territorial extent, with most relating to England or England and Wales; some UK wide clauses and some clauses relating to Scotland and Northern Ireland alone. It is likely that a very different approach would need to be taken in drafting legislation at a UK level.

A second issue is who votes and when. Mackay and earlier reports have all agreed that all MPs should have a vote at the Third Reading stage with English only MPs dealing with Second Reading, Committee and Report stages. Given the uneveness of the devolution settlement in Wales deciding whether an English only or England-and-Wales  “Grand Committee” should scrutinise a Bill could prove challenging. For example, the Localism Act 2011 relates predominantly to local government in England with a handful of provisions relating to Wales. Would Welsh MPs sit on the committee considering a similar Bill and vote with English MPs, although most local government and functions are devolved?

Other suggested solutions include reducing the numbers of Welsh and Scottish MPs. The Constitution Unit suggests that, based on the Northern Ireland precedent, Welsh MPs could be reduced from 40 to 22. However, it may be argued that they would still be overrepresented on English matters, but underrepresented on UK-wide matters.

Opponents to EVEL point out that decisions on funding continue to affect the whole of the UK. Professor Vernon Bognador argues that even if all control of income tax were devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the bulk of  devolved revenues would still come from Westminster. This means that any variation in spending on an English service such as health would have a knock-on effect in the devolved countries. He quotes the conclusion of the Report of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission:

“Any issue in Westminster involving expenditure of public money is of concern to all parts of the United Kingdom since it may directly affect the level of taxation and indirectly influence the level of a region’s own expenditure.” There are therefore no specifically “English” domestic matters involving public expenditure.”

Some constitutional experts such as Barry Winetrobe  believe the West Lothian Question to is a constitutional anomaly in the UK Constitution  “which should be accepted, rather than something to be ‘solved’”. Professor Bognador states that:

“There is, of course, an English Question. But, as long as England rejects federalism, there can be no tidy, symmetrical solution. Asymmetry is the price England pays to keep Scotland within the union.”

However, the momentum behind change makes the maintenance of the status quo seems unlikely at this moment in time.