Following the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 the Prime Minister set up a Cabinet Committee to consider English votes for English laws (EVEL). These developments have been discussed in an earlier blogpost. Since then the UK Government produced a Command Paper in December 2014, which outlines four options and the respective positions of the two Coalition parties. On 3 February 2015, the Leader of the House, William Hague MP made a speech outlining the Conservative Party’s preferred methods for proceeding, which is the third option outlined in the command paper.
The proposals would allow English MPs a formal veto over English-only legislation. The command paper describes this as a “significantly strengthened” version of the McKay Commission proposals that would give English MPs an “effective veto” over English-only measures. The command paper states that:
- Second Reading would be taken as normal by all MPs.
- The Committee stages of English or English and Welsh only bills would be taken in Committee only by MPs from those countries, in proportion to their party representation in the House of Commons.
- This procedure would also apply to the English or English and Welsh parts of bills that contained both English or English and Welsh only clauses, and UK wide clauses.
- Report Stage would be taken as normal by all MPs
- An English (and Welsh) Grand Committee would then vote after Report stage but prior to Third Reading, on a Legislative Consent Motion. English or English and Welsh MPs would therefore be able to grant their consent or veto a bill, or relevant parts of it.
- Such decisions would have the same status as those of the Scottish Parliament on devolved matters. A bill could not pass to Third Reading without passing the legislative consent vote.
- Third Reading would be taken as normal by all MPs, but only if the legislative consent motion was passed.
- The English (and Welsh) Grand Committee could have other functions, including determining the distribution of expenditure within England and Wales, such as local government finance or police grants, and it could also have additional questions to Ministers in departments with England only functions.
- The principle of requiring consent from an English Grand Committee could be applied to levels of taxation and welfare benefits where the equivalent rates have been devolved.
Reaction to the proposals has been mixed, with some fellow Conservatives MPs of the view that the proposals do not go far enough. John Redwood, for example, stated on his blog, prior to Mr Hague’s announcement:
I want him to sign up to the first proposal in his White Paper, English votes on any English matter. That is the simpler way, and the fair way. The other remaining proposal he is considering does not allow English MPs to settle English matters, as it retains a vote for Scottish MPs on any proposal England wants. That is not fair to England and does not keep the promise to deliver English votes for English needs.
There is no complexity on deciding which is an English (or English, Welsh and Northern Irish issue) as it is one settled in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament. They seem to have no difficulty deciding which they are for the Scottish Parliament, so it should be equally easy to decide a non Scottish issue.
Following the announcement he said “England will now decide her own spending within English agreed totals and will decide her own tax rates where Scotland has devolved power. That is progress.”
In an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on 4 February, former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP claimed that Mr Hague’s proposals endangered the United Kingdom:
If the Union is to survive, it will have to be built on the interdependence of our four nations, and it will have to guarantee equality of status within the United Kingdom. My argument tonight is that with the announcement of English votes for English laws, which means nothing other than restricting the right of Scottish Members to vote in this House, the Government are deliberately driving a wedge between Scotland and England and, in so doing, they have asked the wrong question, and they are now getting the wrong answer.
The Labour Party position is to favour the approach of an English (or an English and Welsh) committee stage, as recommended by the Mackay Commission, “because it is right that English MPs have a key role in considering such legislation. The political balance on this committee would need to reflect English (or English and Welsh) MPs as a whole and ensure all English regions were represented.” This should be considered as part of a constitutional convention process.
The Liberal Democrats broadly support the Conservatives’ EVEL model. However, their position (as set out in the Command Paper) is that they would like the composition of a Grand Committee to be based on a proportional representation of overall votes cast at the preceding general election. The Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael MP stated in the debate:
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House laid out the proposals of the Conservative party. It is a matter of record that my party disagrees with that approach. Nor is it much of a secret that there is a range of views within the Conservative party, from those who believe that this issue is best left alone to those who want a more radical solution. There is not much consensus in that party, let alone between the parties in this House. However, there is a broad consensus here about keeping together our family of nations. That requires that this issue be considered carefully with an eye to a lasting settlement, not a short-sighted or short-term partisan advantage.
Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd stated in a press release:
In principle, Plaid Cymru is supportive of English Votes for English Laws, but these reforms must not come about in isolation[…]
[…] As things stand, English Votes for English Laws will bring further complexity to Westminster’s already multi-tiered system.
Wales’ democracy is maturing with the steady transfer of more powers from Westminster. It is high time the old and outdated ‘England and Wales’ unit was swept away and for our nation to be handed the proper tools to pass robust legislation and administer justice in a manner which serves the best interests of the Welsh people.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP commented:
The Hague plan has the potential to block Scotland’s voice from key decisions affecting Scottish voters. Until powers on, for example, income tax are devolved to Holyrood in full, it is profoundly undemocratic for anyone to try and carve Scottish MPs out of important decision making on such issues. And that is not something we will stand for. Make no mistake, the SNP’s objective remains independence, but for as long as Scotland is part of the Westminster system, we must have an equal say there on issues which affect us.
Article by Alys Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.