December 19, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
In the last few days before the Scottish Independence referendum, Alistair Darling, the leader of the “No” campaign, pleaded with David Cameron not to rush into any rash promises should the Union stay together. Two hours after the referendum result was announced, Cameron walked out of No 10 Downing Street to announce that he was going to commit Parliament to debating and perhaps implementing the concept of “English Votes for English Laws” (hereafter EVEL). Worse, he linked this to the implementation of the further devolution that had been so rashly promised to the Scottish people during those days of complete panic amongst the Westminster elite at the poll saying the “Yes” campaign might win. In this past week, the sheer folly of that speech has been made completely clear.
We have seen our two major political parties advance their positions on EVEL in naked political terms, sometimes with almost breathtaking hypocrisy and lack of irony. But politics shouldn’t be driving this. There needs to be time to properly consider the implications of what would be a massive constitutional change to the way we are governed. Therefore, to try and rush it through before the ‘closed period’ before the election is simply not appropriate. It doesn’t matter whether or not the electorate would or wouldn’t ‘vote’ for these things. They might be ‘for’ it, and it is very hard to be ‘against’ the concept, but most voters won’t understand the consequences of it, and so time is needed to explain it.
William Hague, the Leader of the House of Commons, announced four options for EVEL:
1) Barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs
2) Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill
3) Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them a effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading
4) A separate Lib Dem plan to establish a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote.
Labour have expressed agreement that we need to consider the way English MPs can have a greater say over legislation that affects only England. But they refused to join talks led by Mr Hague on the solution, and have put forward a further option:
5) A committee of English MPs to be created to scrutinise bills that would not apply elsewhere in the UK – but all MPs will vote.
But we have to stop for a little bit here and talk about the political hypocrisy of Labour’s position. They argue that the Conservatives are pushing forward this legislation because it excludes Scottish MPs (on whom Labour rely for any majority) from votes on a lot of laws (because Scotland has a devolved assembly responsible for many areas that means much legislation would affect only England). The Conservatives have an easy answer to that – which is that the only reason Labour are against a change that is so straightforward is precisely because it excludes Scottish MPs (on whom Labour rely for any majority) from votes on a lot of laws.
It’s true, the whole debate sounds so straightforward – only English MPs should vote on matters that affect only England. But it is not straightforward because what can be defined as an “English” Law is very hard. If the government spend extra money or reduces the amount spent in England, it has a knock-on impact on the money other parts of the UK receive under the Barnett formula – how Treasury funds are allocated to devolved administrations. So Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will argue that all laws affecting government spending in England affects the whole of the UK. The Government has suggested that the Speaker of the House of Commons could be asked to rule on the territorial extent of bills or it could even take a House of Commons vote…but that would throw it back into political complications.
Which brings us back to where Labour are probably right. They suggest a ‘Constitutional Convention’ next year to give the public a voice in this. This may seem to people like the issue is being kicked into the long grass (particularly those like me who have seen “Yes Minister”), but it isn’t. It is taking an issue that could create different classes of MPs in the UK, fundamentally altering the way we are governed, and putting it through a proper process.
There is of course a complication in this. Cameron linked EVEL with the implementation of further devolution to Scotland. Former Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine has already suggested one can’t be done without the other. Every day that passes without those rash promises to the Scottish people being implemented is another day when the SNP get to say that there is proof that Westminster will never deliver and there should be another independence referendum. My answer to that is that whatever happens, even if Westminster draped itself in the Saltire and gave every penny it has to Scotland, the SNP will push for another independence referendum, so let’s not worry too much about that right now.
English Votes for English Laws is EVEL, but it’s not evil. It just needs proper time for consideration.