We often think it’s rare for politicians to answer questions, but shortly after lunch on July 2, MPs were presented with a solution to a question that has plagued Westminster for more than 30 years.
The government presented its much anticipated plans to solve the West Lothian Question, or more simply, why Scottish MPs have long been able to vote on legislation only affecting England (or England and Wales) while English MPs are unable to vote on measures devolved to Scotland.
A new process of English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL as it is now more commonly known) seeks to resolve this problem.
Although bills affecting the whole of the UK will be debated and voted on in the usual way, when MPs come back to the House of Commons after the summer break, the way in which they do so for English-only or English-and-Welsh-only measures is likely to look somewhat different.
Essentially, MPs representing English constituencies (or Welsh constituencies, where relevant) will have a veto over measures that only affect England, or England and Wales.
England-only bills would be amended and voted on at their committee stage only by English MPs. Similarly, English-and-Welsh-only bills would be considered at committee stage only by MPs from England and Wales.
It sounds relatively simple, but is actually more difficult to manage in practice. Things become more complicated if only certain parts of a bill are considered to be English-only measures – and even more complicated if English MPs go on to veto these parts of an otherwise UK-wide bill. In fact, the full details of the changes being made take up 31 pages of a government document.
Conservative MPs are very supportive of the measures, while opposition MPs were much more critical. Labour’s Angela Eagle described the plan as a cynical attempt by a government with an overall majority of just 12 to use procedural trickery to manufacture a very much larger one by knocking the SNP out of select votes.
The SNP’s Pete Wishart was not much kinder, describing it as “constitutional bilge and unworkable garbage” while his colleague George Kerevan warned that it would “cause confusion, create political chaos and end the Union”.
Objections to the plan involve both the practical and of course, the political. On a practical level it is not clear how easy it will be to classify bills as being English-only, or how much of the government’s forthcoming legislation it will include.
There are also objections to the very manner in which EVEL is being introduced. There won’t be a bill, so to speak but a series of amendments to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons.
Together the Standing Orders make up a rule book which governs the way the House of Commons is organised. EVEL requires changes to several of these rules, specifying when, how and by whom bills will be considered. Standing Orders can be changed very quickly, requiring only a simple majority vote by MPs.
The SNP would have preferred the government to introduce a bill – something that would drag the process out for much longer and put a larger number of obstacles in the way of change. For its part, Labour would have liked a constitutional convention.
Tipping the balance
Politically, the move has been questioned by opposition MPs who see it as an attempt to shore up the government’s majority in the Commons and to cause havoc for any future Labour government.
The prime minister currently has only a slim 51% majority in the House of Commons as a whole, but the Conservatives make up 60% of all English MPs.
No changes are being made in the House of Lords, so a Scottish peer will still be able to vote on an England-only bill while a Scottish MP will not. SNP Members are particularly unhappy about the plans, given that they have so far been unable to convince the government to make any changes at all to the Scotland bill, thanks to an army of English Conservative MPs voting against all of the party’s amendments. It’s no surprise then that MPs opposed to it are using the phrase “Tory Votes for Tory Laws”.
MPs will vote on the measure on July 15. This will be done in the usual way, so SNP MPs will still get the chance to try to scupper the plans. With Labour, the DUP and the Lib Dems also due to vote against the plans, it will be for this coalition of opposition parties to tempt a small number of more sceptical Conservatives into the no lobby with them.