William Hague has made a big show of setting out a plan for English votes for English laws in a document published on December 16. The trouble is, his plan isn’t up to much. As one MP put it, his proposal couldn’t even be called a dog’s breakfast since “any sensible dog would turn up its nose” at what is on offer.
The English Question has become increasingly pressing over the past few months. Just ahead of the Scottish referendum in September, all three party leaders pledged to devolve even more powers to the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.
But with greater devolution, Scottish members of the UK parliament would find themselves able to vote on even less legislation affecting Scotland. They would though, still play a fundamental part in decisions that only affected England. This doesn’t seem fair to many MPs, who don’t think Scottish members should be able to influence English issues with their vote if the same is not afforded in reverse.
William Hague has now published his report, setting out a range of options for resolving this problem.
It puts forward a number of possibilities, all of which involve the internal procedures and mechanisms of parliament and how MPs scrutinise bills. These options range from more minor tinkering to large-scale amendment and reform.
Most involve the speaker of the House of Commons having to consider whether or not a bill is considering an “English-only” law. The more minor reforms include having a specific part of the legislative process (committee and report stage) for English laws in which only those MPs representing English constituencies will be able to participate.
The more major reforms include a complete ban on any MPs representing non-English constituencies from taking any part in scrutinising bills which are considered by the speaker to be “English-only” laws and a Liberal Democrat proposal for a grand committee of English MPs who are empowered to veto these England-only measures.
The options are interesting but they do little to offer a decisive answer to the English Question. Instead, they point to wider issues within the government. Most obviously, it highlights its tendency to look active while being indecisive.
The Conservative party’s 2010 election manifesto committed to resolving the position of English MPs through some form of consent mechanism, ensuring that English MPs have given their explicit consent to legislation that affects England. Similar commitments were included in the party’s 2005 and 2001 election manifestos.
Once in government however, it quickly became less of a priority. The issue was only mentioned in one short sentence in the coalition’s initial plans for legislation. Even that only stated that a commission would “consider” the issue. It took nearly two years for this commission (the McKay Commission) to even be put together and when it reported back, the government barely acknowledged it.
Road to nowhere?
The rhetoric is identical to what we heard back in 2010 and again following the referendum. We seem to be no closer to a decisive answer on this issue. This is just like the discussions that took place about House of Lords reform under Tony Blair, which showed how futile such exercises can be. In that case, the House of Commons failed to back any of the seven options presented to it and very little changed as a result.
The Conservatives will decide which of Hague’s options they prefer in the new year but he himself has admitted that he hasn’t even bothered to run his proposals past the speaker. Even if the proposals are voted on, it is unlikely that one will have a majority.
We can also see these events as yet another sign of an increasingly fractious and divided government. The idyllic days of the Rose Garden press conference back in 2010 are long gone. Clegg has referred to the tension between the coalition parties on many occasions and now they are putting forward completely separate proposals in one document.
Constitutional reform is always tricky and has been a particular problem for the coalition. Of the 27 items of constitutional reform listed in the original policy programme, very few have been successfully achieved. And those that have been achieved – such as fixed-term parliaments – haven’t been easy.
The Conservatives will struggle even to reach an agreement even within their own party. Agreement at a cross-party level will be even harder.
So in many respects we are back at the beginning, with a similar set of proposals to those we have seen before. It is now a race against time to see if cross-party agreement can be found before the general election. The clock is ticking but no one seems to be even at the starting line. The chances appear very slim indeed.