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English votes for English laws?

On Thursday the House of Commons debated a motion on 'English Votes for English Laws' (EVEL). This was a response to the 'West Lothian Question', so called because it was first asked by Tam Dalyell, the former MP for West Lothian

The question addressed the fact that following the creation of the Scottish Parliament exercising devolved powers, English and Welsh MPs could no longer vote on those matters whilst Scottish MPs could vote on English and Welsh legislation at Westminster. Pressure for a resolution of this grievance has grown as further powers are devolved to Scotland following the Scottish Referendum and the recommendations of the Smith Commission.

Before the 2015 election, the Labour Party was uneasy about EVEL because it would have excluded their Scottish MPs from voting on English only laws, giving the Conservatives a majority on the legislation they did not win at the 2010 election. The SNP success in May, taking all but one of Labour held seats in Scotland, removed this obstacle and Labour revised its position. The SNP have strongly opposed EVEL arguing that much of what might appear exclusively English could have knock-on consequences for Scotland.

Some commentators think this procedure is unworkable because the whole House could still veto what had been agreed in Committee and it could lead to a constitutional crisis and the eventual break-up of the UK

The proposal debated by the Commons is that any Bill that relates only to England/or Wales, should be so defined by the Speaker at its First Reading. The Second Reading, debating the principles of the Bill, should be debated by all MPs, but the Committee Stage, scrutinising the details of the Bill, should be done by English and /or Welsh MPs. All MPs would take part in the Report and Third reading stages.

Some commentators think this procedure is unworkable because the whole House could still veto what had been agreed in Committee and it could lead to a constitutional crisis and the eventual break-up of the UK. Others suggest that the number of Bills that genuinely relate only to England or Wales is very small. Advocates of a federal solution propose separate parliaments for each of the four nations and the replacement of the House of Lords by a democratically elected Senate. That would involve such a major change in the British Constitution that it would require a Constitutional Convention and inevitably take years to complete.

This debate has to be seen in relation to the devolution to English local authorities that is already happening, and some observers see as a way of avoiding the problems that EVEL could create. George Osborne has triggered agreement for ten local authorities to come together in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority with a directly elected Mayor and increased powers devolved to them. Other authorities in South Yorkshire and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are bidding to follow their lead. These developments are not alternatives to EVEL but do represent a move towards greater decentralisation.

The British Constitution is not written in a single document like the American Constitution, but this does leave scope for it to evolve gradually as circumstances and public opinion require. Dare I suggest that this is not a dull academic issue that most of us can ignore?  It has implications on who makes decisions that affect us all. Let’s pray the MPs get this right.

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