Following increasing calls for greater powers for local authorities, the rise of the ‘city government’, and of course an increasingly strident call for Scottish ‘devo max’ or independence – a quieter call has been for English votes for English laws (EVEL).
After great effort, reform and debate – English laws has arrived. Essentially, for issues that would impact upon England & Wales only, there would be an extra stage in parliamentary proceedings. Although complicated, although unwelcome in a centralised, national House of Commons, the idea was surprisingly welcomed by many. For many, it was seen as only fair, given that English MP’s can hardly vote on Scottish matters.
How EVEL works in reality in Parliamentary proceedings is that effectively English & Welsh MPS’s will get a veto over matters that do not impact upon Scotland & Northern Ireland. If a matter under debate is deemed to be and “England only” issue, then a “Legislative Grand Committee” will be required to decide upon individual parts of particular legislation that are relevant only to England & Wales. During that time, the specific matters will be debated by all MP’s. However, the input from Scottish & Northern Irish MP’s will be limited, and they will not be allowed to vote on those specific points. If a Bill is considered to be concerning “England only” issue in its entirety, then an England- only committee stage will be added to the passage of the Bill through the Commons.
Although it sounds complicated, this diagram (courtesy of the BBC) makes the EVEL process easier to understand:
Ultimately, the new rules give more powers in the House to the Speaker. It is for the Speaker to decide when a Parliamentary issue or draft Bill is an England only issue, and to oversee and implement the measures. In many cases, that decision could be unpopular with many on the green benches. the SNP (the most vocal Opposition) have openly expressed their disagreement to the measure. Labour – although recognising that the concept of EVEL does indeed have its merits – is unsure of the Bill, and how it works in reality. Labour MP’s are characteristically divided upon these issues, with Mr Corbyn yet to make up his own mind, and tell them what the Labour party policy is. Opponents of EVEL could very well used parliament proceedings to stall the matter, or to prevent the process from happening. As such, it is up to the Speaker to avoid such a pitfall – whilst ensuring that everything is done in accordance with Parliamentary procedure.
The SNP has also raised a point that the EVEL provisions could risk making the Speaker a more political role. The Speaker of the House is supposed to be impartial, and above party politics, so that they can maintain order and authority in the House of Commons. The current Speaker is John Bercow (Buckingham); although formerly a Conservative MP, whilst serving his time as Speaker, he represents no political party. The fear from the SNP and others is that the Speaker will have for venture into party politics and ideologies whilst assessing whether a measure should be heard under the EVEL provisions.
Despite all the concern and opposition, January 2016 saw the provisions of the Bill used for the first time. During the debating of the Housing & Planning Bill, the Speaker suspended the session for five minutes, to finalise which parts of the Bill applied to which nation. When the session resumed, the debate seemingly continued as normal- but the Scottish & Northern Irish MP’s were not allowed to vote in certain provisions under immediate discussion which were “England only” matters. The “consent motion” for the English & Welsh MP’s was passed- as was the Bill itself at its third reading.
The SNP continued to oppose the new rules, claiming that Scotland’s voice is being drowned out in Westminster. With the SNP the most vocal, disciplined, single-minded, outspoken and powerful bloc on the Opposition benches – that is hardly the case. Further, surely it is unfair for Scotland to have its own devolved powers and Parliament, and have a voice at Westminster – and to forbid English MP’s and England rom having the same? That is more than slightly hypocritical.
Whatever the unnecessary Parliamentary complications or the perceived unfairness – As the nation changes – EVEL or a similar system of devolution and federalisation it is the way forward for the government and Constitutional systems of the United Kingdom. Further, it helps to solve the West Lothian Question – albeit unsuccessfully. That is indicative of the whole EVEL debate: it is a welcome NAD needed idea in principle, but putting it into practice is awkward and inconvenient.