English votes on English laws: much ado about nothing?

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Robert Hazell writes that if English votes for English laws were introduced, the impact would most likely be limited. He highlights that there are relatively few English laws, and that few votes in the past would have had different outcomes if EVEL had been in place.

The sound and fury generated by the debate on English votes on English laws may tend to exaggerate the likely impact of any change. There are two challenges faced by the Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague which has been tasked with crafting a worked out policy. The first is devising a solution which is technically feasible; the second, selling that solution as being politically worthwhile. This blog post addresses the second challenge: will English votes on English laws make much difference? This is something to be explored further, when the government’s proposals are announced. The argument made here is that the questions to be asked need to go beyond the technical details, to the likely impact.

There are two reasons why English votes on English laws (EVEL) may make little difference in practice. The first is that there are relatively few English laws. We cannot confidently say how few: one of the disappointments of the McKay report was that it failed to say what proportion of bills (or clauses in bills) would be caught by its proposals. But if Hague were to ask his officials how many bills in the current parliamentary session 2014-15 might count as ‘English laws’, they would answer that there are just two: the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, and the Modern Slavery Bill.  The first makes a very minor change to the English law of negligence, the second strengthens the criminal law on human trafficking. There is also one other measure where EVEL might apply: the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure, to allow the appointment of women bishops (see Bob Morris’s recent Constitution Unit post). None of these laws is going to set pulses racing in middle England.

The second reason why English votes on English laws may make little difference is that, had EVEL been in force in the past, very few votes would have had a different outcome. A crude analysis by Anna Powell-Smith for mySociety suggests that only 21 out of nearly 5,000 divisions in the House of Commons since 1997 would have produced a different result if the votes of Scottish MPs had been excluded. The most controversial issues were the introduction of foundation hospitals in 2003 (when 61 Labour MPs rebelled), and the raising of student tuition fees to £3000 in 2004. But admittedly this analysis covers a period when the Blair governments enjoyed a comfortable majority in England as well as across the UK, so we would not expect the votes of Scottish MPs to have made much difference.

The past is not necessarily a guide to the future: if we have more hung Parliaments in future, we may see more governments which depend upon Scottish or Welsh or Northern Ireland MPs to get their legislation through. But like previous governments, those governments may pass relatively few English laws. So even in hung parliaments, the impact of EVEL may remain relatively small.

If this analysis is correct, what are the implications? For the Conservatives, the danger lies in over-selling EVEL as an answer to the English Question. English nationalism has been aroused by the Scottish independence referendum, and offers of further devolution to Scotland, with UKIP seen as the main political beneficiary. But it is unlikely that English nationalists or potential UKIP voters will be assuaged by English votes on English laws which make little or no difference. The voters in Rochester and Strood will not have been aware of David Cameron’s exposition of the policy to the Commons Liaison Committee. The resentment of English nationalists is more diffuse and inarticulate, and if anything more likely to be focused on financial rather than legislative unfairness, as Barry Winetrobe has previously observed.

For Labour, the danger lies in over-estimating the potential difficulties which EVEL might cause to a future Labour government. If a Labour government is dependent on the votes of Scottish and/or Welsh MPs it will be in a weak position anyway, and will struggle with all its legislation if there are backbench rebellions. Little of the government’s legislation is likely to consist of ‘English laws’. One test would be to go through Labour’s likely first Queen’s Speech to see how much consists of English legislation. My own hunch is that while EVEL would add to the government’s difficulties, it would not make its life impossible. I don’t believe that it would require a separate English government, a ‘bifurcated executive’ as Vernon Bogdanor has suggested.

What it would require is more compromise over some government bills, more bargaining with the other parties to get its legislation through. That represents a big change for the major parties at Westminster, with its strongly majoritarian culture where the government almost always gets its bill. They would need to learn from the experience in Scotland, where the SNP minority government managed to pass plenty of legislation from 2007 to 2011. Or look to continental Europe, where for most governments it is the everyday reality, part of the ordinary business of parliamentary government. So for Labour the lesson is, don’t exaggerate, you have other troubles to worry about (will you have enough Scottish MPs for West Lothian to begin to bite?). And for lessons on getting legislation through Parliament, talk to your continental cousins in countries like Denmark and Germany, and learn to adjust your majoritarian mindset.

Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit.

One thought on “English votes on English laws: much ado about nothing?

  1. Very little is said in this blog about financial and particularly taxation issues. Clearly much would depend on what is delegated to Scotland. Nevertheless it remains a possibility that significant areas of taxation would be subject to different legislation and regulation north or south of the ‘border’. These are things that would matter a lot to people once they are in operation, and where English-only votes would be strongly desired by many English people, well beyond the ideological fringe.

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