English votes for English laws one year on: a critical evaluation

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On 28 November the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar in parliament to mark the publication of a major new report by Professor Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover evaluating the first year of the new English votes for English laws procedures in the House of Commons. Kenny and Gover summarised their findings before two respondents, Roger Gough and Oonagh Gay, offered their thoughts on the report and the EVEL system. Dominic Walsh reports.

In his speech in Downing Street following the Scottish independence referendum David Cameron drew attention to the ‘English question’. ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland’, the then Prime Minister said, ‘and now the millions of voices of England must be heard’. With this in mind a set of procedural changes to the workings of the House of Commons, known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ or EVEL, were proposed by the Conservatives at the last general election. These were implemented through changes to standing orders in October 2015.

There was great fanfare about the introduction of EVEL at the time. Over a year on, however, it appears to have faded almost entirely from the public view. How has the procedure worked in practice during its first 12 months? Has it been a success so far, or have criticisms of it been vindicated? These questions are addressed in a new report published jointly by the Centre on Constitutional Change, the Mile End Institute and the Constitution Unit, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. This was launched at a Constitution Unit seminar held at Westminster on 28 November. What follows is a summary of the event; the authors, Daniel Gover and Professor Michael Kenny have written a separate blog post outlining their report in more detail.

Overview of the report

Michael Kenny introduced the event by outlining the aims of the project. These were to evaluate EVEL’s first year of operation, to examine whether the evidence bears out the criticisms made of EVEL, and to explore options to make EVEL more legitimate and transparent. He also gave some background by summarising recent historical trends which gave rise to the adoption of EVEL as policy by the Conservatives.

By and large, Kenny argued, EVEL has worked as intended thus far. However, major issues of legitimacy remain. The partisan division in the Commons vote introducing the measure was stark: every single MP who voted in favour was a Conservative, and all who voted against belonged to an opposition party. This may raise concerns that EVEL will not survive a change of government – particularly as the procedure was introduced through changes to standing orders rather than legislation, meaning that it could be repealed or suspended through a single vote. Kenny also added the caveat that the current Conservative government has a larger majority in England than in the UK as a whole and so the system has not yet been ‘stress-tested’ in circumstances where different English and UK majorities on pieces of legislation are likely.

Daniel Gover outlined the report’s take on four key criticisms of EVEL. Two of these criticisms, the report concludes, are not particularly convincing. One concern raised in 2015 was that the process could politicise the office of the Speaker, who has the responsibility of certifying whether certain legislation is indeed English-only. But so far, Gover argued, there is little evidence of the Speaker’s decisions being politically controversial. Secondly, opponents – the SNP in particular – have sometimes claimed that EVEL will result in ‘two classes of MP’. In fact, however, the current system guards against this through a ‘double veto’ – to pass, England-only legislation must be approved by a majority of both English and UK-wide MPs.

A third complaint is that despite Cameron’s rhetoric after the Scottish referendum, EVEL is an insufficient means of giving England a ‘voice’. The report found this to be a valid criticism – the new legislative stages introduced by the EVEL standing orders have so far been almost entirely perfunctory. Gover suggested that this is because it is difficult to combine ‘voice’ and ‘veto’ within the same mechanism. The way EVEL is currently formulated gives far more emphasis on English MPs’ right to veto than on the provision of a voice for England at Westminster. This undermines EVEL’s popular legitimacy and its effectiveness as a response to English grievances. Finally, the report also accepts the criticism that the process of EVEL is excessively complicated and opaque; it is arguably too convoluted for MPs to understand, never mind the public.

Kenny and Gover concluded with some recommendations. More attention, they argued, must be paid to giving England a voice; they suggested that this might be achieved through an English Affairs Select Committee or perhaps an English Grand Committee. They also said that the process must be made less convoluted and more transparent. Moreover, the legitimacy of the process must be improved through cross-party engagement. EVEL cannot continue to be seen as something supported by the Conservatives and opposed by Labour for reasons of naked self-interest on both sides. Finally, they emphasised that their report is not the final word; as the political environment changes, further reviews of EVEL will need to be conducted on an ongoing basis.

First respondent: Roger Gough

Roger Gough is a Conservative County Councillor in Kent and co-author of Voice and Veto: Answering the West Lothian Question. After praising what he called a ‘remarkable report’, Roger offered his own take on EVEL, noting that his experience as secretary for Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce when the Conservatives were in opposition gave him a unique insight.

Gough suggested that there are two main dividing lines in the context of the EVEL debate, both of which are addressed in the report. He first highlighted the aforementioned question of ‘voice’ vs ‘veto’, which inspired the title of his own report. However, he also highlighted that there are two competing visions of EVEL’s purpose. There are those who see EVEL as a prudential device, set up to prevent an undesirable situation where English MPs are out-voted on an English matter. On the other hand, there are those who see EVEL as a more pro-active measure which is all about English identity, English voice and perhaps even ‘English sovereignty’. So far, he suggested, the first vision has been more dominant in driving approaches to policy, which explains the current emphasis on veto. This is despite the findings of the McKay Commission, set up by the government in 2012 to explore ways to answer the West Lothian Question. According to Gough, the Commission’s recommendations quite deliberately focused on voice over veto, yet this has been ignored.

EVEL, therefore, has been formulated not to give England a voice, but to guard against problems that might arise out of devolution. The most frequently cited concern has been the prospect of a majority of UK MPs passing legislation that only applies in England despite the majority of English MPs being opposed – as happened on a small number of occasions during the 1997-2010 Labour government’s tenure in office, most controversially over tuition fees.

Gough agreed with the report’s conclusion that, whereas concerns about the Speaker’s role and the impact on the status of non-English MPs have not so far been borne out, criticisms of a lack of voice and of EVEL’s complexity are much more pertinent. The issues of voice and complexity are linked. As Gough argued, if we view EVEL as a mechanism to address grievances about a lack of English consent to English laws, it is important not only that this consent exists, but that it is ‘visible’ and easily understood. If consent is wrapped up in procedural jargon and complicated mechanisms, as far as the public are concerned it may as well not be there at all.

Notwithstanding these issues with EVEL, Gough concluded that it is here to stay. Now that it has been introduced, he thinks that it will be very difficult politically for a future government to scrap it completely and return to status quo ante. As long as the focus is on veto rather than voice, however, a cross-party consensus in favour of EVEL will be hard to achieve.

Second respondent: Oonagh Gay

Oonagh Gay was Director of the Parliament and Constitution Centre in the House of Commons Library until her retirement last year. She spoke more briefly, highlighting the almost total lack of press and media coverage of the workings of EVEL since the mechanism was introduced. Whilst she praised the report for plugging the gap, she struck a more critical note than the other speakers as far as EVEL itself is concerned. For Gay, the value of the report is to provide a corrective to the way in which EVEL was ‘over-claimed’ by David Cameron when he introduced it in response to the Scottish referendum. She argued that EVEL is nothing more than ‘a procedural device’; it does not give England a voice, and it does not redress the lopsided nature of devolution. Whilst she said that EVEL could be judged a success on its own very limited terms, she criticised its complexity. ‘Any constitutional reform’, she argued, ‘which is this opaque and technical… is not a reform.’

With this in mind, Gay was more sceptical than Gough about EVEL’s shelf-life, suspecting that it might go the way of the now-forgotten standing orders allowing establishment of regional select committees introduced by then Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, in 2008. Uniquely among the panel, Gay finished by raising the spectre of Brexit, especially the potential ramifications of the different voting patterns of the UK’s constituent parts. ‘EVEL is now overshadowed by Brexit’, she concluded starkly, ‘and we need to look forward to think about procedural devices, frankly, to save the Union’.

Concluding thoughts

EVEL, then, remains something of an enigma. It has not yet led to some of the problems that its harsher critics predicted. Yet Cameron’s promise that the government would listen to the ‘millions of voices of England’ remains, in many ways, unfulfilled. Can this be rectified by improving the mechanisms of EVEL, or are more radical solutions such as an English Parliament required? The battle to introduce EVEL itself may be over. In terms of the wider debates about England’s identity, political status and place within the Union, however, it is hard to disagree with the closing assessment of the chair, Professor Meg Russell, that the debate is very much ‘to be continued’.

The full report, Finding the good in EVEL: An evaluation of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ in the House of Commons, can be downloaded at this link.

About the speakers

Michael Kenny is a Professor in Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and Director of the Mile End Institute. He is also a Constitution Unit Fellow.

Daniel Gover is a Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary University of London. He was formerly a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit.

Roger Gough is a Conservative councillor in Kent and co-author of Voice and Veto: Answering the West Lothian Question.

Oonagh Gay is a former official at the House of Commons Library, responsible for the Parliament and Constitution Centre. She is an Honorary Fellow at the Constitution Unit.

About the author

Dominic Walsh is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

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