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.
A major report on how the new ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons have operated since their introduction in October 2015 is published today. The authors, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny, argue that the current version of EVEL has avoided many of the problems predicted by its critics. However, they recommend changes to facilitate greater expression of England’s voice (as opposed to simply a veto right), to apply the ‘double veto’ principle that is central to the reform more consistently, to reduce the complexity of the system and to improve its legitimacy. The report is summarised here.
It is now just over a year since the House of Commons adopted a new set of procedural rules known as ‘English votes for English laws’ (or EVEL). Put simply, EVEL provides MPs representing constituencies in England (or England and Wales) with the opportunity to veto certain legislative provisions that apply only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the process works, see here). Introduced with some fanfare by the Conservative government following the 2015 election – and criticised heavily by its political opponents – these procedures have quickly faded from public view. But, one year on, what lessons can be drawn from how EVEL has operated so far?
Over the past year, we have been conducting an in-depth academic investigation into the implementation of EVEL. This work has been supported by the Centre on Constitutional Change and the Economic and Social Research Council. It has involved a detailed analysis of the main arguments for and against this reform, and a full assessment of how the procedures have worked in practice during their first 12 months in operation (October 2015–October 2016). Today we publish our findings in a new report, Finding the Good in EVEL, which also includes a number of proposals for how this system could be significantly improved.
Yesterday MPs defeated the government by 317 votes to 286 on its proposals to relax Sunday trading rules. But although the policy would have applied only in England and Wales, the votes of Scottish MPs proved decisive. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny discuss the territorial dimensions to this episode, and why the recent ‘English Votes for English Laws’ reform did not help the government to pass its legislation.
Yesterday’s decision by MPs to reject government proposals in the Enterprise Bill to devolve Sunday trading rules to local authorities was a rare example of a government defeat on the floor of the Commons. But what makes yesterday’s vote contentious and important is that it brought to the fore a territorial angle to British politics that has already risen in prominence since 2014’s Scottish independence referendum. Earlier this week the Scottish National Party announced that its MPs would vote against the Sunday trading provisions – even though the policy would only have applied in England and Wales (while responsibility for comparable legislation in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Parliament). In yesterday’s division, MPs voted by 317 to 286 to delete the provisions from the bill. Had Scotland’s 59 MPs not participated in the division, the government would have won by 21 votes.
The Sunday trading vote highlights an anomaly in Westminster representation post-devolution that many assume the current government has resolved. In the 1970s, Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian (and a staunch opponent of devolution), posed his now-famous ‘West Lothian Question’: why should Scottish MPs continue to vote on matters affecting only England, when English MPs cannot participate in comparable decisions affecting Scotland? Following the 2015 general election, Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, announced that the government was now ‘answering the West Lothian question’ through a package of reforms known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL). He explained to the Commons that the change would give English (and English and Welsh) MPs ‘a decisive say on matters that affect only their constituencies’.
The House of Lords amended the government’s European Union Referendum Bill in order to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum. Last week the Commons overturned the Lords amendments claiming ‘financial privilege’. Ahead of fresh votes in the Lords on the topic, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover explain this much misunderstood term.
Hot on the heels of the argument over tax credits, this week sees a new row over the constitutional propriety of the House of Lords challenging government policy. This time the topic is the rights of 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the EU referendum. On 18 November the government was defeated in the Lords on this question, with peers agreeing an amendment to give young people the vote. On 8 December the House of Commons overturned this proposal, citing ‘financial privilege’ because the extension of the franchise would have cost implications. The Lords is due to debate the matter again tomorrow, and there are accusations on both sides: on one hand that the claim of Commons financial privilege is somehow improper, and on the other that it would be improper for the Lords to press the matter any further. These are murky and little-understood constitutional waters, but having specifically completed a research project on financial privilege last year, we hope that we can offer some clarity.
Since last week’s Commons decision there have been many incorrect statements about financial privilege. For example, there have been claims that ‘the government has had it declared a “financial” matter’ in a show of ‘political chicanery’ in order to ‘ra[m] its agenda through’ parliament, and that as a consequence the Lords would be ‘prevented from voting against it’ because the move ‘takes away the right of the Lords to intervene’. It is exactly these kinds of misunderstandings that our project sought to clear up: through publication of a detailed report, as summarised in a journal article and a previous post on this blog. The shortest and simplest summary of our conclusions is contained in the presentation slides for the report’s launch in the House of Lords. A key conclusion was that the rules in this area are insufficiently clear, and that they need clarification because arguments over financial privilege are likely to become more common. This week’s events appear to prove us right.
Yesterday MPs voted by 312 to 270 to adopt changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that will allow ‘English votes for English laws’ to take effect. In this post Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover highlight some of the issues that will need careful monitoring and reflect on the wider implications, arguing that the implementation of EVEL is very likely to impact on debates about the future constitutional character of the UK.
MPs voted yesterday to approve controversial changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that implement the principle of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This attempt by the governing party to address the ‘West Lothian Question’, and to frame its response as a key part of its answer to the question of English devolution, is a watershed moment in the history of parliamentary government in the UK. The ethos underpinning the development of devolution in non-English parts of the UK has now been applied to the largest territory within the UK, and the Conservative party has moved away from the unionist assumption that England rests content to be governed by British institutions. This effort to identify and institutionalise an English dimension to the workings of the UK parliament has attracted a good deal of procedural comment and political controversy. But whatever the political calculations and interests it reflects, the constitutional significance of this attempt to offer some form of devolution for England should not be overlooked.
English votes for English laws: a recap
Under the new procedures the Commons Speaker will be required to ‘certify’ bills, or clauses within them, that meet two criteria: first, they relate only to England (or England and Wales); and second, comparable policy decisions are devolved elsewhere in the UK. On such legislation, MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies will have the opportunity to give their ‘consent’ to the provisions, through two new mechanisms: first, a Legislative Grand Committee of English (or English and Welsh) MPs will vote on a ‘consent motion’ prior to the bill’s third reading; and second, a ‘double-majority’ voting system will apply when MPs consider Lords amendments (which will also apply on secondary legislation). The effect of these reforms is a ‘double veto’: to pass, certified legislation will require the support both of UK-wide MPs and those representing English (and/or English and Welsh) constituencies. Detailed discussion of the government’s original proposals can be found here. These changes will come into effect immediately, and will affect the passage of a number of bills, even though there is no immediate threat of a ‘West Lothian’ situation in the House of Commons.
Government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as seen last week, remain exceptionally rare, perpetuating assumptions that parliament is relatively weak. However, through analysis of 4361 amendments to 12 government bills, and over 120 interviews, Daniel Gover and Meg Russell find empirical evidence that parliament has significantly greater influence on government policy than is often assumed.
The Westminster parliament occupies a highly visible place within British politics and policymaking. Despite this, the conventional wisdom is that parliament’s impact on public policy is relatively weak. In recent years, Westminster has been dismissed by commentators as ‘an elaborate rubber-stamp’, ‘a legislature on its knees’, and even ‘God’s gift to dictatorship’. This pessimistic account has been largely shared by academics, albeit with greater nuance, who have tended to regard Westminster as an extreme example of an executive-dominated legislature. One of the primary reasons for this assessment is that there are few explicit signs of conflict between parliament and the executive. For example, government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as was seen last week over Europe, remain exceptionally rare.
Yet recent research has begun to challenge this consensus. One of the central strands to this new research agenda is our own major investigation into the Westminster legislative process – the first results from which were recently published in Parliamentary Affairs. Our study is based around detailed analysis of the passage through parliament of 12 case study bills: seven from 2005-10 under Labour, and five from 2010-12 under the coalition. The bills were selected to reflect the diversity of legislation considered by parliament. Some were high-profile and contentious, such as Labour’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, its Identity Cards Bill, and the coalition’s Public Bodies Bill. But others were more routine and less controversial, on which different dynamics might be expected to apply, such as the coalition’s Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill and Labour’s Energy Bill. Our research involved painstaking analysis of the origins and outcomes of over 4000 legislative amendments proposed to these bills, as well as around 120 interviews with key actors on them including ministers and their shadows, backbenchers, civil servants, and outside pressure groups. Our findings strongly suggest that the Westminster parliament is far more influential on legislation than is often assumed.
Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny outline the government’s detailed proposals for introducing EVEL that were published last Thursday. They argue that, while incremental and modest in some respects, the proposals do raise wider points of constitutional principle which suggest English Votes could be the start rather than the end of a much longer process of finding viable answers to the English Question.
Last week the government published its detailed proposals for introducing English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) into the House of Commons. This is a significant moment in our constitutional history primarily because these changes reflect the acceptance of the need to institutionalise a collective English interest in the legislature, and the conviction that there is a growing and legitimate sense of grievance concerning England’s position within the UK.
The primary rationale offered for introducing EVEL is to bring Westminster up to date with the implications of devolution elsewhere within the UK. In a context where further devolution is anticipated for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is becoming harder to ignore demands that English interests be given greater consideration in parliament. The independent McKay Commission, which was appointed by the Coalition government and reported in March 2013, suggested that there was now a clear imperative for England’s voices to be heard within the post-devolution constitutional settlement. There is significant support for the principle of EVEL: the 2014 Future of England Survey found that 62% of people in England agreed that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on England-only legislation. The criticisms that the government’s proposals have so far elicited, reprise a number of standard objections to EVEL. But, while these are far from irrefutable, there is good reason to think that EVEL is unlikely to represent a sufficient answer to the English question.