The government’s ‘English votes for English laws’ review: an assessment

Last Thursday the government published its technical review of the operation of the ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) procedures in the House of Commons. The review concluded against making ‘any substantive changes’. Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that this is a missed opportunity. The decision to close down this chance for parliament to engage in meaningful debate about the EVEL system is regrettable, and may prove to be short-sighted.

Last week the government published the conclusions of its long-awaited technical review of the operation of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This system, designed by the government and introduced in the House of Commons in October 2015, provides English (and sometimes English and Welsh) MPs with a veto over certain legislation that applies only in that part of the UK. (For a reminder of how the EVEL process works, see here.) The government’s review is 12 pages in length, and provides a fairly perfunctory response to some of the main criticisms made of this system. Ultimately, however, it concludes against making ‘any substantive changes’ to the procedures.

That the government has decided to stick with this largely unloved set of procedures is no real surprise, given the defensive stance it has consistently taken on the matter. But the decision to publish its review findings on 30 March – the morning after the triggering of Article 50, the day of the publication of the Great Repeal Bill white paper, and on the final day of Commons business before recess – ensured that its appearance was barely noticed by media and political parties, and suggests a desire to avoid reopening political debate about EVEL. The government’s unwillingness to commit to making even small adjustments, including those recommended by the cross-party Commons Procedure Committee, is also regrettable, and will do little to reassure those already suspicious of the Conservative Party’s motives on this score.

Ever since the idea of introducing special procedures to deal with English-only legislation emerged on the political agenda, in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, it has been the source of extensive debate and some controversy. Unlike other critics, we have ourselves set out the case for attempting to introduce measures of this kind. As we put it in our recent report, Finding the Good in EVEL, ‘the system introduced by the government can be regarded as a positive innovation’. We have also argued that many of the criticisms commonly made of this scheme are less persuasive than they first appear, in large part due to the specific way in which the government has designed the new system.

However, we also highlighted several weaknesses in the current scheme, including its complexity, its failure to give England a meaningful ‘voice’, and its lack of legitimacy. And the research we have undertaken leads us to conclude that the government’s review has not succeeded in rectifying these problems.

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What might an English Parliament look like? The Constitution Unit is consulting on the design options

Jack_SheldonMeg-RussellThe Constitution Unit has recently begun work on a new project examining the design options for an English Parliament. This was once seen as an unrealistic proposal but support has grown in recent years and it therefore now deserves to be taken more seriously. Nonetheless many major questions about what an English Parliament might actually look like remain unaddressed. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell set these questions out and invite views on them through a consultation that is now open and will close on 27 January 2017.

Calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been rejected by academics and mainstream politicians. Although a Campaign for an English Parliament was set up in 1998, as the devolved institutions were being established for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the idea did not get off the ground. A central argument has been that such a parliament, thanks to representing almost 85 per cent of the UK’s population, would, in the words of the 1973 Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, result in a Union ‘so unbalanced as to be unworkable’ (para 531). As critics such as Vernon Bogdanor (p. 13) have pointed out, no major existing federation has a component part this dominant, and unbalanced federal systems (e.g. the former USSR and Yugoslavia), have tended to fail. Elites have thus often proposed devolution within England, rather than to England as a whole, as the preferred solution to the ‘English question’, and considered an English Parliament an unrealistic proposal. As the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell wrote in 2006, ‘An English Parliament is not seriously on the political agenda, and will never get onto the agenda unless serious politicians begin to espouse it’.

Growing salience of the English question

But various factors have increased the salience of questions around England’s place in the devolution settlement, and the idea of an English Parliament has gained new friends as a result. One factor is the gradually greater powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly beyond those bestowed in the 1990s – including legislative powers in an increasing number of fields and significant tax-raising powers. This means that a growing amount of business at Westminster concerns England (or sometimes England and Wales) alone. In turn, this brings the famous ‘West Lothian question’, concerning the voting rights of MPs elected from the devolved nations, more to the fore. The Conservative government consequently introduced a form of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL) in 2015, through changes to House of Commons standing orders. But the new arrangements have been rejected by opposition parties, so might not survive a change of government. Furthermore, the version of EVEL that has been introduced does not actually prevent Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from vetoing English-only legislation. It is therefore far from clear that this will prove to be a satisfactory long-term solution.

Another contributing factor is growing interest in the future of the Union pre- and post- the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Various unionist politicians, pundits and other political observers have considered how Scottish demands for greater autonomy may be satisfied within the UK, and federalism is being increasingly discussed. The EU referendum result has led some such as Professor Jim Gallagher (Director-General, Devolution Strategy at the Cabinet Office from 2007–10) to suggest that the devolved nations, whilst remaining within the UK, might each pursue different relationships with the EU post-Brexit. Heavyweight political support for something similar has come from former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. The threat of a second Scottish independence referendum, announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote and repeated since, means the government needs to take such proposals seriously. This would clearly require the consequences for England to be addressed.

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House of Lords Constitution Committee reports on ‘English votes for English laws’

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The House of Lords Constitution Committee reported on the first year of the House of Commons’ ‘English votes for English laws’ procedure last week. The committee took the view that it is as yet too early to fully evaluate the impact of EVEL, especially as the current government has a majority of both the whole House of Commons and constituencies in England and Wales. It is therefore recommended that an extended trial should take place for the remainder of this parliament, with a final review by a joint committee early in the next parliament. Mark Elliott and Stephen Tierney offer an overview of the report.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee issued its report on ‘English votes for English laws’ (‘EVEL’) last Wednesday. The report examines the new arrangements for the passage of legislation introduced by the government in July 2015 and agreed by the House of Commons twelve months ago. The committee was asked to review the constitutional implications of these procedures by the then Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, and to report in the autumn of 2016, its conclusions feeding into the government’s own review of the new system.

In this post we reflect upon the evidence gathered by the committee and the report’s main conclusions. We do so in the context of the committee’s recent reports on devolution, in particular its inquiry into the Union and Devolution, published during the last parliamentary session, where the committee considered issues relating to the governance of England while also criticising the ‘ad hoc, piecemeal’ approach to devolution in the UK.

Reviewing the new ‘EVEL’ arrangements

The particular anomaly which the EVEL system is intended to address is of course the West Lothian question, whereby, in the words of the new report, ‘MPs representing the devolved nations are able to debate and vote in the House of Commons on laws only affecting England, while MPs for English constituencies cannot debate or legislate on devolved matters in the other nations.’ Various proposals have been put forward in recent years to deal with this issue, most nobably the recommendations of the McKay Commission which were in the end not implemented. It was not until the 2014 Scottish independence referendum that the issue of lopsided parliamentary representation was addressed. Speaking on the day after the referendum Prime Minister Cameron declared: ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.’

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In order to sustain itself, the UK must become a new and different Union

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Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.

The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland.  It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.

The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.

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‘English Votes for English Laws’ —a viable answer to the English Question?

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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.

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Routes to EVEL: The challenges facing Chris Grayling in introducing English votes on English laws

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With the Queen’s Speech due tomorrow, we continue our series of blogs about devolution and its consequences, drawing on the Unit’s latest report Devolution and the Future of the Union. Here Robert Hazell analyses the commitment to English votes on English laws, looking first at its history, and then at its prospects.

Cynics might assume that the Conservative policy of English votes on English laws was an opportunistic slogan designed to garner votes in England, but never intended to be implemented in practice. Some attribute the commitment to David Cameron, who flourished it in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. But the policy goes back much further than that, having appeared in the last four Conservative manifestos, from 2001 onwards. In the 2015 manifesto it was given added emphasis by being repeated four times, and spelt out in unusual detail in chapter 7.

The details were developed by the outgoing Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, who chaired a Cabinet Committee which produced a White Paper published last December. It now falls to the new Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, to implement the policy in the new Parliament. What are his objectives; what are the main obstacles to introducing EVEL; and what would be a sensible way forward?

The logic of EVEL

The case for EVEL rests upon principles of fairness and accountability. Now that issues such as education and health are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly, it seems wrong that Scottish and Northern Irish MPs should continue to have a vote on such issues in England, or England and Wales. They have no accountability to the people of England; while the only people to whom they are accountable, their constituents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are no longer affected by decisions made in relation to England. The conclusion is that English matters should be determined by English MPs alone.

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Understanding the resurgence of English national identity

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On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.

Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.

Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.

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