Chris White was Special Adviser to Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Chief Whip (2009-2012), as well as to Rt Hon Andrew Lansley (2012-14) and Rt Hon William Hague (2014-15), both Leaders of the House. He is now Associate Director at Bellenden Public Affairs.
Yesterday Chris Grayling unveiled the eagerly anticipated Standing Order changes on English Votes for English Laws, announcing that there will be a crucial vote to introduce the changes before the summer recess.
I am delighted that after being in the last four manifestos since 2001, the Conservatives are finally in a position to answer the West Lothian Question. The constitution has been unbalanced since the Labour party started the devolution process back in 1997, with Scottish MPs able to vote on all matters in England, yet English MPs not able to vote on matters devolved to Scotland. With more power being delivered to Scotland and Wales in this Parliament, including for the Scottish Parliament to be able to set rates of income tax and Air Passenger Duty, it is vital that there is a balanced and fair constitutional settlement for all the people of the United Kingdom.
We have already seen some devolution to England. City deals, including the Northern Powerhouse, will bring real tangible benefits in the form of skills training, creating thousands of new jobs, building thousands of new homes and involving hundreds of infrastructure projects; including transport improvements and superfast broadband networks. I am pleased that Greg Clark has introduced the City and Local Government Devolution Bill, though there is more work to be done in ensuring that counties and shires can fully benefit from the localism agenda.
Localism and decentralisation are crucial in revitalising our cities and regions, but cannot answer the West Lothian Question, which is why Chris Grayling’s statement yesterday is so vital. The plans are almost identical to those unveiled by William Hague before the election, which I helped to draft.
The standing order changes are complex, which is inevitable when they are changing the way MPs vote in the Commons.
To begin with, the Speaker will, on the advice of the House of Commons Clerks, be tasked with determining what clauses are English only. Second Reading, where the principles of the bill are debated, will take place as now. If a bill is certified by the Speaker as only applying to England, it will be considered at Committee stage only by English MPs. All MPs will then debate and vote at report. A new short stage will be introduced after this, where a Grand Committee of English, or English and Welsh MPs will be asked to accept or veto English and Welsh provisions in the bill. The bill cannot proceed without their agreement. Third Reading will happen as normal.
There will also be protection to ensure that the House of Lords cannot insert amendments to the bill which English, or English and Welsh MPs, cannot accept. At ping pong, where the Commons and Lords try to resolve any differences on a bill, a ‘double majority system’ will be introduced. This means that in order to pass the Commons, an ‘English’ amendment will have to have the support not just of all MPs, but also of all English MPs. Interestingly, this will mean the use of tablet computers to record votes and give instant results for the first time, though MPs will still troop through the lobbies and the tellers will still announce the results in the traditional manner.
These reforms will ensure that English MPs for the first time have the power of veto to prevent any measure from being imposed on their constituents against their wishes. Once introduced, no legislation will be able to be passed without first obtaining the consent of English MPs.
Crucially, the measures will also ensure that English MPs will for the first time be able to vote on an English rate of income tax, ensuring that a future prospect of an income tax rise imposed by Scottish MPs cannot happen without the repeal of the standing orders.
It is interesting to note that not only will the Procedure Committee be asked to assess the new rules in the future, but that Chris Grayling will also lead a review to “consider whether and in what ways they should be adapted for the future.” This is a clear signal to backbenchers that the rules will be strengthened if they need to be and Mr Grayling no doubt hopes that this will encourage Conservative MPs to support him in the aye lobby in the vote to be held before the recess.
With a small majority, it will be crucial to ensure that all Conservative MPs vote in favour of the proposal for it to pass with Labour, SNP and Lib Dems all intending to oppose. With some Welsh MPs like David Jones concerned about the cross border effects (some Welsh constituents have to go to English hospitals for treatment, and therefore he contends that Welsh MPs must be able to vote on such English issues), the Commons Leader will have his work cut out. The Hague proposals contained provision for this, but it appears that this has been dropped from yesterday’s announcement. There will certainly be negotiations going on behind the scenes over the next two weeks with any critics of the proposals.
The political benefits of passing EVEL are clear. Whilst the Conservatives have a working majority of 16 on UK matters, on English consent votes in the Grand Committee and on Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments, this will jump to a whopping 104 majority, and for English and Welsh consent votes, a majority of 86.
I have one other note of caution for the new Leader of the Commons. In answer to a question from Alistair Carmichael (LD), he indicated that some MPs believe that primary legislation should be used to entrenched the changes into law. I strongly believe that to do so would irreparably harm the principle of ‘Parliamentary Privilege’. This essentially ensures that the Commons should be allowed to perform its duties without interference from outside the House. If EVEL was to be legislated for, it will raise the prospects of the courts being asked to intervene and rule on the decisions of the Commons. This must be avoided at all costs.
The proposals announced yesterday were inevitably attacked by Labour for undermining the United Kingdom, but it is failing to act that would really weaken the United Kingdom. Chris Grayling has announced a solution that brings fairness and accountability in England without weakening the United Kingdom, and without weakening the United Kingdom Parliament. He should be applauded for it.