Andrew Lansley is a former Health Secretary and Leader of the Commons, and is MP for South Cambridgeshire.
The “no” vote in Scotland is a vote to maintain the Union. It is also, by virtue of pledges made in the campaign, a vote for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament and people.
We have always had an asymmetric Union. The extent of devolution and structures vary across the nations of the UK. In the wake of the Scottish Referendum debate, new arrangements are required. What has become increasingly clear, too, is that these arrangements should include procedures within the Westminster Parliament to deliver “English votes for English laws.”
Devolution within England through City Deals and enhanced powers for local authorities is desirable in itself, but do not transfer primary law-making powers away from the Westminster Parliament. In any case, I do not see why the vote for the Union in Scotland should lead to the bonds of Union being weakened within England. Nor, for that matter, did the regions of England show any great desire for their own assemblies under the last Labour Government’s failed regional proposals.
It would be wrong to see Scottish support for the Union as the moment to promote an English Parliament. Neither the Scots, nor others in the UK, have been asked if we want a federal country; and for one component of a federal structure to control five-sixths of the population and resources is so unbalanced as to make federation unstable.
An English Parliament within Westminster also creates a constitutional non-sequitur. There is no English Government, and a Parliament needs to correspond to a Government. We have a United Kingdom Parliament and United Kingdom Government. An English Parliament would emasculate the UK Parliament, render Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs largely redundant, and set up a potential crisis between Parliament and Government. To set up an English Parliament would leave “no” voters in Scotland understandably asking “why did we support the Union only to see the English break it up?”
The question therefore is: how to assure English voters that their interests will be promoted and protected within the United Kingdom Parliament.
The devolution arguments give us a template. When the Westminster parliament legislates in relation to a devolved issue, by convention it does so only if, and to the extent that, the devolved legislature has agreed to a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM).
Much legislation at Westminster affects not just England, but other countries in part. “England-only” legislation is the exception, not the rule. But, for Government legislation at Westminster, it could also be required that, before a Bill affecting England (ie. not the UK as a whole) makes progress beyond Second Reading, it would require an “English LCM”, considered in an English Grand Committee, and voted on only by English MPs. The same approach could equally apply where legislation has an “England and Wales” effect with English and Welsh MPs.
For “England-only” legislation one could go further and restrict votes (and membership of Public Bill Committees) on all stages to England MPs only. However, this would mean creating two classes of MP and that legislation emanating from the UK Parliament would not necessarily have the consent and support of a majority of UK MPs. This undermines our Parliament and is a slippery slope to federation and break-up of the Union.
Even the requirement for an “English LCM” creates the prospect of a legislative impasse where a UK Government fails to enjoy an English majority. But, if such a Government can legislate on a UK-wide basis, can determine policy within the legal framework as it exists, and can determine supply and taxation (the concept of an English LCM could not extend to Finance Bills without undermining the overall fiscal position of the UK Government), it can govern; it just would require agreements with other parties in England to change the law in England.
This would be a potentially difficult, but practicable, cohabitation. The McKay Commission, published last year, set out principles and possible procedural changes, of which an “English LCM” is one. They articulated a principle that:
“Decisions at the UK level having a separate and distinct effect for a component part of the UK should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of the elected representatives for that part of the UK.”
As we consider proposals in coming months for further devolution to Scotland (and complete the Wales Bill), the time has now come for the House of Commons to resolve, and amend its Standing Orders, to give English (or English and Welsh) MPs collectively, through an English Grand Committee and “English LCM” requirements, the decisive voice in relation to laws which only affect our constituent parts of the UK.