Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former Foreign Secretary, and is MP for Kensington.
In the wake of the No campaign’s victory in Scotland’s independence referendum in September, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked William Hague to draw up plans to find a ‘decisive answer’ to the so-called West Lothian question. In December, he published a series of options for the Conservative Party to consider, which have been subject to intense scrutiny and deliberation, and today he will announce the Party’s endorsement of ‘Option 3’. In doing so, we will give English MPs the final say over English matters, whilst also helping to ensure that the United Kingdom will survive for many generations to come.
The committee stage of parts of bills affecting England only will be considered by MPs representing English (or English and Welsh where applicable) constituencies. After the whole House votes at Report stage, there will be a new ‘Legislative Consent Vote’, which will see a Grand Committee of English or English-and-Welsh MPs voting on whether to veto parts of the Bill affecting their constituents. If they give their consent, the Bill will pass to Third Reading. If they do not, then those parts of the Bill must either see concessions made before a second legislative vote, or see those parts of the Bill dropped.
Because of the manifest differences between the UK’s constituent nations and the incremental way in which both integration and devolution has progressed, as long as the Union exists, some anomalies will be inevitable. We require a solution that is fair, rather than perfect.
Option 3 fulfils two main objectives. The first is to implement the principle as defined by the McKay Commission and endorsed by the Conservative Party, that ‘decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales)’
Our second objective is, of course, the continuation of the United Kingdom. As we know, there is an inherent tension between these two aims: addressing the principle of English disenfranchisement risks disenfranchising non-English MPs from the Westminster Parliament. The less involvement non-English MPs have in Parliamentary business at Westminster, the weaker Westminster’s claim to be a British Parliament will be, and the more likely those who wish to see the Union dissolved will prosper. That is the dilemma inherent in the West Lothian question.
We must avoid, therefore, adopting a nationalist solution to a unionist problem. In order to reconcile our objectives with minimum disruption to existing arrangements, it is imperative that whilst ensuring that MPs for English constituencies are given a decisive influence on matters directly relevant only to their constituents, the right of non-English MPs to debate, influence and retain involvement in this legislation should be retained to the greatest reasonable extent.
This requires a positive approach. The McKay Commission expressly endorsed focusing on giving English MPs additional rights, rather than a negative approach that focuses on the removal of non-English involvement:
“MPs from outside England should not be prevented from voting on matters before Parliament. This would create different classes of MP and could provoke deadlock between the UK Government and the majority of MPs in England…MPs from all parts of the UK need to have the opportunity to participate in the adoption of legislation, whatever the limits of its territorial effect. Instead, MPs from England (or England-and-Wales) should have new or additional ways to assert their interests.”
I believe this is consistent with what the English public are looking for. They are seeking a measure that will make it impossible for MPs from outside England to impose decisions where a majority of English MPs do not wish to see those decisions imposed. Once assured that basic condition has been fulfilled, non-English involvement in the day-to-day business of the House of Commons will be regarded by the vast majority as an acceptable price that comes with constituting 84 per cent of the UK’s population.
In contrast, the potential downsides in terms of the bifurcation of the House of Commons and the resulting disillusionment of those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland resulting from the marginalisation of their representatives would be far more substantial. Westminster could easily lose all control over events that the Union may not have the strength to withstand.
All of the options outlined in William’s paper have their merits. But ‘Option 3’ is most faithful to the principles I have outlined. It is also consistent with historic British constitutional practice. The traditional British – and in particular, Conservative – modus operandi is to devise, in an incremental fashion, a system that works in practice, whether or not it works in theory. In keeping with the practice of centuries, we identify the core of the problem and work out how we can resolve it whilst causing the minimum disturbance to existing arrangements we wish to protect. Above all, it represents a Unionist solution to a Unionist problem.