One of the newer features of our ever-evolving constitution is the increased importance of select committees to the operation of Parliament.
These are the fora where MPs can summon and interrogate witnesses, including Government ministers, and compile influential reports on policy.
Committee Chairs can carve themselves distinct political profiles even in opposition, as Margaret Hodge has on tax, or build credentials for a Cabinet post as John Whittingdale did during his ten years at the helm of the Culture, Media and Sport committee.
This being the case, select committees are now a new dimension in the ongoing question of what to do about the 56 MPs sitting for the Scottish National Party.
In the ordinary course of events nothing prevents separatist MPs from serving on committees – the soft-nationalist SDLP from Northern Ireland certainly do.
Yet the sheer numerical strength of Alex Salmond’s circus means that their presence on committees is a matter of keen importance, both to the Government and the nation.
It seems inevitable that they will secure the Chairmanship of the Scottish Affairs committee, and despite rumblings from some quarters it is implausible that they should somehow be barred from those committees which address pan-British business.
International Development, Foreign Affairs (a new hunting ground for Salmond?), and even Defence, will all have Nationalist representation, and it will be down to the rest of their members (and perhaps the civilising effects of institutionalisation) to prevent them from unduly disrupting the proper working of things.
However, whether the SNP should sit on committees considering business that is devolved to the Scottish Parliament – which we might term ‘English business’, although of course it won’t be quite that clear cut – is another matter entirely.
This Government plans to introduce English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), as a way to correct the deep imbalances introduced to our constitution by the New Labour devolution projects in the 1990s.
Yet it would be unpardonably short sighted if any new measures were only applied to the actual chamber of the House of Commons. Whilst this is certainly the most important part, the Government neglects the resent evolution of Parliamentary procedure at its peril.
If EVEL is to work as intended, it must extend to the select committees of the House, as well as the chamber itself. Otherwise its intended effect – to reduce the influence of mischief-making MPs whose own constituents are not subject to the legislation under discussion – would be all but annulled.
This will require some means of adjudicating which business qualifies as ‘English’, as well as (due to differing levels of devolution) which business Welsh MPs might vote on that Scots would not.
Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement during the campaign that the SNP will break their previous habit of abstaining from non-Scottish legislation only drives home the need for such reforms to be implemented swiftly. The business of governing with a narrow majority will be challenging enough without the Nationalists’ campaign to antagonise English voters, and it should be tackled as soon as possible.
Happily our organic, uncodified constitution is more than capable of the necessary adaptation. It is up to the Government to design and enact it.