As I write Chris Grayling, the Leader of the House, is introducing the Government’s proposals for English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) to the House of Commons.
At the heart of the reforms lie proposals for English (or English and Welsh) MPs to get final say on legislation that effects only their constituents. To quote the briefing note sent out by the Cabinet Office:
“For the first time decisions about England (or England and Wales) – such as how the police are funded, how schools are organised and how money is shared out among councils – will be approved or vetoed by MPs representing England or England and Wales only.”
This will take place during the committee stage for bills, or sections of bills, the Speaker has decided qualify. There will be three new legislative Grand Committees: One for English MPs, one for English and Welsh MPs, and one for English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs.
If they amend legislation then it returns to the whole House, and then returns to the relevant Grand Committee. If they reject it again, that bill or those sections fall.
The House of Lords is not included in the proposals, but bills returned to the Commons by the Lords which qualify for these measures will need a ‘double majority’ to ratify: one of the whole House, one of the relevant Grand Committee.
At present the Government intends to enact these changes through standing orders, but primary legislation may be introduced at a later date, according to Sky’s Faisal Islam, after “a review of the workings of the change to standing orders”.
The SNP and Labour are both opposing the measure, often in terms which suggest a world in which devolution hadn’t happened.
Outspoken MP Pete Wishart, the SNP’s Shadow Leader of the Commons, has apparently accused Grayling of ‘stamping on the foreheads of Scottish MPs’, and decried the “most dramatic and important constitutional statement we’ve had since the days of Gladstone.”
Meanwhile Labour MPs such as Gerald Kaufman and Angela Eagle, the Shadow Leader of the Commons, accuse Grayling of creating two tiers of MPs and endangering the Union.
We at ConservativeHome believe that the Government is right to attempt to address the West Lothian Question before it is forced to, at some later date, by a burgeoning English nationalism fostered by an imbalanced constitution.
The truth is that we have had two classes of MPs since 1999: those whose constituents are affected by all that the House does, and those who vote on bills that do not apply to their constituency. The idea that the Scottish Parliament should or would not have an impact on the role of Scotland’s Westminster MPs has only grown less credible with each fresh tranche of powers passed to Holyrood since then.
Yet David Cameron has made the mistake before of rushing to EVEL, giving the impression that it was simply being pursued for partisan advantage – most notably in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum last autumn.
It is important that both Labour and the Nationalists are given the opportunity to properly scrutinise and criticise these proposals, even if they cannot be won round to them.
They may well raise legitimate points of concern, such as the fact that excluding private members’ bills from the plan creates two types of primary legislation.
The Procedure Committee, chaired by Conservative Charles Walker, should also be given time to do its job.
At present a vote on these EVEL proposals will be held on July 15, fewer than two weeks from today, and it is not clear how many days the House will have to debate them. The Government intends to scrutinise and update the EVEL proposals after seeing them in action.
Yet the Union remains fragile, and constitutional politics fraught with danger. Whilst his cause may be just, Grayling should proceed with care, lest this plan inadvertently do more harm than good.