The Procedure Committee has just produced its interim report on the Government’s proposals for English Votes for English Laws.
This issue has managed to slip below the radar in recent months, after the abandonment of the original plan for immediate implementation. But this situation cannot last, and EVEL looks set to be a real headache as it surfaces again.
A quick look at the report is sufficient to get an idea of quite how mind-bendingly technical the process is going to be. To those not deeply steeped in Parliamentary procedure (amongst whom I count myself), it can at times seem almost impenetrable.
Nonetheless, we can see some critical points of clash between the Committee – chaired by Charles Walker, the Tory MP for Broxbourne (of “honest fool” fame) – and the Government.
In the summary of the Committee’s report, it writes: “The Committee recommends that, following the pilot stage, the proposed procedures be applied to specific Bills and instruments only following a debate and vote in the House.”
What this seems to suggest is that the EVEL mechanism would only be applied, on a Bill-by-Bill basis, if the entire house – including those members who would be excluded – consented to it.
It is impossible to imagine the SNP playing along with that, and looks like it might effectively neuter the entire plan.
This is especially the case because, as the Committee also notes: “the proposed Standing Orders do not allow the Speaker discretion to take into account unstated, yet potentially substantial, consequential effects elsewhere in the UK of bills, clauses and schedules relating to England or England and Wales only.”
In short, the Government defines a Bill as English-only if it only applies to England, not if all of its knock-on consequences are confined to England.
This makes perfect sense, and is the correct approach: the principle that we should have decisions made in one part of the UK which affect other parts that have no say in that decision has been established by devolution.
After all, the Scottish Parliament slashing taxes would have a substantial knock-on effect on the North of England, or even the entire UK economy, and yet nobody suggests that English representatives have their vote on Scottish taxes.
Nonetheless, it does make it very difficult to imagine MPs volunteering to recuse themselves from Bills, even if the Bill pertained to matters which in the MP’s constituency were devolved.
Part of the Government’s proposal is that so-called “Legislative Grand Committees” of English or English and Welsh MPs should sit separately to debate and amend legislation which only affects their constituencies.
However, the Committee also feels that since these would have to meet in the Chamber, it would be “incompatible with the procedures and traditions of the House” to exclude other MPs from their proceedings (although they could not propose amendments or vote).
The Committee also advocates – as this site recommended – a much more cautious pace of implementation than the Government had initially called for, arguing that the measures should be piloted on no more than three Bills during the 2015-16 session.
On this subject, as with others such as the Human Rights Act, the Government is learning of the gulf that exists between the open plain of high principle and the bramble thickets of technical reform.
However it is important that it blaze through them.
It remains necessary that we balance the constitution and resolve the West Lothian Question – indeed, with a phalanx of separatist MPs determined to be deliberately vexatious in the hope of undermining the Union, it is more important than ever.
Despite the technical challenges, the Government’s broad idea – accommodating the differing geographical remits of Bills in the Commons process, combined with extensive devolution to councils, cities and other areas – remains the best, in my view.
It is also important that a Government which secures a democratic mandate for reform should be capable of enacting said reform, and not be halted by technical hurdles.
If New Labour could establish devolved chambers, the London Mayoralty and the Supreme Court, then the Conservatives must have it in them to change Parliament’s standing orders.