In a speech earlier this week, William Hague set out the proposed Conservative Party approach to the issue of English devolution. At its heart is the proposal that MPs in English constituencies (together with Welsh MPs, where Wales is also affected) would have the opportunity to veto legislation on issues that only affect England, such as tax, schools, and health, before its third reading.
In a Command Paper published in December 2014 (the “Command Paper“), the Conservative Party outlined three possible proposals by way of an answer to the “West Lothian question“. This week, Hague confirmed that the Conservatives would back the third of these options, namely the introduction of a reformed committee stage and a vote by way of Legislative Consent Motion for legislation affecting England, known as “English Votes for English Laws” or “EVEL”.
Under the proposed model, any legislation (or clauses within legislation) affecting only England would be considered by a “Grand Committee” made up of all elected MPs representing English constituencies at the committee stage. Where legislation would affect both England and Wales, the Grand Committee would also comprise Welsh MPs. The Grand Committee would then have the power to veto legislation before its third reading by voting on a Legislative Consent Motion. However, MPs from all parts of the UK would be entitled to take part in the final Commons vote.
The upshot is that no law affecting only England could be passed without the say-so of English MPs; although it would still theoretically be possible for Scottish MPs to block the passage of legislation on a final vote in the Commons were they to hold the balance of power.
Hague claimed that this approach struck the right balance between bringing fairness and accountability to England and not breaking up “the unity and integrity” of the Union. Hague argued that it was of fundamental importance to ensure that the wishes of English (and Welsh) MPs could not be overridden. Hague expressed concerns that the new powers to be devolved following the Smith Commission Agreement might enable Scottish politicians to thwart English interests. For example, he noted that the new powers would enable the Scottish Parliament to vote to reduce air passenger duty in Scotland. However, as things stood, Scottish MPs would still be able vote in favour of an increase in such duty in England, making it more attractive to consumers to fly from Scottish airports. The EVEL model would guard against this by giving English MPs the power to veto such an increase.
The proposal has not been without its critics. The Liberal Democrats broadly support the Conservatives’ EVEL model. However, their position (as set out in the Command Paper) is that they would like the composition of a Grand Committee to be based on a proportional representation of overall votes cast at the preceding general election.
Some within the Conservative party, such as John Redwood, have said that the proposal does not go far enough and that a simpler and fairer approach would simply be to ban Scottish MPs from voting on English-only matters.
The Labour party has been the most vociferous in its opposition to the EVEL model, with Gordon Brown claiming that it would create “two classes“ of MP. Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn says that Labour would like to see the introduction of an English (and Welsh) only committee stage, as proposed under the 2013 McKay Report, but without a right of veto. This would be part of a wider package of reforms, including a move towards more decentralisation in England, that Labour would like to be considered by a Constitutional Convention after the general election in May.
The Conservatives have nailed their colours to the mast but, without the agreement of the other main political parties, the answer to the West Lothian Question looks set to be yet another constitutional issue that will be kicked into the long grass until after the general election.