What does EVEL look like?

Published: 4 February 2015

Charlie Jeffery looks at the current debate on the English question and how it is one of short-term political tactics.

So now we know what EVEL looks like. William Hague yesterday selected the option for introducing EVEL - English Votes for English Laws - that the Conservative Party will campaign for in the upcoming UK election. He chose the mildest of the three Conservative-supported options he had set out in a UK Government paper before Christmas, but still a stronger version of EVEL than Labour or the Liberal Democrats would want to support. It is stronger also than the ideas set out in the independent McKay Commission report published in spring 2013.

So what does Hague propose? Two things. The first is about the make-up of the House of Commons committee that would be set up to examine draft legislation - bills - focused on England. This is a routine stage in the legislative process in which the detail of a bill is discussed and amendments agreed. These committees normally reflect the balance of party strength in the House of Commons as a whole. Hague would have English bills looked at by a committee of MPs from England selected to reflect party strength in England alone. This is something close to what Labour elsewhere has set out as its approach to EVEL and is one of the options set out in the McKay report.

The more controversial proposal is to add a new stage to the standard legislative process in the form of an English Grand Committee, which would bring together all 533 MPs from English constituencies. The Grand Committee would review the relevant bill and if there was majority support agree a 'legislative consent motion' which would enable the bill to pass to a final stage in the Commons where the House as a whole could agree, or not, to pass the bill into law.

The idea of 'legislative consent' is a key feature of the McKay report, and was an idea understood in the McKay Commission as equivalent to the legislative consent that, for example, the Scottish Parliament needs to give if the UK Parliament proposes to legislate in its areas of responsibility. The Scottish Smith Commission proposals, as recently transformed into a draft bill, will for example need to have the legislative consent of the Scottish Parliament before they can be enacted by the UK Parliament.

McKay's proposal was to establish a practice in which the legislative consent of MPs from England would not 'normally', but abnormally could be overruled by the majority of the House of Commons as a whole. It was designed to focus political, media and wider public debate on matters specific to England and with that create a sense of risk for the UK-wide majority in overturning the English view - a risk that could result in electoral punishment at the next election for any party felt to have acted against the English interest. But McKay shied away from allowing the English majority to prevail in all circumstances.

Hague does not. His version of legislative consent amounts to a full veto power for English MPs on English laws. An English bill would need majority support among MPs from England and among those in the House as a whole. That means a bill passed by the English majority could still be vetoed by the UK-wide majority; but the UK-wide majority could not pass an English law without the support of the English majority.

So Hague proposes a double veto or double lock. Could it work? The answer is yes in principle, but it seems doubtful that Hague has thought through the detail in practice. As I have set out elsewhere, to implement EVEL in a systematic way would require a whole raft of changes of practice at earlier stages in the policy development process out of which legislation emerges. It would quite likely also require a change in the rather illogical way that changes in the budgets of devolved legislatures are set, through the Barnett formula, in relation to UK Parliament spending decisions on England.

Hague appears to have little interest in these practical challenges. His concern is above all tactical and partisan. His thinking appears focused on the situation when a party with a UK-wide majority lacked a majority of MPs in England - in other words relied on its own Scottish and/or Welsh MPs or relied on parties from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland to make its UK-wide majority. It is not fanciful to think this is where we might be after the next UK election, with an overall Labour UK-wide majority (or more likely a Labour-led government reliant on the support of parties outside England) and a Conservative majority among MPs from England.

In this sense Conservative advocacy of EVEL is an admission of the party's electoral weakness outside England. The Conservatives seem unlikely to win a UK-wide majority and look prepared to retreat to their English redoubt to repel the Celtic hordes. But Labour's opposition to full-blown EVEL is also an admission of electoral weakness. Labour needs to avoid an English veto because it sees little chance of winning a majority of English seats, and needs to be able to mobilise its MPs from Scotland and Wales (and, if need be the SNP and others) to be able to govern. Labour's electoral prospects are increasingly defined by its scope to storm the English citadel with the support of its own or any non-English MPs it can muster.

In other words, the current debate about the English question is one of short-term political tactics. There is little real concern here for principles of democratic representation and the now quite clear feeling among people in England that their governing arrangements are not fit for purpose and require reform. EVEL in some form is their preferred option. What a shame that the debate about EVEL, for and against, is being carried out in high-level partisan manoeuvres without any attempt to involve people in England in the discussion of how they should govern themselves. The risk is that a plague will descend on all the houses of established party politics. Small wonder that UKIP is now regarded as the party most able to stand up for the interests of people in England.