English Votes for English Laws has been a difficult and controversial issue since the Acts of Devolution in 1998. This attempt to solve the so-called West Lothian Question has been seen as necessary due to the asymmetrical nature of devolution in Britain. However, in July 2021 it was abandoned, just six years after being introduced. So why did English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) fail?
What is the West Lothian Question?
The West Lothian Question was named after the long-serving Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. This was because he consistently highlighted an issue in the 1970s when devolution was being considered. The West Lothian question refers to the situation in which a Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish MP can vote on a matter that will only effect constituencies in England but the reverse is not true. In the House of Commons on 14th November 1977 he made this point in the debate over the Scotland Bill:
“For how long will English constituencies and English hon. Members tolerate not just Scots, Welsh and a number of Ulstermen but at least 119 hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Ireland? Such a situation cannot conceivably endure for long.”
Before devolution, no solution was found to this issue. Subsequently, following the acts of Devolution in 1998, there were a number of occasions when this had a significant impact:
Foundation Hospitals (2003) – Labour MPs voted against the Governments plans for foundation hospitals. This meant that English MPs voted against it by 1 vote. However, the motion passed due to Welsh and Scottish Labour MPs voted for it, even though the new Hospitals would not be introduced in Scotland or Wales.
Tuition Fees (2004) – Tony Blair’s New Labour Government decided in 2004 to introduce ‘top up fees’ that university students would pay towards their own tuition. This was very controversial amongst the left-wing of his party and 71 Labour MPs rebelled against the change. However, the motion passed by 316-311 votes. This was because Scottish Labour MPs voted for the motion even though it would have no impact in their own constituencies.
This was very clearly a problematic constitutional issue.
What did the McKay Commission find?
A commission was set-up by the Coalition government to investigate how successful devolution had been since 1998 and to suggest solutions to potential problems. This commission was headed by Sir William McKay and published its findings in 2013. The report considered a number of potential approaches to the West Lothian Question:
Abolishing Devolution – “The abolition of devolution outside England does not, for example, appear a proportionate, feasible or desirable means to remove some of the causes of dissatisfaction felt in England.”
Maintaining the Status Quo – “Nor are we persuaded that maintaining the status quo is a desirable option. Supporters of this position, among them Professor Vernon Bogdanor, argue that England has a de facto predominance in the UK anyway, has as a result “no need to bang the drum or blow the bugle”, and if given the opportunity to do so, could by virtue of that predominance destabilise the UK as a whole”
Strengthening Local Government – ” We have heard powerful arguments from across the political spectrum that a strengthening of local government in England may be a way of addressing and giving voice to English concerns. We recognise the force of these arguments. We do not, though, believe a strengthening of governance within England to be a sufficient response to an English Question which is about the governance of England as a whole.”
Adopting a Federal System – “A number of our witnesses and others submitting written evidence viewed federalism as a solution to the English Question. Federalism would involve the devolved jurisdictions existing as units of a UK federation alongside a federal unit (or units) in England. Often the precise nature of the federal system envisaged was elusive. There appear, though, to be two principal variants of federalism under discussion. The first envisages English regions as the federal units, the second England as a whole, represented by an English parliament with powers equivalent to those of the devolved legislatures…We see little merit in considering a federal system based in England on English regions and heard little evidence in support. We are conscious of the swingeing rejection of such an approach in the North East of England in 2004 when four-fifths of the regional electorate voted against establishing an elected regional assembly”
Creating an English Parliament – ” The establishment of an English parliament as an English component of a UK federation has a small number of vociferous advocates and, as noted above, has significant resonance in English public opinion. The great majority of evidence submitted to us on this issue was, however, set firmly against the idea of an English Parliament.”
The option that the Commission finally recommending was one that would see different procedures adopted in the House of Commons for bills that related directly to England.
“Other parliamentary approaches address the English Question through special procedures in the House of Commons for English laws, often known in shorthand as ‘English votes for English laws’…In our view the introduction of such procedures could help to defuse the dissatisfactions evident in public opinion in England by enabling concerns specific to England to be represented in an explicit way in the House of Commons. As this would be an adaptation of an existing institution it would not involve the upheaval, cost and likely destabilising effects of establishing a new institution”
This approach was adopted by the Conservatives and included in their General Election Manifesto in 2015:
“We will maintain the integrity of the UK Parliament by ensuring that MPs from all parts of the UK continue to deliberate and vote together, including to set overall spending levels. But we will change parliamentary procedures so that the detail of legislation affecting only England or England and Wales will be considered by a Committee drawn in proportion to party strength in England or England and Wales. add a new stage to how English legislation is passed; no bill or part of a bill relating only to England would be able to pass to its Third Reading and become law without being approved through a legislative consent motion by a Grand Committee made up of all English MPs, or all English and Welsh MPs.”
What was English Votes for English Laws?
Following the Conservative General Election victory in 2015 the new process, known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ was introduced:
Under this process a number of new procedures were added to the legislative process:
- After a bill went through First Reading the Speaker would certify whether it was an ‘English Only’ issue. Importantly, this did not apply to the whole bill, but could be broken down into separate clauses.
- The Bill would carry on through Second Reading, Committee Stage and Report Stage as normal.
- The Speaker would then review the bill to consider whether changes had been made to the ‘English Only’ status of any parts of the bill.
- The Bill would then go to a special Legislative Grand Committee. This could only be sat on by English MPs. They had the power to amend clauses, but not to veto them.
- The bill would then progress to the Third Reading.
- At this point, the whole house could then vote again on the bill.
What evidence is there that English Votes for English Laws did not work?
In July 2021 EVEL was abandoned. The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg said EVEL had “added complexity and delay to the legislative process” whereas the SNP called it a “”utter, utter humiliation” for the Conservative Government.
There are some prominent arguments against EVEL:
- It can be argued that it created two-tiers of MP. The SNP argued that it made them ‘second-class’ MPs.
- It was hugely complicated and involved a number of new stages to the legislative process.
Perhaps the most significant problem it had was on actually defining what was an English-Only issue. This can be seen in the Enterprise Bill in 2016. This a wide ranging bill looking to reform elements of commercial retail in the UK. It dealt with a number of issues, one of which was opening hours for shops. This is a devolved issue in Scotland, however, changing it would also impact the employment rights of Scottish citizens, which was a reserved matter. The SNP therefore said they had a vote to on the clause that would have seen English shops allowed open for longer hours on a Sunday. However, despite the clause in the Bill failed by 317-286 because the SNP voted against it at Third Reading.
Where does it leave the West Lothian Question?
The problem with this is that the West Lothian Question is back to where it was in 2015. Just like with tuition fees, there is likely at some point to be a significant government defeat because devolved MPs vote on something that will not impact their constituents directly. At that point, the constitutional arguments over the West Lothian Question will begin again and question marks over the English Question will persist.
English Votes for English Laws was an attempt between 2015 and 2021 to solve the long established West Lothian Question. It ultimately failed because it was extremely convoluted and it was difficult to establish when a bill was ‘English-Only’. Its abandonment however means that the West Lothian Question is back with no attempted mitigation.
Asymmetrical Devolution – The notion that devolution across the UK is not the same, with different regions having different powers.
English Question – The name for the issue created by a lack of devolution to England that may have to be resolved through the establishment of an English Parliament.
Devolved Matter – A matter devolved for decision-making by a regional assembly.
Reserved Matter – A matter reserved for decision making by the Westminster Parliament.
West Lothian Question – The issue whereby English MPs cannot vote on devolved issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but the reverse is not true.
English Votes for English Laws – The changes to the legislative process made by the Conservative Government in 2015 to attempt to deal with the West Lothian Question.
Grand Legislative Committee Stage – The extra Committee stage added onto the legislative process that would be populated by only English or English and Welsh MPs.