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Future of the Union: English Votes for English Laws

Volume 605: debated on Thursday 11 February 2016


Select Committee statement

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to introduce PACAC’s latest report to the House. Our main conclusion is that while there is evidence that the principle behind EVEL commands popular support, we have significant doubts that the current Standing Orders are the right answer or that they represent a sustainable solution to the English question. They may be unlikely to survive the election of a Government who cannot command a double majority of English and UK MPs. The Government should use the remainder of the 12-month period in the run-up to their promised review of the Standing Orders to rethink the issue and to develop proposals that are more comprehensible, more likely to command the confidence of all political parties represented in the House of Commons, and therefore likely to be constitutionally durable.

On complexity, we note with concern the comments of a former Clerk of the House, Sir William McKay, who described the new Standing Orders as

“a forest in which I lose myself”.

That former Clerks of the House of Commons—individuals steeped in decades of learning about the law of Parliament and parliamentary procedure—should have difficulty in discerning what these Standing Orders mean should raise serious doubts about them.

It is regrettable that the new Standing Orders have been drafted, like legislation, by Government parliamentary draftsmen. Never again should Standing Orders be drafted by the Government, rather than by our own Clerks. Revisions made to Standing Orders to make them more coherent and transparent should be made by the House, for the House, as a matter of principle.

On sustainability, our report notes the stridency of the opposition to the new Standing Orders from those on the Opposition Benches—all those on the Opposition Benches—which underlines their vulnerability. Only the Conservative party voted in favour of the new arrangements. The Standing Orders therefore face a high risk of being overridden as soon as there is a non-Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

The shadow Leader of the House noted in his evidence to the Committee:

“It is certainly feasible, if not probable”

that a future Labour Administration would revoke the new Standing Orders. That the Standing Orders have attracted such hostility and can be removed on the basis of a simple majority must raise doubts about whether they can ever be regarded as anything more than a temporary expedient. Currently, they cannot be considered to be part of a stable constitutional settlement that will endure.

It is too soon to say what the constitutional implications of the new Standing Orders might be, but we note the difficulties raised by trying to reconcile EVEL with the continued operation of the Barnett formula. It is increasingly perverse that decisions made about spending in England determine what is spent in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Alternative schemes of territorial funding will have to be examined.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has described the devolution test used for the certification of English only, or English and Welsh-only, issues as “a very simple test.” It is difficult to see how a neat, one-size-fits-all test can be applied to a highly complex, political and asymmetrical set of devolution dispensations. We note that it is highly likely that interested parties from inside and outside the House will want to make representations to the Speaker on how he adjudicates this test. We agree with the Procedure Committee that there is a case for the Speaker to establish and publish a procedure for how he would handle such representations.

Above all—this is of most importance—our report points out that the ad hoc approach to change in the constitution of the Union, which dates back only to the devolution reforms initiated by the Labour Government in 1997, and which has treated Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, England in different ways at different times, has been characteristic of constitutional reform since the 1990s. The Government must abandon this ad hoc approach and explore a comprehensive approach for the future of relationships between the Westminster Parliament and the component parts of the United Kingdom. That will be the subject of our continuing inquiry into the future of the Union, and of our subsequent reports on the subject. We are pursuing this by developing conversations, in private and in public, with an open mind to build up trust and understanding between all the Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom and among all political parties. We have had a successful visit to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, and we will visit Holyrood in March. We will issue further reports to the House in due course on the progress of those conversations.

The report is most welcome, and I thank the Committee for its efforts. The report makes it clear that EVEL, in its current guise, is not coherent, transparent or sustainable. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we now need the wider constitutional convention that Labour has called for since before the election? Does he agree that the Government should support expert views such as that of the McKay commission, which set out an effective system to replace the current bureaucratic mess? We are willing to work with the Government to find a better system to strengthen English voices in Parliament, but it cannot be right that some Members in this place have a veto when others do not. Does he agree that the Government should heed the report and, during their review of EVEL proceedings, return to the drawing board to find a fairer solution that we can all support?

I agree in part with the hon. Lady, and I am grateful for her remarks.. The McKay commission was as unsatisfactory, in many ways, as the present proposals. It is in the nature of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly that English MPs have no say over the laws that they make, so the veto to which she refers is merely a quid pro quo. Interestingly—and I stress this point—the principle behind English votes for English laws seemed to have quite a lot of popular support, even in Scotland, although that view is controversial and not entirely shared by the Scottish National party member of the Committee. As for the constitutional convention, we have not taken evidence on the matter. I do not think that there is an appetite for reopening the entire British constitution to an interminable process that would take years. We need a quicker solution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Committee on the report. It is plain from the report and what he has just told the House that EVEL is yet another step in the endless and unbalanced process of devolution in the UK that has gone on for some time. Does he really believe that we are now within reach of a settlement that has some chance of holding in the next Parliament? Will it be possible to introduce proposals that command universal consent and put this endless constitutional debate finally to bed?

I do not think that we are within reach of such a settlement. I think we are a very long way from such a settlement, such is the chaos inflicted by these piecemeal and bitty reforms. Many of them, such as the Scottish Parliament, we now accept as permanent parts of the constitution, but we are a long way from a common understanding of how everything should be knitted together again to preserve something like the United Kingdom. We are even a long way from agreeing, with an open mind, on the kind of relationship that the four parts of the United Kingdom should have with each other. We are just starting those conversations. We are talking in terms, and with openness, to people of whom we have been implacable opponents. That fresh approach will lead to renewed trust and understanding, on which we might eventually frame a new settlement of some kind, but I think we are a long way from that.

In the SNP, we have never objected in principle to the concept of English votes for English laws, not least because it is a logical consequence of independence for Scotland. However, the Committee’s report confirms, as we have said all along, that the current Standing Order procedure is a guddle, a bùrach and, in short, a complete mess. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the system is further complicated by the complete lack of transparency in the estimates process, as confirmed today by the Leader of the House, which effectively means that Scottish MPs will have no real say on how Barnett consequentials play out in Scotland, and therefore the entire system of EVEL must be urgently reviewed?

Our report does not use the kind of language that the hon. Gentleman adopted, and I think that we are in danger of getting trapped in conversations that will not get us anywhere. That is why we are trying to have a different sort of conversation with Members of the SNP, north of the border as well as down here. That is the future direction in which we would go. One problem that he and I will have to wrestle with is the nonsense that the spending of the Holyrood Parliament and the Scottish Executive is determined by what we decide for ourselves in England. The Barnett formula was designed for a different United Kingdom, and it is not fit for purpose for the United Kingdom that we have or for the hon. Gentleman who, if he gets the full fiscal autonomy that he wants, will be deeply out of pocket as we will not be paying anything.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the Committee. Its consideration of the future of the Union is an extremely useful piece of work. The report sets out some useful background to where we are now, and explains what has led to the imposition of EVEL through Standing Orders. The problem dates back to the West Lothian question, which was well rehearsed but which, the Committee concluded—albeit on a divided vote—was given insufficient attention in 1997 when the legislation was considered. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is one further lesson we can learn from the report, it is that in all matters constitutional, we should hurry slowly?

In my speech in the Chamber on Second Reading of the Scotland Bill, I said that we might rue the day we passed the legislation. Even the then Prime Minister has rued the day that he passed it. Now is not the time for regrets, however; now is the time to learn from experience. There is some urgency to resolve the very serious anomalies that now exist in our constitutional arrangements—for example, they exploded during the general election, as we remark in our report, and perhaps even determined its outcome—in order to provide stability. We should tread carefully, but with some urgency.

This is a worthwhile report. It identifies EVEL as a foolish piece of legislation that will, perversely, live up to its acronym and accelerate the process of the break-up of the United Kingdom by putting up barriers between the four countries. It has already created great resentment by creating four classes of MPs.

Does the hon. Gentleman rather regret following the addiction, which has become an incurable one in his party, of blaming Labour Governments for everything that has ever gone wrong? The suggestion is that the Labour Government of 1997 was remiss in not taking account of the West Lothian question—the expression was coined in 1977 by Enoch Powell, after a speech by Tam Dalyell—but no party has tried to come to grips with it. It really is an imaginative rewriting of history, trying to get some kind of retrospective justification, to suggest that it was a live issue in 1997, when it was not. Have we not followed a large number of ad hoc, piecemeal decisions by this House by making another, even more piecemeal, decision?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, to all members of the Committee who have contributed to the report. It is a pleasure to work with them. I do not entirely share his view that this is a “foolish piece of legislation”, because we do not use the word “foolish” in the report and it is not legislation. We do not blame the Labour Government for everything, but I did just point out that the former Labour Prime Minister has expressed such a regret.

The fundamental point is that we must end this ad hoc approach to constitutional reform. We must take a much more comprehensive approach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

I sit on the Procedure Committee, which has done an exhaustive study on this matter, but I am speaking for myself. I must say that my problem with all this—both my hon. Friend and I are romantic Unionists, who think the Union is more important than anything else—is that we are inflaming opinion in Scotland and Wales, but our current arrangements will not change the result of a single part of a single Bill throughout this Parliament, because we have an overall majority. If we do not have an overall majority next time, the other political parties, given that every other political party in the House is dead set against it, will simply cancel the Standing Orders on a wet, rainy afternoon, and no one will care because it would have been on page 20 of the manifesto.

Is not the solution to all this still to try to work towards some form of consensus? Surely it should be possible for those on the two Front Benches to work out something that actually solves this problem, and if it is not possible, we should at least try. Otherwise, what are we doing, apart from inflaming opinion against the Union in Scotland?

I am acutely aware of that. We have argued about this, and I agree with my hon. Friend much more than I used to about the danger of inflaming opinion in Scotland. It has to be said, however, that having produced this report today—I did one interview on “Good Morning Scotland”—there has not been a huge reaction to it. It is a very Westminster village, techie subject, but the problem is that it has the potential to create deep political grievances.

It was a fatal error for the 1997 Parliament to consider this issue too boring for words and to ignore it. We will rue that day. To base a constitutional reform on the complete absence of consensus is extremely dangerous, but that is what we have done with these Standing Orders. That is why I agree with my hon. Friend that we should be working towards some form of consensus. That may be impossible: in putting in place these structures, we may have created a constitutional Gordian knot that cannot now be undone or resolved. In that case, I hope that the conversations we are beginning to open up with all parts of the United Kingdom will lead us towards an altogether different kind of debate about how to settle the future of the four countries that compose the United Kingdom.

I would contradict the hon. Gentleman because this issue is headline news in Scotland. It is a really big deal and it is newsworthy. Where I agree with him, however, is that he is quite correct to point to the asymmetric nature of devolution. Devolution took decades, and we are not finished forming it yet—I hope there is only one destination that devolution can reach—but these proposals were rushed through extremely quickly and I quite agree that they need to be binned. We must think again about how to make this work, and we must achieve consensus with the Scottish National party. I hope he agrees that if there is an opportunity to sit down and thrash out the proposals, we can do so.

The proposals only become an issue in Scotland if they are misrepresented—but they are capable of being misrepresented, and that is why they are unsatisfactory.

I cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and all this is trying to do is to make sure that there is a measure of restraint on how he votes on the same matters in relation to my constituency. That is perfectly logical. The problem is that what is resolved for Scotland in the form of the Scottish Parliament is resolved for England in a completely different and almost incomprehensible way. The lack of consensus on that leaves us in a very difficult situation.

However, I urge the hon. Gentleman not to go around stirring up a false grievance in his constituency, which would be quite difficult, on the basis that he should somehow be able to vote about schools, hospitals or even tax rates in Harwich, when he cannot vote on those matters in respect of his own constituents. The Scottish Parliament will vary the rate of Scottish income tax; that is not something on which he can vote in this House. These matters are very complicated.

This is my advice to the House. Let us approach this in a different way. Let us have a more frank and open conversation. Perhaps we should have more conversations in private so that we can befriend and learn to trust each other and make progress on that basis.

I commend my hon. Friend for his statement, and he and his Committee for their excellent report. Pages 25 to 27 are packed with juicy soundbites. One is:

“It is highly regrettable that the 1997 Parliament voted to proceed with devolution…without proper consideration being given to the well-rehearsed West Lothian Question.”

I say, “Hear, hear” to that. The report goes on to say that

“we have significant doubts that the current Standing Orders are the right answer or that they represent a sustainable solution.”

It also states that it is up to the Government to be

“working towards a new and durable constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom”.

He has entitled his report “part one” and I understand that further parts are to follow. How many volumes does he think his Committee will produce? In which volume will he come up with the answer to this thorny question?

I cannot answer either of the last two questions, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks and for reading out to the House some of the report. This may be a long journey, but I think we must approach it with an open mind. We must be prepared to think what we thought we would never think. We must be prepared to sit down with people we have implacably opposed in the past. I hope, in that spirit, that the House will accept the report and that it will support the Committee’s work on future inquiries and reports.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it right that the Government should slip out just before the recess a written parliamentary statement about the closure of 86 family courts in England, which will restrict access to justice? Given that there has been so much interest in the House about that, it would have been so much better if the Minister had come to the House and talked to us directly.