What does EVEL actually do?
Lallands Peat Worrier
What does the UK government’s "English votes for English laws" scheme actually do? It makes Scottish MPs second-class citizens in the UK parliament. You might well think so, but how precisely do the new rules achieve this? EVEL violates the Act of Union. I’m really not convinced that it does, but I’ll ask you again – even in outline – what difference will Chris Grayling’s changes to the House of Commons’ standing orders really make? They lock Scottish MPs out of decision-making. It is an outrage. Maybe, but what precisely is the outrage? What aspects of the new voting rules do you particularly object to? What key changes do you have a problem with?
A strikingly large number of folk talking – at higher and lower pitches of feeling – about yesterday’s vote on English votes for English laws couldn’t answer you any of these questions. In an earlier blog, I outlined the main practical effects of the changes Grayling proposed. And they are considerably more modest in scope than crowing Tories and outraged Nationalists are today claiming. I can’t really improve on my earlier summary:
"There are a number of aspects to the EVEL proposals, but the most important is the idea of an English veto. On Bills and statutory orders which affect only England, the government wants to introduce an additional stage to parliamentary procedure. It all risks sounding a bit arcane and impenetrable. But consider this concrete example. Say a hypothetical Labour government enjoyed a majority in the Commons but only by dint of winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The majority of MPs returned for English constituencies were Tories. Say this Labour government proposed to abolish free schools in England, over the Conservative Party’s profound objections.
Under Grayling’s new rules, if the Speaker certified this as an England only issue, MPs representing English constituencies would take an additional vote on the government’s plan to abolish free schools. If the English majority supported the idea, MPs from all parts of Britain would then participate in the final vote on whether to accept or reject the plans. But if the majority of English MPs did not support the proposals, they fail. Notice: the attitude of English MPs is decisive only in a negative sense. They can veto England-only laws they don’t like, but they cannot insist that England-only laws they approve of are passed. This is how the plans are intended to operate. All MPs, from every corner of the United Kingdom, will retain the last word on whether England-only laws reach the statute book."
So let’s get one thing perfectly straight: Scottish MPs are not being excluded wholesale from voting on English only Bills and orders. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is what EVEL will do, given today’s coverage, but you credit the UK government with more steel, more spine, than it possesses. This is essentially a feeble, milquetoast innovation. The whole-UK majority will still have the last word on English legislation, not English MPs.
Take one very concrete, very controversial example: the SNP will still be able to block fox-hunting changes under the new rules. The point bears repeating. The power given to English MPs under this iteration of EVEL is asymmetric. The English majority can only block an England-only Bill it doesn’t like. It can’t insist that an England-only Bill it approves of is passed in the teeth of whole-UK dissent.
Reason the implications of this through. Use the example cited by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard in his trenchant critique of yesterday’s Commons vote. "The problem", he wrote:
"… is how you define what is a piece of England only legislation. The proposals say that it is where only England is affected geographically and is a matter where the Scottish (or Welsh) parliament can legislate separately. Sounds fair? But hold on a moment, sometimes things that happen in England affect people in Edinburgh. Let’s take the example of tuition fees. If there’s a proposal to increase tuition fees in England it would make it harder for students in Edinburgh to go to Newcastle or Manchester universities. It would also mean Edinburgh’s universities would have to put up fees for English students. Anyone telling me that the people who elected me wouldn’t want me to try to influence that decision?"
And as far as it goes, this is perfectly fair. It is argument I’ve made myself on previous occasions. You can’t always just look at the "extent" section of an Act of Parliament to establish its impact. Some reforms have major financial consequences. Although money matters are voted on separately, an earlier Act can lay out the legal groundwork on which important spending decisions are built. You are unlikely to be able to persuade Tory MPs to vote down a chancellor’s budget. You stand a much better chance of coaxing them into the rebel lobby on a narrower issue of educational policy. That’s the animal politics of the thing.
But let’s stick with Tommy’s scenario. Say Nicky Morgan proposes to hike tuition fees to £20,000 per annum south of the border. She brings forward subordinate legislation to give effect to this policy. John Bercow gives it the nod: this is an England only matter. The House divides, twice. First, the English MPs vote on the policy. They are in favour. Scottish MPs are excluded at this stage. The proposal passes by a majority of 44.
Next, EVEL envisages that every MP, wherever they come from, whichever constituency returned them, will take the final decision. At this stage, say the government is defeated by one vote. What happens? The will of the whole-UK majority prevails. Fizzing, perhaps disgruntled, perhaps increasingly resentful, the English Commons majority will have to lump it. Tommy will have his say. All he is prevented from doing is participating in the English veto vote. If he can strong-arm, cajole and persuade enough Tories to rebel – he can still prevail. No fees hike.
Artistotle understood that virtue often sits between two extremes. The courageous man is neither rash, nor cowardly. The generous person is neither a spendthrift, nor a miser. Sometimes, the same is true of the truth. The UK government hope to persuade us that this change will soothe ragged and increasingly resentful English spirits. A radical change, they say, curbing Scots assertiveness and restoring equity to our post-devolution kingdom. EVEL can only better secure the Union. This is cobblers. But so too is the alternative extreme, determined to depict this oh-so-mild EVEL scheme as the beast rising up out of the surf of the sea, fanged, horned and crowned, with the words "better together" branded on its seven monstrous heads.
EVEL is a constitutional innovation which looks backwards, which is aimed at the now flyblown and forgotten Blair and Brown governments, propped up by their Scottish MPs — not the politics of today. But — whisper it — EVEL is essentially a toom tabard. It is empty symbolism. Ah, you say, but symbolism is important. I agree. Disrupting the equality of parliamentarians in the Commons seems difficult to reconcile with sturdy unionist arguments about the sharing of common institutions on the basis of equality. But that’s their problem.
If you are scandalised by EVEL, you are almost certainly scandalised by this symbolism, or are labouring under a serious misapprehension about what the new rules will and will not do. You almost certainly don’t give a damn about the procedural changes and their striking limitations. Forgive me, but the indivisible equality of members of the House of Commons is not a cause I’m prepared to pop a kidney over, however politically expedient or entertaining it might be to do so.