On 22 October 2015, the House of Commons voted through the Government’s controversial plans to allow MPs representing English constituencies to block legislation that only affects England (known as “English votes for English laws” or “EVEL”).
The new procedure, originally outlined by the Coalition Government in December 2014 and subject to considerable haggling since the General Election, amends Parliament’s Standing Orders, the rules under which Parliament conducts its business, and will fundamentally alter the UK’s legislative process.
Our previous blog on EVEL is available here.
Under the new procedure:
• When a bill is introduced to the House of Commons, the Speaker of the House of Commons will certify whether it relates exclusively to England, or England and Wales.
• Any bills that the Speaker certifies as England-only in their entirety will be considered by only English MPs at the Committee Stage. The membership of this Committee will reflect the number of MPs of each political party in England. Where a bill relates only to England and Wales, the Committee will also include Welsh MPs.
• Where any bill contains provisions that exclusively relate to England (or England and Wales), a new stage of the legislative process will occur after the Report Stage whereby a “Grand Committee” of English and Welsh MPs will decide to either consent to or veto the relevant provisions. In the case of a bill that is entirely England-only (or England and Wales-only), those MPs will be able to consent to or veto the whole bill.
• Vetoed provisions of a bill will be subject to a Reconsideration Stage, at which the whole of the House of Commons can participate and amendments can be made to the disputed provisions. If the amended provisions are vetoed by a second Grand Committee, those provisions of the bill fail.
• The Second Reading, Report Stage and Third Reading remain unaffected by the changes, meaning that all MPs will participate and vote on the final bill before it progresses to the House of Lords.
• If a bill is amended in the House of Lords, the Speaker of the House of Commons is required to certify those amendments in the same way as before. Any House of Lords amendments that are certified by the Speaker as England or England and Wales only will be subject to a double majority vote of English or English and Welsh MPs as well as a majority of all MPs.
Although hailed as a victory by the Conservatives, the plans have met fierce opposition from Labour and SNP MPs. Gerald Kaufman MP, the Labour Party’s longest-serving MP, reportedly described the vote result as “a day of shame for the House of Commons” and the preceding debate as “one of the nastiest, most unpleasant I have attended in 45 years“, prompted by “a government with no respect for the House of Commons“.
The crux of the disagreement between the political parties concerns the potential impact of EVEL on the likelihood of future Scottish independence. The Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, has stated that the changes would “bring fairness to our devolution settlement” that would “secure the future of our union“. However, the Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bryant, has voiced concerns that the proposals will “create two tiers of MPs which will threaten the union and set England against Scotland“, a fear shared by many Scottish MPs.
In particular, the SNP has expressed concerns about the possibility of bills appearing at first to only impact England and Wales, and therefore being designated as such, but then in fact having implications for Scotland. One potential example which has been cited is the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Some have also noted that if a future government has an overall House of Commons majority across the whole of the UK, but not a majority in England, English opposition MPs may be able to block legislation and demand concessions.
Mr Grayling has suggested that the new rules are likely to affect several bills in the coming months and that the Government will hold a review of the process once the first affected bills have reached Royal Assent. These early bills will hopefully provide the Government with an opportunity to clarify in particular how the new procedure will treat England-only bills with knock-on effects in other parts of the UK.