The Future of the Union, part one: English Votes for English Laws Contents

2Context: Devolution, the West Lothian Question and English Votes for English Laws

11.Though a variant of the West Lothian Question was first asked in the context of Irish Home Rule, its most famous iteration came in the guise of Tam Dalyell MP’s contributions during the devolution debates of the late 1970s. In an intervention in the Commons’ debate on the Gracious Address on 3 November 1977, Dalyell asked the-then Prime Minister Rt Hon James Callaghan MP:

Under the new Bill, shall I still be able to vote on many matters in relation to West Bromwich but not West Lothian, as I was under the last Bill, and will my right hon. Friend be able to vote on many matters in relation to Carlisle but not Cardiff?16

Dalyell’s argument was elaborated in much more strident fashion in the second reading of the Scotland Bill on 14 November 1977:

For how long will English constituencies and English hon. Members tolerate not just 71 Scots, 36 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.17

In the course of his contributions to this debate, the Rt Hon Enoch Powell MP would christen this ‘the West Lothian Question’, a label that has survived to the current day:18

This afternoon the Secretary of State for Scotland [Rt Hon Bruce Millan MP] showed himself unable to explain what would be the function of Scottish Members in this House. But behind there looms the much larger question not of the function of Scottish Members in this House in regard to Scottish affairs, but of the whole functioning of this House, when 71 of its Members come from a part of the United Kingdom where the responsibility for a great range of legislation, and consequently of policy, is borne by elected representatives elsewhere.

This is the question with which, by an iteration for which he should be praised rather than blamed, the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has identified himself. It is not the fault of the hon. Gentleman that the Government cannot answer the question. Nor does it answer his question to say that if he goes on asking it he will not be allowed to vote. Nor does it solve the question, or resolve the dilemma, to tell the House that the measure is to be whipped through on a three-line Whip, or to whisper outside the Chamber about votes on matters of confidence…

…. Let us by all means devolve, and devolve to democratic assemblies, the administration of the laws which are made in this House and of the policies which are framed in this House. That we can do without incurring the curse which this Bill incurs. But if we go beyond that, there arises again the West Lothian question, to tell us “In that event you must resolve the Union into a federation unless you are to end up in inextricable contradictions and injustices in the House of Commons, which is the essence of our Parliamentary Union.”19

12.As a result of the relative failures of the Scottish and Welsh devolution referendums in 1979, the West Lothian Question largely lay dormant until the 1990s when, as a result of national devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it awoke once again as part of the new ‘English Question(s)’.20

13.Notwithstanding these concerns, the then Labour Government, upon its election in 1997, proceeded to implement its manifesto commitments for devolution for Scotland and Wales without addressing the West Lothian Question. It is highly regrettable that the 1997 Parliament voted to proceed with devolution to Scotland and Wales without proper consideration being given to the well-rehearsed West Lothian Question. It was a failure to do so then that has led to the difficulties that the present Government is now seeking to address through EVEL.

14.The question of how England should be governed, post-devolution, has attracted a variety of different answers, ranging from an English Parliament to regional Assemblies.21 A form of EVEL, however, has been the most prominent of these responses (see paras 15–19 of this Report below).

English Votes for English Laws: past proposals for reform

15.As Professor Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover have noted, “there is a spectrum of alternatives for implementing EVEL”.22 However, at its simplest it entails an amendment to House of Commons procedure so that English MPs are given a distinctive voice on matters which affect England, but are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

16.There have been a number of proposals for a scheme of EVEL. In 2000, for example, The Commission to Strengthen Parliament, (Norton Commission) established by the Conservative Party under the chairmanship of Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, proposed a variant of EVEL which recommended that Bills certified as either England, or England and Wales only would go through exclusively English/English and Welsh second reading, committee and report stages (though not applying to third reading, where all MPs would be able to vote).23 In 2008, the Democracy Task Force, established by the Conservative Party under the chairmanship of the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke MP, recommended a scheme of EVEL that would have seen certified Bills go through an English only Committee and Report Stage.24 As Kenny and Gover explain, the Clarke proposals would have given “English MPs [the] exclusive right to amend such legislation, but requiring final approval from UK-wide MPs”.25

17.Following the 2010 General Election, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s Programme for Government, pledged the creation of a “commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’. In 2012, the Commission began its work under the chairmanship of Sir William McKay, a former Clerk of the House of Commons, and with the following terms of reference:

To consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.26

18.Reporting in 2013, the McKay Commission recommended that the following principle be adopted by a resolution of the House of Commons:

Decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales).

19.According to the Commission, adherence to this principle “would be facilitated by the declaratory resolution [outlined above] and changes to Standing Orders.” With regards to the latter issue, the Commission proposed the following “menu of proposed adaptations to parliamentary procedure to hear the voice of England”:

Public Opinion

20.In addition to variants of EVEL being recommended by two Conservative Party policy reviews and the McKay Commission, the principle of EVEL also seems to command significant popular support in England. While, as Professor Wyn Jones noted, for much of the early years of devolution there was little evidence of an English backlash to Scottish and Welsh devolution, social attitudes data since 2011 appears to suggest a “really big shift in attitudes” in England. 27

21.According to the findings of a series of surveys,28 support for the constitutional status quo in England now commands the support of “only around one in five in England”.29 The Mile End Institute also highlighted a growing dissatisfaction about England’s constitutional place within the UK “over recent years” and drew attention to the work undertaken in this area by the Future of England project.30

22.In terms of explaining how “benign indifference” had given way to a collapse in support for the status quo, Professor Wyn Jones, explained that “it looks as if there was a shift in attitudes in England around 2007 to 2008”,31 and that this shift “accompanied increasing awareness in England that public services were being delivered differently in Scotland and Wales”.32

23.The picture that has emerged from the last four Future of England Surveys, is a sense, within the English public, “that England should be recognised”.33 Furthermore, “what seems to have happened over the last two surveys is that English votes for English laws has emerged as the favourite option in terms of the governance of England”.34 In the 2014 report, for example, 62% of respondents in England agreed that should Scotland vote no in the independence referendum, ‘Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on laws that apply only to England’.35 In each of the three sets of institutional options for the future governance of England trialled in the 2014 survey, EVEL commanded plurality support.

Constitutional Preferences for England, 2014 Future of England Survey

Option 1

Option 2

Option 3

All

British

English

All

English

British

All

English

British

Status Quo

18

17

21

25

21

32

22

17

27

EVEL

40

43

41

31

37

27

36

44

35

Regions

9

7

9

English Parliament

16

19

13

13

14

12

25

29

21

Independence

15

17

12

Don’t Know

17

13

17

16

10

18

17

16

10

Source: Taking England Seriously: The New English Politics, the Future of England Survey 2014, p.19

24.However, there are “lots of interesting questions as to how much people understand about English votes for English laws” and in particular the minutiae of the different EVEL proposals that have been tabled in recent years.36 As Professor Wyn Jones conceded, “frankly, surveys of the kind that we undertake are not good at getting into the nitty-gritty of whether people think the McKay Commission’s version is better than what has just been passed and so on”.37

25.Despite suggestions that EVEL might fuel division within the United Kingdom, data from Scotland and Wales, according to Professor Wyn Jones, suggests “on balance, that there is support for the principle of English votes for English laws in Scotland and in Wales”.38 While Professor Wyn Jones again stressed that “support for the general principle [of EVEL] is not necessarily the same as support for a particular version of English votes for English laws in action… it would be wrong to assume that English votes for English laws is necessarily seen as a threat by the Welsh and Scottish electorates”.39

26.Pressed to respond to those “who don’t want English votes for English laws and… don’t think that we need to do anything to address this,” Professor Wyn Jones identified “a genuine problem that needed to be addressed”.40 He continued, “only a quarter or even a fifth in England think that the status quo for England within the UK is acceptable,” so “sticking one’s head in the sand would be a big mistake”.41

27.The issue of Scotland’s influence on England’s affairs became even more significant during the 2015 General Election campaign. With polling indicating a hung Parliament and the return of a substantial bloc of SNP MPs, the Conservative Party’s campaign emphasised the possibility of a minority Labour administration, dependent for its survival on the Scottish National Party.42 The Prime Minister, for example, during a pre-election interview with Andrew Marr warned that a Labour-SNP deal:

…would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country would be involved in altering the direction of our country and I think that is a frightening prospect.43

This strategy was criticised by a number of unionist politicians in Scotland, including the Conservative peer and former Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Forsyth who described it as a “short term and dangerous view which threatens the integrity of our country”.44

28.As devolution from the UK level to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continues to develop, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests an increasing impatience with the constitutional anomalies to which this gives rise in England. This was amplified during the 2015 General Election campaign, in which the Conservatives focused voters’ minds on the possibility of SNP MPs holding the balance of power. Of all the potential remedies to the “English Question” that have arisen from devolution, the principle of English Votes for English Laws commands consistent and substantial popular support. Put simply, there appears to be a strong English demand for English Votes for English Laws. As we heard from Professor Wyn Jones, “on balance, [the data suggest] that there is support for the principle of English votes for English laws in Scotland and in Wales”.45 As yet however, we have very little evidence about whether this support extends to the present scheme and its effects. Nor, as is explored later in this Report, does this support extend to any political party in the House of Commons other than the Conservative Party.

16 HC Deb 03 November 1977 vol 938 c30

17 HC Deb 14 November 1977 vol 939 c123

18 HC Deb 14 November 1977 vol 939 c91

19 HC Deb 14 November 1977 vol 939 cc 87 and 91

20 Following the election of the Labour Government in 1997, and as a result of policies developed in the party’s latter years in opposition, the public in Scotland and Wales were offered another opportunity of devolved government. In Scotland, a primary law making parliament, with limited tax varying powers, was proposed. While in Wales, a model of executive devolution was proposed, which would see a National Assembly with secondary legislative powers established. The 1997 referendums, however, saw Scotland vote comprehensively in favour of a Scottish Parliament (by a margin of 74.3% to 25.7%) and for tax raising powers (63.5% to 36.5%), while Wales narrowly voted in favour of an assembly (50.3% to 49.7%). With power sharing for Northern Ireland following in 1998, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, England, with the exception of the Greater London Authority established following the 2000 referendum in London, was the sole nation without a scheme of devolution, though a model of regional devolution in the North-East of England was rejected by the electorate in 2004.

21 For an overview of the different responses to the English Question, see the Fifth Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2008–09, Devolution: a Decade On, HC 529–I. See also Hazell, R. (ed.) The English Question, 2006, Manchester University Press.

22 English Votes for English Laws: A viable answer to the English Question?, Centre for Constitutional Change Research Briefing, p.1.

25 English Votes for English Laws: A viable answer to the English Question?, Centre for Constitutional Change Research Briefing, p.1

28 The Future of England project has published three surveys since 2011, a fourth is currently awaiting publication.

30 EVE08 Mile End Institute

35 Taking England Seriously, p.13

42 As the Conservative Party’s campaign director, Lynton Crosby has readily admitted, International Business Times, 6 August 2015.

43 Rt Hon David Cameron, quoted in The Guardian, 19 April 2015.

44 Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, quoted in The Guardian, 21 April 2015.




© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 9 February 2016