The Procedure Committee has considered the operation of the system implementing the Government’s policy of “English votes for English laws” (EVEL) as given effect by the changes made to the House of Commons Standing Orders on 22 October 2015. This report follows up on the interim report of the Committee on the Government’s proposals for Standing Order changes issued on 19 October 2015.
The certification process required for primary and secondary legislation under EVEL places responsibilities on the Speaker which are of a character different from the other instances where he is required to certify legislation. Certifying legislation based on an interpretation of the legislative competence of each devolved institution carries potential difficulty, since the boundaries of such competences are not clearly defined.
The certification procedure has, to date, not given rise to situations where the Speaker’s decisions on certification have been challenged, either by the Government or by opposition parties in the House. The application of the certification tests has revealed unexpected and unanticipated issues arising from legislative drafting, and no doubt further such issues will arise.
The Speaker is required to exclude from his consideration any “minor or consequential effects” of the legislation presented for certification. In consequence some Members are not able to vote on motions which consent to, or withhold consent from, legislative provisions which may have the effect of changing levels of public expenditure in England and thereby the base for calculation of the block grants to the devolved institutions.
We recommend that the practice of provisional certification of legislation before Report stage should continue. It would be helpful to Members if more detailed information about the process and timescale for certification, and consolidated information on the certification status of eligible bills and instruments, were available in one place online.
We note the lack of substantive debate in the new legislative grand committees on motions to give the consent of Members for constituencies in England or England and Wales on certified provisions of bills. In the absence of substantive debate, the formalities of moving the House between configurations dominate proceedings.
The Government has generally, but not consistently, arranged the programming of legislation so that the legislative grand committee stage has not taken time out of Report stage. We note, however, that the Government has not honoured an initial commitment to give additional time for consideration of a bill if the legislative grand committee stage gave rise to a debate. With the exception of the first bill to be taken in legislative grand committee under the new procedures, time for legislative grand committee has generally been taken at the expense of the time available at Third Reading. On two occasions, the operation of programming has left no opportunity whatsoever for debate in legislative grand committee. We recommend that programme motions ought as a matter of course to ensure that time is available for debate in legislative grand committee.
We find that legislative grand committees are not acting as the bodies to allow Members for constituencies in England or England and Wales a separate and distinctive voice on legislation, and are not therefore delivering worthwhile benefits to such members. We examine several means whereby the House might better enable this separate voice to be expressed, and recommend that the Government consider such modifications. As an interim step, we propose a means to remove the formalities of legislative grand committee from the legislative process unless one or more Members demands debate on a motion to consent to certified provisions in a bill leaving Report stage.
We recommend the correction of one evident anomaly in the package of Standing Orders agreed on 22 October 2015, and draw a number of other issues of interpretation to the attention of the Government and the House for speedy rectification. On the whole we are deeply dissatisfied with the form and content of the new Standing Orders, following the experience of one year of their operation. The drafting of the new package is opaque and defies interpretation by Members, and its grafting on to the existing corpus of standing orders is alien to the House’s traditions. The new package sits ill with this Committee’s work to revise the archaic and inaccessible language of existing standing orders, and we recommend nothing less than a complete redraft.
The House Service has done an excellent job in interpreting and adapting to the new procedures, as far as that is possible. Those procedures manifestly do not command the respect and support from all parties which is the necessary foundation for a long-term and substantial change to the legislative process. We recommend that in its review the Government should urgently examine the complexity of the system it has designed and, in any revision, seek consensus from Members representing constituencies in all constituent nations of the UK.
Our evaluation of twelve months of the system in operation can only be provisional. There are bound to be challenges to the system as yet unencountered and unforeseen. We plan to undertake a further evaluation of the system in this Parliament and recommend that a successor committee in the next Parliament do likewise.
16 December 2016