In the light of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK Government would form proposals to change the way in which legislation was considered in the House of Commons, to give Members of Parliament from England and Wales a fairer say over laws that affected only their constituencies on matters which have otherwise been devolved to the legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Attempting to Answer West Lothian Question
These plans, known as “English Votes for English laws” (EVEL), attempt to address the constitutional imbalance caused by devolution, by trying to answer the so-called “West Lothian Question” which asks why MPs representing constituencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the same right to vote in the UK Parliament as any MP representing an English constituency, now that large areas of policy are devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments and assemblies.
In October 2015, the House of Commons approved changes to the Standing Orders (the rules which regulate the way in which MPs conduct House of Commons business) so that the Government’s plans could be effected. These plans affect all Government legislation except for technical bills and finance bills; the plans do not affect private members’ bills or bills certified as Scottish or those referred to the Welsh or Northern Ireland Grand Committees of the House of Commons.
The EVEL Process
It is important to note that Government bills can be certified as relating to England, or to England and Wales, or a mixture and that the EVEL process can apply to any of these. The Speaker of the House of Commons determines whether in his opinion Government bills should pass through the EVEL process. A bill which is considered to apply to England only runs through the usual procedure in the Commons, undergoing scrutiny by all MPs, but is also considered by a committee made up of MPs representing English constituencies; a Legislative Grand Committee must also agree to individual parts of bills which relate to England only, or to England and Wales.
The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, in its Sixth Report of Session 2016-17, has examined the EVEL process at the request of the leader of the House of Commons. Special consideration has been given to the constitutional implications of the process, including assessing the implications for the Union. The text of the report can be found here.
Consequential Effects on the Devolved Nations
Insofar as the Union is concerned, the Committee reports that “there is no doubt that funding decisions take in relation to England, or England and Wales, can have consequential effects on the other nations in the Union as a result of the Barnett Formula. Accordingly, there is a strong case for MPs from the devolved nations to have a say in such decisions.”
The Report concludes that the method of EVEL chosen, whereby the consent of all MPs is still required for any bill to become law, ensures that MPs from the devolved nations are still able to speak and vote on funding decisions that might have consequential effects for the funding of those nations. It is noted, however, that whilst policy decisions in relation to England can also have spill over or knock on effects in devolved nations, these effects can be difficult to determine and measure, and the Committee is “less convinced that they should entitle representatives from one nation to have a say on policy that applies exclusively in another”.
The Select Committee’s Other Findings
The Report further makes the points that:-
- The UK Parliament remains England’s sole legislature, whereas the devolved nations now all have separate devolved legislatures, creating greater democratic representation in those devolved nations.
- There is no constitutional reason, despite EVEL, why a future UK Prime Minister should not represent a constituency in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
- The continued right of all MPs to debate and vote on all matters before the House of Commons clearly demonstrates the continued UK-wide nature of the House, but that it is inevitable as a consequence of devolution that the UK Parliament now legislates on a wider range of matters for England than for the other home nations.
- EVEL attempts to address specifically English concerns about their voice within the Union, but that, in order to strengthen rather than weaken the Union, every effort must be made to develop cross-party support for EVEL.
- It is too soon to know whether EVEL and the devolution deals will provide an answer to the West Lothian Question.
The UK Government is due to review the EVEL process later in 2016, but the Committee Chairman, Lord Lang of Monkton, has commented that after 2020 a Joint Parliamentary Committee should be established to undertake a thorough review of the process, including an assessment of its impact on perception of fairness in England and any other nations of the UK.