Government Announces ‘English Votes For English Laws’ Plans

Today, William Hague issued a Command Paper that sets out four options (three from the Conservatives and one from the Liberal Democrats) to address the West Lothian Question.

  • Option No. 1 (Tories) would effectively ban non-English MPs from considering England-only legislation. Second Reading debates would take place in a Grand Committee consisting of MPs from England or England and Wales, and the bill’s Committee Stage would be handled by a similar body. Report and Third Reading would continue to take place on the floor of the House, but there would be a convention that MPs from outside England wouldn’t vote. If, however, a bill affected matters beyond England, there would have to be a separate process for those portions of the bill.
  • Option No. 2 (Tories) would give England-only bills a normal Second Reading debate on the floor of the House, but their Committee Stage would be restricted to English (or English and Welsh) MPs in proportion to their parties’ representation in the whole House. This limited group of MPs would also handle Report, but Third Reading would be open to all MPs.
  • Option No. 3 (Tories) is based on the McKay Commission’s proposals, and it’s a bit of a cross between Option Nos. 1 and 2. A Committee similar to the one proposed in Option No. 2 would handle the Committee Stage, but Report would be open to all MPs. Instead of proceeding to Third Reading as usual, legislation would be sent to an English Grand Committee that would vote on a Legislative Consent Motion (at the moment, these are used by the national legislatures to allow the UK Parliament to legislate on devolved matters). Unless the Grand Committee voted for the Motion, the bill couldn’t proceed to Third Reading, so English MPs would effectively have a veto. The English Grand Committee could also act as a forum for questioning Ministers on English matters and distribute levels of expenditure within England.
  • Option No. 4 (Lib Dems) calls for the passage of an English Devolution Enabling Bill that would allow areas of England to request the transfer of certain powers from Westminster (the ‘menu’ they would choose from would be based on the powers devolved to the Welsh Assembly). Areas would have to prove that they have a fair electoral system, a transparent and accountable governance structure, and a democratic mandate for devolution before the powers would be transferred. Instead of Westminster telling them what their polities should look like, areas would be free to come up with their own governmental arrangements. In the UK Parliament, there would be a new parliamentary stage where MPs proportionately representing the votes cast in England would be able to scrutinize, or even veto, England-only legislation.

I’m not wildly enthusiastic about any of these proposals. In the end, they would still leave England with a bastardized form of devolution. When the Labour Government transferred the appellate jurisdiction of the House of Lords to the Supreme Court, one of the arguments in favor of the change was that it was unseemly for the UK’s highest court to be a mere committee. I think the same argument applies to English devolution. Why should England be content with a committee of MPs when Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland get their own legislatures?

That being said, the English Devolution Enabling Bill would be a step in the right direction since it would allow more issues to be handled autonomously within England. I’m also intrigued by the idea of allowing each area to construct its own polity. Letting people decide for themselves how they want to be governed could be a wonderful exercise in democracy, provided it doesn’t hamper cooperation on issues that affect England as a whole.

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