English Votes for English Laws

The Government has unveiled its latest plan to guarantee ‘English votes for English laws.’ It takes the form of new Standing Orders for the House of Commons. Under the proposed procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons will examine each public bill introduced by a Minister of the Crown and decide whether or not the bill or any of its clauses relate only to England (there are also provisions for legislation that affects England and Wales, but for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on England-only laws).

If the Speaker certifies that a bill or any of its clauses relate only to England, it will proceed as normal until its Committee stage. At that point, it will be considered MPs representing English constituencies in either a Public Bill Committee or a Legislative Grand Committee. Seats on a Public Bill Committee will be awarded based on the parties’ strength within England, while the Legislative Grand Committee will be open to all MPs from English seats.

After the Committee stage, the whole House will have a chance to consider the bill during Report stage. The Speaker will then have to re-certify the bill and its clauses in order to highlight any changes that might affect England.

England-only bills will then be subject to a new legislative step after Report stage where they are considered by a Legislative Grand Committee that will have to pass a ‘Legislative Consent Motion.’ Since the committee must pass the Legislative Consent Motion before the bill can proceed to Third Reading, English MPs will be able to veto provisions they don’t like. If the Legislative Grand Committee rejects the Legislative Consent Motion(s), the bill will undergo a special Reconsideration stage where further amendments can be made by any MP. However, any amendments made during Reconsideration must be approved by the Legislative Grand Committee. If such approval is not forthcoming, the bill is effectively dead, though if the Legislative Consent Motion only relates to certain clauses within the bill, the remainder of the bill can proceed to Third Reading.

If the House of Lords amends a bill, the Speaker will have to certify any amendments that relate only to England. Any such amendments will then require a special double majority (i.e., a majority of all MPs and a majority of MPs from English seats) before they can be agreed to.

One of the curious things about these proposals is that, while the English Legislative Grand Committee can veto legislation, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Northern Ireland Assembly have no such power. While it’s true that the British Parliament generally does not legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the national legislatures, this is a ultimately matter of courtesy, and the British Parliament retains ultimate legislative authority over the whole of the United Kingdom. It seems strange that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland must ultimately defer to a higher authority, but England does not.

I also have some sympathy for the argument advanced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats that this is a constitutional change and constitutional change should be effected by primary legislation, not changes to the Standing Orders. Niceties aside, proceeding by Standing Order is problematic since a future Government could easily repeal these provisions with a single vote. It would mean that there would only be English votes for English laws as long as the Government agrees. If, on the other hand, these provisions were enshrined in statute, they would arguably have more staying power. While the Government’s reluctance to legislate is understandable since hostile MPs and peers could impede the progress of any bill to implement English votes for English laws, Ministers need to be wary of shortcuts. As the old saying goes, what’s worth doing is worth doing well.

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