On the face of it, ‘English Votes for English Laws (EVEL)’ might seem perfectly sensible. Surely, as the Conservative Government argues, in this time of devolution, English MPs cannot have a ‘vote’ on some laws in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so why should the MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have a say on laws for England?
I would argue that this is a false logic and there are a number of important reasons why EVEL is in fact a threat to democracy and should be rejected. This is not to suggest that there shouldn’t be a distinct English input into England-only laws. But it is wrong to effectively exclude MPs in the rest of the UK from any decision-making in what is the Parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom.
For the first time in British constitutional history, the Westminster Government is proposing to create two categories of MPs. There will be first class MPs from England and second class MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. No longer will it be the case that all MPs – whatever part of the UK they happen to represent – have the same ability to determine and influence laws which affect their constituents.
This is an important point because ‘England’ constitutes 85% of the UK’s population and whatever happens in England, directly or indirectly, has a massive impact on the rest of the country.
The significance of the English dimension to Wales is obvious when we look at the NHS. Many people in Wales receive treatment in English hospitals and what policies are pursued in the English NHS have a huge bearing on what is possible within the Welsh NHS. It is therefore wrong for Welsh MPs to be effectively excluded from decisions on the English NHS. To attempt to do so is to wilfully misunderstand the nature of devolution.
In the not too distant future, there could well be legislation to allow the construction of a new runway at Heathrow Airport. Given that an expansion at Heathrow, rather than Gatwick, would bring enormous benefit to Wales, it is surely right for Welsh MPs to be able to vote on and influence that legislation. And yet the Conservative Government would see such a Bill as being ‘English only’.
And there is the issue of ‘money’. The Welsh Government receives its funding though the ‘block grant’ from Westminster. This is determined by the Barnett Formula and much of Wales’ funding is ‘consequential’ on the allocations to England. To say that Welsh MPs should not play a full role in financial decisions at Westminster is unjustifiable and profoundly undemocratic.
In essence, the Government’s EVEL plans are crudely populist, designed to be a sop to English nationalism and reinforce the Conservative Party’s political interest. As such, they will surely fuel resentment amongst the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But the proposals are also extremely complicated and, many believe, unworkable.
Worryingly, they politicise the role of the House of Commons’ Speaker by giving him the unwelcome responsibility of deciding what is or isn’t English only legislation. The result will be that the Speaker risks not being seen as an objective champion of the backbenches on both sides of the House. Instead, he will be seen as a government stooge. This will be bad news for all MPs.
For these reasons, the proposals which are being forced through the House of Commons with very little consultation, are a dagger in the heart of both democracy and the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is why I hope the Conservative Government will have second thoughts and step back. Democracy and the unity of our country are too important to be put at risk.