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Deliver us from EVEL?: Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times (on 16 June), the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

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New submission: Written evidence published by the Procedure Committee

The House of Commons Procedure Committee has today published written evidence submitted by Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny about the operation of English Votes for English Laws.

The evidence was submitted to the committee’s ongoing inquiry into ‘The procedure of the House of Commons and the territorial constitution’. It reviews how EVEL has operated throughout its first five years in force (i.e. up to October 2020), including the implications of both Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic for the procedures.

Read the full submission here.

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Five years of EVEL

In the wake of the devolution settlements of the Blair years, political pressure to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ persisted. In 2015, the proposed answer was ‘English Votes for English Laws (or EVEL)Today, on its fifth anniversary, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny assess how EVEL has worked, during one of the most volatile political periods in living memory.

On 23rd October 2015, the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) procedures came into force in the House of Commons. Introduced by David Cameron in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, these new rules were designed as an answer to the notorious ‘West Lothian Question’ – the late Tam Dalyell’s resonant enquiry about why Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs should continue to be able to vote on matters that only affected England after devolution, while MPs in England were not able to reciprocate in devolved areas.

When EVEL was introduced, the procedures were sharply criticised by opponents. For some, the reform would not only be logistically difficult to implement – likely to be ‘incomprehensible’ to MPs and the public alike – but would also threaten the UK’s constitutional makeup. In particular, it was argued that EVEL would establish ‘two classes of MP’ at Westminster, undermining the ability of non-English MPs to represent their constituents’ interests. Others, meanwhile, criticised the procedures as too tame, and falling short of providing adequate representation to England.

The five-year anniversary provides an opportune moment to review how this contentious reform has fared in practice. Yet the wider territorial politics of the UK have also undergone significant changes in the intervening period. The questions to which these complicated rules were a response have become ever more pressing, but whether EVEL can provide a sustainable response to the increasingly fraught question of English devolution is increasingly doubtful.

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New publication: ‘Interpreting EVEL: Latest Station in the Conservative Party’s English Journey?’

Oxford University Press and the British Academy have today published Governing England: English Identity and Institutions in a Changing United Kingdom, a book edited by Michael Kenny, Iain McLean and Akash Paun. The volume includes chapters charting the governance of England within the United Kingdom, including on the relationship between England and the Union state, the postures of the main political parties towards English representation, regional governance within England, and analysis of English identity and attitudes. One of the chapters, by Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny, examines Conservative party thinking on England through the lens of English Votes for English Laws.

Abstract: In October 2015, the Conservative government introduced a reform to the procedures of the House of Commons known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL). This chapter examines how the Conservative party, which has historically been closely identified with unionism, became the architect of such a scheme. It documents how this topic emerged in political debate, following the implementation of devolution and, again, in the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. And it analyses EVEL’s operation at Westminster in 2015-17, uncovering tensions within it that point to deeper strains within Conservative party thinking. It concludes that EVEL needs to be understood not only as a response to the ‘West Lothian Question’, but also in relation to a longer-term disjuncture in the Conservative psyche arising from two competing conceptions of the nature and purpose of union.

Read further information about the book here.

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New publication: ‘Answering the West Lothian Question?’

Parliamentary Affairs has today published ‘Answering the West Lothian Question? A Critical Assessment of “English Votes for English Laws” in the UK Parliament’, an academic research article written by Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny. Based on evidence drawn from the 2015-17 parliament, the article evaluates whether EVEL has succeeded in answering the iconic ‘West Lothian Question’. It concludes that these new procedures appear to have overcome the main practical and constitutional obstacles associated with this type of reform, but they have, so far, failed to provide meaningful English representation at Westminster – particularly in relation to supplying England, and its MPs, with an enhanced ‘voice’.

In October 2015, the UK’s newly elected Conservative government introduced a set of revisions to the standing orders of the House of Commons, commonly referred to as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL). This involved the implementation of new procedures designed to ensure that, on certain matters relating only to England (or England and Wales), MPs representing constituencies in the relevant part(s) of the UK would be given greater prominence during parliamentary proceedings. A central feature of the reform was the creation of new ‘legislative grand committees’, composed of all English (or English and Welsh) MPs, with the capacity to debate and—most controversially—veto legislative provisions, even if these commanded the support of the whole House. The procedures proved highly contentious in party political terms, and in the final vote to approve them MPs divided neatly along partisan lines.

The name given to the changes says much about the core motivation behind them, and the area of public concern they were designed to address. During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, all of the main unionist parties pledged to transfer new legislative powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament in an attempt to shore up support for the union. But the further extension of devolution in Scotland threatened simultaneously to reignite the ‘English Question’—the wider issue of how England should be governed and represented in the post-devolved UK. More specifically, it focused attention on the ‘West Lothian Question’, a long-standing complaint about the perceived unfairness of asymmetric devolution for English representation within the Westminster parliament, which had been widely judged to be fundamentally unanswerable. In the light of prime minister David Cameron’s assertion in September 2014 that EVEL would constitute a ‘decisive answer’ to the West Lothian Question that would enable the ‘voices of England [to] be heard’ (Cameron, 2014), and given the level of disagreement which these procedures have elicited at Westminster, the effectiveness and implications of this historic reform demand more careful assessment than they have hitherto received.

Read the full article here.