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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.

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Labour’s unavoidable English Question

In 2015, the Conservative government implemented ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) in the House of Commons as a way of responding to the ‘English Question’. Labour, by contrast, has had relatively little to say in this area – but were the party to form a government in the near future, it would be required to take some tough decisions. In this post, Michael Kenny assesses the possible routes forward for how Labour might respond to EVEL, in particular, and broader questions about English governance and devolution across the UK.

Brexit and its potential implications saturate British politics. But attention has lately shifted away from some of the complex constitutional questions which were aired in the days and months before the UK’s negotiations with the EU began. These include the thorny issue of how the UK government will handle the very different perspectives on Brexit which are held by the governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – which will move back to the foreground when the government formally requests the consent of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill currently passing through the Westminster parliament. Whether Labour in Wales and Scotland opt to oppose Brexit will be of particular importance in political terms.

A related, but distinct, issue which all of the main parties will have to consider soon is how those parts of the complex body of coming legislation which affect England in distinct ways, will fare. And this in a context where it is still taken as given, in Westminster at least, that the UK government can represent the interests of the entire UK and England at the same time, even when the current administration depends for its survival upon a small party that is based in Northern Ireland only.

The previous Conservative government introduced a complex and convoluted system – known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (or EVEL) – to handle such legislation, and sought to make political capital out of its ability to answer the English Question – one of the great Cinderella issues of British politics.

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EVEL won’t worry the new government – but the West Lothian Question may well do

Following the election result some pundits have suggested that English Votes for English Laws might be an obstacle to the government, given its reliance on support from non-English MPs, whilst others have suggested the procedures might provide the government with an enhanced English majority. In this post Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny explain that neither of these possibilities is likely to occur. However, the territorial balance of the new Commons could cause the West Lothian Question to come back to the fore – though not solely in relation to England.

Amidst the swirl of punditry and opinion unleashed by this month’s general election result, attention has once again turned to the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ reform (otherwise known as ‘EVEL’) recently introduced in the House of Commons. EVEL aimed to address concerns about the capacity of MPs from outside England to exercise a determining vote on England-only legislative matters. Some pundits have suggested that it may well represent an acute obstacle, of the Conservatives’ own making, to the prospects of Theresa May’s minority government given its reliance on support from MPs outside England. Others, by contrast, have wondered whether EVEL might give her the enhanced majority she needs to govern England. In fact, neither of these possibilities is likely to occur.

Indeed, some of the more outlandish claims in circulation about EVEL supply yet more evidence of how poorly understood this set of procedures still is. In our in-depth analysis of its first year of operation – Finding the Good in EVEL, published in November 2016 – we argued that the EVEL procedures should be simplified, made more transparent, and be better explained by government. But, although EVEL itself is unlikely to greatly hinder this minority government in parliament, some of the wider issues underpinning the ‘West Lothian Question’ (to which EVEL was a very belated answer) may well resurface, and it is worth pondering those at this particular moment.