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.