William Hague confirms that a Conservative Government will give English MPs a veto on laws that only affect England
All three of the main parties are committed to giving more powers to the Scottish Parliament after the next Election, honouring the promise that David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg made during the Scottish independence referendum.
But we don’t agree about the implications of this shift for England. This debate has been going on for years, ever since a Scottish Parliament was first proposed. It’s known as the West Lothian Question after Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for West Lothian, who in a debate on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1977 famously asked:
“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate ... at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”
As more and more powers are devolved to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, it’s becoming increasingly urgent to find a way to address this unfairness.
Labour refuse to address this issue because they are worried that they can’t win a majority in England and so will need the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs to govern England. They try to pretend that the answer is to devolve more powers to local councils. There’s certainly a strong case for that, but it is not an answer to the West Lothian Question. Our laws will continue to be made in Westminster and the question is who gets to decide what those laws are.
Conservatives believe the status quo is indefensible, but we worry that a separate English Parliament would further undermine the Union as well as creating another tier of politicians. We have therefore been working on a proposal that will ensure MPs representing English constituencies have a veto on laws only affecting England.
To explain the proposal, I first need to explain how Parliament passes new laws. The starting point is the Government publishing a Bill setting out its proposals - we call this First Reading. Then we have a day-long debate on the key issues the Bill raises - we call this Second Reading. Then a small group of MPs, whose political balance reflects the overall make up of the House of Commons, spends several weeks going through the Bill in detail considering proposals to amend specific words or clauses - we call this committee stage. Then the whole House of Commons has a chance to consider a few key amendments - we call this Report Stage - followed by a short final debate that we call Third Reading.
Our proposal is that if a Bill only relates to England, only MPs representing English constituencies should sit on the committee and the political balance of the committee should reflect the number of MPs each party has in England (likewise if a Bill only relates to England and Wales, only MPs representing English and Welsh constituencies should sit on the committee and the political balance of the committee should reflect the number of MPs each party has in England and Wales combined).
However this on its own is not enough to ensure that English MPs have a veto on laws that only affect England - a Government could use Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish votes at Report Stage to overturn changes made at committee stage. We therefore propose to introduce a new stage between Report Stage and Third Reading - a Grand Committee made up of all English MPs. No Bill or part of a Bill relating only to England would be able to proceed to Third Reading without what is known as a legislative consent motion from the Grand Committee.
Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would continue to participate and vote at Second Reading, Report stage and Third Reading, but a Government would not be able to pass laws relating only to England without the support of a majority of English MPs. We would apply the same approach to other measures Parliament considers that are not Bills - for example, the mechanism for distributing grants to English councils or the rates of certain taxes.
This is a simple question of fairness. How could it possibly be right for the Scottish Parliament to vote for a reduction in Air Passenger Duty in Scotland and then for Scottish MPs to come to Westminster and be able to impose an increase in Air Passenger Duty in England? It’s right to devolve more powers to the Scottish Parliament - it’s clear that’s what Scottish voters want - but England must get a fair deal too. Only a Conservative Government is offering that.