Q) What is the concept of English votes for English laws?
A) Basically it’s a smart way of politically packaging the conundrum known as the “West Lothian question” that has been ignored by politicians of all persuasions since it was first posed in the 1970s and Westminster began devolving powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At its heart is this question: Why should Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs be able to make laws that will not affect the people they represent. For example why should they decide how NHS money is spent when it won’t have any impact on their own constituents?
Q) How might it work in practice?
A) The simplest way of bringing in English votes for English laws would be to create a separate English Parliament with similar jurisdiction to those in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Westminster would then become a UK Parliament passing laws and scrutinising the Government on non-devolved subjects such as foreign affairs and the economy. But David Cameron realises that the last thing the public wants is more politicians so he is looking for a way to achieve the same thing using existing structures.
Q) What are the possibilities?
A) In 2012, the Government set up the McKay Commission to consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation that affects only one part of the UK. It set out a series of complex options – from a special committee of English MPs to rubber-stamp English bits of legislation to a “fourth reading” of bills that would be voted on by only English and sometimes Welsh and Northern Irish MPs.
This report, which was ignored when it was published, is now being dusted down.
Q) So does David Cameron support this?
A) While McKay’s solution would deal with the problem in a technocratic way, Mr Cameron may want to turn this into an election issue – and the Tories are looking at proposals that would ban Scottish and Welsh MPs from having any part in debates and votes on English legislation – something not proposed by the Commission and that would be opposed by Labour. The Liberal Democrats say they believe that McKay should be a “starting point” for discussions but say they want cross-party consensus.
Q) What does Labour think?
A) They don’t like it at all – because their chance of governing alone after the next election may be reliant on their 41 Scottish MPs. But the party is finding it hard to argue against the logic of English votes for English laws.
The party has proposed that instead of Mr Cameron’s plan there should be a Constitutional Convention set up after the election to “determine the UK-wide implications of devolution and to bring these recommendations together”.
Labour said the convention would discuss the shape and extent of English devolution and what reforms are needed in Westminster, as well as the case for a regionally representative Senate or for codifying the constitution.
This looks like an attempt to push the issue into the long grass and may not be sustainable. It is likely they will have to accept some form of the McKay recommendations – if only to stop the issue dominate the election campaign.