John Redwood went on the Daily Politics show in order to argue for English Votes for English laws, a move which has much popularity, however is a constitutional nightmare. This Conservative proposal has been in their manifesto from 2001-2010 as something they would like to do. This is surprising, the Conservatives by nature have regarded the constitution as a delicate flower. The delicate flower needs the right environment to survive, too much change or too quickly and the flower will soon wilt. This is what I feel the proposals do, they change the body of the constitution enormously which will have unforeseen effects. The west Lothian question is one which has been an annoyance for many, especially since enhanced devolution was introduced, however, tackling it is even more difficult than leaving it alone.
Our constitution isn’t unwritten as many like to say, it is rather uncodified. Our constitution means that it isn’t written down in a single document, like the United States for example. There are six prime sources for how our constitution is constructed. We have common law and statute law. Common law has been developed by Judges where there is no clear statute law. As laws always need interpretation it can be argued that judges are always amending the UK constitution. Statute law is law passed by acts of parliament which is what the changes mainly affect. We have convention which are unwritten parts of our constitution, such as the Prime Minister should come from the House of Commons. Conventions can be broken precisely because they are unwritten. The last three are the royal prerogative, international treaties and agreements and authoritative works and academic opinion. The Royal Prerogative are powers such as declaring war which used to be exercised by the monarch but are now exercised by our representatives in the name of the monarch. Treaties are obvious, however some treaties can change a lot in our constitution, such as the 1972 treaty of Rome which recognised supremacy of EU law over statue law in this country. The final source for our constitution is recognised authoritative works and academic opinion which can help guide the shaping of our constitution.
As you can see above our constitution is a complex animal which can have unintended consequences. English votes for English laws sounds easy, however, when you analyse the content it becomes more difficult. Firstly, this deals with statute law. The way statute law is made in Parliament is that the bill is introduced to the House either by a member of cabinet or if it is a Private members bill then any MP. A bill can be introduced in either chamber. The process of the bill is relatively simple, you have two readings then a committee stage and a report stage, then a third reading. Then the bill gets moved over to the other chamber for the same process, when finally amendments are considered. If it makes it through all that it will gain royal assent and be considered law. What the government proposed today were numerous possibilities for change.
However whatever the change due to the nature of how legislation is made, it is the equivalent of taking a wrecking ball to the constitution. The proposals made pose challenges to who can propose legislation, the possibility of English and welsh only sessions in parliament and what counts as English or welsh only, which with legislation having many affects could make it difficult to define especially when it comes to funding and the impact on the Barnett formula, when does more money to England, which means less for Scotland not become a ‘Scottish’ issue as well.
The four options presented yesterday while different in general presented similar sets of problems. Firstly it creates a different class of MP. Rather than having MP’s all voting on legislation which is what they were sent to Westminster to do, you would have some MP’s not being able to vote on
specific matters. Even if they were to have a vote, but then it was killed in committee with only English and Welsh MP’s being able to have a say it would still create a second class of MP. Secondly it neglects the idea of devolving more powers to local authorities and regional assemblies where possible. Rather than fiddling with constitutional procedure with minute intricacies which could force a creation of an English and welsh only chamber, a raft of second class MP’s and having to decide who could propose legislation, more English matters could be devolved to the regions which would give greater meanings to councils and regional assemblies could be set up. Thirdly, it risks creating similar problems to that of devolution, which was to devalue parliament. The proposals today if one is implemented, signify the beginning of the end of all MP’s having the same rights to vote which is a cornerstone of our parliament.
Not only are these possible changes complicated, they also are not popular. The government had to propose four, one from the Liberal Democrats and three from their own party, with labour not engaging with the process at all. Cameron just after the referendum played politics, promising to deliver English votes for English laws and has thus had to rush headlong into this mess. Radical changes to our constitution isn’t easy, no matter what John Redwood and the Conservatives would have you believe.
The proposals for those who want them specifically are:
* Barring Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs
* Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill
* Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them a effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading
* A separate Lib Dem plan to establish a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote.
By Sam Mace, Junior Writer for Daily Political View