THE brakes have been put on English votes for English laws (Evel), with extended time being granted to debate the matter, and a vote postponed until September.
The first hint of a rethink came on Tuesday when there was evidence of concern from the government’s own benches, with Conservative MPs feeling that fundamental constitutional change was being rushed through the House.
The debate led to a vote over an entirely meaningless motion – which was simply an agreement that the matter had been discussed – and the government abstained, with the opposition claiming “victory”. Insignificant, the Tories said, insisting that the pointless vote proved nothing. Telling, the opposition countered, arguing that the Tories had abstained because of the risk of an embarrassing defeat.
The motion may have been meaningless, but the vote itself did have a point, because this new government’s small majority has shown it to be vulnerable. The vote hardly threatened to bring David Cameron’s administration to its knees, but it showed that it does not take many dissenting voices to make the whips nervous. This situation will happen again, and it will take careful stewardship to steer all desired legislation through the House.
And care is what was missing with the introduction of Evel, which would give English MPs a veto over any matters which only affect England.
As was stated in these columns last week, the principle is fair. If MPs representing English constituencies can no longer vote on issues which only affect Scotland, post-devolution, there is no credible argument for Scotland’s MPs continuing to vote on issues which only affect England.
As was highlighted here last week, the difficulties with the change to standing orders proposed by the Conservatives are on two fronts: the method by which the festering West Lothian Question is answered, and the ability to identify the issues which do not affect Scotland. On the first point, the government failed to think through the consequences of trying to drive through this change with minimal debate; and consequently, difficulties over identifying what issues would have a knock-on effect for the Barnett Formula had not been thought through in enough detail to answer opposition criticism.
It is gratifying to hear the government say it has listened to what MPs have said, instead of crashing on. However, there is suspicion that the MPs who were listened to were Conservatives, and the only motivation for heeding warnings was to ward off internal rebellion.
The government had the right idea over the West Lothian Question, but the wrong solution. It should go into next week’s two-day debate ready to listen properly this time – to all parties.