THE Conservative Party was accused of “giving up on the Union” yesterday after the UK government announced a far stronger system of English votes for English laws than originally planned.
The proposals, which were set out by Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling and are expected to be in place later this month, will give English MPs a veto over English matters.
They were met with outrage from opponents, who described them as an “assault on the rights of MPs” and a move to make Scottish parliamentarians “second-class representatives”.
To cheers from the Conservative benches, Mr Grayling insisted the proposal had previously been supported by the SNP and had majority support in all four nations of the UK.
Under the plans, there would be a new stage at which English matters – including those with a knock-on effect on Scotland’s budget – would need to pass a vote of English-only MPs. At the final third reading vote for a bill, a majority would be required both of MPs from across the UK and of English MPs.
In a rare piece of modernisation in the House of Commons Chamber, a new system of voting using iPads will also be introduced to work out whether a vote has reached the double majority.
These proposals are a constitutional wrecking ball.”Labour’s Ian Murray
And any changes made to a bill in the House of Lords could be ignored if the legislation related to English-only matters.
Mr Grayling told MPs the plans were being carried out as a result of increased devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He said the plans answered the “West Lothian question” posed in the 1970s by the former Linlithgow MP Tam Dalyell, which asked how it could be justified that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation that would not affect Scotland.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, would decide whether proposals affect only England to “certify” a new double majority requirement – a situation the SNP said would put him “in an invidious position”.
The changes to the rules will be in place by the summer recess later this month and there will be a review of how they are working after 18 months.
Mr Grayling said the proposals were consistent with the Conservatives’ “strong support for the Union”.
He said: “Today we are answering the West Lothian question. And we are recognising the voice of England in our great Union of nations.
“This change is only a part of the wider devolution package that is a vital next step in ensuring that our constitutional settlement is fair.”
Mr Grayling stressed that no law affecting England alone would be passed without the consent of English MPs.
He added that a “decisive vote” on tax measures would be given to MPs whose constituents are affected by those changes, once devolution of income tax and other powers to Scotland has taken place.
He said: “They will give English MPs and in some cases English and Welsh MPs a power of veto to prevent any measure being imposed on their constituents against their wishes.
“No law affecting England alone will be able to be passed without the consent of English MPs”
The proposals were welcomed by Tory backbenchers but condemned by Opposition politicians.
Pete Wishart, the SNP’s shadow leader of the House, said: “This is the most profound constitutional announcement since Gladstone. It is an assault on the rights of Members of this House which will create second-class MPs.”
He questioned why the government could not apply the same principle to the Scotland Bill because this week “English MPs vetoed the will of Scottish voters”. Amendments to the bill backed by 58 of the 59 Scottish MPs were defeated. Mr Wishart added: “I almost want to congratulate the Leader of the House for making independence more likely.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the proposals as “a constitutional shambles – staggering in the extent of its hypocrisy and incoherence”.
She said: “Under these plans – which are all about cutting Scottish MPs out of votes which impact on Scotland and our budget – the Tories are proposing an ‘English veto’ and ‘double majority’.
“And yet they are imposing a totally inadequate Scotland Bill on the basis of the vote of a single Tory MP in Scotland, in defiance of the views of 58 non-Tory MPs.”
However, the SNP’s opponents pointed out that until recently the party had supported English votes for English laws, dubbed “Evel”.
In 2006 and 2007 Mr Wishart and SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson lobbied the then prime minister Gordon Brown to introduce Evel.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said: “Only the Scottish Labour Party has consistently stood up for the rights of Scottish MPs in Westminster.”
On the Tory plan, he said: “These proposals are a constitutional wrecking ball; they risk reducing the UK’s democratic processes to rubble.
“They will fan the flames of nationalism and are nothing more than a brazen attempt to secure party-political advantage for the Conservative Party. Less than one year ago the people of Scotland voted to remain within the Union of the UK. Now the Conservatives are once again placing that Union in jeopardy.”
Liberal Democrat former Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael described the announcement as “outrageous”. He will use a rarely used standing order to set aside business next week to hold a debate on the proposals and try to halt them.
He said: “David Cameron is now a bigger threat to the continuation of the UK than Alex Salmond.”
But among Tory MPs backing the measure was Wokingham MP John Redwood, a former Welsh secretary, who said: “The government has today answered the question I asked before the election: ‘who speaks for England?’ I welcome these proposals.”