William Hague has tried to solve one of the biggest issues triggered by the referendum on Scottish independence by laying out how laws affecting England could only be passed with the consent of the majority of English MPs.
David Cameron ignited the debate in September on the morning after Scotland voted to remain in the UK. Standing on the steps of Downing Street, he promised a new constitutional settlement for the English as well as the Scots.
Three months later, Mr Hague has put some flesh on the bones of that commitment. The leader of the House of Commons laid out four different options — three from the Tories and one from the Lib Dems — for the thorny matter of introducing ‘English votes for English laws’. These range from barring Scottish MPs from voting on laws that do not affect them to establishing a “grand committee” of English and Welsh MPs to scrutinise legislation.
But while all three main political parties agreed on devolving more powers to Holyrood in return for convincing the Scots not to vote for independence, there is no consensus on how English and Welsh MPs should be given more say over their own affairs.
For the Conservatives, Mr Hague’s command paper is the realisation of the party’s long-held commitment to resolve the ‘West Lothian Question’ – which asks why Scottish MPs vote on matters that affect only England but not vice versa – once and for all.
But for Labour, it is a partisan attempt by the Tories to exclude its Scottish MPs – 41 out of 59 at the last election – from votes in Westminster, potentially depriving the party of any majority.
What all three parties do agree on is that there will be no resolution of the ‘English Question’ ahead of the general election in May, despite the prime minister’s assertion in September that any devolution deal for Scotland must “take place in tandem and at the same pace” with a separate English settlement.
“The government has presented a shopping list of solutions to the English Question, demonstrating that, even within the coalition, they cannot agree on which solution is best,” said Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society. “That’s not surprising – the chances of a cross-party agreement on such a partisan issue are never going to be very high.”
Mr Cameron promised a resolution in part to assuage his own MPs’ anger at his promise to transfer more powers to Scotland in the final days of the referendum campaign, a last-ditch attempt to woo wavering voters as the pro-independence movement gained strength.
But it also gave the Tories a vehicle to attack Labour: many English Tory MPs believe “English votes for English laws” is a wedge issue at the next election – with Labour on the wrong side of public opinion.
Mr Hague’s camp admitted on Tuesday that no deal will be on the table ahead of the election. Instead, he will try to get the Tory front bench to coalesce around one of the options by the end of January, which the party will then try to put to a vote in the Commons. “What we want to do is put Labour and the Lib Dems on the spot,” said one Conservative figure.
But in setting a trap for Labour, the Conservative leadership has also set itself a challenge, with its own party deeply divided on how to proceed.
A rump of backbenchers — led by John Redwood, a former Welsh secretary — are resolute that Scottish MPs should be barred from voting at any stage of legislation that affects England. This is the option that the leadership least want because of fears it could cause significant upheaval of parliamentary procedures.
“England expects English votes for English issues,” said Mr Redwood. “We expect simplicity and justice now: no ifs, no buts, no committee limitations, no tricks. Give us what we want. We have waited 15 years for this. Will he now join me in speaking for England?”
The three Conservative proposals
* Bar Scottish MPs from voting at any stage of any legislation that affects only England, or England and Wales.
* Allow English and Welsh MPs a greater say in amending these bills before allowing all MPs to vote.
* Allow English and Welsh MPs to have an English- and Welsh-only committee stage for bills that only affect them. All MPs would then vote at report stage, but English and Welsh MPs would have a veto before third reading.
The Liberal Democrat’s proposal
* Establish a ‘grand committee’ of English MPs to scrutinise legislation and with the right to veto laws affecting England. The make-up of the committee would be based on proportional representation
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