By Michael Keating
The introduction of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) faces a problem, says Michael Keating, in that only a minority of English voters will ever have supported the laws in question.
The government has now come up with its answer to the West Lothian Question, that Scottish MPs can vote on English matters but not the other way around. Unfortunately, it is not the type of question that has an answer, but rather a conundrum. English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) is therefore not going to satisfy everyone or resolve the issue. It may address some immediate grievances but is a very partial response to a much bigger issue.
The basic idea that the representatives of England should decide on English matters is unexceptionable. After all, Scots complained for decades about having policies for which they had not voted thrust upon them. The obvious remedy, having a separate parliament for English matters, commands virtually no support in England and would create a very unbalanced federation.
The objection that there are few purely English bills because changes in health or education in England will affect Scotland through the calculation of the Scottish block grant (the Barnett Formula) is unconvincing. Whether England chooses to contract out health services or set up free schools does not affect the total spent on those services in England, and thus the Barnett calculation. It is the finance bill and related budget resolutions that matter there. Even if the Scottish grant is affected by decisions taken on English services, the solution is surely to introduce a more rational way of calculating the grant, such as one based on need.
The objection that, under English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), governments will not be able to guarantee the passage of their legislation is a curious one since reformers have long complained about the ability of governments elected on well under half the vote (in the present case, 37 per cent) to get their way untrammelled. England has very occasionally been governed by a party that failed to gain a majority of English seats (between 1964 and 1966 and for a few months in 1974). Our electoral system has ensured that a majority of voters in both England and the UK as a whole have had to put up with a government for which they did not vote almost continuously since the advent of universal suffrage. In 2005, the Labour Party got less votes in England than the Conservatives but won a majority of seats so that, even if EVEL had existed then, the English would still have been subject to legislation they did not vote for.
EVEL may help to resolve an anomaly in our post-devolution constitution but only if it is part of a wider process of reform. With proportional representation, all electors would be fairly represented and, in consequence, governments would rarely gain majorities. Parties aspiring to government would have to seek broader majorities in Parliament and would sometimes be defeated. If EVEL were adopted in this context, they would have to assemble majorities for English issues as well. That really would enhance democratic representation and accountability.