The Conservatives sudden interest in "English votes for English laws” something conveniently happens to put the Labour Party in Westminster an awkward spot, in relation to the status of its Welsh and Scottish elected representatives, may be purely coincidental or it may not. Aside from mixing things up for the Labour Party, one of the main reasons why the Conservative Party has developed a keen interest in all things ‘English’ is because the UK Independence Party has emerged from the shadows calling loudly for the reform of the governance of England – something that has been independently confirmed by the most recent report of the Future of England Survey (FoES).
The survey’s findings don’t make comfortable reading for the Conservative part of the Con Dem coalition government. The study has noted a clear and growing dissatisfaction among English voters at the way the UK’s most populous nation is governed and a preference for an England-wide political institution to represent English interests. Although the current Conservative leaders preferred option of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) has the most widespread support, it is short of a majority and, when voters in England are asked who best represents the interests of England, both Mr Cameron and the Conservative party are well behind Nigel Farage and UKIP.
Yet when it comes to finding an answer to the English Question, voters continue to place concerns over the governance of England well behind worries about the influence of the EU. However, there is a clear dissatisfaction with the current arrangements for governing England – with no more than a quarter preferring the status quo. The study noted that if somewhat more tentatively; the support for EVEL appears to be the preferred choice of voters – again short of a majority – and has gained popularity compared to the earlier FoES studies in 2013 and 2012.
Support for an English Parliament is of the same order of magnitude as support for the status quo whereas support for localism either in the form of regional assemblies or enhanced local government remains very low. While David Cameron’s suggested answer to the English question may be slightly ahead but there is growing evidence that neither he nor his party is trusted to deliver it. When asked “Which party best stands up for the interests of England?”, the Conservatives ironically came fourth (16%), behind UKIP (23%), ‘None of the Above’ (19%) and Labour (17%), although well ahead of the Lib Dems (4%). Much the same pattern is seen in terms of the party leaders.
Interestingly enough when asked which leader best stands up for English interests, Nigel Farage was voters’ first choice (22%) his nearest rival though isn’t even another party leader, it was the ‘None of the Above’ option which came in second place, with 21% of the survey’s 3,705 respondents in England dismissing all of the available political leaders. Mr Cameron is third on 15%, just ahead of Ed Miliband on 13%. The Deputy Prime Minister’s rating matched those of his party and, at 4%, slightly behind Boris Johnson on 9%.
The Con Dems in Westminster have now issued a Command Paper with a number of different options in relation to the problem of English votes for English laws an issue that which been quietly rumbling away in the background since the 1990’s. William Hague’s Command Paper included four main options:
- Simply excluding Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs
- Basically 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
- There was even a Lib Dem plan for the establishment of 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.
These, to varying degrees subject to safeguards cold be said to be reasonable options and despite the bluster from Westminster and the Labour Party, potentially sensible and fair solution which could be worked out, given sufficient time and effort on the part of the Westminster based and focused political parties. The problem is that the on-going row over the issue could result in the real issue of the legislative imbalance between the different nations and regions within these islands continuing to remain unresolved.
Part of the problem can be put down to the overly complex nature of legislation, as bills that appear to relate to England only can include some well buried clauses that relate to Wales, some of which could have significant and potentially unforeseen consequences for our country. The way the budget works at the moment, means that if Welsh MPs are excluded from voting on English measures there could be a real negative impact on the Welsh budget. At a very basic level this would be both unfair and unjust.
What’s needed is the implementation of a much more sensible and balanced devolution settlement whereby the four constituent parts of the British State have the same legislative and executive powers. Unless this happens then any drift (and drift may be a fair description) towards developing “English Votes for English Laws” would be pretty difficult to enforce and could result in the existence several different tiers of MPs.
The consistent failure over the last 15 years to address the imbalance between powers and funding in constituent parts of the UK along with cumulative nature of the fudged and bodged nature of the devolution settlement can no longer be ignored. The way things stand at the moment the Westminster based and focused political parties are treating Wales as a second-class nation and will they may pay for this at the ballot box next May, at least in Wales.