Issues of Parliamentary procedure generally don’t arouse a great deal of excitement. But the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) proposals, passed on 22 October, may have a deep and long-lasting impact on how the UK does politics.
EVEL was first mooted in its current form in the aftermath of last year’s Scottish independence referendum, when Prime Minister David Cameron promised further powers to the devolved Scottish Parliament. These plans reignited a debate that has been ongoing since the 1970s: why should Scottish (along with Welsh and Northern Irish MPs) get a vote on matters relating to England, while English MPs get no say in debates in the devolved Scottish Parliament, or Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies?
On 22 October, in an effort to assuage these concerns, MPs considered changes to parliamentary rules that would allow English MPs to effectively veto ‘England-only’ legislation. Similar rules will also come into effect for legislation that is partially ‘England-only’ or relates exclusively to England and Wales. After a bad-tempered debate, the motion passed by 313 ayes to 270 noes.
Unsurprisingly, the changes have been strongly opposed; one Labour MP calling the plans as convoluted as ‘a bowl of soggy, overcooked spaghetti’. The response has been particularly hostile north of the border, with Scottish newspapers carrying headlines like ‘Voting rights of Scottish MPs to be restricted’.
However, EVEL is not just a constitutional concern – it may also have a material impact on issues like housing. This is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, allowing it to set strategic objectives for supply, delivery and quality independent of Westminster.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that the Housing and Planning Bill, scheduled for its second reading on 2 November, is set to be the first test for EVEL. This will undoubtedly infuriate the SNP: the party passed provisions to end Right to Buy (RTB) in Scotland, while a key plank of the Housing and Planning Bill is RTB’s extension in England. Now, the party will have to look on as a policy it has consistently opposed is considered by a committee made up entirely of English MPs.
Still, EVEL supporters will respond that this is only fair: English politicians must do the same when measures are debated at Holyrood, and SNP MPs still get a chance to vote against the Bill at its third reading. Whether English Votes for English Laws will settle four decades of debate remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that EVEL is much more than just an intellectual exercise in constitutional wrangling. Rather English MPs now have a new chance to flex their muscles in ways that could profoundly alter housing policy in the UK.
Andrew Carruthers, account executive