Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sir George Young MP / English Votes on English Laws

Letter in response to Sir George Young MP.

Dear Sir George,

On Wednesday I attended the Conservative Party Fringe 'English Questions' event.

From the floor I took issue with your preferred solution to the West Lothian Question: 'English Votes on English Matters'. Specifically I asked you whether the Democracy Taskforce would be recommending this policy to the Party, and whether it would be Conservative Party policy for the third general election in a row.

You replied that you did not want to comment because you did not want to ‘preclude any particular outcome’ - as if you might reveal the secretive workings of the Taskforce of which you are a part and thereby prejudice your own findings.

I have written to many Conservative MPs on the matter of EVoEM - including Oliver Heald - and none of them are prepared to explain (or cannot explain) how this policy of yours would work.

Everybody who has given this policy any serious consideration has concluded that the policy is 'unworkable'. This includes the Lib Dems, the Labour Party, the Constitution Unit, The Campaign for an English Parliament and many prominent constitutionalists.

Nevertheless it remains your party's policy and has been advocated at Conference by yourself, David Mundell and David Cameron. It was also advocated by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard. But can I find a Conservative policy document explaining the practical workings of this policy? No, I cannot. Will anyone from the Conservative Party discuss this? No, they will not.

It seems that everyone that is anyone describes EVoEM as 'unworkable', yet whenever the West Lothian Question or an English Parliament is mentioned Conservatives seem to think that the very utterance of the phrase 'English votes on English Laws' is enough to absolve them of any obligation to even discuss the matter. I can tell you that it is not.

Would you please tell me what practical details the Democracy Taskforce is considering in relation to this policy? I have to tell you that I am not very impressed with the transparency of the Democracy Taskforce (it appears to be a closed shop) and I remain convinced that, in regard to the English Question, they will recommend whatever the leadership tell them to recommend. I do however hold a glimmer of hope that they might manage to report before the next Conservative manifesto is drafted.

The future of this Conservative policy is of the utmost importance. You are not a 'party ready for government' while you discuss this behind closed doors, and while your MPs blindly obfuscate over the English Question.

It is my view that English Votes on English Matters is a profoundly stupid and ill-conceived response to devolution to Scotland and Wales. The government that implements such a policy will at best disrupt the working of parliament - possibly leading to a vote of no confidence - and at worst they will be responsible for wrecking the Union.

I advise you, as a party, to participate in the English Constitutional Convention to begin the debate in England on how England should be governed. This is too wide a remit for an insular Democracy Taskforce to undertake. However, the English Constitutional Convention is just the beginning because the English Question cannot be resolved in isolation. Great Britain is greater England; England is the centre. You cannot change the centre without affecting the periphery. Likewise, you cannot change the periphery without it affecting the centre - something that Labour neglected to consider when they devolved power to Scotland and Wales.

My own observations on the failings of your policy follow. If you would kindly submit them to the Taskforce for their consideration (my objections to EVoEM are too lengthy to submit via the little web-submission form on the website) I would be much obliged to you:

English Votes on English Matters (EVoEM) could compromise the impartiality of the Speaker (an office dating back to 14th century).

EVoEM, as Jack Straw says, would create farcical divisions. There would be delays in bills while the poor Speaker, in consultation with lawyers, decided what was, and what wasn't, English-only, or English and Welsh-only, legislation. Or which parts of the bill were, or were not, English. Or English and Welsh. In actual fact - with the Barnett Formula in situ - it would be impossible to say that the Scots and Welsh shouldn't vote on English legislation as their budgets are decided as a proportion of the central purse. As the Kilbrandon Commission reported: "Any issue at Westminster involving expenditure of public money is of concern to all parts of the United Kingdom since it may directly affect the level of taxation and indirectly influence the level of a region’s own expenditure.” In the event that constitutional lawyers were not consulted on the status of bills then the Speaker's decision on whether or not a Bill was English would be deemed subjective, and would doubtless face legal challenges from Scottish and Welsh nationalists eager to disrupt the working of Parliament.

EVoEM prevents Scots voting on English legislation but it does not prevent England being governed in its entirety by the UK Government, and potentially that UK government would be unable to legislate for 85% of the UK (England) because it could be without a working English majority.

EVoEM creates different classes of MPs. You are correct that MPs already have different voting rights (Speaker, Deputy Speakers, Chairman of Standing Committees) but this division is not on the basis of nationality. The fundamental basis that Parliament works on - that all MPs, regardless of constituency, have equal rights - is removed.

Under EVoEM MPs from Scotland and Wales would still speak and contribute to debates in the Commons, they just won't be permitted to vote on the outcome. Why should they have any input into proceedings that do not concern them?

In comparison to a separate English parliament an EVoEM parliament would not improve parliamentary procedure. Westminster is already overburdened and does not act as an efficient scrutineer of legislation or executive action. Why should the Scots and Welsh have national legislatures to debate their laws whilst we English settle for EVoEM, with insufficient Parliamentary time to fully debate our national issues, and subject to the vagaries of the UK Government and the time constraints that the reserved legislative programme imposes upon English matters?

Under EVoEM a Scottish Prime Minister (for example Gordon Brown) would be excluded from the majority of legislation in the House given that he is democratically unaccountable to the English nation on devolved matters, and devoid of responsibility to his own Scottish electorate on the concomitant Scottish legislation. Under EVoEM the likelihood of anything other than an English Prime Minister ever again is incredibly small. Not a Unionist solution.

You believed that it was ‘inconsistent of the Government not to hold a referendum on the proposed EU constitution’ because it fundamentally altered the relationship between the member states and the European Union. EVoEM would be a major constitutional change that fundamentally alters the relationship between the nations of the UK and Westminster, and as such EVoEM should be subject to a referendum.

Under EVoEM the House of Lords will still be able to scrutinise English legislation but not that of the devolved administrations. Why should Neil Kinnock have any say on English legislation?

Under EVoEM there is nothing to stop non-English constituency MPs becoming ministers of English departments. So Scottish MPs (like Darling and Reid) can be in charge of English portfolios. Why should a Scottish MP should be barred from voting on education bills but permitted to head up the Department of Education?

If the Democracy Taskforce intends to revise EVoEM so that a Scottish MP cannot preside over English departments, we face the prospect of an almost entirely English UK cabinet (government). No bad thing some might say, but hardly fair to the Scots and Welsh who would face exclusion from the UK executive. If EVoEM is implemented I can envisage a time when the UK government implements a positive discrimination policy to get Scottish and Welsh MPs into Government, promoting them over more able English MPs to reserved portfolios such as defence.

EVoEM does not provide England with an English first minister and English frontbench. We potentially face the ignominy of a Scottish Prime Minister fielding questions from the opposition benches on legislation that he was unable to vote on, and that his government was, potentially, unable to legislate for. It would be up to the UK government to dream up pie-in-the-sky English solutions to English problems. MPs representing English constituencies will merely be able to react to proposals put forward by the UK government, rather than formulate legislation for the benefit of England.

EVoEM would result in a sovereign UK parliament that excluded non-English constituency MPs. This means that, in the eyes of the Scottish and Welsh, Westminster IS the English parliament. The Scottish and Welsh parliaments are devolved (and subordinate) to Westminster, whereas an EVoEM parliament would be a sovereign English parliament - almost a reconvening one might say. The problem with the British constitution - stemming from the 1707 settlement - is that the Union is not one of equals. The Scots (and the Welsh) see themselves on the periphery, marginalised, outgunned. Devolution '97 attempted to rectify this to a degree but placed the English at a distinct constitutional disadvantage. EVoEM seeks to correct the democratic slight against England but in doing so will once again marginalise Scotland and Wales. There are two solutions to this quandary: Federalism - in which each nation takes care of its own affairs but has an equal say in central government - or Separation. I advise you to choose the former and ditch EVoEM.

There’s a mischievous anarchist part of me that hopes that you do get into office and institute your mad-cap policy because it will inevitably result in a full-blown English parliament and executive. But at what cost I ask myself? I want an English parliament but the ends do not always justify the means. Your piecemeal approach to constitutional matters (the sticking-plaster-on-a-gaping-wound method) may have worked in the past when you were faced with a less savvy and constitutionally illiterate public, but they will not work now. There are now numerous well-organised lobby groups pressing for constitutional change, they are demanding a say, and they will not accept top-down solution imposed by whatever party wins the election. You would be well advised to involve them, or rather, let them involve you.

Gareth Young

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Blogger kyklops said...

Interesting stuff. I'm a Canadian 'federalist', although I haven't lived there for the past 8 years. I fear that in Canada these days my views might be considered 'quaint'. Am I the only person to sense something negative in the term 'devolve'?

2:10 am  

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