William Hague, the leader of the Commons, has said it is time for the house to make decisions in the coming months that will give only English and Welsh MPs the power to decide on laws that affect their two countries.
On Tuesday, he put forward three options for reform designed to give English, or English and Welsh, MPs an exclusive right to pass laws that affect the two countries.
It is unlikely a Commons majority exists at this late stage in the parliament for any option, but the Conservatives are determined to use the issue to hammer Labour as being opposed to the interests of the English. With Liberal Democrats and Tories at odds on how to reform procedures it is possible that the coalition will be unable to agree to give government time in the Commons to vote on the issue.
Labour accused the Tories of “a behind-closed-doors stitch-up” and called for a constitutional convention to look at the future of the UK constitution in the round, including the related issue of the future composition of the House of Lords.
Hague insisted the issue had been avoided for too long and could not be put to one side any longer, saying English MPs felt they had become second-class MPs, a position that damaged parliament and could no longer be described as a minor anomaly.
He told MPs Labour would not be able to suppress this debate and argued that the British people now wanted the issue to be addressed. Labour, nervous of the implications for a future Labour government if Scottish MPs are routinely excluded from parliamentary votes, refused to join the inter-party talks, saying it was not the right vehicle to discuss such significant reform.
An accompanying white paper put forward three options, all reflecting the guiding principle that “decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England, or for England and Wales, should normally be taken only with consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies for England, or for England and Wales”.
The three options put forward by the Conservatives are:
• Bills that deal exclusively with English, or English and Welsh, matters already devolved to the other nations would proceed entirely through an English-only, or English and Welsh, process using the existing number of scrutiny stages.
• English only, or English or Welsh, bills would be examined by the whole house including Scottish MPs at second and third reading, but be examined by only English MPs at committee and report stages.
• English or Welsh bills would be examined by all MPs at second reading but then examined by a grand committee of only English and Welsh MPs before being voted upon by all MPs at report stage. A new stage would then be added in which only English and Welsh MPs in committee would vote, in effect giving them a right to veto legislation.
Hague said it would be up to the Speaker or some other impartial body to determine whether a bill was relevant only to England or England and Wales.
Hague conceded he had not yet consulted the Speaker on the proposal, and there are concerns that attempts to rule on whether a bill only affects England may prove to be extremely hard.
Hague stressed: “Whichever of these options is ultimately decided upon must be clear, decisive and effective in producing fairness for the whole United Kingdom. This is a fundamental issue of fairness for all the people of the United Kingdom. Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have the opportunity to have a bigger say over theirs.”
Labour in recent days has come up with a more minimalist reform in which a bill would be amended in committee stage only by English, or English and Welsh, MPs, before being readdressed by the whole of the Commons at the report stage and third reading.
The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, said: “What we mustn’t do only months after the Scottish people voted to keep our kingdom united is allow our country to be divided by the back door. Nothing we do should jeopardise the future of the union.”
He added that any Labour criteria for a decision “will not be what’s in the interest of the Conservative party but in the interests of our country”.
Making the case for a people’s convention he said: “Ultimately the way we go about constitutional reform has to change. The old ‘Westminster knows best’ approach won’t wash any more.”
The Tories say they are willing to look at a constitutional convention, but not if it is designed to delay a decision on English-only votes.
The Liberal Democrats are more enthusiastic about a constitutional convention, and argue that if the option of a grand committee of English MPs to scrutinise legislation is adopted, it should reflect not the number of elected MPs but the number of votes parties have received in the general election.
John Redwood, the Conservative MP who is one of the leading advocates of reform, told MPs: “England expects English votes for English issues. We expect simplicity and justice now. No ifs, no buts.”
The SNP have accused the Conservatives of reneging on one of the key recommendations of the Smith commission, that Scottish MPs should continue to be able to vote on income tax issues in the House of Commons.
Describing command paper as a “fig leaf” for an attack on Scotland, SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “It has been clear from the start that David Cameron and the Tories were seeking to gain party political advantage from English votes for English laws – now the cat is out of the bag that the Tory plan is just a fig leaf for another barely disguised attack on Scotland.”
Referring to reports that Tory MPs would settle only for the most extensive of the options outlined in the command paper, he added: “Only weeks after the publication of the Smith commission report, it seems that the Tories are intent on going against one of its key recommendations – people in Scotland will rightly be concerned about David Cameron’s intentions for its other recommendations.”
Prof Michael Keating, director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, said: “All parties now seem to have accepted that there is a ‘West Lothian’ question and that English MPs should have a special role in laws affecting only England. This is a change from the view previously held by many politicians that there should be no distinctions among MPs.
“On the other hand, there is no agreement on how it might work, as the various options would favour different parties. Labour is unwilling to let English MPs have the last say on any bills. English Conservative MPs will continue to demand just that. The Liberal Democrats want any English vote for English laws to reflect not the balance of seats but the balance of votes. It is difficult to see a consensus emerging on this any time soon and without consensus progress could be impossible.”
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