Alex Salmond, the former Scottish first minister, has challenged David Cameron’s attempt to bring in English votes for English laws without fresh legislation, as the new raft of Scottish National party members made their presence felt on their first full sitting day in the House of Commons.
John Bercow, the Speaker, said he would give serious consideration to Salmond’s objection after it was revealed in the Queen’s speech that the government would try introduce the change through amendments to parliamentary rules known as standing orders.
This would mean the controversial measures giving English MPs a veto over English laws could be passed without the usual amount of parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
The Conservative plan, known as Evel, would ensure that decisions affecting England alone or England and Wales can only be taken with the consent of the majority of MPs representing constituencies in those parts of the UK.
The government also said it would “end the manifest unfairness whereby Scotland is able to decide its own laws in devolved areas, only for Scottish MPs also to be able to have the potentially decisive say on similar matters that affect only England and Wales”.
In his first contribution after returning as an MP, Salmond said the proposals would “breach the fundamental principle that all members of the house are equal”.
Raising a point of order, he urged the Speaker to investigate the consequences of the move and argued that if no action was taken, “any majority government could change standing orders to restrict the rights of any member without so much as a by your leave”.
Bercow said the point was legitimately made and that he would give it serious thought before replying.
Following the exchange, the SNP MP Peter Wishart tweeted: “Evel might be falling apart already. Incredible that they’re even thinking about changing standing orders to limit voting rights of some MPs.”
It is not yet clear whether Labour will shift its position on Evel, but the party’s leader in the House of Lords, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, called for a constitutional convention to “look at change in the round, rather than in the piecemeal way that we are experiencing, with its profound implications for our country”.
It was the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, not Salmond, who formally replied for the party in the Commons.
He stressed that, regardless of the Evel changes, SNP members would consider voting on all types of legislation. Robertson said it would carry out an evaluation for every new law to see whether it would directly or indirectly affect Scotland.
His speech was at times applauded by some of the SNP’s 56 MPs, who were wearing white roses for the occasion. They were ticked off by the Speaker, who asked them to refrain from clapping because it broke with parliamentary tradition.
Some SNP members have also been engaged in a battle with the veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner over his longstanding seat in the Commons. Skinner said the standoff over the seat was the reason why he was too tired to think up his usual heckle when Black Rod enters the chamber to summon MPs to the Lords for the Queen’s speech.
Meanwhile, responding to the Queen’s speech, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords indicated that the party’s 100 peers may work to block the passage of government legislation.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness said that while he understood the importance of the Salisbury convention – which dictates that the Lords does not oppose the second or third reading of any legislation promised in a governing party’s election manifesto – the house “may wish to reflect on the strength of the mandate of the government”.
He highlighted that the Conservative party only won 37% of the popular vote on a turnout of 66% and said it should remember the Cunningham report on the Conventions of the UK Parliament, “which recognised the right of this house, in extreme and exceptional circumstances, to say no”.
He concluded: “This house has demonstrated time and time again that it is the last bastion of defence of civil liberties and human rights. On these issues in particular, this house has a legitimate right to question the excesses of any government. It has the right to vigorously scrutinise and revise legislation.”
The current House of Lords comprises 224 Conservative peers, 212 Labour peers, 179 crossbenchers and 100 Liberal Democrats, meaning the Lib Dems have disproportionately high representation.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent and Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th May 2015 18.15 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010