The government has pushed through plans to give English MPs the right of veto over English laws – a move that the shadow leader of the Commons described as “a charter for breaking up the union”.
Following an often angry and fractious debate, the Commons voted the measures through by 312 to 270.
Labour’s Gerald Kaufman, the longest-serving member of the house, declared “a day of shame for the House of Commons”. He decried the debate as “one of the nastiest, most unpleasant I have attended in 45 years”, prompted by “a government with no respect for the House of Commons”.
The leader of the house, Chris Grayling, said the changes would bring “fairness to our devolution settlement and it is fairness that will secure the future of our union”.
He said the proposals were likely to affect three or four bills in the coming months, allowing for a trial period. “I regard this as a process of development rather than one-off,” Grayling said.
The shadow leader of the house, Chris Bryant, said the proposals would create “confusion and division in parliament while doing nothing to give any more power to English voters over the things that matter to them”.
Under the plans, English MPs will be able to block legislation deemed to solely affect England, but the bill would ultimately be subject to a full vote of the House of Commons.
The Scottish National party’s Pete Wishart expressed his frustration that the debate went on for more than an hour and half before any Scottish parliamentarian was called to speak. Dismissing the changes as “meagre, threadbare, inept and stupid”, Wishart told the chamber: “Scotland is watching this, and the mood is darkening.”
Labour said giving English MPs the right of veto over legislation could create the framework for US-style government shutdowns and legislative impasses. It was unsuccessful in trying to amend the rules so that English MPs would be given the chance to debate and suggest revisions, rather than block legislation entirely.
The new rules, known as English votes for English laws (Evel), have drawn criticism from a cross-party watchdog. The Commons procedure committee, chaired by the Conservative MP Charles Walker, branded the proposals “over-engineered and potentially burdensome”.
A few Conservatives objected to the complicated nature of the plans but ended up backing the government anyway.
At the heart of objections is the plan to let John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, decide what constitutes an English law. The SNP has raised concerns that many pieces of legislation that appear only to relate to England will have a huge knock-on effect in Scotland, such as any plans to build a third runway at Heathrow. Pressed on whether this could be considered English-only legislation, Grayling suggested it could if it was just a planning decision.
The measures are an attempt to answer the West Lothian question and decide what to do about the fact that English MPs do not vote on devolved matters affecting Scottish people, such as health and education, but Scottish MPs have a say on those areas in England.
There is the potential for the measures to be highly controversial if in future there is an electoral outcome in which one party has a majority in the UK overall but not in England. This is most likely in the event of a Labour-SNP alliance with the Tories still holding a majority of English MPs.
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