What is England-only legislation?
Bills usually include a clause stating their ‘territorial extent’: that is, the legal jurisdiction to which they apply. England and Wales form a single jurisdiction, so no legislation is described as extending to England only.
The territorial extent clause is not a statement of the territory in which the effects of the bill will be felt. Extent and impact often overlap, but they are not the same, and there are occasions when they diverge. For example, legislation affecting public spending that extends only to England can alter the budgets of the devolved regions through the Barnett formula (see margin).
How do the parties propose to address the English Question?
The day after the Scottish independence referendum, the Prime Minister said that “The question of English votes for English laws … requires a definitive answer” and announced that a Cabinet Committee on devolution, chaired by William Hague, would consider this question.
The Committee did not come to a single view on how to answer the English Question. In December 2014, the Government issued a Command Paper outlining three Conservative options and a Liberal Democrat proposal that would allow English MPs to consent to legislation that affected England only. Labour declined an invitation to participate in the Committee.
A constitutional convention
Labour suggested that a much wider review of the implications of devolution should be undertaken by a constitutional convention. The convention would consider Labour’s proposal for an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions.
The Liberal Democrats also proposed that legislation be passed to establish and determine the remit of a constitutional convention to examine devolution in the UK.
English votes in the House of Commons
On 3 February 2015, William Hague announced the Conservative Party’s preferred option for implementing English votes for English laws in the House of Commons.
Second Reading would proceed as it does now. Afterwards, bills, or parts of bills containing England-only provisions, would be considered by a committee composed of Members from England, in proportion to their party representation in the House. Report stage would proceed as now, with all Members able to participate. Before third reading, an English Grand Committee would vote on a legislative consent motion, either granting consent or vetoing a bill, or relevant parts of it.
This proposal has been included in the Conservative manifesto.
The Liberal Democrats also argued that a Grand Committee of English MPs should consider legislation affecting England only. Its composition, however, would reflect the votes of the electorate in England, not the number of seats held by the parties at Westminster.
The Liberal Democrats envisaged a “double lock” whereby legislation would need the approval of UK MPs and England MPs representing a majority of English voters at the last general election. They also argued that any new stage in the legislative process would need to be agreed on a cross-party basis.
The Scottish National Party has a longstanding position of not voting on matters that purely affect England. However, the party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that “issues which may superficially appear to be ‘England-only’ can often have very serious knock-on consequences for Scotland in terms of our public finances via the Barnett Formula”, and she has pledged that SNP MPs will vote on issues that affect Scotland.
Is the answer an English Parliament?
The main parties have all rejected the idea of a separate English Parliament. However, there are proposals for greater devolution within England. The Government has supported combined authorities and directly elected mayors. The Labour Party proposes greater devolution of funding to English regions and the Liberal Democrats have promised an “English Devolution enabling Bill”.
The Barnett formula describes how changes to expenditure on government services in England affect the block grant received by the devolved administrations from the Treasury. More specifically, the formula gives the devolved administrations a population-based proportion of changes in planned spending on comparable government services in England.
Were a Government, for instance, to pass legislation setting a fee for GP consultations in England, the Barnett formula would reduce the grant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to reflect reduced expenditure on health services in England. In this way, legislation that extends only to England can affect the budgets of the devolved administrations.
The impact of MPs from Scottish constituencies on Commons votes
What would be the impact in practice of proposals to restrict the ability of MPs representing constituencies in the devolved regions to vote on England-only matters? An insight into this question can be gained by considering how often MPs from Scottish constituencies might have affected the result of past Commons votes.
Analysis of nearly 5,000 votes since 1997 has shown that 21 would have produced a different outcome had MPs representing Scottish constituencies been excluded. Of course, this does not mean that the outcome would have been different, since the exclusion of MPs in Scottish constituencies might have influenced the judgement of other MPs.
Of the 21 votes, two of the most significant were on the setting up of NHS foundation trusts and the raising of university tuition fees from £1,250 to £3,000 per year: both votes directly affected England only and would have produced a different outcome had the votes of MPs representing Scottish constituencies been excluded.