Angela Smith on the patterns emerging from the Conservative’s approach to legislation
With the deepening of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is obviously a need to ensure that England’s voice is heard at Parliament and outside. Both the McKay Commission and William Hague have reported on so called ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL), but what the government announced last week goes way beyond what has previously been suggested. It also has far deeper implications, prompting widespread concern about the lack of proper analysis of how the changes would work in practice.
On an issue of such huge constitutional significance, surely Parliament should have a proper opportunity to scrutinise legislation, with a Green Paper, White Paper, and possibly even a Bill debated in both Houses. Instead, Ministers are looking to get their plans done and dusted within a fortnight, in the narrow back alley of Commons’ Standing Orders.
For Bills that the Commons Speaker certifies ‘England-only’, the proposals appear to be fairly clear. But the government is going much further, outlining a process where a Bill is deemed to contain some proposals that are ‘Welsh’ or ‘English’. Legislation rarely divides itself neatly into geographical areas. So if the focus is no longer on entire Bills but individual clauses, this creates scope for additional complexities and with it, both risk and potential chaos.
The full implications of how this will affect the Lords is unclear. Our Chamber tends to only press votes when necessary, more usually effecting change through debate and presenting the government with hard facts. In future however, on issues defined as English, an amendment passed by the Lords will be subject to a double lock.
One knock-on effect is that Ministers might become less willing to engage with the Lords on English-only issues, especially when a ruling Party in the Commons can rely on a majority of the MPs in England – as is the case now. Given that the government plans to use a procedure to identify English parts of Bills similar to the one used for certifying financial privilege, long and heated exchanges between the two ends of parliament could become the norm.
The lack of thought that has gone into these new proposals suggests one of two things on the government’s part – either a grand plan for perma-Tory rule, the blueprint of which will soon become apparent or an approach to legislation that borders on the amateurish. When Mr Hague presented his findings back in December, he appeared to understand the serious issues which needed to be addressed, and reflected on the possibility of a constitutional convention. Those now trying to bypass any such process are perhaps forgetting that laws rushed in rarely get it right.
Since the start of the current session, much concern has been aired in the Lords and elsewhere over the government’s approach to legislation. Not only over the skeletal nature of David Cameron’s flagship Childcare Bill, but also the lack of clarity on plans within the Cities and Local Government Bill that would allow for the devolution of NHS resources to groups of local councils. We support the core aims of these Bills but the Ministers involved (including the Treasury) seem to have little regard for the unintended consequences of their policies.
Last week, the highly respected cross-party Constitution Committee offered its reflective view, with a short, sharp, shock of a critique that described a trend since the last Parliament, “towards the introduction of vaguely worded legislation that leaves much to the discretion of ministers”. This, the committee went on to say, “increases the power of the Executive at the expense of Parliament”. If that analysis is correct, perhaps there is a grand plan after all, but I have to say it has all the hallmarks of amateur hour.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 6th July 2015