Emergency Debate On 'English Votes'

7 July 2015, 07:14

Ministers will be forced to defend their proposals for English votes on English laws today after an emergency Commons debate was won by Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael.

The former Scotland Secretary used a rarely deployed Parliamentary rule known as a "standing order 24 motion" to appeal to Speaker John Bercow for permission to call the three hour debate, claiming the Government's plans were an "abuse of process".

After Mr Bercow agreed, MPs were asked to stand up to signal their assent - which hundreds of Opposition MPs present did, while all MPs on the Government benches remained seated.

The debate will focus narrowly on the Government's plans to implement new Commons voting rules on English, or English and Welsh, only Bills by changing the rules of the House rather than by changing the law.

In his application, Mr Carmichael said the measures amounted to the creation of a full English Parliament but with none of the consultation or scrutiny given to other constitutional changes - such as the Scotland Bill currently being considered by Parliament.

The Government plans to implement its proposals via a single debate and vote next week. A standing order change can be implemented in a single day, whereas legislation typically takes months.

Making his application, Mr Carmichael said: "Last Thursday, the Leader (Chris Grayling) outlined a scheme which goes well beyond anything the Government has previously proposed or on which they consulted, including an exclusion of Scottish members from voting on parts of the Budget.

"Their wish is effectively to set up an English Parliament within this United Kingdom House of Commons - and to do it by inviting the House to amend its standing orders.

"In this session alone, we have already spent four days debating a Bill giving extra powers to the Scottish Parliament. We still have more to come, after which consideration will move to the other place.

"Addressing the democratic position of the people of England however is apparently to be done from scratch in one day in this chamber alone."

The Orkney and Shetland MP continued: "Let there be no doubt: we are dealing here with a major constitutional change. It is one that undermines a fundamental principle of the workings of this House - namely that no matter where we come from, once we get here we are all equal.

"To seek to do this in one day by amendment to our standing orders may be technically competent but it is I suggest an abuse of process. It is constitutionally egregious and I fear it puts a further unnecessary strain on the union."

Agreeing the matter met the terms for an emergency debate, Mr Bercow said: "I have listened carefully to your application and I am satisfied the matter raised by you is proper to be discussed under standing order number 24.''

When Mr Bercow asked if Mr Carmichael had the leave of the House, the packed Opposition benches rose as one and called "aye".

Mr Bercow added: "Leave has very clearly been given."

He added: "In conformity with normal practice on these occasions, albeit these occasions are relatively infrequent, the debate will be held as the first item of public business.

"It will last for three hours and it will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in (Mr Carmichael's) application."

A spokesman for Mr Grayling said: "We have been clear that our planned method for implementing that change is to use the normal rules which have determined how Parliament operates for decades.

"This was the clear commitment we made in our manifesto when we promised to "change parliamentary procedures" to give English MPs a veto over matters only affecting England.

"However we have also committed to a review of the reforms in a year's time and to listening to views about whether there should be legislation at that time."

The motion itself will not be capable of blocking the Government's plans but could increase political pressure on ministers.

SNP MP Kirsty Blackman asked in a parliamentary question which Government Bills introduced in the course of the last Parliament had been English, or English and Welsh, only.

Answering, Mr Grayling said the only English-only measure had been the Education Bill, while he listed 13 Bills which had been English and Welsh only.

But the inclusion of a Scotland Bill on Mr Grayling's list prompted Ms Blackman to raise a point of order in the Commons.

She said: "I submitted a written question to the Leader of the House asking about English votes on English laws, asking about which Bill would affect England only and which ones would affect England and Wales only.

"Today, I have received a response. In the list for England and Wales only, is included the Scotland Bill."

After the comment sparked loud laughter, Ms Blackman added: "That was much the response I had. I would appreciate if this could be looked into."

Mr Bercow urged the Aberdeen North MP to raise the matter at the debate, adding: "You have certainly entertained your Honourable and Right Honourable friends very fully at this early part of the day."

The only Government Scotland Bill in the last Parliament became the Scotland Act 2012.

It implemented proposals of the Calman Commission, including a new Scottish rate of income tax.

The debate and vote on the planned change to standing orders to implement English votes for English laws is scheduled for next Wednesday, July 15.

If passed, the changes will come into effect immediately.

A new stage will be introduced for laws passing through Parliament when English, or English and Welsh, MPs will be asked to accept or veto legislation only affecting their constituents before it passes to third reading, its final Commons stage.

There will be a separate committee stage for English, or English and Welsh, MPs for Bills not affecting Scotland and Northern Ireland, meaning legislation can be amended without the consent of all MPs in the Commons, although there will be further opportunities to overturn any changes.

The Speaker is responsible for determining which Bills will be subject to the new procedures.