Comment: It’s time to let English MPs speak for England

By Graham Stuart MP

Tony Blair famously told the Labour party they were best when they were boldest. What he didn't say is that New Labour often only got to be bold in England thanks to the votes of Scottish MPs. Take two of their most controversial reforms: the introduction of foundation hospitals in 2003 and of university tuition fees in 2004. These had profound consequences for the NHS and young people. Crucially, Labour was only able to pass this legislation because of the votes of Scottish MPs. If the votes had been restricted to English MPs, the government would have been defeated.

It is 37 years this month since Labour MP Tam Dalyell first posed the West Lothian question, asking how it could be fair that MPs from Scotland should be able to vote on matters that only affect England.  As parliament grappled with proposals for Scottish devolution, he gave the example of a Scottish MP voting on matters affecting Blackburn in Lancashire but that didn't affect Blackburn in West Lothian.

When the Scottish parliament opened in 1999, this debate stopped being a matter of abstract theory. I am delighted Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum. However, as fresh powers are devolved to Holyrood, it is vital to resolve the increasing unfairness affecting England. As a Yorkshire MP, I cannot vote, rightly, on devolved issues like the health service, education and justice in Scotland. However, Scottish MPs can vote on those same issues affecting my constituents – and with the honourable exception of the SNP, they do so.

Some may detect the rustle of political anoraks. As a country, we do not love constitutional debates. But this is a real and urgent issue. At the last election, the Conservatives won 298 seats in England to Labour's 191, on 40% of the vote to Labour's 28%. Yet had Labour scraped home in just 25 more contests with the Conservatives, they would have been the largest party in Westminster owing to their MPs from Scotland and Wales, and could have formed the government. 

The result of this would have been devastating. Consider the NHS. At the last election the Conservatives made a solemn pledge to protect the NHS budget. By contrast, Labour's health secretary Andy Burnham said it would be "irresponsible" to oppose cuts to the NHS. If Labour had won those 25 extra seats, the party's MPs from the rest of the UK could have railroaded through a programme of cuts in England, safe in the knowledge this would not affect their constituents. Labour has gone on to make those very same cuts in Wales, to disastrous effect.

So what is the answer? In the best British constitutional tradition, I believe it is the simplest one. We need English votes for English laws. In other words, we need to establish new rules in parliament where Scottish MPs do not vote on English-only issues. This could be delivered through a change to the standing orders of the House.

You would simply need to apply two clear principles in Westminster. First, that if any legislation or motion does not affect every nation of the UK, it should be drafted so that only the representatives of the nations affected have a vote. Second, that if there is serious doubt about whether or not this is the case, the whole House should be entitled to vote on it. 

There are other options on the table. Some believe we need a full English parliament to rival those in Scotland and Wales. But my constituents do not want or need another set of politicians on top of councillors, MPs, MEPs and peers. It would also be a colossally expensive commitment: it cost over £400 million to set up the Scottish parliament (in the late 1990s) and the running costs are around £70 million a year.  Plus it would leave Westminster – the home of our democracy – a hollowed-out shell, used on maybe one day a week for UK-wide debates.

For his part, Ed Miliband is frantic to change the focus of the debate entirely, talking in terms of regional devolution. This has the significant disadvantage of being strikingly unpopular. When people in the north-east were offered a regional assembly in 2004, they rejected it by four to one. It is also an entirely cynical smokescreen: Labour opposes English votes for English laws not because it's against the English national interest, but because it's against their own party political interest.

Setting aside Red Ed's attempt to balkanise England, the reality is that power can be more sensibly shared out within the UK. The government has encouraged this – the last few years have seen an explosion of city deals and local growth deals, on top of the introduction of police and crime commissioners and free schools. Last month the chancellor announced that Manchester will have an elected mayor from 2017, joining Liverpool, Bristol and London. But delivering greater autonomy locally and resolving the unfairness in our parliament are two completely separate issues. None of these initiatives, however praiseworthy, addresses the problem of Scottish MPs voting on English matters.

So it is high time for action. Ministers will set out their plans for English votes for English laws before Christmas and I believe most English people will be highly supportive. Delivering this has huge popular support: a recent YouGov survey found that 71% of people believe Scottish MPs should not be able to vote on issues that only affect England, with 15% against.

As English voters go to the polls next year, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, woe betide those politicians who seek to deny them a fair say in our democracy.

Graham Stuart is the Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness

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