English votes on English laws

As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker outlines areas that he would like the committee to consider in relation to the English votes on English Laws issue and the arrangements being put in place to decide whether a particular Bill, or part of a Bill, relates to England only.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Speaker. It is my first speech in the new Parliament and I rejoin the fray in another highly charged debate in this Chamber.

First, may I say that the Leader of the House has met me on a number of occasions in the past six weeks to keep me informed of the Government’s proposals? The problem we have, which afflicts the whole House, is that at this moment we have no Select Committees. Not a single Select Committee is meeting yet, because the relevant orders have not been laid.

The politics of what we are debating today and what we will debate next week are for the Government and this House to decide. I very much want to focus on a few areas that the Procedure Committee will want to cover later in this Parliament. As I said, the Committee is yet to meet. I hope we will meet before we rise for the summer recess, but that is not guaranteed. I will be sending a letter, as the elected Chairman of the Procedure Committee, to the Leader of the House later this week.

Ms Gisela Stuart: Is it therefore not distinctly odd that the Leader of the House wishes to take great pride in sticking to his manifesto commitment, when that commitment said he would consult the Procedure Committee before he brought the proposals to the House? He is trying to bring the proposals to the House before the Committee has met.

Mr Walker: The pursuit of perfection is always to be desired, but it is not often achieved. That is the best answer I can give to the hon. Lady.

If the House votes for these changes next Wednesday, the Committee will want to consider how future Bills are drafted and whether their scope might be narrowed to enhance their Englishness. Will there be a temptation to narrow a Bill so that England comes to the fore and other parts of the Union are excluded? In due course, we will want to take evidence from Clerks and parliamentary counsel. In the last Parliament, there were some hard-won successes to make Report and programming more effective.

Mrs Moon: The hon. Gentleman is outlining a new idea for Parliament—post-legislative scrutiny—because the Standing Orders will already have been approved. His Committee might say they are rubbish, but we will be stuck with them for a year. What are we going to do about that?

Mr Walker: With the greatest of respect to the hon. Lady, I am not entirely sure what the Procedure Committee can do about that on its own. As she will be aware, when the Committee comes up with recommendations, they have to be brought to the Floor of the House for a vote. We can bring our ideas to the House, but we cannot require it to adopt them; there has to be a vote on the Floor of the House.

Sir William Cash: My hon. Friend might recall that the Leader of the House wisely said that the arrangements would be subject to review within a specified period, which would give the Procedure Committee the opportunity to consider not only the 22 pages, but the seven lines of proposed changes to Standing Orders that I have proposed and which would also give the Speaker the power to issue a certificate.

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Committee will take a close interest in these changes, if they are implemented by the House next week—that is my guarantee to the Chamber.

The changes, if adopted, will insert up to four extra stages after Report. It is important that the Leader of the House identifies in the near future where this time will come from. We cannot have the Report stage being pared back. If anything, there is an enormous appetite in the House for its being extended to provide greater scrutiny, so we would be concerned if no additional time was provided for the extra stages.

Helen Goodman: Does the hon. Gentleman not find it the tiniest bit ironic that when the Procedure Committee asked the previous Leader of the House for extra time on Report, it was turned down, but that now, all of a sudden, extra time and extra possibilities seem quite feasible?

Mr Walker: I hope that extra time is indeed feasible. That is what I am asking for. It would be disastrous for the House and its ability to scrutinise and amend Bills if Report were truncated to take account of these new stages. Indeed, we might have to accept that the legislative process attached to certain Bills will become longer. Something will have to give. Either we will have to spend more time scrutinising fewer Bills, or we will have to extend the parliamentary day. More time will have to be found in the parliamentary week, or we will have to consider having fewer Bills.

Ian Paisley: Does this not sound more and more like the proverbial dog’s dinner in terms of its resolution and the procedures that will have to be introduced as a result?

Mr Walker: It is for the hon. Gentleman to make that point. As I said, I want to keep out of the politics. I know that that is difficult for a Member of Parliament, but I will try my best.

I have briefly covered my concerns about Report, which I believe are shared by other colleagues I have spoken to.

Mr Alistair Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman talks about more time being available for Report. Would not the guarantee of that be a House business committee? Is that not the logical conclusion of where we are heading? In his many discussions with the Leader of the House, has he detected any enthusiasm from the Treasury Bench for that proposition?

Mr Walker: The right hon. Gentleman makes a wonderful intervention, because I am a huge fan of a House business committee, but he will recall that he was in the previous Cabinet, which did not bring forward such a committee. If the Government are minded to support one, they would obviously have my support in that ambition.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, especially in his role as Chairman of the Procedure Committee. Would his Committee be minded to look at having a business of the House committee specifically in the light of the problems today?

Mr Walker: Our Committee is very open minded and broad minded. We are a new Committee—I believe we are beginning to gather our members together—but of course all colleagues are welcome to make representations, and if they do, they will get a fair hearing.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman just said he wanted to keep out of the politics and talk only about the procedure. I noted earlier the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary bending his shell-like. Was he talking to him about politics or procedure?

Mr Walker: I can assure the hon. Gentleman, whom I know very well, that we were not talking about this proposal. I shall tell him what it was about outside the Chamber.

I want to make some progress because plenty of other people want to speak and I do not want to crowd them out. The Government will need to be careful in the language they use when introducing a Bill. It is right that an explanatory memorandum asserts the Government’s view about the scope of the Bill, but that assertion should not be made overtly or aggressively. We do not want a Bill introduced with the Government saying, “This is absolutely unquestionably relating to England only, and anyone who disagrees is a total and utter idiot”—that would be the subtext. They need to be careful in their language so as not to be seen to be putting undue pressure on the Chair—I dare suggest—to come up with a certification one way or another.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): On the question of whether a Bill should apply to England only or some other combination, all Bills currently contain a territorial extent clause. Does that not give a very good indication of whether a Bill applies solely to one part of the kingdom or another?

Mr Walker: It might well do. However, in the Conservative party’s manifesto for England, we say:

“The Speaker will be required to certify bills or clauses where English MPs must give their consent to equivalent English decisions where provisions are devolved to another part of the UK, or they have a separate and distinct effect for England. In reaching a decision the Speaker will have regard to any cross-border effects and the national significance of any legislation, for example infrastructure projects.”

I think, therefore, that there is still some debate around the issue my hon. Friend raises.

John Redwood: Is it not a good sign that we have had the Scottish Parliament for some years now and there have been no great issues about deciding what is a Scottish matter? If it is possible to know what is a Scottish matter, it must be equally easy to know what is an English matter.

Mr Walker: My right hon. Friend makes a good point that I am sure will be appreciated by both sides of the House—as he is appreciated by both sides of the House.

Alex Salmond: I know that the Chair of the Procedure Committee will understand that decisions of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot have a financial consequence on this House, but that decisions of this House can have a financial consequence on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I know that someone of his expertise will have appreciated that point, even if it is lost on others.

Mr Walker: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and, of course, I appreciate that point and the sincerity with which it has been put to me.

In seeking certification of various clauses as the Bill progresses after Report, it could be that on some occasions the Speaker needs to clarify the advice he has been given and will require additional time to seek advice, particularly where judgments are finely balanced. The Speaker must be allowed that time. I know that the Government have an imperative to get their legislation through as quickly as possible, but in bringing forward these proposals, the Government must recognise that on occasions there will need to be delay as advice is sought and considered by the Speaker.

Lady Hermon: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to his next point, I want to ask whether he is concerned that the Speaker is wilfully and deliberately prohibited from giving the reasons for certifying that Bills are exclusively English or English and Welsh only? What justification could there possibly be for prohibiting the Speaker from explaining why he has provided such a certification?

Mr Walker: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but it is a convention that the Speaker does not give reasons for his rulings. If I am wrong in that, I am sure another procedural expert will correct me.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Walker: Briefly, and possibly for the last time.

Susan Elan Jones: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to “cross-border”. Will he clarify whether there are even more parts of this jigsaw than we thought hitherto? If we take an issue such as HS2, those of us who are close to the English border and the connection at Crewe could be more deeply affected than, say, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Does that mean that some Welsh MPs could vote and others could not?

Mr Walker: The hon. Lady makes a very good point. It is not for me to defend the Government’s position on this matter, or to make the arguments that the Government will make. Her point will, however, have been heard by the Leader of the House. In fact, I was almost coming on to the direct part of my rather long speech that most closely relates to the very observation she has made.

The guidance attached to the proposed Standing Order No. 83(j) says that the judgment of what is “minor or consequential” is for the Speaker. I think the Government should provide some examples of what they feel count as “minor or consequential”. We also need greater clarification of what the “or” means. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) knows, Standing Order No. 97(1)(a) relates to the Scottish Grand Committee, and the term used there is “minor consequential amendments”—there is no “or”. On the definition of “or”, I suggest, the fate of nations may turn, so we need to define what it means.

I have spoken for longer than I anticipated. Indeed, this is probably my longest speech in the 10 years I have been in Parliament. I have enjoyed taking interventions and hope I have responded as best I can. What I would say is that I take this place very seriously; I take the concerns of Members very seriously; and the Procedure Committee will look at this issue very seriously.

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