I beg to move,
“(4B) In addition, a clause or schedule-
(a) relates exclusively to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and
(b) is within devolved legislative competence, if it does nothing other than set one or more of the main rates of income tax for a tax year.”;
As hon. Members will be aware, the Scotland Act 2016 received Royal Assent last year. The Act provides the Scottish Parliament with the power to set its own rates and thresholds of income tax. For that reason, the Government announced in the 2016 Budget changes to the structure of income tax intended to ensure that from the Finance Bill 2017 onwards, a clause setting the main rates of income tax would be certified under the English votes procedures. In other words, the consent of hon. Members from constituencies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be required for any income tax matters that affected their constituents and that did not affect Scottish taxpayers. The necessary legislative changes to achieve this were made in the Finance Act 2016, and mean that from April this year, these UK main rates will no longer affect Scottish taxpayers.
The technical amendments to Standing Orders before us will ensure that provisions setting the main rates of income tax will be subject to a certification decision by the Speaker now that the Scottish rates of income tax are set by the Scottish Parliament. It will mean that the Standing Orders on which Parliament has already voted will work as originally intended, but now taking account of the new element of the Scotland Act 2016.
I am grateful to the ever-generous Leader of the House. If the Chancellor were to come to the Dispatch Box and deliver a Finance Bill in which he said that the rates of income tax in England and Wales would alter and that, on that basis a different set of taxes, which were still reserved, would be altered—national insurance, for example—would this English votes for English laws clause be appropriate?
It would be a matter for certification by the Speaker. As in all other such matters as provided for already under our Standing Orders, the Speaker’s test has to be whether the content of the clause or amendment under discussion is devolved to Scotland—or, for that matter, to another part of the United Kingdom—and then, in addition, whether the subject-matter before the House at that time is the sole province of English, Welsh or Northern Irish Members.
It is important that this small technical change is made in time for this year’s Budget and Finance Bill. As hon. Members know, the Budget statement is due tomorrow so that is why we are bringing this change to the Standing Orders before the House now.
I thank the Leader of the House and I appreciate that he has said that there has to be an amendment to Standing Order 83S. Doubts have been raised as to whether under the current provisions of Standing Orders, the main rate of income tax under the Finance Bill will definitely be certified as English only, particularly when this comes with partially devolving income tax to the Scottish Parliament this year.
However, this is a point of principle and Her Majesty’s Opposition oppose EVEL, which in our view is poorly conceived, a knee-jerk reaction and a constitutional disaster. It risks dividing the UK, rather than allowing devolved Governments to work together for the benefit of the whole of the UK. The Labour leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, has more recently called for a “constitutional convention”, which is the position we support. If the Government had listened to these suggestions, the House would not be in the position of having to amend Standing Orders—both now and possibly in the future. For these reasons, Her Majesty’s Opposition oppose the motion.
This is the second time this afternoon that I have debated English votes for English laws on the Floor of the House, and I have to say that I did not expect to be speaking conclusively on EVEL on either of these occasions. It is always a pleasure to address some of the issues surrounding English votes for English laws.
SNP Members see this very much as a technical change to the Standing Orders, and we are quite surprised that we are getting into a general debate about the whole insidious package of English votes for English laws. I totally understand Labour’s concerns, and there are good reasons to be concerned, but it seems a curious environment in which to be having some of these debates about EVEL just now.
I am happy to confirm that we believe conclusively that English Members should of course be responsible for all of their own measures, and we agree that it is up to English Members to determine their own legislation and their own policy. We have a very elegant solution for that, and I think the hon. Gentleman knows exactly what territory we are getting into with that. English votes for English laws is simply the wrong way to do that. As a package, it has been utterly divisive in this House and has been supported by absolutely no one other than the Government themselves, so I think it should be reviewed. I shall come on to that later, and I will allow him to come into the debate again if he thinks it necessary.
Let me address what is before us now. When it comes to these changes to the Standing Orders, we need to recognise the fact that the Scotland Act 2016 devolved to the Scottish Parliament the right to set the main rates of income tax—and thank goodness for that. This was agreed between the party of Ian Murray and my party in the Smith Commission, and we are grateful to know that the rates of income tax are now a responsibility for the Scottish Parliament. That is a good and positive thing, which we very much welcome.
We see the motion as a recognition of our legislative authority on rates of income tax and as a tidying up exercise. If anything—I am loth to concede this to the Leader of the House—it is helpful in clarifying the new arrangements on Standing Orders relating to English votes for English laws. That is why I am surprised that Labour has decided to have a real debate and conversation tonight about EVEL. I am always happy to debate EVEL. I am just surprised that Labour has chosen this evening to conduct such a debate.
The changes take account of the fact that there might, in future, be resolutions or pieces of legislation relating to main income tax rates that are specific to England, or to England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not Scotland, because those matters have been properly devolved. It also makes changes to ensure certainty on who are and who are not Scottish taxpayers. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South will remember the tortuous conversations we had on trying to identify who are and who are not Scottish taxpayers. The changes will clarify that a touch and are therefore reasonably helpful in that regard.
There is much about English votes for English laws that SNP Members do not like. You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that our issues with EVEL are many and manifest. No one understands what on earth is going on. We just had a Legislative Grand Committee. The bell went off, the Mace went down and the Mace went back up again, and not one Member from England had got to his or her feet to contribute. I have the House of Commons record for contributions in Legislative Grand Committees. In fact, I have spoken twice as much in LGCs as all the English Members put together, yet we were told that EVEL was an absolute necessity, a burning issue that concerned and consumed the shires of Englandshire as they were revolting about me and my hon. Friends coming down and voting on all their precious legislation. And what do we get when they actually have the opportunity to discuss this? Absolute and utter silence! That is why we say again that English votes for English laws are unnecessary. They are burdensome to this House and cumbersome to the way we do business. More than anything else, they divide this House on the basis of nationality and geography. It is on that basis that we profoundly disagree with the whole idea of English votes for English laws.
Now that is all well and good—I am looking at you, Madam Deputy Speaker, getting edgy and tetchy about where I am going with this—but in our view this is not the place to have this debate. I am surprised at Labour’s lack of understanding about what is being pitched by the Government. As the Leader of the House says, this is a technical change to Standing Orders. I understand that the Labour party will press the motion to a Division. I will support Labour on that as I will oppose English votes for English laws at any opportunity, but I know that the Leader of the House finds it very curious that Labour has decided that this will be a matter of principle on which to vote this evening.
English votes for English laws is an absolute disaster. This is nothing to do with the Leader of the House, bless him; this is all about his predecessor’s charge to bring this forward to the House without any due regard to its impact on our business. It is wrong. It does not work. The House does not require it and it does not satisfy anybody. It does not satisfy us in Scotland. It certainly does not satisfy English Members, who have not contributed one peep to English Legislative Grand Committees. This is an opportunity for the Leader of the House. Yes, go ahead with the technical changes. There is no real issue from us on them, but he will not get the support of the House on EVEL. He has seen all the reviews and reports and it manifestly does not work. It sits awkwardly with the idea of a unitary UK Parliament, where every single Member should be equal. This may be the wrong place to have that fight, but on EVEL we are in the trenches and will support Labour this evening.
I agree with most of what Pete Wishart says about how EVEL was brought to this House. It is an unnecessary change to Standing Orders, because the Conservatives and the Government have a majority in both England and Wales, and across the UK. They do not have to use this process to get legislation through. All it has done, as the Conservatives have done consistently over the past few years, is create more division, which the SNP—if SNP Members do not mind me saying—thrives on in this House.
That brings me to the motion and the Standing Order. We have now added to English votes for English laws the issue of income tax. I am delighted that income tax has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is a shame that members of the Scottish National party, who have spent their entire lives fighting for more powers to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, failed to use that in their most recent Budget, because they did not want a differential between Scottish and English rates. That is the irony of the position.
Adding the income tax issue to the EVEL provisions, Madam Deputy Speaker, not only undermines the principle of the House, but puts pressure on you, and on Mr Speaker’s office, to determine, when dealing with a Finance Bill, whether a provision should indeed be invoked under the EVEL regulations. That means—this is why I intervened on the Leader of the House earlier—that an individual clause in the Finance Bill could rightly say, “We will set the following rates of income tax as part of the Finance Bill for England and Wales,” but the Chancellor could come to the Dispatch Box tomorrow and, hypothetically, say, “We will reduce income tax by x pence in the pound, and we will pay for it with an increase in national insurance.” The income tax rates in the Finance Bill will be in a separate clause, and that will then have to be determined by Mr Speaker and his office, but the national insurance increases will be in another part of the Bill that will not be subject to EVEL.
I am loth to bring this up, but I am holding a copy of the Standing Orders of February 2016, which specifically mention the Scottish rate of income tax. That was already in the EVEL Standing Orders presented by the Leader of the House previously. This is just a technical change in the language. Has the hon. Gentleman read the Standing Order?
It seems to me that SNP Members agree with English votes for English laws and do not want to defend the principle that we are against them, or they want to vote with the Government this evening, or they want to abstain. I am not quite sure what they are doing. However, if I heard the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire correctly, he is going to vote with the Labour party against the motion. I am not sure where the hon. Lady stands on that particular argument, but the point I am trying to make is simply about division and unnecessary complication in the House. The Government’s majority will see any Finance Bill that they wish to present before the next general election—whenever that may be—through the House, because that is the way in which Governments and majorities work. If the Government have a problem with their own Back Benchers when they are trying to change income tax rates, that is entirely fine.
The hon. Lady was right to raise the point that she has just made, but let me gently say to her that we wanted to debate this matter today because it is the first opportunity that we have had to return to the EVEL regulations. It does not make sense for it to be possible to invoke this procedure in the context of income tax.
That brings us to the great repeal Bill and what will come back from the European Union. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has raised that issue on a number of occasions. What will happen then? Will more technical changes be made by means of statutory instruments and Standing Orders to determine whether provisions are subject to English votes for English laws? We do not even know where some of the powers will lie when they are repatriated. It is important to note that none of these issues were examined in depth at the time of the McKay commission’s proposals. There was no consideration of the impact and the knock-on effect of the provisions on the way in which the House operates.
On four separate occasions, under the premiership of Gordon Brown, the Scottish National party asked for English votes for English laws. In fact, they used the term “EVEL”. Then, after 2015—I do not know what happened in 2015; they must have won more seats—SNP Members became opposed to English votes for English laws. Now they are reluctantly voting against this measure. I think the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire just said that he profoundly disagreed with it as a matter of principle, but was not sure whether he would vote against it. He seemed to be saying that these were merely technical changes.
On top of all that, the greatest anomaly in all the regulations, including the one that is before us now, is that even when the hon. Gentleman has sprung up in that strange Committee where the Mace goes down, Madam Deputy Speaker moves to the Chair in order to take the proceedings and no one speaks, and when he has—invariably, and quite rightly—railed against English votes for English laws, SNP Members do not vote when they are allowed to do so, on Third Reading. They are, in practice, demonstrating English votes for English laws in any event.
I remember the circumstances surrounding the housing Bill where the EVEL provisions were put in place for the first time in this House. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire rightly railed against EVEL, and we supported him on that, but then the SNP Members did not vote on the Third Reading of the Bill in any case, when they were entitled to, so I am not quite sure where the principles of that lie, or whether or not the hon. Gentleman should have been voting on the housing Bill.
Of course we support the principle of English votes for English laws and its ultimate logical conclusion of independence, but does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that there is a difference between supporting that concept in principle and this dog’s breakfast of Standing Orders that were brought forward in such a rush after 2015? It is these procedures that we have an issue with, not the principle of English votes for English laws.
And that is quite right: it is a dog’s breakfast, which is why I am so surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s spokesperson on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, did not rail against this particular dog’s breakfast, but instead welcomed this technical change and is not quite sure if he will vote for it or against it or abstain on it this evening. If it is a dog’s breakfast and a matter of principle, let us try to fight these changes at every possible turn, of which this is a great and ideal opportunity in this House this evening.
I will conclude by saying what the alternative is for the Government. Let us take away all these changes to Standing Orders—the mess that the Leader of the House is making of the constitution—and get to a point whereby we have a set of constitutional arrangements in this House that work for the UK. We have called for a constitutional convention that would look at all these issues—the House of Lords and everything we do in terms of the constitution—and do it through a sensible and pragmatic approach, where we can look at everything in the round and come out with something the public want. It is time we started bringing the country together: no more division, no more separating different classes of MPs, no more bringing Standing Orders to this House that merely set one MP off against another. Let us work together to try and find a set of circumstances that work for the entirety of this House. It seems to me that when this Conservative Government talk about taking back control, they are not talking about taking back control to the people of this country; they are talking about taking back control for themselves, and that is the principle behind all these English votes for English laws.
This is a dog’s breakfast and it does not work, as has been highlighted time and again in this House. It is a waste of this House’s time to have to go through the process of a Standing Committee to address whether or not we have English votes for English laws. It is inelegant and we will be voting against this this evening, to send a strong message that we as Members of Parliament are all one in this House, and the Government must go back and think again about what they are doing to the procedures in this famous House of Commons.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to raise my voice in opposition once again to the procedure known as English votes for English laws. The acronym EVEL seems very appropriate from my point of view, if I may say so. It is deeply divisive, demeaning and humiliating for MPs from Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish constituencies to be told repeatedly that this is the United Kingdom, given that although when the Prime Minister took over the reins of power from David Cameron on
I have a very high regard for the Leader of the House. In a previous role he was a spokesperson for Northern Ireland—a spokesman, rather; I will allow him to be a spokesman—and he will therefore be very sensitive indeed to how divisive English votes for English laws and its continuation in this House is, particularly after Brexit. None of us in this House should be under any illusions as to how the circumstances in Northern Ireland have changed. That is evidenced by the Northern Ireland Assembly election on Thursday. A reduced number of MLAs was returned—90—and the Democratic Unionist party, which dominated for so long, now has a majority of just one over Sinn Féin, the republican party. Sinn Féin’s vote went up dramatically. I am not speaking for Sinn Féin—I am speaking as a Unionist—but I am reflecting to the House the seriousness of the situation. With the greatest respect to the Prime Minister, for whom I have great respect, her first call of duty yesterday morning should have been to Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, to reassure the people there that it was firmly within the United Kingdom. That opportunity has now passed.
It behoves this Government to look at ways and means of binding together a very disunited United Kingdom post-Brexit. With the greatest respect to the Leader of the House and to the Government, the continuation of the procedure known as English votes for English laws is counterproductive. It unnecessarily drives a wedge between MPs in this House. The Conservative Government have a majority. Indeed, they increased it in a recent by-election, and their new Member was greeted with great applause last Wednesday. I congratulate Trudy Harrison on her election.
I urge the Leader of the House and his Government to take a long, hard look at the consequences of perpetuating the procedure of English votes for English laws, not just through the issue before the House tonight but when the great repeal Bill comes before the House. He will know that I asked him, in a written question, whether Standing Orders—including the EVEL procedure—would be applied to the great repeal Bill, and I had a perfect parliamentary reply. It told me virtually nothing, except that the great repeal Bill would be the subject of Standing Orders.
The Government can no longer turn their eyes away from what is happening in Northern Ireland. They must take seriously the consequences of last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly election. One way of doing that successfully would be to bring back equality and respect in this House for all Members who stood at the general election on the same day. I stood in the general election in Northern Ireland. I did not explain to my electorate who returned me—because I did not know that I would have to—that my vote would be disregarded when the Government decided to apply English votes for English laws. This is wrong. Let us please wake up to the consequences of Brexit, and to the consequences of perpetuating the divisions within our country by using EVEL when it is wholly unnecessary to do so.
The only kind words that I can add are to commend those who provided the explanatory memorandum to the motion on the Order Paper. The motion is so threadbare that it is impossible to understand what aspect of Standing Orders we were to debate, so I commend the officials who drafted the explanatory memorandum. I would have liked the Leader of the House to take the opportunity to do so as well. Perhaps he will do so in his closing remarks. Without that explanatory memorandum, no one—but no one—would have been able to understand what we were voting for without a crystal ball. That is inappropriate. We need to understand what we are going to vote on. My message is loud and clear to the Leader of the House, whom I respect, and I expect him to come back at some stage, having considered—with his boss, the Prime Minister—how we in this Parliament are going to bind up the wounds that undoubtedly exist throughout this country.
I first saw these proposed changes to Standing Orders on the Order Paper last Tuesday and, as any competent, capable parliamentarian would do, I decided to find out what they meant. I spoke to the Clerks and to the more senior members in my group. I also went to the Leader of the House’s office and asked his officials to produce an explanatory memorandum so that we could understand the changes that were being made and the reasons behind them. Having spoken to the Clerks, I realised that these were in fact fairly innocuous changes that were intended to tighten up the language.
I am against English votes for English laws. I do not like the way the arrangements have been implemented through Standing Orders. I do not think that that was the right way to bring forward such a significant constitutional change in this House. It has shown up at least one technical problem with the drafting. That is a concern, and it would not have arisen had we had proper scrutiny and primary legislation to make the change. I am against EVEL because of how it has been implemented. I am against the fact that significant decisions can be taken on things that have a major impact on Scotland’s public finances and on Barnett consequentials without Scottish Members being able to take a full part in the debate and have a full say in the votes. That is not right, and the change was not an appropriate way to implement EVEL.
We were reassured by the former Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, that Scottish Members would be able to have a full say in the financial processes and the departmental budgets in the estimates process, but the estimates process is utterly rubbish. It does not allow MPs in this House, whether Back-Bench Conservatives or anybody on the Opposition side of the House, to scrutinise departmental budgets. The only people who have a say over departmental budgets are those in the Treasury. The Treasury puts them forward in the form of estimates, which we are not allowed to debate. We were promised that we would still have our say under EVEL on all the financial implications through the estimates process. If the Government are to change EVEL, instead of the change they are making today they should make meaningful changes to allow Scottish MPs to have a say on things that have a financial impact on Scotland’s public finances.
My hon. Friend Pete Wishart said that income tax has been “properly devolved”, which is an interesting phrase, particularly in this context. The Standing Order allows for decisions around the main rates of income tax, which are wholly devolved, to be classed under EVEL. I do not like EVEL at all and I do not think that we should have EVEL, but if we are going to have it, it is probably sensible to have it on something that does not have direct impact on Scotland’s public finances.
Ian Murray mentioned the great repeal Bill, which is important in this context. The great repeal Bill cannot be subject to EVEL, and the Leader of the House should bring a further amendment to the Standing Orders or commit to suspend the Standing Order when we discuss the great repeal Bill, because it is not appropriate for Standing Orders relating to EVEL to apply during the great repeal Bill. Scottish Members should absolutely have a say at all its stages. We are being dragged out of the European Union against our will, and we should have a say in the great repeal Bill.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. We have always been worried about the EVEL Standing Orders placing the Chair in an invidious position. Will that not increase if the Scotland Office, and the Government as a whole, cannot be clear about what powers will be devolved to Scotland in the event of Brexit? The Scotland Act sets out that if something it not reserved, it is devolved, but if the UK Government start to legislate, how on earth will the Chair know whether something should be subject to the EVEL process?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly clever point. The waters are muddy, because the Secretary of State for Scotland has not been clear about what will actually be devolved. He keeps saying that more things will be devolved, but he has been utterly unclear about whether agriculture and fishing will be devolved. The Chair will be in an even worse position when making decisions about the great repeal Bill due to the mud in the water.
My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire and the shadow Leader of the House said that this is a matter of principle. I get that. I am against EVEL and do not think it should have been implemented in this way. We should not have a constitutional convention; we should have independence. If the Labour party is so concerned about voting against the Government on matters of principle, I suggest that the one to have started with would have been the article 50 Brexit vote.
With the leave of the House, Lady Hermon enjoys huge respect on both sides of the House for the way in which she has championed peace and political reconciliation in Northern Ireland. We all take seriously her concerns about the current fragile political situation there. Both the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are working as hard as they can to bring about reconciliation, and they will want to listen to her views and the views of other Northern Ireland colleagues in the days and weeks ahead.
The hon. Members for North Down and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) both asked about the application of the
To be treated under the EVEL procedures, a Bill or a clause has to deal with a devolved matter—in most cases, the procedures apply to matters devolved to Scotland. The repeal Bill will address the cessation of the application to the UK of an international treaty, and international treaties, as the whole House knows, are expressly reserved to the United Kingdom Government and Parliament in all three devolution settlements.
It is difficult to see how the EVEL procedures could apply to matters under the repeal Bill, but I will be cautious about that until the day when the repeal Bill is published and everybody can inspect it.
I appreciate that the Leader of the House is giving us more clarity on the issue than we have previously received, but I still ask him seriously to consider suspending the Standing Order when the great repeal Bill comes to the House in order to ensure that it cannot possibly be subject to the EVEL procedures.
I take note of the hon. Lady’s representation.
It is always good to hear familiar riffs. Like putting Eric Clapton on the turntable and hearing the golden oldies from one’s younger days, the speech of Pete Wishart is familiar to me. He puts his finger on the truth that I am not sure Ian Murray or the shadow Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz, really grasped. This is a narrow, technical change.
On the question before the House, it is true that all UK MPs will still be able to continue voting on Budgets and on all aspects of income tax. But English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will have an opportunity expressly to approve matters that primarily affect their constituencies, such as the main rates of income tax. That simply reflects the fact that it is Members of the Scottish Parliament who vote on devolved matters, including the main rates of income tax, in so far as they affect Scottish taxpayers.
Why are we making this change? We are making the change because of a degree of uncertainty in the current Standing Orders when we have to take into account the implications of the Scotland Act 2016. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North pointed out, our Standing Orders already provide for certification in relation to Finance Bills, so we are not debating some new extension of the EVEL procedures. The 2016 Act presents us with a particular problem. The main rates of income tax are paid by residents of the United Kingdom who are not subject to the Scottish main rate of income tax. That means that in future no Scottish taxpayer will be affected by the UK main rate, but there is a theoretical possibility that the main rate of income tax could affect an individual who is not a Scottish taxpayer but has some connections to Scotland—perhaps they have a second home there. Because of that possibility, it was unclear whether, subsequent to the 2016 Act, a clause that set the main rates of income tax would relate exclusively to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and therefore trigger a vote under the English laws procedures according to the existing Standing Orders.
The narrow amendment we are considering will remove the element of doubt and ensure what was always intended when the House approved the Standing Orders, the 2016 Act and the measures in last year’s Finance Act—namely, that a vote on the main rates of income tax will attract an EVEL vote. This will ensure that English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs have the final say on setting income tax rates when no Scottish taxpayer will be affected. That seems to be a perfectly fair way to proceed, so I invite the House to support the amendment.
The House divided:
Ayes 287, Noes 239.