English only votes at Westminster under new proposals

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  By Angela Haggerty
 
UK ministers have begun drawing up plans to give English MPs the power of a “veto” over legislation that does not affect Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland in the latest twist to the West Lothian question.
 
Under the current system, MPs from outside of England can vote on issues that affect England only, a point which has caused controversy since powers were devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

The new plans being drawn up by Conservative Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin and Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander would allow English MPs to block any legislation that did not affect Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, such as health, education and transport, if the majority of English MPs did not support it.

One proposal is understood to suggest an extra stage of legislative scrutiny open only to English MPs could be introduced in the House of Commons.

The major reforms to the UK political system are expected to be formally announced in the Autumn although Number 10 has not yet officially commented on the proposals.  The coalition government set up an independent commission last year to look at the issue of imbalance within the UK parliament.

With just over a year before the referendum on Scottish independence, SNP Constitutional Affairs Spokesman Pete Wishart MP said the West Lothian question was impossible to solve under the current political set up.

“The West Lothian Question will not be resolved by fiddling with procedures in the antiquated old system at Westminster,” said Mr Wishart.  “There will always be anomalies under the current set up.  There is one clear answer to the West Lothian question – independence for Scotland.

“Governments at Westminster and Holyrood should make all their own decisions, working together in a modern partnership of equals.”

Wishart went on to criticise MPs from the three major parties for using votes which did not affect their constituents for the sake of party politics.  Infamously in 2004, Tony Blair’s Labour was heavily criticised for using the votes of the party’s Scottish MPs to push through tuition fees in England despite the fact they wouldn’t apply in Scotland.

“In the meantime, our MPs at Westminster address the West Lothian question by applying a self-denying ordinance.  We only vote on issues which impact on Scotland,” he continued.

“This is in stark contrast to Labour, Lib Dems and even the single Scottish Tory who are happy to be used as a lobby fodder time and again, on issues like academy schools and foundation hospitals which don’t affect their own constituents.”

The changes could have serious implications for the Labour party, which counts 67 of its 257 MPs from Scotland and Wales, making it more difficult for the party to pass legislation if in government and requiring more effort to get MPs from other parties on side.

Meanwhile, the plans have raised concerns among some MPs that different tiers of parliament would be created, effectively reducing MPs from outside of England to “second class” MPs.

Labour has described the proposals as a “hare brained scheme” while Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards said the plans were “half baked” and the “complete confusion” over the voting system could lead to a constitutional crisis.