Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Confused of Westminster

I woke up this morning clear in my mind about Conservative plans to increase the role of English MPs in passing new laws that affect England alone.

Then I made the mistake of going to a Tory press conference on the subject.

The report of a taskforce led by the former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke is clear. Bills that are certified as "English" would be voted on by all MPs at their second reading, when the principles of the new law are discussed.

Line-by-line-scrutiny at committee stage "would be undertaken by English MPs only" and report stage - when committee amendments are considered would be "voted on by English Members only".


Mr Clarke was charming, engaging - and confused. He told the news conference the new rules excluding Welsh MPs would apply only in the (limited but growing) areas where the Welsh Assembly had already acquired full law-making powers.

So Welsh MPs would be able to vote on an England only Health Bill unless it concerned the areas of health where the Assembly could make its own laws?

Er, possibly. Mr Clarke himself had to ask the shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan (more of her later) whether the Assembly had any primary law-making powers. Welsh devolution, he said, was "a moving feast" and Mr Clarke gives the impression of being someone who wouldn't say no to a feast.

After the news conference, the Tories "clarified" things. It's as you were. Any English-only law in a devolved area (legislative or administrative) would see the role of non-English MPs limited during its parliamentary passage.

Mr Clarke said his report had been finished some time ago. Some reporters were convinced that the man who famously didn't read the Maastricht Treaty had not read the document since then.

Conservative governments have previously used the votes of English Tory MPs to drive through Wales-only legislation. So would a future Conservative Government exclude English backbenchers from key stages of Welsh legislation? An academic question, but I thought it was worth asking.

The Tories are laying great stress on the accountability of politicians to their constituents on issues that affect them.

I did ask how voters in Wales could hold the shadow Welsh Secretary to account when she answered to constituents in Chesham and Amersham.

Mr Clarke insists his rules will strengthen the Union and not inhibit the right of any MP to fill any Cabinet job.

He did point out that there is a history of non-Welsh MPs representing Wales in the UK Cabinet.

Perhaps the question brought back memories of his brief double act with John Redwood during ons of several Tory leadership elections of the past decade.

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