Ian Swanson: Hunt to deliver us from Evel

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MEMBERS of Parliament were supposed to be voting at Westminster today on Tory plans to relax the ban on fox-hunting in England – but no longer. David Cameron and his colleagues chose to postpone the vote after the SNP announced it would abandon its usual practice of abstaining on English-only issues and instead vote with Labour against the hunters.

Tory MPs were to have a free vote on the proposals and there were enough set to oppose the government plans to make defeat inevitable, given the Nationalists’ decision.

And fox-hunting was not the only crucial vote to be scrapped today. The Tories had already been forced to back down on their “Evel plans” (English Votes for English Laws) – their answer to the famous West Lothian Question – which they originally wanted to rush through in one day.

They have now agreed to a second day’s debate after the summer recess, but still mean to go ahead with the new arrangements – adding an extra stage to the parliamentary process and giving English MPs an unprecedented veto on what is deemed legislation that will only effect England.

Some might say the SNP’s readiness to defeat a relaxation of the English fox-hunting ban is a perfect illustration of why Evel is necessary.

Others could argue the SNP’s stance against hunting reflects a universal moral position which knows no boundaries.

Both the postponed votes underline the fragility of the Tories’ Commons majority. The expectation of a stalemate result in the general election meant any majority at all was hailed as a magnificent victory. But any previous government finding itself with an advantage of just 12 over all other parties would have been seen as on a knife edge from the start.

And here lies part of the reason why Evel is so close to the government’s heart. The Conservatives may have an overall majority of just 12, but among English MPs, they outnumber all other parties by 319 to 214. Mr Cameron could be much more confident of getting legislation through on an English-only vote.

But it is ironic that at the very time the Conservatives are appealing to the supposedly self-evident reasonableness of English MPs having the decisive say on issues affecting their constituents, the Tories’ sole MP in Scotland, Scottish Secretary David Mundell, is in the position of effectively vetoing amendments to the Scotland Bill which have the near unanimous backing of Scottish MPs.

Some of the proposed changes are supported by 58 out of the 59 MPs north of the Border – in other words, all of then except for Mr Mundell – yet it is the Scottish Secretary’s will which prevails.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the way Evel is being dealt with is the government’s determination to avoid legislation and instead push it through via an amendment to standing orders.

Trying to establish the principle of English-only voting is a major constitutional change and ought to be subject to proper scrutiny and debate.

To pretend it is just a tweak to parliamentary procedure or a technical adjustment to the rulebook is a serious misrepresentation.

There are real concerns that even matters which appear on the surface only to affect England will have hidden or long-term knock-on effects in Scotland.

So however logical it may seem, it is difficult to accept that Evel is in fact a good answer to the West Lothian Question.