Back in October, I had a bit of a rant. I was fed up: fed up of some of the nonsense being peddled about the Tories' feeble new EVEL rules. With the final Commons vote on the England-only Housing Bill this week, the guffstorm surged back into life. Part of me is sympathetic. The changes to Parliament's standing orders which give effect to the principle of "English votes for English laws" are complicated. To understand how the Commons rules have been tweaked, you also have to understand how parliament ordinarily scrutinises legislation, the stages and processes.
Most folk - understandably - don't. And the gulf left between appearances and reality has been filled with the most tedious kinds of grievance-seeking and exaggeration, gleefully encouraged by certain members of the SNP parliamentary delegation. In fairness to Pete Wishart, his speech on Tueday focussed more on the principle of the thing than the detail, arguing that there should not be "two classes" of members of parliament in a single House. This isn't an argument I can get particularly het up about, but fair play. Pete makes his case.
But there remains a strange tendency - a strange desire, even - wildly to overstate the comparatively trivial restrictions on Scottish MPs' voting rights which the new EVEL rules represent. Pete depicts the scene with characterstic vigour. "Even if I wanted a say in this Bill, I would be barred from doing so", he says:
"I am not allowed to vote on this. I am not even allowed to call a Division, and if I attempted to do so, you would quite rightly rule me out of order, Mrs Laing, according to the standards of the House. If I were to vote in the Division I have no idea what would happen. I presume that the Serjeant at Arms would come chasing after me with his little sword, telling me that I cannot participate in this vote, and he would chase me out. That is what he should do; that is what his job would be."
Listening to this rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking that EVEL cuts Mr Wishart out of the loop altogether; that he is permitted no vote and no voice whatever on a Bill designated as England only. But this depiction - however colourful - is wildly misleading. I tried to explain why in October's blog. I thought I'd give it another shot today.
In the Commons, the scrutiny of Bills goes through a number of stages, or "readings" in parliament's preferred phrase. The first reading is a bit of a formality. A Bill is presented to parliament, without a vote and without debate. Under the new EVEL rules, it is at this stage that the Speaker will decide whether or not the legislation - or bits of it - relate only to England, or England and Wales and so on. Let's say the hypothetical Bill we've introduced seeks to change the rules on funding university tuition, introducing yet another fee for students studying in English higher education institutions on top of the current system of debts and loans. Holyrood enjoys legislative competence over the issue. This is a classic EVEL question, but it is also one you might expect Scottish MPs to feel strongly about.
What influence would they be able to exert in the Commons? Would they be able to participate in parliamentary process at all? Listening to shriller outriders, you could be forgiven for thinking Scottish MPs had been all but expelled from the chamber. For reasons which will shortly become clear, this is a nonsense. Indeed, if you haven't already aquainted yourself with the detail of the rules, you may find yourself surprised at the sheer gutlessness of the Tories' restrictions on the voting rights of Scottish MPs.
After the formality of the first reading, the second is when things really begin to kick off. MPs debate the general principles of the legislation. Sticking with our hypothetical example, would EVEL bar Scottish MPs from participating and voting in the second reading debate, sticking up for students, smiting for justice? Not a bit of it. They could gnaw away at the general principles of this English only legislation as vigorously as their colleagues from Cumbria or Kent. And having howled their discontent, they're entitled troop through the lobbies en masse to vote down the England-only education Bill.
Only at the Committee stage would EVEL begin to bite at all. If a whole-UK majority supports the Bill's general principles, it proceeds to committee, for scrutiny and amendment. Under EVEL, an English Bill will only be scrutinised in detail by MPs representing constituencies south of the Tweed. These MPs will produce a report on their findings, which brings us to the next stage in parliamentary procedure - the so-called "report stage" - where MPs contemplate the work of their colleagues and consider further amendments to the law.
Once again, no robust serjeant at arms need be kept at hand to gag Mr Wishart, as Scottish MPs will be quite free at this stage to participate in, vote upon and lodge amendments to our hypothetical, England-only education Bill. You might expect a full-blooded "banishment" to be more effective in limiting the influence and silencing the voices of Scottish parliamentarians, but hey ho.
Supported by the government's majority, the Bill sails through report stage. Now we come to the nub of Grayling's rules. EVEL introduces a new procedure, by which English MPs are invited to "consent" to the proposed clauses. Scottish MPs are, understandably, not permitted to vote at this stage. If a majority of English parliamentarians are in favour of the new student fees, MPs from all parts of Britain then participate in the final vote on whether to accept or reject the proposals at Third Reading. But if the majority of English MPs did not support the proposals, they fail. They're vetoed.
The key point is this: all MPs, from every corner of the United Kingdom, will retain the last word on whether England-only laws reach the statute book. Scottish MPs retain their votes. The SNP delegation could have voted on the Housing and Planning Bill this week. They chose not to. But if the Scottish delegation can muster sufficient allies from the rest of the country, the Bill will fall despite the approval extended to it by the majority of English MPs. Notice: the attitude of English MPs is decisive only in a negative sense. They can veto England-only laws they don't like, but they cannot insist that England-only laws they approve of are passed. This is how the plans are intended to operate.
Mr Wishart describes this as Scottish MPs being banned from the Commons; barred, banished, exiled. He talks of wounded feeling, and of symbolism. Fair dos. Symbolism is important. But symbolism doesn't change the rules. And symbolism doesn't transform feeble restrictions into mighty oppressions. EVEL remains what it was in October: milquetoast.