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English votes for English laws

Tuesday 26-01-2016 - 11:52

The Government tried every trick in the book to avoid proper scrutiny of their plans to abolish maintenance grants – including classifying it as an England-only issue.

This meant that the debate on Tuesday was the first ever use of a new ‘double majority’ vote procedure under the Conservatives’ English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) system. It was an underhand tactic and, because EVEL has only been in use for the last two weeks, it created a confusing situation where even MPs were left in the dark about what would and would not happen.

This did not mean that MPs from outside England could not vote. It rather meant that there were two votes, and we needed to win both to stop the Government’s plans: votes from all MPs would be counted first, and if we won that first vote, the result would hinge on the number of only English MPs who voted. NUS was made aware of this at very short notice, as were MPs themselves – many of whom found out from us.

But the use of EVEL did not affect the outcome of the debate. It was always crucial that students and students’ unions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland lobbied their MPs before the vote to give us a fighting chance of saving grants. Without strong support from MPs from the devolved nations, we would not have come as close as we did to winning the first vote, which is what would have then forced the England-only vote. It’s a testament to how hard students campaigned across the country that we came within 11 votes of forcing the second vote, which would have led us into unchartered constitutional territory.

The EVEL system is new, confusing and underhand. It makes it twice as hard for anyone opposing the Government but gives them two chances to shut opposition down: anybody challenging them not only has to win, they have to win twice. Not only that but there are massive flaws in how issues are classified as English-only, which this debate showed only too well. Many students from England study in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who would have been unrepresented if we made it to the second vote. NUS was fighting hard to challenge this decision up until the debate – NUS Scotland and Wales Presidents, Beth Button and Vonnie Sandlan, were challenging the Speaker of the Commons directly – and we will be fighting hard to expose the flaws even now the issue has passed through Parliament.

The Government is set to use EVEL more and more, because it stacks the cards so heavily in their favour. It is a complicated system that we – just like many MPs – will need to get our heads around if we are to effectively challenge the Government’s hostile policies. NUS will be producing a briefing for students and students’ unions about EVEL soon and we will be working closely with colleagues across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to build evidence bases of how different policies that get labelled English-only will impact students, wherever they are in the UK.

For more information about EVEL, you can see this government resource.

We will also be producing further information – and get in touch (public.affairs@nus.org.uk) if we can help with any questions.

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