English votes for English laws stalked the land in the House of Commons for a second day. Harriet Harman asked about it and Labour member of parliament Stephen McCabe, Birmingham Selly Oak, feared that it would mean English votes for English foxes!
Prime minister’s questions before the budget is always a strange occasion, as the House is waiting with bated breath for what the chancellor is going to say. David Cameron kept reminding the Commons, when he felt particularly caught with a difficult question, that there would be more important business in a while.
The attacks on EVEL were not entirely successful – not least because Labour admits it is a problem too – but Harman was right to ask searching questions. The constitution is the government’s weak point and ministers are trying to rush through legislation which will change the British settlement forever. It is also a wedge issue – one that divides the Tory party. Yesterday, fears over the handling of EVEL were being raised by David Davies and Dominic Grieve and a procedural vote was lost in the Commons by the government.
So Harman asked Cameron whether EVEL had been through the procedures committee. He said, very vaguely, that he had talked to the committee and claimed Harman was harping on about procedure rather than substance. It was, he said, simply so English matters could not be decided ‘against the will of English MPs’.
But, as Harman pointed out that was not what he had promised last week at prime minister’s questions. He had said then that he would: ‘publish our proposals shortly’ and, as Harman pointed out, he could not have consulted the procedures committee ‘because it hasn’t been set up!’ He should consult properly or he was breaking a promise, she said.
Harman also had a go at him about the British bill of rights – another constitutional problem for the prime minister – and also opposed by Messrs Davies and Grieve if it means pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
She said there had been ‘mixed messages from the government’ with Cameron giving a different line to his ministers. ‘Can the prime minister make it absolutely clear that Britain will be staying in the European Convention on Human Rights?’, asked Harman. Cameron obfuscated somewhat, but seemed encouraging enough for Harman to accepted he didn’t intend to pull out.
If he is not going to leave then, she said ‘We might as well stay with the Human Rights Act’.
Harman asked questions about whether the Olympics had encouraged more sport in the country. Cameron reeled off some dodgy statistics, which is always an unedifying sight. However, we were no nearer to the truth.
In other questions, Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds, Stalybridge and Hyde, asked about the TransPennine line which was due to be electrified between Leeds and Manchester, including trains running to and from Newcastle and on which there is now an ‘indefinite pause’. Cameron said it was just a pause, not an indefinite one.
Justin Madders, Ellesmere Port and Neston, also asked about the train line saying a northern powerhouse could not happen without it and adding, “The only place the northern powerhouse can be found was in the prime minister’s imagination!”
Jo Cox, Batley and Spen, followed up McCabe’s question on foxes. Why, when there were food banks in her constituency, was the priority for the government overturning the hunting ban?
The Tories will want to keep talking about the economy, and there were plenty of questions from loyal Tory MPs on the subject today. Labour should continue questions on the constitution, because long term that really matters too.