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Government backtracks on Evel plan

The Government has backtracked on its plans for English votes for English laws (Evel), promising a redraft of the controversial proposals and postponing a Commons vote until at least September.

David Cameron had faced the prospect of an embarrassing defeat on a manifesto pledge as Tory unease combined with a co-ordinated effort by Labour and SNP MPs to object to the plans.

Commons leader Chris Grayling announced at the weekly business statement that MPs will have two days of debate on a new draft of the rule changes.

The draft will be published on Monday, while the first day of debate is scheduled for Wednesday. The second day has not been announced but all days of Commons time before the summer recess have been filled.

Revealing the climbdown, Mr Grayling said: "On Wednesday July 15 ... a debate on English votes for English laws - the first of a two-day debate on that subject."

He added: "If I may briefly explain to the House - on Monday I will, having listened to comments from MPs, publish a modified set of draft standing orders on Evel.

"We will debate those on Wednesday. Subsequent to that debate, I will table a final set of standing orders which we will debate at an early opportunity once the House returns."

Shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle mocked Mr Grayling for getting the Government into a "mess", claiming he had been summoned to explain the situation to the Prime Minister.

She said the Commons schedule had been "clearly subject to last-minute, sudden change".

Ms Eagle, who is bidding to become her party's deputy leader, continued: "This week the Government's reckless and shoddy plans for what they like to call Evel have descended into chaos.

"On Tuesday, you were dragged to this chamber kicking and screaming to account for your complex and controversial plans but it was clear from that debate you didn't even have the support of your own side. We then had the sorry spectacle of the Government abstaining on its own process while you fled the chamber in embarrassment.

"You published 22 pages of draft changes to our standing orders which you were proposing to ram through the House with minimal votes and debates next Wednesday. Now I'm told you are frantically redrafting them in a desperate bid to regain the support of your own backbenches which is, I assume, why they have not been laid.

"This morning I hear you were summoned to the Prime Minister's office to account for your role in creating this mess. We have heard the outcome of that meeting appears to be two days' debate rather than one but we still haven't seen these draft standing orders."

Ms Eagle urged Mr Grayling to confirm there would be more significant consultations on the new draft than on the first set of clauses.

MPs, led by Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael, staged an emergency debate on Mr Grayling's plans on Tuesday, protesting that they would mean effectively an English Parliament within the ranks of the Commons - creating two tiers of MPs.

Opposition MPs said a change of such magnitude should not be rushed and should be done by an amendment to the law, not just Commons rules.

Labour and SNP MPs staged a symbolic vote on the issue by opposing the emergency motion - winning by 189 after the Government abstained - while senior Tory backbenchers also raised worries about how the Government was handling the issue.

Given the slim Government majority, a handful of Tory rebels could have consigned Mr Cameron to his first defeat as a majority Conservative Prime Minister.

Under the original draft, a new Commons stage will be introduced for laws passing through Parliament when English, or English and Welsh, MPs will be asked to accept or veto legislation only affecting their constituents before it passes to third reading.

There will be a separate committee stage for English, or English and Welsh, MPs for Bills not affecting Scotland and Northern Ireland, meaning legislation can be amended without the consent of all MPs in the Commons, although there will be further opportunities to overturn any changes.

Earlier, during Commons questions, Deputy Commons Leader Therese Coffey said the Government was setting up "drop-in" sessions for MPs concerned about the implications of the plans.

Answering Labour's David Hanson (Delyn), Ms Coffey said: "I'll be sending out emails today to have drop-in sessions for any MP who wants to come and speak about these proposals in further detail."

Shadow deputy leader Nic Dakin said: "In light of the sudden and welcome change of approach by the Government to Evel next week, can you outline how the Government intends to ensure full and proper consultation takes place on a genuinely cross-party basis on this very important, difficult, constitutional issue?"

Ms Coffey replied: "(Mr Grayling) has made approaches to other parties, we are having these drop-in sessions.

"I'll remind the Opposition they were invited last autumn to come and have discussions; they declined to do so."

Downing Street confirmed that the Prime Minister and Mr Grayling had discussed the issue but insisted the overall policy has not changed.

The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said: "They have discussed the issue. I think this reflects a willingness on the part of Government to respect the parliamentary process, listen to views that have been expressed in the House, discussions that the Commons Leader has had with members and, reflecting on that, the appetite there to have further debate on the issue."

She added: "The Commons Leader regularly attends daily meetings at Number 10, so there was nothing out of the ordinary.

"Our policy hasn't changed, we remain committed to delivering this and ensuring that every part of the UK has a fair say on matters relating to them."

The modified proposals are technical changes aimed at clarifying how the new process will work, in particular in relation to funding consequentials under the Barnett formula.

A senior Government source said: "It's not a rewrite in any shape or form."

Mr Grayling further defended his position, claiming that if Labour had asked him for more time to debate the plans he would have given it.

Replying to Ms Eagle, he said: "You table a draft, you listen to the people who read the draft, you make some modifications, you then have a debate, you then have a vote, it's called consultation.

"They (Labour) never did it when they were in office, when they were in office they just published their proposals and voted them through with a large majority.

"In a shock development they have actually listened to MPs' comments.

"Labour asked for more time, now the surprising thing is that the Labour chief whip spent the last few days going around Conservative backbenchers saying 'please, please vote for more time'.

"If she'd have asked me for more time I would have given it to her, and I have."

The SNP's frontbench spokesman Pete Wishart demanded Evel is brought in through a Bill, giving it much more time for debate and opportunities for MPs to amend it.

He said: "What an Evel shambles.

"I'm prepared to take you at your word that you are listening, that you are prepared to move on this issue.

"So can I suggest a way forward that we can all get agreement with, something that we could all work together on.

"Now's the time for you to go away to the clerks, get a Bill, bring it to this House, where we can properly debate all the issues all of the issues to do with English votes for English laws, given its historical significance, given its constitutional significance, we get an opportunity to amend it and we treat it like any other major piece of legislation in this House.

"Will you commit yourself to deliver that?"

Replying, Mr Grayling said he would consider bringing forward a Bill if a review after a year of Evel being in place suggested flaws in the process.

"I am very happy after we have tried this system out over 12 months to consider the possibility of legislation," he said.


From Belfast Telegraph