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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Volume 516: debated on Tuesday 12 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, in addition to those of the Order of 6 September 2010:

1. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be taken on each of the days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.

2. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time shown in the third column of the Table.



Time for conclusion of


First day

Clause 1

11.00 pm

Second day

Schedule 1, Clauses 2 and 3, Schedules 2 to 4, Clause 4, Schedule 5, Clauses 5 and 6

11.00 pm.

Third day

Clause 7, Schedule 6, Clauses 8 and 9

11.00 pm.

Fourth day

Clauses 10 to 13, Schedule 7, Clauses 14 to 17

9.00 pm.

Fifth day

New Clauses, New Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill

One hour after the moment of interruption.

(Jeremy Wright.)

I look forward to a rigorous debate on the issues in the Bill during its Committee stage. I am grateful to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—whose Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is in his place—for the report that it published yesterday and for the considerable amount of work that it put into taking evidence from, among others, the Deputy Prime Minister and myself. Concerns were expressed about the amount of time available to the Committee, but that was clearly not a barrier to its producing a comprehensive report, and I thank all the members of the Committee for their diligence.

The motion before us allows for five days of debate on the Floor of the House. I know that some Members have expressed concern that there will not be enough time to debate the provisions in the Bill, and we have tried to keep rigid programming to a minimum. As I said on Second Reading, however, we want to ensure—we have taken steps to do so in the programme motion—that the House will be able to debate and vote on the key issues raised by the Bill. In our view, the programme motion will allow that.

For this 17-clause Bill, we have proposed five full days of Committee on the Floor of the House and two days for Report, which we think adequately recognises the importance of the issues. We have had discussions through the usual channels with the Opposition, who have not presented any objections to the timetable.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he is making with this Bill, but will he explain why there is closure at 11 o’clock this evening? This is a constitutional Bill of vital importance, so why should we not be able to talk for as long as we want on the issues today?

Given the previous Government’s record on this matter, I would have thought that my hon. Friend would recognise that we are allowing extra time today to take account of the fact that we have just had a rightly lengthy and well attended statement. We granted extra time so that that statement did not unduly eat into the time available for debating this Bill. As I said, I would have thought that my hon. Friend, given his concern for Parliament, would have welcomed the progress made. We may not have gone as far as he would have wished, but I think that even he would recognise that we have gone some way further than the previous Administration did. I see him nodding his assent.

I accept, and give credit to party managers for ensuring, that we have a certain protection of time up to 11 pm today. However, does the Minister understand our concern that later in our consideration—certainly for the third and fourth day—a significant number of amendments have been tabled, so that we may not have enough time to debate the many issues surrounding exempted constituencies, for example, simply because a guillotine will come into force at 11pm or some other specified time?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly sensible point. We have allowed the number of days allotted and included some extra time, but we will clearly keep that under review. He will have noticed that on the fourth day—the same day as the comprehensive spending review—we have allowed an extra two hours for the Committee to sit. We have tried to take that into account, and it is also in the interest of Members to balance the time allotted to different parts of the Bill. As I say, however, we will keep this under review and see how the debate progresses. I have heard what my hon. Friend says, and I will review progress.

The Minister says that he is going to keep this under review, so would he consider changing this programme motion in order to grant extra days of debate or put back the end-point? If we vote for the motion today, will it be set in stone, as reviewing it might not satisfy those of us who are concerned that elements of the Bill will not get the full consideration they need?

My hon. Friend will know that on Second Reading, when the House voted by a considerable margin to support the principle of the Bill, it also supported the initial programme motion of 6 September, which set the number of days for debate. I listened very carefully to the wide-ranging debate on that day and picked out the issues that appeared to be of concern to Members on both sides of the House. That is what has driven this second programme motion—to try to ensure that the key issues are debated. Today, for example, we are to debate the date of the referendum and the question that it will put, and those issues will be debated. As I said, I listened carefully to the whole of the previous debate, so I believe we have captured the key issues. The House has already accepted that five days in Committee is the right period for consideration of the Bill.

The Minister is being very generous, but bearing in mind that there will not be a general election until 2015, surely there is not that much of a rush to get this measure through the House.

My hon. Friend is right that the coalition Government are strong and that there will not be an election until 7 May 2015, as set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear, however, that we want the referendum to take place next year in order to make progress, and we also need to kick off the boundary review, ensuring that it reports in good time before the next election. That will allow parties across the House to select their candidates. We have secured a balance between moving at a reasonable pace, while also allowing adequate time for proper parliamentary debate. I think that we have done so.

We made a commitment in the coalition agreement to have the referendum, and the Government believe that we should arrange to have it at an early opportunity, putting the question to the electors so that they can decide what voting system they want to use in the next election. That is the decision that the Government have made, and that is the view with which I will ask the Committee to agree later today. The House has already agreed with it in principle.

Clause 1 covers five pages of the amendment paper, whereas clause 9 requires 12 pages. Debate on clause 9, however, will occupy only about a third of the time occupied by debate on clause 1.

In my view, it is a question not just of the number of pages, but of the substance of the issues involved. My hon. Friend will note that the Bill also contains a number of schedules, and, given that I have written to him and other Members today, he will know how we propose to deal with the combination amendment. Complicated technical issues occupying many pages may not raise significant issues, while significant issues requiring considerable debate may not occupy many pages. I do not think that the Committee should take a simple page-count approach.

My hon. Friend is making a great presentation. The coalition agreement, to which most of us agreed and of which most of us are very supportive, contained a commitment to a referendum on alternative voting. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the date of the referendum was not included in the agreement, and therefore need not necessarily be part of this process?

My hon. Friend is right. I am glad that he finds my argument compelling, and I am sure that he will support the programme motion if Members feel the need to put it to a vote and test the opinion of the Committee.

It is true that the coalition agreement committed both coalition parties in the Government to supporting a referendum on the voting system, and the Government subsequently decided that 5 May next year was the right date. The House has already endorsed the principle of the Bill, and later this afternoon we will conduct a line-by-line scrutiny of it. I will be asking Members on both sides of the Committee to endorse the date, although I will expect support only from Members on this side.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous and very reasonable. In that spirit of reasonableness, will he have a word with his unreasonable colleague the Secretary of State for Wales, who is refusing to allow a Welsh Grand Committee debate on the implications for Wales of this major constitutional Bill? We have not been given any explanation for her decision. Would it not make sense to allow time for debate in a separate forum, to enable more time to be made available for debate in the Chamber?

I simply do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of my right hon. Friend the rather excellent Secretary of State for Wales. He will note that I have been joined in the Chamber by her Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who will be supporting me on the Bill. There will be adequate time in the five days that we have provided for debate on how the Bill affects Wales, in terms of both the boundary changes and the referendum, and I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman and his Welsh colleagues—including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench—will acquit themselves well in speaking up for Wales during that debate.

The motion specifies the clauses and schedules that are to be debated, and the days on which they are to be debated. Beyond that, it will be for you, Mr Speaker, and for Members themselves, to decide how best to use the time. As I have already said in response to interventions, we have provided extra time on each day to allow for statements. On the fourth day, as we know, there will be a significant statement on the spending review, and having assumed that you will allow questions on it to run for a significant period, Mr Speaker, we have provided the necessary extra time.

I believe that the programme allows the Committee adequate time. I believe that it delivers on the promise that I made on Second Reading to allow the significant issues to be both debated and voted on, and I hope that Members on both sides of the Committee will feel able to support it.

I have to say that the Minister is being remarkably blasé about this. I know that he goes blasé when he is trying to be nice, but—[Interruption.] Yes, he may be nice—he may have nice moments—but I am afraid that this is not a nice Bill so we will have to deal with him accordingly.

We are, of course, very grateful for the extended hours. However, I should say that since Mr Speaker rightly allowed the recent statement to go on for some considerable time, as it addressed a matter of importance to many people, today our deliberations on the Bill will be briefer than they would have been if there had been no statement, and it is likely that that will be the case in many further days.

The hon. Gentleman spoke for longer than I shall, so he can keep shtum for a moment.

It would be better if there were no guillotines in the days provided for debate. As the Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), asked: what is the rush? Does this Bill have to be hurried through because its measures are the glue that hold together the coalition—that is what Opposition Members suspect, and indeed I think that it is what the hon. Gentleman suspects as well—or is there some honourable, decent reason for that? We know the answer, of course.

There is clearly a rush on. The Select Committee report has already said that hasty drafting and no consultation are the hallmarks. In recent years it has been extremely unusual for any constitutional reform Bill to go through this House without any pre-legislative scrutiny. I have also scoured history to find a constitutional Bill of this magnitude and significance that went through with so few days of consultation on the Floor of the House. The Minister says it is a short Bill, and that may be the case.

The Minister has talked enough, and he wants us to get on with the business in hand. He said it is only a short Bill. However, although it may contain only a few clauses, it is 153 pages long, and it affects major and significant parts of our constitution. Also, he has crafted the motion in a way that allows us remarkably little freedom within each of the days and between the days. For instance, if we finish the business early on the second day, next Monday, we will not be able to proceed straight away with the business for the third day. We will almost certainly need to review that, because the business for the third day is clauses 7, 8 and 9 and schedule 6, which include the topic of precisely how the alternative vote would operate. We must remember that the Bill will never come back to the House if the referendum is carried—although I know that the Minister hopes it will not be carried.

The measures to be discussed on the third day also give us the new rules for the Boundary Commissions, cutting up the rules that have existed for many years. In addition, there is the cutting of the number of parliamentary seats and the decision about how we distribute them. That, too, would never come back to the House for any vote hereafter, unless the House of Lords were to change the provisions. It would be wrong to concertina debate on all that into one single day. It is quite possible that that would mean that there would be perhaps half an hour or 40 minutes to discuss the Northern Irish element of the Bill, including the distribution of seats. That would not serve Northern Ireland well.

As several Members have made clear, there is an additional point to do with the Secretary of State for Wales. I have to say that since becoming Secretary of State she has become far more sour than she was before, when she was a rather more pleasant individual. She has refused point blank to allow a Welsh Grand Committee to discuss the very significant issues that there are in relation to Wales.

Therefore, although the Minister may be blasé, we are not buying any of this.

It is a bit rich that the hon. Gentleman should repeat the same arguments as those that he listened to and swept aside when he was in a position to affect the outcome of such a debate.

I am going to reflect on an irony. Along with every other Member, I participated in the last general election. The Deputy Prime Minister—who at the time was leader of the Liberal Democrats—repeatedly made a point about the “same old politics”. That became a mantra, and I remember that his poll rating went up when he referred to it. Yet here we are having the same old politics announced from the Front Bench under his direction; this is his Bill. This is a constitutional measure, which we all understand is of considerable importance. It affects the constituencies, their nature and the nature of representation, and the way in which a Member is elected to this place. I can think of nothing as constitutionally profound as this—leaving aside European legislation—in all the time that I have been here. In addition, it is intended not to be unwound if it is won—that is the point behind it—so why are we looking at the same old politics?

This motion is a guillotine: that is what it is, straight and simple. We need not waste time debating whether it is half an hour short here or two hours short there, or whether we lose part of the debate because of the importance of various clauses. This should have been allowed to roll in this House for as long as it took. That was the constitutional rule almost—

Yes, it was the convention, but conventions have been swept away. Again, that was largely done by the Labour Front-Bench teams of the past 13 years, and one does not now hear the word “convention” used in the House. We have no cause, urgency or reason to accept a guillotine such as this. I must tell the Deputy Prime Minister, through my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is a very respected member of the Conservative party, that I shall not hesitate to vote against the Deputy Prime Minister’s guillotine motion.

I wish to refer specifically to the Welsh Grand Committee issue. It has met to discuss matters of much less importance than this in the past. As Welsh Members will know, the Secretary of State has caused great controversy by changing the arrangements at the drop of a hat. She seems happy to do that on matters of less importance, but not on this one.

The Welsh clause will be debated on day four—20 October—along with clauses 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17, and schedule 7. That is also the day of the comprehensive spending review, so the media in Wales will not be dominated the following day by the details of the Welsh debate here—it will of course be dominated by the CSR and other matters—and the Welsh public will remain uninformed, as they are now, about the implications of the Government’s proposals. There is a clear benefit in having a Welsh Grand Committee sitting, so that Welsh Members can have a specific day on which to debate issues specific to Wales.

The Bill has huge implications for Wales—more so than for any other part of the UK. My former constituency, Caernarfon, was the most altered by the boundary changes put in place for the previous election and my constituents are still mystified about what happened. They were completely uninformed about that. [Interruption.] I was re-elected, but for the Arfon constituency, which is substantially different. I just point out that there is therefore huge value, in terms of public debates and public information for the people of Wales, in having a Welsh Grand Committee debate, and I cannot see why we cannot have one.

I, too, will vote against this guillotine motion if the House divides, but I plead with hon. and right hon. Members not to divide the House, because we need to get on with discussing this Bill. I commend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and the Front-Bench team for giving a reasonable amount of time to this Bill, but it is important that I should make three brief observations.

First, I say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that we are all steeped in hypocrisy in the way in which we protest against guillotines and then find ourselves voting for them when we sit on the Government Benches. He did that and I dare say that I too will do so from time to time. Secondly, the approach being taken is the old way of doing things. We look forward to these arrangements being governed by a business Committee of the whole House, which reflects the interests of the whole House and will ensure that these things are discussed as a broad consensus in the House would want them discussed, rather than how those on the Treasury Bench see fit.

My third observation is that this is an important matter, because as we will discover—both those of us who have been through this process before and new Members—the disadvantage of having a knife fall in the middle of detailed discussions on a Bill of this nature is that we will discover things that may not have occurred to more than one Member in this House. Yet those arguments and discussions will be cut down in their prime.

I just hope that those on the Treasury Bench have considered the consequence of there being too many such occasions: it will whet the appetite of the other place. Time saved in this House may result in time added to scrutiny of the Bill in the other place. I urge those on the Treasury Bench seriously to keep under review the possibility of extending the time for debate on the Bill. I commend the Minister for saying that he will keep the matter under review. If he really wants to save time, the best way of saving time in the other place is for us to scrutinise the Bill properly. If we feel that our discussion has been cut short, we will encourage the other place to take whatever time is necessary.

The Electoral Commission has made it clear that unless the rules of the forthcoming referendum are settled six months before the referendum date, it will not support the referendum date of 5 May 2011. There is no possibility of the Bill completing all its stages by 5 November, so it is putting itself in a position in which it has to make a judgment on whether the clauses relating to the referendum are sufficiently settled before the Bill has completed its parliamentary stages and received Royal Assent.

I remember repeatedly saying in opposition that we should not amend the constitution in haste and should not gerrymander the constitution for the convenience of the governing party, yet I fear that the guillotine motion reflects that that is exactly what is happening. For that reason, if the House divides—I hope that it will not—I will vote against the guillotine motion.

If the House divides tonight, I shall not support the programme motion. A constitutional issue of this kind should be scrutinised in full; Members of Parliament are elected to the House to do exactly that. Whether we are on the Opposition or the Government Benches, our job is to scrutinise the Government’s Bills, and constitutional Bills need the greatest scrutiny.

I have no objection to the Government allowing five days for debate; if they had not put a limit on the time until which we could debate on those days, that would have been fine. The Government say that there is plenty of time to discuss the Bill. If that is so, they do not need to close the business at 9 o’clock or 11 o’clock in the evening. If I am right, and the House wants to carry on a bit beyond that, let it talk on. That is what this House—this mother of democracy—is about. Forget the Labour years when the House was a rubber stamp. Let us turn the House back into what it should be: it should scrutinise the Government.

This is the start of the new democracy. In Committee, Government Members will be able to vote against the party line on matters that are not in the manifesto. That is a great improvement, and it is a great enabling power that the Prime Minister has given us. However, limiting debate so that we never reach clauses, and so cannot discuss and vote on them, is pointless.

We have at the Dispatch Box a Minister of great courage and ability. If he were to say at the end of this debate, “We will remove the time limit for the last four days,” his career would blossom, and I urge him to do that.

I endorse all the remarks that have been made by my hon. Friends, and I, too, will vote against the programme motion if there is a Division. I simply add to the arguments already ably put forward that this is a constitutional Bill. One has to ask why there are conventions governing such Bills. The answer, as is well established by those who study these matters and who have learned from experience, is that there is a reason for the rule. The reason is that the Bill is important to the future of the electorate of the United Kingdom. It is seminal.

This is not just one of those occasions when one sees people get up and declaim that there is some great constitutional issue at stake and then on examination it turns out not to be anything of the kind. This is genuinely a constitutional Bill, and we deserve the opportunity to debate it properly. I shall vote against the programme motion on principle because it is in contravention of the conventions of this House. As we see the tsunami of constitutional aberrations inflicted on us in defiance of our manifesto and the wishes of the electorate, I am afraid I will have to continue to vote against the proposals because they are in defiance of the interests of the electorate of the UK.

The Minister said some fine words about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. We tried hard, and members from both sides of the House worked incredibly hard, to get before the House the report that is in the Vote Office, and which I personally sent to every Member of Parliament on Friday by e-mail so that they could be informed about some of the broader issues before the debate got under way.

We are complaining about the number of days on the Floor of the House, but that number exceeds the number of days that the Select Committee was given to look at this issue in detail. There is a problem with that. People may say, “Well, we can make it good on the Floor of the House.” The Floor of the House is a hothouse, and people can be controversial and take sides. If we allow effective pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee made up of members of all shades of opinion, we end up with a view, and some research done on behalf of all Members of the House that, I hope, carries some weight. If the Government take away that weight and that scrutiny, if they deny Members whom the House asked to undertake that job the time to do it effectively, they delegitimise the Bill.

Other people have said that if we cannot have a proper debate in the House of Commons, the debate goes to the other place. As a House of Commons person and a parliamentarian, I do not want to see that. It is essential that the House be allowed to debate whatever issue to the fullest extent. When the issue is one that strikes at the very heart of our democracy, that raises issues of national concern, whether it is the number of Members of Parliament, the boundaries, the question on the referendum paper or our electoral system, surely it is even more necessary that this House should have the proper processes to do its job properly.

We are discussing a programme motion before we get stuck into the Committee stage on the Floor of the House. Just as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said, perhaps we need to look again very soon at the idea of the business Committee. We also need to look again at timetabling sensible scrutiny at the beginning of the legislative process, not halfway through it, as we are about to go into battle on particular clauses and fight each other and have debates and votes. I would ask the Minister to learn some lessons on this Bill, which are applicable to future democratic Bills in the pipeline. If he does not, he places us all in the difficulty that we are sending to the other place Bills that may be faulty, are not legitimate and have not had the proper debate that they deserve. Then, we should not complain if we reap the whirlwind of that decision. It lies in the hands of this House and this Chamber.

I too want to speak about legitimacy and adequacy of consideration in my capacity as Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee. We decided that we did not wish to look at the entirety of the Bill; that it was more appropriately dealt with by another Committee. However, it was appropriate for us to discuss, following a seminar with the Electoral Commission, the impact of holding the AV referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections. It was appropriate that we should seek views from political Scotland on its observations, and we did so. I am not convinced that the House, having made that effort to consult Scotland, has left sufficient time under the proposals for those views, which I understand were circulated to Members by e-mail only yesterday, to be taken into account by the Government.

A strong view has been expressed by civic Scotland that is hostile to the proposals in the main. The Government may well decide to ignore it, which is entirely their right and responsibility, but I do not believe that they have considered it at all, which undermines the credibility of the debate in the House. Should the measures go through without due consideration it would be only right, in those circumstances, that another place should intervene to send some of them back.

Question put—