[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and the oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July on the Coalition Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform, HC 358-i.]
[4th Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Reports of the Boundary Commissions
Amendment proposed (19 October): 127, page 6, leave out line 35 and insert—
‘(a) within twelve months of Part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010 coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof’.—(Chris Bryant.)
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following:
Amendment 341, page 6, line 35, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2018’.
Amendment 342, page 6, line 36, leave out ‘fifth’ and insert ‘tenth’.
Amendment 38, page 6, line 36, at end insert—
‘(3A) After subsection (2) there is inserted—
“(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.”.’.
Amendment 70, in clause 9, page 7, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1A) This rule is subject to an independent assessment of the Boundary Commission as to the potential electorate within any area where the Commission, having consulted—
(a) the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Registration Officer of the local authority or authorities in that area,
(c) such other organisations and individuals whom the Boundary Commission may choose to consult,
determine that the difference between the registered electorate and the assessed numbers eligible to be registered is so significant as to give rise to concern about the number of people to be served within such constituencies as would otherwise be created by rule 2(1) above.’.
Amendment 125, page 10, line 2, leave out from ‘persons’ to end of line 6 and insert
‘who are estimated by the Office of National Statistics to be eligible to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections, whether or not they are so registered to vote.’.
Amendment 135, in clause 16, page 13, line 5, at end insert
‘with the exception of Part 2, which will not come into force until—
(a) after the referendum on the determination of powers devolved to the National Assembly for Wales under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006; and
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported to the House of Commons, that over 95% of eligible voters in each local authority area are estimated to be on the electoral register.’.
I welcome you back to the Chair, Ms Primarolo, and to the consideration of clause 8. I am delighted that we can continue debating amendment 127. Of course, we would not have been able to do this if the Opposition’s attempt to prevent us from doing so, when we dealt with the timetable motion yesterday, had succeeded. When I was last speaking to this group of amendments, we were having a brief exchange on the matter of Wales. I do not want to continue that exchange, because we need the opportunity to discuss the much more important issues relating to Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom under clause 9, which I hope we will reach shortly.
I was also considering the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). One of the great advantages of having an overnight break is that we can look back at the Official Report and read what the protagonists have said. I looked back through the report of the 50 minutes that the hon. Gentleman took in proposing his amendments and found that he did not, as I had suspected, mention them once during those 50 minutes. We know not from him what the content of the amendments is. So I propose to move on from the hon. Gentleman to the right hon. and hon. Members who contributed something positive to the debate.
Much of what we heard was about registration and the fact—it is a fact—that many people do not appear on the electoral register. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—I am glad to see him in his place—made clear his view on that, and said, I think, that we were moving to a system whereby 3.5 million people are not on the register. I disagree with him about that. We are not moving to a system whereby 3.5 million people are not on the register; we are already at that stage, and have been for a very long time. The disgrace is that we have been so unsuccessful in dealing with the parts of the country where registration is insufficient.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) set out some of the reasons why we will never achieve 100% registration, given the difficulties involved. He is absolutely right, and I do not disagree with his analysis in any way. That is why the Government are introducing proposals at least to help the process and get as many people as possible on to the register.
The difficulties that we have with the amendments fall into two groups. They would change the basis on which boundary reviews are effected, moving away from the number of registered electors to some other basis, whether an estimate of eligible electors or an estimate of population. Alternatively, they suggest that we delay the process and make it longer, by a variety of mechanisms. I do not believe that that is the right way forward. The proper course of action is to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. As I have said, the Government are taking action to improve the registration system.
Amendment 125 would require the boundary commissions to use an estimate of eligible electors, to be provided by the Office for National Statistics. The ONS does not at present make any estimate of eligible electors. Census data are available, but a census is carried out only once a decade, does not cover eligibility to vote and may contain inaccuracies. Indeed, in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Scotland said that there would be “significant practical problems” with using population rather than registered electorate for the purposes of the boundary review. It was mentioned that the electoral register is published annually, whereas the census, which does not record whether a person is eligible to vote, is published every 10 years.
Delaying the boundary reviews would simply make the information on which they are based more inaccurate. The general election held last May was based on electoral registration data 10 years out of date. That cannot be right, and that is my difficulty with amendments 341 and 342, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland). Those amendments would not only delay the initial review, but halve the frequency of such reviews, by requiring the boundary commissions to report before 1 October 2018, instead of 2013, and every 10th year after that, instead of every fifth year. That would simply make an unacceptable situation worse.
The Government’s proposals build on the existing arrangements for boundary reviews, which have been based on the electoral register for decades. It is right that we take action in support of complete and accurate registers, and the Government are taking that action. On that basis, I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to press their amendments.
We have had 51 speakers—or rather, 52, counting the Deputy Leader of the House, who has just spoken. Despite his rather petulant and “ad hominate” speech last night, we have none the less had a good debate. He did, however, correctly excoriate me for not fully adumbrating the amendments that we tabled. That was partly because I took 31 interventions, more than half of which were from Government Members, but perhaps it would be of assistance if I were now to explain precisely why our two amendments are important.
The Deputy Leader of the House was quite right last night to say that our two amendments, 127 and 135, which refer to different parts of the Bill, are not necessarily readily comprehensible at first sight—partly because one refers to clause 8 and the other to clause 16. Both appear at different points in the amendment paper. Consequently, Members will have to turn to pages 429 and 445 to find them.
Amendment 127 would include in clause 8 the words
“within twelve months of part 2 of the…Act…coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof’.”
In other words, the Boundary Commission would produce its report within 12 months of an addition to clause 16(2), which we would insert through amendment 135, stating,
“after the referendum on the determination of powers devolved to the National Assembly for Wales under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006”.
The Deputy Leader of the House rightly told me off last night for not explaining precisely why we believe that that is important. As I tried to say in yesterday’s debate, historically, we have constructed Parliament in this country by determination according to the four different constituent parts of the Union. That has included the representation that each part requires in order for the Union to be solid and hold together, which is precisely what happened in the 1536 Act of Union, the 1707 Act of Union and the 1801 Act of Union. With all three, the first thing determined was how much representation there should be from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Obviously, that was subsequently changed with the creation of the Irish Free State.
The further change to Scottish representation occurred when we introduced devolution, so, following the Scotland Act 1998, it was agreed that because a variety of powers would be given to the Scottish Parliament, it was right and proper for the number of seats that Scotland accounted for in the Westminster Parliament to be reduced.
The first referendum in Wales on devolution brought about the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, which does not have law-making powers or enjoy any powers over crime, justice or policing, so it is a somewhat different body from the Scottish Parliament. However, there is a proposition that follows on from the Wales Act 2006, and it will be tested in a referendum, which the Government have said will take place in the first quarter of next year, but for which as yet no date has been set. The Welsh Assembly Government have requested that it should be on 3 March, but the Secretary of State for Wales has not yet assented to that. We do not know whether a date has been agreed or whether the referendum will proceed. The date of 3 March may well be problematic, as—how can I put it?—it sometimes rains in Wales in March. Sometimes we have fairly excessive conditions in large parts of Wales at the beginning of March, so the date may well end up being inappropriate.
However, be that as it may, we need to be assured of what powers the Welsh Assembly will have if we are then to have a coherent Union-based understanding of how much representation there should be from Wales in the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is why we have tabled the two amendments, and I shall press them to a Division, because I have not heard anything from the Deputy Leader of the House to alter my opinion that we should proceed on a Union-based understanding of how we create this House, not on a purely mathematically based assumption.
Further to that point, does my hon. Friend recognise that because of the arithmetical formula, the Bill will ensure not just that boundaries will change every five years, but that the number of seats allocated to each Boundary Commission could change? The number of seats in Northern Ireland could go up in one review and down in another, and that in turn would affect the seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, because the constituencies of the Assembly and of Parliament are absolutely coterminous. The proposal will create havoc.
The seats in the Welsh Assembly are coterminous with those for this Parliament at the moment, although there is a provision later in the Bill to change that through decoupling. That is something that we must analyse. My hon. Friend is right that there may be a change in the number of seats between each segment. If there is a boundary review every five years, there might well be a change in the number of seats, and in the end I am not sure whether that is likely to lead to a more stable constitutional settlement between the four constituent parts of the Union.
There are those who like to think that there is just the Union, not any constituent parts, and there are those who want to think that there are just the constituent parts—which should not be constituent parts but independent. However, I believe that they are constituent parts of the whole, and I say gently to Ministers that the way in which they are proceeding in relation to some parts of the Union is not likely to aid the Unionist cause. It will be detrimental.
We do not say that the provision in our amendments should be introduced solely if the referendum is successful in granting further powers to the Assembly.
No, it is not Labour party policy that anywhere be under-represented. We believe, as I said yesterday evening, that it is important to achieve greater equalisation of the number of voters in each electorate, but that should not be a purely mathematical exercise. Where there are overriding concerns, those should be brought into play. Indeed, the Government agree to some degree, because they have created a degree of exception for Northern Ireland and a completely different set of exemptions for two seats in Scotland, which, according to the Government’s interpretation of the situation—and, I presume therefore, the hon. Gentleman’s—will effectively create two rotten boroughs in Scotland. We think that if we are going to make exemptions, we should make a broader set of exemptions, rather than just those two.
To correct not only my hon. Friend but myself, I should say that I am reliably informed that three seats are involved. There is another seat; there is a rule that applies only to that seat on geographical grounds. That does not apply in Wales, where, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree, a seat could well stretch from one side to the other if the population density was low.
My hon. Friend is right to correct me. I accept the admonition that three seats are being created in this way. I do not think it inappropriate for those seats to exist. But the logic of the Government’s argument—that there should be complete mathematical purity—leads one to suppose that they can only think that they are creating three rotten boroughs.
I detected a form of back-pedalling in the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). I assume that he is not saying that Labour’s policy is that the islands of Scotland are rotten in some way.
No. The hon. Gentleman knows that personally I have a great affection for the islands; indeed, many of my ancestors came from Lewis. But that is not the point. I am not trying to say that Scotland is in any shape rotten; I am merely trying to say that there is an illogicality in the argument that the Government are presenting. They are trying to say that we should have mathematical purity everywhere—except where we should not have it. I am trying to say that we should strive towards broad equality of representation in each of the seats. However, other considerations need to be brought to mind, and that should apply not only to the seats that I mentioned, but to some others as well.
Yes, I do. As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, we have tabled amendments that would include his seat, but also include others. He is a sage man and I know that he would want to pursue the logic of the creation of his own seat so as to make exactly the same exemptions in some other cases where there are overriding concerns—in the Isle of Wight, for instance. That is the nature of the amendment that we have tabled elsewhere.
Could we put it this way? Given that the Government have already conceded that there are exceptions to the numerical rule, would it not be better to give the judgment to the Boundary Commission, which could not be perceived to have any vested interest? It could make the judgment on where exceptions should and should not apply, rather than the Government laying that out in the Bill.
The hon. Lady speaks with almost as much sagacity as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). I agree with her that there is no logic to how the exceptions have been laid out. The Boundary Commissions should be given a certain latitude while striving towards a greater equalisation of the number of electors in each constituency.
Does my hon. Friend find it surprising that the Bill comes from a party that is meant to be committed to the Union and that that party’s parliamentary colleagues will be involving themselves in the destruction of the historic Duchy of Cornwall along the same lines?
My hon. and historical Friend is absolutely right. That adds to my argument, and to arguments that I shall hope to adduce later. As I said, there need to be some exemptions where there are overriding geographical, political or cultural issues that need to be resolved.
One of the overriding political issues is the bonding together of the Union, which historically has taken into consideration the existing political structures in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. That is why we have tabled amendments 127 and 135, which would mean that the Boundary Commission would not be able to proceed until the referendum had happened in Wales. In that way, we would know that there was a settled view about what powers the National Assembly for Wales would have.
There are other amendments in this group. In particular, the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has tabled amendments 341 and 342, either of which I would be happy to support; I very much hope that he will press one of them to a Division.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point in his contribution to the debate when he said that we have only just had a boundary review and we are to have another by 2013, which seems rather a fruitless exercise. He is absolutely right; it would be better if we did things on a longer time scale, and towards 2018. That point relates to his amendment 341. His amendment 342 would mean that instead of having reviews every five years, we should have them every 10 years. I say to hon. Members who are hard and fast in their view that we should have a full boundary review, every five years, on the basis of purely mathematical, arithmetical equations, that that would put every single parliamentary seat in doubt every single time. It may not be that every single one is changed every time, but a large number probably would be. The danger is that that gives rise to a conflict when an hon. Member knows the seat that they will be fighting at the next general election and they want to get in touch with the voters in that seat not as an MP but as a candidate. That is likely to lead to a considerable number of unfortunate circumstances in the way that Parliament behaves. It was difficult enough in the last general election, when the Speaker and the courts had to intervene in two cases in London where boundaries had been redrawn and MPs wished to be able to correspond not as an MP but as a candidate, and the sitting MP objected to that intervention.
Does the shadow Minister agree that over, say, a 20-year period of four Parliaments one community could find itself in four different constituencies and have four different MPs, not because an MP is deposed but because the constituency boundaries are being changed to ensure that all the arithmetical figures stack up? That breaks the strong and important link between the constituency MP and the local electorate.
Absolutely. Particularly in many rural areas where the difference between reaching the mathematical perfect number and not reaching it might be 1,500 or 3,000 votes, a medium-sized village or small town might have to be divided in half, or a river might run across the constituency and new polling districts might have to be created. A whole series of different issues might mean that the individual voter ultimately ends up being less confident about knowing who their political representative is.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who knows that I have a great respect for her—I waited until she took her seat before referring to her—made several points, one of which related to the fact that we should not be redrawing the seats for our own convenience. She is absolutely right. We should, however, ensure that the political boundaries for constituencies are for the convenience of our electors. Our electors do not think in terms of lines on a map but in terms of political communities, cultural connections and social connections, and where the roads go and do not go. If one is to bind together little bits of geography just because they sort out a perfect map according to mathematical excellence, one might assist the convenience of the Boundary Commission, but one will not necessarily assist the convenience of voters, who want to know and understand who their Member of Parliament is—and it is better that they do. I know that there are split wards, but it would be better if there were not.
My hon. Friend suggested that there would be changes every five years but that that might not affect every constituency. Does he agree that, for example, a constituency in the south that grew because of population changes and migration would necessarily have a nudging effect on contiguous boundaries and a domino effect all the way up the country, and that because it is likely that virtually every seat will change every five years during the 20-year period that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) mentioned, one’s constituency might move around the country? [Interruption.]
Members on both sides are laughing because my hon. Friend has of course moved around the country himself, so I will assist by saying that I know that the people of Wales welcome him back to his home town.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that where there are significant changes in the population there will not only be effects for one constituency but potentially nudge-on effects for many others, which may move from one county council or one borough to another. In part, we have to accept this. Rhondda used to have two parliamentary seats, Rhondda East and Rhondda West, and then we moved down to one parliamentary seat because the population fell dramatically. I do not believe that the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies in Wales or anywhere else should be written in stone—of course we have to move with the population flows. However, if we move forward precisely like this, without any kind of exemption, one constituency in Wales will represent at least a third of the geographical area of Wales. That would be unacceptable. It would cover several counties, which are unitary authorities in Wales, and would include areas that are, and feel themselves to be, virtually in England, and a large part of Wales that is fiercely proud of its Welsh language heritage. That would be an inappropriate direction in which to move.
Does my hon. Friend agree with what the women’s institute has written? As I am sure all hon. Members know, anyone who dares to suggest that the women’s institute is party political will have their come-uppance, but it has expressed great concern about the effect that the changes will have on rural communities, because natural geographical boundaries will be cut up.
Tony Blair learned that one should not really mess with the women’s institute, and I have no intention of doing so, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Large parts of her constituency are very rural, and chunks of mine are semi-rural—everybody in the Rhondda lives within about 200 metres of a farm. Surely the point is that overriding concerns must be able to trump mathematical perfection, not entirely but to a degree. The Government have already accepted that in relation to three constituencies, but it should apply more widely.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has tabled amendment 38, which refers to registration. A lot of Members talked about under-registration yesterday afternoon, and the Deputy Leader of the House has just mentioned it. I am glad he accepts that some 3.5 million people are not on the register and should be. I make no pretence that we got it right when we were in government. Indeed, some of us—particularly one of my hon. Friends, who is probably about to intervene on me—quite rightly argued aggressively in the last Parliament that many people are under-represented on the register. The danger is that they will therefore be under-represented in Parliament and their concerns will not be taken on board.
My hon. Friend says that we did not do as much as we could have done, and I agree, but we did do some things in the past 13 years. In the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we examined what electoral registration officers were doing and measured them in 26 fields. That process was long and slow, but now we are beginning to examine what they achieved so that we can fine-tune the process. However, the current proposals are being rushed through.
We also listened to the then Opposition. When they wanted individual registration, we opposed it at first but then said that because of political balance we would introduce it. We said that it would happen in 2015 and that we would put measures in place to increase registration over the five years until then. All that bipartisanship has been shattered by the governing parties for party political gain and to pursue a little English coup.
But it was very good, Mr Hood, and spot on. I hope that some coalition Members accept that when we were in government, we tried to co-operate on electoral registration. When the hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke for her party on the matter, she did so very effectively and we tried to co-operate and reach agreement when we could. We agreed that we would move towards individual registration, but I am concerned that the new Government’s message about registration is, “Yes, we want everybody to register, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t. We’re going to get rid of the fine for somebody who does not send in their form, and registering is almost entirely optional.” That is a shame, because as I tried to say in a debate that the hon. Lady secured in Westminster Hall earlier today, we sometimes take our democracy for granted all too easily.
My hon. Friend is right to point to the Bill’s partisan nature. Did he hear anything from the Chancellor about allocating extra resources to increasing electoral registration in December, or perhaps for the wonderful democracy festival that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) talked about?
No—I heard exactly the opposite. I think that there was a reference to a 7% cut in local authority funding every year for the next four years. My concern is that, because all too often we take democracy for granted, when local councillors have to decide whether to spend £100,000 on keeping a swimming pool open or on a really good door-to-door canvas to ensure that everybody is registered, they tend to keep the swimming pool open. Although I fully understand such decisions, which will be difficult for many councillors in the next four years, unless one values democracy and spends money on it, one does not get a proper representative democracy. That is why Labour Members believe that amendment 38 is important. Unless the Electoral Commission is satisfied that there is proper registration and that proper measures are being taken to ensure full registration of all eligible voters in this country—and for dealing with those who are on the register but should not be—the Boundary Commission should not be able to produce its report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) tabled amendment 125, which refers to the census. Earlier, the Deputy Leader of the House said that he did not agree with the amendment because the census happened every 10 years, which might have led one to believe that there would not be one for 10 years, but of course, one will be held next year. The information may not be available immediately, but surely it would be bizarre if we found that the number of those eligible to vote in individual areas of the country was dramatically higher than those registered to vote, and that those areas were significantly unfairly under-represented in the House because the Government chose to proceed on only one element.
My amendment would provide for the Office for National Statistics to conduct an assessment of the number of eligible voters. It would use the register of voters alongside the census and other data sources to get the best estimate. It might not be perfect, but it would be better than the current suggestion.
Precisely. That is one of the things that the Boundary Commission should consider.
One other issue was mentioned in yesterday’s debate. I am sorry to refer to the hon. Member for Epping Forest for a third time, but she got rather cross with me in yesterday evening’s debate, so I merely wish to respond to one of her comments. She said that the point about the number of Members of Parliament in a particular area and the casework that they took on was not a matter of substance. Various hon. Friends suggested that some of those who are not eligible to vote often provide much of the casework in a constituency. Consequently, there is an argument about the role of the Member of Parliament, which should be considered before reaching the precise matter of how the boundaries are drawn. The hon. Lady said that it would be good if we reduced the number of Members of Parliament and achieved equalisation of the electorate in each constituency, and that if a problem remained with casework, we could give Members of Parliament more staff. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) says, “Hear, hear” because he wants more staff to work for him.
I am concerned about the hon. Lady’s view because the role of a Member of Parliament has completely changed since the days of Stafford Cripps, and casework is an essential part of the job. Simply hiving it off to a member of staff, without the Member of Parliament’s being directly involved, distances Members of Parliament from the real life that goes on around them. Simply replacing Members of Parliament with paid staff is not the right route.
I am keen to press our amendments to a Division. I hope that hon. Members will agree that mathematical excellence is not the only way in which one should proceed towards creating new boundaries for the House of Commons, and that other considerations need to be borne in mind. I hope that I can rely on the Committee’s good sense.
Amendment proposed: 342, page 6, line 36, leave out “fifth” and insert “tenth”.—(Greg Mulholland.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: 38, page 6, line 36, at end insert—
‘(3A) After subsection (2) there is inserted—
(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.”.’.—(Graham Stringer.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I beg to move amendment 234, page 7, line 17, at end insert—
‘(5AA) The draft of an Order in Council laid under subsection (5A) above may only give effect to the recommendations contained in all four reports under subsection (1) above with modifications, where those modifications have been made with the agreement of the Boundary Commissions.’.
This amendment has been tabled in the names of members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is sadly unable to be in here this afternoon and so I have undertaken to move the amendment on behalf of his Committee.
The Select Committee, as the Committee well knows, carried out a necessarily brief and swift but in-depth consideration of the Bill. In order to try to be helpful to the House and the Minister, we tabled several amendments that we believed ought to be considered and that we hope will improve the Bill. The purpose of amendment 234 is to reflect paragraph 139 of the Select Committee’s recently published report, which states that
“the power of the Executive to depart from the recommendations of an independent statutory body should have clear statutory limits to prevent abuse for partisan advantage.”
I am sure the Committee will agree that that is a matter that ought to be drawn to the attention of the Minister and of hon. Members.
I ask the Minister where the justification lies for the Government’s retaining such a wide-ranging power to depart from the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations. Although I would assert that I have every confidence—as does the Select Committee—that the current Government would always act in this matter in an honourable, straightforward and democratic way, may I nevertheless ask the Minister on behalf of the Select Committee what safeguards exist against any future Government’s misusing such a power to their partisan advantage. It would be helpful if the Minister would consider those questions, and I am sure that the Committee will be eager to know the answers.
First, let me briefly comment on the fact that before you took the Chair, Mr Hoyle, we had a former miner in the Chair and two Tellers who were also former miners, so, as the MP for the Rhondda I felt quite at home. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the amendment, I am afraid.
The amendment has been charmingly moved by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who is absolutely right. This is an issue that I have tried to raise on several occasions—
The Minister says that not so charmingly himself, so the favour goes back to him.
Under the clause, new subsection (5A) would read:
“As soon as may be after the submission of all four reports under subsection (1) above that are required by subsection (2) above to be submitted before a particular date, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in them.”
So the Boundary Commission will bring forth its report, there will be no public inquiry and the Minister will then bring forward the boundaries with or without modifications. It is the phrase “with or without modifications” that I have difficulty with, and clearly the Select Committee does too.
The hon. Lady mentioned that her Committee had to do its business very swiftly. Indeed, I think it had only five days in which to undertake a whole inquiry. That is one reason why I believe the Bill is being taken through with undue haste. A substantial number of amendments have been tabled and will be considered on Monday, but we already know that some of them are inaccurate and will be modified when the Government bring forward territorial statutory instruments in relation to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I very much hope that the Minister will enlighten us as to whether those statutory instruments will be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure. [Interruption.] That is not what will happen on Monday because the measures are not going to be debated next Monday at all, contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the House has just said from a sedentary position.
The Government believe that we should retain in present legislation the phrase “with or without modifications”. That is a pretty broad power.
With previous boundary reviews, there have sometimes been attempts at judicial review of elements of what the Boundary Commission has done. Most of them have been rejected, but we have to consider that that is a possibility and that minor modification might be required—or does the hon. Gentleman think that will not happen?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the due process that needs to be gone through. I believe that we need a due process in relation to the Boundary Commission, because it might proceed incorrectly according to the rules that are laid down for it, it might proceed in a partisan manner or it might not consider all the factors that need to be considered. That is why we have heretofore always had a system of public inquiry, and not just written reports being sent in. That is essential for there to be utter confidence in the process that the commission goes through. He is absolutely right that there is also, sometimes, a process of judicial review. I suspect that if the Government push through the Bill in the partisan way that they are doing, without any provision for public inquiry, the likelihood of a judicial review being sought in many constituencies in the land will be very high indeed.
The hon. Gentleman might say that that is a good reason why the Minister needs even more power to draw constituency boundaries as he thinks fit. Unless the Government can be shifted from this view—whether that happens in this House or in the other House—we shall almost inexorably end up with no due process, other than the recourse that people might have to the courts.
The Minister will probably tell us that the Government need this power because apostrophes and commas are sometimes put in the wrong place and there are inadvertent errors. That is why the amendment, which was tabled by several members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, is perfect: it simply says that the Minister, if he or she wishes to make any modification, must return to the Boundary Commission and ask, “Are you okay with this amendment?” If Ministers were in a conciliatory, cross-party mood, they would accept the amendment.
I fully understand that the precise wording they propose is that of the current legislation. That is fine when due process can go on after the boundary commissions have done their work—for example, public inquiries, where the public can have their say on the boundary commissions’ proposals. Where that does not happen—that is the intention of the Bill, although it is something that we shall return to later—it is important that there is a bind on Ministers, so that they are not entirely free to dream up any kind of modification that they might want; otherwise, strictly speaking in law, I guess that Ministers would be perfectly at liberty, if they felt that the boundary commission had got something slightly wrong and representations were made to Ministers, to make such modifications as they thought fit.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is familiar with the situation in the United States, where there is no boundary commission and state legislators draw up in a partisan, political way each state’s congressional districts. Does he agree that we are starting down a slippery slope and that we will end up with a partisan political set of redistricting—to use the American phrase—if the boundary commission’s authority is not protected?
That will happen not just if we do not have the boundary commission’s public inquiry process, but if this element of the Bill remains without the amendment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the United States of America, because there is a redrawing each time, there are many instances where the incumbents effectively draw boundaries to protect themselves. Therefore, two Hispanic communities that might be thought to vote Democrat could be linked, because boundaries must be contiguous, by a single side of a road, thus creating bizarrely shaped constituencies. That is why, as I am sure hon. Members know, one of the congressional districts in Massachusetts that was drawn up by Governor Elbridge Gerry in the 19th century was shaped like a salamander—hence the term “gerrymander”. In fact, it looked more like an eagle than a salamander.
This provision, as constructed in the Bill, will specifically allow Ministers to gerrymander. It is entirely partisan. It will allow Ministers—indeed, it encourages them—to be partisan. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), says from a sedentary position what I have already said. He says, “We aren’t changing anything.” He says, as I have said, that the provision is in the existing legislation—it is—but if he would just listen to the end of the paragraph, he would understand and learn that, in fact, the difference between the legislation that he is advancing and the existing legislation is that he will allow no due process. There will be no public inquiries. Consequently, I do not think that the electorate will have confidence in the way the commission draws up boundaries and, thereafter, in the way that Ministers are allowed by their legislation to make such modifications as they see fit.
The Minister may be able to satisfy my concerns by saying that there is legal provision to prevent a member of the Government from doing anything that the Boundary Commission disagrees with, but I do not think he will be able to, because I cannot see where the Bill or any Act makes such a provision. That is why we wholeheartedly support the amendment presented by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. We believe intrinsically that it is one of the most important amendments to the Bill, and I do not know whether she intends to press it to a Division, but if she does not we certainly shall.
As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am disappointed to find that a measure with cross-party support on the Committee—we all agreed to it—has not been accepted as a good piece of advice on amending a Bill which did not have the pre-legislative scrutiny that might have incorporated such a provision in the first place. Indeed, that is why we have such bodies as Select Committees. They exist to ensure, in an atmosphere that is not adversarial, a greater depth of debate than has been possible even in our debates on the Bill over the past couple of days and today. All Select Committee members felt that, as a safeguard, the amendment was a reasonable way to progress, and, if Ministers have no intention of making unreasonable modifications, they have nothing to lose from accepting such a provision.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said that she had no concerns about her Government using such powers. We might think differently, but equally she might think differently if there were a change of Government. From the perspective of our discussions in the Committee, the measure simply represented a safeguard that accounts for the fact that the whole procedure has changed. We know that the provision in the Bill is very similar, so we are not ignoring it, but the amendment was agreed to in the wider context of a debate about how we carry out such boundary changes, and the fact that public inquiries will not take place. We wanted to ensure that things could not be altered at the last minute in an unsatisfactory way that cut across whatever public consultation there had been throughout the process.
With many aspects of the Bill, we have forgotten the underlying reason for wanting to legislate on the constitution. I remember the Deputy Prime Minister, when he introduced this constitutional programme, saying that he wanted to overcome the distrust in politics and the fact that people appeared to have lost faith in politics and politicians, and that he felt that the constitutional changes would improve the situation. Having listened to some of last night’s debate, I think it very important that we bear that test in mind when we consider the provision before us. We should ask ourselves, “Do these various detailed provisions improve that trust or detract from it?” The amendment would be a small and fairly technical provision that went some way to meeting that test. I commend it to the Minister and hope that it might be accepted.
The amendment would represent a very important reassurance, because the Minister would not be able to make highly arbitrary and subjective judgments on any modifications that were introduced. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we are being asked to consider a situation in which, in every Parliament, there will be a boundary review in respect of the next Parliament. That means that in each Parliament, and in each Government, the relevant Minister will in effect have his or her hands on a boundary review. That fundamentally changes the political nature of the operation, and it might be abused. I am thinking not only of one party against another; it could be abused within a party. It could become yet another of the Whips’ weapons against recalcitrant Government Members—they could say, “Look, we can redistrict you.” That is what has happened in the United States. We find many former members of Congress who say that they were blatantly redistricted by their own parties because they did not fit or did not particularly toe the line. We have seen that happen in various states.
The arrangements provided in the Bill are pregnant with the possibility of abuse or accusations of abuse. The parliamentary process needs to be protected from that. The House has made a mistake in accepting boundary reviews every five years rather than every 10 years. That means that every Parliament will be affected and infected by the issue and the controversy around it. If Ministers want to be free from that, they should agree to the amendment.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for moving the amendment. I give my best wishes—and, I am sure, those of the whole Committee—to the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who would normally have been here to speak about its proposals.
We have had a short and helpful debate. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has told us about the derivation of the word “gerrymander” again; hopefully, we will hear that each day this Committee sits. It worries me when the hon. Gentleman talks about due process: the more he talks about it—and it is not the issue before us at this stage—the more I think he does not know what it means. We will come back to that later.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) assumed a position on the part of the Government without knowing what it was. I suggest to her that that is not a sensible way to go forward; that is meant to be helpful. We are grateful to her.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) got the tone exactly right. There is an issue, and we understand that. The amendment would allow the Order in Council laid before Parliament to give effect to the boundary commissions’ recommendations with modifications only if the commissions were content with the changes made. As we have heard, the existing legislation does not have a restriction on modification such as that proposed by the amendment. The Bill simply preserves that power.
There is no record of that power ever having been used. There was an instance in which a Government urged Parliament to reject boundary commission proposals in toto rather than modify them, and some would suggest that that in itself was an abuse, but a Government have never urged Parliament to modify such proposals, so there is no history on the issue. However, I entirely understand the desire expressed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to ensure the independence of the boundary commissions and see that their work is not modified for partisan reasons by any Government.
I say to the hon. Member for Epping Forest that the Government would like to consider the matter in more detail. There might be a situation in which, for the timely implementation of the boundary commission’s recommendations, any unintended errors in the reports would need to be corrected in the Order in Council. We would want to consider carefully how any such restriction on the power to include modifications in the Order in Council might work.
There may be a technical defect in what the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has brought forward. That is not a criticism of its work. The amendment appears to require all four boundary commissions to agree to any modification, rather than the relevant commission or commissions for the part or parts of the United Kingdom where the modification is being made. We may have to look at how the amendment is cast.
I did not jump into the trap that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) jumped into. However, I want to intervene to say that I would feel quite differently if the hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking that if he found some technical concern about the wording, he would bring back an amendment that made sure that no changes could be made to boundaries by a Minister without the consent of the boundary commission for the relevant region.
The hon. Lady has been in government so she knows the constraints within which we work.
I am very sympathetic to the views expressed in the amendment, and we will have to look at it further. That is not an attempt to fob off the hon. Member for Epping Forest or the Select Committee. It raises an important issue. I do not want there to be any circumstances in which a Government can apply a partisan consideration to a modification for a boundary commission response. I give a clear undertaking that the Government will consider the matter in detail and come back with a response in due course. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment on the basis that we will look at the matter further and that we are grateful to the Committee for having brought it to our attention.
I thank the Minister for the serious way in which he has considered the amendment.
I appreciate the position taken by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), but the Select Committee has not suggested that the proposals in the Bill avoid due process. I would argue personally, not necessarily on behalf of the Committee, that the proposals in the Bill do involve due process, but that that is not a matter which hon. Members should worry about. That is not the problem before us right now—the problem is simply whether the Government could, at some point in the future, take action without the agreement of the boundary commissions. I am pleased that the Minister has accepted that that is an issue. Every member of the Select Committee will be very pleased that its work has, at least in this respect, been seen to be worth while and contributing to improving the Bill, which was our purpose in submitting the amendment. Having heard the general arguments put this afternoon, including by the shadow Minister, I believe that it may have to be tightened up somewhat in its wording and technicalities.
I am delighted that the Minister has indicated that the Government will look in more detail at the matter and undertaken to come back to the House with it. Given that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment 162, page 7, line 22, at end insert—
‘( ) In Article 3 of the Lord President of the Council Order 2010 (S.I. 2010/1837) (which makes certain functions of the Secretary of State exercisable concurrently with the Lord President) the reference in paragraph (1) to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 is to be read as a reference to that Act as amended by this section.’.
These are minor amendments to clarify the position on ministerial responsibilities in relation to the constituencies provisions of the Bill. Responsibility for elections law, including parliamentary constituencies, is now exercisable by the Lord President and the Secretary of State, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, as Lord President of the Council, now has responsibility for political and constitutional reform. That was effected by the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, which provides that functions under various Acts, including the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, are exercisable concurrently by the Lord President and the Secretary of State. In the case of that Act, “the Secretary of State” includes the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who retain functions relating to boundary commissions in their parts of the United Kingdom.
The order states that references to the 1986 Act include references to it as amended by any enactment already made but not yet in force. It is arguable that that implies that such a reference does not include a reference to that Act as amended by a subsequent enactment. The amendment therefore provides that the reference to the 1986 Act in the order is to be read as a reference to the Act as amended by the Bill.
Amendments 163 to 167 are to clause 11 on the relationship between the changes to parliamentary constituencies and the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales. They make similar changes to those in the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, so that the clause refers to both the Secretary of State and the Lord President of the Council, and not just to the Secretary of State. That is done in the same way as in part 1 of the Bill, which provides that the Minister means the Lord President or the Secretary of State. I hope that that is perfectly clear to the Committee.
Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. The amendments selected in this group include some that are proposing special privileges—some might say gerrymandering—for certain constituencies, and these have been ruled to be in order, while others suggesting gerrymandering, such as my own, which suggests that the traditional rotten borough of Retford should be created, as it was in 1832, have been ruled out of order. [Hon. Members: “It is not this group. It is the next group.”] Well, I am making my point now anyway. Why have some been ruled in and some ruled out, when they are all about gerrymandering the boundaries?
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 41, page 7, line 28, leave out ‘600’ and insert
‘gradually reduced to 600 in accordance with the terms of rule 1A.
1A (1) In each periodic report submitted by a Boundary Commission under section 3(2), the overall number of constituencies in each part of the United Kingdom shall be no more than in the previous report.
(2) The Boundary Commissions shall meet at the outset of each periodic review to determine the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom, and the number to be allocated to each of the four parts of the United Kingdom by each Commission, in accordance with rule 8.
(3) The Boundary Commissions shall ensure that the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is reduced in each succeeding periodic report to no more than 600 by 2029 in their fourth/fifth periodic reports.’.
Amendment 67, page 7, line 28, leave out ‘600’ and insert ‘585’.
Amendment 74, page 7, line 28, leave out ‘600’ and insert ‘500’.
Amendment 227, page 7, line 28, leave out ‘600’ and insert—
‘no fewer than 588 and no more than 612’.
Amendment 259, page 7, line 28, leave out ‘600’ and insert ‘650’.
Amendment 42, page 7, leave out lines 35 to 37 and insert—
‘U/T where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6 and T is the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom determined by the Boundary Commissions under rule 1A above.’.
Amendment 68, page 7, line 35, leave out ‘U/598’ and insert ‘U/583’.
Amendment 75, page 7, line 35, leave out ‘U/598’ and insert ‘U/498’.
Amendment 260, page 7, line 35, leave out ‘U/598’ and insert ‘U/648’.
Amendment 228, page 9, line 40, at end insert—
‘Variation in number of constituencies
8A (8) A Boundary Commission shall have power to recommend that the number of constituencies in the relevant part of the United Kingdom should be greater or smaller than the number determined in accordance with the allocation method set out in rule 8.
(9) The number so recommended must be no less than 98 per cent. and no more than 102 per cent. of the number so determined.’.
Amendment 364 would replace the first subsection of clause 9, which states that the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600, with the proposal:
“The UK Electoral Quota shall be defined as the total electorate of the United Kingdom on the designated enumeration day divided by 650.”
I am sure that all hon. Members will note that 650 is the present number of Members of Parliament, as opposed to the 600 that the Bill proposes. I am opposed for a series of reasons to the Government’s proposal to change the number of seats and to fix it at 600. First, they are rigging the number of seats. The 600 seats figure did not appear in any party’s manifesto. The Liberal Democrats mentioned 500 MPs in their manifesto, while the Conservatives had a manifesto commitment to reduce the number of seats by 10%, which would have taken the number down to 585. Neither of those figures is in front of us. Why might that possibly be? If those two parties were doing a deal, it would be reasonable to assume that we would end somewhere between the 500 seats mentioned in one manifesto and the 585 mentioned in the other. In fact, they have gone for a completely new figure, which seems to have been plucked out of the air.
That said, has it really been plucked out of the air? Having looked at the numbers, I suspect that bringing the number of seats down to 600 will disproportionately attack Labour seats, while going down to 585 would disproportionately attack Liberal Democrat seats. I therefore suspect that the number of 600 has been arrived at specifically for partisan purposes—to rig the Parliament of this country. That is why we will not support the clause.
Well, I would have been absolutely delighted if any process of consultation with Labour Members had taken place on the issue of the size of Parliament. Such a process has always taken place in the past and if it had done so this time, I would have ardently supported the Bill. However, absolutely no consultation has taken place. The number has not been plucked out of the air—it is a partisan number, arrived at solely to rig the electorate so that the Government will win general elections in the future.
Does the shadow Minister have any evidence whatever to back up his allegation?
Given that this is indeed a partisan figure plucked out of the air, which appeared in neither of the governing parties’ manifestos, does my hon. Friend think that the Salisbury convention will apply in the other place? This provision has not been mandated by the people, so, under the Salisbury principle, it should not necessarily pass through the other place.
I hope that the House of Lords will look at this sort of measure. Historically, it has always looked at measures coming from the House of Commons, where the Government enjoy a majority by definition. Where the Lords have thought that legislation was calculated for partisan advantage, they have sought to look at it very closely. On many occasions in the past they have sought to change such legislation and make the House of Commons think again. As to the Salisbury convention, one problem is that it is difficult for the Lords to work out what counts as having been in a manifesto, given that two of them are now relevant. However, the number of seats specified in the clause did not appear in either manifesto, so this does present a problem.
There is a further problem. In recent years, it has been unusual for the Government to enjoy a majority in both this House and the other place. By virtue of the fact that there are now two parties in government, there should ostensibly be a majority in the House of Lords. I am very confident, however, about their lordships’ capacity for independence of mind, regardless of the whipping arrangements.
The other reason why I believe the system is being rigged, which is why I am opposed to the reduction from 650 to 600 seats, is on account of the double whammy that will apply to some parts of the United Kingdom. I am sorry if hon. Members feel I talk too much about Wales—I was about to say that I make no apology for saying that, but I have already apologised. My point is that Wales faces a double whammy. If the number of parliamentary seats had to be reduced, I would have thought that no single part of the country—particularly a constituent element of the Union—should be so disproportionately affected in one fell swoop. Reducing the number of parliamentary seats in Wales by 25%, while no other part of the United Kingdom is to suffer such an immediate cut, will be detrimental to the relationship between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom and will merely inflame the thoughts of nationalism that already exist in Wales.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the number of seats in Scotland was reduced as a result of lengthy consultation there, not just of political parties but of the whole of society. There was a long convention that lasted for several years before the 1997 general election, which led to the Scotland Act 1998, the referendum, the creation of the Scottish Parliament—of which we are very proud—and, in exchange for that, a reduction in the number of seats in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has just voted against a measure that would have prevented the Boundary Commission from reporting until after a referendum had been held in Wales on the powers that should be available to the Welsh Assembly. There is an inconsistency in what he is arguing.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of inconsistency. Is it not ironic that he should use the word “disproportionate” to describe what would happen in Wales as a result of the Bill, given that what would actually happen is that proportionate weight would be given to Welsh votes, as to the votes of any other electors in United Kingdom?
As I tried to argue earlier and will argue again, that simply is not the way in which, historically, we have put together the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I think that that is an important principle. If one is a Unionist—
Just one moment.
I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) contains many people with Scottish ancestry, but I do not think that she is entirely versed in the dangers of nationalism that exist in Scotland and Wales. I merely say to her, in a gentle way, that if she really wants to maintain the strength of the Union, we ought to proceed differently.
I agree with what the shadow Minister is trying to achieve, and, if the Committee divides on the amendment, I shall vote against the reduction. However, for two reasons, I am not sure that he is making a terribly good case.
We have discussed what happened in Scotland in 2005. There was not a great Unionist upsurge there when there was a 20% reduction in the number of seats specifically in Scotland and in no other part of the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that his is not a terribly strong argument?
The Welsh position has been maintained since we drew up the constituencies. There were 38 protected constituencies there until 1983, and 40 thereafter. The position of Wales has been protected, and it is massively over-represented. That is the reason for the move to equalise the size of electorates, which I also fully support.
This is what I meant by the double- whammy element. Wales is caught both by the equalisation of the number of seats—we are not debating that now, but we will when we deal with the next set of amendments—and by the reduction in the number of seats. The net effect for Wales is that the number of seats will be cut by a quarter.
That presents some specific problems for Wales. It has already proved impossible for the present Government to ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales represents a Welsh seat—although I admit that she is Welsh—and it will become increasingly difficult to do so in the future. Because Wales, unlike Scotland, has never had a separate legal system, the Welsh Affairs Committee has to do a large amount of work, and that will continue. I think that it will be difficult to meet those needs with only 30 seats.
I am not arguing for the status quo in the number of Welsh seats. I am merely trying to present an argument, and I am sorry that it does not appeal to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that further elements of my speech will appeal to him more.
No one is a more ardent Unionist than I am, and I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Wales, but he must look at the arithmetic, which is inescapable. There will be a larger reduction in the number of seats in Wales than, proportionately, in the rest of the United Kingdom because, at present, the people of Wales are over-represented in the House, as well as having a devolved Assembly, or Parliament, of their own. The hon. Gentleman cannot argue that it is right for the people of Wales to have smaller constituencies and more Members of Parliament in the House of Commons than the people of most of England and Scotland. That simply does not make sense.
As the hon. Lady knows, there are differences between Wales and Scotland: Scotland has a Parliament which also has powers over crime and justice, which Wales does not have; Scotland has a completely different legal system, which Wales does not have; and it raises taxes, which Wales cannot do. It is a very different system, therefore.
Let me reiterate yet again that I am not saying that we want to hold to the status quo, but I think there will be a danger for the Unionist argument in Wales if we move forward in one fell swoop from having 40 seats to there being only 29 or 30. That would create problems for the future. Let me also say that I hope that Welsh Members work sufficiently hard that they provide value for the House, even though the hon. Lady thinks there are too many of us.
The Deputy Prime Minister keeps going on about this being the greatest constitutional reform legislation since 1832. The 1832 Act went on to equalise the size of constituencies but left the number of constituencies at 658; it did not reduce them at all. I believe the current Government want to reduce the number of seats in order to gerrymander the whole electoral system so that we do not have a Labour Government in the future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, except in one respect: the 1832 Act did not equalise the seats at all. In 1867, there was a discussion about equalising seats but that was decided against. The argument that was used then, and which has been used consistently in the past, is that it is more important for Members to represent communities than it is for there to be precisely numerically equal seats. Obviously that was, in part, because of the nature of the franchise at the time.
I am listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. He seems to be saying that he is quite prepared to see the number of seats reduced from 40. Will the hon. Gentleman give us some idea as to what figure he is prepared to see, therefore? It would be interesting to know exactly what figure the Opposition have in mind.
Several amendments in the next group refer to how one might make provision specifically for Wales, but there are other places we would like to make provision for, such as Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, rather than just the three areas the Bill covers. At present, however, I am specifically addressing the proposal to reduce the total number of seats from 650 to 600.
Given that the hon. Gentleman’s concern is that this move would lead to an increase in Welsh nationalism, will he reflect on the fact that, prior to 1997, the rationale for having a Scottish Parliament was that that would somehow snuff out Scottish nationalism? The idea was not that there should be an Administration run by Scottish nationalists within eight years of the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, the notion that not reducing the number of seats will be in the interests of those who do not want to see an increase in nationalism has not been borne out by the facts.
That was never my argument in favour of devolution in Scotland or Wales. My argument in favour of devolution was simply that it is better to devolve responsibility for issues that most directly affect people to the people who are most directly affected. That is why I thought it was right to establish the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I very much hope we will be snuffing out nationalism in Scotland come next May however, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that.
There is one other reason why I think the diminution in the number of seats from 650 to 600 is a mistake, which is to do with the number of Ministers. At present, the law allows that there should be 95 Ministers, paid or unpaid, sitting in the House of Commons, and if there are any more, they are barred from sitting in the Commons. That is an important principle. The Executive, who—unusually compared with other such systems around the world—exclusively sit in Parliament, should be limited, as should the Prime Minister’s patronage. If we reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600 and do not change the number of Ministers, the proportion of Parliament—the legislature—that represents the Executive will grow.
I hope that we will be moving in the opposite direction, although part of me is being somewhat hypocritical because I was an unpaid Minister for a while when I held the post that the Deputy Leader of the House now holds. The advent of so many unpaid Ministers is a shame and the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries has also increased dramatically in recent years. Prime Ministers have sought to find other ways of extending patronage by making people vice-chair of a committee or by all sorts of other means. That is wrong, because we should be limiting the power of patronage within the legislature, so that the legislature can do a better job—I argued that when Labour was in government and I am arguing it now. That is why reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 without reducing the number of Ministers is a mistake.
It is also a mistake to fix the number of seats, by which I do not mean rig that number—I have already dealt with that argument; it did not appeal to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), but we will see whether I get better. We have never fixed the number of seats in the British Parliament or in the UK Parliament. The 1832 Act determined how many seats there should be, because it created a certain number of seats and abolished some others, but it did not say that the number of seats should be fixed for ever. Indeed, several other seats were added in subsequent years, including in 1867. When further people were enfranchised in 1885 it was said that there was clearly a need for a further number of seats, and each time an element of the Celtic nations was added to the British Parliament, a number of seats were added. So it is inappropriate for us to be fixing the number of seats and then saying, “We divide it up.”
Have we not now reached the crucial, salient point, which is that even in recent times Parliament has set not an absolute number, but a target—I believe that the last one was 613—for the Boundary Commission, so that an independent boundary commission, taking into account other criteria, can then set the boundaries? Is not the fundamental difference that this rather irregular Bill attempts to create an arbitrary number without building in that flexibility for an independent body to set this coherently?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This approach runs against the grain of how we have always done things in this House; the proposition has always been that representation in the British Parliament should be based on the communities that exist. There has been a recognition, first, that the shires needed representation. Irrespective of whether they were large or small, the shires always had exactly the same number of seats—at first they had two, then four for a while, then two again and briefly three. It was then said that towns had to be represented and the row was then about which towns genuinely represented communities. The big change in the 1832 Act was that this House said that we could not have rotten boroughs where, to all intents and purposes, there were no electors and the seat was granted by the landlord to whomever he thought fit, and instead we had to ensure that where there were genuine communities, they should have representation, with large communities having two seats and smaller communities having one.
In addition, specifically at the moments of union, this House decided that the communities involved needed representation. So under the Act of Union in 1536, when Wales was brought in, 44 Members of Parliament were allowed for Wales—it took them six years to get here, but they were here by 1542. After the Union with England Act 1707, Scotland had 45 Members—that was increased to 53 by the 1832 Act. Following the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800, Ireland had 100 Members, a number that subsequently increased to 105, reduced to 103 and was reformed again in the 20th century with the creation of the Irish Free State.
It is also important that we do not fix the number at 600 because of the way in which the Government have crafted their Bill. It rightly allows a certain flexibility, because the electorate of any constituency may be between 95% and 105% of the aimed-at electorate across the country.
Now, let us leave aside the question of whether it is right or wrong to be precise in one’s mathematics and whether a further provision should allow the Boundary Commission to say that where there is an overriding further concern, such as a geographical, cultural or political concern, further leniency or flexibility should be allowed. What happens if the Boundary Commission, when it starts its process in the south of England and works up through the country or, in the case of Wales, starts in the south and goes north—or starts in the north and goes south—decides that the first 20 constituencies are best representing 95% of the quota? Does it then have to start filling in some 105% of that quota? The danger is that it will end up having to start all over again. Every time there is a new Boundary Commission, it will have to start all over again, because there will be knock-on effects from one constituency to another.
That is why I think it is wrong to fix the number at 600. If hon. Members think there should be a precise equation between the electorate in constituencies, it would be better to say that every constituency should be roughly 75,000 electors, give or take 5% or 10%. The Boundary Commission could then conclude how many seats there should be as a result of that to meet the two requirements—first, getting close to the 75,000 and, secondly, any other overriding concerns.
Does not the figure of 600 point to the fundamental problem with the Bill, which is that it is spatchcocked with the demand for the referendum on the one hand and the reduction in the number of seats on the other? That means that no thought has been given to the role and function of a Member of Parliament, what we want from Members of Parliament and how many should fulfil that function. Instead, this has all been pooled together and pulled out of the air and that is why the Government are going to have problems.
I very much agree. One subject that I want to mention is precisely what the job of a Member of Parliament is in the modern era. That has obviously changed in the past 50 years and I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats, because the kind of pavement politics that they advocated strongly—through which they won a number of seats in the ’80s and ’90s—is one thing that has changed the nature of an MP’s job today. My hon. Friend is right, and I do not think that there has been any consideration of that matter at all.
I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the balance between the Executive and the legislature. Judging from some of the nodding of heads, other Members did too. However, does he agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, who said to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in July:
“I think we have executive dominance; we have one of the most executive-led forms of government anywhere in the western world”?
I am not sure whether Nick agrees with Nick now, but does my hon. Friend?
Yes, that is true because of the structure we have in this country. Sometimes Members talk of checks and balances, which is really an import from the American system where the constitution was expressly written so as to have checks and balances. Incidentally, one of those checks and balances in the American system was that each state should have two Senators regardless of the number of people living in it. For instance, Rhode Island is tiny compared with California, which is larger economically, politically and in every other sense than a large number of countries in the world, but the two states only get two Senators in the Senate. In the British system, we do not have quite the same checks and balances—particularly if the House of Lords is dominated by a coalition in which two parties manage effectively to have control of both Houses, of the Executive and of the legislature.
I do praise some of the things that the Government have done since they took office, such as setting up the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that the whole of business could be handed over to a business committee, because I think that the role of the legislature needs to be reinforced so that the Executive is held better to account.
Various arguments have been advanced for cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600, one of which makes international comparisons. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister use that argument several times but it is completely fallacious. It is wrong to compare the British Parliament with the Spanish Parliament, for example, because the vast majority of Spain’s Ministers do not sit in the Spanish Parliament. The Executive are not created out of the Parliament. Similarly, in other countries—the United States being the most obvious example—the Executive do not spring from the legislature, so there are not 95 people who automatically have a second job as a Minister or a Parliamentary Private Secretary. That comparison is therefore inappropriate.
If we are to make any kind of comparison, we must bear in mind differences in the level of devolution or federalisation from one country to another. Comparing the United Kingdom with Germany, for example, is inappropriate because the Länder has far more significant powers than any local authority in England and more powers than the Welsh Assembly.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the checks is for the Government to allow ample time for all clauses in a Bill to be discussed? They have clearly done that on this occasion, but we will not get to relevant Welsh issues because he has spent the past half hour speaking.
Bearing in mind what the hon. Gentleman used to say when he was in opposition, I should have thought that he would support the scrutiny of legislation—and one has to talk to scrutinise legislation. No, we have not had enough time to scrutinise the Bill because there are four clauses and some schedules on which we have not had any debate at all. In addition, the Government have tabled 100 pages of amendments that we are going to debate on Monday, which means that we will not be able to debate issues such as the one that he is interested in—cutting the number of Ministers. I shall not take any lectures from him on how long one should speak in the House or on how much scrutiny there should be.
The Minister has clearly lost his marbles—it was because it did not give us enough time. The way in which the Government have behaved over this Bill has been an absolute shoddy mistake. They have consistently refused to provide enough time for us to debate the issues. [Interruption.] No, we did not vote against more time—we voted against the programme motion and we will continue to vote against such programme motions because we want to be able to do this job properly.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and the lack of cross-party consensus or discussions that are usual with this type of Bill, it is even more important to have the necessary debates and to spend time on the Bill at this stage? I am sure that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) would be arguing for that if he were in opposition.
There has been absolutely no pre-legislative scrutiny. This has not been adumbrated in anybody’s manifesto and it has not been available for anybody to consider in public. There has been no public consultation and no consultation between political parties. Of course, therefore, there should be provision for each clause to be considered for at least one day on the Floor of the House, as this is a major constitutional Bill. I am sorry if Government Members are arguing the exact opposite of what they used to, but my point remains—international comparisons are inappropriate.
The Deputy Prime Minister has also sought to suggest that we have far too many Members of Parliament because other countries have far fewer, but the local population per elected member at local authority level in other countries is very different: in France it is 118 and in Germany it is 350, whereas in the United Kingdom it is 2,603. We have to look at the whole set of elected officials if we are to have a real impression of whether we have too many or too few Members of Parliament. I suspect that most voters in this country quite like having a local Member of Parliament who sits in the House. Of course, if one asks the public, particularly if one does so via the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, “Are there too many Members of Parliament?” they will all answer, “Yes,” but if one asks them, “Should your town not have a Member of Parliament?” or, “Should your town be combined with another town?” they would probably answer, “No, I would prefer to have a local constituency Member of Parliament whose name I know, who is accessible and whose constituency surgery I can get to.”
As someone who is fairly new to the House and who is listening to the hon. Gentleman and trying to understand exactly what the Opposition want, I should like to ask him a question. He suggests that there should be a day’s debate on every clause. The last clause simply deals with the short title. Is he suggesting that there should be a day’s debate on the short title?
No. I think that that is a slightly facetious point, but we should have a day to debate a clause that will reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600, and rejig the boundaries in a way completely different from anything in the past, without any public consultation, without the proposal appearing in any public manifesto, and without any consultation across the parties. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair point: some clauses do not need a whole day’s debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although I do not want to extend the debate for too long. He must know perfectly well that two manifestos said that the number of MPs would be reduced and that the reduction now proposed is a much smaller one, which should be something that he could support.
No. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of my comments—he was doubtless opposing the Government’s measures on S4C—but as I now apparently have to rehearse the argument for him, I can tell him that I was making the point that the number has been arrived at for entirely partisan reasons. It is not the number that was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, nor the one that was in the Conservative manifesto.
I want to calm things down a bit, and take the hon. Gentleman back to the technical point that he made before. He asked what would happen if the Boundary Commission dealt with a whole pile of seats first, got to about 95% and was perfectly satisfied, and then found, because it had to stick to the number 600, that it got into real difficulty and did some very odd things later on. If that was an issue for the Boundary Commission, we might think that some advice would have been given on it. Has he asked the Boundary Commission what its advice is on that point?
No, I am not saying that the task is insuperable. Of course it would be possible to draw up the constituencies in the way proposed, but why should one constituency then end up with 95% of the average electorate and another with 105%? [Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House keeps on referring to the Rhondda. He obviously has some desire either to do down the people of the Rhondda or to visit the Rhondda, but I am not extending an invitation to him.
I wonder why the hon. Gentleman believes that the difference between 95% and 105% is a gross intrusion, yet that the difference between my constituency with its 82,000 possible voters, and his constituency with its 52,000, is perfectly all right and needs to be preserved.
The hon. Gentleman should not misrepresent what I have said. He knows perfectly well that I have never said that there should be a divergence between his constituency with 82,000 possible voters, and mine with 51,000. I am wholeheartedly in favour of greater equalisation. I have argued that for a long time, and the Labour party and its predecessors, going way back to the Chartists in the 1840s, argued for greater equalisation of seat sizes. But if we are to move towards equalisation do we add, on top of that, the idea of a fixed number of seats? That is what I am querying.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s argument against 600 seats, but I do not think that I understand his argument for 650 seats, other than that it would give the Labour party an advantage. Is that a partisan argument?
Actually, staying at 650 gives the Conservative party more of an advantage.
I was about to argue that we should not cut the number of seats. I would prefer a situation in which we did not fix the total at any particular number: that is why we have framed our amendment as we have. In addition, it is important not to cut the number of Members.
Is not the solution, as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has heard, to discuss what the nature of a Member is, to seek an optimum number of Members and then to introduce a rolling programme that moves towards that number, rather than an overnight slashing from 650 to 600 for nakedly partisan reasons?
That is wholly my view. That solution gets around the problems, to which I have referred, for the parts of the Union that are more dramatically affected than others, and it would be entirely in keeping with the tradition of this House, which is that we proceed by evolution rather than revolution.
I could understand the argument for reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 if over the past 50 years the number of seats had dramatically increased in relation to the electorate. In actual fact, however, the number of seats has grown by 3% and the number of voters has increased by 25%, so if hon. Members were being honest they would say, “As we agree that the number of seats should go with the number of voters, we should argue for more seats, rather than fewer.”
In addition, the job has completely and utterly changed over the past few years. In a previous debate, for which not all hon. Members were present, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) referred to casework, which is a concept in modern politics—
Indeed. As my hon. Friend says, she referred to it as social work.
I have always believed that the job of a modern Member is very different from that of somebody 40 or even 30 years ago. For a start, the advent of 24-hour news, e-mails, which arrive at 3 o’clock in the morning, mobile telephony and all the rest of it has meant that the electorate expect us to be available far more and to return their phone calls, messages, e-mails and letters far more frequently.
The number of letters on a policy issue that a Member would have received in the 1960s in any one week would have been fewer than 10. Today, I guess that most Members receive in excess of 250 letters a week on policy issues or on an individual casework issue. If we want fewer Members, but our answer to that is to give them more members of staff, thereby increasing their expenses, we will actually deracinate Members from the communities that they serve. We will make them less accessible to voters, and that is why I believe it is wrong to cut the number of Members.
If my hon. Friend is getting only 250 communications a week, he needs to enhance his communication profile.
My intervention is on a different issue, however. My hon. Friend suggested accurately that the arbitrary number of 600 is an attempt to gerrymander the boundaries against Labour. That is clearly the attempt, but does he think that the Government have done their mathematics in a sufficiently competent way? If we do an analysis throughout the country and think of the rationale that the Boundary Commission might have chosen to adopt—had it been given any under the Bill—we find that there is obviously an issue in Wales and Northern Ireland, but that in Scotland the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists have the smaller average seats, not Labour. Throughout England, the area where it is easiest to blur boundaries—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention, not a speech, and I think that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has got the gist of the point.
On a point of order, Ms Primarolo. Many Welsh MPs here are desperate to discuss clause 11, which relates to the National Assembly for Wales. The Government have kindly given us enough time to discuss the clause, yet it seems quite possible that despite the Government’s generosity we will not get to it. Will she advise me on how I, and other Welsh MPs who care about Wales, will be able to discuss it?
Frankly, that is not a point of order. The programme motion has been agreed by the House and Members are proceeding through the Bill, discussing what they consider to be important. As long as they remain in order, they can do so. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is grateful for having put his point on the record. Perhaps we can now return to amendment 364.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good point about how seats might be doled out in the different parts of the Union. It is interesting to analyse what might happen to Sheffield: it would be quite difficult to construct a Liberal Democrat seat for Sheffield, Hallam that would survive—so there is a silver lining somewhere in the legislation.
Some communities will end up without their own representation if we cut the number of seats from 650 to 600 and insist on mathematical perfection. That is a problem.
Who knows what ambitions the Deputy Prime Minister has? Perhaps he will be looking not for a Liberal Democrat seat but for another kind of seat, come the next general election.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw excoriated me for having only 250 pieces of communication. I meant 250 letters a week; the letter, of course, is almost something from the past these days. The vast majority of the correspondence from my constituency comes in the form of a telephone call, text message, Facebook message or through some other means.
Most members of the public expect a reply from the MP, not from some flunky or somebody working in the office for free. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) is picking me up on the word “flunky”. There are no flunkies working in my office—nor, for that matter, do I ever use staff who have offered to work for free. It is one of the shames of this Parliament that so many MPs should have to survive on the free staffing provided by interns. We ought to be moving towards having paid staff.
Another argument that I would adduce in favour of not cutting the numbers from 650 to 600 is that over the past 50 years Parliament has become more and more the place where career politicians intend to come, stay and make their livelihood. Many people have a much more diverse history than just having worked as a special adviser or for a political party before coming here. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) is a former GP; in fact, I think that she still serves as one. As we know, the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) is an author—and, of course, a former member of the Labour party. She has a diverse career behind her.
We all make mistakes.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is referring to her literature or her former party membership.
This Parliament has survived because of some of the mavericks and eccentrics, and the diversity of Members that it has managed to bring in here. If we reduce the numbers from 650 to 600, it will be the mavericks and the independents who will be disappearing and we will have more of the party political placepeople. That is a problem. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is saying, rather unkindly, that I am such a placeman. [Interruption.] The Minister is trying to help by asking me what I think I am. I do not think that this clause is where we go into what I think I am: the meaning of life would be a bit too complicated, and it would go a little wide of the debate, Ms Primarolo.
That is true historically, too. Some of the great people who have come through this House have never been Ministers, and have never spoken from the Dispatch Box. Samuel Plimsoll, who was much excoriated by his party Whips and much hated, acted as an independent—but probably ended up saving more lives through the legislation that he drove through the House than many of us will ever be able to.
I will just say—although I hate to get a small cheer—one final thing. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] You see, they are like Pavlov’s dogs—just give them the line and they will slobber. I understand why the Prime Minister went into the general election saying that he wanted to make politics cheaper and that cutting the number of Members of Parliament would somehow restore British democracy. I understand the background against which that happened; all of us who were in the previous Parliament know the scars that this House bears because of the expenses scandal, which still rumbles on in its own way. However, it is wrong always to go down the populist line in matters of constitutional decorum, particularly the number of Members of Parliament. If we have a perfect mathematical equation for delineating the boundaries, we will end up making MPs less accessible to the public and less able to influence and be involved in decisions in their local communities. It will be more difficult for ordinary members of the public to understand who their MP is and have a relationship with them. Far from improving democracy in this country, that will undermine it further.
That did not make it better, and it was larger in an era when the expectations of a Member of Parliament to be present and available were much reduced. There was a time when MPs, when they visited their constituencies—once a year—were greeted with a brass band. That is not true today. [Interruption.] It is certainly not true for me, and I can see that it is not true for anybody else either.
I have read the hon. Gentleman’s book, and I think that he is referring to Stafford Cripps, who was greeted by a brass band when he arrived at Bristol Temple Meads. The Member who currently represents Bristol Temple Meads is certainly not greeted in that way.
The hon. Gentleman is right: I am referring to Stafford Cripps. The book is not one that is available in all good bookshops, but there is a copy in the Library should any hon. Member wish to read it.
I want to end with the words of Jim Callaghan, a former Prime Minister and a Member who represented south Wales:
“Constituencies are not merely areas bounded by a line on a map; they are living communities with a unity, a history and a personality of their own.”—[Official Report, 19 June 1969; Vol. 785, c. 742.]
That has always been how we have done things in this House and in this country, and I believe that it is how we should continue to do them in future. That is why I have moved this amendment, and why I hope that we will not reduce the number of seats from 650 to a fixed number of 600.
I must confess that I totally accept the need to equalise electorates, which is why I have tabled amendments in a later group, which I suspect we will not get to, suggesting that we leave out of the Bill the gerrymandering—there is no other word to use—of three Scottish seats. That has occurred through a limit of 13,000 sq km being plucked out of the sky to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and probably also Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, to be seen as exceptional. If we equalise constituencies it could be regrettable for such communities, but we want electorates of a similar size.
In fairness to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I think that equal constituencies will mean that we divide the country up into 10 or 15 different areas, from which we can draw up the 600 seats, rather than suddenly realising when we get to the middle of Scotland that we are 10 or 15 seats short. I fully accept the need to equalise electorates, and it is greatly to be regretted that we are not doing that for all seats. It seems that a rather grubby little compromise has been put in place. In the modern, technological era, I disagree with the idea that the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, the two smallest seats in the UK, should be protected. Orkney and Shetland was part of the Wick Burghs constituency at one time during the last century, and the Western Isles were part of the Ross and Cromarty and Inverness-shire constituencies. It is a bogus argument that those constituencies somehow have great historical relevance.
I believe that the compromise was perhaps made to keep the Scottish nationalists happy—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) represents virtually no constituents in this House. I respect that, but we are living in a technological age of e-mails and so on, and I do not agree with the notion that he should maintain the privileged position of representing just 23,000 constituents, when many of us have to represent not only our statutory 70,000 or so but a significant number of non-UK nationals. There is a perfectly good case to be made, but it should not override the idea of equalising communities.
In one respect I would love to help the hon. Gentleman, of course, because I would be quite happy for there to be no MPs from Scotland in this House at all. In the meantime, while we have to have that situation, I remind him that my constituency is the length of Wales. He is very welcome to come with me to the Western Isles and explain his views to all my constituents whom he might meet on his visit.
I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about the three seats in Scotland. In Wales, there could be a seat in the middle of the country that, as I said earlier, could stretch from one side of Wales to the other with a very sparse population. Why is it okay for that to be taken into account of in the case of Scotland, but not Wales?
I entirely agree, and I am not defending that element of the Bill.
Neither can I see any justification for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. The somewhat bogus argument that it will save £12 million a year is certainly outweighed by the fact that the alternative vote referendum will cost some £80 million to £100 million. It is also argued that our House is one of the largest legislatures, but that argument is destroyed by the fact that this Government alone have already massively increased the size of the House of Lords, by some 56 Members since May. They are now looking to stuff a whole lot more unelected Lords in there, and the proposals to make the other House even larger are an absolute disgrace, at least before there is any reform. It is entirely regrettable that there is not to be reform of the House of Commons and the House of Lords as part of the same package.
I fear, given the comments that a number of colleagues have made, that we have not been able to scrutinise the Bill properly because we have run out of time under the programme motion. It will therefore be the House of Lords that takes up the important work of examining the constitutional impact of what is being suggested. The hon. Member for Rhondda is right that nowhere in any manifesto was there a commitment to 600 seats, and all three parties committed to move to a wholly or largely elected House of Lords at the earliest possible opportunity. That now seems a long way off. I particularly regret that because it has always been the Liberal Democrats’ position to democratise, and to make the House of Lords accountable to the electorate. They now hold the novel constitutional principle that the House of Lords should somehow reflect the voting at the last election. That suggests that 200 or so peers will be added to the House of Lords—a significant number of whom will come from the Liberal Democrat party.
I hope that, in so far as more people are to be added to the House of Lords, close scrutiny will be paid to ensure that former Members of the Commons who were caught up in the expenses scandal are not rewarded with a life peerage. As we have seen from the difficulty with the three peers who have been suspended and the two Conservative peers who face the courts in the next few months, there is no mechanism for getting rid of people from the House of Lords. Yet, as part of the constitutional reform, we are introducing some concept of giving our constituents a recall mechanism to get rid of Members of the Commons. The position is incongruous. Until the House of Lords has been sorted out—and certainly for so long as we stuff yet more unelected peers into the other place, which we have already done since May and will continue to do—it would be wrong to reduce the size of the Commons.
I rise to speak about amendments 259 and 260, which I tabled and hope to put to the vote at the end of the debate. Two features of the “General Gerrymander and Electoral Jiggery-Pokery” Bill are the most offensive. The first is the alternative vote, which is a Liberal benefit plan—Liberal Democrats hope that if we get the alternative vote, they will be everybody’s second preference. Fortunately, the alternative vote is unlikely to be carried in the referendum—I shall certainly vote against it. It is rather sad that many people with whom I have worked over the years for electoral reform seem to believe that AV is a form of electoral reform. It is not—it is the stupid person’s electoral reform. The only effective electoral reform is proportional representation.
The leader now sees the benefits of the alternative vote, but I do not. It is not a halfway house to a system of proportional representation. Only proportional representation will allow us to manage the emerging multi-party system in the confines of the electoral system. We cannot do it with the current system, but I do not want to be detoured from my main purpose.
The second unattractive feature of the Bill is clause 9, to which amendments 259 and 260 apply. It is even more offensive because it is the “Castration of the Commons” clause. It states:
“The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600.”
It does not say “590”, “620” or “650”, but “600.” It would be interesting to know how the Government reached that figure. Did they have a séance, as they did for the scale of the cuts that were announced this afternoon: “£240 billion, £120 billion; £600 billion”? Did they split the difference, or did they, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) suggested—I think rightly—arrive at a figure that will lose Labour more seats than the Liberal Democrats?
The Liberals had a smaller figure in their manifesto, but it was proposed in the light of a transfer to STV, which the Liberal party has always supported, with three, four or five-Member constituencies, in which the Liberals have a greater chance of getting somebody elected. The smaller figure was not proposed for first past the post or AV. The Government wanted to cut 10% of the seats. Why? Was it an economy measure? Was it to capitalise on the discontent that The Daily Telegraph’s revelations about expenses produced, and to say, “We’re getting rid of these greedy so-and-sos and reducing the number of people who sponge off the public purse”? Was it that sort of populism? Is that how they arrived at the figure? We need to know before we can make a judgment.
My hon. Friend said that the Liberal Democrats had always supported the single transferable vote. Could I remind him that he tabled an amendment recently on STV that they voted against? In fact, they should clearly change their position and say that they now oppose STV.
The Liberals are in a determined rush to sign their own death warrant. I cannot judge them. I am trying to help them, because people should not sign their own death warrant while the balance of the mind is disturbed. I am trying to take power of attorney over them. The Liberal leader’s constituency—Sheffield, Hallam—will be abolished under the Bill, so a winnable seat in Sheffield will go. He might have told his party, “At this stage in the coalition, chaps, we need a futile gesture. I want you to agree to give up your seats for this Bill.” It could be that that went on, although I do not know the internal processes of the Liberals. Some of my best friends are Liberals, but I will not speak for them. I am trying to help them by tabling amendments such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred and amendment 259, which would keep the number of MPs at 650.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the single biggest weakness of the British constitution is that elected Members of the House of Commons do not have enough power in relation to the Executive? Clause 9 will further diminish the power of elected representatives.
That is absolutely right and I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The real problem with the British constitution is that we do not have one. The constitution in this country is what the Government can get away with. If they can get away with clause 9, which weakens democracy and the Commons and strengthens the Executive, they can get away with more or less anything, with the willing concurrence of the supine Liberals, who are supporting a measure that will weaken them—hopefully—for their own execution.
There is no mystique to how I arrived at the figure of 650 for amendment 259. I just put it in. That is the number of MPs now and the Commons will function efficiently with it. There used to be 700 MPs in the 19th century when the Irish were here. They had to fit in a Chamber the size of this one, which seats about 420—fortunately, most of them did not come—but 650 is a good working total, which is why I chose it.
The consequence of having 600 MPs, as proposed in clause 9, is that the redistribution will be more brutal and more massive. It will be a blitzkrieg of a redistribution, but there will be no democratic controls on it. The scale of the redistribution is determined by the size of the House.
I just wanted to correct a fact that my hon. Friend gave. He said that there were 700 Members in the 19th century owing to the Irish, but in fact, the only time that there were more than 700 Members was from 1918 to 1922. That redistribution was brought about by the Liberals.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I took history at university, but my thesis was on the Whig party in opposition from 1812 to 1830, which was very good preparation for being in the Labour party in the 1980s and 1990s. I did not get as far as the Irish settlement of 1922, and I always regret that. I shall go to him for some tutorials. He is obviously better informed than I am.
I arrived at the figure of 650 because that seems to work well, and I do not want a reduction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out, a reduction in the number of MPs and a smaller House will make the Executive proportionately stronger. I would like to see some proposals from the Government to reduce the number of Executive appointments. There are more than 100, which means that they have a huge bought vote in the House to overrule the wishes of the Members. I want Members to be stronger and the Executive to be weaker, but this measure will have the opposite effect.
Although I completely support the reduction in the number of Members, I have huge sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the Executive, because of the lack of voice. Members of the Executive do not speak on local constituency matters, and I would therefore welcome any attempts to reduce Executive numbers to increase the voice of Back Benchers proportionally.
If the number of Members is reduced, the voice of the constituencies will be proportionally less in this House, and that is another argument for keeping the 650, as I propose. What will happen if the Executive are reduced in this House? Will we have more Executive appointments in the Lords? Will we appoint more of those grovelling chief executives and chairmen who wrote to The Daily Telegraph to support the Government’s plans for cuts at the expense of their customers, saying in effect, “It doesn’t matter how much damage you inflict on our customers and on demand for our businesses, we support the Government.” That is clearly a plea for knighthoods or Government jobs. Will the Government respond to that by creating posts outside Parliament for these people? How will they reconstitute the Executive to make them less strong proportionally in a reduced House? We have heard nothing on that.
Secondly, the reduction would reduce the pool of talent from which to select Ministers and to make all the other contributions that MPs make. Heaven knows, the pool is not all that big now. We do not have all that much talent, and certainly not the level that we used to have—[Interruption.] Well, we have some, especially from Humberside. Our contribution is big, but it is not enough. I would like a bigger pool of talent in the House to pick Ministers from.
Most importantly, the change would reduce the service that we provide to our constituents. I have always found constituency work exciting and interesting, and a solace for my failure to be appointed to any ministerial job—or my ability to mess up any ministerial appointment that I have been offered, which has always been very short-lived because of the joys of constituency work. I find it very satisfactory—
I was hoping that the SNP would appoint me Fisheries Minister for Scotland, but that post would have been a little difficult to handle from Grimsby. I never even achieved the rank of PPS to the Minister—[Interruption.] I apologise, Ms Primarolo. I was led astray.
There is a genuine issue about the service that we provide to our constituents. I know that we have changed over the years from senators to servants of our constituency, and I know that the amount of work has steadily increased. That is a necessary development, because our constituents want to be heard more. We no longer have the same sort of subservient, quiet and loyal electorate that would vote for parties and did not want their voice to be heard. People want to be heard and they want us to listen to them. They want to communicate with us and they want us to raise the problems that they raise with us. That is the job, and we would be less able to do that if there were fewer of us here.
I am bemused by this concept that the figure of 600 would prevent Members of Parliament from being able to represent their constituents adequately, because the electoral quota suggested—about 76,000—already applies to a third of the House, give or take 5%. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a third of Members are incapable of representing their constituents properly?
The bigger the size of the constituency and the electorate, the harder it is to represent them adequately. It may be that evening up constituencies leads to areas being more adequately represented, because those areas will have smaller constituencies, but in my case it will mean a bigger constituency, and many of us are struggling to do the job now.
For example, the amount of mail is increasing all the time. Not so long ago, I read the biography of Hugh Gaitskell by Philip Williams, which was about Gaitskell in the 1950s. It said that Gaitskell’s papers showed that in 1958, when he was the MP for Leeds South East, he got 50 letters a month from his constituents. I get 50 letters every couple of days, and that is in addition to all the e-mails, surgery visits and stoppings in the street in Grimsby, with people asking whether I will ask this or do that, and so on, all of which I have to scribble down. That must mean that in a larger constituency it is more difficult to serve everyone in it. That is an obvious fact. Indeed, it is getting difficult to do the job adequately with 650 Members. We need more and more staff. Fortunately, we have been given more staff, but it is not enough, although it depends on the seriousness with which one does the job.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Nobody could do the job more seriously than he, but right at this moment he is representing his constituents in that other way. He is once again confusing his job—the job of us all—as a social worker, providing pastoral care and advice, with the job of representing our constituents as part of the democratic process. He cannot possibly argue that a man of his calibre, or the calibre of anyone sitting in the Chamber right now, cannot cope with a few thousand more constituents to represent.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Many of the ideas that I raised, the questions that I have asked and the things that I have debated in Westminster Hall come from constituents and constituency problems. That is the nature of democracy—that is how it has to be. We have to face the fact that the state is interacting with people and imposing things on them more than ever before.
Let us look at the flood of problems that we have had with the Child Support Agency, and the fact that a special hotline has had to be created for MPs, so that they can get through to Belfast and have incomprehensible conversations. [Interruption.] I appreciate the difficulties that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) face doing that kind of job—if I could make it easier, I would—but it creates an enormous amount of extra work for us. The same is true of tax credits, which are extremely complex. There is all that interaction, and believe me, Ms Primarolo, there will be a lot more interaction as a result of the cuts announced today, as people come to us with problems to do with benefits, invalidity and cutting off job support. That is going to create a lot more work for us in our constituencies and a lot more work in our surgeries.
I just want to reinforce my hon. Friend’s point. He has to ring Belfast about CSA cases, but he is not the only Member who has to ring people in remote parts who know nothing of the situations that we are dealing with. We in Northern Ireland experience that regularly when we deal with tax credits. In fairness, the conversations that we have with Frank in Preston are comprehensible; it is the other officials who are the problem.
I agree absolutely with that.
A number of Members would like to see us as some kind of intellectual elite, or as the senators that we perhaps used to be in the 19th century. The fact that we are now the street cleaners and the sewage cleaners of the constitutions—the slaves in the galley of the ship of state, albeit somewhat differently whipped—offends their dignity, but that is the job as it is.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unreasonable to deride one-to-one pastoral care of constituents as social work, partly because it necessarily informs our work as MPs but also because the more ordinary constituents meet their MP, whether at church, in an advice session or in the supermarket, the more they will respect us?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a lot of damaging criticism and abuse of MPs as a result of the revelations in The Daily Telegraph last year, and some of that was, frankly, scandalous. It has lowered us in the public’s estimation, but people still turn to us. They need us for all the problems that they come up against. We are the defenders of last resort. We are the ombudsmen for our constituents.
But is it not also true that, especially for some of the most vulnerable people in some of the most vulnerable communities, we are the only advocates they can afford, whether we are advocating their cause here or, for example, at their bank? We represent them in all kinds of circumstances that no one would have conceived of as part of the job 50 years ago.
I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely; he has made that point very well. That is another good title for MPs: the advocate of last resort—the people’s advocate. Well, in my case, I would be their last resort because of the inarticulacy of my advocacy! But that is the nature of the job, and it is no use complaining or saying that it is beneath our dignity to tackle all these problems. It is no use doing as Enoch Powell used to do when anyone raised an issue—
I am sorry, Ms Primarolo.
I should have said that it is much easier to do this job with 650 MPs, and that it will be much more difficult if the clause passes unamended and reduces the membership of the House to 600. That is the essence of my argument. We are straining to do the job as it is, and we have had to take on more staff. We shall need even more staff if the number of MPs is reduced. It is difficult to do our job, but it is well worth doing.
I had a degree of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman when he was talking about the strength of the Executive, but if he has time to make TV programmes and do other things outside the House, I cannot believe that he does not have a spare moment, or that a reduction in the number of MPs would not be feasible.
Some of us labour under the misfortune of being better looking than others—[Laughter.] We might appear more on television for that reason, although my days as a television hero are long gone. The essence of my argument is that this demand comes to us from the people. This is not about us putting ourselves forward to do the work; the demand comes from the people and they have to be served.
The people who support the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 say that it will save about £12 million, but even they are saying that we will need more resources to look after our constituents and that we will therefore need more staff. That £12 million will disappear overnight to pay for the extra resources that we are going to need.
My hon. Friend is right. We cannot economise on democracy. We are a basic part of our democracy. We are the protectors of the people and we cannot economise on that because the demand comes from them, and they have to be served. That is our job. Some people argue that 650 MPs is too many and that this legislature is bigger than others. Yes, it is bigger than many other legislatures, but we have to bear in mind the fact that most other systems are federal. In other words, countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States have elected representatives at several levels of government. We do not. We are the only elected representatives who can act for the people in that way. That is why the figure of 650 appears in my amendment and why there should be no reduction. The proposed reduction in clause 9, which my amendment would stop, is based on a contempt for MPs and the work that they do. I want to reject that contempt.
I shall speak to my amendments 67 and 68. Amendment 67 would substitute the figure of 600 for 585. I tabled the amendment because at the last general election the Conservative party manifesto, on which I was privileged to be re-elected, referred to 585 seats. I have to say that I had some reservations about that part of our manifesto, because I felt that it introduced a degree of inflexibility where, as we have heard from the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Boundary Commission, it is desirable to leave the Boundary Commission with some flexibility in considering these important issues. From the outset of this Parliament, however, I have been trying to get a straight answer—either from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) or the Deputy Leader of the House—to the question why the figure of 600 was chosen.
I take very seriously the allegation made today by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that the figure of 600 was chosen for politically partisan reasons rather than for objective reasons pertaining to good government. I look forward to the Government responding in detail to the question of why 600, rather than 585, which was in our manifesto, was chosen. I note that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is not yet in his place to speak to his amendment 74. It is a corresponding amendment from the Liberal Democrats, calling for a reduction to 500, which was the exact figure that the Liberal Democrats included in their manifesto, on which the hon. Gentleman was re-elected to this House. This is a very serious issue.
The suggestion that the figure of 600 has been plucked out of the air has rather damaging connotations for the credibility of the coalition Government. Let us examine the difference between 600 and 585. With 600 seats, there would be roughly 75,000 to 76,000 electors per constituency. With 585—in other words, a reduction of 2.5% on the 600 figure—an average of 1,800 or so electors would be added to every constituency. Is anyone in government arguing that it is on account of that crucial increase of another 1,800 electors per constituency that we have opted for the 600 figure rather than 585—itself a conveniently round number in the sense that it was a 10% reduction on the present size of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but there is nothing magical about the figure of 600, just as there is nothing magical about 585. One was a 10% reduction; the other a round figure reduction of 50. The figure is not magical; it is simply an arbitrary figure that reduces the size of the House in a way that I believe is consistent with the public mood and the needs of this House.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is an arbitrary figure; I am pleased that he concedes that. He says that it is consistent with the public mood, so let us examine that proposition and let us hope that he will provide some evidence for it when he responds to this debate in due course. He also says that the figure is consistent with the needs of this House. Where is the evidence for that? Why should this House comprise 600 rather than 585 Members? If, by referring to the public mood, the hon. Gentleman means the public’s concern about the costs of Parliament, why at the same time as reducing the size of this House are we merrily increasing the number of people in the other place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) asked? Indeed, as he told us, the number has already increased by more than the proposed reduction here.
The Government are proposing to reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 50, but they have already increased the number of Members in the other House by well over 50—getting on for 60—and there is a prospect of substantial further increases. Where is the case for that? How can increasing the size of the unelected House at considerable additional public expense, while at the same time reducing the size of the elected House, accord with the public mood?
My hon. Friend has made a perfectly fair point. Let us recall, however, that although the Government have consistently argued that the problem is that this elected House is the largest in the European Union and in most legislatures, they never point out that the other House is larger than this, and that in legislatures not just in the European Union but throughout the globe the revising or upper Chamber, or the senate, is almost invariably not larger but significantly smaller than the elected Chamber. Where is the justification for maintaining a much larger second Chamber? No international relative statistics support the case for very large second Chambers, which seems to be what the Government want to introduce.
The hon. Gentleman has made a pertinent point in referring to the size of second Chambers in many modern democracies around the world. The point that he has not made is that in most of those instances the second Chamber is elected, whereas our second Chamber—which is bigger than our elected Chamber—is unelected. I consider it a massive contradiction that the Government are proposing an expansion of the unelected second Chamber and a reduction in the size of the legitimate, elected Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. While he was making his intervention, I received a communication from a Whip to the effect that, apparently, the coalition Government are committed to reducing the size of the other House. My response was “When?” I supported an excellent ten-minute rule Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), which proposed doing away with Whips in this Chamber. I am grateful to the Whip for the help that he tried to give, but I should be even more grateful if he could ensure, perhaps through those on the Front Bench, that it is put on record when we will reach a point at which the second Chamber is smaller than this elected Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), but is there not a clear case for presenting the proposals relating to voting, membership and size as a single reform package, given that there is bound to be a reduction at some time in the future? The fact that Whips are running around giving Members information illustrates our current problem.
As so often, the right hon. Gentleman has made a fundamental point. Given that the Government have not been listening to what has been said on both sides of the Chamber throughout our debates, I hope that the other place will concentrate the Government’s mind by taking control of these important issues and insisting that piecemeal constitutional legislation of the sort that we are discussing is not the answer to the country’s problems, does not accord with the public mood, and is cynical in the extreme. I hope that the Bill, which has been subject to vicious timetabling and much of which will not be discussed in this Chamber, will be well and truly filleted when it reaches the other place.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important speech. Does he agree that what the public want is a straightforward approach from politicians of all parties, democratic accountability and an honest, considered discussion about amendments to the British constitution? Unfortunately, because we have discussed neither the Bill in draft nor issues relating to the House of Lords, we are not having that discussion now. My constituents are telling me that they believe that the Bill is designed for party political advantage, which diminishes this Chamber and all of us who sit in it.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point very seriously, because the allegation that there is to be constitutional change in order to try to benefit one political party over another is a very serious one. We should not allow that allegation to be spread among the electorate unless there is a justification for it. I am looking for some assurance from my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that there is no political manoeuvring and that instead this is an objective, non-partisan measure. So far, however, I have not been convinced that that is so, and I do not think the arguments put from the Opposition Front Bench and by Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber have been properly addressed.
I have made the following point to the Deputy Prime Minister in many previous discussions in the House. There should not be a reduction in the size of the legislature without a pro rata reduction in the size of the Government. The response I have always received to that is, “Well, we don’t see the need to do that as the two issues are not connected,” but they are fundamentally connected. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and others have already made the point that the measures under discussion will give much more power to the Executive and less power to the legislature, and that is totally at odds with what the Prime Minister said when he was Leader of the Opposition that he was going to do. He said then that he wanted to increase the power of Members of Parliament and reduce the size and power of the Executive. He said that in the run-up to the general election, and it was even spelled out in terms in the Conservative party manifesto. I hope that at the end of this debate we will hear from the Front-Bench team how they think that these measures are consistent with undertakings given to the electorate both before and during the general election campaign.
What conceivable reason can there be for picking this arbitrary figure of 600? One rumour circulating among many of my colleagues is that the motivation behind the move is to provide another way for the Executive, through party managers and the party machine, to be able to put the frighteners on reluctant supporters of the coalition in both Government parties. Boundary Commission representatives said in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that as a result of these proposals every single constituency in the country will have to have significant boundary changes. The Whips have peddled a bit of misinformation, suggesting that if a Member’s constituency already has about the right new number of constituents—76,000—then, “You’ll be all right, Jack,” but the Boundary Commission has made it clear that every single constituency boundary in the country will have to be significantly altered. What goes with that, of course, is the reselection of Members of Parliament, and what goes with that is more power for the Executive, through the party managers, to try to influence the reselection process.
Although we know that, in fact, the most independent MPs got the best results in the last general election, it does not prevent—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is right: she had an outstanding result in the general election, on which I congratulate her, and it had nothing whatever to do with her loyalty to her party when it was in government. What she achieved sends a very important message. I hope that many of my 147 new colleagues will take that message to heart and realise that even if this Bill goes through and a change is made to almost every constituency, those who have stood up fearlessly on behalf of their constituents will do better at the ballot box, and probably in the reselection process, than those who supinely followed whatever they were told to do by the Whips. That does not alter the fact that this can be done to put the frighteners on people, because nobody quite knows what the future will bring.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the chaos that the boundary changes will create, but if this measure goes through, that will not just occur this time around; there will be uncertainty every term, not only for all Members in this place, but for our electors. We could end up breaking the link, which we all respect, between elected politicians and their voters.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A proposal that has not yet been tabled in an amendment or a new clause, but perhaps could be tabled on Report or in the other place, is for a sunset clause, in order to see how the new number works in practice, rather than allowing it to go on indefinitely. He may be interested in proposing such a sunset clause—
Order. Shall we concentrate on what is actually in the Bill—in particular, the issue of the number of MPs—and not on what might occur in the future?
Absolutely, Ms Primarolo. I am sorry that I got slightly carried away, as a result of that intervention, in anticipating what might happen in the future.
I tabled my amendment for discussion because in the general election we promised that there would be 585 MPs, because we needed that number and it would reduce the costs of Parliament, but we are now proposing 600. That means that the costs will be reduced by less than they would have been had we opted for 585. Given what we have heard today, it appears that when the books were opened they were even worse than the worst fears of my right hon. Friends in the Government. Surely it is inconsistent with the spending decisions taken today to row back from a figure of 585 to one of 600. That gives credence to the charge made against the coalition Government that, although 600 is an arbitrary figure, it is not quite as arbitrary as we might be led to believe, because it is based on some private work that has been done suggesting that it might be to the advantage of the coalition partners, rather than the Labour party.
Ms Primarolo, you have already criticised me for speculating, and I am certainly not going to speculate. All I am saying is that, before this House gives approval to a reduction in the number of MPs to a fixed number of 600, the case needs to be made and we need something more than an assertion that it is an arbitrary figure, that it accords with the public mood and that it meets the needs of this House. None of those things has been established. Apart from anything else, even if I agreed with such a move, I would not support it unless I could see evidence of a pro rata reduction in the number of Ministers and the size of the Executive, and thereby not a dilution of this House’s ability to hold the Executive to account. That is my modest contribution, but I make it clear that I intend to seek re-election in the next Parliament, be there 600 or 585 constituencies, or the current number.
I wish to address my remarks to amendments 364 and 227. I particularly wish to deal with the principle of having the number of Members of Parliament fixed at 600, because I find the fixed number particularly objectionable and dangerous. That contradicts the history of this country going back many centuries, because our system has evolved as a majority system. We have had first past the post—although the alternative vote is now being suggested—as a way of electing individual Members who represent individual constituencies. The moment that one moves towards a mathematical fixation determining the number of seats, the trip down the slippery slope towards proportional representation has begun. If the mindset is that there should be an equality of votes, however that is defined—of course there were important arguments yesterday about how to define the equality of voters and who defines the electorate—and that there should be a mathematical equation, the logical conclusion is that that can be taken further as things ebb and flow.
A further conclusion could be drawn from that, because if it is good enough for the House of Commons, it is good enough for other parts of the—I use this phrase lightly—British constitution. So the House of Lords should have a fixed number of seats and Members of that House should be aware of the likely logic that must follow, whatever that number might be. Some might suggest—I think I once did—that if there was a fixed number, it should be as low as 100. It might be a shock to them to go so low. However, the moment one has a fixed number, one sets in place a principle that totally and absolutely contradicts every principle in establishing constituencies that this country has had before.
This is a critical principle, which seems to have been overlooked in the debate about the precise numbers. The moment we make that change, that principle will be enshrined for ever. The Deputy Prime Minister made comparisons to the Great Reform Act of 1832. I have studied that Act quite extensively, not least because the originator, John Cartwright, came up with the concept living in the house that I now occupy and would have been a constituent of mine. The original rotten borough was East Retford, with 150 voters choosing two Members of Parliament. Following the recent boundary changes, done on the basis of equalising constituencies across the county of Nottinghamshire, I now have the privilege of representing Retford, having lost the district of Warsop.
That was part of a boundary change under the current system to numerically equalise as much as possible the size of parliamentary seats. I have 20,000 new voters and I lost 10,000. I do not object to that principle. The 10,000 who went objected vehemently, because they seemed to feel that I was a good and representative Member of Parliament, but those whom I now represent were delighted to have the opportunity to vote for or against me. That was a major redistribution on the principle of equalising size, but this rotten Bill enshrines in perpetuity the concept of a mathematical arbitrary equation that each constituency will be of the same size, which has fundamental ramifications.
I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but does he not recognise that we have already enshrined PR in our political system to quite a large extent, through the European Parliament since 1999, through the way we elect the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London assembly, and through the way in which local authorities are elected in Scotland? We are going down precisely that path, but it is a slippery slope that we started down quite some time ago.
We have had this slippery slope with the European Parliament and with how we choose its Members. Of course, the Deputy Prime Minister, apparently, was once a representative in my area—no one seems to have realised that fact, because such Members are rather distant and remote, whether they do a good job or not, because of the size of the constituency.
The interrelationship between individual and electorate that has been the basis of democracy in this country—one that other countries have, too often, moved away from in their determination to have either proportionality or equality and to have mathematical solutions to how they build a legislature—is the foundation of participative democracy. We are not just a representative democracy in this Chamber: if we are effective, we are a participatory democracy as well. That principle would be somewhat undermined by an arbitrary mathematical solution to how many Members there should be.
There has never been an arbitrary mathematical equation. I would be ruled out of order if I went through an historical analysis of the Great Reform Act, why Cartwright brought it forward and its relationship to the rotten boroughs, including East Retford, so I shall not, but the principle was one of expanding democracy. There was representation before it, but it was the wrong kind of representation. The principle was about participation; it was in the evolution of participatory democracy that this country led the world—not representative democracy, which we already had. The definition of democracy was changed by the Great Reform Act into one of participatory democracy and has changed over time into one in which all citizens over the age of 18 can participate.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about mathematics, so here is some maths for him: 70% of MPs in Scotland are from the Labour party but they secured only 42% of the vote. I know that he is a fair man and I feel the pain of the citizens of Warsop, but does he agree that there is something wrong with that?
The hon. Lady asks an excellent question and I shall give her a precise answer: Parliament should do so on the same basis on which it has been done before. The principle previously and now, unless this rotten Bill, particularly this part of it, is made into law, is that the House sets an ideal target, but that the Boundary Commission independently determines the boundaries within which each Member will sit using a set of criteria that relate to the history of the country, the four nations, the history of England, locality and the nature of our democracy. But that principle will be thrown out by the Bill. With the Great Reform Act, there were riots in Nottingham and years of deliberation before the Act was passed and changed the principle to one of participatory democracy and the wider franchise. Are we to break that principle after a couple of days of truncated debate in the House? Are we to have a principle, which could stand in perpetuity, of having a fixed number of MPs? The idea that we would do that is a disgrace to the House and to the traditions of our democracy.
This principle is important and the consequences are great, so let me illustrate them. I have none of the fears that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) discussed about the precise boundaries in my area. The boundaries were changed in the last election and my majority went up against all the predictions, so I have no fears about any such change or about who will come in and who will go out.
Of course, my constituents would strongly resist the notion that, having built a relationship with one Member of Parliament, good or bad, they should not have the opportunity to re-elect or dismiss that Member of Parliament. That principle is enshrined in our democracy, but it is endangered and partly thrown away by the arbitrary nature of setting a mathematical equation to determine the numbers. My constituency boundaries are a good example of how that would destroy the traditions of England and English democracy.
Ministers laugh at the fact that the county of Nottinghamshire, the seat of Bassetlaw and the electoral representation in Bassetlaw and Nottinghamshire have been set over the centuries, not in a few minutes or a few hours’ debate, but by the very nature and history of this country. Do hon. Members know why the seat of Bassetlaw was created? Because it was a road through the forest and a route through the country. That is why Robin Hood was robbing in such places. The history and geography of this country, going back hundreds and thousands of years, have produced the shire counties.
Should my constituency’s boundaries be changed arbitrarily? My situation is not unique, but it emphasises the nature of an arbitrary mathematical solution. My current boundaries and electorate are about the mean—it is not a small constituency—but a change to the south, which is precisely what has happened before, would be a change within Nottinghamshire. One bit goes in; one bit goes out. That is how the Boundary Commission has done its work over the decades. That is reasonable. It makes its decisions. I disagreed with the last one, but that is democracy: an independent body, not politicians, heard representations and made its decisions on the basis of trying to maximise equality between the seats in Nottinghamshire. That is why that change took place. Any change to the north would take us across a regional boundary—Ministers will not be bothered about regions—and a county boundary as well, into Yorkshire. I have nothing against the people of Yorkshire. That is where I come from. I am sure that I would be as popular there as I am in Nottinghamshire, so that is not the fear.
I deal with Nottinghamshire county council, Nottinghamshire police and Bassetlaw council in Nottinghamshire. The fear of the elected Member is that if we had to move over to an arbitrary base of different councils and authorities, however they are formulated by whichever Government are in power, we would be looking in different directions at once and the role of MPs in advocating for and representing their constituents would be significantly diminished.
It is not just the boundaries with Yorkshire that could be changed; there could be a change to the east, in which case we would go into Lincolnshire, perhaps into North Lincolnshire or West Lindsey council—again, entirely different local government, police and health set-ups. Of course, if the boundary was changed to the west, we would go into Derbyshire, yet another county and yet another set of police and fire authorities.
All that illustrates the point that if we do not attempt, in any system, to try to maintain as much as we can the integrity of the English counties and a direct relationship with local government, however it is structured, the role of the MP and the credibility of Parliament are diminished. That is the weakness in arbitrary mathematical equations, and it is why we all know that the Boundary Commission is in reality horrified by the notion that it would need to use some kind of mathematical equation, because the cr