[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2010-11, HC 495, and the Government Response, HC 729.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(David Jones.)
This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and it is a great pleasure to do so. We have sat on the Back Benches for many years and have been impressed by the loquaciousness of Front-Bench Members from both sides of the House; sometimes, they have entertained us for so long that we have not had a chance to speak. Time is short today, and because I believe it important that all hon. Members should have the opportunity to contribute, I will limit my speech to 10 minutes. [Interruption.] Other hon. Members are entering the Chamber as I speak.
The issue of constitutional change and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was the first subject considered by the Welsh Affairs Committee. It has been a great pleasure to work with all members of that Committee. The Select Committee system is one of the great unsung success stories of Parliament, and I wish that those members of the public who think that we spend all our time arguing with each other could see what goes on in a Select Committee. Despite the range of views, there is always room for compromise and agreement on certain issues.
Unanimously, members of the Welsh Affairs Committee had concerns about the changes to the constitution. The first issue that we looked at was the idea of holding a referendum on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections. We expressed our concerns about that, and made clear our opinion that the Government needed to take measures to ensure that the referendum ran smoothly—which, to be fair, it did. There were concerns about timing and the counting of the vote, but there were not many spoilt ballot papers and I am glad that the two elections went smoothly.
Many concerns remain, however, over proposals to reorder the boundaries in Wales and reduce the number of Welsh MPs by a significant number, probably about a quarter. There are concerns about the impact that such a change will have on the ability of Wales and the Welsh people to ensure that their voice is heard in Parliament. I accept the point, made on a previous occasion by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), that the reforms will be one of the greatest changes since the Great Reform Act. Ever since that Act, Wales has been strongly represented to reflect the fact that it is a small nation that needs to get its voice across. I must add—this would not have been in the report—that that argument is somewhat weakened by the establishment of a Welsh Assembly. Hon. Members must take account of that.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government continue to talk about greater democratic accountability and the reform of the House of Lords. Current plans are to get rid of 50 elected representatives from the House of Commons, including a quarter of Welsh MPs, and at the same time to introduce an extra 150 unelected Lords. There is no real chance of those reforms to the House of Lords going forward. Is the hon. Gentleman worried about having a greater proportion of unelected representatives and fewer elected representatives, and will he vote against that?
The hon. Gentleman wisely anticipates a point that I am about to come to. I will return to that subject; he may hold me to that.
Let me make an obvious point that the Minister may wish to deal with. Wales is geographically challenging when it comes to offering representation. By that I mean that many of its communities are cohesive because of the topography of the area, and certain valleys make obvious constituencies. They may never contain the requisite number of people, but it is not terribly wise simply to say, “That can constitute a constituency, and we’ll add a bit of the valley next door to get the numbers absolutely right.”
A place that may look nearby on a map will not necessarily be easy to access. We already have areas in which it is challenging to be a good constituency MP. Constituencies such as Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnorshire are very large—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) is in the Chamber—and presumably they will get even larger. That will pose challenges for the MP who represents such a constituency.
To some extent, we are allowing a bandwagon to roll that suggests that all Members of Parliament are lazy and do not have enough to do, and that we should get rid of a few of them, and give others an extra 10,000 constituents because that will produce a good headline in the newspaper. I hope that that is not the case, but I fear that as a profession, MPs do not stand up for themselves and nor does anyone else stand up for them.
MPs have a right to be treated in the same way as any one else in the country; when I read in the press that MPs should be treated like anyone else, I say that I could not agree more and that it is about time that we were treated the same in every respect. That means, however, that if someone changes our terms and conditions of work with the stroke of a pen, we should be entitled to a certain amount of notice. If we are to be given a lot of extra work—I take my role very seriously, as do hon. Members from all parties—it is only right that we should be given time to prepare for that.
I promised that I would return to the good point raised by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and the proposals to reform the House of Lords. I could understand some of the desire to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 were it not for the fact that at the same time we are increasing the number of Members of the House of Lords and are possibly about to elect them on an 80:20 basis—we will see whether that comes to pass.
It certainly looks as though it will be more expensive to manage the House of Lords. If we wish to act in a cohesive fashion, surely we should have considered the possibility of maintaining the number of MPs at 650. We could have reordered the constituencies so that they contained the same numbers of constituents, but we could also have ensured that they remained closer to their current state, without necessarily expecting MPs to do all sorts of extra work. I have no problem with working hard, but adding an extra 10,000 people to a constituency will present certain challenges. We should not jump to do that simply because it is demanded by the tabloids.
How many of my hon. Friend’s constituents have written to him asking for this matter to be treated as a priority?
In all truth, hardly any constituents have written to me about this matter. A few have written to me to say that they are shocked and horrified by the fact that one in four Welsh MPs are going to disappear. I had to write back and say that I am also surprised and concerned, and that unfortunately they will have to fly the flag for me on the issue as I dread to think what the Daily Mail would say if it thought that I was simply trying to protect my job.
Members of Parliament work extremely hard at the moment, and I have no problem with them working harder in the future if that is possible. I do, however, have a problem with the timing of the legislation and the way that it has been introduced very quickly. I was surprised that there were not more opportunities to debate the matter, although I do not entirely blame the Government for that.
At least one Welsh MP, who is not present today, seemed able, at the drop of a hat, to deliver speeches that lasted more than an hour and covered different clauses of the Bill. That prevented us from reaching those amendments that applied to Wales. I listen to “Just a Minute” on Radio 4; he could easily have done “Just an Hour”. To pay him a small compliment, I should say that he was quite entertaining and not many people can speak for an hour and be entertaining—at this rate, I will struggle to make 10 minutes.
He used to be a vicar, though.
I am not going to name the hon. Gentleman concerned and I shall let that comment stay on the record.
Another issue that concerned us when we conducted the report was the evidence that we received to suggest that much of the information that the Boundary Commission will work on is out of date or inaccurate. Too many people who should be on the electoral role have not registered for one reason or another.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean(Mr Harper), assured us that a great deal of work would be done to ensure that accurate numbers of people were recorded and that the information used to redraw the boundaries was accurate. I look forward to hearing from this Minister what work has been undertaken to ensure that everyone who should be on the electoral roll is on it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that voter registration is of particular concern along the north Wales coast, where there is a transient population?
I do agree, but the evidence that we had suggested that voter registration is an issue in all parts of Wales and perhaps particularly in some of the more urban areas. However, even if it is an issue in just one part of one constituency, it is a big issue, because this is about democracy and ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. How big the issue is I cannot say, but I look forward to an explanation from the Minister.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?
I will, but I am looking at the clock.
Will the hon. Gentleman not accept that a disproportionate—[Interruption.] I can’t speak. I have lost my—[Interruption.]
I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman again if he wants. I apologise, but I did not quite hear what he said. [Laughter.] He is more than welcome to intervene on me again.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a disproportionate tendency for poorer communities not to register? The boundaries should really be based on the best estimate of the number of people eligible to vote, as opposed to those who are registered, given that young people, ethnic communities, people in private rented accommodation and so on are under-represented.
I will not accept that. The evidence that we had was that significant numbers of people are not registered to vote. It was right that we asked the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who is responsible for the matter, to come back to us with further information about how that would be rectified, and he promised us announcements and assured us that action would be taken.
I do not think that we had enough evidence to say where the problem is most widespread. I certainly do not personally think that we should start redrawing the boundaries based on what is at best an educated guess as to what the problem might be—that is, having a look at constituencies and saying, “Well, that is not very affluent, and urban, so we think that X% are not registered. We’ll just redraw the boundary on that basis.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. A number of hon. Members have campaigned to increase registration for a long time, not just in relationto this issue. We have just had a census. Will the Electoral Commission be able to use the information revealed by the census in its calculations and judgments?
I should perhaps take it as a compliment that the hon. Gentleman asks me that question which probably ought to be asked of the Minister. I am tempted to say that I will check with my officials and write to the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I do not even have a researcher working for me in London, but I am sure that the Minister will reply for me in a few minutes’ time.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the work done by the Committee on Standards in Public Life during my period as a member of that Committee, which highlighted the failure of the Electoral Commission to exercise the powers that it already has to encourage consistency of registration throughout the country. Is not one of the points that we can agree on that the consistency of registration needs to be driven up in advance of the move, which all parties have supported, to individual registration, because the transition from one system to another is a potentially fragile period that could make a bad situation worse?
Yes, I think we can all agree on that. I can only say that in evidence the Minister promised that there would be very strong action to rectify the problem. It is probably a failing on my part, but I am not yet absolutely certain that I know what that action will be. I am sure that we will all be enlightened today.
The Boundary Commission said to us that it would look purely at numbers. When it gave evidence, it said that this was a numbers game and nothing else would come into the equation. It said that it would not look at the topography, the geography, the geographical size of a constituency, the local authority boundaries or anything else; it would look simply at the numbers. Since that evidence was given, I have detected a slight change in tone, in that the Boundary Commission is now talking about trying to match up local authority boundaries where it can. But this will be primarily about numbers.
Just to be clear, is the hon. Gentleman now talking about the intentions of the Boundary Commission, as distinct from the standards improvement that I was talking about in relation to the Electoral Commission? I think that the two points are consistent as long as we are—
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I fully accept the point that he made about the Electoral Commission. I am coming to the end of my allocated time now, but that is what the Boundary Commission has said. Its original evidence worries me. The messages that have been coming out since then reassure me a little, but we will still end up with completely different constituencies and with one in four MPs in Wales disappearing.
We have not stood up for ourselves; we have been afraid to stand up for ourselves. The vast majority of people in this Chamber and in the House of Commons work very hard and do a very good job. To some extent, we have been pushed into accepting the proposals, because we are afraid that we will be seen to be self-serving if we do not accept a large cut in our own numbers. It becomes much harder to justify cutting the number of MPs on a cost basis if at the same time we are going to spend large sums funding the House of Lords, whether they be elected, appointed or a mixture of both.
If the Government support the role of the Back-Bench MP in holding Ministers to account through forums such as the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, they also need to explain to us what will happen to the number of Ministers. I hope that if we are looking to save money by cutting the number of MPs, there will be consistency and that that will be applied to Ministers as well.
It is good to take part in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Your surname is a Welsh surname of considerable importance, so I am sure that you were interested to join us for this important debate. I agreed with every single word that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), my constituency neighbour, said. The only problem is that there are plenty of members of the Government who did not and, indeed, it may be too late for some of the excellent points that he made to be effective.
One of the good aspects of what is happening this afternoon is that the Welsh Affairs Committee was the only body—the only institution—in Parliament that dealt properly with the question of constituency boundaries in Wales. Hon. Members will know that, on the Floor of the House, the issue of Welsh boundaries was never reached. There was a considerable and excellent debate in the other place, but not in the House of Commons. Similarly, we asked the Secretary of State for a sitting of the Welsh Grand Committee so that all Welsh Members of Parliament could discuss the most important issue that affects our constitution, but we were refused.
When we couple that with the fact that we seem to have lost our Welsh day debate, despite my attempts and those of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) to ask the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that we did have a debate on Welsh matters, which has been the case in the House of Commons since 1944, we see that the opportunities that we could have had have been missed. Nevertheless, the fact that the hon. Member for Monmouth has initiated this debate is to be welcomed.
My right hon. Friend has made an extremely powerful point about the St David’s day debate. That has always been regarded across parties as an important element in the year. The suggestion that it can be ignored and pushed to one side by regarding it as Back-Bench business is wrong. It is surely business that should be dealt with in Government time, as has always been the case in the past.
Yes. It is ironic that the Secretary of State has written to the Backbench Committee arguing that there should be a Welsh day debate; I guess the right hon. Lady will now have to argue with her Cabinet colleagues and the Leader of the House to ensure that we have a debate to discuss Welsh matters on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for Monmouth did not touch on one excellent point made by his Committee, which is that there was insufficient time for the changes to be debated, and that no draft legislation has come before the House on this important matter. That contrasts entirely with the way in which the Government are dealing with the reform of the House of Lords, where there is a draft Bill, a White Paper, a Joint Committee and an attempt at consensus. None of those were the case for the Bill that we are discussing today. That is to be regretted, because my experience of dealing with constitutional matters, which goes back some years, is that such reform will never last unless there is a foundation of consensus. If they are seen to be wholly partial, which I believe the present proposals are, they will not be of lasting value to our country. The Welsh Affairs Committee was very wise when dealing with the matter.
I have a great deal of time for the Minister, and I welcome him to this debate, but it would be nice now and again if his boss were to turn up. I twice held the post of Secretary of State over a five-year period, and whenever we had important debates on such subjects I thought it important that the Secretary of State for Wales should attend. It has not happened in this Parliament. The only time that the Secretary of State for Wales has dealt with the issue is in reply to the odd question or two at Question Time. There has been no debate. Indeed, she stopped the Welsh Grand Committee debating the matter, so we do not know what she has to say about the fact that 25% of Welsh Members will be losing their constituencies.
Since the Welsh Affairs Committee produced its report, we have had a referendum; that has given legislative power to the National Assembly, and a new National Assembly and Executive have been elected and appointed. The impact of that on the role of the Secretary of State is, if nothing else, hugely significant. Even at this late stage, I still make the plea that, before the summer recess, the Welsh Secretary liaises with the Leader of the House so that the Welsh Grand Committee can debate the matter.
I will not take up much more time because other Members wish to speak, but I want to emphasise one important aspect of the Union. I am a unionist—with a small “u”—and I believe that the union of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England has proved successful. In Northern Ireland, it is for the people there to decide what to do—the principle of consent. We have seen dramatic changes in the last couple of weeks in Scotland and in Wales as a result of the elections. However, I fear that unless the Conservative party in Britain listens to the Conservative party in Wales—there is a big difference —we are heading for big trouble.
The Prime Minister talks about fighting for the Union with every fibre of his being. I understand that, and I do not doubt his sincerity for a second. However, what has happened to Wales’s constitution and its relationship to the House of Commons and Parliament over the last year shows that we must be very careful in what we do. As the hon. Member for Monmouth said, the reduction in the number of Members is not simply about the same number of MPs representing the same number of constituencies and the same number of electors as with English or Scottish seats. We have a United Kingdom that, by definition, represents the nations within it, and if we reduce the number of MPs in Wales by a quarter—a disproportionate reduction from 40 to 30—their influence in the House of Commons and in Government will be seriously weakened. We have made that point to the Government time after time, but they have shut their ears.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He makes a point that he has made previously on the Floor of the House and on the last occasion when we debated the matter in Westminster Hall. How does he get over the need for equality in terms of vote? Is it not the essence of democracy that everyone’s vote, wherever in the country it is cast, should be of equal validity? Is it not the case that, if Wales were disproportionately advantaged, that principle would be broken?
Wales can never be disproportionately advantaged. Even now, we have only 40 of the 659 seats. Whatever England wants to do, it can do through its Members of Parliament. It can overwhelmingly outweigh the Members of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland put together. There is never a case where that cannot happen.
With all due respect, the right hon. Gentleman slightly avoids the question. With the advent of the Welsh Assembly, Members of Parliament in England cannot do anything about the health service in Wales, nor about education, roads and the many other issues about which our constituents write to us.
We now touch on the other point that I intended to raise before concluding—the so-called West Lothian question.
There will be a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament—it will be a huge reduction, and it will weaken Wales’s voice here, even though it would not influence what happens in Parliament—and the answer to the West Lothian question will mean that Welsh Members of Parliament will be of a different type from the English MP. We will have different types of Members in the House, some MPs being able to vote on this and some on that. That is unknown in any other European country and, as far as I am aware, in the world.
A reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, a reduction in their rights, a constant grizzling and grumbling about the Barnett formula, the fact that people think that Wales does better than parts of England, the fact that we can do different things in Cardiff and Edinburgh and Belfast—student fees, for instance—which is what devolution is all about, and the way in which the House deals with Welsh business, with the Welsh day debate disappearing, all add to the case for separatism, and not for the Union.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He touches on an extremely important. I entirely agree that the West Lothian question is vital; in my view, it has not been properly addressed and should have been addressed prior to the establishment of devolution.
I want to deal with the question of the number of Welsh MPs. Did the right hon. Gentleman read the evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Committee by Professor Richard Wyn Jones? The professor said that it was “hard to imagine” how the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs could have a
“huge impact in terms of the Welsh voice in Westminster, particularly because, on the whole, Welsh MPs do not behave en masse as a single block.”
I believe that we do behave en masse in representing Welsh interests in the House of Commons. The fact that the Welsh Affairs Committee unanimously and across parties agreed on the matters raised by the hon. Member for Monmouth shows that there are many occasions when Welsh Members come together in the interests of Wales. I do not know the professor, but I do know that he is not a Member of Parliament, has not served in the House of Commons and does not know what can happen here. These people can have their academic discourses and theses and the rest of it, but the practicalities of politics are such that Welsh influence can be exercised here only by Welsh Members of Parliament.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He is giving a powerful discourse on the importance of having a Welsh voice in Parliament. Does he agree that it is absurd for Government Members to talk about the importance of equal representation across the UK and of reducing the number of MPs, while at the same time stuffing the House of Lords with their supporters?
That is because the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010 was born in a partisan way. Had it been dealt with like the legislation for reform of the House of Lords or other constitutional legislation, and a consensus arrived at, we would not have the present trouble. People simply see it as a means of cutting the number of Welsh Members of Parliament. The chances are that more Labour MPs are likely to be cut than those of other parties—we do not know; it could be the other way around—but we all ought to be fighting for Welsh Members of Parliament to have their say strengthened in a United Kingdom Parliament rather than weakened.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic that the capacity of Welsh Members of Parliament to work together and speak with one voice was illustrated through the calling of a meeting—the first for many years—of the Welsh parliamentary party specifically because the Secretary of State was not listening to Welsh MPs speaking with one voice? Does he not think that there is very strong representation and strong teamwork across Welsh MPs and that the analysis quoted by the Minister is simply misplaced?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend and that was why a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party was called.
I will give way in a moment. I just want to finish my point regarding the consensus among Welsh Members, including Welsh Conservative Members. I am beginning to feel that there is a belief among some Conservative Members of Parliament—I exclude all Welsh Conservative MPs from this criticism—that they would be better off with an English Parliament, without Welsh or Scottish Members of Parliament, and that does a great disservice to the Conservative party because both in Wales and Scotland it is still a powerful political force. We should all join together to ensure that Welsh MPs, whether they be Conservative, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat or Labour, can express their views in this place.
Another issue is that Welsh-speaking constituencies will find themselves with less representation in this Parliament than they would have done under the current system of the 40 MPs. Again, try to explain that to an English Member of Parliament. All of us know how important it is that Welsh-speaking Wales is represented here, not least because there are issues affecting the Welsh language that are still dealt with in Parliament.
I agree that we should have had the opportunity to debate this matter in full—whether it be on the Floor of the House, in a St David’s day debate or a Grand Committee debate. However, I am in disagreement with the right hon. Gentleman. When Welsh MPs come together on a particular matter, it does not matter whether we number 30 or 40. But if we started off with 30 Welsh MPs, could we honestly argue to be increased to 40? It seems to me that that argument just could not be made.
It will be the fewest number of Members of Parliament representing Wales since 1832. I am not convinced that 30 is a sensible and reasonable representation, which is what every country must have. I am not saying that each constituency should not be equally sized in terms of numbers, but an amendment was tabled in the other place that sought to ensure that there was a variation of 10% as opposed to 5%. A 10% variation would, in many ways, have solved the problems to which the hon. Member for Monmouth rightly referred in terms of our geography, our values, and our rural seats. If we had had that flexibility, the distorted seats that we will end up with in Wales would not have happened.
In conclusion, I do not want to see the Conservative and Unionist party becoming the Conservative and Separatist party, and I am saying that as a Labour Member of Parliament. There is an onus on all of us who represent Welsh constituencies to ensure that the Government listen and that we are not heading towards an English Parliament as opposed to a United Kingdom one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), I pay tribute to the Welsh Affairs Committee for being the only Committee that has debated this issue in some depth. I also pay tribute to its Chair for his succinct and articulate speech. I agree with many of the things that he has said.
The most important thing that has come out of this report is the haste with which all this is being done. Sometimes, when I sit in the House, it feels as though policies are being plucked out of the air. Under discussion is the biggest constitutional change in a generation. It is far bigger than the Welsh Assembly and the foundation of the Scottish Parliament. However, we, as Members of Parliament, have not had the opportunity to debate it. We have not had pre-legislative scrutiny, a Joint Committee to consider the change or, as my right hon. Friend has said, any consensus.
A myth has been perpetuated by the coalition ever since the expenses scandal. There is a belief that all politicians are wrong to want to come into public life. Suddenly, we are plucking solutions out of the air. It has been said that we need to change our electoral system and that we need to work harder. We have no empirical evidence on how hard MPs work, yet we are told that we need to work harder. Now we are told that people want fewer MPs, but such a change will fail without proper scrutiny and sufficient time.
I do not mind debating constitutional issues. When we talk about the West Lothian question, it always comes down to one thing—we are looking at it from the wrong point of view. We are looking at it from the point of view that Welsh MPs cannot vote on health or transport issues in Wales. If we use that logic, we could ask why London MPs are allowed to vote on policing issues when policing is devolved in London. It does not make sense. When we talk about any future devolution or any constitutional change, we have to consider the issue from the basis of the whole of the nation. We have to consider how devolution fits into the regions. However, we are not talking about that. This place is not the English Parliament, and it has never been the English Parliament. This place is the Parliament of Great Britain. When we talk about English votes for English MPs on English-only matters, we have to ask ourselves where in the constitution it says that this is the English Parliament. Perhaps I am being cynical, but the way in which this is being rushed through makes me feel that this is not a constitutional change, but political gerrymandering of the highest kind. It is based not on any rational argument, but on a policy of one size fits all.
We have already heard about rural areas, but let us look at some of the constituencies in detail. The old constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, which is now Dwyfor Meirionnydd—the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) in not in his seat at the moment—will probably be unmanageable. Montgomeryshire will be huge. Does that mean more money will be provided for the Members of Parliament who will represent those two constituencies? I do not think so. Where did this idea come from? Wales is not a special case, yet Orkney and Shetland and the constituencies covering the Western Isles of Scotland and Isle of Wight were pulled out? Why were they pulled out? We just do not know.
Lib Dem seats.
That is cynical, but it is what we have to think.
Sorry, Isle of Wight is a Tory seat.
I was working with my predecessor when the Government of Wales Act 2006 was debated. The 2006 Act stated that Assembly seats must be co-terminous with Westminster seats, but that has suddenly been thrown out of the window. It is as if the Government are saying, “Okay, we will just decouple.” Where we have an Assembly Member, the imperative is to build a close relationship with them and to work on issues such as health and education, but that will go completely out of the window. We will have a situation in which people will say, “Who is my Assembly Member? Who do I pass this on to?” This seems to be—for want of a better term—absolutely crackers.
We have already talked about the democratic deficit. Despite the fact that Wales represents 5% of the UK population, its constituencies will be reduced by 20%. Wales will send 25 fewer MPs here. Northern Ireland will lose some 17%; Scotland will lose 9%; and England, which is Tory dominated, will lose 5.5%. We have to ask ourselves why Wales has been disproportionately targeted. I wonder whether it is because we have a history of sending back Labour Members of Parliament. Will Swindon, which has two Tory MPs, be reduced to just one seat? Will other places, such as Cheltenham and Gloucester—I know Cheltenham quite well—be reduced to one seat? Will Tewkesbury, the Cotswolds and Cheltenham, which have three Tory MPs, be one seat? I wonder. We wait and see.
Cheltenham is a Liberal Democrat seat.
Sorry, I did not say Cheltenham. I should correct the hon. Gentleman. Cheltenham is a Liberal Democrat seat, but I said that the Cotswolds, Tewkesbury and Gloucester were Tory seats.
I am obviously an English MP, but I am proud to have spent most of my adult life in Wales, and I certainly consider myself a Conservative Unionist MP. Wrexham, where I brought my children up, has an electorate of 51,000, but Redditch, which I represent, has an electorate of nearly 70,000. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is fair?
That argument has been brought out all the way through. To use the American example, however, we do not hear people in California, which has 37 million electors, saying that they deserve more senators than Wyoming, which has 544,000.
The other thing about Welsh constituencies is that they are different. The Cotswolds, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham are all flat, so they can be put together. In Wales, however, we have rivers and mountains. As somebody once said to me at a Labour party grand committee meeting, “Islwyn was not created. It was given to us by God.” I do not know whether that is true.
That is true of all our constituencies.
Yes. Big mountains separate Blaenau Gwent from neighbouring constituencies.
Has the hon. Gentleman ever been to other parts of England, where there are mountains and rivers? The same argument could apply to those places. We have huge constituencies. North Yorkshire, for example, has constituencies that meet the criteria that he has described, but they are twice the size of many constituencies in Wales. Why is that different?
The point that I was coming to is that we have local links in Wales—communities are linked to each other and have common bonds. The hon. Gentleman represents an English constituency, but if he wanted to discuss the point, he should have made a speech.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Wales is, in essence, a small country next to a very large country that is 15 times its size? If we want a sustainable Union and a respect agenda, we should remember that Wales has always had slightly more MPs than England. That is the fundamental point: tearing up the Union is the cost of gerrymandering a sustainable Conservative Government. Wales is a small country sitting next to a big one, so we should have a few more MPs. That is all this is about.
That leads on to my final point about the policy overall. Perhaps I can look at the issue from a wider angle and step outside Wales for a moment, if you will allow me, Mr Davies. We are a nation state, and what seriously worries me about this exercise is that it is based on figures rather than communities. In that respect, I am glad that I followed my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, because he knows about the situation in Northern Ireland, where wards and constituencies must strike a fine balance and could cause major problems. However, we have had no scrutiny of any kind, so these issues have not come out.
The coalition has hung on to its belief that people distrust politicians, but when people voted no for AV, they dispelled the myth that it was constitutional reform that we needed; we actually need to reconnect with people. Forcing through the proposed changes will mean more disconnect and people being more removed from politics, and that is a dangerous game. I therefore finish by paying tribute, as I did at the beginning, to the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is the only Committee to have looked at this issue properly.
Order. Two more Members are seeking to catch my eye. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 3.30 pm, so if Members could show some restraint, that would be helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) is always a tough act to follow. I was hoping to make a hard-hitting speech, but I fear that my contribution might be somewhat timid in comparison with his. I want to concentrate on two specific issues. The first, on which all parties in the House have concerns, and which has been the focus of the debate so far, is the number of MPs who serve the people of Wales in Westminster. The second is the opportunities that the proposed Calman Cymru process may offer democracy in Wales.
Let us be in no doubt that the reason why the UK Government have introduced their proposals to cut the numbers of MPs from 650 to 600 is purely partisan. In nullifying the Celtic bias, the Prime Minister’s aim is clearly to enhance his electoral prospects at the next general election. We should ignore the spin surrounding equal-sized constituencies: if they undermined the Tory party’s electoral prospects, they would not be on the table.
I must admit that it is strange, as some Labour Members said in their contributions, that these changes are being introduced by the Conservative and Unionist party. Reducing Welsh representation in this place by a quarter will inevitably severely undermine the influence of Wales in this Parliament. The Westminster Parliament represents four distinct nations, and its make-up has always reflected that fact to avoid it becoming dominated by English representatives. Central Lobby, with its murals of the patron saints—St David, St Andrew, St Patrick and St George—is a reminder of the historical role played by the Westminster Parliament.
Many Members will undoubtedly be surprised to hear me make such points, because there will be no Welsh representation here at all if Plaid Cymru’s ultimate aim is achieved. However, as long as so many key political fields remain reserved, there is a role and a need in this place for Welsh MPs, and particularly Welsh Plaid Cymru MPs. [Interruption.] I am glad to see some Members nodding.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making such an important point, which I fully agree with. For as long as Wales remains part of the United Kingdom, he and other Welsh Members should of course be allowed to take their places here. In the same way, people who did not agree with devolution or the Welsh Assembly, and who still have questions about it, have every right to sit in the Welsh Assembly if they are elected to it.
I am grateful for that, and I will stick the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement in my next leaflet.
I am not against reducing Welsh representation in the House of Commons as a point of principle. However, any reductions should take place only after the devolution of political fields of responsibility. I do not, therefore, accept the argument that the successful March referendum justifies reductions in the number of Welsh MPs. The referendum did not devolve extra fields of power, but merely secured sovereignty over currently devolved fields. If we were to have the same devolved fields of power as Scotland, however, I would see the case for reducing the number of Welsh MPs.
For the remainder of my speech, I would like to concentrate on the UK Government’s proposed Calman process for Wales and its constitutional implications. I seriously hope that the Wales Office is not proposing a rerun of the Scottish experiment, which was a stitch-up by the Unionist parties and has now backfired spectacularly. The government of Scotland Bill that followed the Scottish Calman process lies in tatters because of the Sewel convention. There is no way the majority Scottish National party Government in Scotland will accept a Bill that totally ignores their views on the way forward for their country. I therefore hope that the Calman Cymru process will be fair, open, transparent and free from political influence.
To date, much of the debate surrounding the Welsh Calman has been about finance. The Holtham report is unlikely to be bettered, so the best course of action for the UK Government would be to accept its detailed recommendations. Reform of the Barnett formula should be a precondition for any further financial changes, but I am concerned at the noises that have come from the Treasury to date. That will be a major challenge for the new Welsh Government, and all their rhetoric about standing up for our country will be seriously tested on this single issue.
However, I welcome the fact that the Calman Cymru process will reopen debate about the Government of Wales Act 2006. In particular, we will have the opportunity to revisit the gerrymandering carried out under the Act by the then Labour Government in Westminster. The section introduced in 2006 to prohibit candidates from standing in regional lists and constituencies should be overturned. A similar ban exists only in Ukraine, and it is high time that we in Wales joined the rest of the democratic world.
The Calman Cymru process is also an opportunity to revisit the electoral make-up of the National Assembly in time for the fifth Assembly. My personal preference would be for us to increase the membership of the National Assembly to 80, as advocated by Lord Elystan-Morgan. Those 80 Members should be elected by a single transferable vote system. When the government of Wales Bill, which follows the Welsh Calman process, comes to this place, I will call for amendments to that effect, unless such provisions are already included in the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is any appetite in Wales for yet another prolonged period of navel-gazing?
I am grateful for that intervention, but we have the Calman process and, following questioning last Wednesday, it was confirmed that such issues will be debated. The Bill will be an opportunity to address grievances that some of us have with the current settlement.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments with great interest. I agree with some of them, but I am doubtful about the appetite in Wales—or the UK, for that matter—for introducing any other systems of proportional representation. It is daft to argue that the overwhelming vote against AV was because people wanted STV. People want a first-past-the-post system, so would it not be a good idea to have 60 or 80 AMs elected, two per constituency, by first past the post?
I totally disagree with that, of course. When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was a Bill before the House, I argued for the referendum to be held on STV, not AV. That was about a vote for the Westminster Parliament, and my preference for developing democracy in Wales is a plural, proportional system. I will get to that point when I conclude my speech.
During the passage of the 2011 Act, I welcomed the clauses that decoupled the Westminster and National Assembly boundaries; it was common sense to include them in the Act. My colleague the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) had a sparring session on BBC Radio Wales in the very early hours of Sunday morning on that issue. The Labour party was vehemently opposed to the decoupling; its preference was for coterminosity. From the point of view of organising local party structures, I can see the argument. They would be a total nightmare to organise locally with different boundaries for the Westminster and Welsh elections.
It is not only about party organisation. Coterminosity is important for talking to borough councillors and chief executives, and the managers of local health services and housing associations. It helps us to make an impact as MPs with local civic society. Surely we should keep that.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Coterminosity is favourable.
Given that, as a point of principle, Labour is opposed to decoupling and the Tories to PR, one way to achieve consensus might be to re-adjust the National Assembly boundaries to be coterminous with the new Westminster boundaries. Such a reform would have the added benefit of being more proportional. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I am grateful for the opportunity to comment briefly on one or two of the issues that have come up in the debate, which has revealed the fragile nature of our discussions about democratic arrangements.
It is a mistake for proportions and figures during a general election to be the only issues that determine the size of constituencies or which constituencies are represented. In the House, we are referred to by our constituencies rather than by our personal names, and that reflects the fact that we are accountable to an identifiable constituency of people; that is where the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), in making the case for single transferable vote or another proportional system, misses the point. He made a powerful case, with which I agree, about the different countries of the UK being represented disproportionately to reflect another element in democratic accountability. That is something that we ignore at our peril.
If we look merely at arithmetic and not at accountability, we will end up with the sort of situation that we have in the European elections. MEPs already represented large constituencies—the size of something in the order of seven or eight Westminster constituencies—and they now represent people in the whole of Wales. By and large, following an election, more or less the same people are returned—albeit in a different order, so someone is higher up the list—and the situation is the same with the regional lists for the Welsh Assembly.
It is important to look at the relationship between MPs and AMs. One or two hon. Members have touched on that point. During the first period of the Assembly, my AM, who stood down at the last election, was an incredibly close colleague because we served and were accountable to the same constituency; my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made that point. As we have seen in Wales, it is difficult enough to ensure that the relationship between AMs and MPs is adequate, strong and effective, because many of our constituents do not know who has which responsibility—they are not terribly interested; they just want a response. An MP and an AM working together can give very powerful representation in this place, and that is extremely important.
Accountability is an important part of democracy. Democracy cannot be served only by artificially constraining the number of electors. Of course there needs to be proportionality and a system needs to be as sensible as possible and as near to a norm as is practical, but it also needs to respect the nature of communities and democracy. In the reorganisation of local government in 1973, the legislation referred to an important principle, which was the starting point for building up the wards that councillors represented. It was to look at how people identify themselves and within what community, and to identify the wards and councils only as an aggregation of the communities that the local people identified. That principle should apply in constituency representation too, but by and large it will go out of the window as the new constituencies are identified and developed for new parliamentary representation.
On how to deal with the number of AMs, I argued for a different arrangement from the one that the then Secretary of State, Ron Davies, brought forward, which he had argued for in opposition. That system was the one that we have—of 30 Members and top-up regional arrangements. The disadvantage is that, in elections, more or less the same people are likely to be returned in more or less the same order.
Is not the real issue with the list system the fact that it is a closed list? At the recent Assembly elections, electors in Wales could not even choose a name from the list, but simply voted for a party. That is a dereliction of democracy.
The alternative to that, which would also be simpler, would be regional lists by party; how people voted in constituencies would determine who was elected. People are very confused about having to vote a second time and they are not sure what they are voting for, although the hon. Gentleman will have been pleased to note that they overwhelmingly voted for the Labour party across Wales.
I suggested a system of two Members per Westminster constituency elected by alternative vote, which would have given roughly the same degree of proportionality as we have now, but retained the accountability to a constituency. I hope that we do not lose that accountability for Wales, that a method is found of ensuring that the Assembly has the appropriate number of Members and that we do not lose for ever—even if we do lose it for a short period—the coterminosity between Assembly and Westminster constituencies. It is a strength of the system that I want retained and, if we lose it for a period, I want it to return as quickly as possible.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
I will start by saying that it is slightly unusual for me to speak on the Front Bench today, as I am following the precedent of the Minister when he was in my shoes, as it were, in Opposition. Like me, he was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee in Opposition. It is the Committee’s report that we are debating today and therefore I can say to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, that I add my support for the way that he chairs the Committee generally and particularly for the way that he chaired it while this report was being produced. He brought us to a point of considerable agreement across all parties and today he elucidated very well the arguments that we had during the weeks that we debated the Bill. I was less certain about the transformation that he underwent during his speech into a shop steward for MPs from all parties. I certainly will not go so far as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) in putting the hon. Gentleman’s commendations on my election literature. Nevertheless, the way in which he spoke up for MPs today is very welcome.
The Bill represents what the Committee referred to as a “profound change” to the constitution of the UK Parliament and particularly in respect of Wales, and we have heard that spelled out in different ways by different Members today. Reasonable Members of Parliament cannot argue with that conclusion, because any change that diminishes by fully 25% at a stroke the political representation of a country is a profound change. Any change that breaks a parliamentary protocol in respect of the representation of one country in a Parliament that has been established for almost 200 years—as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), that protocol was established in the Great Reform Act of 1832—is a profound change. That protocol established an over-representation, if you like, for Wales, but it is an over-representation that is designed to reflect the asymmetrical nature of the Union that we have between Wales, Scotland and England, and to offer some protection and insurance that the junior partner in that Union—that is, Wales—does not have its voice drowned out by the leviathan—that is, England —on its border. I believe that the changes that we are discussing potentially threaten the Union, and any such change is absolutely a profound change.
One of the great disappointments for the Opposition during the all-too-hasty passage of the Bill was the seeming inability of the Government to acknowledge the arguments that many people from across the House—on the Tory side as well as on the Opposition side—were making. For the Opposition’s part, I feel that we acknowledged that there is an important argument to be made about equality and fairness in representation being observed and implemented, to the extent that that is possible in representation between different constituencies. We acknowledged that that is an important and long-standing priority.
However, that is not the only consideration or priority that ought to have been considered by the House. It was profoundly disappointing that the Government singularly refused to acknowledge that there might be other considerations, and I suspect that we will hear something similar in a moment from the Minister. The principal one among those other considerations is the importance of giving insulation and protection to the junior partner in this asymmetrical union that we have, and the corresponding danger of changing that balance and the voice of Wales being singularly diminished in Westminster.
The Committee’s report was quite prescient in giving warnings about those dangers. We have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) that it was prescient in its warning that the changes being proposed could lead to a diminution of trust in politics. The Government told us that the rationale for pursuing the Bill was, in many respects, to try to rebuild trust in politics, which we all accept has been damaged in recent years. However, the Opposition fail to see how removing politicians further from the electorate and increasing the gap between electors and elected will help to rebuild trust. If anything, a rational observation is that it is likely to do the reverse and increase people’s mistrust in politics, especially when people look at these changes and understand—as we in the Opposition understand—that they are motivated by a partisan rationale.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Torfaen, who are both former Secretaries of State for Wales, and indeed other Members have already discussed the next point that I want to make; in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen spoke with great power about it. It is that we are deeply concerned about the impact that this change will have on the Union.
Nationalist politicians, with their variable success at the recent election, are undoubtedly emboldened in some respects by the change that is being proposed. For all that we hear the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr talk about the importance of representation in this place, I think that nationalist politicians are emboldened by the extent to which the Bill and some of the other things that we have discussed today are putting the debate about the Union at the top of the agenda. The Bill and the other issues that we have debated are throwing into question the constitutional settlement that we have understood for the last 200 years—indeed 300 years—and challenging us to think about what we mean by the future of devolution, how Wales is to be represented and what balance is to be struck in the light of devolution.
I agreed with the Minister when he said in an intervention that perhaps we had not fully thought through the implications of devolution. We now need to do that and to think holistically about all these issues instead of doing what I fear is precisely the Government’s intention, which is to look at them piecemeal and for party advantage.
I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen that, for all the Prime Minister’s avowed intention to fight with every fibre of his being for the Union, we are hearing far too much from Conservative Back Benchers who are resentful of Wales. They are resentful of the different decisions that are being made in Wales and of what they perceive to be the parts of the UK, including Wales, that are both politically hostile—they do not elect Conservative candidates—and economically dependent, which is the bit that really worries me. There is an ugly spirit at the back of those concerns that Wales is getting more than it is due and that Welsh needs are being over-accommodated, both in terms of political representation and the economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a worrying and increasing number of Conservative MPs who take the view that having separation of both Wales and Scotland from England would be a price worth paying to have a perpetual Conservative Government running England?
I share some of the concern about that issue. I do not think that my hon. Friend is overstating the case, because we have heard far too many noises off from Conservative MPs that lead us to fear that many of them think that breaking up the Union would be a price worth paying. I certainly do not share that view and I do not think that any Opposition Members do either.
Another area that we have touched on today and that the Committee’s report was again prescient about is the impact on the National Assembly of the changes that are being proposed. During the passage of the Bill, we were repeatedly told that breaking the link between elections in constituencies in Wales for the National Assembly and elections for Westminster effectively meant that the National Assembly would be unaffected by the Bill. However, it is only a couple of short weeks since the Bill’s passage and already we have heard the Secretary of State for Wales, in response to a question put by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in Welsh questions last week, entertain the notion that a Calman-style commission in Wales might look beyond financial matters and indeed might look at the nature of the elections to the National Assembly and the make-up of the electoral districts for the National Assembly. That is worrying. It is looking like another broken promise from the Government if we are now going to see the National Assembly being so directly impacted by the Bill.
I ask the Minister to try to clarify today what was implied by the Secretary of State’s response to the hon. Gentleman’s question last week. If the Minister is unable to tell us exactly what that commission is going to look at, can he at least tell us whether it will look at alternatives to the current voting system? The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr slightly misrepresented me when he said that in our discussions last week I said that we had to stick pretty much with what we have got. I did not say that. What I said was that we certainly should not shift instantly if we are to consider these matters through 30 list members and 30 first-past-the-post members. The rejection of the alternative vote last week raises the question of whether we ought to look more seriously at first past the post and I think that there is an opportunity for us to put other alternatives on the table, such as having 60 members, two per constituency, in a first-past-the-post system. There might be a significant amount of agreement across the House for that as an alternative system.
My hon. Friend knows that I entirely agree with him on that issue. I hope, however, that he, and the House, understand that any substantial constitutional changes to what the people voted for in 1997 would require not just huge consensus but a referendum. I hope that the Minister will indicate that understanding in his response.
That point is very well made, and I look to the Minister to clarify it. We would certainly hope to see it clarified under any possible Calman-style commission.
My final point is a reflection of some of the remarks made earlier. The contrast between the 2011 Act and the constitutional changes that it portends and the House of Lords draft Bill that we saw only this week could not be starker: pre-legislative scrutiny, the establishment of an independent commission, a Joint Committee, a draft Bill—a serious look at what will be a dramatic, radical and historic change to the governance of our country.
No less historic a change for Wales was the announcement, dealt with in eight scant days on the Floor of the House, of a quarter reduction in the number of MPs from Wales. That measure was railroaded through for what I fear were squalid, partisan and political reasons, and I am sure that the people outside this place will be concerned that the Government could apply a similarly high-handed gerrymandering approach to the potential changes to the National Assembly electoral boundaries.
May I, too, say what a huge pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies? I join other Members who have commended the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to the Committee’s work. As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) pointed out, I was a member of the Committee throughout the previous Parliament. I know how important it is in scrutinising the role not only of the Wales Office but of other Whitehall Departments whose work touches on Wales.
The debate today is about the Select Committee’s report on the implications for Wales of the Government’s constitutional reform proposals. I suggest that it is something of an after-the-event debate—considerably after the event; the report was, of course, published as long ago as October last year, the Government’s reply was issued in January, and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which was the focus of the report, was enacted some three months ago.
Nevertheless, it is useful to have the debate, if only to point out that some of the concerns highlighted in the report, such as the fact that holding a referendum and an Assembly election on the same day would be extremely challenging, have proven to be unfounded. In fact, I think that everyone agrees that both those exercises in democracy were completed without undue difficulty.
It is true that the sky did not fall in, but it is also true that the jury is out on how the election was administrated. Election officers have told me that there was a great deal of confusion. In my area, for instance, there was an 80% turnout of postal votes for the first referendum and a 70% turnout for the second one, and that was seen as being due, in part, to confusion. Does the Minister agree that we should look more closely at that, and learn lessons?
We always need to learn the lessons of electoral processes, and it is anticipated that the Electoral Commission will issue its report on the conduct of the polls in July this year. As far as I can see, the exercise was carried out successfully and it proved wrong those who anticipated that the people of Wales would not, like a well-known American President, be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
The referendum part of the election was run by the Electoral Commission, so that body is conducting a review of its own administration of the election. Is that the right way forward?
I would be very reluctant to call into question the integrity of the Electoral Commission. It is the right body to report on electoral processes in this country.
The 2011 Act provided for the referendum to be held on the same day as elections for the Welsh Assembly and for local government in England. Does the Minister think that the Deputy Prime Minister now believes that that was such a good idea after all?
I would be very loth to second-guess anything that the Deputy Prime Minister might think.
The focus of the Select Committee report was the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which is now an Act. I reiterate the point that was made throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament: the principal thrust of the provision is to ensure fairness in our electoral system. I have heard what Opposition Members have had to say about that, but it is inherently unfair that the vote of an elector in one part of this country should carry greater weight—in some cases, much greater weight—than that of an elector in another part of the country.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made the point that he has made on previous occasions—that the so-called Welsh vote has to be protected. I very much share the view of Professor Richard Wyn Jones, a very distinguished academic whom I know, who says that this situation is something that has grown up over the years. In evidence to the Select Committee, he made the interesting point that in 1543, when Welsh Members of Parliament were first admitted to this place, the population of Wales was approximately 7% of the combined population of England and Wales and Welsh representation in terms of Members of Parliament was also approximately 7%. He said that there
“wasn’t any kind of formational deal that Wales should be over-represented”.
He added that since then there had been a “drift” in Welsh representation in this place. He went on to make the fair point that in the scheme of things, it is hard to see how a reduction from 6% to 5% of MPs could make that much difference to Welsh representation here, particularly when it is borne in mind that the overall number of Members of Parliament will be reduced from 650 to 600.
Another important point that he made, and which I put to the right hon. Member for Torfaen during his contribution, is that Welsh Members of Parliament hardly behave as a bloc. I heard what the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) had to say about the Welsh parliamentary party, but I have to say in all frankness that at that party’s most recent meeting, representation by Conservative Members was rather light, underlining the fact that Welsh Members of Parliament do not behave as some sort of single coherent body.
I really do not understand why the Minister makes that point, as it suggests an element of disengagement on the part of some Conservative MPs. At that meeting, one of the Minister’s hon. Friends made a very constructive intervention, commenting that the meeting had been more constructive and consensual than he had expected.
The Member who made that point was the only Member of the Conservative parliamentary party at the meeting—[Interruption.] I know that the right hon. Gentleman is disappointed that more Conservative Members of Parliament did not attend, but that underlines the fact that party politics, across the political divide, prevail just as much in Wales as in the rest of the country.
The Minister quotes Professor Wyn Jones all the time, but he fails to remember that Speaker’s Conference after Speaker’s Conference indicated that there were special circumstances to ensure proper representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom Parliament. Why does he think, for example, that there are separate boundary commissions for Scotland and Wales? They are separate countries in separate circumstances. I think that the professor is on his own on this one.
He is not, because I happen to agree with him, which is precisely why I quote him so extensively.
We must return to the fundamental point: it is inherently and conspicuously unfair that a vote cast in Aberdeen, for example, may have a different weight from a vote cast in Aberystwyth. The Act proposes to introduce the element of fairness. Nevertheless, to a large extent—
Does the Minister not accept that for nearly 150 years, his party agreed with the point that I am making? The Conservatives agreed that not just Scotland and Wales but large rural areas should have proper representation. What has happened in the past year goes completely against what the Conservative and Unionist party has said for 150 to 200 years.
It is fair to say that the Conservative party has evolved considerably over the past 150 years, as no doubt has the Labour movement in this country. If we were set in aspic, we would never make any progress.
As I said, the Act will introduce fairness into the system. I am conscious that the Chairman of the Select Committee will wind up this debate, but I feel that I must touch on one or two points made by various right hon. and hon. Members, who I hope will forgive me if I do not mention them by name. One important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth related to individual voter registration. It is certainly vital that as many people as possible register to vote and are encouraged to do so. We feel that the move to individual registration is likely to increase the number of people on the register.
We are trialling data matching throughout this year in several areas, including Cardiff. We are comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find those who are eligible to vote but missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under-registration among specific groups.
Yes, but this will be the last time.
The Minister is right to emphasise the importance of promoting electoral registration. However, the registers for the coming parliamentary review will be based on the past year’s electoral registration numbers, gathered before the important pilots that he mentioned. If the Government delayed, considered electoral registration further and put resources into it, given the profound changes that we are seeing, surely that would lead to a better result, because more people would be registered and we could support more confidently the boundaries that we are debating.
The trial will continue throughout this year. The pilots will enable us to see how effective the data matching is and which data sets are most useful in improving the accuracy of the register. The chair of the Electoral Commission said in her evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that introducing individual registration will enable the commission to create focused programmes to improve registration rates among specific communities. That is particularly important because, as the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, some sections of the community are certainly under-represented, and we must make an all-out effort to get as many of those individuals on the register as possible.
I am afraid not. I have been quite generous already.
The future of the Union was mentioned. It is big stuff for me to cover in the next two minutes.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I am afraid not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
The issue is time.
It is, I am afraid. I think that most of us in this Chamber—with the honourable, or possibly dishonourable, exception of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)— are Unionists, and we do not want the Union of this country damaged. Therefore, the West Lothian question must be addressed, and the Government are committed to doing so during this Parliament.
As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said when agreeing with something that I said earlier, perhaps we are doing things the wrong way round—perhaps the exercise should have taken place before devolution was instituted in this country—but the issue must be addressed. I can think of nothing that would do more to endanger the Union than to perpetuate a sense of grievance on the part of certain Members of this Parliament and certain large sections of this community about a perceived lack of fairness in how they are treated.
Will the Minister give way?
I shall not, as I have little time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand. Over-representation is a problem, and introducing fairness is a good way to start to address it.
To conclude, this debate has been an interesting exercise—but essentially a historical one, as I said earlier. The Select Committee has published its report, but since then, the caravan has moved on. As I said earlier, the AV referendum was held with little difficulty, as far as we can establish, and we must now look to the future. The Boundary Commission’s exercise is continuing, and it will result in provisional proposals in September this year and a final report to the Secretary of State by October 2013.
The new parliamentary constituencies will be in place by the time of the next general election, and appropriate arrangements will be made for the next Assembly election in 2016. All proposals will be taken into consideration— the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made an interesting suggestion, as did the hon. Member for Pontypridd—before Assembly constituencies are determined.
I reiterate that the fundamental issue addressed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is fairness.
I regret that I will not. The constitutional reforms introduced by the Government will ensure that fairness is embedded in the system, which should be as welcome to the people of Wales as it is to the people of every other part of this United Kingdom.
I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up. If you will forgive me, Mr Davies, I will skip the usual format of trying to sum up what everyone has just said.
The debate was about to get very interesting. There is an issue of fairness and of ensuring that all votes count, and the Committee accepted that in its report. What concerned us was the speed with which things were being done and the possible consequences of doing them so quickly while reducing the number of MPs; it would have been feasible to create equal constituencies without reducing the number of Members of Parliament.
It is not entirely fair to suggest that this is gerrymandering. It will certainly advantage the Conservative party, just as it advantaged the Labour party to keep the status quo for the last 15 years and to create a Welsh Assembly that was always likely to be dominated by the Labour party or a combination of left-wing parties. That has prevented Conservatives in Wales from enjoying a Conservative-run health service or education system, although it has not prevented Labour MPs from writing to English Ministers to tell them how the health service and education system in England should be run. That is bound to cause a grievance among English MPs.
I think that most of us here want to remain part of the Union. If we do, it behoves us to remember that we have responsibilities as well. We cannot simply go on pouring out comments about the English doing this or that, constantly ragging the English nation and sending Members of Parliament over to vote and speak on issues that are decided entirely differently in Wales without expecting some reaction. There will always be consequences.
The Union is a fragile thing. I welcome the fact that so many Members here, including me, share a commitment to it and work in an honest and open way, but some Members do not. They have a right to a different point of view, but I think that all of us want England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to work closely together, and I take some comfort in that.