Consideration of Lords amendments
Mr. Speaker: I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 5 and 23. If the House agrees to them, I will cause the appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
After Clause 5
Amendment of Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 5.
Lords amendments 5 and 23 on the boundary review were inserted into the Bill in the Lords, despite being outside the scope of the Bill. This was clearly done with the intention of preventing the implementation of the boundary review, which was agreed by this Parliament in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
The effect of Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu would be to provide for the boundary review to proceed and for the Boundary Commission’s recommendations to come into force, taking effect at the next general election, without a requirement for any further vote in either House of Parliament.
I move this motion as Leader of the House in order to facilitate the debate. In the first instance, Members of this House will decide whether to disagree with the Lords in their amendment, the effect of which would be to put off the boundary review until 2018. If Members approve that motion, we would then go on to vote on whether instead the current boundary review should go ahead without further interference.
May I say how disappointed I am that it is not the Deputy Prime Minister who is moving the motion? I will have to ask my right hon. Friend the question instead. Is he aware that in 2010 in this Chamber the Deputy Prime Minister made it very clear that the boundary review would be established on the simple principle of fairness, with all votes being of equal worth? Do the Lib Dems not do principle on the 29th of the month, or is it just on Tuesdays?
My hon. Friend makes his point very well. I will come on to the substance of the issue, but if he will forgive me and the House will bear with me, I wish first to make certain that hon. Members understand the structure of the debate and what the implications of each vote might be.
If the motion to disagree with the Lords in their amendment were agreed, we would go on to vote on the Government amendments in lieu, which would have the effect of proceeding with the boundary review without further votes in Parliament. If, however, hon. Members vote against the motion to disagree, the Lords amendments will be held to have been agreed with, and no further votes will take place on this group. There are therefore three potential outcomes: to agree with the Lords; to disagree and put the Bill back as it was when it left this House; or to settle the boundaries review issue now through the amendments in lieu.
I should make it clear to the House that while as Leader of the House I am enabling the debate, I will also set out my view and that of my party. In doing so, I will not be setting out formally the view of the Government, as there is not a settled coalition view. Accordingly, and as happened in the Lords, collective ministerial responsibility has been set aside for this debate.
I do not quite understand what the Leader of the House has said. On 6 September 2010, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill received its Second Reading, and the Deputy Prime Minister—Nick Clegg, as he is listed in Hansard—voted for it, and Mr Peter Bone voted against it. On Third Reading, on 20 November 2010, Mr Clegg again voted for it and Mr Bone voted against it. Surely it must be the settled view of the Government? It has gone through all its stages: how can it not be the settled view of the Government?
My hon. Friend will recall very well that that Bill was the Government’s view and the Government’s policy, and the House agreed with that Government Bill. The issue is these Lords amendments, and as I told the House, the ministerial code explicitly allows for ministerial responsibility to be set aside in particular circumstances, and it has been set aside in relation to the debate and votes on this particular point.
No, I am afraid that my hon. Friend is not correct in that respect. The coalition agreement is clearly a relevant issue, but it is not encapsulated in the ministerial code. The code is very clear—he will no doubt be familiar with it—and makes clear the requirements for Ministers to accept the obligations of ministerial collective responsibility save when it is explicitly set aside. I am simply making it clear that collective ministerial responsibility has been set aside in relation to this debate and for these purposes.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has responsibility for the ministerial code. Indeed, when ministerial collective responsibility is explicitly set aside, it is the Prime Minister who makes that decision. He is clearly doing it, as the House will understand, in the context of coalition government. As we know, that can give rise to occasions where there is not a collective view, and where by extension it is therefore not possible for a collective view to be the subject of collective ministerial responsibility. Let me turn to the substance of the issues.
No; I will give way in a moment. Let me turn to the substance of the issues.
Parliament agreed less than two years ago to a boundary review, and it did so for good reasons. There are major disparities in the size of constituencies. In England, East Ham has 92,000 voters; Wirral West has just 55,000. The differences are even greater in respect of other nations: Arfon in Wales has an electorate of just 41,000. This means that some votes count much more than others, and the principle of greater equality in the value of each vote is at the heart of this new boundary review. Votes should carry much more equal weight across the country in electing Members to this House and in deciding a future Government. If the current review were not to happen, in England the next general election would be based on the register of February 2000, with all the consequent disparities and inequalities which have been exacerbated since then. It would be 15 years out of date.
Order. Although the list of proscribed words ceased to exist some time ago, I would say that the right hon. Gentleman is on somewhat dodgy ground in using that word. In view of his known dexterity in the use of language, I exhort him to deploy another term to make his point.
Would the Leader of the House accept that he has put only a part of his argument when he justifies the measure on the grounds of seeking equality of electorates? That principle is agreed across the Chamber. The objection to the 2011 Act was that it was a wholly partisan measure, breaking a clear convention that this kind of measure be agreed across the parties, to arbitrarily reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. That is the real reason.
Well, Mr Speaker, that was a long time to be sitting down. I think the right hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I am on occasions wrong, but I endeavour never to be disingenuous. On this occasion I am not wrong either. One could equally argue that it was a partisan effort on the part of the Opposition to frustrate the intention of the House to bring equality and fairness into the franchise when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was passed. None the less, my point is simply that Parliament voted on that legislation, which has been enacted. That was done on the principle of equality and fairness and the Boundary Commission has proceeded on that basis. Not now proceeding with the review would leave all the inequalities in constituencies, between constituencies and between voters that go all the way back to February 2000.
My right hon. Friend says that he is not wrong, but he stated that the ministerial code contains no reference to the coalition agreement. Paragraph 1.2 states:
“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the Coalition agreement”.
If that is the case, why is the Deputy Prime Minister being allowed to break it?
My hon. Friend has the advantage of me, but the ministerial code explicitly states the circumstances in which ministerial collective responsibility can be set aside. That is for the Prime Minister to decide, notwithstanding either the coalition agreement or the ministerial code.
Returning to the review, Members of this House must be aware that not only is the principle of equality and fairness relevant, but the review will have the effect of bringing down the number of Members here from 650 to 600, cutting the cost of politics by £13.5 million a year. As we are cutting back on administration and costs across the whole of the public services, it is only right that we apply the same principles to ourselves.
The hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members know perfectly well that if they had supported a programme motion on House of Lords reform, we would have been able to reform the House of Lords and reduce the number of Members in the Lords. But no, they did not do that.
So charmingly done. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was going to cut the cost of politics, yet the average cost of a completely unelected new peer is £150,000 a year. How many extra peers will he be appointing before the next general election? We have already seen the fastest appointment of peers of any Government in history.
We always made it clear on the Government Benches that if the House of Lords remained unreformed it would be necessary to enable it to better reflect the character of the outcome of the preceding general election. I will not reiterate the point I made to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), but if the Opposition had supported House of Lords reform we would have been able to deal with that.
No, I am going to make more progress—this is only a two-hour debate.
I am asking the House to maintain the boundary review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) reminded us earlier, it was my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister who said, quite rightly, on Third Reading of the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011:
“Fairness demands constituencies that are basically equal in size…there can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 864.]
I have heard no argument that changes that, nor any justification from the Lords to seek to do so.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving way. He rightly emphasises that the coalition agreement is an important document, but could he also remind the House that manifestos are important, and will he inform us all of the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge on reducing the number of MPs?
Again, my hon. Friend has the advantage of me, as I do not have the Liberal Democrat manifesto to hand. I will say from the Dispatch Box that the coalition agreement is important and that it set out our shared objective to introduce a Bill that included provision for the introduction of the alternative vote in the event of a positive result in a referendum—there was not such a positive result—as well as the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is therefore entirely part of the commitment made in the coalition agreement.
When I entered the House, a colleague advised me to carry in my top pocket a couple of good jokes for speeches. I will read one from the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto, which sadly my right hon. Friend does not have to hand. It is quite clear:
“we will be able to reduce the number of MPs by 150”—
full stop, end of quote. Why then are they not doing it? This would have been a good first step.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I hope it may be helpful to him and the House to know that his colleague the Deputy Prime Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform on 19 April and 13 December last year, and I asked him the exact questions that Members have been asking in the last few minutes. He made it clear to the Committee that he still agreed with what he said at the Dispatch Box on Second Reading: that we have to put right what he called
“the broken scales of our democracy”—[Official Report, 6 December 2010; Vol. 515, c. 36.]
However, he also made it clear that although he considers the current system to be unfair, he is absolutely certain that that unfairness should continue until after the next general election. That is his position.
I am sure the House is grateful to my hon. Friend for informing it about the discussions in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. From my point of view, I know the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to constitutional reform. I think the boundaries review and the introduction of greater equality and fairness in constituencies and between voters is an important constitutional reform, and I hope he would want to see it put through before the next election.
I will carry on for a moment, if I may.
Some argue that the boundaries review may spend further money this year and then not be approved—that argument was adduced in the Lords. One might equally say that several millions have been spent and the process should be completed. Either way, the amendments in lieu, if passed today, would settle that question. They would bring the review into effect without any further political interference, which, given the independent character of the review, has merit in any case.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. It is undoubtedly true that the question could be settled one way or another today. However, given that the Liberal Democrats are clear that they will not support him, is not the most sensible thing for the House to finish this and not waste any more money on it, rather than continue with the process when it has already been made clear that what was a very political initial manoeuvre is now doomed to fail?
I am rather disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my modest rhetoric might have no impact on my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches. Surely that is the whole point of this debate and, in particular, of my colleagues and I tabling the amendments in lieu—precisely because it would be in the interests of this House to settle the matter today. It would be in the interests of this House, not least in its relationship with their lordships, to say, “We have settled it today. The boundaries review should be completed, as we legislated for it to happen, and there should be no more interference by either House, for any reason or any party.” There is an independent review; it should be completed. Before we come to the amendments in lieu, however, we first have to decide whether the Lords were right to amend the Bill as they did.
Let me make this point, if I may. Let me put it plainly: I believe that what was done in the Lords was an abuse of the parliamentary process. We sent them a Bill concerning electoral registration; they inserted a provision outside the scope of the Bill. This is the first time that that has been done, and it was done contrary to the advice of their Clerks, who ruled that the amendment was not relevant to the Bill. It is also significant to note that the Cross Benchers in the Lords voted by two to one against inserting the boundaries amendment.
I am not in the least surprised that the forces of reaction still come from the other place, but does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that now the forces of reaction are the party opposite and the party below the Aisle, on the Liberal Democrat Benches?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I might say that the argument was put to the Members of the other House that in agreeing such an amendment, the Lords are seeking directly and dramatically to intervene in the structure of elections to this House. As my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde told peers in another place:
“How odd it would be if this unelected House…should have the temerity to tell the elected House how to proceed on its…election”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 568.]
How often did Opposition Members complain when they were in government if the unelected House sought to overrule the elected House? Let them contemplate this: how much stronger is that complaint, which I heard them make, when the view of this House is overruled in relation to the franchise to this House?
May I remind the Leader of the House that those of us on the SNP Benches were never in government? He will have no comfort from the Scottish National party. We will be voting against the Government’s proposals, even though the new boundaries would be to our advantage. Can he explain why the Conservatives are selecting candidates on the current boundaries, not the new boundaries?
I am very disappointed in what the hon. Gentleman says, because I would hope that Members of this House would attach immense weight to the primacy of this House in determining the franchise for this House and reject a move by the unelected House to seek to interfere with the previously settled will of this House.
Although Members in the other House might not care what voters think, because they do not have to face them, surely other colleagues in this House must care that all their electors would like the cost of Parliament reduced and for all votes to count as much as each other.
My hon. Friend makes a good point well. Anybody who votes to agree with the Lords or not to disagree with them on this amendment will, I fear, have to explain to their electorate why they are not reducing the cost of politics when we are asking the public services generally to do that.
In what is colloquially known as the Hart-Rennard amendment we have not only an abuse of parliamentary process, but a democratic travesty. The unelected House is seeking to frustrate the precisely expressed will of this Parliament—not a previous Parliament—to deny fairness and equality in the franchise and fundamentally to manipulate the basis on which this House is to be elected.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why this Government have appointed 125 new peers since 2010? Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the average cost is £130,000 a year, which adds an extra £16,250,000 a year to the cost of politics, or £81,250,000 over five years.
Leaving aside the fact that some of the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes were from the resignation honours back in 2010, I would say that he heard what I said about House of Lords reform. If he and his colleagues had supported the programme motion, we would be in a completely different place in the House of Lords.
There is limited time for this debate and I need to conclude my speech.
I urge Members to recognise that democrats in all parts of this House should reject the Lords amendment. Even those who object to the boundaries reviews, whether for party, personal or other reasons, should reject the way in which the Lords have amended the Bill. In doing so, they would still have the option of voting for or against the review, in the subsequent vote on the amendment in lieu or, if it is rejected, in October when the boundaries reports come before the House for approval.
As Leader of the House, I am answering for my party and for the Government—[Interruption.] My party will live very happily with the outcome of the boundary commissions’ review, I can tell you that. The boundary commissions are finalising their recommendations. They are doing that because this Parliament voted for that measure. This concerns a fundamental feature of our democracy—namely, the basis on which we are elected to this House.
On that point of principle about the democratic deficit, is there not an irony in the fact that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members are often inspired by the Chartists, who voted for equal-sized constituencies? There is a perverse relationship today, in that those Members are going to go through the Lobby and vote to retain the disconnect and the democratic deficit.
I was right to give way to my hon. Friend; he has made a good point. That votes should be of equal value is a fundamental principle that we should seek. We voted for that in legislation earlier in this Parliament, and it is now our task to see it through. This must be fair, equitable and democratic. It is wholly wrong that these measures should be overturned by an unprecedented device in the other House. I therefore ask Members across the House to disagree with the Lords. Having done that, we can go on to decide whether positively to settle the boundaries today by voting for the amendment in lieu or to let the proposal come back as planned on the basis of the boundary commissions’ reports later this year. In the interests of democracy and equality, I urge the House to disagree with the Lords in their amendment.
I shall take that as a compliment, Mr Speaker. You will know that I am very naive about what goes on on the Back Benches, as it has been a long time since I was last here—apart from the past two weeks, of course. I have been asking questions of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the views expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister, who, sadly, cannot be here today. Do you have the power to call the Deputy Prime Minister to the House to explain why it is suddenly no longer a point of principle for him to vote for a measure that he voted for only a couple of years ago? Perhaps you could explain that to me, Mr Speaker. I am curious.
No, I do not; no, I could not; and no, it would not be right for the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who is a decent fellow, to seek to embroil me in partisan politics. That would be unworthy of him, and I feel sure that he would not knowingly behave in an unworthy way.
May I begin by congratulating the Leader of the House on the sheer audacity of his speech? His criticism of the House of Lords is breathtaking. Only six months ago, he and his party were saying that—I paraphrase—the House of Lords was so perfect that it did not need any reform, yet here he is today, arguing that it is so inept and incompetent that it cannot be trusted with this issue, despite all the Lords’ experience and the impartiality that the Conservatives claim comes from being unelected. You really could not make it up.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Leader of the House is in charge of the timetabling of legislation in Parliament, and that it is for the Government to decide whether to proceed with a Bill. The Government chose to abandon that Bill, not the Opposition. The chairman of the Conservative party has now left the Chamber, but I have never known him to be a scholar of political and constitutional matters. We know why he was here. It is his job to ensure that the largest possible number of Conservative MPs are returned at the next general election. That is why he was here, taking an interest in this matter. It was not because he is interested in political and constitutional reform or because he is trying to reduce the cost of politics.
The House of Lords is a self-regulating Chamber. The Clerk’s advice on the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment is non-binding. By voting in favour of the amendment, the Lords have made clear their view that it is within the scope of the Bill. I am afraid it is hard luck if the Conservative part of this Government does not like that. When it comes to House of Lords reform during this Parliament, the ship has sailed.
Before us today are two groups of amendments made in the other place to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. I want to put on record our recognition of the work done by colleagues in the other place, from all parties and none, who spent four days debating, revising and improving the Bill.
Is not the relationship between the two Houses based on convention? Every so often, the House of Lords breaches a convention, one of which is that we should have primacy in our own affairs and should therefore decide how elections should be carried out and how boundaries should be determined. It was a breach of convention over the 1909 Budget that led to the Lords having their powers curbed before. This is a much more serious constitutional issue than the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware, because he sat through my superb speech during the debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill, that I made a point in that debate about the importance of function, of looking at the powers of the second Chamber and of convention. He will recall that, although the Second Reading was voted for by a huge majority, it was the Government who chose to drop the Bill from the legislative timetable. That was their decision, and it is the Government whom the hon. Gentleman should be lobbying.
Absolutely. I have to say to those who have a grievance against conventions or against House of Lords reform that I am afraid the ship has sailed. They had their opportunity, but it passed them by.
The amendments have been made in addition to the improvements made here in the Commons during the progress of the Bill. We managed to secure a commitment that an annual canvass would still take place in 2014, that the option of a rolling opt-out was removed and that a civil penalty would be created for those who refused to respond when requested to register to vote. The Bill still left this House with serious problems, however, which is why we voted against it on Third Reading when it was last before us.
I would like to use this opportunity to place on record our appreciation of those who tabled the amendments in group 2: Lord Hart of Chilton, Lord Rennard, Lord Wigley and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. This amendment received support from across the other place, and a Labour peer, a Liberal Democrat peer, a Plaid Cymru peer and a Cross Bencher tabled it. It was passed by a majority of 69. We welcome the amendments made to the Bill in the other place. We shall not, therefore, be supporting the motion before us today to disagree with the Lords in their amendments.
The effect of the amendment we are debating will be to postpone the review of parliamentary boundaries by one electoral cycle.
Let us focus on the practical ramifications of the right hon. Gentleman’s vote today. Is he really prepared to tell his constituents in Tooting that it is appropriate, fair and equitable that, by the time of the general election after next, in May 2020, the enumeration data on which the electorates are based will be 20 years old? Some of the constituencies in my county of Cambridgeshire are the fastest growing in England, and they will have well over 100,000 electors by then, while some in Wales will have fewer than 40,000.
It is a bit rich for a Conservative Member to lecture us on equality and fairness. I will come to those issues later in my speech.
The amendment will also similarly delay the reduction in the number of MPs by 50 to 600, as a result of which the next general election will take place on the current boundaries with the number of MPs at 650.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not about having fairer constituencies—that can be accomplished by a periodic redistribution—nor about saving money? It is a highly political Bill aimed at the Labour party and at the Liberal Democrats who were naive to support it in the first place.
The House has heard what my hon. Friend has said.
Should the amendment be supported, it would mean having more time to address the deficiencies in the current electoral register, particularly against the backdrop of the move towards individual electoral registration. The reason why that is so important is that the electoral register is the very basis on which boundaries are drawn and redrawn. It is the raw material from which the Boundary Commission constructs parliamentary constituencies. If that raw material is of poor quality, the subsequent output from the Boundary Commission will also be of questionable quality.
It is not necessary to take just my word for it or that of the House of Lords. The Electoral Reform Society said last year:
“A depleted register has major implications for political boundaries. A substantial fall off in registered voters, weighted towards urban areas, would require the Boundary Commission to reduce the number of inner-city seats. This will create thousands of ‘invisible’ citizens who will not be accounted for or considered in many key decisions that affect their lives, yet will still look to MPs to serve them as local constituents.”
A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend said that thousands of people will be missing from the register. The true figure is that there are 6.5 million people missing from it—and these are often among the most marginalised people in the country. I believe that it is wrong to go ahead with the boundary review without having secured these missing millions back on the register.
I need to make some progress but will give way later.
We need to be sure that the completeness and accuracy of the register has not been damaged by the move. As has been said, the Electoral Commission estimates that about 6.5 million eligible voters are currently missing from the register—a truly startling figure. That is enough for almost 90 parliamentary constituencies. The current situation in which we find ourselves is bad enough; it should be imperative on us to do all we can to rectify it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that if he is successful today, he will be re-creating rotten boroughs, which were got rid of in the 1830s?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill has nothing to do with fairness, saving money or the cost of democracy, but is actually about pure party political advantage for the Conservative party? Is it not straight out of the Karl Rove book of how to rig elections to the advantage of a sitting party?
We have seen that the general election co-ordinator for the Conservative party has left the Chamber. The fact that he was in his place earlier speaks volumes about the motives of the Conservative part of the Government.
The move to individual electoral registration risks even greater numbers falling off the register.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that on the Northern Ireland Benches, we are concerned about the maximum representation for Northern Ireland in this House. As well as that, however, there is the issue of the impact, not mentioned so far, on elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, because reductions in seats for Northern Ireland here also impact on the representation in that Assembly. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is an important aspect, which has not so far been properly addressed?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Northern Ireland not only loses 17% of MPs to the Westminster Parliament, but the consequences for the Northern Ireland Assembly are very serious, too. Supporting this amendment would give us the time— another electoral cycle—to get it right, which is why right hon. and hon. Members of all parties should support it.
I am really struggling to follow the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. He is arguing that he would forfeit at least £70 million-worth of savings to the taxpayer by delaying this matter for five years, while also arguing that it is right to fight the 2015 general election on constituencies that have not been looked at since 2000—15 years out of date.
The right hon. Gentleman is trying to make a link between the electoral register and the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill and the boundaries review—but that is a completely false connection. The 2015 election will be based on a register in its current form, not on individual electoral registration, either way—whether done through the boundaries review as planned or whether done without it. The Bill does not impact on that.
The Leader of the House must be a fantastic poker player, as he said that with a straight face. I will give him a mini-lecture on why he is so wrong, on this issue as well, in a few moments. If he is still not persuaded, he can intervene and explain it to me again.
I have explained why we have sought to amend the Bill—both in this Chamber and in the other place—to include further mechanisms for maximising voter registration, particularly for the harder-to-reach sections of our communities. The importance of doing all in our power to avoid a sharp drop-off in registration levels was brought home by the experience of Northern Ireland, recently re-emphasised in the Electoral Commission report.
We know that those most likely to fall off the register are not sprinkled uniformly across the country. Each constituency does not have its equal share of missing voters. Instead, it is generally accepted that the missing eligible voters are likely to be from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, the more transient residents who live in rented accommodation such as students and young people, the elderly and the disabled and those in more deprived communities. The Leader of the House and his Back Benchers talked about equality and fairness, but the Electoral Commission has reported that
“under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”.
It also found that
“the highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”
These millions missing from the register would not count in the calculations for the setting of parliamentary boundaries. Any boundaries produced would be skewed and would be open to questions about their legitimacy. That should worry us all.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think those people were on the register in 2000?
Let us follow the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument: there are 6 million people missing from the register at the moment, but if we cannot ensure that we get them back on the register and stop further falls, we should be happy with the status quo. She is wrong: we should not be happy with the status quo; we should try to get these 6 million people on to the register and stop the cliff fall.
We should also bear it in mind that we are losing seven constituencies in Scotland, three in Northern Ireland and 10 in Wales. Although the latest census confirms that our population has risen, there will be fewer Members representing constituencies which will, as a result of inaccuracy, have fewer people on the electoral roll. That raises real concerns about whether the interests of all four of our nations will be properly protected by the Westminster Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that Scotland will lose seven constituencies if the boundary review goes ahead. We will be supporting the amendment, not because we feel that its proponents have a great case but because it would end the prospect of further Conservative government in Scotland. However, given the current boundaries, will the Labour party not have a start of up to 30 seats at the next general election?
My right hon. Friend’s point about the number of people who are not on the electoral register is one of the most fundamental in the debate. If Government Members had given us some sense that they were taking the position seriously—if they had paid attention to some of the reasoned amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—it would have been much easier for us to take them seriously today.
The Government’s complacency on the subject of the missing 6.5 million is breathtaking, and we should see it in a wider context as well. At the same time as the size of the elected legislature is being reduced through the cutting of 50 MPs, the number of unelected peers is increasing by about 50 a year. Since 2010, 117 new peers have been created at a cost of £18 million a year. The amount that will be saved by the cutting of those 50 MPs is £13.6 million. We understand from No. 10 briefings—and the Leader of the House has confirmed today—that the creation of more peers will be announced shortly.
However, it is not just the cost that should worry us. The Government are becoming more powerful. We have more Government special advisers that at any time in our history. Moreover, these changes will reduce the size of the legislature while leaving the Executive untouched, thus making Governments more powerful at the expense of elected MPs representing their constituents. Accepting the Lords amendment would enable the reduction in the number of MPs to be delayed, which would have the added advantage of giving us time to consider the right balance between Executive and legislature.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned students. Does he think it reasonable that the MP who represents a student in, say, Bristol West represents more than 82,000 people, while just across the road in Bristol East the MP represents 13,000 fewer? It is not necessary to be a student of maths to realise that a vote there will carry far less weight. That cannot be right; it goes against all the basic Chartist principles that we would expect the right hon. Gentleman to support.
I agree with the hon. Lady, as do the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission. She should join me in ensuring that those invisible citizens who should be on the register are put on the register. Let us not rush ahead with partisan boundary changes.
I have been very generous, as the hon. Lady knows. I will make some progress, and if I have time after that, I will give way.
Labour legislated for individual electoral registration in 2009. The timetable and safeguards that we proposed at the time received cross-party support, but there was a general recognition that risks would be involved in the transition, which is why it was spread over a number of years. However, the Bill in its unamended form has watered down some of the safeguards that we introduced, thus failing to take account of risks that could mean the loss of millions of eligible voters from the register.
The complexities of the move are enormous. It involves the carry-over of existing registered voters for periods of the transition, the simultaneous piloting of data-matching schemes, a drive to show the public how to register, and changes in the way in which local authorities seek to register voters and how they should deal with a refusal to co-operate. As the Government themselves admit,
“Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is the biggest change to our system of electoral registration for almost a century and it is essential we get it right”.
I want to make some progress first.
I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. “Getting it right” means that we must allow sufficient time to check that the transition does not result in millions of eligible voters dropping off the register, and rectifying that if it does occur.
I want to make some progress. I have only a short time left.
The second principal purpose of the amendments is to deal with the uncertainty about the boundaries on which the next election will be fought. That uncertainty has left the process of redrawing boundaries on the basis of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 in a state of limbo. The current boundary review is wasting public resources, and risks creating a degree of confusion in the minds of voters about which constituencies they live in and who their MPs are.
I will not rehearse the statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister last August about the proposals for boundary changes, but, needless to say, he has made it clear that his party will not now support the new boundaries, on which both Houses are due to vote in the autumn. Rather than our having to wait until the autumn, however, the amendment gives us an opportunity to bring an end to all remaining elements of uncertainty about this issue, as well as improving the move to individual electoral registration. We do not want voters not to know which constituencies they live in, or to be confused about whether those constituencies will change at the next election.
Currently, 6.5 million people are missing from the register. According to the Electoral Commission, if the IER arrangements had gone ahead as originally proposed by the Government, the number of unregistered voters could have risen to 16 million—16 million of the poorest people. Is that the way to run a democracy?
One would think that rather than heckling in a snide and partisan manner, Ministers would be expressing concern about the millions of invisible citizens who are missing from the register.
The next general election is nearer than the last. We want the public to have more certainty about the constituencies in which they live and about who will be the candidates in the election, but if the amendment is rejected, they will know neither of those things until 2014. If we are to reinforce the connections between MPs, candidates and their constituents, we need to know the facts sooner rather than later. We need an end to the impasse, and that is what voting for the amendment would provide. Ending the impasse would bring clarity and certainty. It would also halt the work of the Boundary Commission, which would save significant amounts of money that might otherwise be wasted on a review that will not be implemented.
Agreeing with the amendment would allow us to monitor, check and rectify any deficiencies that emerge from the transition to individual voter registration. In the event of a dramatic slump in the number of eligible voters on the register, it would allow time for that to be corrected without a severe undermining of the legitimacy of parliamentary boundaries redrawn on the basis of a depleted electoral register. It would allow the next general election to be fought on the current boundaries, and would allow us to engage and register the missing millions in the meantime. It would prevent the wasting of any further money by the Boundary Commission, and it would bring certainty. That is why we will not be supporting the motion to disagree with the Lords amendment, and I hope that Members in all parts of the House will join us.
I rise to ask the House to agree with their lordships in the amendment, and to disagree with the motion to disagree. Let me, however, begin on a note of agreement with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is important for us to deal with this matter, and to deal with it today. It is before us now, so let us deal with it.
I want to touch briefly on what I consider to be the three main questions that confront us: the admissibility of the amendment, the substantive issues surrounding it, and what I might euphemistically refer to as the wider issues for the coalition.
Let me start with the question of admissibility. The other place is self-regulating; it is completely different from this House in that regard. Because it is self-regulating, all matters of order reside with the House collectively, not with any individual. The Clerks give advice, and it is given on the understanding, and in the belief, that it will be accepted. That is the convention, but it is a convention, not a rule. The rule is that anything their lordships decide collectively is in order. As they have so decided, that settles the matter as far as order is concerned. If anyone wants to revisit the debate, however, may I suggest they look in particular at the remarks of two Cross Benchers, both of whom served this House well as Speaker? They made very plain their reasons for voting for this amendment.
I am sorry, but, as a matter of fact, I cannot. All sorts of things have happened in their lordships’ House, however, and I can tell Members the last time that the asperity of speech motion was moved. I was there when the late great Lord Conrad Russell moved it, and I do not think it had been moved for 300 years before that.
I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about procedure and the House of Lords. Will he add to his list of three things he is going to cover an explanation of why he and the Deputy Prime Minister have changed their view? On 1 November 2010 the hon. Gentleman said in respect of a Government Bill on equalisation that
“I have absolutely no problem with that general principle…the principle of equalisation is a very good one.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 672.]
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, and I will address that point later. I reiterate that I stand by the words he quotes about my having no problem with the general principle. I have put on record on many occasions how that general principle should be dealt with, however, and I will cover that point later.
I do not think any Member disagrees with the principle of having more equal seats, but several amendments were not accepted that would have made the rules governing this proposal sensible, many of them tabled by Government Members. If they had been accepted, we might not find ourselves in this position now.
In the 1950s Jo Grimond said in my hearing that one of the roles of the House of Lords was to stop the House of Commons abusing the electoral process. I think that to carry on having boundaries that are old and constituencies with unequal numbers of voters is just such an abuse. What would Jo Grimond say about what is happening now?
I had the great privilege of listening to Jo Grimond on many occasions. He met his wife in my grandparents’ house and proposed to her there—and, indeed, Laura was godmother to my sister. I regularly listened to him, therefore, and I feel certain that if he was in the circumstances we are in, he would without doubt support his Liberal colleagues. [Interruption.] One has some small advantages in life.
Their lordships’ amendment 5 delays the implementation of the boundary changes until the next Parliament. There are three good reasons why this should happen, two of which have been touched on and featured in the debate in their lordships’ House, and the third I shall add. The first point is in regard to the quality of the register. Since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was enacted, much work has been done on that register. At the time, the best evidence was that it contained the details of about 92% of those who should be on it. As a result of work carried out by the Electoral Commission, we now know the figure is much lower, however; it is, in fact, 82%. To my mind, that is a material difference that should be addressed. We should be asked to look at that again.
I disagree with that. I went through the Lords Hansard and underlined the names of all the Cross Benchers I could see in each of the voting lists. There were slightly more of them in one list than the other, but there were quite a number in support of this amendment. I remember that one of the great dictums of their lordships’ House is that all peers are equal, so I would look to the result, which was 300 on one side and 69 or so fewer—231—on the other side.
The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, so he will know that it has hitherto been the practice of the other place not to amend secondary legislation substantially—or, indeed, at all—even on some very contentious subjects and Bills over the past few Parliaments. Why, therefore, has this happened on this particular occasion?
I recall very well that, when I and others were given their P45s and left that place, one of the discussions that we had was about why on earth we in the other place should not register dissent on secondary legislation. Indeed, that has occasionally happened, which serves to demonstrate that there is a changing dynamic. Because of that changing dynamic, we need to look at the constitutional arrangements in the round, and that topic will form the substantive element of the last part of my argument.
In the other place, by convention their lordships defer to what the Clerks say. Over the past 20 years, on the five occasions when amendments have been deemed inadmissible by the Clerks, they have deferred to the Clerks’ superior knowledge. In this House, such an amendment would be deemed to be outside the rules and we rightly follow the rules set out in “Erskine May”. Does my hon. Friend think we in this place should continue to follow those rules, or should we throw “Erskine May” in the bin?
My hon. Friend is asking me to ponder questions that go slightly above my pay grade, because one person alone can make those decisions in this House: Mr Speaker. It is entirely up to Mr Speaker to accept or reject the advice given. I therefore refer my hon. Friend to the remarks made by Baroness Boothroyd, a former Speaker of this House. She said there were occasions when she had gone against the advice given to her by the Clerks. We do not know when that happens, however, for the simple reason that that is the prerogative of the Speaker, and we accept it without question.
I am grateful to my noble Friend for giving way. At the Committee stage of any Bill, it is up to this House to give an instruction to consider any amendments, whether or not they have been deemed by the Clerks to be in the scope of the Bill, so this House has much the same powers as the House of Lords in this respect.
I am always deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for helping me out on these occasions.
My first point is about the electoral register. The second point is about what has happened in regard to boundaries. We now have the benefit of the proposals that have been made. At the time of our original discussion, we did not; we were looking at the question in theory. A fascinating point arose from a discussion I had with a senior member of the Government on the other side of the coalition. I will not name the Member as it would be invidious to do so. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Absolutely not; my lips are sealed. He said that in a given area the proposal their experts had come up with was the one thing that had never been thought of. That is precisely what has happened in respect of my own seat. The proposed size of it gives me concern, as it would become the largest. However, in electoral terms—notionally, on the basis of the historical numbers—the change would increase my majority, although one would never boast about that in any highland seat. My constituency would go from being made up of two and a quarter counties to comprising two counties, 90% of another county and a little chunk of a fourth, none of which are linked together in any way, shape or form; none of this has any rationale of community. These areas have different local election arrangements; the seat goes through wards. The proposed seat goes all over the place, simply to squeeze in enough in respect of both the area and the numbers.
The general principle, I always agreed, has to be tailored to the other principles we have always used when setting out boundaries: the big regional variances. So I feel it is a good idea to look again at what has been proposed, now that we have seen that the actual proposals are quite different from those envisaged, in theory, at the time.
But my hon. Friend must have thought about this when his own leader made a statement on political and constitutional reform in this House and said that the changes we are proposing will
“bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 24.]
In other words, the changes will make the House of Commons smaller. Have legislatures around the world become bigger or has the Deputy Prime Minister, whom we both regard with affection, become a little smaller?
Let me deal with that precise point at the moment I arrive at it. First, I wish to deal with my third point of substance, which is the one that was not made in the debate. It is brief but it is important. A reduction in the size of this House increases the percentage of the payroll vote and thereby strengthens the grip of the Executive on Parliament, without there being an acceptable counterweight.
That leads me to my final point, which relates to the wider coalition issues. Let me make it absolutely clear that I supported the formation of this Government and I remain committed to them. As a Liberal Democrat, I entered this coalition because I believed in 2010 that the country needed a stable Government to deal with the financial crisis that was before us. As a member of the Treasury Committee in the previous Parliament, I had looked at many of the matters on the sovereign debt markets and was concerned, and I believe that the right decision was made.
However, when two very different parties come together to get agreement on an essential issue there has to be agreement on other areas. The red line issues—the ones we will not have at any cost or the ones we must have at any cost—are relatively straightforward to address, because we either agree them or we do not, and we are either there or we are not. All the other matters that are subject to negotiation, both individually, as policies, and, most importantly, collectively, as a slate, are much more difficult to deal with. The coalition agreement is not a pick-and-mix menu; it is an agreement. I agreed to the boundary changes—in many respects with a heavy heart—but I did so in the knowledge that the rest of that agreement acted as a counterweight. To my mind, that would occur mainly through Lords reform, which I judged would increase the check on the Executive and strengthen Parliament. For me, that was a fundamental point and I believe it is a fundamental point for all my colleagues.
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there are many other ways in which we could reduce the size of the payroll vote in this House? That would have been perfectly possible to do by, for example, reducing the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries or Ministers. His argument is therefore surely not an acceptable one.
On this point about coalition well-being, does my hon. Friend agree that—and is he sad about the fact that—my Lib Dem colleagues in Cornwall are misrepresenting their vote this evening by saying that a vote against the Bill is a vote against a “Devonwall” seat? He knows, as I do, that the Boundary Commission decides the boundaries and it is not due to bring them back to us until October. So this is hardly good coalition politics, is it?
I thank my noble and hon. Friend for his comments. First, is he aware that there is a Bill at the moment that would reduce the size of the House of Lords without making it into an elected Chamber, which his own party is opposing? Secondly, on the question of whether the Lords are able to put up a decent fight against the Executive, is he aware that during the Labour Governments of Mr Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and the other—[Interruption.] I have forgotten his name, as he appears so rarely in this House. Is my hon. Friend aware that during that time the Lords defeated the Government 450-odd times and the Commons defeated them fewer than 10 times?
May I, through my hon. Friend, seek to clarify something? In places such as Cornwall, cross-party agreement has been established on opposing a cross-border constituency. We therefore have an opportunity today to vote in such a way as to defer that until after the next general election and therefore put off the time when such an unacceptable boundary change would affect the people of Cornwall.
My hon. Friend is right. I just want to make it clear that when I entered this coalition, I made it clear to the leadership, when my party discussed whether we would accept this arrangement, that for me the agreement in toto was what counted and that Lords reform, as part of the constitutional arrangements, was vital. After the vote on Lords reform, I made it abundantly clear to my leadership that my position had changed and I could not, in all conscience, continue to support what we had done before. That is a fundamental point for myself and my colleagues.
I gently point out to my friends on the Government Benches, in the mildest manner possible, that they have got what they wanted: the great, the good, the wise, the academic, the apolitical, the ex-public servants and the generals, whom they strove so hard to protect, have come together in their wisdom and given us amendment 5. I beg the House to support it.
It is not for me to judge, Mr Speaker. During the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), he was intervened on a couple of times and was referred to as being the “noble” Member. Can you clarify whether or not there are any noble Members in this House? Or are we just all common?
All right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber are equal. That is perhaps not the answer that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but it is the answer that he is going to get, especially as his attempted point of order was just that—attempted. It was many things but it was not a point of order.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who made a striking and powerful speech. I, like other Members, particularly enjoyed his last point.
I am pleased to be able to speak in opposition to the Government motion and in support of Lords amendments 5 and 23, and I welcome the cross-party support for those amendments in the other place and in the Chamber today. The other place has done democracy a great service by highlighting the link between this Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, because, contrary to the point made by the Leader of the House, the impact of these two pieces of legislation together would have been unfairly to reduce the representation of our great cities and urban areas.
A number of Government Members have talked about the simple principle of fairness, and the Leader of the House talked about the disparities in the system. There are disparities, but they are not the ones that he talked about. If I were selected by my party members again, the proposed boundaries would benefit me electorally. Nevertheless, they are unfair and undermine our democracy because of the enormous mismatch between population and registered voters.
My hon. Friend has clearly done so much work on the issue that he anticipates one of the points that I was going to make. He is absolutely right.
I want first to illustrate the mismatch by comparing my constituency, Sheffield Central, with the neighbouring constituency, Sheffield, Hallam. I am glad that I shall be walking through the same Lobby later as my political neighbour, but the two constituencies are of a very different nature and they illustrate my argument.
Sheffield Central is inner city and multicultural; we have large council estates, houses in multiple occupation, two universities and very high levels of voter turnover. Already, 17% of households have nobody on the register. Sheffield, Hallam consists of our city’s leafy suburbs; it is largely monocultural with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation, and a very stable population. Only 4% of its households have nobody on the register. There is a huge disparity between the number of people represented by the MPs for those two constituencies.
I have made that point before, but I now have the advantage of supporting it with the latest information available, which is from the 2011 census. If the argument was reduced to a simple question of constituency size based on the number of registered voters, our two constituencies would appear to be pretty similar in size. However, if we compare the population according to the 2011 census with the number of voters registered on 2 January 2013 according to the council’s electoral registration officer, we can see that the picture is completely different. Sheffield Central has 76,596 registered voters whereas Sheffield, Hallam has 71,559—the difference is just 5,037, or 7%. According to the census, Sheffield Central has a population of 115,284 whereas Sheffield, Hallam has a population of 89,356, and so the difference is 25,928, or 20%.
I, too, am a representative of an inner-city seat. Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises, as I do, that one of the main reasons behind such differences is the number of non-UK nationals in a particular constituency who often live in households containing no UK nationals and therefore no UK voters. I know that puts a huge additional burden on him as a Member of Parliament, as it does on me—all these people require representation—but they are not UK nationals and therefore should not be voting in UK general elections.
There is a bit of a difference between the two inner-city seats that the hon. Gentleman and I represent. Although there is some evidence to endorse his point, it does not explain the enormous disparity between the two seats in Sheffield.
Many of those who are excluded from the electoral register are precisely the people who form a huge proportion of my casework and I know that the situation will be the same for many Members who represent inner-city seats. More importantly, the combination of legislation means that their voice in Parliament will be reduced. If the Electoral Commission’s original concerns about the impact of the Bill came into being and were compounded by a process of redrawing boundaries based on the register as at December 2015, the gap would widen even more. If boundaries were redrawn based on an average electorate of 76,641, which was the basis for the Electoral Commission’s calculations, the actual population of Sheffield Central would be approaching 50% more than that of Sheffield, Hallam.
Some might argue that the Electoral Commission’s worst fears might no longer come true, particularly in the light of some of the concessions the Government have been forced to make. In the longer term that might be true, but crucially the next boundary review would be conducted at the low point of the registration cycle in December 2015. Let me make it clear that like those on my Front Bench I support the principle of equalisation. In so far as there is public interest in constitutional reform, that argument has enormous resonance with the public, but the people to whom I have spoken were shocked to learn that equalisation is based not on population but on the number of registered electors. The effect of the combined legislation will be not to reduce but to enhance inequity.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is simply not always the case? In Torbay, for example, those on one side of the road are represented by a Liberal Democrat colleague who represents 76,000 voters. On the other side of the road at the Brixham end of Torbay, which is in my constituency, there are just over 67,000 voters. One vote carries 11% more weight on the Brixham side of Torbay, and when we take the populations into account, the discrepancy is even higher. It does not always ring true that using population equalises matters because, in some cases, it would make things worse. It certainly would in my constituency, where the situation is already unfair.
I do not think that Sheffield is any different from many of our other large urban centres, and I think that the effect I have described in relation to Sheffield would apply to the vast majority of urban areas in this country. There might be some exceptions in Devon.
To respond to an earlier comment, my view is that we should move towards a system of genuinely equal constituencies based on boundaries drawn by population size, not by registered voter numbers, but that is clearly a debate for another time. Whether or not we go down that route, we need now to pause, to ensure that individual electoral registration does not further enhance inequity and does not further disempower our cities. If we do not pause, we risk creating a US-style democracy, with notorious under-registration, that excludes the disadvantaged and the disengaged and that focuses political parties and elections on the needs of the more privileged and in that way poisons our politics.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once again. He mentions the American system, where registration has gone down. That was a deliberate political act by the Republican party to organise voter suppression. Does he think that there is an element of deliberate political voter suppression from the Conservative party?
Indeed; the plan was pretty transparent, and it seems to be falling apart under the scrutiny of another place and with the support of other parties across the House. I am delighted about that because accepting Lords amendments 5 and 23 will provide the pause that we need to ensure that our democracy is not weakened. That would give us the time to get this right, and I look forward to the House supporting those amendments.
I hope I can cheer up my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and the whole House by quoting Edmund Burke, who told the electors of Bristol:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment”.
We cannot be on autopilot in the House; we must do what we think is right, in the interests of our constituents and the country, which is why I did not join my Government in voting against the measures on payday loans proposed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), or Labour’s proposed extension to the national insurance contribution holiday to the south-east, and it is why I voted against my Government over the constitutional car crash that was the House of Lords Reform Bill.
I will defend the right of any Member to vote against their Whips for what they believe is right, but let us not kid ourselves that that is what the Liberals are up to today. It is not a constituency or national interest that has informed the amendments to clause 5, but self-interest. Edmund Burke did not say that we as representatives owe our constituents our spite, pettiness and self-interest, yet those are the qualities that seem to have brought us to these amendments.
When we gave the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill its Second Reading in September 2010, 54 Liberal Democrats voted in favour, three abstained and none voted against. Indeed, the Conservative rebellion was greater—by my count, six of my colleagues voted against the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, but one thing that I think we probably can agree on—certainly, some of us who have different positions on this—is that it was simply wrong to include those two very separate items in the Bill. I wanted to oppose the boundary changes, others wanted to oppose the AV measures, but we could not do so because they were tied up in the same Bill.
Presumably, when the Division bell rang on that occasion, 54 Liberals did not take collective leave of their senses—whether they lost them some time ago I cannot say. But I am sure that they were present in a moment of brilliant acuity as the bell tolled, and they voted to improve our parliamentary democracy, which is what the hon. Gentleman did.
I will make some progress.
We can take it that the Liberals believed in equalising the size of constituencies and reducing the number of MPs. I say that with some confidence because we know that they believe it still; they just do not want it yet. Today, we are not asked to throw out the concepts altogether, which would be a bizarre but perhaps defensible position intellectually; we are simply asked to put them off till the next Parliament—a curious position of which some further explanation is required, and I hope that you agree, Mr Speaker.
One of the words that has been overused in this Parliament is “fairness”. Fairness, fairness, fairness is all we have heard from some of our coalition colleagues, but a word that I would like to introduce is “honourability” and ask whether it is honourable for someone to take a position and then move, frankly, to a different one when they see what is before them.
I thank my hon. Friend, and to ensure that I do not offend Mr Speaker or anyone else in the House, I welcome the opportunity to put on record the fact that I think all Liberal Democrat Members are honourable ladies and gentlemen, but I hope during my speech to point out to them what they would need to do to remain so by tomorrow morning.
The answer to this puzzle is found not in the amendments but in the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has made it quite clear that Liberal support for the changes has been withdrawn because the House of Lords Bill could not be passed. I remind the House that that is the same Deputy Prime Minister who was quite categorical in his assurances that one had no influence over the other, while the battle for the constitution still raged. It has doubtless not helped the Liberals’ mood that the public so comprehensively rejected their plans for electoral reform. The Liberals have withdrawn their love because of a contrived slight.
The Deputy Prime Minister can repeat until he is blue in the face—although a fuller conversion to that colour might prove harder to achieve—that the programme for government promised Lords reform, but that will not make it true. There was never any obligation for Conservatives to support Lords reform, and I rebelled with a heavy heart but a clear conscience. Will the same be true for the Liberals in the wrong Lobby today?
I share much of my hon. Friend’s frustration, but does she agree that this row would not have happened if, instead of focusing on the rather fatuous arguments about saving a relatively small amount of money, we had set out to equalise the constituencies but to keep the number at 650 for this House?
Even if we set aside the vital matter of the absence of an obligation on Lords reform, to make the allegation that Conservatives broke a coalition promise requires considerable front. Thirty-six per cent. of the Liberal Democrats rebelled over tuition fees, by comparison with less than 30% of the Conservatives on Lords reform. It is only because the Liberals have fewer MPs than we do—that is, they received a smaller mandate from the people—that their rebellion did not matter.
May I put the record straight? The coalition agreement on tuition fees was that all Liberal Democrats had the right to abstain. What happened was that a certain number of colleagues chose to go against the measure. In order, therefore, to give the Government what they needed, the remainder of my colleagues voted in favour of it. That is what really happened.
What message does my hon. Friend think is conveyed to colleagues who lost their job when they voted against that legislation and who will now witness some of our Liberal Democrat colleagues walking through the Lobby against Government policy but keeping their jobs?
My hon. Friend makes his point well. I am sure it is not lost on those in the Chamber and outside.
We are forced to conclude that industry and judgment have indeed ceded the stage to spite, pettiness and self-interest. The people have rejected the Liberal Democrats’ voting reforms and the Liberal Democrats cannot win the argument for Lords reform, so they will oppose boundary changes, which they want, in the hope of re-opening negotiations after the next election, while casting flirtatious glances across the Chamber. The Liberals have exchanged their legendary sandals for flip-flops in the hope that that will enable them to keep their options open, but they would be wrong to think that the real damage they will do today is to the prospects of the Conservative victory in 2015 or to the notion of a Conservative government.
On the subject of Liberal Democrats, has not our hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) been strangely inconsistent today? Was not what he said on tuition fees exactly what happened on House of Lords reform? Some of us voted against House of Lords reform. In any case, is it not clear in the coalition agreement that the link was not to House of Lords reform but to AV? Is it not also clear that in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto they advocated a reduction of 150 Members of Parliament?
My hon. Friend is right. That is not lost on the House or on the general public. The only harm that the Liberals will do today is to themselves. They confirm what has long been suspected—that the national interest and the constituency interest come a poor second to Liberal Democrat interest.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—the hon. Member for three and a bit counties—explained, the Liberals are only following the very wise maxim, “When the facts change, I change my mind”? It is a maxim that her Chancellor might also follow.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. This comes to the heart of the matter. When the Division bell goes today, the 54 Liberals who voted in favour last time must ask themselves why a boundary review is a less valid measure now than it was in 2010 or will be in 2018. They must have a care for their consciences, do what is right for the country and their constituents, and do the honourable thing.
I have been interested in this issue since 2001, when my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) informed me that there had been a massive drop in voter registration in 100 constituencies, 90 of which, I discovered when I looked at the figures, were Labour constituencies. Some might say that it was our fault for introducing the changes in 2000.
I have sought to get the facts and figures on this for the past 10 years. I have tabled over 400 parliamentary questions on registration, population size and boundary size, and I have spoken in every debate on the matter in this House. I have come to the conclusion that what is, or was, proposed is a political act to deliver, in the case of the boundaries review and legislation, the 2015 general election, and in the case of individual electoral registration, the three or four elections after that. I hope that we will find out very shortly that it has all come to naught.
The reasons why I say this are many. I wish to compare the attitude of this Government with the attitude of the previous Labour Government. I blame the previous Labour Government, and I do so to their face, for not getting what we thought were 3.5 million missing electors on to the register. It was our fault that we did not do that. However, no one can accuse the previous Labour Government of using our political majority, which was huge, for party political advantage on constitutional issues. One of the first things that Labour did was introduce proportional representation in the European elections. In Wales, we went from having four Labour MEPs to one Labour MEP. We had a majority of 180 back in 1997—such a huge majority that we could have delivered devolution to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and to Wales without PR, but in the interests of fair play and playing properly on the constitution, we introduced PR, which did down Labour’s vote.
It is good that my hon. Friend has made that thoughtful mention of Wales. Does he agree that this Bill means that the people of Wales will see a reduction of 10 seats, from 40 down to 30? I would be interested if the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) wished to intervene to say whether he agrees with that, and, if not, how he would explain it to his dwindling electorate.
The hon. Gentleman has a very selective memory on the actions of the previous Labour Government. The massive extension of postal voting and the resulting lack of trust that is now in the electoral system was brought about with the massive majority to which he referred. That has made an enormous difference to the running of our elections and has led to a huge amount of distrust, particularly in inner-city seats.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at one of the 400 questions that I have tabled on this issue, he will see that the number of people who have been prosecuted for electoral fraud each year is about one or two. That is bad; any electoral fraud is bad. If he looks at the other side of the scales of justice, he will see that there are not, as we thought, 3.5 million people missing off the register, but 6 million. If individual electoral registration had gone ahead as proposed by the Government, 16 million people would have been missing off the register.
Let us have a look at the pans of justice. With one or two cases a year of electoral fraud, all the resources are made available, but with 6.5 million people off the register, no resources are available. One of my questions, which was answered two weeks ago, asked for some numbers on this subject. If electors do not fill in the extra registration form, the electoral registration officer has to send a canvasser to their house at least twice—that is the law. Labour managed to implement that law, and in 2010 only eight local authorities disobeyed it; I think that they were all Tory authorities. In 2011, when the Tories had got their feet under the table, that figure massively increased, to 30 or 40. Of the 60 constituencies in England that do not send an electoral registration officer to knock on the doors of the non-registered, 55 are Conservative, one is Labour—Telford—and I think that the rest are Lib Dem. There is an element of politicisation in what the Conservative party is proposing.
Three years ago I went to see Experian to discuss the issue of the unregistered. I told its representatives that 3.5 million people were not on the register, but they said that the actual figure was 6.5 million. I took that information to the Electoral Commission, which said, “That can’t be true. We’ll do our own research on the issue.” Lo and behold, 18 months later, the commission came back to me and said, “Mr Ruane, you and Experian are absolutely right, but the 6.5 million people who are off the register are a different 6.5 million people from those noted by Experian.” I therefore asked the Electoral Commission whether 13 million people could be missing from the register; I said it tongue in cheek, but millions of people are missing from the register and the resources have not been made available to get them on to it.
The proposed boundary review changes should not go ahead while 6.5 million people are missing from the register. Moreover, the next boundary review is due to take place on 1 December 2013, after individual electoral registration, so we could end up with millions more missing after that. We will end up with a reputation as a banana republic if 6.5 million, 10.5 million or 16 million people are missing from the register. This is no way to run a democracy.
The hon. Gentleman and I have had various arguments on this issue across the Floor of the House for as many as nine years. Even if what he is saying is correct, he is completely missing the point about the amendment and the importance of the Bill. How can he say that it is fair that Arfon has 41,000 constituents while Somerton and Frome has double the number—82,000? How can he possibly say that that is fair?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She should think about the figure that I have mentioned: 6.5 million people are missing from the register. The vast majority of them will be in Labour constituencies. The vast majority of the case load for Labour Members and those Members who serve poorer constituencies around the country comes from the unregistered, the people who should legally be on the register but are not. If those people were factored in, the inequality would not be as great.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. To use the example of the county of Greater Manchester, in the previous Parliament we were entitled to have 28 Members of Parliament. As a result of the 2010 periodic review, that number was cut to 27, and the proposed boundary changes would lead to it being cut to 26, yet the 2011 census shows that the population of Greater Manchester is going up, not down.
I agree with my hon. Friend and think that the census should be the basis for any future redrawing of boundaries.
In conclusion, the reason given by the Conservative party for wanting to introduce the boundary review changes is to decrease the number of MPs from 650 to 600. It says that it is a case of cost and that that is its primary reason, and yet when I tried to table a parliamentary question in the Table Office to find out the cost of an MP and the cost of a Lord, I was told that I was not allowed to do so. Fortunately a Lord in the other place tabled the question and received the response that it costs £130,000 per Lord and £590,000 per MP. The Government have created an extra 125 Lords since they came to power in 2010 and they propose to create another 50 over the next few weeks. Where is the logic in creating an extra 175 unelected Lords while reducing the House of Commons from 650 to 600 Members?
My electorate was even smaller than that of the hon. Lady’s constituency 10 years ago. The voter population in my constituency went down to as low as 47,000. It was only when I started to put pressure on, and following the professionalisation of the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire county council, that the number went from 47,000 to 57,000. I believe that there are even more unregistered people in the constituency.
The vast majority of the 6.5 million missing voters are in Labour constituencies. This is therefore a political act, and one that has come unstuck.
It has been said that
“political duty must be placed before private feeling.”
That was how James Rankin, the MP for Leominster, advised the House when the boundaries came up for review in 1884. He went on to say that the Prime Minister had
“appealed to the Members who sat for small boroughs not to be selfish”.—[Official Report, 28 April 1884; Vol. 287, c. 799.]
I agree with the then Prime Minister and my predecessor from long ago. Mr Rankin’s concern was for his constituency and the people whom he fought to represent. That is my concern now because, without wishing to get misty-eyed, after nearly 12 years, I am deeply fond of them.
Where we can all agree is on the principle of evening out the size of seats and ensuring that every vote carries equal value. In our last manifesto, we promised to champion a fairer system. It is only right that we try to make good that commitment. I do not think that everyone knows how grotesquely skewed the current state of affairs is. Some constituencies are almost double the size of others, meaning that their inhabitants are under-represented in elections and, subsequently, at Westminster. The overall balance is weighted heavily towards the Labour party. Labour Members know in their hearts that were it the other way around, they would be the first to call for realignment. Their opposition hardly befits a modern democracy.
Ironically, before the last boundary change, my constituency was about the right size numerically. It was close to the UK average of 76,641 voters. Yet that did not save it. That is where my problem lies.
Perhaps my memory is failing me and the hon. Gentleman’s is better, but when the boundaries were stacked against the Labour party and in favour of the Conservatives in the 1980s, did the Conservative party demand the kind of changes that it is demanding today?
The hon. Gentleman was not here in the ’80s and neither was I. I will carry on because time is short.
The problem I have is not with the theory behind the sixth general review, but with how it has been conducted in practice. We all want fairness and had high hopes that the Boundary Commission could do a better job. With hindsight, perhaps it should have been asked to respect county boundaries over ward boundaries. Despite agreeing to take existing constituencies into consideration as far as possible, the Boundary Commission for England recommended that the North Herefordshire constituency be dismantled and merged with Worcestershire and Shropshire to form a constituency with a minority part of each county. My hon. Friends and neighbours are fine people and there is little to be gained from Conservative Members fighting one another. At a time when people do not believe promises and when people vote for independents who have no manifesto, I believe that honouring the promises that I made to my constituents at the general election is very important.
The Prime Minister said at Admiralty house on 6 June 2011:
“We will help you through this”.
That was one of his best intentioned, least helpful and most worrying comments. What did he mean? What did he think would happen? How would help be offered? Did he really care about it at all? My sense of concern must have been felt by the Lib Dem coalition partners. How extraordinary it is in modern politics that one’s seat can be saved by one’s opponents who have spent the last 12 years trying to take it away.
There are more dilemmas in this vote for me and my constituents. What in the end would benefit them more: a future Conservative Government or a better alignment of boundaries? In 1884, my ancient forebear put the answer on the record. I will not bore the House with the details. He did say, however, that every elector should have two votes. I cannot agree with that.
Otherwise, little has changed. I do not believe that Herefordshire has received the respect that the Boundary Commission should have given it, but I will always put my constituents first; they will always be my priority. Whether the fairness and equality of a vote, and the corresponding chance of a Conservative victory, is more important than the boundaries of my existing and historic seat, is a decision worthy of deep deliberation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, since I will not have the chance to make a speech today. Amendment 5 contains one important provision that shows why those who vote for the amendment are absolutely determined to wreck the Bill. The explanatory notes to the amendment state that
“the Boundary Commissions would not have a discretion to consider inconveniences attendant on boundary changes”.
In other words, people would have grounds to argue against any boundary changes that the boundary commissions proposed.
I am deeply sorry that my hon. Friend will not have the chance to say more this evening. He deserves to.
The economic and other damage left by the Labour party, and the need for equality in votes, shows the greatest good to my county and my country although it may cause me the most harm personally. Putting aside all temptations and fears, my conclusion is that the sacrifice made by the loss of my seat must be worth it for my constituents. They deserve promises to be kept, fairness and justice to be paramount, and for their vote to count as equally as any other. I therefore support the Government and disagree with their lordships.
I want to make a few brief points. I voted against the original Bill on Second and Third Reading because I wanted to see boundaries equalised but not a reduction in Members. I lost that debate and that vote, and I accept the will of the House. I also accept that Labour Members have been consistent in their views.
I thought today that I would be speaking in support of the Government, but I have since learned that I am speaking in support of Conservatives in the Government, which makes me feel a little better. My problem is very simple. If one reads the debates on Second and Third Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister, who led for the Government on this issue, made sensible remarks about equalising the size of constituencies, with which I thoroughly agree. However, when something is said as a matter of principle—this is where I think politics is brought into disrepute—whether it is about an in/out referendum on the EU or voting against tuition fees, and when a deal is done and a pledge made in coalition that there will be a vote on the alternative vote and in return the boundary review will be supported, that pledge must be kept.
The only honourable thing the Liberal Democrats can do tonight if they do not vote with Conservative Members is resign from the Government and cross the Floor of the House. If they have any principle, any honesty, that is what they must do. I remember when the aspiring new Prime Minister spoke to the Conservative party in the 1922 committee when the coalition came into being. The only issue that the party had to decide on was whether it would allow a vote on AV in return for Liberal Democrat support on boundary reviews. That was the deal. The Conservative party kept to that deal but the Liberal Democrats have gone back on their part of it. They are a disgrace and should be on the Opposition Benches.
I rise briefly to express my regret on three points. First, I regret that the other place has seen fit to ride through the conventions that have held it secure in its position for many centuries. It has done so on the basis of Members who have gone to that House, precisely—Opposition Members have referred to this—through a packing of the House of Lords under the previous Government. Those Members have then ridden through their conventions in order to place us in this position, with a constitutional change foisted on this democratically elected House.
I also regret that we will not have boundary review until 2018 if we disagree to the motion. That will mean that many Members will not be equal. Mr Speaker, you said in response to an earlier point of order that all hon. Members are equal, but they will not be equal in the representation they bring to the House.
My third regret is that Labour Members believe that some Members are more equal than others. The arguments they have deployed—quite apart from the typically graceless speech by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)—have been specious in the extreme.
The Liberal Democrats, whose arguments were put by one of their most noble Members, have exposed themselves—this is often the case with Liberal Democrats, as hon. Members who have fought them on the doorstep will know—as people who have one idea at one time and change their mind when it matters at another time. I understand their position and why they have come to it with heavy regret. I am a full supporter of the coalition, which is in the business of saving the country.
However, nothing can excuse the Labour party trying, by every kind of sophistry, to present arguments as to why one person’s vote should count for more than another person’s in different constituencies, including ones that neighbour each other. As a result, their position debases our democracy. Labour Members should answer to the electorate for what they are doing to our Parliament.
Twenty-seven months ago, in October 2010, I tabled an amendment that said that the boundary changes were being rushed through and should be postponed until the next Parliament. I was right then and I am right now.
Hon. Members agree that this is a serious issue, and that we should look to try to have more equal constituencies, but the logic that has been followed does not do that. We need common-sense proposals for the next Parliament that hon. Members can unite around. We need constituencies that do not cross county boundaries and major council boundaries, and ones that are geographically commonsensical. The measure needs to be tied in with individual registration, as the Bill should have been.
If we are serious about reducing the number of MPs, we need a debate on what our role is. If we reduce the number, it will be more difficult for us to fulfil our myriad roles—our roles are different from those of Members of other Parliaments in the world.
The truth is that the Bill was based on a solid principle, but the reality was wrong. We have a duty to scrutinise it. I said that in October 2010, and I have not changed my mind. I will be voting the right way, as I did three years ago.
Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No.83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 5.
Lords amendment 5 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived.
Lords amendment 23 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived.
After Clause 17
Voters waiting at polling station at close of poll
Order. Will right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber—[Hon. Members: “We’re celebrating!”] Will Members who are leaving the Chamber for whatever purpose please do so as quickly and quietly as possible so that I can call Minister Smith to speak to the motion? She should not have to fight to be heard, and we wish to hear her.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall speak to Lords amendment 7 and, with your leave, I shall speak to the other amendments in the group as well. It might therefore take me a few minutes to complete my speech, as it covers all the amendments.
Lords amendments 7, 10 and 11 will enable voters waiting in a queue at close of poll to be issued with ballot papers and to vote, even if the time of close of poll has passed. Following debates on the subject, the Government have decided to accept the principle of the amendments introduced in both Houses, to ensure that people are able to exercise their right to vote if they are already in the queue at 10 pm on polling day. The measure has attracted cross-party support in both Houses, and the Government agree with the sentiment behind a change in the law to enable voters to vote.
The Government did not accept amendments previously tabled on this subject, and have instead introduced their own group of amendments to address some of the issues identified by the previous amendments. For example, the amendment tabled by Lord Pannick did not apply to Northern Ireland and would have resulted in an inconsistent position for voters across the United Kingdom.
In tabling their own amendments, the Government remain concerned that all potential consequences for other aspects of electoral law of any new provisions relating to close of poll should be dealt with at the point at which the new provisions take effect, to reduce the risk of unintended consequences. I will not dwell at length on those amendments; suffice it to say that the term “close of poll” is used in a number of electoral provisions, including those that determine when exit polls may be published and the point by which postal votes must be returned. Some of those provisions attract criminal penalties and it would not be right if the impact of a change were not considered and addressed, to avoid a position in which people might fall foul of the law inadvertently. The amendments therefore provide for a proportionately limited power that will allow the Government to make any such consequential changes that might be required on commencement.
Let me make it clear that, although the Government are introducing these amendments, we remain of the view that proper planning by returning officers must be the first priority to reduce the risk of queues forming. However, this change to the law will provide an effective back-stop to supplement that planning. The Government have also consistently argued that administrative points remain to be addressed, and we will work closely with the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators on the best way to implement the amendments for voters. However, putting aside those points of detail, I hope that we can agree to support this change to the law for the benefit of voters.
The other amendments in the group relate to the transition to, and operation of, individual electoral registration. That is the core of the Bill, through which we aim to tackle electoral fraud and the perception of fraud. Under IER, electors will be required to register individually, rather than by household. In that way, we will be moving to a system in which individuals will have to provide information to verify their application, and so take responsibility for their registration to vote. That will modernise our electoral registration system, facilitating the move to online registration and making it more convenient for people to register to vote. Our aim is to tackle electoral fraud, increase the number of people registered to vote, and improve the integrity of the register.
It falls to me to rebut a few points made in the previous debate, as they properly relate to the subject matter in this group of amendments. I was concerned to hear the Labour Front-Bench team whipping up scare stories. It felt to me that they had little else to say, and their opportunism led them to introduce some confusion into our debate. It is important to note that the figures occasionally quoted, as I understand it, by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is not in his place, related to an opt-out that was included in the draft legislation published in June 2011, and not to the transition to individual electoral registration in general. The hon. Gentleman quoted the concern of the Electoral Commission about completeness, potentially leaving, in his citation, 16 million people unregistered. Those comments were, I suggest, a misquotation of the Electoral Commission’s chairwoman, Jenny Watson. She clarified her opinion in a follow-up statement. I hope that is of help to the House.
It is also important to rebut very firmly further comments of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd. Sadly, I see that he is still not in his place, after having made the lurid suggestion that the Government are engaged in voter suppression. I cannot stand against that more strongly. I think it would be helpful if I noted that the Electoral Commission has been calling for the introduction of IER since 2003. It supports that introduction and believes
“it is the right thing to do because the current system is vulnerable to fraud; and it is right that people take responsibility for their own votes. The ‘household’ registration system means there is no personal ownership by citizens of a fundamental aspect of their participation in our democracy—their right to vote.”
I seek to support that right to vote. I am concerned that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, who is still not in his place to engage in debate, made such lurid comments.
The Minister will be aware that 25% of people in Britain are functionally illiterate, meaning that they cannot handle a yellow pages directory effectively, and that many others cannot speak English very well. There is reason to believe that when others are helping people to register in households, this move could lead to a reduction in registration and the disfranchisement of many of those people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that thoughtful point. I would be happy to discuss that with him in more detail outside this place, as I fear that we will not have time in a full hour to deal with every way in which under-represented groups need to be assisted, supported and encouraged to register to vote. It is absolutely this Government’s intention and passion to get as many people registered to vote as possible. That would certainly include, using appropriate methods, the groups to which he has referred.