I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I speak to the House today not out of personal interest, as much of what I say and propose will not affect my future in this House. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and many other Members will know that I have no intention of standing at the next election. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I will be standing down, so my motivation today is not personal; rather, I am introducing this Bill because I want what is best for our democracy and believe that what is best for our democracy is best for all the people of this country.
The events of the past few months have shown us more than ever that politics is constantly changing, and in a changing world we need a democratic system that is fit for purpose. Conservative Members, in particular, are fond of quoting Churchill in this House. While I have never done so before, that does not mean that he did not occasionally say something worth listening to. Churchill told us that the democracy we have is not the best, but it is the best we have. There is a lot of sense in that. However, in order to have a democratic system that is suitable for the 21st century, we need to look at ways in which we can preserve the best of what we have while looking to improve engagement wherever we can.
That is why I propose that in agreeing to this Bill, the House will endeavour to keep what is best about our current system—things like the MP-constituency link, which is envied in democracies across the world—while ensuring that we do not lock out 2 million voters who have registered to vote since 2015.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech and looked at some of the stuff she said before the debate. Given that the House decided, quite clearly, to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, to what question facing us today in politics does she think the answer is more politicians?
Clearly the right hon. Gentleman was not listening very carefully to what I said, because I started by saying that the world is changing and politics is changing. What happened in the previous Parliament is not necessarily right for what is happening now. I also point out that the current Government have created 250 additional peers just down the corridor. Is that what he means by fewer politicians?
The hon. Lady is starting a most powerful speech on a very important subject. Does she agree that the answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who was of course at the heart of Government, is that we want more MPs and less government?
It is a long-standing custom in this Parliament that no Parliament can bind a successor Parliament, so the point made by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is complete nonsense. Just because the coalition voted for and railroaded through some changes a few years ago, there is no need for this Parliament to carry on with that stupid policy.
I will give way later if the right hon. Gentleman will let me continue a little.
What I am proposing is that we keep what is best in our current system, such as the MP-constituency link, which is envied in democracies across the world, while ensuring that we do not lock out 2 million voters who have registered to vote since 2015. Under the current system, they are not counted, and therefore they effectively have no voice in this place. Surely no sensible Government would deliberately discount 2 million voters simply because they do not suit their political fortunes.
I want to cut to the chase. Does the hon. Lady agree that the current proposals are a travesty to many constituencies across the entire United Kingdom, and are an attempt to silence Scotland, destabilise Northern Ireland and keep an over-bloated House of Lords in business? I welcome her debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. One of the really good things about the Bill is the number of people from right across the country who have contacted me. People from all parts of the United Kingdom are getting in touch with me as they begin to realise that their communities are going to be divided.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has mentioned Scotland and Northern Ireland. The impact of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 will be greatest on Wales, because we will lose a higher percentage—11 seats—of MPs. That is wrong. It also includes three of four island communities, but does not give exemption to the principal island of the United Kingdom, namely the Isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn.
My hon. Friend has made a very strong point about the difference in the registers and under-registration. Is she aware that that will be magnified in places such as Cardiff, which is among the fastest growing cities in the UK? We are already under-registered and we are going to grow very fast. The reality is that, within a year or two, the proposals will be so out of date and people will be so disfranchised. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a double whammy for places such as Cardiff?
I do, and that situation is reflected right across the country.
Fewer and fewer people are bothering to vote in general and local elections, because they do not see it as relevant to their lives. We live in a time when many of our people see a divide between themselves and the establishment. That means us, by the way—even people like me, and I was born in a council house in a mining community and went to a comprehensive school. They see huge divides between us, the political elite—or the metropolitan elite, as the red tops like to call us—and anyone who seems to have a vested interest in parliamentary democracy, and the people, as the red tops like to call everyone else.
I do acknowledge that point and I will come on to talk about why it is important that we conduct a review every 10 years rather than every five years. One of the communities from which I have heard most is Cornwall. Lots of people have been in touch with me, saying that they are unhappy that their own MPs are not dealing with the issue.
I may be metropolitan, but I have seldom been described as elite. Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the major problems in our capital city is that whole swathes of central London are now dark, because people do not live in the properties, and that the electoral roll has, therefore, collapsed? We also have constituencies with 19 wards, rather than the usual eight or nine. Does my hon. Friend agree that her Bill exposes far more than the dreadful dichotomy between the other place and this place? In fact, it exposes a dark heart in our democracy.
I am amazed that Government Members are talking just about population and not ascribing any importance to geography. Islands have been mentioned. My constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber includes seven inhabited islands. Many of them will end up in the new seat of Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, which would have more than 30 inhabited islands. How is a Member of Parliament supposed to represent people from so many island communities? It is a disgrace.
I am a lot more sympathetic than some of my colleagues to the hon. Lady’s Bill. How can she guarantee that the Boundary Commission will be able to implement its changes by October 2018, in time for the next general election? Is that practical?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the exclusion of 2 million voters, whom we know to exist, from the electoral register goes against the very principles of representation, and that for a Government to knowingly under-represent citizens who register for elections goes against their interests as well as ours in this House? Does she also agree that those citizens who are late to register are more likely to be transient and poor, and that they are often the most in need of representation?
The figure does not include overseas voters. They are not part of the Bill. That issue is for a different debate at a later time.
We have seen anti-establishment politics at its worst in the recent US elections, when Donald Trump courted voters by portraying himself as the anti-establishment candidate and by saying the most outrageous things he could think of, irrespective of the offence he caused. We have also seen it here, with the emergence of far-right parties. Many of us saw and heard it during and following the referendum, both on the doorsteps and on social media. Ugly things were said about refugees, immigrants, migrants and pretty much anyone who is not like us.
Huge swathes of people living in both towns and cities have lost confidence in the parliamentary system. They feel that they have nothing vested in it and nothing to gain or to lose. We hear it all the time on the doorstep: “You’re all the same. You’re all in it for what you can get out of it.” Instead of ensuring that we reach out, engage with and listen to people when they do bother to register to vote, this Government are refusing to count them or to give them a voice, so that they have an excuse to cut the number of MPs, thereby making constituencies bigger and MPs more remote from their constituents. In doing so, they endanger what is best and unique about our parliamentary system. However people talk about MPs in general—however cynical they are—we all know that they view their MP as different.
That is a good point, which I will come on to.
Under the current proposals, my constituency of North West Durham will become West Durham and Teesdale. It is already a large rural constituency, but it will become huge. It will stretch from the banks of the Tyne to the banks of the Tees, taking in all manner of the vastly different communities in between, and there will be one MP—thankfully not me—who will cover all that, provide the unique and valued MP-constituency link, and try to make that link real for all those people in all those communities. That will be replicated throughout the country if the changes go ahead.
My constituency is already huge. It will become unmanageable for the person who takes over from me. If someone from the north of my constituency wanted to see me at a surgery in the south, given that lines of communication go from east to west in that part of the country, it would take them all day on public transport and they would need an overnight stay. That cannot be acceptable.
The point about geography is critical in Cumbria, where my constituency is. Under the proposals, we will end up with the largest constituency in England, Penrith and Solway. I have Solway at the moment, and my constituents are deeply worried, because they think they will lose representation. Cumbria is only not large in square mileage, but has mountains, lakes and difficult weather. A lot of the time, we cannot get from one part of it to another, and people on the Solway would lose their representation.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), in Northern Ireland the proposals will sever political stability? There is a need for special consideration for Northern Ireland and for proper recognition of social, economic and geographical cohesion, which does not exist in the new proposals.
The hon. Lady and I share something similar in our constituencies. My constituency stretches from the banks of the Tamar to the banks of the River Fowey. The difference, however, is that because my constituents would not find it possible to travel from one end of the constituency to another by public transport, I go to them, which I consider to be my job as a Member of Parliament.
On size, is the hon. Lady aware that the Boundary Commission for Scotland has proposed the notion that my constituency will be incorporated into a larger constituency called Highland North, covering 13,000 sq km, the same size as Northern Ireland? No one would seriously suggest that Northern Ireland should be covered by one MP, but that is what the proposals for Scotland suggest.
The hon. Gentleman makes the case clearly.
The proposed system not only seeks to reduce the number of MPs, thereby making them more remote from their electorate, and to cut out 2 million registered voters, thereby giving them no vote, but seeks to create constituencies of equal size, irrespective of what that does to communities, and to include a review of the boundaries every five years, which will ensure that practically every constituency will change every five years. We will weaken MP accountability to our constituency and voters, because every five years the voters will be different people. In a sense, that will strengthen MPs’ accountability to their party, on whom they rely to be reselected, and will weaken their accountability to our constituents.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s detailed speech. The Boundary Commission proposals for Stoke-on-Trent will have two effects, certainly as far as my constituency is concerned. First, a number of my constituents who live within the city of Stoke-on-Trent will find themselves represented in the county—in the rural area—which will break their existing link with the city. They will still live in and pay rates to the city, but they will find themselves represented by an MP out of the city. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, my constituents and others who live in the city are represented by three MPs, who happen to be Labour but could be anyone in future. That will be downgraded to only two. What message does that send to the people of Stoke-on-Trent?
That exemplifies how nonsensical the system will be. If we move ahead with the proposals, we run the risk of making MPs more accountable to their party, on whom they depend to be reselected, and less accountable to their constituents, who may well not be their constituents five years from now. I cannot believe that any of us want that. Like many in the House, I pride myself on serving every person in my constituency, whether they voted for me or not, whether they voted or not, and whether they have lived in the constituency for five minutes or five years.
As a fellow north-easterner and as someone who worked in Sunderland, my hon. Friend knows Sunderland well. Under the proposals, Sunderland will be split between six constituencies—parts of six, from the current three—and my fabulous constituency will be split into three. As a Member who has served three terms and has had two seats already, if I was by some miracle lucky enough to retain a seat next time around, I would have had three constituencies in four terms, which must be a record.
I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider standing again for this House, because it deserves Members of her high calibre. Are we not getting to the crux of the debate? It is not really about geography, the electorate, the size of the House or even the cost of politics; it is a continuation of this Conservative Government’s gerrymandering of the constitution. They have gagged charities, they have neutered trade unions and now they want to gerrymander boundaries for their own reasons.
The anger goes beyond political parties. In my constituency, the nonsense of putting two wards from Sheffield South East in with wards from Rother Valley will create a constituency where we cannot drive from one side of it to the other without going through a second constituency. Indeed, one of the roads goes through a third council area and another region. As a result, 2,500 local people have already signed a petition against the proposal, because they see a constituency being created with no community of interest at all involved in that creation.
That is what we are hearing in the debate today—cities being split, communities being split, and that is not good for our democracy.
We in Britain pride ourselves on being the home of democracy. However, can we really talk about democracy when we have an antiquated system in which the larger House in Parliament is made up of people who are unelected? The unelected House is large and growing, and can be enlarged further at the political will of a retiring Prime Minister.
I have huge respect for the other place, where sensible decisions are often made and where many bring their lifelong experience to bear, but we cannot get away from the fact that it is unelected, significantly bigger than the elected House and subject to patronage. Is that what we mean by democracy in the 21st century? If we are the mother of Parliaments, I respectfully suggest that many of the children of this mother of Parliaments have outgrown us and are now showing how it is done.
On community connections and synergies, does the hon. Lady accept that in the time from when the drafts of the last boundary review proposals were produced to when the final proposal was made by the Boundary Commission for England, two thirds of the seats were changed in response to the concerns that were raised?
The initial proposals were never implemented, so the constituencies remained the same.
The Government are even trying to sell us the idea that the proposed boundary changes are an attempt to save the taxpayer money. Granted that removing 50 MPs will save some money; the total amount is questionable but reasonably estimated to be in the region of £12 million. At the same time, the Government have massively increased the unelected House at a cost of £46 million. Whatever the Government say, this is not about saving money for the taxpayer or cutting the cost of politics.
We are in the process of leaving the European Union, so each and every one of us will no longer have access to a Member of the European Parliament. In counties such as mine, local government reform has created more and more unitary authorities. The reforms have removed our district councils and replaced them with, in some cases, very large unitary authorities, which can appear remote from people’s lives. I and my constituents used to have access to a parish council, district councillors, county councillors, an MP and MEPs. Some may say that that was too many representatives, but in the space of nine years, we have in effect lost two layers of representation. I believe that democracy is not served in this country by further reducing our representation.
It is blindingly obvious that the Government are not intent on reducing the cost of democracy. If the purpose of reducing the number of MPs is to save money, why is the number of unelected Lords constantly being increased at a cost that far outweighs the savings from reducing the number of MPs? Actions speak louder than words, and no matter how much the Government spin their actions, their attempt to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, while at the same time massively increasing the number and the costs of the House of Lords, should be seen for what it is—a poor attempt at trying to hold on to power for as long as possible at the expense of our democracy.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Lady’s points about the House of Lords. I am hugely in favour of House of Lords reform, which was in the Conservative party manifesto. During the last Parliament, I voted for House of Lords reform, unlike many Opposition Members. May I gently point out, however, that the cost of the House of Lords has fallen by 14% since 2010? Its operating costs were £112 million in 2009-10, as opposed to £96 million in 2015-16.
The Lord Speaker of the House of Lords has described this situation—the Government seeking to reduce the number of MPs, while the size the House of Lords remains the same or grows—as “untenable”. If the House of Lords is saying that something needs to be done about the size of its membership, why are we—or rather, the Government—reluctant to listen?
I believe that the time has come for us to have a proper, inclusive and open review of our system of democracy. The alternative may be that fewer and fewer people vote, as well as the further disengagement of large parts of our country from the democratic purpose, the rise of parties far less interested than we are in democracy and the threat that parts of our communities will see the state as illegitimate.
I want us to go forward, strengthening and reviewing our democratic processes as we go. My Bill seeks to retain 650 MPs, which will continue our unique and much admired link between the MP and the constituency. I want to ensure that we engage more and more of the potential electorate, and the first step is to include the 2 million people who have registered to vote since 2015 but are not counted in the current boundary review. Through the Bill, I want to give those 2 million people a voice.
I agree that MPs should broadly represent an equal number of voters, but my Bill seeks to safeguard communities and to avoid some of the stupidities that a 5% margin throws up. I therefore propose that there should be a margin of 10%. I also propose that we should review constituency boundaries every 10 years, not every five years, which will strengthen the accountability of MPs to their constituency, not weaken it.
The democracy we have is precious. It was hard fought for and hard won over many centuries. Arguably, we have done everything wrong along the way—we have had a civil war and civil unrest; we have seen many injustices and abuses; we even cut off the head of a king—but over the centuries we have inched our way towards the democracy we have now. We need to appreciate that our democracy is both precious and fragile, and we cannot allow one party or one Government to endanger what we have for the purposes of narrow party interest, irrespective of which party it is.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on bringing the Bill before the House and on giving us an opportunity to discuss the issue.
Mr Speaker, you may feel, as I do, a slight sense of déjà vu. I declare an interest as the Minister in the coalition Government who, during the last Parliament, took through the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. I very much look forward to the speech of my successor but a few, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. I will start with a bit of the context, but I will not try your patience by going on for too long with my opening remarks. I listened carefully to the arguments of the hon. Member for North West Durham, and I will cover most of them and say why I think she is mistaken or going down the wrong path on several of them.
I had not intended to talk about this, but there was an implication in what the hon. Lady and a few other Members said. Before the Great Reform Act of 1832, parliamentary constituencies were thought of by many people as their own property—indeed, they were their property—and they passed the ownership of their constituency down their line. I mention that because the discussion has so far missed an important point. We obviously feel a great sense of pride in our constituencies and we want to represent them and, most importantly, the people who live in them, but they are not ours. Our constituencies do not belong to us. It is the other way around: the people in our constituencies expect us to represent them. When I listened to some MPs talk about the constituencies they currently represent, it sounded as though they owned them. The minute an independent boundary commission proposes to change their constituency, the better to represent the constituents living there, they seem to take that as a personal affront.
That is very much not the point that I and other hon. Members made. One key issue that I raised is that of under-registration, which has particularly affected students, young people, and black and minority ethnic communities across Cardiff and, indeed, many other constituencies across the country. Is it not unacceptable that such people are not allowed to have an MP who properly represents their numbers in the constituencies in which they live?
I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that point, because I do not agree with the premise of his question. Interestingly, during the last Parliament, the coalition Government introduced individual electoral registration. It does two things: it makes sure that people are properly represented; and it improves both the accuracy and the integrity of the electoral register. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for North West Durham about moving into a more modern world, the other thing we of course did was to allow electoral registration online. I am very proud of having started the process, which has been continued by my successors. It is now incredibly easy to register to vote. People can do it online with their national insurance number, which shows that they are eligible for registration, and it is very quick and very easy. A huge number of people have done so. In fact, I think that I am right in saying that the vast majority of those who now register to vote do so online. We have therefore made registration easier.
What the hon. Gentleman forgot to mention about students is that, just because they may not be registered in the town or city where they attend university, that does not mean they are not registered. Students are often registered in more than one location. When I was a student—tragically for me, that was a very long time ago—I was registered both at my parental home in Swindon and at my university accommodation in Oxford. Obviously, I only voted in one of those places in an election, as is lawful, but I was registered in both of them. If I had been registered in only one of them, that would not in any way have meant I was disfranchised. The hon. Gentleman needs to think about that before making such remarks.
Will the right hon. Gentleman address the really important point that boundary changes should be gradual and evolutionary, reflecting the gradual and evolutionary change on the ground, and ought not to be radical or explosive? The kindest thing that can be said about the current boundary proposals is that, when mapping these new constituencies, the mapper appears to have sneezed and made a complete mess of the electoral map.
There are a couple of things I will say in response to the hon. Gentleman. I agree with his central point. Of course I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) that the last Parliament does not bind this one, but the law as currently enacted would reduce the size of the House of Commons. That is the position unless this Parliament chooses to change it by taking forward the Bill.
As I acknowledged at the Dispatch Box, the one-off reduction from 650 to 600 in this boundary change—which would have happened already if it were not for the stitch-up by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in the other place that pushed it out for five years—means that there will be a significant amount of change. I will say a little more about this later, but part of the reason why I support boundary changes every five years is that it is better to have more frequent but smaller changes, to take account of changes in electorate, rather than what has happened over time—namely, very infrequent boundary changes that, because there has been significant movement in the electorate, are very significant. More frequent but smaller boundary changes are preferable. That is what the current position will bring into force.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the past 20 to 25 years my own constituency has been a prime illustration of what he is saying? The constituency of South East Cornwall used to be known as Bodmin; it does not even contain the town of Bodmin now. We see a lot of changes. I do not believe that I should have taken ownership of the town of Bodmin when the rest of south-east Cornwall was expanding.
Let me just make this one point, then I will give way to the fabulous array of choices I have in front of me.
It is worth standing back for a moment and asking ourselves why we have boundary changes and why we in this country have chosen, unlike other countries, to have an independent process for them. I was thinking about how one could illustrate that in a memorable way. In the spirit of the cross-party unity that we particularly like to display on Fridays, I thought about who could illustrate this point very well. A few weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions, the Leader of the Opposition referred to consulting great philosophers. He gave that some thought and the only one he could come up with was Baldrick, who had a cunning plan. That is relevant to this subject because you will remember, Mr Speaker—I will dilate on this only very briefly—an excellent episode of “Blackadder” about rotten boroughs and what used to happen before we had regular boundary changes. It featured an incumbent MP, Sir Talbot Buxomly, who was the Member of Parliament for Dunny-on-the-Wold. He died while visiting the Prince Regent, and Blackadder realised that Buxomly represented a rotten borough. It was a tiny plot of land, with
“three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named ‘Colin’, and a small hen in its late forties.”
There was only one voter. Blackadder chose to install Baldrick as the new MP, and bought the property to be the only voter. He amazingly cast all 16,472 of his votes for Baldrick, while also being returning officer and election agent. That was humour, but it illustrated a point: there were parliamentary constituencies very like that before we had boundary changes, rules for the distribution of seats and independent boundary commissions. That is why this subject is very important.
Can we come back to reality here? The situation in the highlands of Scotland is that three MPs will represent a land mass of 33,000 sq km—40% of the landmass of Scotland but less than 5% of MPs. How can that possibly offer democracy to the people of the highlands and islands of this country?
Let me finish my point. I have not even started my argument and hon. and learned Lady is intervening. The job of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is to represent the people who live in his constituency, as I represent those who live in mine, not to represent the spaces in his constituency. It is the people who matter. It is entirely true that his constituency is not as densely populated as some parts of the United Kingdom. That is reflected in the existing legislation—we chose to reflect the fact that there are four islands or groups of islands represented in the House, and the House accepted the argument that they needed special arrangements. Two of those are in Scotland. Another is the Isle of Wight, and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) made a very powerful argument that was taken up at the other end of the building.
Well, I have not finished my response to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. When I have, I will of course give way.
We made that provision because there were powerful arguments from the late Charles Kennedy, who represented Ross, Skye and Lochaber before the hon. Gentleman, about the geographical size of constituencies. We therefore made provision for a maximum geographical size of constituency in the legislation, so that the boundary commissioners would not have constituencies that were too large. That limit in the legislation deals with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that constituencies in the north-west of Scotland such as Ross, Skye and Lochaber have people living in the spaces and that those populations are really quite spread out as a result of something that happened in history called the clearances, whereby many people were cleared off their land—some to the coast, some furth of Scotland—and small pockets were left on the land? To represent his constituents properly, my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has to cover those spaces, which are very wide and disparate, have sea in between them and quite often suffer, unfortunately, from inclement weather. Has the right hon. Gentleman taken that into account?
I have. But things have moved on. There are modern communication mechanisms. Members of Parliament for constituencies that are spread out and require Members to travel more than would be required in urban seats can claim more money for that travel through the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; that is why, unsurprisingly, we see MPs with more rural and far-flung constituencies claiming more money. It is perfectly reasonable for them to do so, and that budget is unlimited, to reflect the fact that those MPs will have greater travel challenges in representing their constituents than MPs in more compact constituencies.
The fact is that we represent the people who live in constituencies. If we followed the hon. and learned Lady’s argument to its logical conclusion, we would end up with massive disparities in constituencies, as we have today; the votes of some electors in very urban constituencies are worth far less than those of electors in other parts of the United Kingdom. I do not think that that is fair or reasonable to those voters.
The issue of democratic representation is crucial. My constituency office is in Dingwall. It is 130 miles away from where I live. On average, seven electors come into that office per day. They all come from the area around Dingwall. How on earth are the people in Ross, Skye and Lochaber to get effective representation when they live too far away from their constituency office? It is not right.
I come back to the point that we have to focus on—the central argument, which I do not think the hon. Member for North West Durham focused on—is that the votes of our constituents should carry equal weight in this House. If we do not have seats of broadly equal size, some constituents are, in effect, being disfranchised and do not have the same voice in this House.
On the democratic deficit, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill risks us fighting the next election on the old boundaries, so seats such as mine, which has an electorate of just 60,000, would remain small and the democratic deficit would still not be properly addressed?
My hon. Friend is spot on. If we do not implement in time for the next election the boundary changes currently in train, the next election will be fought on constituency boundaries set according to an electoral register that is 20 years out of date. I will come to the point—on the face of it, it is a perfectly sensible one—that the hon. Member for North West Durham made about the new registrations for the referendum, but if hon. Members think that there is problem with people who have registered in the past year, I would simply point out that nearly 20 years’ worth of electors are currently missing from the registers used for parliamentary constituencies.
I will make a little more progress, because I think Mr Speaker would want me to do so.
The first big change in the redistribution of seats was the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885. Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to know that I will mention it only tangentially, and for one reason. The Minister who steered the Act through this House was the then President of the Local Government Board, the hon. Member for Chelsea, Sir Charles Dilke. You might not be aware, Mr Speaker, but Sir Charles Dilke had some personal issues—to put it delicately—and then ceased to be the Member for Chelsea. He then had the enormous good fortune to become the Member for the Forest of Dean, my constituency.
Sir Charles was, in some senses, more successful than me. First, in those days, constituencies apparently wrote to prospective Members inviting them to become Members of Parliament without some tough selection battle against others competing for the seat. You might remember, Mr Speaker, from my maiden speech, that Sir Charles Dilke, after getting elected and then re-elected, was fortunate, the third time he sought election, in being elected unopposed. I said in my maiden speech that that was a record worthy of emulation. I am afraid that I completely failed to be elected unopposed at the 2015 general election, but fortunately for me, despite my being opposed, I was indeed elected.
Order. I am sorry to advise the right hon. Gentleman that I do not have a verbatim recall of his maiden speech. It might greatly sadden him, but it has the advantage of being true. I gently say to him that I agreed to call him early in the debate because I was advised that he was suffering from a heavy cold and sore throat and was keen to speak sooner rather than later. From that, I deduced that he would not wish to exacerbate his malady by speaking at inordinate length. I feel confident both because of that and because at least 14 other Members wish to catch the eye of the Chair that before very long he might approach his peroration.
That is very thoughtful of you, Mr Speaker, although I am surprised, knowing of your enormous powers of recall, that you do not have a verbatim account of my maiden speech in your head, but then, sadly, we were not blessed in 2005 with having you in the Chair; otherwise, I am sure that you would remember it.
As I said, I only wanted to spend a short time on the preamble to my speech, although I was probably a little indulgent in taking interventions. I will deal specifically now with the points that the hon. Member for North West Durham made in her speech. First, she talked about gerrymandering, which the Leader of the Opposition has also talked about and which comes from the United States of America. Of course, there is a massive difference between us and the US. In most states of the US, boundaries are not drawn by independent boundary commissions, as they are here; they are drawn by the elected representatives, who are obviously partisan. Here, we are fortunate to have boundary commissions, all four of which, Mr Speaker, you chair in an ex officio capacity, although you do not take part in their deliberations. The four deputy chairs, effectively the operational heads, are judges, so they are, of course, beyond question in their political independence. In the United States, however, gerrymandering is a problem.
Taking your advice, Mr Speaker, I will not go on at length, but, for those who are interested and want to follow this issue at length, I refer to an interesting article in the Washington Post on 15 May 2014. Obviously, in the House we are not allowed to introduce written material or pictures, but the article referred to three districts, and the descriptions of them gave a sense of the interesting boundaries in America. Maryland’s 3rd is called the “Praying Mantis”; Pennsylvania’s 7th is called “Goofy kicking Donald Duck”; and Texas’s 35th is called the “UpsideDown Elephant”. The point is that we do not have gerrymandering in this country; we have independent boundary commissions following clear rules set out by Parliament, and they are specifically not allowed to take into account the partisan or party political effect of their decisions. I wanted to knock that argument on its head straightaway.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the United States, because the kernel of this idea of the Cameron Government came from an organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has talked about making it harder for voters in the US to register to vote and been at the forefront of things such as re-districting. It does not take a genius to see that a lot of the things that the Cameron Government proposed came right from its playbook.
I am not sure what role the right hon. Gentleman played in drawing up the 2010 Conservative manifesto, but the boundaries legislation, as well as the attacks on trade unions and some of the other right-wing policies that came forward, such as stopping charities lobbying, came right from that playbook. I am sure he was not involved in that; he was just the poor Minister who had to implement it.
I certainly was not “the poor Minister”. I hugely enjoyed my role as Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform. I got to spend an enormous amount of time in the Chamber, with Mr Speaker frequently in the Chair, although I am not sure he enjoyed listening to the debates as much as I enjoyed speaking in them. I do not, however, recognise the origins that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
The hon. Member for North West Durham made a serious point about the accusations made about people who registered ahead of the EU referendum. A thorough piece of work has been done by a gentleman called Matt Singh, who works for an organisation called Number Cruncher Politics, an independent organisation that has looked at this issue very carefully. For this to be an issue, the 2 million extra voters would have to be unevenly distributed across the UK. If in some areas there had been a much bigger rise in the number of electors than in others, that would of course affect the distribution of the 600 seats set out in the legislation.
Interestingly, Mr Singh, in his very thorough analysis of the 2 million increase, wrote:
“The data does not support the suggestion that using the later version of the register”,
as the hon. Lady proposes doing,
“would materially alter the distribution of seats. Instead it points to a very even distribution of the 2 million newly-registered voters between”
currently held Labour and Conservative seats. If we added all the 2 million, of course we would increase the size of the register, but because the extra voters are evenly distributed across the country, we would not significantly change the distribution of constituencies. So I think that is a bit of a red herring.
As I draw towards the conclusion of my remarks, as you wanted me to, Mr Speaker, let me deal with the Bill.
When it comes to missing voters resulting from the European referendum, the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis has been challenged by many people. I want to make that point first. My second point is about gerrymandering. The previous Government passed a piece of legislation and this Government have brought forward the date of individual electoral registration. The result, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, is to exclude 1.8 million people from the electoral register. If that is not gerrymandering, what is?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s contention. The fact is, of course, that individual electoral registration did two things: it made sure that the registers were more complete; and it made them more accurate. Many of the names that the hon. Gentleman talks about who are no longer on the electoral register were not, of course, real people or people then registered at those addresses. My understanding—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—is that before anybody was removed from the register, they would have been written to on a large number of occasions, and there would have been visits and canvassing going on at the individual properties. People were removed from the register either because they no longer lived at those addresses or because they had been registered more than once. The register is more accurate. What the hon. Gentleman is really arguing for is having an extra 1.8 million false entries on the electoral registers, which would make the system less fair rather than fairer.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, let me start to deal with the Bill, as I said I would. I shall deal specifically with the proposals set out by the hon. Member for North West Durham, and I want to make a bit of progress before giving way to my hon. Friend.
The first point raised by the hon. Member for North West Durham was about the number of MPs, and I think she completely failed to answer my question, which was to what question was the answer 50 more Members of Parliament. She did not tackle the cost of her proposals. The current law says that the number of MPs will fall from 650 to 600. Increasing that number by 50 would come at an estimated cost—I think she alluded to this in her remarks—of about £10 million to £12 million a year. That means about £60 million across the Parliament. I heard no proposals from the hon. Lady about how that was to be paid for or any reason why the proposal was a good one at all.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The figure is based on how much MPs claim at the moment and how much we are paid in salary. What my hon. Friend needs to remember is that there is currently a massive disparity between MPs in Welsh constituencies, for example, who have fewer than 50,000 electors, and others. Those Welsh Members are already in a part of the United Kingdom where a huge amount of domestic policy areas are dealt with not by them at all, but by Members of the Welsh Assembly. They get the same level of support as my hon. Friend, yet he has to serve a much larger constituency in terms of electors—and he serves them very diligently indeed. In England, there is not a devolved Administration, so English MPs have to cover the full range of domestic policy areas. I think it would be perfectly possible to deal with the fewer number of MPs without seeing a significant increase in the expenses budget for each of us. Those MPs who currently have very small constituencies will have to deal with no more constituents than many of us already have to deal with.
Let me first deal with the seemingly reasonable points about the House of Lords made by the hon. Member for North West Durham. She made a couple of points. First—big tick here—I was, of course, the Minister responsible in the last Parliament for securing a much smaller, democratically elected and less costly House of Lords. I received a great deal of support, but not from Labour Members. If Labour Members had given their support to the programme motion that we would have brought forward, we would have been able to reform the House of Lords and have a democratically elected Chamber. That did not take place.
We cannot allow this myth to carry on. The Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill got the biggest majority of that Parliament. The fact is that the Government did not move the programme motion, so we do not know what would have happened. It should absolutely not have been programmed, as it was a constitutional Bill that should have been gone through line by line. Any parliamentarian such as my great right hon. Friend should have supported that.
I will answer my hon. Friend’s question, but not at length, as I do not want to try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend is right that Second Reading was well supported, but we had clear indications that the programme motion would not have been supported by Opposition Members, so the Government—quite rightly, in view of all the other challenges we faced—were not prepared to risk other legislation not getting through Parliament as a result. We were not able to make progress.
What the hon. Member for North West Durham needs to recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) said, is that the cost of the House of Lords has reduced since 2010—it has fallen, not increased. Since last year’s general election, there has been a net change in the size of the House of Lords of only 14 peers. What the hon. Lady forgets is that Members of the House of Lords are now able to retire and that a disproportionate number of those retiring are Conservative peers. It is true that there was a significant increase in the 2010 Parliament, but that was, of course, under a coalition Government, and a significant number of the new peers were Liberal Democrats.
It is about costs. I can remember standing at the Dispatch Box and setting out how much money we would save by reducing the number of MPs. If the hon. Lady remembers, this was part of reducing the cost of politics more generally. That is why, for example, in the last Parliament, Ministers had a pay freeze and Members in this place had their pay frozen for a significant period of time. It was during those difficult years when the economy and public finances were challenged. Reducing the cost of politics was not the only reason, however, because the primary reason for the boundary changes and for using a more up-to-date register was to have more equal votes and more equal-sized constituencies so that our constituents could be more fairly represented in this House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there would be a more immediate cost if the Bill were passed of abandoning the process at the point at which it has currently reached? We have already had 500 hours of public hearings, with the involvement of 20 members of staff, 21 assistant commissioners and 14 videographers. There have been 36 public hearings across England, the last of which are taking place today. The cost of scrapping all that and redrawing the boundaries on the basis of this completely new proposal would, even if it could get through in time, surely run into many millions of pounds.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is perhaps the mirror of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) in his very perceptive question. I may be being unfair to the hon. Member for North West Durham—if I am, I am sure she will put me straight—but I do not think she answered my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Under clause 2(4), legislation would be changed, so that instead of using the registers published on 1 December 2015, the boundary commissioners, while still reporting on the same target date of 1 October 2018, would have to use
“registers…published in or after 2017.”
I assume that the hon. Lady has in mind the register that would be published on 1 December 2017, but that does not give the boundary commissions much time to carry out a boundary review.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We were informed by Mr Speaker earlier that the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) was called early because he apparently had a cold. May I suggest that if he is suffering—I am sure that he has the good will of the House if that is the case—it might benefit the rest of us if he went away and took his medication? If he does not genuinely have a cold, has he brought this House into disrepute by duping Mr Speaker?
That was obviously not a point of order, but I, too, heard Mr Speaker say to the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would come to the end of his speech quite rapidly. A great many other Members wish to speak. I appreciate how learned the right hon. Gentleman is and how personally involved in this issue he was, but I think that everyone would be very grateful if he brought his remarks to a conclusion.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Mr Speaker made very clear that the right hon. Gentleman had asked to be called early because, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), he was suffering from a bad cold. Either that was not the case, or the right hon. Gentleman has discovered some miracle cure. If he has, could he share it with us?
Before my right hon. Friend reaches the end of his introductory remarks, may I ask whether he agrees that it would help us to assess the weight of Members’ contributions if, at the outset, they informed the House of the current size of their electorates and whether or not they were facing a boundary change?
That is a good point. There are dramatic differences among the numbers of constituents we all represent, with the same level of resources—and, as I said earlier, a further factor that was not reflected in the Act is that Ministers and Members of the House of Commons are not really responsible for much of the domestic legislation in parts of the United Kingdom where government has been devolved, because that is taken care of by the devolved Administrations.
Let me finally deal with the central point made by the hon. Lady. She said—and I have no reason to doubt her integrity in this regard—that she wanted to enable the boundary commissioners to conduct the review and to hit the target date of 2018 so that we could have new constituencies, according to her rules, before the 2020 election. Let us assume that the commissioners will use the December 2017 registers, and let us accept the argument—advanced very clearly by the hon. Lady and a number of other Members—that the issue is of interest to our constituents, and that the public hearings and public consultation for which the existing legislation provides will therefore take place, given that the hon. Lady does not wish to alter those provisions. That process will take 24 weeks. Effectively, the hon. Lady is giving the boundary commissioners 17 weeks in which to draw up initial proposals from the 2017 registers, engage in the consultation, listen to all the responses, come up with revised proposals, run another set of consultations, listen to any proposals for change in those, and then present final proposals in a matter of a few weeks. I do not think that that is credible. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has had any discussions with the four boundary commissions about whether it is in any way doable, but I do not think it is.
I served as the Minister responsible for these matters. I looked into the resourcing of boundary commissions, and had conversations with their secretariats about the work that was involved. I think that what is really at work here is a set of changes that would, in practice—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch put his finger on it—make a boundary review before the next general election impossible. This is a repetition of what the Labour party, along with the Liberal Democrats, did in the last Parliament. The aim is to push things out so that we can have a general election in 2020 based on boundaries that are 20 years out of date, on the basis of registers that do not effectively include people over the last two decades. I think that that would be an outrage.
I hope that the Bill is not given a Second Reading, but if it is, we shall want to amend many parts of this wide-ranging legislation in Committee to ensure that it does not make progress in its current form. If it were to do so, we would be ensuring that voters were not equally represented and their voices were not equally heard. I think that this is a very retrograde and bad Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on introducing the Bill. She referred to this place as the mother of Parliaments. In the past that would be said with pride, but we can no longer claim to other countries, particularly those with newly minted democracies, that we are the example to be followed. Now, sadly, the mother of Parliaments is a dissolute, degraded hag. There are major weaknesses in our arrangements, and the public are losing confidence in them. The number of constituencies is a matter of some importance, but it has nothing to do with the main doubts, the main injustices, and the main unfairnesses in our system.
We see in America a sense of outrage that the person who won the largest number of votes lost the election because of the distortions of the electoral college, but we have an extraordinary system here. When the ambition should be to make every vote count and be of equal value, elections are decided by a tiny number of people, namely the swing voters in marginal constituencies. How people vote in Blaenau Gwent or Eastbourne does not matter; what matter are the votes in the constituencies where changes take place.
I want to be brief, and I want to make this point, because it has not been made so far.
The Government’s proposal will make things worse. According to an analysis by the Electoral Reform Society, reducing the number of MPs will reduce the number of marginal constituencies, and will make the House less representative than it is now.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is really going on here is that the Executive are reducing the House’s ability to hold them to account, while at the same time creating extra peers so that they can get their own way? That cannot be right.
My hon. Friend refers to the crisis of scrutiny in this place. That is another major scandal, although one glorious exception is the meeting of one Committee of the House which is going to be made into a musical.
We should also remember that the Government’s proposal is a pre-Brexit proposal. There will be a huge amount of extra work to be done here. How can it make any sense to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in those circumstances? The Government’s proposal will make Parliament less representative, and it will no longer be a model for those in other countries. The Brexit proposal will impose a huge burden of legislation on the House.
When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the electorate will have 73 fewer elected parliamentarians to represent their interests, and if the number of Members here is reduced as well, a shocking 57% of our lawmakers will be unelected peers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that reform needs to happen next door before any further changes are made in this place?
A range of reforms must be made. We are losing the Members of the European Parliament, and we have a crisis in Wales. The Welsh Assembly has only 60 members and their work has trebled, but it is impossible to argue in isolation for more Assembly Members, although virtually every member of the ruling party is a Minister, a deputy Minister, or the Chair of a Committee. The problems that exist in many areas can be dealt with only by a comprehensive and balanced Bill that takes account of the need for more Members of the Welsh Assembly and the need for fewer peers, and that will require a constitutional convention involving give and take and balanced decision-making. But at the moment we have the extraordinary situation of the Executive becoming immensely more powerful. That is bad government as far as scrutiny is concerned.
In the 1920s, 10% of the governing party was on the Government payroll vote. Under the Government’s current proposals to reduce the number of MPs, the Electoral Reform Society says that up to 43% of Government Members will have their mouths bandaged by the discipline of their party, through which they are inhibited from taking a full part in the scrutiny of matters considered by the House. That is a retrograde step.
I urge the House to look at the problems before us. Wales will be particularly hard hit by this. My constituency—my city—offers an excellent example of what will happen and the damage that will be done. There are two marginal seats now; one was won by a Conservative in the past. Those two seats will be merged into one and it will become not a marginal seat, but a rock-solid safe Labour seat, which will be to the advantage of the successor MPs.
The effect is similar throughout the country; this is a diminution in the value of our democracy. People are unhappy that they are not being represented, and the only way we can make sure votes count is with a proportional representation element. Otherwise, politics will be distorted, as always, by the system we have inherited.
If the Government are serious about reforming democracy, they should of course take the boundaries into consideration. The boundaries are an element of the reforms that are needed, but only a relatively small one. In the last Parliament we had a Committee on constitutional reform that produced a long document urging overall reform. At the moment the public are right to be cynical, but the only reform the Government are interested in is the one that will give them maximum political advantage. This is a party political stunt by them, ignoring the problems of the House and the ludicrous situation in the House of Lords where it is still possible to buy a place in our legislature by giving a big enough contribution to a major party. They are ignoring that scandal. Some 261 peers were added by David Cameron, which is outrageous. What has that done to the cost of democracy? The other place does great work in scrutinising this House, but it is hopelessly illogical that its membership is larger than that of this House, which has the role of creating legislation and scrutinising it. Nothing has been done about that; nothing has come from the Government, but that is essential.
We need a constitutional convention; we need root-and-branch reform. We are losing public confidence in our democracy, and rightly so. We have institutions here for discipline, which are very permissive. We also have an Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is totally futile and has no powers. It is not a watchdog; it is a pussycat without teeth or claws.
There is rising resentment and cynicism among the public about the level of our democracy. That ends up in an obscenity like Trump taking over. We must defend our democracy and the quality of our democracy. That is crucial, and we do not do it by a tiny move by one party to gain political advantage for itself. We ought to come together as representatives and seize the opportunity for a major, massive, overhaul reform.
It is a great honour and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn); I spent 13 years living in his constituency trying to get rid of him with absolutely no success whatsoever. While we hardly agree on anything, he is undoubtedly a leading parliamentarian, and I am pleased, in the best possible sense, that he is now back on the Back Benches and not constrained by being on the Labour Front Bench.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on choosing this most important subject to be debated on one of the 13 private Member’s Bill days we have in this House, and congratulate all the Members who have made the effort to attend today. I hope that we will get a Division on this Bill and the House will decide one way or the other.
I also congratulate the hon. Lady on the tone in which she introduced the Bill. I thought it was the right tone. There are party political issues, as the hon. Member for Newport West said, and I will touch on them, but the hon. Lady got to the heart of the matter: this is about Parliament and scrutiny. I did spend a brief moment in her constituency during the EU referendum campaign, and it was a really pleasant constituency. I met people from many different parties, and it is a great shame from her constituency point of view that she has decided not to stand again.
I am also following another parliamentarian of great skill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who I thought when he first came to this House was definitely destined to become a great parliamentarian, which he is. He has, unfortunately, been contaminated by becoming a Government Minister, but now he is back, although he has not quite lost that contamination. In a couple of years, he will be back supporting Parliament and not worrying about the Executive.
I thought I would look back to how this all started. This was part of a backroom deal done when the coalition came to power. The Liberal Democrats wanted a vote on changing the parliamentary system, and the Conservative party wanted to equalise the seats, not because it really believed that was fair—although it is fair and the right thing to do—but because it was thought it would give the Conservatives more seats. That is the truth of the matter. To put the other side of the coin, I should say that there are many sitting on the Opposition Benches who are interested in this for reasons of self-interest, too. But I bet most of the Members in the House today are here for the fundamental issue of Parliament versus Government.
Sadly, I cannot see a single Liberal Democrat in the House today, including the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), who—I am sorry to have to correct my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—was the Minister who introduced the Second Reading of the Bill that started all this. I thought it would be interesting to see how the hon. Member for North West Durham voted on Second Reading of that Bill, which took place on 6 September 2010. She voted against the proposals. I then thought I would check who else voted against the proposals. There was the then Member for Northampton South and my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Sir William Cash), for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner). So the Division was not entirely along party lines. There were people who were prepared to vote against, including, to their great credit, many from the Democratic Unionist party.
This issue goes back, therefore, to something the hon. Member for Newport West touched upon: the balance between the Executive and Parliament. Since what we might loosely call the expenses scandal, Parliament has been getting more powers back. We have had a Speaker who has put Parliament first and championed it, we have had Select Committees, and we have had other movements in that direction, including the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee. All the moves have been to take power away from the Executive and give it to Parliament. This move, however, completely reverses that trend.
I am all in favour of broadly equal-sized seats. That is fair, within a threshold, and I would be happy for the Committee scrutinising this Bill to look at that issue. The hon. Member for Newport West made the point that there were exceptions for certain geographical areas. The previous proposals referred to the Isle of Wight and to what I call the Western Isles, which had two constituencies. I think that that makes sense, and we should consider whether that could be expanded for certain constituencies—but I want to get back to the Executive.
The Electoral Reform Society has said that if there were a general election under the proposed new arrangements and the same proportion of MPs were to be elected as there are now, 43% of Conservative MPs would be on the payroll. That cannot possibly be right. We should not all be here to be in government. There are two equal roles for an MP, one of which is to scrutinise Bills that go through this House. Ever since the Blair years, the Bills that have come to this House have been programmed. Sometimes we do not even debate certain clauses of a Bill, and it is actually the other place that does the proper scrutiny. The elected Members here should have the time to carry out that scrutiny.
My hon. Friend has reminded us of that previous debate. Does he agree that one of the reasons that some of us could not support the Government on that occasion was that they would not answer the straight question as to whether there would be a pro rata reduction in the size of the Executive if there were a reduction in the number of MPs. The Government would not answer that, saying that it was premature to ask the question.
I remember my hon. Friend making that point, with which I entirely agreed.
Things have got worse. We now have more Government Departments, and rightly so, given that we are coming out of the European Union, but I guess that we are also going to have 60% more laws to look at. The argument for reducing the number of MPs seems to be false, especially as we are getting rid of 70-odd MEPs. Also, the Government cannot possibly claim that they are doing this on the basis of cost. We have only to look at how much more money is being spent on Spads. Even during the Blair years it was only a few million, but it is something like £9 million now.
I absolutely agree that as a matter of fairness we should try to equalise the seats, but it is absolutely wrong to reduce the number of MPs and to say that it is being done on the basis of cost. Democracy cannot have a cost put on it. We could of course have a dictator—that would be very cheap! But that is not how it works. In fact, the Government have tended to go a little way towards being a dictatorship. We have had sofa decisions that were not made in Cabinet, and at times it has been really difficult for us in this House to vote on certain issues because of these wretched programme motions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and I spent a lot of our time during the coalition Government voting against programme motions on every occasion, because we had said in our manifesto that that was what we were going to do.
The former Prime Minister made a great speech on Parliamentary sovereignty, and if those proposals had been enforced, MPs would have been encouraged to have a free vote in Committees—although the Government would have been able to change things on Report—and we would have had more open debates without programme motions. That all fell by the wayside, however, because the Government do not really want that to happen; and, to be honest, the shadow Government do not want it either. That is why we have never made progress on that. Hon. Members will remember that the timetable for this House was going to be run by a parliamentary business Committee within two years of us coming into power. I remember talking to the then Chief Whip, who said that that would happen over his dead body, and of course it never did happen. So please do not talk to me about manifesto commitments.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point about the number of Members of Parliament who are on the payroll? Any Government—those whom I support and those whom I oppose—will have not only Members who are on the payroll but Members who want to be on the payroll. Reducing the number of MPs to 600 will inevitably mean fewer independent-minded MPs. Those on both our Front Benches would probably welcome that, but we should not do so. It will be a retrograde step, to say the least, if that happens, but it seems inevitable that it will.
The independent Member is entirely right. Of course, I have to be really careful about what I say today because this could ruin my chances of getting on to the Front Bench. This is a serious and important matter, however. I say gently that there has been a tendency for some Members to come to this House not because they want to be Members of Parliament but because they want to be Ministers. They are not interested in the role of scrutiny. We cannot scrutinise the Government properly if nearly half those on our side are on the payroll. Equally, there will be Opposition Members who are on the “payroll”, even though they do not get paid, unless they are Whips. I have never understood why Whips get paid. We should do away with that, but that is another issue.
The role of scrutiny is really important. I have seen in a recent email that about six Select Committees have vacancies for Conservative Members. If we are having problems filling Select Committees now, what will it be like when there are 50 fewer MPs? Those 50 MPs will not, by their nature, have been in the Executive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, there are absolutely no proposals to reduce the size of the Executive in parallel with the reduction in the number of MPs, although there should be.
I want to deal with the question of timing. In my view, it is more than likely that we will have a general election in May, if not before. Such an election would of course be fought on the current boundaries. The argument that we have to get all these boundary changes in place before 2020 is therefore nonsense. Also, it is not good for a Conservative to say that something is out of date just because it is 20 years old. It might be time to start looking at it if it is 120 years out of date, but not after just 20 years.
I want to speak briefly about something that I feel passionately about, which is the other side of our role. We spend a lot of our time here in Parliament from Monday to Thursday—or Monday to Friday if it is one of the 13 weeks in which the House sits on a Friday—doing exactly what we are doing today. The rest of the time, we are looking after our constituents. I have been looking back, and I can tell the House that in the last 100 years, we have never had fewer than 615 Members of Parliament. Way back then, however, they did not have the constituency workload that we have now. I am not complaining about this; constituency work is a very important part of our role. For example, my Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden campaign generates an enormous amount of work. Most Members hold a surgery every week, and my estimate is that I receive at least 1,000 emails, letters and phone calls a week. We have a limited number of staff to help us with that. That workload is going to increase because we are getting rid of MEPs, and it will also increase if we reduce the number of MPs and make the constituencies larger.
I also want to look at how busy Members of Parliament are and what we have to put up with. I am going to touch on an area that does not get a lot of coverage because we do not like to talk about it, for very sensible reasons—namely, the question of security. I doubt that there is a Member in this House who has not been threatened in the last few years. We have seen the terrible death of a colleague. Other colleagues have been attacked. Only recently, I had death threats. My wife has had death threats. The police have intervened. In my first 11 years in this House, I had to dial 999 once from my constituency office because we were worried. Since the referendum, I have had to call 999 three times. I had someone outside chained to the gates of Parliament who had threatened me. I have had two bullet holes—admittedly from air pellets—put in the windows of my office. I have had my house attacked. I have had the office windows smashed. The vile stuff that we get on Twitter is unbelievable. One of the worst things that happened is that some months ago, there was a picture of my youngest son being executed by Isis. They had actually taken another child’s photo and mocked it up, but the police rang me up to say, “Where is your son?” I said, “Well, I think he’s at school”, and they said, “Well, you’d better check.”
We have to put up with all that. We have to have contact with our constituents, and I would not change any of that. Some of us will be getting enhanced security, and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is doing its best to help with that. We have to deal with that sort of stuff. We have to deal with constituents’ problems. Some of them are just run of the mill things where we can help out. A lot of the stuff we deal with relates to local government. A lot of it is social care issues, which this House really needs to look at from a bipartisan point of view.
Some of the stuff we deal with, however, is exceptionally serious. I can remember at least two occasions where we campaigned on such matters in this House. As a result of one of those, thanks to Gordon Brown, the NHS position on some treatment changed, and a little boy who would have died got a few years extra life out of it. That sort of thing is worth while, but it is time-consuming. The fact is that if we are going to put more work on ourselves because of leaving the EU while at the same time reducing the number of MPs, we will not do the scrutiny properly, and I am afraid that our service to our constituents will go down. I feel passionately about that, and that is why we should not reduce the number of MPs.
I will tell the House about the effect that the current reforms will have in Northamptonshire. Under the scheme, we are entitled to 6.5 MPs. It is proposed that the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) goes all the way up to the borders of Leicester. There is no logic in that and no consistency. My seat will be divided between the constituencies of four different MPs, who will all be representing one council. It does not make any sense. The Boundary Commission proposals move people around willy-nilly. I would have 6,000 coming in from the Corby constituency, 3,000 going into Kettering, another 3,000 going into Northampton South and the northern villages going into the new Daventry seat, which will go up into Leicestershire. If we had the same number of MPs, Northamptonshire would be entitled to seven MPs and we would not have those problems.
I know that there are party political issues about numbers. I urge all Members to put that to one side and to think about Parliament, the Executive and why we are here. I urge everyone to support the Bill. There obviously will be issues that will need to be looked at in Committee. If the hon. Member for North West Durham would like me to, I volunteer to serve on the Committee.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). He made a thoughtful and powerful contribution on the issue. Our politics might not be the same, but he is undoubtedly a champion for parliamentary democracy, and his contribution shone through in that respect.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) for introducing this important Bill. She has done a lot of work on it, and she makes a powerful point that she is not doing so for her own political advantage because, as she told the House, she is not standing at the next election. I place on record that that will be a great loss to the House. She has been a great Member of Parliament for the people of North West Durham in the time that she has been here, particularly with her expertise on education, and she will be missed. If the last act that she performs is to ensure that the House of Commons can hold the Government to account in the future, she will have done a fine job. Opposition Front Benchers fully support her Bill.
The Labour party agrees with the principle of equal-sized seats, which has long been written into law and is the main purpose of the boundary commissions’ work. Before we hear messages to the contrary, we have to remind the House that when Labour was in office, we enacted the fifth boundary review in 2006—it was politically detrimental to the Labour party in terms of seats lost—because we believed then, as we do now, that we have to have boundaries in place that fully reflect the general populace. However, the proposals to redraw our boundaries are unfair. They run the risk of being undemocratic. In many parts of the United Kingdom, they are unacceptable to the local populations.
To see evidence of that, one only needs to consider what the Government have done while espousing the need to cut the costs of an elected Chamber. The nub of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough said, goes beyond how many MPs there should be or who represents where. It is about how democracy in the United Kingdom functions. I remind the Minister that, in opposition, the Conservatives promised to curb the costs of government and limit the number of special advisers, but the number of those advisers has increased by more than 20%, from 79 before the May 2015 election—the most recent election—to 97 in December 2015. That is the highest recorded number for a majority Government ever. In total, this Administration have spent £45 million on wages and severance pay for special advisers during their time in office. It is curious that Government estimates show a saving of £12 million from the cutting of 50 Members of Parliament. That is roughly the same cost to the public purse as the severance packages that the previous Prime Minister handed out to those who left office at the same time as he did.
When the new occupant of 10 Downing Street came into office in July, space had to be found for those special advisers and close friends who had been so callously thrown on to the scrapheap. They might not be experts, but they surely need a chance, too. In September, the bloated Benches of the other place swelled even further when a raft of them were ennobled by the former Prime Minister, taking its membership to more than 800—far greater than the size of this House. That act debased the other place’s responsibility to check and challenge the Government, turning it into little more than an opportunity to honour former party donors and friends.
The hon. Lady knows that the custom and practice is that when the Government increase the number of lords, other parties also have that opportunity. However—this relates to my next point—the noble Lady that the hon. Lady references is an active Member of the House of Lords and of the Labour Front-Bench team. Many Members of the other place do not make an active contribution to the work of that Chamber and that needs to be looked at.
Only yesterday, the Government announced their intention to drop proposals aimed at changing the powers of the Lords, citing that the world has changed. Well, yes, it has, and if Brexit is the reason for stepping back from curtailing the powers of the other place, it is also a sound and justifiable reason to think again about the changes proposed to this elected Chamber. Although Lords reform is not directly linked to the Bill, it is an important part of how a fully functioning democracy works. It is worth recognising that over two thirds of the public have consistently supported real reform of the other place, yet cynicism and power are all that the Government seem concerned with when overloading the other place with former spin doctors and party workers.
I am heartened, however, by the fact that other people share my concern and that we may actually have support from the most unlikely of sources. When recently asked about his responsibilities in the Lords, Baron Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton responded:
“I was put in as an honour, not as a working peer. Not as lobby fodder. I’m fed up with the fact that I keep being asked now to go in and vote for things about which I don’t have knowledge.”
The other place is so bloated that it is second only to China’s National People’s Congress—the largest legislature in the world—which is odd considering that China has 1.2 billion more citizens than the UK. For a more learned and respected opinion, I ask right hon. and hon. Members to heed the warning of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who rightly stated:
“It seems perverse to reduce the number of elected representatives in this place while the Lords continues to gorge itself on new arrivals.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 502.]
Absolutely. I can remember my hon. Friend making that point when the legislation was going through. Why 600? Why not 500 or 400? Why not 700 or 800? Nobody has actually set out a reason for 600. That is why it is right to retain the 650 Members of Parliament that we have today and have had in previous Parliaments.
The facts are in front of us. At a time of global uncertainty and change, we need to reconsider the proposals because it is more than likely that we will have 73 fewer politicians in the coming years because no one will be elected to the European Parliament. Their workload will come to this place—not only the scrutiny of laws that are currently scrutinised in Brussels and Strasbourg, but all the extra work that goes with that. I am sure that all the lobbyists will find a track to Westminster. They will be cancelling their tickets to Brussels and will be wanting to speak about legislation to Members of Parliament here.
Although I am sure that Members on both sides will not shirk their duties, where is the sense in cutting the number of elected Members here when we have a massive job to do of unpicking 40 years of legislation regarding our relationship with the European Union and our partners within it and of scrutinising new trading arrangements with the rest of the world? Where is the sense in cutting the number of Members when the job of holding the Government to account is absolutely vital? With larger constituencies, we will inevitably have larger caseloads from our own constituents, too.
The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent case for the Bill, but we had about 650 MPs before Brexit and before we went into the Common Market. We now have the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, police and crime commissioners, and elected mayors. We are just about to get a huge devolution of power in Greater Manchester, which he knows about and has spoken eloquently about. I would therefore suggest that this House can be reduced probably even further than the modest reduction proposed in the 2011 legislation. I would go for 400 MPs. I would happily see this place reduced much further.
I just do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is no case for reducing the size of the House of Commons when we have in front of us the big task of making a success of the Government’s negotiations with our European and global partners. If we cannot hold the Government to account on that, this House will be failing in its duty.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Another argument for retaining the current number of Members of Parliament is that we have reports, including from the former head of the civil service in no less than The House magazine, that the number of civil servants will have to be increased quite dramatically. So the civil service will increase, but the number of people overseeing and directing the civil service and making laws will be reduced. By the way, the number of Assembly Members in Northern Ireland is going to decrease.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because we are talking about the costs of government here, not just those of Parliament. The two cannot be disentangled.
Moving on to the review itself, its unfairness and unequal nature are compounded by the fact that many individual voters have been omitted from the calculations used by the boundary commissions. I wonder how the Government can defend their position on equalising the number of voters in each constituency, which each and every Member would support, while using information based on an electoral register with close to two million voters not counted. As Government Members will be aware, the spike of newly registered voters enthused by June’s referendum and the increased sign-up from May’s local election mean that around 4% of the electoral register has not been counted in the review. That serious omission risks producing a distorted picture of our nation and alienating hundreds upon thousands of younger first-time voters under 30. How dare we tell the 700,000 young people who signed up in a few short months in the run-up to the referendum that we want them to engage, but that their voice is irrelevant in deciding the political map of our communities? Put plainly, the omission of close to 2 million voters has completely distorted the boundary review process, so the aim of equalising our constituency boundaries will not be possible.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening when I made my remarks about the independent analysis that has been done on the 2 million figure. If these 2 million voters are equally spread across the UK, they make no difference to the distribution of seats. Either what I said, quoting an independent source, is true or it is not. If he does not think it is true and he has a different analysis produced by some independent people, perhaps he could share it with the House; otherwise, this makes no difference to the distribution of seats and is a false argument.
What the right hon. Gentleman says is on the premise that this is equally spread, but of course it is not. There were increases in the number of people on the electoral register in every constituency, but in parts of the country where there has historically been under-registration, the spikes were larger than in other areas.
The Library has produced facts that contradict what the right hon. Gentleman has said. They show that if extra electors brought in for the purpose of the referendum were taken into account, London would have two extra constituencies, whereas the south-west and Northern Ireland would each have one fewer, so there would be a material difference.
My hon. friend is absolutely right about that and he brings me to my next point.
Let us consider the example of London, a global city with a growing population that is expected to rise by more than 1.5 million in the next decade. Strangely, the same city is expected to lose a dozen MPs from its contingent of 73 if the current proposals go through unchecked. As my hon. Friend has said, to compound that, research from the House of Commons shows that over the six-month period from December 2015 to June 2016 the London electorate grew by 6%. That did not occur in isolation; during the same period, the south-west saw a rise of 4.7%, Yorkshire and the Humber’s rise was 4.2%, Wales’s rise was 4.1% and the increase in the west midlands was 3.2%. Those citizens are eager to play their part in the process, but for this purpose they are citizens whose voice no longer counts.
As we have heard, many of the proposed constituencies make very little geographical sense, homogenising vast swathes of rural Britain and tearing up historic counties. For example, dramatically cutting the number of Welsh MPs will do little to address the democratic deficit felt by some within rural Wales. Any constitutional changes, including in the very make-up of the constituencies we stand here to represent, should be done fairly, and everyone’s voice should be heard.
The truth about the plan to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 is that no real reason has been given for it. As my hon. Friend said, when the original Bill was being discussed, no Minister could give a real reason for picking the 600 figure. New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further not just towards the Conservative party, but towards the Executive. There are no plans to cut the size of the ministerial payroll, and having fewer MPs to hold Ministers to account is not good for democracy. It cannot be democratic, fair or even competent to advance this review at the same time as we are stuffing the other place with unelected and often unprepared peers. Put all this together and we face a boundary review being conducted on the basis of a completely lopsided electoral register. If we proceed as planned, we will see a huge transfer of parliamentary representation from areas that are growing to areas that have not seen the same growth.
The Opposition are confident that this Bill will significantly improve the process of drawing up new parliamentary seats on a fair and equal basis. We believe that 650 is the right number of MPs to hold the Government to account. We give our full support to this Bill in the hope that the Government pause—
I should begin by saying that, like the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who introduced the Bill, I have no personal interest in this, because I, too, will be standing down at the next election.
I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) that doubtless I am much contaminated by six years in government and 18 years on the Front Bench, but I nevertheless believe it makes sense for us to consider these issues as though we had a population that needs to be served by a system of government that works in the interests of that population. We should not be thinking about this simply in terms of the House of Commons, which is a matter of more concern to many people in this place than it is to many of our citizens, who want to be well governed but who do not know much about and do not much like the workings of the House of Commons. The House of Commons certainly should not think of itself as a model to the world, because, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) rightly said, there is currently much scepticism about the organs of our democracy.
As my hon. Friend knows from previous conversations, I do take that view and have done so, uniquely in the Conservative party, I believe, for about the past 40 years. I shall briefly touch on that at a much later stage in my remarks, but for now I simply wish to observe that it is important that we think about this issue as grown-ups who are trying to look after the interests of our fellow citizens, not as people who happen to be sitting on these green Benches trying to look after the interests of the House of Commons, which is an artefact of no value whatsoever unless it is part of the good governance of our country in the interests of its citizens.
This is the first time I have attended a debate on a Friday for very many years, and I was surprised to discover that I was quite interested in the nature of the debate. It seems that, from time to time, there have actually been some arguments made—that is a rare thing to hear in the House of Commons. In principle, three kinds of arguments have been going on. The first is whether equalisation is the aim of the current Act governing the Boundary Commission activity or whether it is about gerrymandering. The second is about whether 600 is a better number of MPs than 650. The third is the question raised by the hon. Member for Newport West: is it right to make incremental change in pursuit of incremental improvements when large questions about the constitution as a whole also need to be addressed? I want to discuss each of those points in turn.
First, I turn to the question of whether the motive for and effect of the current Act of Parliament governing the Boundary Commission’s activities is equalisation or gerrymandering. As I would have expected, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) dealt very effectively with the fact that the current Boundary Commission review does not include reference to the people who registered at the last moment. I was the Minister who brought to the House arrangements to ensure that people who registered at the very last moment were able to vote in the referendum, and it is certainly right that they should have been registered. My right hon. Friend dealt very well with whether the fact that they registered after the Boundary Commission figures were produced affects the outcome of the review to any significant extent.
However, we do not need to rely on my right hon. Friend’s view on that because the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who interjected from the Labour Benches, blew the whole argument out of the water when he quoted, quite sensibly, the Library figures. They showed that the total effect, even on an analysis less favourable to the argument I am making than that which was provided by the independent source for my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean—the House of Commons Library analysis—the total net difference is two extra in London and one fewer in the south-west and in Northern Ireland. There is no significant distributional impact.
As a matter of fact, very few are. Even if there were a few, the net distributional impact is very slight. That has to be put in context to be understood. This was another point that my right hon. Friend made very clearly. I will come in a moment to the point that the Bill very clearly has the purpose and the effect of ensuring that we will not proceed with redistribution before 2020. If we do not proceed with it, the disequilibrium—the lack of equivalence that Labour’s spokesman, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), said his party favours—would be far, far greater than the discrepancy would be, even on the House of Commons Library figures, if the distributional impacts from the new registration were not taken into account. So either equalisation matters or it does not matter.
In a moment.
It appears that we have cross-party consent, at least on the face of it, to equalisation. Equalisation will be achieved to a far greater degree by proceeding with the current arrangements than by not proceeding with them. The only further question we have to ask is whether it was the hon. Member for North West Durham, who introduced the Bill, or my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) who were right when the discussion went on about whether it was possible to proceed with the hon. Lady’s Bill and for it to become an Act, and to proceed with the Boundary Commission proposals in time for 2020.
As it happens, I spent quite a lot of the past few years talking to the boundary commissions about these issues. I am prepared to say in Parliament, and I think it is not improper for me to say in Parliament, that I am absolutely certain from what they told me that there is not the ghost of a chance—and I think the spokesman for the Opposition, who appears to be a clever person, is perfectly aware that there is not a ghost of a chance—that we could have a redistribution before 2020 if we were to proceed with the hon. Lady’s Bill and it became an Act. That is, I think, the very purpose of the Bill.
I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend finished that powerful point before he gave way to me, as it highlights what the Bill is really about. On the so-called missing voters, the point that he was just developing is that if we are not able to proceed with the boundary changes that the commissions are currently working on, we will fight the next election on seats that are drawn on electoral registers dating from 2000, so not only would we not be including the 2 million people who registered for the referendum and the 700,000 people who registered subsequently, but we would be missing the millions and millions of people who have registered to vote since 2000, and, by the way, we would be including all the people who were on the register in 2000 but who, sadly, are no longer with us.
My right hon. Friend is clearly right about that. It is a matter of fact, not of opinion. There would be less approximation to an equal distribution of population per seat and of registered voters per seat if we do not proceed with the current proposals than if we do. The Bill would therefore diminish the chances of there being an election based on roughly equivalent numbers of electors in each seat.
On the question of whether the Bill is implementable in the timescale set out by its proponents, does my right hon. Friend recall that the Boundary Commission gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament to the effect that it would not be possible to make the changes unless the commission started, as it did this time, in February 2016? That was the latest point at which it could start if it was to produce changes in time for October 2018.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. That is the evidence that the Boundary Commission gave, but I was always, as I know he was when he was a Minister, suspicious of claims by agencies of the state that things could not be done on certain timescales, so I went to the trouble for some while to interrogate that set of propositions and to look specifically at all the things that could be done to diminish the elapsed time by doing things in parallel rather than in series, by constricting various forms of consultation, and by accelerating the responses to the consultations. I am satisfied that the Boundary Commission genuinely in this case could do not this with any semblance of propriety. It is not a matter of being able to overcome those problems by giving it more money or more resources. It simply could not do the job. I think the spokesman for the Opposition is perfectly aware of these facts and that it is his intention to ensure that we do not proceed with equalisation.
If we are in the business of practicality, with the right hon. Gentleman’s long experience of contamination in Government, what makes him think that hugely controversial proposals that lack any consensus, that have united the Opposition parties across the House against them and that are opposed by independent-minded Conservatives have any chance whatsoever of getting an affirmative vote and an Order in Council some time in 2018? All this upset and nonsense is for nothing unless the Government start to listen to other voices.
I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. My guess is that the proposals will get consent. Time will tell. We will also see whether they get assent in the other place, which is much the greater question. Clearly, we have seen in the past few days the Government withdraw from measures intended to make it easier to ensure that if this place consents, the other place can be made to consent. Nevertheless, my own guess is that both places will consent. We will see.
In this debate we are not talking about whether or not the other place will consent. We are talking about whether we should adopt legislation that would prevent any chance of our having the opportunity even to assent. My point is that if we do not have that opportunity, we can be sure that we will not have a more equalised set of seats. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of the canniest politicians in the United Kingdom over a very long period, very well knows that that is the case and he has a very great interest.
I want to address our party interests for a moment. It is as clear as day, although many Members who have spoken have been coy about being explicit about it, that there are party interests on both sides of the Chamber. It is perfectly true that equalisation would remove a bias in the electoral system that has existed against the Conservative party for a little while. It used to be the other way round at one stage; these things happen over time. The fact is—it is quite an important fact—that it is not in the interests of a political party to have the boundaries redrawn for 2020. As things currently stand in the polling, the Conservative party will have a massive majority in the House of Commons after the 2020 election and—[Interruption.] No, indeed, not in Scotland.
If things go terribly wrong between now and 2020, I do not believe that these changes will protect the Conservative majority under those circumstances. My whole experience of politics, which I suspect is shared by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), whose experience is longer and deeper than mine, is that when the mood of the country shifts, it does not make too much difference what the system is—it shifts pretty decisively one way or the other. So, although there are party interests here, they are not nearly as important as either side may believe, and we should be trying to do a sensible and right thing, rather than something that is in the interests of one party or the other.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is totally disinterested, but I am also sure he is aware that the Scottish proposals, which would be of great interest to me, would mean that, on the same votes as at the last election, the SNP would have all the seats bar one in Scotland. Does he not understand, in a disinterested way, that I am trying to save the last Conservative MP in Scotland?
Actually, no. With his typical brilliance, the right hon. Gentleman is alluringly enticing us to avoid noticing that there would be a reduced number of Scottish Members altogether in this House. As his party currently controls almost all the Scottish seats, it is to his advantage to maintain the number of Scottish Members and, indeed, a system in which Scottish electors are typically over-represented by the number of their Members of Parliament, almost all of whom are from the SNP.
As I say, I do not actually believe that that is the material question. The material question is whether having the current set of proposals being operated by the Boundary Commission would equalise better than not having them, the answer to which is clearly yes. Is it right to equalise more rather than less? The Opposition and the Government appear to agree that that is right, and even my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough agrees that it is right. Are we going to equalise more or less if we proceed with this Bill rather than the current arrangements? The answer is clearly that we are more likely to equalise better if we proceed with the current arrangements rather than the Bill.
I want to turn now to the second question, about the number of Members of Parliament. There was a very interesting contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, and the Opposition spokesman made some echoing remarks about it. Both of them were really trying to argue that 650 is a better number—incidentally, I do not suggest that either of them suggested that there was a perfection about 650—than 600 for the purposes of doing what they each described as holding the Government to account. That is obviously a serious argument, in the sense that in a House of Commons in which 99.9% of its Members were on the payroll, the 0.1% of its Members who were not on the payroll would have some difficulty holding the 99.9% to account.
I do not personally believe that the difference between 650 and 600—or, while we are at it, 600 and 550, or 600 and 500—makes terribly much difference to the effectiveness with which this House is able to hold the Government to account. My experience is that one good MP, one effective Select Committee or one Opposition spokesman who knows what they are doing can hold a Government to account very powerfully, and a very large number of incompetent and inadequate people sitting on these Benches can wholly fail to hold Governments to account. I do not believe there is any clear relationship, still less any systemic relationship, between the number of people entitled to sit on these green Benches—most of whom, mostly, are not here—and the amount of actual, effective scrutiny of Government. It is quality, not quantity, that affects the scrutiny of Government.
It seems to me that we should address a different question in looking at whether 650 is a better number than 600 or vice versa—of course I accept that neither is a perfect number, and there is no absolute standard in terms of the right numbers. I think there is a certain myopia on this. We have to open our eyes and ask ourselves just how we look to the world. People have mentioned the other place, which, incidentally, I think is ludicrously structured altogether and is definitely in need of reform. Indeed, I tried very hard to get it reformed into a proper elected Chamber, and I shall go on arguing that case, because it is the only thing that will save that part of our democracy and actually create some checks and balances in our system. People have observed that the other place is now the largest legislature other than that in China, which obviously has more than 1 billion people in it. That may be true, but there is another legislature in this country that is almost as large—it is here. We have 650 Members of Parliament seeking to be the primary source of legislation, if I can put it that way, for 60 million people. In the United States, there are 100 Senators, who are counterpoised against, roughly speaking, the same number of representatives as we have in this House. If we add the two numbers in the United States together, the total is not that much greater than our 650, but those people are looking after the interests of 300 million people, instead of 60 million people.
I will, but let me just anticipate what I think my hon. Friend might be about to say. It used to be said that the reason that is appropriate is that the states in the United States have so much power. It is no longer the case—this is very much the point raised by various of my hon. Friends—that we live in a wholly centralised system; we live in something that is getting very much closer to being a federal system, in which vast amounts of the power that used to reside in this place have been devolved in one way or another to Administrations elsewhere, and more of that is going on all the time.
We are vastly overweight; there are many more of us MPs per head of population than in most other serious democracies. I am not aware of any Member of Parliament who could not handle some more constituents. Now, I accept that it is more difficult for those who live in and represent seats that are much larger. My own seat is middling, in the sense that it is 400 square miles. I do not have the advantage that urban MPs have of representing a very small patch, but I am not, of course, challenged in the way that some of our Scottish colleagues, for example, are with their vast seats, and I do accept, therefore, the reason for some exceptions. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, that issue was debated when we moved from 650 to 600, and a balanced judgment was struck about creating enough exceptions to try to deal with those who face particular geographical problems.
My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, which appears to be plausible, until we listen to the substance. He is talking about the United States of America, where there is a wholly different system. There is the split of powers, and, of course, the states have their rights. The comparison is completely unfair, and my right hon. Friend might want to look at look at the point again.
I think that is the nearest thing to a compliment I have ever received from my hon. Friend, and it is probably the nearest I am ever going to get, so I shall celebrate it quietly. I do not accept the second part of his argument—the first part I have already dealt with. He asserts that, in the absence of a separation of powers, which, as I have said, I would actually prefer to see, the danger from the numbers of MPs on the payroll, or the crypto-payroll of the Opposition, is that nobody is really holding anybody to account. Actually, the dynamic of this House of Commons—one can see it sitting here or standing here right now—is a dynamic of dialectic. The principal form of the holding to account of the Government of the day resides on the Opposition Front Bench, not, I regret to say this, with my Back-Bench colleagues, among whom I now number myself. It is the quality of the Front-Bench arguments from the Opposition that principally challenges the Government of the day. This House is designed to reflect that, and that is the reason we do not sit in a circle, but opposite one another. That is behind the whole structure of debate in this House. Indeed, the timetable of this House is organised on that principle. If my hon. Friend’s charmingly nostalgic, although never-existing picture of a House of Commons that was holding Governments to account from the Back Benches were accurate, we would not recently have introduced a bit of Backbench Business; we would have substituted Opposition days, of which there are many, with Back-Bench days.
My hon. Friend would be very much in favour of that, but that is not how this place works or has ever worked. This place works in terms of the dialectic between Opposition and Government. It is a very powerful dialectic. It reaches certain crucial moments each week at question times. It reaches its most crucial moment at Prime Minister’s questions, and that is the jousting match—often, alas, not terribly illuminating, but nevertheless—that causes the Government to be on their toes most, and that forces Prime Ministers to find out what is going on in their own Governments and to defend them across the Dispatch Box. That is much more powerful as a form of holding people to account than anything that can be done from the Back Benches, and it is nothing to do with the numbers. So I reject the argument that the numbers have any significant impact on the ability of this House to hold the Government to account.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that much of the change in Government policy in recent months has come as a result of Conservative Back Benchers scrutinising and challenging the Government when they think they have got it wrong rather than challenges from Opposition Members?
I agree that at a time when, regrettably, there is a rather weak Opposition, and when there are, as it happens, many very enterprising Government Back Benchers, not all of whom are willing to go along with everything, we will get cases in which the Government Back Benchers do perform a very important role in holding the Government to account. However, that is due to the quality and not the quantity of the contributions that are made by my hon. Friends on the Back Benches. We could have hundreds of lemons sitting here and not having the slightest effect on the Government of the day, or we could have five, or three, very effective Back Benchers who could cause very considerable trouble for the Government of the day. It is about quality, not quantity.
I want finally to address the interesting point made by the hon. Member for Newport West, whose argument was different in kind from that of the hon. Member for North West Durham and the other speakers. I hope he would agree that I am not doing his argument any injustice if I say that he was arguing, first, that there are many large constitutional deficiencies in Britain today—a proposition with which I abundantly agree—and secondly, that it makes no sense to try to change one particular element of the whole picture, though he admitted that it was an element that probably did require change, in the absence of an overall and thoroughgoing change of the whole system.
That is a very serious argument, but it is also very seriously wrong. I think it is wrong for two reasons: first, practically, and secondly, theoretically. Of course, in the end, the practical argument matters more than the theoretical one. The practical truth is that we are not going to get the kind of constitutional change that I think he, and certainly I, want any time in the near future. I personally was partly responsible for the total failure to secure the reform of the House of Lords. The House of Lords, in its current structure, is a wholly indefensible object. No rational human being could possibly argue that it is a good idea to have a legislature constituted in the way that the House of Lords is constituted. Indeed, I never heard anybody, in the whole of that debate, make an argument in favour of the House of Lords as currently constituted, except that they thought it was the lesser evil. What they meant by that varied. Some of the people I failed to convince said that what is better about the House of Lords is that it is totally useless, so it cannot do anything, and so the House of Commons reigns supreme. Some said that what is better about it is that it is not another House of Commons. Some said that what is better about it is that it cannot intervene in such a way as to prevent the Government of the day having their will, or create the kinds of checks and balances that I suspect that the hon. Gentleman wants, and certainly I want, to see in our constitution.
There were many reasons why people defended the House of Lords, all of which were of the character that things as they are indefensible, but less bad than they would be if we had a properly elected Chamber at the other end of the building. They were a rainbow coalition of people with different points of view on just that one point about the reform of the House of Lords, which made it quite impossible. There was a fascinating interchange between my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean and Opposition Members, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, about whether we had to withdraw the proposal. By golly, we had to withdraw it, because we had done the sums and we knew perfectly well that we were going to get nowhere near being able to carry it through. This was something that had been in the manifestos of both the two largest parties, and was the primary goal, once AV—the alternative vote—had bitten the dust, of the minor party in the coalition. All three parties had it in their manifestos, and one of them really cared about it, yet we could not even get that through.
Therefore, the chances of getting through major constitutional reform to create a system of checks and balances based on the separation of powers in a written constitution, which are things this country certainly needs, are very dim indeed. In fact, my guess is that some decades—possibly some centuries—from now, people will still be standing in this place talking about those issues. If we were to wait for that before making incremental change, we would have registers that are 50, 100 or 200 years out of date. That would not, practically speaking, be a sensible way to proceed.
The point that I hope my right hon. Friend and I can agree on is that the Government decided not to proceed with the Bill on the Floor of the House without a programme motion. It is not that they would not have got it through, but that they refused to give up the time to allow it to be debated without a programme motion.
We ought to have a historical seminar about this. My hon. Friend is only partly right. It is perfectly true, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, that if we had tried to proceed without a programme motion, the main sacrifice is that we would have been unable to do almost anything else that was in our programme for government and that the Government needed to do.
It was indeed a choice. What my hon. Friend does not recognise, though, is that it was perfectly clear, having done the sums, that we were not, at the end of it all, going to get anything through, so we would have achieved the miracle of sacrificing almost the entire rest of our programme for the sake of achieving nothing whatsoever. That was not an attractive prospect, and that is why we withdrew the proposal, even though the corollary of doing so—this is the supreme irony of discussing the matter today—was that the Liberal Democrats in the coalition refused to support the implementation of the very changes that we are now discussing.
I am grateful for the serious attention that the right hon. Gentleman is giving to the points raised. Does he think that given the current situation of intense public cynicism, it is unwise to put forward a piecemeal measure that advantages only one party and intensifies the problems of scrutiny and representation that we have in this country when we are nowhere near to making sure that every vote counts?
No, because, as I have tried to argue in the first two parts of my speech, first, I do not think that the changes going forward at the moment are simply gerrymandering, but that they are fairer. Secondly, I do not believe that reducing the numbers reduces the quality of accountability. I therefore reject the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I accept that if it were a bad thing to do, it would be a bad thing to do piecemeal, but if it is a good thing to do, it is a good thing to do piecemeal, even though it would be better if we could—unfortunately we cannot—achieve major constitutional reform alongside it.
I am afraid that I was receiving instructions to be brief while the hon. Gentleman was speaking, so I did not really gather the purport of his remarks, which I shall have to read in Hansard—I do apologise.
Even from a theoretical point of view, it is not proper for us to think that we should not make incremental changes that are to the benefit of the constitution simply because they do not achieve everything that could be achieved through full constitutional change. The reason that I do not think that that is true theoretically is that it is not how British history has proceeded. The whole of our history has been a process of incremental change of our constitution. There has not been a thoroughgoing review of our constitution since 1688, and even that was pretty ramshackle. Certainly, 1216 was extraordinarily ramshackle. If Members actually read Magna Carta, as opposed to the propaganda about it, they will see that it did very little other than enforce that the actions of the king be done through his court rather than by sole fiat. Some significant changes were made in 1688, but an awful lot was left undone. We then went through a whole series of incremental changes to create the universal franchise, which took a very long time indeed. On the arguments of the hon. Member for Newport West, we never would have had any of those changes, because we would have been waiting the whole time for a proper Bill that would have moved us immediately to a full universal franchise, which was obviously the right thing to do from the beginning.
The fact is that our constitution has evolved by slow, incremental change. I do not welcome that fact. I think that the United States is blessed in having had a constitution that was more or less fully formed from the beginning. By creating the Basic Law all in one go, I think that we did a better job in Germany after the war than we have done in Britain, but alas, that ain’t how things are done in the UK. It is in the spirit of our constitutional tradition to make incremental changes that make things fairer and enable us to proceed. That is what the current proposals do. The Bill would prevent us from doing that, so I support the Government’s rejection of it.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). It is obvious from his appearance here on a Friday morning that the Government’s loss is the gain of Friday Back-Bench business. I sensed the lemons bristling a little when he referred unkindly to some of his fellow Back Benchers. I am sure that they will respond to him in kind.
We overwhelmingly support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), and we will do what we can to ensure that it progresses through Parliament and becomes legislation. In fact, we debated the issue a few weeks ago, when we invited the Government to reconsider their plans to reduce the number of MPs, and encouraged them to have a look at what is actually going on in our democracy and Parliament.
We profoundly believe that there is no case whatsoever for increasing the number of unelected Lords in that absurd institution down the corridor while cutting the number of parliamentarians elected by the people. It is simply absurd that, in this mother of Parliaments, more parliamentarians are appointed by a Prime Minister than are directly elected by the people. That is the cornerstone of our objection to what the Government are doing with the boundaries.
Of course, we do not want any Members from Scotland to have to come down to this Parliament. We have a slight hankering that the Scottish people are probably better placed than the Westminster Tories to run the nation of Scotland, and that the people of England could just about muddle along without us coming down every week to involve ourselves in their affairs. That is our starting point, but, as long as we are part of a UK unitary Parliament, and as long as this House exercises significant and real powers over our nation, it is right and proper that we have the correct number of parliamentarians from Scotland to look after the vital interests of our nation and our institutions.
It needs to be abolished. It is unreformable. It is an absurd circus. I am not a unicameralist: I believe that a nation as complex as the United Kingdom requires a scrutinising Chamber. Some of my hon. Friends take a different view, but my personal view is that we need a scrutinising Chamber that is properly elected.
What an embarrassing humbling the Government received yesterday when they had to withdraw the Strathclyde review. You cannot take on the boys in ermine and get done like that! The Government will have to reflect on their overwhelming and embarrassing defeat at the hands of the House of Lords. They took on the aristocrats. Those guys won battles in the medieval ages to exercise their right to rule over us. The Government sent the bumptious Lord Strathclyde to try to tame them and that is the result.
I hope that the Government reconsider their approach to the Lords. All they are going to do is increase the number of peers. We now face the prospect over the next few days of having the dark lord Farage. The bad Baron Boot-Them-out-of-Here is going to be a feature of our democracy. Someone who has been beaten eight times in Westminster contests might find himself a parliamentarian through the back door.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Yes, it is. As we are into a debate about the exercise of the royal prerogative, we should consider that, because he makes an interesting point.
The bad baron Farage will be joining 800 or so of the weirdest parliamentarians to be found anywhere in the world, in the second largest Chamber in the world. He will be joining not just the cronies, the donors and the party placemen, but the Church of England bishops, the aristocrats and, even worse, the Liberal Democrats—the Chamber of unelected horrors.
In the next Parliament, if the House of Lords continues to increase in the way that it has, we face the real prospect of something approaching 1,000 unelected Lords to scrutinise the work of 600 Members of Parliament. We will almost have two unelected parliamentarians for every elected one, yet we have the gall to lecture the developing world about the quality of their democracy.
The main case made by the Government to do this was to reduce the cost and the size of politics, but they are clearly not doing that. The cost of politics is increasing exponentially, not year on year, but month by month. We have heard about the armies of civil servants that will have to be created to staff the new Departments dealing with this Government’s chaotic Brexit plans; the number of Spads has increased by about 20% in the past few years; and the Government have put 250 donors, cronies and placemen into the House of Lords. What are the savings? The Minister claimed £66 million, but I believe that is over five years. The figure—I think the hon. Member for North West Durham said it—is closer to £12 million. When it comes to making savings that will not even pay for the paint on a Trident missile.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I am fortunate enough to sit on the Exiting the European Union Committee. Is he aware that we heard evidence earlier this week that the cost of Brexit will increase civil service and bureaucratic costs across the United Kingdom?
Yes, we know that. Again and again we have heard from all sorts of Ministers about the need for new civil servants, who are being hastily recruited. The cost of politics is going up, although the Government claim to be cutting it. The only part of politics and Parliament that they are cutting is the elected part. That is the only one that seems to be featuring.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that the House of Lords should be abolished—I have always believed that. I have tried for reform and I will continue to push for reform and abolition, but does he not accept that the cost of running the House of Lords in 2010 was £112 million and that last year it fell to £96 million? That is a 14% reduction. I am not defending the House of Lords, because I think it should be abolished, but this Government have overseen a reduction in the cost of the House of Lords.
Here is a solution for the hon. Gentleman, given he is halfway towards my position on this: how about saving £100 million per year? Get rid of the circus! Then we are all happy. There are savings here and there, yes, and that is fine, but let us make substantial and significant savings by just getting rid of the monstrous place down the corridor.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in recent weeks a key issue was highlighted by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the peer who was not aware that he would have to be a working peer, and has been complaining about it? It is not right that peers are put in the House of Lords, but do not work, and that the number of working parliamentarians is being reduced by this Government.
I can feel my hon. Friend’s hearts bleeding at the news about poor, overworked Andrew Lloyd Webber. This is where we are. We know what we do in this House, the value we give our constituents and how hard we work. I was listening carefully to, I think, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who talked eloquently about the new tasks and functions that we have as Members of Parliament. That is right: we have new things to do. We know how hard we work, and it is almost disgraceful to observe what happens in the House of Lords, with people refusing to turn up and even complaining about having to turn up to go about their work.
I want to talk a little about what I think was first mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn): the findings of the Electoral Reform Society. That is very powerful information, and there could be a crisis of scrutiny. If the boundary proposals go through, 23% of all MPs could have ministerial jobs. There will therefore be fewer Back Benchers to scrutinise the work of Government. There will be an impact on our Select Committees.
Someone mentioned the Scottish Parliament, where Members have to double up on several Committees. That is one of our features; it has never been a feature of this House, but that reality might confront us in future. Members of Parliament will be expected to serve not only on one or even two Committees, but perhaps on three Committees in order for the Government to be scrutinised. We could end up with 34% of all Conservative Members on the Government payroll. That is just not good for democracy, and it is appalling for scrutiny. It might be very good for some Conservative Back Benchers who are looking at their career prospects, but it is not good for this nation or for what we are doing in this House.
As a couple of Members have mentioned, this is being done at exactly the wrong time. Seventy-three Members of the European Parliament will no longer carry out very important functions in Brussels and Strasbourg. The powers they exercise and the responsibilities they hold will be returned to an ever smaller pool of Members of Parliament. That will mean more and more work, including on Select Committees and in scrutinising—I do not know how Conservative Back Benchers will find time to do all that—which will be a real issue.
This plan was dreamed up pre-Brexit. The new Government have been very good at binning all the Cameroonian nonsense. They have their own clear agenda and view about how the Government should proceed. Here is an invitation to them: bin this one—put it on the bonfire of the nonsensical Cameroonian legislation—and make their own decision. The plan was concocted pre-Brexit, and it is no longer fit for purpose in the new real world we now live in.
We support the idea about the equalisation of constituencies. I do not think any of us have any real concerns about that, but it must take geography into account.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. On geography, the fact is that three MPs in the Highlands will represent 33,000 sq km— 40% of the landmass of Scotland, with less than 5% of the MPs. It will be about 180 miles, or four and a half hours’ drive, across each of the three constituencies. How on earth are people supposed to be properly represented when it will be so difficult for any elected Member of Parliament to get around their constituency? Argyll, Bute and Lochaber will have more than 30 islands. Why are we not including the islands off the west coast of Scotland among the constituencies to be protected?
We have heard that the ludicrous proposals include the meaninglessly named Highland North constituency, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) pointed out, will be as big as Northern Ireland. Is my hon. Friend aware that the other proposed constituency, Inverness and Skye, would be the size of the country of Cyprus? We do not need Aristotle to point out that that is bad philosophy, but Thales would surely point out that it is very bad geographically.
That was eloquently put by my hon. Friend. All I can say is that I have a very modest 80 miles from east to west in my constituency, which feels decidedly small compared with the challenges and issues faced by both my hon. Friends. I am grateful to them for making that point, because it emphasises that when we equalise constituencies, we must take our geography into account, particularly the very challenging geography in the Scottish highlands.