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Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill [HL]

Volume 692: debated on Friday 18 May 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It is interesting that today, in both Houses of Parliament, there are debates on the internal matters of Parliament but which will have wide repercussive effects outside. The Bill after mine, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raises the question of one aspect of the composition of this House. My Bill would reduce the size of the House of Commons by 10 per cent. The Bill being debated in the other House today would exclude Members of Parliament and Peers from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, which I regard as a scandalous proposal. I am amazed that the Government are neutral on that. When the wider public get to know what the House of Commons is up to today, they may think that my proposed reduction of 10 per cent is a little modest.

The other thing happening this week is that representatives of the major political parties—the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal party—are meeting each other and Sir Hayden Phillips to discuss the question of funding of political parties.

As the House will probably recall, Sir Hayden Phillips produced a report earlier this year entitled Strengthening Democracy: Fair and Sustainable Funding of Political Parties. In his preface, he makes the point very strongly:

“There is, in my view, an overriding public interest in acting now to reform party funding”,

especially in the light of the cash-for-honours inquiry. In that paper, he asks the state to provide between £20 million and £25 million a year in state funding for political parties. He proposes two schemes: a scheme whereby each of the main parties would get £5 for each vote cast in the previous general election and, similarly, £5 for each vote for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. His second proposal is a scheme to encourage new membership of political parties whereby, if a new subscriber donates £5, the state will match it with £5. Sorry, the first sum was 50p per elector, not £5—50p for an elector; £5 for a donation. I see that the Liberals were hoping that it might be £5, but it is only 50p. There is a cap on that of £5 million.

That is a significant move. That would be the first substantial funding of political parties by the taxpayer. When that is proposed, it is not inappropriate that the political parties should be asked to find ways to meet that expenditure, as opposed to imposing another burden on the taxpayer. My Bill would reduce the size of the House of Commons. That is not a particularly new issue. It has come up several times in the history of the House of Commons at various stages when it has developed its membership. There was a debate in the previous Parliament in the House of Commons moved by a Liberal Member, advocating limiting the size of the House of Commons to 500. I do not know whether that is still the policy of the Liberal party.

My Lords, that is a step forward, a little edge my way. Andrew Tyrie, a mainstream Conservative Member of Parliament—that means that he is not a right-wing zealot—

My Lords, I am told that we have a few. He produced a document entitled Pruning the Politicians, in which he advocated a 20 per cent reduction in the size of the House of Commons. In essence, that means that its size would fall from 646 to 581. I will deal with the detail of that in a moment, but perhaps I may say first that I have had help in drafting the Bill from the Public Bill Office. Electoral legislation is a rather arcane matter and my Bill is based on existing legislation. I have had help from Thomas Elias and Nick Besly. I thank them very much for that. We are very lucky in this House to have such a good Public Bill Office. In my experience, it is as good as, or indeed better than, that in the House of Commons.

The history of membership of the House of Commons is that before the Act of Union of 1707, there were 513 Members of Parliament for England and Wales. Forty-five were added at the Act of Union. It was recognised at that stage that, in relation to the population of Scotland, that was an over-representation. That increased the number to 558. It remained at that until Pitt’s disastrous Act of Union, which abolished Grattan’s Parliament in 1800, when 100 Members were added for Ireland, a significant over-representation for Ireland. That increased the number to 658. It remained at about that level for quite some time. In 1885, 12 more were added. When southern Ireland became independent, Northern Ireland received 12 Members, but they did not take away 88; they took away only 55.

One reason why it was still a largely over-represented House was that, in 1917, there was a Speaker's Conference. There were no minutes, so no one actually knew what had happened until the final outcome, but it discussed the question of limiting the membership to 500 and created the situation we are now experiencing, because it said that there should be an average electorate of 70,000. That meant that as the population rose in each of the countries there would be an automatic ratch-up of the number. In 1968, when I first entered the House of Commons, it was smaller than it is now.

My proposal would also equalise the size of electorate constituencies throughout the United Kingdom, which is only fair, but very radical. The average electorate size of a constituency is 68,736, but there is a great variation between the constituent parts of the UK. The English average is 70,231; Scotland is next, largely as a result of the reduction of seats in the previous Parliament, at 65,444; the Northern Ireland average is 64,078; and the figure for Wales is 55,920, so Wales is significantly over-represented in the House of Commons.

It is, my Lords. There are 14,300 more electors in an English seat than in a Welsh seat. That is over-representation by any definition of the word. I am sorry—I was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, but I have to recognise that Wales is over-represented. An average size of constituent electorate for all the United Kingdom would be 76,000 per constituency, which would have the following effect: under a general reduction to 581 MPs, England would have 486, 43 fewer than now; Wales would have 29, 11 fewer; Scotland would have 51, 8 fewer; and Northern Ireland would have 15, three fewer. All countries would lose some seats, but they would be a standard electorate size, which is only just and fair. Votes are worth the same wherever they are throughout the United Kingdom. It has always been said that we should overcompensate for Wales and Scotland. I do not think that that is fair, and there is always the issue of very large constituencies. One MP in Western Australia represents a constituency which is the size of the whole of western Europe, although I am not suggesting anything quite so radical for Scotland.

I believe that this is a sensible suggestion. It was put forward in 1988 by Roy Jenkins in his report, which is still revered somewhere in the Liberal party, on electoral reform; namely, that there should be a single electoral quota, 76,000. The comparison with the size of other constituencies around the world is interesting. The United Kingdom, with a population of 60 million people, has 646 MPs; Germany, with a population of 82 million, has 600; Japan, with a population of 127 million—twice the size of ours—has only 470; Russia, with a population of 144 million, has 450; and America, with a population of 293 million, has 430 Congressmen. By any standard internationally we are massively over-represented.

I hope that this Bill will be a constructive contribution to the debate and the major national review that the Boundary Commission has asked for. A review is well overdue because the last one was in 1944 and it was based very much on the 1917 arrangements.

The average cost of a Member of Parliament is £489,000, which covers virtually everything. Multiplying the cost of 65 MPs would give £32 million in savings, but that is not a fair figure because, although some of the fixed overheads could be reduced, some could not. The savings would probably be about £20 million, which happens to match the state funding that the parties are talking about. The cost of our democratic process is interesting. The whole cost of our democratic process—everything—including the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, us and others, and all the business of elections, has doubled in the lifetime of this Government. I do not think that this figure will feature very highly in the legacy, but it is £1.3 billion, a huge sum of money.

I was very interested to see that the basic salary of an MP is now £60,675. In a recent survey in the House Magazine, 61 per cent indicated that they want more. MPs’ claims for expenses average at £134,000 a year. When I first joined the House of Commons in 1968, we were given 1,000 free sheets of paper a year. I see the noble Lord, Lord Richard, nodding—he might have joined when we were given only 500 sheets. One had to buy any sheets more than the 1,000. There was no free postage. Yet one MP last year spent £25,146 on postage: his constituents are very fed up getting letters from him. There was only one free telephone call, which was to your town clerk. You went to a little office with telephones where two old, retired soldiers in brown coats collected money from you for your telephone calls. Of course, we had no offices; we sat on benches. There is a huge difference. On top of that, the House of Commons this year has voted each Member of Parliament £10,000 extra in order to communicate with constituents. That is a payment to incumbents to protect their incumbency.

While the reform of the House of Lords is, as it were, at the top of the agenda and everyone has views of one sort or another on that, although we are expecting the Government’s proposals, it is quite appropriate for us to say that it is time that one should think of reforming the House of Commons as well. Its procedures should be reformed. The former Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, made a speech on that only the other day. She said that the House of Commons we knew is about to disappear. We are getting Bills up here with 40 pages undebated; the guillotine has become routine. But that is the procedure of the House of Commons and it must sort it out. However, the size of the House of Commons is a matter on which we can legitimately have a view and I hope that this will be a helpful and constructive contribution to the debate.

My Lords, does my noble friend not feel that this is a rather modest proposal considering that so many powers of the House of Commons have been removed to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and so forth? I should think that 300 Members of the House of Commons would be a better idea.

My Lords, I do not think that that is a view that the noble Lord shared when he was a Member of the House of Commons. I say only that I am open to offers and we can always improve on the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Baker of Dorking.)

My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend’s Bill. He is to be congratulated on his initiative in bringing it forward. I wish to address the two principal changes it seeks to achieve. The first is a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies. As my noble friend has explained, we are unusual in this country in the number of seats that we have in the House of Commons. By international standards, the House is extremely large. Countries such as India and the United States, with far larger populations, have smaller first Chambers. As my noble friend has touched on, there was actually a much bigger House in the early part of the 20th century when Ireland was still part of the Union; the number of seats then stood at over 700. But even with 646 seats, the House of Commons remains an extremely large elected assembly, too large in the eyes of some, including my noble friend.

As my noble friend has mentioned, several bodies have looked at the issue of the size of the House of Commons. These have included the Conservative Party’s Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000. I chaired the commission. Other members included my noble friends Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Waldegrave. In taking evidence, we were struck by the number of witnesses who recommended a reduction in the size of the House of Commons. We concluded that the argument for reducing the size of the House was compelling. We accepted that the other place would be able to fulfil its functions more effectively if the emphasis moved from a large House to a smaller one with better resourced Members. We noted that the number of MPs put a strain on existing resources. The House of Commons is under great strain because of the demands increasingly placed on it. I have variously argued that the Members are both part of the solution and part of the problem. They are great absorbers of resources and utilise the opportunities available, such as to table Questions, to their full extent, making it difficult for the House to cope. The commission made various recommendations to strengthen MPs in the delivery of constituency services. With such changes we believed it would be possible for MPs to cope with a larger number of constituents.

We also contended that there may be a beneficial impact on relations between Members and their constituents. Though it may seem counterintuitive, large constituencies may facilitate a closer long-term relationship between Members and constituents, in that less radical changes would be required to constituency boundaries to take account of demographic changes. That, of course, relates to the other part of my noble friend’s Bill. We also argued that a reduction would make for a far more efficient House as well as having political and, as my noble friend has touched on, financial benefits. I quote from page 58 of the report:

“The creation of more layers of government leads inexorably to more elected politicians. There is understandable popular cynicism at the creation of more paid posts for politicians. Our recommendations will lead to a reduction in their number. A reduction in the number of MPs will also, in cost terms, more than offset the cost of the other recommendations that we have made”.

We advanced a large number of proposals and this recommendation has to be seen, as my noble friend has alluded to, in the wider context of strengthening Parliament in calling government to account. It really should be seen as constituting part of a wider package. We therefore favoured a reduction in the size of the House.

However, we did not recommend an immediate reduction. We saw considerable merit in the proposal put forward by Viscount Cranborne, now the Marquess of Salisbury, in his Parliamentary Government Bill. Under his Bill, there would be a House of 525 Members for the first general election held after 1 January 2010 and one of 400 for the first election after 1 January 2020. I do not want to get bogged down in specific numbers. I am less concerned with whether it should be the 525 figure embodied in the Parliamentary Government Bill or the figure of 581 proposed in the Bill presently before us than I am with the principle. There is a powerful case for reducing the size of the House, and for reducing it on a staggered basis. My noble friend’s Bill does not provide for a staggered reduction—he goes for the “big bang” approach, but retaining a fairly large House. I would favour reducing the size over time to well under the figure embodied in the Bill. It has already been argued that my noble friend is being too modest in the figure that he sets.

Reducing the number over time may also facilitate the acceptance by the House of Commons of a reduction in the size of the House. Members may not rush to cut their constituencies from under them, but if it was over a longer term, a reduction may prove acceptable. I therefore put that thought before my noble friend.

There is one other necessary corollary to my noble friend’s proposal. If the size of the House of Commons is to be reduced, there also needs to be a reduction in the number of Ministers. If the number of MPs declines while the number of Ministers remains constant, then the grip of the Government on the House becomes proportionally greater. The payroll vote becomes more significant. The payroll vote, as we know, has already grown, largely by extension to people who are not paid and are not formally part of government, and we should not be doing anything that encourages that process. I appreciate that Ministers are extremely busy people, but, in evidence to the commission, Frank Field argued that the amount of work increased to occupy the time made available to Ministers. We recommended putting a cap of 20 on the size of the Cabinet and a cap of 50 on the number of junior Ministers, excluding Whips. The total number of Whips in the two Houses, we recommended, should be no more than 20. There is thus a case for going beyond the provisions of this Bill to limit the number of Ministers and to ensure that the Government do not benefit from a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies.

I turn briefly to the other part of my noble friend’s Bill. The existing rules for the distribution of seats, as provided for in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, embody two somewhat contrasting principles: to try to achieve equality in the number of constituents in each constituency and to ensure that, as far as possible, constituency boundaries respect existing local authority boundaries. The latter has created problems in achieving the former, with the result that there have been significant variations from the electoral quota, sometimes up to and beyond 20 per cent. Existing Rule 5 gives the Boundary Commissioners tremendous latitude, in that they are required to ensure that the size of each constituency is as near to the electoral quota “as is practical”, but leaving them to decide what is practical. The existing rules also allow for—indeed, if anything, encourage—creeping increases in the number of constituencies, a point alluded to by my noble friend.

My noble friend’s proposal restricts their scope and imposes a clear limit on how much deviation there may be from the electoral quota. I appreciate the arguments that may be deployed by the Minister in relation to this provision, but I think that my noble friend is making an extremely important point. As things stand, there is a marked imbalance in constituency sizes, and that imbalance works against county constituencies to the benefit of borough constituencies. That imbalance contributes, but I appreciate is not the sole contribution, to a political bias in the electoral system. Ensuring that constituencies are more equal in size than is the case under our existing arrangements will go some way, but only some way, to addressing that bias. An essential element of equity is involved and that has to be addressed.

The Bill also addresses other problems associated with the existing rules. However, I raise one problem with the current procedure which, as far as I can see, is not addressed by the Bill. At the moment, the enumeration date is the commencement of the Boundary Commission’s review. The differences between the size of constituency electorates at the beginning of a review may be very different from those at the end of the review period. As I read it, the Bill retains the existing enumeration date. There may be a case for stipulating that the commission utilise the most recent electoral register available, or at least enabling it to utilise more up-to-date data.

There is a relationship between the two parts of the Bill. Each is justifiable on its own merits, but each also complements the other. By bringing it forward, my noble friend has raised extremely important issues. As I have indicated, I am not necessarily wedded to the particular detail; that is something we can pursue in Committee. I am very happy to commend the principle of the Bill and I congratulate my noble friend on having brought it before us.

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly in the gap to give a traditional and perhaps rather more constitutional view than that of the radicals opposite. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has never actually been in the other place, although he is a great expert on it. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, was in the other place, but that was some time ago. I think that that is part of the problem. Both noble Lords are somewhat out of touch with how the other place lives, moves and has its being. Having come more recently from the other place, I am certain of one thing—that the immediate response there would be, “What impertinence! Who are they, who are not elected, to seek to interfere with our own House of Commons and tell us what to do?”. It is a great weakness and both noble Lords are vulnerable on this point. I am confident that the other place would have a strong view, not particularly on the merits of the issue but on the fact that it has been raised here.

I concede that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has a remarkable track record: some months ago he raised the issue of English questions being decided by English Members. I note that the Leader of the Opposition has apparently accepted that and it is about to become the Conservative Party’s official policy. Perhaps these proposals will follow in the same way. The noble Lord has clearly been reading that famous American book, “How to influence people without making friends”. I am quite sure that he will be unmaking very many friends along the Corridor.

There is an arithmetic logic in what the noble Lord is saying about a reduction and about constituencies of equal size—one person, one vote and one value. However, when making the point about our system being over-representative and not valid, he referred to Germany and the size of the Bundestag. He failed to note that Germany has a federal system and that, combining the number of people elected to the various Lander and to the Bundestag, there are more elected representatives in that system than in our own.

Our democracy has the real merit of easy access to Members. There is an impeccable logic to the fact that the fewer Members there are, the more difficult it is to have that sort of personal relationship. The noble Lord mentioned that the Welsh quota is now 56,000; in my old constituency, it was 59,000. It was a tightly-knit urban constituency. I could almost, with some effort, walk from one end of the constituency to the other, and I cycled it from time to time. I liked to think that whenever I walked, I could meet and greet many individuals. That would be wholly impossible in a much larger constituency. I concede that it is much more difficult to carry on the role of a Member in constituencies such as Caithness and Sutherland, for example, where there are more sheep than people.

My first point is that the Bill is an inappropriate one for this House. Secondly, I believe that we would lose something of substance by adopting it. Finally, I note that much has been said about the current costs. However, these are the costs of democracy. The costs of this House and of the other place are a minuscule part of total public costs, and the two Houses do something of importance. The Bill offers a piecemeal approach. If we are to have reform, then it can be discussed in a kite-flying exercise such as this one. However, it should be considered in the round and not piece by piece as it is here.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has missed the point that small constituencies and shifting boundaries mean that MPs often do not have the same constituents over a period of time—and that impertinence can work both ways. This is a public general measure and, therefore, each House is entitled to discuss the matter.

My Lords, in principle, each House is entitled to discuss it. The key point is that it is for the other place to have the primary role in dealing with its own matters.

My Lords, as my noble friend is speaking in the gap, he is restricted to four minutes. He has already had them. If he is to reply to interventions now, we will be breaking every convention of the House.

My Lords, the Bill has a very worthy aim: reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons. That would certainly have popular appeal, a point which was easily and effectively made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I wonder whether it would be as easy to argue in this place for a reduction in the number of Peers of the Realm as it has been to say that there should be fewer Members of Parliament. The Bill’s greater significance lies in its proposal to equalise the size of electorates between constituencies. On the face of it, that seems a worthy and proper aim. There is clear unfairness in the present distribution of seats. However, it ignores other unfairness in our electoral system. Other issues and problems must be addressed if we are to change the way in which the Boundary Commission works.

It is clearly unfair that there are different numbers of voters in different constituencies. The Isle of Wight has 109,000 electors and one Member of Parliament, while the Western Isles has 22,000 voters and one Member of Parliament. That shows the problem. The Conservative Party has recently been concerned about unequal constituency sizes only because it wins far fewer seats as a result. The smaller seats tend to be Labour and the larger ones Conservative.

The Bill fundamentally fails to address a far bigger problem: although we are supposed to have a democratic system for electing the House of Commons, a party with just 35 per cent of the vote wins 55 per cent of the seats. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to the way in which Wales is over-represented in the House of Commons. Surely the democratic point is that a minority of little more than one-third of voters should not have such a majority in that House. That is the real unfairness.

On polling day in May 2005, during the last general election, 26,895 votes were required to elect a Labour Member of Parliament; 44,531 votes to elect a Conservative Member of Parliament; and 96,487 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. Surely that is the greater unfairness and should be addressed. If one accepts the basic premises that a voting system should deliver the representatives that people vote for and that votes should be of equal value, then the system outlined in the Bill clearly fails the fundamental tests of fairness and democracy.

I accept that there is a case for saying that Members of Parliament should represent equal numbers of constituents. However, surely it is much more important for Members of Parliament to be elected in approximate proportion to the votes cast than it is simply to tinker with a fundamentally flawed electoral system. In 1951, and again in February 1974, the governing party won the most votes in the country but won fewer seats than its major rival. It therefore lost an election that it had actually won by achieving more votes, and it therefore went into opposition. That cannot be fair or democratic. It is estimatedthat if an identical number of votes had been cast for the Labour and Conservative Parties in 2005, the outcome, because of our electoral system, would have been 336 seats for Labour and 222 for the Conservatives.

The recent Boundary Commission review may very marginally reduce this bias in the system. However, estimates suggest that the new boundaries may add about seven Conservative MPs, remove about six Labour MPs and increase the number of Liberal Democrat MPs by three. It is certainly possible mathematically that the Conservative Party could win more votes than Labour at the next general election but win fewer seats. The Bill does not address that democratic deficit. The answer to the problem is not to tinker with an unfair system, but to reform it entirely.

There are a number of technical problems in trying to reduce the size of the seats or to make them more equal in size of electorate. The population in some areas can change quite rapidly. The reviews required to equalise the numbers of electors as outlined in the Bill would have to be done more rapidly than those for general elections. Many constituencies would not exist for more than one election and there would be reviews between elections, leading to continuous uncertainty about what boundaries the forthcoming election would be fought on. There would be knock-on consequences of these population shifts; uncertainty over what boundaries existed may affect not just one area, where there may be a rapid increase or decrease of population, but all the neighbouring areas for a considerable distance.

While I am not a fan of the existing electoral system, part of the principle is that there is clear linkage with recognisable communities. If the seats are equalised in the way proposed, that linkage would be broken.

It helps elected representatives if ward and constituency boundaries are properly aligned. That would cease to be the case if we went in for equalisation in this way as wards and perhaps even polling districts would need to be split between different constituencies to get the same number of electors into each of them.

The current process with the Boundary Commission reviews is most unsatisfactory. Many of the claims made at public inquiries on the process are, to say the least, dubious. However, I believe that more frequent reviews of the boundaries will mean that the integrity of the system will degenerate even further. They tried in the United States to equalise the size of the constituencies. That leads to very frequent gerrymandering, as the requirement of making the size of the electorates equal is paramount.

It is more fundamental reform of the system that is required, not this Bill.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of the Opposition, the more so as it has been introduced by my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, for which I thank him. He was a very distinguished member of successive Conservative Governments who has, since coming here, kept your Lordships constantly stimulated by his tough-minded and softly and seductively advanced proposals on a range of topics. He has established himself here as one of the most dignified parts of one of the most dignified parts of our constitution just at a time, sadly, when the other place has sunk further into supine dependency on an all-powerful Executive and veers daily between a talking shop and a shouting match. Surely if any part of Parliament is in urgent need of reform, it is the other place. Until recently, that was a truth that dared not be uttered, but it is now increasingly voiced, not least by distinguished Members of the other place on both sides.

It is right that my noble friend should bring his experience to this debate. Indeed, he recently led a fascinating discussion on his Bill to address the glaring constitutional imbalances resulting from the Scotland Act. To the West Lothian question, there came a Baker reply. Now, to part of the Westminster question, there comes a Baker reply, although I cannot agree with relating state assistance to political parties with the number of Members of Parliament. There is a serious point of principle in forcing the taxpayer to pay for political parties, which is a separate issue.

The fact that it is left to my noble friend to initiate this debate is indicative of the complacency—some might say political cynicism and opportunism—with which the Government have ignored these issues. The present arrangements suit them very nicely, thank you. We now have a new Prime Minister-designate, chosen unopposed by the governing party, with no reference to the British people.

We have come a long way since the days up to 1926, when many a new Minister used to have to resign and seek re-election on joining the Government. There is nothing constitutionally improper in these changes, but I know that all noble Lords will look with particular interest at the Minister’s reply, knowing that it will have been cleared by the Prime Minister-designate, a man who has spoken of working to increase the respect for Parliament. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that, in the context of that work, the ideas of my noble friend will be carefully considered.

I know my noble friend will agree with me when I say it is for Government, drawing on as wide a consensus as possible, to consider these sorts of reforms. It is not appropriate for a significant constitutional change to be effected by a Private Member’s Bill. For that reason, we will not be supporting the Bill if anyone seeks to divide the House. But I hope that no one will do so, for my noble friend touches on an area that is crying out for consideration and one which my right honourable friend Mr Kenneth Clarke is to examine in his Democracy Task Force.

My noble friend is of course right in the core contention of his Bill. There are too many politicians in this country; their numbers, rewards and overall cost have been greatly increased since 1997. Within that emerging continental-style political class—a detestable concept, if I may say so—is a larger House of Commons. In 1922, after the creation of the Irish Free State, there were just 615 Members of Parliament. In 2001, we had 659. Now, even following Scottish devolution, we have 646.

In 1901, when the Prime Minister spoke as a marquis from the Dispatch Box on the other side of this House, with the authority of 20 years in ministerial office and 14 as Prime Minister, and to the widest international and parliamentary respect, 591 Peers were eligible to take part in your Lordships’ House. In 1999, there were 1,211 of us. Our numbers were reduced to 666—a portentous number—by the purge of 1999, but the Prime Minister’s gay abandon in the exercise of patronage has increased our numbers to 738 today. Is the country better governed because Parliament is larger? I doubt it. Quantity and quality are never wisely confused.

There is certainly a case to reduce the size of the other place, and my party has indicated that it wishes to explore that course. In discussion, Mr Clarke’s Democracy Task Force has given an indicative figure of 10 per cent, which would reduce the numbers in the other place to the level suggested by the Bill. But there is no firm commitment to that figure—indeed, at the previous election, the Conservatives called for a House of Commons of 525 Members of Parliament.

There is a great deal of sympathy from these Benches for the arguments advanced by my noble friend in his Bill. However the findings of Mr Clarke’s task force and the many contributions to these discussions, not least those made in the course of this debate, should be awaited before settling on a definite figure or the right timescale for change.

My noble friend should be encouraged to keep pushing at the door—he will not discover the Conservative Party piling up chairs on the other side. Let me also make it clear that those on these Benches agree with the broad premise of the second major element of the Bill that the size of the constituency which elects an individual MP should be more nearly equalised. People of all parties, except for the one that most flagrantly profits from it—the Labour Party—comment regularly about this inherent unfairness in the electoral system. How frequently do we hear polling pundits, without batting an eyelid, pontificate on the number of percentage points of lead that the Conservative Party would need to secure a bare majority over Labour because of the tendency of urban constituencies to be smaller? One answer would be for the Conservative Party to step up the pace of its march back into our cities which, with Birmingham under Conservative control and Plymouth coming under it, we are now doing.

But changing party control does not redress imbalances in the system. Famously, in the 1997 election, it took nearly 60,000 voters to elect a Conservative MP and just over 32,000 to elect a Labour one. Only in the great Conservative victory of 1992, when our party won the largest popular vote ever recorded and were 2.5 million votes ahead of Labour, were the figures about equal on 42,000 votes per Member.

The Liberal Democrats, when banging on about proportional representation, should recall that, with proportional representation, they would have lost seats in 1997 rather than gaining 26 as they did.

My Lords, the noble Lord has the figures for 1997 completely the wrong way round. On the basis of our share of the vote in the 1997 general election, there would have been 100 Liberal Democrat MPs fairly representing the people who had voted throughout the country rather than the 46 who were actually elected.

My Lords, I beg to disagree with the noble Lord, but I will move on.

Proportional representation is an irrelevant canard in this debate, as in any other. Proportional representation stands for permanent representation in government for the least popular party and that is why the Liberal Democrats like it. If they wish to form a government, they need to make themselves a serious party of opposition, not just an ineffective party of opportunism, divided down the middle between warring philosophies. No Bill will solve the basic problem for the Liberal Democrats.

The size of constituencies is not the whole answer but it is part of it. Currently, the average Labour seat has 6,000 voters fewer than a Conservative one. Greater equality in the size of constituencies would certainly deliver greater fairness between the two main parties of government, between cities and the shires and between the public in every region of this land. It would enhance respect for the first-past-the-post system that serves this country so well in delivering stable governance.

My noble friend is quite right to bring this question before the House. If anything, his latitude of 10 per cent in the potential variation between constituencies may be too large. But the historic boundaries of counties, boroughs and local authorities must be respected and I am sure that my right honourable friend Mr Clarke will take these views into account in his task force.

With thanks to my noble friend for bringing this issue before us and highlighting these major questions, I will yield place to the Minister. The House will be a agog to hear evidence from her about the new attitude to Commons reform from a new listening, reforming, pro-Parliament Prime Minister designate and I am confident that she will not disappoint us.

My Lords, my right honourable friend has all of the attributes that the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, has given him. He is an extraordinary character who will be a truly great Prime Minister. However, I will disappoint the noble Lord by saying that my right honourable friend has not the faintest idea what I am about to say because I write my speech as I listen to noble Lords in order to respond properly. I believe that my right honourable friend will be pleased with what I have to say. We shall see.

I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is indeed seductive in many ways, and I am delighted to be able to respond to this debate. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, that a greater man than I would take on the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on any figures relating to the share of Liberal Democrat votes in any constituency or general election. I was impressed that he did so, but I do not intend to because I know far too well the reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in those matters. I agree about polling pundits. What can I say about their behaviour at all times?

I am the Minister responsible for freedom of information, so I am watching with great interest the range of votes taking place in another place. As a Government, we have taken a neutral stance on this matter. Noble Lords referred a couple of times in our debate to the Executive being overbearing in terms of the Commons. On matters that affect the Houses of Parliament, it is for the Houses of Parliament to decide. That is why the government stance is as it is. Noble Lords may disagree with that but that is as it is. However, I am proud to be the Minister responsible for freedom of information and proud that the Government have introduced the Act.

Noble Lords made a number of key points relating to the issues raised, to such great effect, by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I will begin with those to do with cost. We can play around with figures, but I agree with the noble Lord’s. My figures for the costs of moving to a different size are between £163 million and £146.5 million. I believe the noble Lord said about £20 million difference, bearing in mind overheads and costs. I came to the same conclusion having done the arithmetic—or rather having got other people to the sums for me, which I then looked at. We often disagree about figures in your Lordships' House, but his figures were about right.

The noble Lord also mentioned Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The electoral quota figures for England and Scotland are essentially now the same—at 69,935 and 69,934, they are almost identical. Indeed, that is larger than the equivalent figure for Wales at 55,640 and Northern Ireland at 60,969. But there are deep-seated reasons for that, to which the noble Lord referred. The current disparity reflects the particular nature of the devolution settlement in each part of the UK. There is parity with Scotland because it has primary legislation-making powers in many policy areas. The electoral quotas are smaller in Wales and Northern Ireland as they do not have the constitutional powers to make primary legislation for themselves. They have been deliberately provided for and protected by successive governments, so that the distinctive interests of Wales and Northern Ireland can be properly represented. We would have to take those issues into account before we even considered disturbing what has been a long-standing tradition that successive Governments have respected. We would need to think very carefully about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, asked questions that other noble Lords picked up about the disparity between electoral sizes and constituencies. My figure for the Isle of Wight is 103,000. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said 109,000. I am not going there; I am just saying that the figures are different. The smallest constituency is the Western Isles at 22,000. That is a huge disparity, but noble Lords know perfectly well why that disparity exists—because the Isle of Wight is an island and because of the particular nature of the Western Isles.

If we look more generally at constituencies in England, there is a much smaller differential. As a result of the fifth general review, every recommended constituency is within 20 per cent of the electoral quota figure, which is essentially the average electorate. I am looking to see whether the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is shaking his head in case I have got that wrong. Eighty-nine per cent of constituencies are within 10 per cent of that figure.

However, I have my own view which is to do with the issues of community. I speak from my experience working in the health service, when I tried to work out where communities naturally lay in order to provide appropriate secondary and acute services in hospitals. It is important to recognise the way in which our communities grow up and to take that into account when thinking about representation from local MPs. There is a real issue about making sure that local MPs stay in touch with their constituencies. I was interested when the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said that in the longer term, it may not be a problem. That is part of this debate and should to be fed into where this debate goes next. It is counterintuitive, as the noble Lord said. If we continue on the same basis with our parliamentary democracy and the role of the MP, we must not lose that, because it would be a great pity.

Certainly, talking to MPs as I frequently do, their case work is increasing because people find them more accessible. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, talked about a time when we did not have a Welsh Assembly, a Northern Ireland Assembly or Scottish Parliament, when MPs did not communicate as often. But the level of communication, particularly with email, has increased and it is important to accept and recognise that communication between MPs and their constituents is a fundamental part of the job that they undertake.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Noble Lords will know that in January the committee reported its review of the Electoral Commission; as part of its review, it looked at the operation of parliamentary and local government electoral boundary reviews. In the final report was a recommendation that there should be a fundamental independent review of the legislation on parliamentary boundaries, looking at the rules in Schedule 2—to which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has particularly drawn attention in his Bill—the criteria that must be taken into account by the Boundary Commissions, and the statutory processes that must be followed in the course of a review. We are considering those recommendations and will formally respond to them, including those that relate to the boundary reviews, in due course.

In conclusion, a large number of issues have been raised. I was particularly interested in whether the proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would become Conservative Party policy. Maybe it will be a bit like with grammar schools—it will be party policy one day and not the next.

My Lords, I am sorry, I could not resist that—I was an Education Minister.

The Bill raises some interesting questions about elected representation and constituencies in the House of Commons. Because we have a formal recommendation before us from the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the whole area should be the subject of an independent review, I do not want to leave any hostages to fortune in predicting a response, except to say that we are very interested in what the committee has said. If any changes are to be made to the legislation in this fundamental area of the constitution, they are better made in the light of a formal review process than through a Private Member’s Bill without the benefit of a wider analysis and contribution. That is not to suggest that this is not an important part of that debate.

My Lords, I come back to an earlier point, because the Minister is about to conclude. One point that she made in respect of one part of the Bill has a significant bearing on the other. On constituency disparity, she cited the case of the Isle of Wight, which has a sense of community and a Member who represents more than 100,000 constituents. That has a bearing on the question whether it is manageable for one Member to deal with that number of constituents.

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right, but if you tried to even up the size of that constituency you would chop bits of it off and presumably relate it to Southampton, or wherever. The noble Lord is right—that is exactly the kind of conversation that needs to happen. Perhaps there is something about the nature of an island that makes it easier for people to talk to their MP, because it is such a clear community. I do not know—we would have to talk with the MP himself. Those are issues that need to be looked at carefully.

When I knew that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was going to reply for the Liberal Democrats, I knew what his speech was going to be. I have thoroughly enjoyed debating this whole question with him and others. He makes a fair and valid point—that if we change the system of representation we change the way in which we look at constituencies and, possibly, the number of constituencies. That would be one way in which to approach this matter, but it is not our way. We are happy with the system as it stands. We have talked many times about what one wishes to achieve by electing a Government and the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, said that you get certainty. That may not be where the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, wishes to be—but there it is. I completely accept that that is another fundamental debate to be had, if one is looking at the whole question of constituencies, their size and representation.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Baker. This has been an important and valuable contribution to the debate. We are considering carefully the recommendations for a full review in this area. There are issues that go beyond this debate about concern at the length of time in which the reviews will take place—the eight to 12 years—and so on, which the Boundary Commissions have said that they would like to consider. I hope that it will be in that light that we take this forward.

My Lords, I thank all the Peers who took part in this debate. I am encouraged by it. I am aware that you cannot bring in a major constitutional change by a Private Member’s Bill, but at least one has got the debate going. I am grateful for the rather sympathetic reply that the Minister has just given. When I introduced my Bill on English votes for English laws, the noble and Learned Lord the Lord Chancellor got up and raved for about half an hour about how all human liberty would be at risk if my Bill went through. The Minister is not a raver—in fact, she was rather encouraging in what she said.

I thank my noble friend Lord Norton for his contribution. He is one of the great constitutional experts in the House, and when on these Benches we raise constitutional matters we know perfectly well that if we make mistakes—and none of us is perfect—they will be carefully and gently corrected by my noble friend. I am glad for the general support that he gave my Bill. I know that he wants to be more ambitious and have a much smaller House of Commons.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also supported the general concept of a smaller House of Commons and raised the question, which I found quite interesting, of how flexible the size of a constituency should be on the grounds that the population changes all the time. That reminded me of a speech in the Commons by Michael Foot, faced with a Boundary Commission that was going to mess up Ebbw Vale, which had virtually become a corrupt rotten borough because it was so small. Michael Foot came out with the very traditional, almost Conservative, view that these were old traditions, communities and customs and that people were living there all together who must not be disrupted. It was a defence of Old Sarum, basically. I still fundamentally believe that one vote should have the same value everywhere in the country and that there should be a standard electoral quota across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I was encouraged, too, by what my honourable friend said from the Front Bench—

My Lords, yes, but he is also my friend. The door of policy is not closed, as I understand it, and the Conservative Party under Kenneth Clarke’s committee is prepared to do this.

It is clear from this debate that the issue has now been raised. It is a very important issue. Not only the Boundary Commission review but, I suspect, a much wider review will be needed. When the size of the House of Commons has been discussed in the past, there has always been a Speaker’s Conference—that was the way of doing it in 1917 and 1944. There must be some consensus between all the parties for the major steps of this sort. I should like to see a commitment from all the parties to a major review. Simply a review of the Boundary Commission in its present nature will not be sufficient, because we are raising very profound issues of great significance.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.