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Parliament: MP Numbers and Constituency Review

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 24 June 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consultations they plan to hold with local authorities and the Boundaries Commissions on reducing the number of Members of Parliament and reviewing the size of parliamentary constituencies.

My Lords, Ministers are taking advice on the details of proposals, including on consultation, and, as I said in the House on 15 June, we will of course seek to frame the legislation in a way that ensures that the Boundary Commissions complete their task in a timely, fair and thorough way.

I thank my noble friend for that response. Will the Government assure us that when the Boundary Commissions consider this, they consider not only the electorate size but the geography and the local authority boundaries when reporting on the new constituencies? Will they also discuss thoroughly with the devolved Administrations any effect that the new boundaries for Westminster might have on, say, the Cardiff Assembly or the Edinburgh Parliament?

My Lords, my noble friend will know that the sole objective of this exercise is to bring greater fairness to our electoral regulations and equal weight to votes. He is right, of course, that common sense and a sense of history and of geography will have an influence on this, and we will consider the implications for Wales and the other nations and regions of this kingdom when we come forward with our proposals.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, is quite right; local consultations, representations and involvement in boundary reviews, particularly this boundary review, are vital. The Liberal Democrats have always been proud of their commitment to local democracy. My question is: will this commitment survive? If promises such as the ones on VAT can so easily be shredded, how can the Minister convince the House that this commitment to local democracy will not be sacrificed in due course?

These proposals will strengthen local democracy and enhance the whole quality and culture of our democracy by giving fairer votes and votes of more equal weight.

My Lords, I congratulate the coalition Government on their plan to reduce the size of the other place in order to achieve economies, but will the Minister explain why they propose at the same time greatly to enlarge the size of this House at considerable cost, and in doing so, as he himself has pointed out, perhaps bring this House into some disrepute in the country?

My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. If he comes to the debate next week, as I am sure he will, he will hear my noble friend Lord Strathclyde and me speaking at an appropriate length about how we think the numbers and the costs of this House could be radically reduced.

I suggest to the Minister, I hope without impertinence, that these proposals are spawned by cosmetic considerations and indeed by populism, and that it is utterly absurd to consider a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons to a lower level than at the time of the Great Reform Act when the population of this kingdom was only a third to a quarter of what it is now. Indeed, all that will be achieved is an enhanced distance between the ordinary voter and the ordinary representative, which cannot be good for democracy.

On the contrary, one of the things on which we can again pay tribute to the previous Administration is the progress that they made in devolution. We intend to carry forward the process of devolution so that more responsibility is given to the Parliaments and Assemblies of the nations and regions of this country. If you do that, it is absurd to continue with a House of Commons of the same size as when it had the responsibilities that have now been devolved. That is part of the sensible consequences of devolution.

My Lords, is the Minister entirely confident that it is a wise course on the part of the Government to attempt to reduce the number of constituencies at the same time as introducing AV? Does he accept that it is one thing, and pretty difficult at that, to persuade Members of Parliament to vote for an electoral system other than the one that brought them to Westminster, but that it is an altogether more desperate undertaking to ask them to agree to a game of Russian roulette, which will ensure that for significant numbers of them there will not be a seat in the next Parliament? Will all this not stretch the tolerances of coalition Back-Bench MPs?

These are matters of political judgment. The twin objectives of the coalition are to bring greater fairness to our electoral system and equality of weight to each vote. At the same time, we would wish to go with the flow of what we have been doing in recent years, which is to move power to the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that special provision for island communities would need to be made in the guidelines given to the Boundary Commissions? Does he further accept that without special provisions, it would, for example, be very difficult for a single Member of Parliament to represent, say, a part of the Isle of Wight and a part of the mainland, or for a single Member of Parliament to represent the 20 populated islands in the Orkney and Shetland constituency, and the large geographic constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross?

That is a fair point. The integrity of the Boundary Commissions and the way in which they go about their work have never been in doubt, thank goodness. Because this is constitutional legislation, it will be taken on the Floor of the House in the other place and we will have in this place experts such as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, my noble friend and others who have great experience and will put their input into the deliberations as this legislation goes through.

My Lords, two weeks ago, when I asked a similar Question, the Minister was good enough to acknowledge that the Answer provided by his civil servants was wholly inadequate. He was also rather disappointed that the answer with which he attempted to improve the efforts of his civil servants was not that good either. Now that he has had a fortnight to think about how long he estimates the Boundary Commission will take bearing in mind that the last review took six years, and now that the finest brains of the civil servants in his department have been focused on this for the past couple of weeks, can he give any improvement on the wholly inadequate Answer that he gave me last time?

I very much regret that the noble Lord has raised that. I was severely reprimanded by the department and it was a couple of days before any of the civil servants talked to me. As I said in answering this question, Ministers are taking advice on the detailed proposals and will bring forward legislation and a timetable as soon as possible.