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Political and Constitutional Reform

Volume 720: debated on Monday 5 July 2010


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows.

“Mr Speaker, every Member of this House was elected knowing that this Parliament must be unlike any other, that we have a unique duty to restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times. If anything was clear at the general election, it was that more and more people have realised that our political system is broken and needs to be fixed. They want us to clean up politics; they want to be able to hold us properly to account. So the Government have set out an ambitious programme for political renewal, transferring power away from the Executive to empower Parliament and away from Parliament to empower people.

That programme includes: introducing a power of recall for MPs who are guilty of serious wrongdoing; tackling the influence of big money as we look again at party funding; taking forward long overdue reform of the other place; implementing the Wright Committee recommendations; taking steps to give people more power to shape parliamentary business; speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration; and increasing transparency in lobbying, including through a statutory register.

Today I am announcing the details of a number of major elements of the Government’s proposals for political reform. First, we are introducing legislation to fix parliamentary terms. The date of the next general election will be 7 May 2015. This is a hugely significant constitutional innovation. It is simply not right that a general election can be called according to a Prime Minister’s whims. This Prime Minister will be the first Prime Minister to give up that right.

I know that when the coalition agreement was published, there was some concern at these proposals. We have listened carefully to those concerns, and I can announce today that we will proceed in a Bill that will be introduced before the Summer Recess. First, traditional powers of no confidence will be put into law, and a vote of no confidence will still require only a simple majority. Secondly, if after that vote of no confidence a Government cannot be formed within 14 days, Parliament will be dissolved and a general election will be held. Let me be clear: these steps will strengthen Parliament’s power over the Executive. Thirdly, there will be an additional power for Parliament to vote for an early and immediate dissolution. We have decided that a majority of two-thirds will be needed to carry the vote, as opposed to the 55 per cent first suggested, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament. These changes will make it impossible for any Government to force a dissolution for their own purposes. These proposals should make it absolutely clear to the House that votes of no confidence and votes for early dissolution are entirely separate, and that we are putting in place safeguards against a lame-duck Government being left in limbo if the House passes a vote of no confidence but does not vote for early dissolution.

I am also announcing today the details of the Government's proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote system and for a review of constituency boundaries to create fewer and more equally sized constituencies, cutting the cost of politics and reducing the number of MPs from the 650 that we have today to a House of 600 MPs.

Together, these proposals help correct the deep unfairness in the way that we hold elections in this country. Under the current set-up, votes count more in some parts of the country than in others, and millions of people feel that their votes do not count at all. Elections are won and lost in a small minority of seats. We have a fractured democracy where some people’s votes count and others’ do not, where some people are listened to and others are ignored.

By equalising the size of constituencies, we ensure that people’s votes carry the same weight no matter where they live. Only months ago, the electorate of Islington North stood at 66,472, while 10 miles away, in East Ham, the figure was 87,809. In effect, that means that a person voting in East Ham has a vote that is worth much less than a vote in Islington North. That cannot be right. These imbalances are found right across the United Kingdom.

Reducing the number of MPs allows us to bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world. The House of Commons is the largest directly elected Chamber in the European Union, and is half as big again as the US House of Representatives. It was never intended that the overall size of the House should keep rising, yet that is precisely the effect of the current legislation—the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Capping the number of MPs corrects that, and saves money too. Fifty fewer MPs would save £12 million a year on pay, pensions and allowances.

On the referendum, by giving people a choice over their electoral system, we give that system a new legitimacy. Surely when dissatisfaction with politics is so great, one of our first acts must be to give people their own say over something as fundamental as how they elect their MPs. The question will be simple—asking people whether they want to adopt the alternative vote, yes or no. The precise wording will be tested by the Electoral Commission.

As for the date of the referendum, in making that decision we have been driven by three key considerations: that all parties fought the general election on an absolute pledge to move fast to fix our political system so we must get on and do that without delay; that it is important to avoid asking people to keep traipsing to the ballot box; and, finally, that in these straitened times we must keep costs as low as possible.

That is why the Prime Minister and I have decided that the referendum will be held on 5 May 2011, the same day as the elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and local elections in England. That will save an estimated £17 million. I know that some honourable Members have concerns over that date, but I believe that people will be able to distinguish between the different issues on which they will be asked to vote on the same day.

Our Bill will make explicit provision for the boundary commissions to report on more equally sized constituencies for the process to be completed by the end of 2013, allowing enough time for candidates to be selected ahead of the 2015 election, and we will ensure that the boundary commissions have what they need to do that. That means that, in the event of a vote in favour of AV, the 2015 election will be held on the new system, and according to new boundaries. Let me be clear: these are complementary changes—the outcome of the referendum is put in place as the new boundaries are put in place.

The Bill will require the boundary commissions to set new constituencies within 5 per cent of a target quota of registered electors, with just two exceptions: Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles, uniquely placed given their locations. We have listened, also, to those who have very large constituencies—so the Bill will provide that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now. We intend that, in the future, boundary reviews will be more frequent to ensure that constituencies continue to meet the requirements we will set out in our Bill.

I understand that this announcement will raise questions on all sides of this House, for these are profound changes. But let me just say this: yes, there are technical issues that will need to be scrutinised and approached with care as these Bills pass through Parliament. But ensuring that elections are as fair and democratic as possible is a matter of principle above all else. These are big, fundamental reforms we are proposing, but we are all duty bound to respond to public demand for political reform. That is how we restore people’s faith in their politics once again. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Deputy Leader for repeating the Statement of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I am grateful to the Government for early sight of the Statement.

There are some who take the view that this House has no role in these matters, that these are matters for the House of Commons and the House of Commons alone; but I believe that this House is a key part of the politics and the constitution of our country and a vital element of the constitutional checks and balances which are a central feature of the governance of our nation. There are clearly issues in the Statement repeated by the Deputy Leader for this House to consider.

First, will the Deputy Leader acknowledge that the Government’s proposals announced today for an early Dissolution of Parliament following a vote of no confidence represent the first major U-turn of this Government—and in less than two months? Can he explain to the House why the Government did not think before about the impossibility of a Government hanging on after they had lost a vote of no confidence by a simple majority? To have done so would have saved the Government a lot of embarrassment. But why, having recognised that a vote of no confidence leads inexorably to a Dissolution, do the Government continue to assert the nonsense that no confidence and Dissolution are separate? They are not—the one is a consequence of the other. As to the Government’s now subsidiary proposal for a two-thirds majority of any other Dissolution, what is its purpose? Is it not completely superfluous? Either the Government are in favour of a fixed-term Parliament, as long as the Government of the day enjoy the confidence of the House, or they are not.

On boundary changes, is the Deputy Leader aware that what we in the Opposition will not allow is for support for AV to be used as some sort of cover for outrageously partisan proposals in the same Bill to gerrymander the boundaries of the House of Commons by arbitrary changes in the rules for setting boundaries and by an equally arbitrary cut in the number of MPs? There is the huge problem, which the Electoral Commission highlighted in March, of 3.5 million citizens who are eligible to vote but who are not on the register. If the Government’s aim is to make the system fairer, why has the Deputy Leader said absolutely nothing about how the Government will ensure that those 3.5 million citizens are included in the Boundary Commission’s calculations about the size of the constituencies and how to get them on to the register in time for the review of the boundaries?

Since the Government claim that they want to empower people, is it the Deputy Leader’s intention that local communities should continue to have a right to an independent local Boundary Commission inquiry? If it is, then when he says,

“we will ensure the Boundary Commissions have what they need”,

to complete this huge task by the end of 2013, what additional resources and staff will it be given?

As for the referendum on the alternative vote, this House will be well aware that just such a proposal was put forward by this party on these Benches. But does the Deputy Leader recall that during the general election the Deputy Prime Minister told the Independent newspaper that the alternative vote system was a “miserable little compromise” and that he was “not going to settle” for that?

Can the Deputy Leader tell the House what changed the Deputy Prime Minister's mind?

The material points on this for your Lordships’ House are principally twofold. First, a matter such as a referendum on voting reform is bound to be a central component of the national debate. Whether the public are as interested in it as the politicians remains to be seen. However, it will be part of the national debate, and this House unquestionably has a part to play in that debate.

Secondly, a move to a referendum will require primary legislation. Even if you do subscribe to the view that it must be for the elected House to have its way on electoral matters at national level, the fact that legislation will come before your Lordships’ House again unquestionably requires this House to play its part in the carriage of that legislation. So, Members of this House will be able to hold the Government to account as they bring forward the legislation which this referendum will require.

I can tell the Deputy Leader that one of the points on which we will be pressing the Government strenuously will be the clear need to improve the register of voters before any election under a changed system of voting. We know the gaps in the register. We know that people across this country are disenfranchised. We know that those who are particularly disenfranchised are those who are already among the most disadvantaged. So, as part of the preparation for the next general election—and particularly so if it is to be carried out on the basis of a changed method of voting—can the Deputy Leader confirm that the Government will mount with local authorities a major exercise to improve registration?

Can the Minister also confirm that just as the coalition Government are preparing to press ahead with a referendum on a major constitutional issue such as a change to the electoral system to be used for national general elections, the coalition Government will also commit themselves to a referendum on further major reform of your Lordships’ House?

Much has been made of how far the decision of the coalition Government to proceed to a referendum on AV is a risk to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the two parties which form the coalition and the coalition Government as a whole. All that, of course, must be a matter for them. However, we on this side of the House are concerned about making sure that the Government’s decision to move to a referendum is not a risk to the constitution, to the legislative process and to the country. That is the proper job of opposition. That is a job which, in relation to what the Deputy Prime Minister has announced today, we on this side of this House will do.

My Lords, on that last point, I would expect no other. Yes, it is the job of the Official Opposition, and indeed of both Houses of Parliament, to scrutinise carefully any constitutional change, and there is nothing in what the noble Baroness said that I could disagree with. Nor would I disagree with the fact that, given the experience and collective wisdom of this House, when the legislation comes forward it should again have proper scrutiny in this House, as it will, as a constitutional Bill, on the Floor of the other place.

It is always good fun to find U-turns. If you do not U-turn then you are arrogant, you do not listen and you are pushing ahead, but if you consult, listen to advice and make changes then you have done a U-turn. What I look at is the end result, and here the end result is far more sensible and should be far more acceptable to the House than the original proposition. Two-thirds is belt and braces against the Government breaking the fixed Parliament, and as such it should be welcomed. The endorsement of the straight majority being the requisite for a vote of no confidence should, again, be welcome.

On the question of “outrageously arbitrary”, “gerrymandering” and so on, one expects the Opposition to get a little excited and start using colourful and florid language. As most colleagues know, what was wrong with our system was that it was becoming increasingly distorted: in 1951, 98 per cent voted either Labour or Conservative, so the system reflected the view of the country to a general degree, but in 2005, 36 per cent of the vote delivered a majority of 66 per cent in the House of Commons. Giving absolute power on a grotesque minority of the vote is arbitrary and unacceptable, so it is right that we should look at equal constituency sizes. As my right honourable friend pointed out to Mr Straw in the other place, equal constituency size was in fact one of the initial demands of the Chartists in the 1840s, and if it was good enough for the Chartists, it is good enough for me.

The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, is showing off his history again.

These missing 3.5 million citizens are a concern, and it is a concern that many of them can be identified as young people, people from ethnic minorities and the very poor. The reason why they are not registered is a matter that we all have to address, and I fully agree that there has to be more of an effort to get them on to the register. On the other hand, if you have between 92 percent and 93 per cent of your electorate registered, with all the churn that goes on, that is not a bad record for a functioning democracy.

What is more unacceptable is the idea of holding elections on Boundary Commission boundaries that, by the time the election is held, are over 10 years old. That is how you get your elections out of kilter. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point. We will certainly make every effort to get people registered and involved in our political system. One of the good things about this exercise is that nobody has suggested that our Boundary Commission has been anything other than absolutely above reproach in the way in which it has carried out its work, except that it has been extraordinarily slow in doing that work. We will talk with the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission to see what resources they need to do a better job quickly.

Whether or not AV is a “miserable little compromise” is a matter of judgment, but it is interesting that the party opposite opted for AV for the very good reason that it retains the link with the single constituency. I see the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, nodding in agreement. I find one of the refreshing and enlivening things about coalition is that, after you have fought an election with firm vigour, you sit down with your coalition partners and you manage to convince them about a referendum on voting reform, while they manage to convince you that AV would be the best solution to put to the country. That is the kind of healthy give and take—

No, sit down. We have 20 minutes. So eager are the Opposition to start asking me further questions that I will just say that I think that I have covered most of the points that the noble Baroness raised and I look forward to questions from the Back Benches.

I wonder whether the noble Lord will allow me to pursue a matter that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I am very much in favour of a reduction in the number of parliamentary seats, but how will the Government ensure that the Boundary Commission can report and bring those changes into effect in time for the next general election? It is not enough just to require the Boundary Commission to report by a certain date; somehow or other, it will have to avoid getting bogged down in interminable local inquiries, which are what have taken up time in the past. What will the Government do to try to curtail those inquiries and to make it possible for the Boundary Commission to report? I am not much in favour of curtailing the rights of citizens to give evidence at inquiries, but what is the alternative? How can the Minister assure me that these changes will come into effect in time for the next general election?

My noble friend makes a very interesting point, which I suspect that the draft Bill will cover. We have to find the right balance between the Boundary Commission doing a proper and thorough job and not getting bogged down in the way that my noble friend describes.

Given the Government’s new-found enthusiasm for a two-thirds threshold for a Dissolution of Parliament, will there be a threshold in the referendum? Will two-thirds of the country have to vote yes in the referendum? Will there be a threshold in the turnout of the electorate before the referendum has any validity?

No. If the noble Baroness wants me to show her the scars, I will tell her about the first Scottish referendum.

My Lords, what is most notable about my noble friend’s presentation is that in the last paragraph he emphasises that these are profound changes—“big, fundamental reforms” which will require immense and careful scrutiny. Does it begin to make sense for the whole range of solutions to these wide-ranging problems to be presented in this way at this time? Is he aware that the first book I reviewed, for the South Wales Evening Post, was written by Christopher Hollis and had as its title the question Can Parliament Survive? That was 60 years ago. The book was full of anxieties and propositions. Parliament has, on the whole, until the last decade survived pretty well. In the earlier 50 years it would not have dreamt of approaching problems as large as this with solutions as great as this. It would surely have committed them to a Speaker’s Conference, a royal commission or both, and done it step by step. To address this situation of total disillusion, as my noble friend describes it, with a torrent of ill considered change of almost everything is surely the last thing people want at this time.

That speech has been made in this House and the other place many times over the last 200 years, though not by me. I have always taken the view that constitutional reforms are carried through by Governments that believe in them and put them with vigour to both Houses. My noble and learned friend gives the recipe for inaction that we have always had—Speaker’s Conferences, royal commissions and inaction. This is a radical programme to deal with a problem that we are all aware of. I was a member of the Maclennan committee before the 1997 election. I remember our high hopes that the incoming Labour Government would move forward. Unfortunately, after three or four years they completely ran out of stem on steam on constitutional reform.

My Lords, we have another 15 minutes. I am sure everybody will get in. Shall we hear from the Cross Benches first and then somebody from the Labour Party?

My Lords, does the Minister recollect that, about a fortnight ago, in reply to my intervention in a Question on the reduction of the number of seats in the House of Commons, he said that the justification for that was devolution in relation to Scotland and Wales? Today’s Statement makes no reference to devolution—only to the saving of £12 million per annum. Which is it? Will it be the case, as far as the reduction is concerned, that it will be pro rata over the whole of the United Kingdom, with no specific culling on the basis of devolution for Wales or Scotland?

There is no specific culling on the basis of Welsh or Scottish devolution. There is an aim, as far as possible, to get the same size of constituency. Saving money and moving forward with devolution are not mutually exclusive. We have already pledged that we will move forward with the referendum on more powers for the Welsh Assembly—something that the Government are committed to and which is part of this broader pattern of political reform.

My Lords, I said that a Labour Back-Bencher should speak next. Then we will hear from my noble friend Lord Dholakia.

I ask a question that will be on the minds of elected Members of the House of Commons. The noble Lord referred to 5 per cent of the target quota of registered electors. What is that number per constituency on the basis of calculations which have already been done in the Minister’s department?

I think the figure is about 80,000. I am not sure whether I am going beyond my brief in telling the noble Lord that, but it does not take a great deal of high mathematics to work out that 600 into the electorate is about 80,000.

My Lords, from this side of the coalition I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for repeating the Statement on political and constitutional reform. Coming so soon after the reform of the criminal justice system announced last week, this is most welcome and the Government ought to be congratulated on it. Does the Minister accept that the previous election, fought on the first past the post system, did not deliver a strong, stable or decisive Government—so much for that system? Some in government have indicated that they do not wish to play an active role in the referendum campaign. What is being done to encourage them to participate? The referendum and the involvement of political parties will have resource implications. What discussions are being held with the Electoral Commission and others to ensure that funds are available for that campaign? Will the Minister encourage the media to take an active role similar to that adopted in the leadership debates so that the electorate are better informed about the new system being proposed?

I thank my noble friend for those comments. It is clear that a referendum will involve a yes and a no campaign with a cap on the expenditure on either side but with some public funding available to help both sides. That will become clear following the discussions we are having with the Electoral Commission to ensure that the referendum can be conducted properly and with the involvement that my noble friend talked about.

When precisely will the Government speed up registration? What action will they take between now and the referendum, or can we expect 3.5 million people not to vote in the referendum because they are not registered? Will the Minister consider the suggestion made recently to him by his Back-Bench noble friend Lord Goodlad as regards adopting the good and well tried practice in many countries, particularly Australia, where there is compulsory registration of individuals? Are the Government considering that; if not, why not?

We are not considering compulsory voting. The note of indignation about the missing 3.5 million comes a bit rum from a Government who tolerated it all through their period in office. However, I do not blame them. Suddenly the Labour Party has become indignant about the missing 3.5 million. I believe that in a voluntary system it is almost impossible to get 100 per cent registration. Then there is the problem to which I referred of a low turnout among the very poor, ethnic minorities and the very young. Those problems face all political parties when seeking to engage those groups in our political process.

We have heard various cost estimates, but not one for the redistribution of the boundaries under the Boundary Commission. What is that cost estimate? I do not share the noble Lord’s view on the Boundary Commission. In a public inquiry in my former constituency of Worthing all the political parties and everyone were agreed on what the right answer was. After the matter had been concluded, the Boundary Commission, without warning, came up with a totally different solution. Should there not be an appeals procedure, at least in extreme cases where the answer seems to be wrong?

We will have to see what the proposals are in the Bill to meet the objective of streamlining the work of the Boundary Commission. I think that any reasonable person would say that is needed if its work is to be relevant to elections. I repeat that a gap of 10 years between the commission doing its work and the holding of an election renders that work absurd. It is very difficult to respond on individual constituency issues and to give at the moment a precise response on costing. All those will come forward in due course and in proper time.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has been trying to get in from the very start. He is the leader of a party in this House. Perhaps we can then hear from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

My Lords, I am most grateful. I should like to put a question on behalf of the 2.5 million people who voted for minority parties, the largest of which I have the honour to lead. The Government state:

“Surely when dissatisfaction with politics is so great, one of our first acts must be to give people their own say over something as fundamental as how they elect their MPs”.

However, the Statement goes on to “take it or leave it”. It is the AV system or nothing. What is wrong with AV plus, which is, after all, a system that is good enough for Scotland, Wales and the London Assembly? Why is that system not good enough for the country?

I have just heard a major flaw in AV plus; the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, was elected to the Scottish Parliament on it. The Government of the day have a duty to put forward a proposal for Parliament to consider a referendum on AV plus—

Can the Deputy Leader clarify what is the purpose of legislating to allow for a dissolution of Parliament on a two-thirds vote of the Members of the other place? Her Majesty’s Opposition will of course seek to persuade that House, on a 50 per cent vote, to pass a vote of no confidence. This matter was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, but the noble Lord gave no answer.

The point is that once we have got to a system of fixed-term Parliaments, to prevent the Government of the day engineering an early dissolution for their own short-term political advantage, they would therefore need a two-thirds majority—something that no Government in the UK have had since the war. As I said in my opening response to the noble Baroness, it is belt and braces against what we are trying to get away from. We are trying to move to the stability of a fixed-term Parliament and away from Governments of the day using early elections for short-term advantage.

My Lords, given the profundity of the constitutional changes that will be incorporated in this Bill, can my noble friend give an undertaking that in no circumstances would the Parliament Act be invoked in order to secure its passage?

We put forward proposals for the very good reason that we think they are very sensible, and we assume that both Houses of Parliament will endorse them.

My Lords, with regard to the referendum on the alternative vote, can the Minister answer this simple question? We understand that both parties that make up the coalition Government will campaign in opposite directions. If that is the case, what impact will that have on the electorate?

I have no idea. However, I am sure that, as with previous referenda, we will have people of good will taking honest opinions about voting yes or no and campaigning on them—and may the best side win.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the estimates that have been made of the party-political consequences of this reducing and equalising measure suggest that it may make a difference of only seven or eight, or 12 or 13, seats; and therefore that much heat has been generated needlessly about this proposal?

I am quite sure that the psephologists and slide-rule merchants in all parties and on television will be making calculations. We are putting this forward because it makes our system of elections fairer, and that is what people want.

My Lords, I do not want to be unkind to the Deputy Leader of the House, but his answers seem to have been a combination of, “You would say that, wouldn’t you?” to the Opposition, and, “I have heard that argument before” to members of his coalition; and it seems that he cannot say whether the Parliament Act would be used. I will ask a straightforward question: what will happen to the coalition if the referendum on an AV system is lost?

Usually, people who say that they do not want to be unkind mean that they want to be unkind. I assure the noble Baroness that if the referendum is lost, the coalition will move on with its programme of government towards the election in May 2015. What has not got across to the other side is that we are into a new system of politics that provides better governance.

My Lords, will my noble friend arrange for an early debate on the Select Committee on the Constitution’s recent report on referendums, in the light of the difference of views that have been expressed around the House and of the topicality of the subject?

The Minister explained the reduction in the size of the other place by reference to the size of Chambers elsewhere in the world, and to cost. Will he explain why the Government are increasing the membership of this House?

It is a period of transition—I nearly said “ambition”. Once the radical reforms for this place are through, this House, too, will come down in size.

My Lords, I know that this subject interests all parts of the House, but we have now spent 20 minutes on it. Normally, we would go on to the next Statement, which is on education. However, since it has not yet started in another place, we will continue with the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, is the next person on the list of speakers. It has been drawn to my attention that he has now arrived, which is very good news for the whole House and no doubt for the nation, which will be waiting to hear what he has to say.