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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 13 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they consider would constitute a “significant change” to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill such as would, according to the oral evidence given by the Electoral Commission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on 14 September, affect the referendum date if made after 5 November.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Attlee for warming up the House. The rules for the conduct of the referendum are very closely based on those for parliamentary general elections. We therefore consider it unlikely that significant issues will arise during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and I promise that I will not mention Mr Mark Harper. But the Minister will be aware that the Electoral Commission has to have that legislation by 5 November, six months before polling day. Does that not mean that this House is being held to ransom by restricting our capacity to revise and amend the Bill, thereby placing limits on the constitutional role of this House?

My Lords, I have no objection to the noble Lord mentioning Mr Mark Harper, whose profile seems to be increasing by the hour. In fact, he sent me a message about his triumph only last night from the other place where the Bill cleared various hurdles with very comfortable majorities. It is only a week or so since the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was telling me that this House would not have proper time to debate the Bill. Let us see. The Bill seems to be making good progress in the other place and when it comes here, as always, the Government will listen carefully to the views of this House.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the significant change to which this Question relates can be relevant only in terms of Part 1 of the Bill, which, as my noble friend has already said, made considerable progress in the other place yesterday? In those circumstances, will he take this opportunity to assure the House that if there is an importation of Commons filibustering tactics on the Bill this would not be encouraged?

My Lords, personally, I would think nothing so unworthy of the Members of this House. This Bill deals with matters mainly to do with the House of Commons. When it comes here, this House will treat it with the respect due to such a Bill, but will give it the scrutiny that will help the Government in making it a good Bill to take to Royal Assent.

My Lords, it is such good news to hear about Mr Mark Harper doing well in the House of Commons. In relation to this Bill, regulations are being passed before the Bill has even had its Second Reading in this House. In addition, the referendum will take place on a day that all the evidence to the Select Committee on the Constitution in this House said would be a day on which the referendum would get swamped by the Scottish election general, the Welsh general election and the local elections. Will the Minister explain what the hurry is? Why can the referendum not take place within 12 months from May?

First, I welcome the noble, right honourable, learned and everything else Lord back to the Front Bench. It is said that they never come back, but there he is. A lot of scaremongering and false arguments are being put forward. Various bodies are suddenly elevated in their opinion. The Electoral Commission has said that it is possible to successfully deliver these different polls on 5 May. I suggest that, instead of trying to imply that the process is somehow flawed, we should watch its steady progress where we will deliver a very thorough examination at this end. I am sure that we will have an excellent Second Reading debate and a good Committee stage, and the Bill will be all the better for the deliberations of the House of Lords.

Does the Minister remember the numerous occasions when he was sitting down there on which he complained about Bills being rushed through the House of Commons without proper scrutiny and subject to draconian timetabling rules? This Bill currently going through the House of Commons was described, I should remind him, by the Leader of his own party as being part of the most significant parliamentary reform since the Reform Act 1832. It is being rushed through in four weeks. Has the transformation in the Minister’s personality between when he was sitting here and now that he is sitting there reached a position whereby he thinks that four weeks in the House of Commons to consider a major constitutional Bill that has had no pre-legislative scrutiny is sufficient?

We all go through transformations. Here is a Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, two of the most—let me put this at its most polite—efficient government business managers in either House. If anyone doubts that, there are probably Members on that Bench who have the scars that show the persuasive talents of both noble Lords. The fact is that all oppositions complain that Bills are being railroaded and stampeded—

Yes. Instead of all this indignation, why not wait for Second Reading, when noble Lords can make their speeches? As I have said, Mr Mark Harper is taking personal responsibility for this Bill in the other place and is making excellent progress. If I can emulate Mr Harper’s success, I will be well pleased.