Second Reading (1st Day)
My Lords, it is considerably later than we had intended to start the main business of the day, but I now beg to move that the Bill be read a second time. This Bill is a core part of the coalition Government’s programme. It is a simple measure that provides for three things: a referendum on the voting system for the other place; a modest reduction in the number of MPs; and fairer, more equal constituencies. It would not have existed in its present form without the creation of the coalition. Speaking for my party as well as for the Government, I say clearly that we are completely committed to honour the coalition agreement. That is why, as Leader of this House, I open for the Government on the Bill.
Of course, I would have liked 20 more Conservative seats at the general election, but that was not the people’s choice. They did not deliver a majority for a single-party Government. They asked us to work together —and that, I believe, is our duty.
This Government have started on the giant task of restoring this country from the economic, diplomatic and social wreckage of the past 13 years.
Shame on you!
It would be madness to risk that coalition to stop the British people having a say in how they choose their Members of Parliament.
I know that many of my noble friends do not like or want the alternative vote system. Frankly, I am inclined to agree. As this Bill allows your Lordships to vote in the proposed referendum, I can let you into a secret: I will vote no.
I will have a vote in the referendum.
I can let your Lordships into another secret: my noble friend Lord McNally will vote yes. Some might think, as our votes will cancel each other out, we should just stay at home and have a quiet dinner together, but we will not, because both of us are agreed that the British people should have this choice, and we will each campaign for the answer we seek.
How odd it would be if this unelected House, which lately voted overwhelmingly against the very idea that your Lordships should be elected, should have the temerity to tell the elected House how to proceed on its own election or to deny its wish to give the people their say.
The Lords Constitution Committee has now published its report on the Bill. It states that there has not been enough consultation on it. Respectfully, I disagree. The proposals in this Bill apply entirely to the other place. It has been rigorously examined there over eight days on the Floor of the House and through 35 Divisions. It reflects the settled will of the elected House.
On the referendum, the Government have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and administrators, and the commission has declared itself broadly satisfied that sufficient progress has been made to enable the local returning and counting officers to run the polls well and that voters will be able to participate in them.
The provisions in the Bill are sound, and Members of this House should consider carefully the clear signal from the elected House before making major changes in it.
There has been speculation about the last possible date for Royal Assent to allow the referendum to happen on 5 May. I believe there is more than adequate time. It is certainly important that, commensurate withfull scrutiny in this House, we give participants and campaigners in the referendum as much time as possible to prepare for a full and informed campaign. We owe that to the electorate, but it is possible to do that and allow enough time to examine the Bill, which I hope will complete its passage as soon as possible in January 2011.
I do not want to make unnecessary political points, but I remind noble Lords opposite of a forgotten document: A Future Fair for All, the manifesto of the party opposite only this spring, written by their current leader. On page 62, it talks of, “A New Politics”. It continues:
“To ensure that every MP is supported by a majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”.
That was what Mr Miliband thought then, so I take it that we will have full support from the party opposite for the part of the Bill that provides for what it itself promised at the general election.
There is a small quibble: the party opposite promised a referendum by October 2011. The Bill proposes it in May 2011—one year into this Parliament, but that is a far slower timetable than the six-month one used by the party opposite for the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1997.
Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I hate to have to admit it in public, but we lost the general election. Can the noble Lord point me to a constitutional principle which tells us that parties which lose the general election are thereby bound to put to the electorate ad infinitum the same proposals on which they lost?
There is none. I was just hoping that there might be a little consistency from the party opposite and that it would wish to support the coalition in giving the people their say on whether there should be an alternative vote system.
The reason to have the referendum on 5 May is that it will save money—about £30 million—to hold it on the same day as other votes. About 84 per cent of the UK electorate can go to the polls for local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies on 5 May. I do not see the purpose of dallying a few months, at a cost of £30 million, to get to the self-same place.
On that particular point, is the Leader of the House not aware that because of the chaos in the Scottish elections in 2007, when many people lost the right to vote because of spoiled ballot papers, the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament have now legislated so that council elections, which were due to take place next May, will take place a year later, in 2012? Is it not absolutely daft then to add the referendum to the complex elections for both the constituencies and the list that will take place, when the Scottish Parliament has freed it, as it were, by getting rid of the council elections on that day?
I do recall the chaos, and the noble Lord is right to refer to it. I hope that a number of lessons were learnt as a result of that, but the referendum question is different from the issues raised in May 2007. It is a very simple yes/no question. I am sure that our respective countrymen in Scotland will be able to decide between the two.
I hope that we can agree with the other place on the question of the date and the other provisions in the Bill: that the size of that House should be reduced, and the unfairness resulting from imbalances in the size of parliamentary constituencies rectified.
Surely, under any electoral system, people’s votes should have as equal weight as possible. That is not the case for the people of Warrington South, which last December had just under 80,000 electors; their vote is worth a quarter less than the people of Preston, which had 60,000. This is not an anomaly: these differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, a vote in Arfon in Wales had twice the weight of a vote in Falkirk. This inequality is compounded by the drawn-out process by which boundaries are drawn. It took more than six years to complete the last review in England. The constituencies in place for the 2010 general election were based on data that were a decade old. That is not fair for electors. Other countries draw their boundaries far more quickly.
Then, we are all pledged to reduce the cost of politics.
We must be even-handed, my Lords. The noble Lord will know that, because of the Scotland Act, there was a reduction from 72 seats down to 60. It was Lady Cosgrove, the High Court judge, who looked after these matters. This matter was dealt with very efficiently and a report was put before Parliament in due course. So it is not always the case that it is a long drawn-out process.
My Lords, that of course is right, which is why I pointed out the case in England. In Scotland there was a reaction to the Scotland Act and the reduction in the number of seats. It does not mean that it always has to take a long time, but in England it demonstrated that it did. Maybe in Scotland these things are, on the whole, managed rather better.
The new rules put in place by this Bill will require that every constituency is within 5 per cent either side of a single size. To ensure that constituencies remain equal and up to date, boundary reviews will take place on a five-yearly basis. The Bill will also set the size of the other place at 600 MPs. This is a modest reduction of around 8 per cent and will save the public an estimated £12 million a year.
I am grateful to my noble friend. Does he agree that an electoral system which, at the general election in 2010, required the Conservative Party to get 40 per cent of the vote to get an overall majority but Labour to get only 34 per cent cannot possibly be considered fair?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Before he moves off this point about the size of the reconstituted House of Commons, does he recall that at the election both the coalition partners were committed to reducing the House of Commons to below 600? Can he explain to this House what exactly changed their minds about that?
My Lords, in the same way as the figure of 650 is one that has developed over time and is basically an arbitrary one, so the figure of 600—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, plucks a figure from the air. It was not quite like that. Six hundred strikes me as being a nice, round figure. But these are precisely the points that we will take up in Committee.
My Lords, the number of new Peers since the general election is infinitesimally small compared with the number of new Peers introduced during the period of new Labour. Moreover, no one is suggesting that these new Peers will cost £12 million to house and look after in this House.
Does the noble Lord accept that this is a constitutional issue, not a financial issue; and that by reducing the number of MPs but not reducing the size of the Executive, the Government will weaken the Commons’ ability to hold the Executive to account?
My Lords, I fully expect that this will be an issue that we shall discuss in detail when we get to the Committee stage. The Government have already expressed a desire to reduce the size of the Executive, but not in this Bill, not at this time, not at this stage.
My right honourable friend's proposals will result in constituencies of around 76,000 electors, and over a third of existing constituencies are within the approximate range that will result from this Bill. That, I believe, is a reasonable proposal.
We look back at how the Duke of Wellington wisely led this House to allow reform of the constituencies in another place, and we marvel at the fact that your Lordships originally resisted it. So I think that, in future generations, if people read our debates, they will marvel at any speech by noble Lords or any other ditchers or diehards who venture to suggest that the disparities in current constituencies should be preserved.
As is now well known since the debate earlier today, the Bill preserves two specific constituencies: the island groups of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. Both are dispersed island groups which cannot readily be combined with the mainland. In recognition of the fact that certain parts of the United Kingdom are very sparsely populated, the Bill caps the size of a constituency at just larger than the largest now—Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The Bill also reforms the process for boundary reviews. As one leading academic has commented on the present system of local inquiries,
“it would be wrong to assume that the consultation process largely involves the general public having its say on the recommendations”.
It is important that consultation is effective, and that is why the Bill reforms the system. It triples the time that people and political parties have to make written representations from one month to three. Local people will be better able to make their points to the commissions, and the overall review process will be faster and more efficient.
My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the Leader has given way, and I appreciate that it is difficult at this stage. However, I wonder if he will comment on this section of the Bill in the context of constituencies where there is a low level of electoral registration. His noble friend sitting next to him referred to an “average” on the radio this morning, but we all know that non-registration is much higher in impoverished communities in city centres. What are the Government doing in advance of this proposal to change constituency numbers to ensure that the electorate have a proper chance and are encouraged to register?
My Lords, of course registration is important, and currently the average registration in the United Kingdom is 90 per cent, which, by international comparisons, is extremely high. We will continue to encourage people to register their votes and play a part in the democracy that we have in this country.
The commission will continue to use the electoral register as the basis for its reviews, as it has done for decades. To go on to the point that the noble Baroness just raised, as the secretaries to the Boundary Commissions themselves have noted, the register is the most comprehensive data source that is regularly updated, and this Government will continue to seek ways of ensuring that more individuals exercise their right to register.
No, my Lords. First, the basis of deciding constituencies based on the size of the electoral register is well precedented. Secondly, the Government will continue to seek ways of ensuring that individuals exercise their right to register. So we will want to avoid the problem that the noble Lord raises.
My Lords, that does not negate the reason for creating fairly based constituencies of 76,000 electors plus or minus 5 per cent.
Members of this House have opposing views on which is the better system with which to elect Members of the other place, but the place for that debate is during the campaign. At the end of the campaign, it will be for the voters to decide which system will be used in the future, and this is fair too.
Before I finish, I will briefly outline the effect of the substantive clauses. I know that many noble Lords wish to speak, so I will not detain the House with a clause-by-clause commentary. I hope it will suffice to say that there are three main parts to this Bill: provisions for a referendum to be held and combined with other polls on 5 May are found in Clauses 1 to 7 and Schedules 1 to 9; provisions for implementation of the alternative vote system in the event of a yes vote in the referendum are found in Clause 9 and Schedule 10; and provisions to reform the setting of parliamentary boundaries are found in Clauses 10 to 13. The remaining Clauses 14 to 19 and Schedule 11 deal with technical and financial aspects of the Bill, and that is it.
It is not a complex Bill. It offers a referendum on the alternative vote, reduces the size of the House of Commons and makes the size of constituencies more equal. This is a fair Bill and a clear Bill. It gives people choice on how they vote and a more equal say when they do vote. The other place, which is uniquely affected by it, has approved it, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, together with my noble friend Lord Bach, I shall pick up the baton so expertly carried by my right honourable friend Mr Sadiq Khan and my honourable friend Mr Chris Bryant in another place. We have heard two speeches today from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House. In the first, he refused to engage with the issue at all, and in the second, he said that we should not think about amending the Bill because the House of Commons has approved it. I regard this House as responsible for improving legislation so, if the noble Lord does not mind, we will reject his second invitation.
This has been described as the most important constitutional Bill since 1832. Those are not my words but a description of the Bill by the right honourable Mr Nicholas Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who came to office stressing that his job is to raise what he described as the hitherto lamentable standards of our politics. As he put it on 19 May 2010,
“This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again”.
The Deputy Prime Minister had the opportunity in this Bill, the most important constitutional change since 1832, to put his sanctimonious mouth where his money is. Instead, there has been no Green Paper, no public consultation and no pre-legislative scrutiny, which are all things that over the years we became so used to hearing the Tories and the Liberal Democrats demanding. At the first opportunity, they have disappointed us and they have disappointed the public out there. This is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy does not help to restore trust.
This Bill spent nine days being debated in another place, the place to which it is most important. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the Commons said of the process:
“The Deputy Prime Minister has accurately described the Bill as ‘fundamental to this House and to our democracy’. We regret that the Government’s timetable has denied us an adequate opportunity to scrutinise the Bill”.
The Bill before your Lordships' House today is an ill-thought-through, partisan muddle of a piece of legislation that, in truth, seems to be more about ensuring the longevity of the coalition than about nobler aims of equality of representation. As the Minister has told us, the Government seek to hold a referendum to ask the British public whether they would like to adopt the alternative vote system for Westminster elections. The intended date for the referendum is 5 May 2011, a day on which more than 80 per cent of the population will, in addition, be asked to vote in local council, devolved Assembly or mayoral elections. The Bill is being rushed through to meet this desired target date.
However, can the Minister explain to the House why the rush with Part 2? The independent boundary commissions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are being asked to redraw every single parliamentary constituency in three years, which is less than half the time that previous periodic boundary reviews have taken. They are being asked to do so before the electoral register, on which the new constituencies are to be based, can be brought up to date to correct for the estimated 3.5 million voters who are currently missing from it. Under-representation is the real scandal, but this Government feel that that can wait to be addressed until after they have railroaded through new constituencies based on flawed data that will inevitably punish the people to which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours referred. This is not fair but nonsensical.
If all that were not illogical enough, the Government—and the noble Lord did not even mention this—seek to take away any serious public say in the redesign of constituencies. Public inquiries, which are the democratic life-blood of boundary reviews and which allow local people a say in what happens to their local representation, are being removed. Why? Obviously, to fit in with the timetable. There is no rational justification for this haste, which is born of a wish to hold the next general election in 2015 and subsequent elections every five years after that using the favoured electoral boundaries. The Bill before us proposes five-yearly boundary reviews in future to match this election cycle. As our all-party Constitution Committee noted in its excellent report on this Bill,
“the provisions of this Bill and the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill are interrelated”.
The damning conclusion of that all-party committee was that,
“the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government's other proposals for constitutional reform have not been adequately thought through”.
We wholeheartedly agree.
The committee’s criticism of the process is all the more heated—rightly so, we would argue—for the lack of any pre-legislative consultation. It is an insult to democracy and to the principles that we in this House hold so highly that a measure to enact constitutional change of such lasting significance has not been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation. Only last month, the Leader of the House said that the Government are committed to pre-legislative scrutiny because,
“it improves the quality of legislation and provides an opportunity for public engagement”.—[Official Report, 28/10/10; col. 1306.].
What was wrong with this Bill, the most important constitutional Bill since 1832, that it did not require that? The Constitution Committee concluded:
“This is an unsatisfactory basis on which to embark on fundamental reform of the legislature”.
What a load of nonsense. Of course they could be subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I shall tell the noble Lord what you do. You say, “Let’s have pre-legislative scrutiny first”, as I understand the Government are doing in relation to House of Lords reform. Why could that not have been done in relation to Part 2 of the Bill?
The noble and learned Lord was a very distinguished member of the previous Administration. Does he recall that it took two years to bring forward any proposals on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and that, when the Bill came forward, it acquired a completely new clause on AV that had not been subject to any pre-legislative scrutiny? Was that not just the same thing as what he is now suggesting?
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, exemplifies the attitude of the Liberal Democrats, who seem to think that the Bill is splendid and marvellous. Look at them. The moment that they have the most important constitutional Bill since 1832, they simply ignore the—if I may say so—entirely admirable approach to which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, refers. I do not know why he is looking at me. He should be looking at the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.
This is an unsatisfactory Bill. As its specific proposals are not to be found in either of the coalition party’s general election manifestos, we must conclude that not only is it an unsatisfactory Bill but, as the noble Lord appeared to be conceding, it has no mandate. This is truly a shame. We on this side of the House support the holding of a referendum on the electoral system for elections to the House of Commons and we approve of the stated intention to bring the size of Westminster constituencies more into line with each other than they are at present, but the way in which the Government articulated their proposals and rammed them through in another place quite hypocritically—as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has demonstrated—was shoddy. Then they say, “We can’t change it because the other House has approved it”. I should say to the noble Lord that this has succeeded in uniting opposition to their plans.
First, on the Liberal Democrat part of the Bill, the AV referendum, I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that the provisions in Part 1 are not in reality a referendum Bill. The Bill seeks to change our system of voting from first past the post to an alternative vote system, but it makes the introduction of those changes subject to a yes vote in a referendum. The referendum in this Bill is not advisory, as in all previous referendum Bills in this country, but binding. There is a requirement on the Minister to lay the order that will introduce the changes. It is totally unclear from the Bill whether it will be a negative or an affirmative order that will fundamentally change our electoral system. We need therefore to scrutinise very carefully the provisions concerning the new system.
The Bill proposes that the referendum will take place on the same day as elections already scheduled in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and most local authorities in England. The Government have failed to consult with the devolved institutions on the timing of the referendum. The plans have been condemned by the devolved Assemblies, but the Government have arrogantly ploughed ahead regardless and have not explained the magic of this date. We need to ensure that, if there is a referendum, it is one that best addresses the development of the electoral system in our country.
The following are points that we will explore in the next stages of this Bill. First, the referendum should be advisory and not binding. Secondly, the referendum should give voters the opportunity to vote on other systems apart from just first past the post or AV. Thirdly, the date should be moved to a date when there are no other elections. Fourthly, there should be a threshold of yes votes measured against a total number of those who can vote in the referendum.
Part 2 proposes a reduction in the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs and a redrawing of constituency boundaries that—give or take 5 per cent—will prioritise the equal size of parliamentary seats above all other factors. Considerations of community, local ties, shape and accessibility of constituencies and geographical and natural boundaries are all to be subordinate to achieving the numerical ideal. On this side of the House, first, we ask the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, where the magic total of 600 constituencies has come from. I apologise for asking that because he has answered that question. He said that it came “from the air”. It certainly does not derive from either of the—
I apologise. The noble Lord is absolutely right. It was the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who said that the figure was plucked from the air. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that it was “a nice round figure”. Thank you very much. Does the 600 figure have anything to do with research from the University of Liverpool, conducted for “Newsnight”, which clearly demonstrates that Labour will be the net losers in this situation? Labour would lose 25 seats to the Tories’ 13 and the Lib Dems’ seven.
Perhaps I may say that the unspoken interventions of my noble friend Lord Dubs are more powerful than the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. What is the effect of removing 7.7 per cent—some 50—of the total of MPs? According to Professor King, the respected psephologist, the average constituency size will go up from 66,000, which it was at the end of the Second World War, to around 105,000 by the time of the next election.
I appreciate that. The reason why I refer to that figure is because that is the group of people that the MP has to deal with. If someone comes in and says, “I want some help”, I do not think that you say, “Can you prove to me that you are a voter?”.
MPs provide the pool from which Ministers are chosen. That pool would be reduced. The removal of 50 MPs would reduce at a stroke the number of MPs available to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government to account. Professor King said:
“The House of Commons, compared with other national legislatures, is already a feeble affair. The present proposal would enfeeble it further”.
I hope that, in the five days that it cobbled together this agreement, the coalition thought about what effect this number—to quote the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, “a nice round number”—would have on our democracy.
Why does the coalition propose the reduction? The Deputy Prime Minister, whom I mentioned earlier, said that it was because the legislation underpinning reviews had meant that the number of MPs had crept up. That is what he said in the House of Commons, but it is not so. The number of MPs is lower than it was a decade ago and no higher than it was 20 years ago. It is virtually impossible to discern any principle underlying the proposal to reduce the number of MPs. We will oppose the reduction and we will in any event make any reduction conditional on a proportionate reduction in the number of Ministers in the Commons.
Crucial in the Bill is the method for determining new constituency boundaries. With the exception of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, a new system will apply to all constituencies. The crux of the new system is that the driving factor will be the number of constituents in a constituency. We agree with the need for substantially greater equalisation of constituency size and that there should be a small number of exceptions to the process, but we consider that the constituencies to be treated as exceptions to the system should be identified and chosen in a fair way. Why not choose the Isle of Wight? Why not recognise the importance of keeping Cornish and Devonian constituencies separate from each other? We support the inclusion of the two exceptions that are already there, but we think that there should be more and that their selection should be entrusted to someone other than a politician. Let there be a fair process. If the hybridity route has been rejected by this House, perhaps there should be an inquiry conducted by the boundary commissions, which have proved themselves over very many years to be above politics.
As regional, council and even ward boundaries are crossed in the onward march to perfectly sized constituencies, representation will become more strained and harder to navigate. For instance, the Government’s insistence on only 5 per cent leniency in constituency size would require 385 extra electors to be found for the Forest of Dean and 59 electors to be expelled from Warrington. The prospect is ridiculous.
My noble and learned friend has mentioned the report of the Constitution Committee. Is he also aware of the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in the other place, which is a Conservative-dominated committee? It said:
“in terms of … geography, culture and history … We recommend that the Government brings forward amendments to the Bill to permit the Boundary Commission to give greater weight to these factors when drawing up new constituencies than it is currently allowed under the current proposals”.
Again, a committee of this Parliament rejects what the Government are doing.
My Lords, I was not aware of that. There seems to be a trend that any independent body within Parliament that looks at this matter criticises the way in which it has been done and criticises the conclusions. The only way in which we can give effect to that is by this House introducing amendments to the Bill.
The prospect of the sort of fiddling around with constituencies to which I have referred is ridiculous and unnecessary. It can be removed by increasing the leeway to 10 per cent either side of the standard constituency size, which would give considerable equalisation but at the same time give the ability to reflect local needs. Mathematical purity should not be allowed to carve up communities. We advise the Government that they should seek a balance between equalisation and recognition of tradition, culture, and local authority boundaries rather than aim for bland uniformity.
To add insult to injury, the Bill plans to remove public inquiries from the boundary process. The proposals in the Bill have been described by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Democratic Audit as,
“the most ambitious attempt to redraw the UK’s electoral geography in six decades”.
As acknowledged by the chairs of the boundary commissions, every constituency will have to change. If this is not an ideal moment to include the public, who will be most affected by these changes, in a meaningful way, I cannot think what is. The Government talk—just as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has talked—of the big society and of a new politics where power is handed to the people, but they stubbornly ignore the calls of the constituencies of the Isle of Wight or Argyll and Bute to special recognition of their communities. The Government may talk of the big society, but with the abolition of public inquiries they will remove the one meaningful mechanism that allows ordinary people to have their say. I hope that the coalition Government will realise their mistake, but I am not optimistic.
The Electoral Reform Society has described the coalition’s proposals as meaning that,
“most constituencies will pay less regard to what most voters think of as community and natural boundaries, and change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents”.
The United States, notes the Electoral Reform Society,
“has rigorous requirements for arithmetical equality of population in congressional districts, but the worst gerrymandering in the developed world”.
We want to support proposals for greater equalisation and we would welcome discussions with the coalition to achieve it. This sort of Bill is a classic vehicle for seeking consensus rather than ramming things through in this way. We will not support operating in this overly hasty way, which places the power to influence constituency boundaries out of reach of local people and which in the short-term will disfranchise 3.5 million people in the country, the vast majority of whom are young, living in private rented accommodation, in poverty and from the BME communities.
This Bill will promote rapid and damaging changes to our constitution in order to have the new boundaries in place by the next election. It will do so at great cost to local communities and to the unregistered voter, and it will do long-term damage to faith in our politics. We can achieve the goal of equalisation without the damage that this Bill will cause. I hope that the fact that there is now a coalition embracing the Tories and the Liberal Democrats does not mean that this House loses its reputation for amending Bills when they need amending. I hope that the House will join together to make this Bill a much better Bill than the poor, partisan Bill that it is at the moment. It can be done, and I ask your Lordships’ House to help us to do that.
My Lords, I find myself in considerable agreement with the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Within six days, this House has seen the Government deal with two Second Readings of Bills of immense constitutional importance. Noble Lords will recollect that last Tuesday we had the Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill, and now we have this matter before us. The Bills have a great deal in common, but what is most striking is the fact that the Government seem to be very much on the defensive and, if I may say, on to a loser in respect of them both. They are on a loser in relation to the arguments that have been and will be deployed in this House later today and tomorrow, and very much on to a loser in relation to the castigation of both Bills by that most distinguished body of persons, the Select Committee on the Constitution. The committee’s castigation has not been a mild dissertation on what the alternatives might have been. It was not a slap on the wrist, as I described it the other evening. Rather, it was a magisterial rebuke of such dimensions and intensity that it would cause, I suggest, any sensitive Government to smart in embarrassment.
One is tempted, in relation to both these losses, to remember Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Losing one is indeed unfortunate, but losing both smacks of carelessness. That will be the verdict of the community not only in relation to these two matters over the long term, but also very probably in relation to the third, which will be with us in a few weeks or perhaps months, on the Government’s protection of their position in the House of Commons. They will be protecting themselves on a five-year basis, taking out a lease on a certainty of five years rather than having a month-by-month tenancy, as it were, along with the other provisions of that Bill.
On the question of the attempt to equalise the size of constituencies in the United Kingdom, it is of course superficially attractive to aim for equality all round. But that is the most shallow and superficial approach imaginable. It is based entirely on the mirage of a chimerical conception. You cannot achieve, with a mere mathematical formula, any form of total equality. Even with constituencies of exactly the same size, you would not achieve equality. Let us assume for the purposes of argument that the AV provision is not carried by a referendum—and I would be surprised if it would be. If that is so, you would still have inequalities. Constituency A will have a successful Member elected by 37 per cent of the electorate, while constituency B would have a 55 per cent vote and constituency C 65 per cent. Where is the equality in the situation of a compact urban constituency covering a few square miles in which a constituent living at the furthest periphery can walk to the office of his Member of Parliament in 20 minutes, compared with a massive rural constituency comprising a couple of counties where it would take half a day’s travel to achieve the same result? No equality is possible. Slavish adherence to a mathematical formula does nothing to bring about equality save in the most shallow and chimerical way.
The price that has to be paid for this is high. Many constituencies are communities that have a history. They have a soul, an identity and a cohesion that will disappear completely or, at the very best, there will be so much doubt and uncertainty about the matter that no one will know who their Member of Parliament is or might be, or where his constituency is going to be. I had the great honour of serving the county of Cardigan in the other place for eight short years. That community is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom, going back around 1,500 years. The community in that land from the estuary of the Dyfi to the Teifi and to the west of the Plynlimon range to the sea has been hammered out on the anvil of the centuries. But under this formula it will virtually disappear and its identity will be lost totally. That uncertainty will apply to hundreds of constituencies in the United Kingdom. If there is any real benefit to be gained, even superficially and over a short period of time, by a slavish adherence to a mathematical formula, it will all be lost and counterproduced by uncertainties and the sheer chaos brought about by this attempt at equality in relation to constituencies.
That position is one which will bring about the greatest injustice of all in Wales. The total number of seats in Wales will inevitably be reduced under the plus or minus 5 per cent on 76,000 rule from 40 to 30—a reduction of 25 per cent. Wales will have fewer seats than it had at the time of the Great Reform Act 1832. Many will say, “Come off it. You should be saying not that it is wrong now to change the system but that it was wrong not to change it over the decades”. That argument was put to Mr Kenneth Clarke when he was Home Secretary and dealing with the Boundary Commission Act 1992. He said, “No, I am not having it. Wales is a national entity; there is here a constitutional arrangement of long standing which I am determined to honour”. The situation now is exactly as it was in 1992.
There is one further consideration in relation to Wales—the question of devolution. I raised that point with the Deputy Leader of the House in June of this year and asked him whether there would be an over-cull of Scotland and Wales because of devolution. I received a straight and clear answer—no. So the situation in relation to Wales turns entirely upon the question of the 76,000 plus or minus 5 per cent rule. That is entirely wrong and the matter must be looked at again.
The question of reducing the total number of Members of Parliament compounds the evil. We are in a situation where Members of Parliament—some of them deservedly; most of them undeservedly—have been castigated and regarded as extremely unworthy persons. The coalition Government are saying, “Yes, we agree with you. They are pretty rotten chaps so we will get rid of 50 of them”. I will not animadvert on the question of why it is 50 rather than 115, as proposed by the Conservative Party, or 150 as proposed by the Liberal Democrats but, be that as it may, I make the point, with as much force as I can possibly command, that there never was a factual basis for that calculation. One could easily argue that, if an in-depth inquiry had been held into the number of seats the House of Commons should have, it is at least as possible that the inquiry would have found that we needed more Members of Parliament rather than fewer.
Let us consider the facts. It is said that we have more Members in our House of Commons than most other Parliaments in Europe. That is perfectly true, but we have a much greater population than most others. However, the ratio of Member of Parliaments per 1 million of the population is, in this country, lower in the main than in many other countries. We compare roughly favourably with France and Italy. Many of the states in Europe are federal states and do not heap upon the shoulders of their Members of Parliament the constituency duties that we have given ours. In the 60 years leading up to now, the population of this country has increased by 25 per cent; the increase in relation to Members of Parliament is 4 per cent. So there is at least an arguable case that an inquiry could have recommended a greater number rather than a lesser number, or indeed leave the matter as it was.
The point has been eloquently made more than once already in the debate that it is not as though slavish adherence to mathematics is of itself any panacea because you cannot slavishly adhere to that which is impure and incomplete in itself—in other words, a register of December 2010 that is inaccurate to the tune of 3.5 million.
I doubt very much whether the Conservative Party really believes that it is necessary to reduce the numbers of Members of Parliament. It has given the wrong message—a message which belongs more to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, Pooh-Bah and Ko-Ko—remember the little list of the people who should disappear—than to the bringing about any equity in this situation.
I refer the House to the evidence given in 2003 by a Member of Parliament, a member of the Conservative Party, to the Boundary Commission in relation to the question of reducing the numbers of Members of Parliament. He said that he was entirely against it and that he hoped very much that the idea would be abandoned. He was the Member of Parliament for Witney, Mr Cameron.
This Bill, the one that we dealt with six days ago and the one that we will be dealing with in a couple of months’ time will have a massive impact on the whole situation; it will be epoch-making. It will not cause equity but it will bring about total chaos.
My Lords, the Church of England has been around for some very considerable time. We have centuries of experience of making changes and we have not always got it right. What we have learnt, though, is that change management is a skill which has to be honed with experience—and my experience still tells me that trying to run two unrelated and non-interdependent changes at the same time is fraught with difficulty.
With regard to the voting system for the other place, noble Lords will know that the established church has for many years adopted the principle of the single transferable vote for election to its own governing body, the General Synod. While the church will not be putting forward a corporate line on the alternative vote, I would comment that there is a danger that under this system the member elected, rather than being “the one whom most people like”, as is often claimed, could better be described as “the one fewest people dislike”. Is this a move to the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor? Perversely, this can be less proportional than the first past the post system we currently have.
The redrawing of the constituency boundaries may seem, on the face of it, to be a welcome move in equalising the size of constituencies, but surely we must not forget the law of unintended consequences. If, as we are assured, the revisions are to be speedy and often to ensure that the constituencies remain roughly equal in size as registered voter numbers change, small communities on the edge of larger populations could find themselves being moved in and out of a particular constituency at consecutive elections—a kind of electoral ping pong. A different though related problem could arise for a rural community surrounded by urban communities. The small pockets of population in the rural area could be used similarly to the “makeweight chocolates” that I remember from my youth; they would be added to larger urban areas just to make up the numbers.
An advantage of our present constituency system is that a community of interest develops over a period of time. I would suggest that such communities of interest are important, not only to those who live in them but also to those who represent them. To move parts of communities from one area to another, with no recourse to representation from the members of those communities, is in my view wrong. It may suit the numerical purists to be able to work it out on a spreadsheet, but it is destructive of the very thing that we are trying to produce, which is better accountability.
Noble Lords will note that I referred to “those who live in them”—elected Members of the other place represent all who live in their boundaries, as we have heard this evening, and not just those who are registered to vote. There is strong evidence that the urban, more deprived areas are those that have the highest number of unregistered eligible voters. That view is supported by the Electoral Commission. These are the very areas that are likely to be affected most by the redrawing of the boundaries and the consequent reduction in the number of elected Members.
The north-west as a region has the lowest deviation from the mean electorate in England, based on the election of 6 May 2010. However, under the proposed revisions, it would lose the most representatives of any English region. I hope that these proposals will be looked at again and that a solution will be found that is both locally supported and fairer in impact than the present suggestion. To do less would, I suspect, be to disfranchise large numbers in my diocese.
“Act in haste and repent at leisure”: I fear that that may be the most useful comment with regard to this Bill. The changes proposed are far-reaching and, as the noble and learned Lord said, they are untested—they were not even in an election manifesto. The Bill also has major implications for other constitutional changes that are being talked of, not least in relation to your Lordships’ House. In humility, I ask that we think carefully about separating parts of the Bill and allow time for that community of interest to develop around an agreed way forward.
Any port in a storm. I say to my noble friend that I am supporting it because I am very much in favour of the second half of the Bill, which deals with the reduction in numbers in the House of Commons and the equalisation of votes in constituencies. I do not care for the first half of the Bill, but that is the price for having the Bill; it is the coalition price. I think that it is a price worth paying, because I do not think that the referendum will succeed. I am sure that there will be a majority of no votes.
I am opposed to the alternative vote system. I shall speak against it at rallies and all the rest of it. I am rather surprised that my new friends the Liberals are quite so keen on the alternative vote. After all, Roy Jenkins’s commission savaged it and said how unsatisfactory it was. However, my surprise is even greater that large parts of the Labour Party have embraced the alternative vote. I would have thought that they had had enough of the alternative vote. They have just gone through the process of having an alternative vote in electing their leader. It wreaked havoc on their party and did not produce the best man as the winner. The result of every alternative vote is that you have to try to persuade yourself that the person who won was the best man, when everyone knows that he is not the best man; he is the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. If the Labour Party continues to embrace the alternative vote system, all I can say is that the position was well described by Kipling, who said:
“the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire”.
I am sure that the House is grateful for that bit of doggerel, but will the noble Lord accept from me that not all of the Labour Party is in favour of the AV system? I will find myself campaigning alongside him against that prospect later, but will he come to the nitty-gritty of the Bill and his support for it? Is it not about political advantage for his party rather than anything else?
I say to my new ally in the campaign—Snape and Baker ranging the country—that we will draw great crowds. I will come on to political advantage later, if I may.
I favour the second half of the Bill because three years ago I took a Bill through your Lordships’ House that did very nearly the same thing. The Bill was to reduce the House of Commons by 10 per cent, which was then Conservative Party policy, so there would have been not 50 but 65 fewer Members. It was also designed to equalise votes. I was interrupted by my new noble friend Lord Rennard—yes, he is in his place—who knows a thing or two about constituencies and electorates. He reminded me that the policy of the Liberals was to reduce the number in the House of Commons to 500. The Liberal policy was to reduce the number by 150; the Conservative policy was to reduce it by 65. Well, in the sweet compromise that figures the coalition’s proposal, the figure 50 was settled on and I am happy to settle for 50 now. That will be a considerable improvement.
Why do I think so? The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, talked about the numbers in other countries. We have a population of 60 million and we have 600 MPs. Compared to other countries, we could be described as well represented. Japan has twice our population and 470 MP equivalents. Russia has two and a half times our population and 450 MP equivalents. America has five times our population but just 430 Congressmen and 100 Senators. Six hundred is quite a good number for the electorate’s representation. In Scotland and Wales, there are also the local Members of Parliament, who deal with most of the complaints of their constituents, as powers have been considerably devolved. There is plenty of representation at all levels where people can go and seek support from their elected representatives.
Under the Bill, the new constituencies will have an average electorate of 76,000, give or take 5 per cent either way. The former Lord Chancellor wanted 10 per cent, which would largely negate some of the Bill’s effects, but he is used to putting forward such amendments. At the moment, the size of an electorate in England is 72,000, in Scotland it is 65,000, in Northern Ireland it is 63,000 and in Wales it is 56,000. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and I were both in the House of Commons. It was a long time ago.
Time runs not to the memory of man. The noble Lord had quite a small constituency compared to an English constituency. I think that his electorate was about 50,000. That meant that English seats had 14,300 more electors than Welsh seats. There is substantial overrepresentation. You cannot deny it. If democracy means anything, it should be that one vote is equal wherever it is, but it is not. The Welsh voters who put the noble Lord into power as an MP were much more powerful than the voters who put me into power in England; they had a greater say on our nation’s affairs. The noble Lord cannot shake his head; it is a fact. It is true and realistic. There is massive overrepresentation.
That can be seen not just in Wales. Islington in London has an electorate of 67,000, whereas just a little way away in Brent—these are Labour seats—the electorate is 87,000. There is no logic to this and it is indefensible.
Yes, and I enjoyed that enormously. I do not see where that comes into it. The constituency eventually disappeared altogether, it was so small. But if you think generally of all the other, great constituencies in the country—I would not want to make a personal matter of it—that is the plain fact. There has to be a greater equality.
Labour’s attitude, from what the noble and learned Lord the former Lord Chancellor was saying tonight, is that this Bill should not proceed because a large number of people are unregistered in our inner cities. The general comment was that it was not fair to do it until registration had gone up. I find that rather an astonishing argument. Some electoral scholars call the people who do not register non-people, although they are not non-people but actual people. It is quite possible for people to register if they are interested in politics; if they are interested in affecting society, they can register. It is their duty and responsibility if they wish to have it. If the Labour Party wishes to pursue that argument very far, it should ask itself what it did in office about registration of the electorate.
We introduced individual registration and it drove up registration to more than 90 per cent. It is completely wrong to say that people do not want to register because they are not interested in politics. If you have a registration drive, registration goes up. The noble Lord is talking rubbish.
With great respect, I ask the noble and learned Lord to address the figures. That is a total exaggeration, which is not unknown from the former Lord Chancellor. In fact, very little was done, and I have read apologies from those on the former government Front Bench in the other House saying that they did not do enough. I ask the noble and learned Lord to read Hansard occasionally.
Among the other things I favour in this Bill is the proposal that the Boundary Commission should do five-yearly reviews. We have been accused of just looking after the Conservative interests in this Bill, but I have seen situations when Labour in office has deliberately delayed boundary reviews. Let me give an example. Before the 1970 election I had won a by-election in Acton, which was a Labour seat. We were coming up to the 1970 election and a boundary review was published, which was going to make my seat a safe seat, so I had a vested interest in it. Alas, the Home Secretary of the day, Jim Callaghan, did not share that interest and did everything that he possibly could to manoeuvre to prevent the Boundary Commission proposals coming before Parliament. It was a shameful process; he tried to jiggle a few seats here and a few seats there, and it had to be withdrawn. So for electoral advantage the Labour Party rigged the system in the 1970 election, and it has done it before.
Successive Governments have always been rather slow to introduce Boundary Commission reports. As a result, you had the electorate of 2000 for the 2010 election, while the 2005 election was on the electorate of 1991. Successive Governments have delayed. So I welcome the fact that this will be done on a five-yearly basis.
I am also glad that public inquiries are going to be scrapped. I do not know how many Members of this House have attended a public inquiry of the commission, but they will all agree that it is a misnomer to call it a public inquiry. At the ones I attended, no ordinary citizens turned up at all. The only people who turned up were the ward councillors and their wives—I suppose they are ordinary citizens—the sitting Member of Parliament, the various candidates and their election agents. It was really a rehearsal of all the submissions they had made to the Boundary Commission. Those with the small interests of the locality were not there at all. Moreover, with regard to the findings of those inquiries, the greatest changes that they have ever instituted were to change the name of the new constituency. In the whole history of the Boundary Commission there have been three inquiries leading to significant changes in the boundaries.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. That brings to mind two public inquiries that I was involved in when the constituencies that I represented in Liverpool were abolished in two successive reviews. A quite significant change was made as a result of the first public inquiry. I regret that significant change was not made as a result of the second. But many ordinary people and communities did attend and participate in those inquiries and I very much regret the removal of the right of people to appear at those inquiries to contest decisions made by the Boundary Commission.
I appreciate that some will feel that, but in my experience no members of the public turned up at all and I think that that was more the pattern. Occasionally they do, but very rarely. Obviously, they did in the case brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Finally, if you are going to have an equal and fair democratic system, where votes should have equal value, you have to address the problem of unequal boundaries. Other countries do this on a regular basis, such as Australia and New Zealand, and in America it goes on all the time. It is a sensible thing to do. I know that it upsets local communities. I remember listening to a speech by Michael Foot in the House of Commons when he represented Ebbw Vale, which was very reminiscent of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when Ebbw Vale was to be very much changed and expanded. It was a most moving speech of the kind that Michael Foot could make, about the old hammered communities and how they had lived there over the centuries, how the pathways were defined and all the rest of it. But the arguments that he was using were exactly the arguments used to defend rotten boroughs in 1832. One has to reflect changes in population movement.
I come back to the point made by my new-found campaign colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, about political advantage. Yes, I am glad that the Bill removes quite a large part of the advantage that the Labour Party has at all general elections. At the general election, we had to be eight to nine points ahead in the opinion polls before we got to a level playing field with the Labour Party. What fairness is there in that? That is partly due to the maldistribution of seats around the country. So I want a fairer and more equal playing field; I want the checker board of politics to be on an even table. That is what this Bill does.
My Lords, I put on record that I am a member of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, whose report was published last Thursday. The Bill today is one of three promoted by the coalition. Two have commenced their parliamentary process and the third, for an elected House of Lords, will appear at some unspecified date next year. Each impacts on the other, but the coalition is proceeding with them in isolation. The evidence of the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Harper was that the underlying purpose for constitutional reform is a desire to win back the confidence of the British people by electoral reform, greater accountability and legitimacy, reducing the power of the Executive and increasing the power of the legislature. Those are important ideals and put in a rather more high-flown way than the noble Lord, Lord McNally, put them this morning on the radio, when he said that the Bill was really about ironing out a few wrinkles. That seemed to assume that the House of Commons was a crumpled frock that needed a bit of tightening.
The Constitution Committee points out that proposals for major constitutional reform should be subject to prior public consultation and legislative scrutiny. There are obvious advantages in doing that: first, by seeking consensus on important issues, not just in principle but in detail, in order to ensure that the principles work; secondly, by testing the evidence for the proposals; thirdly, by considering the implications of one proposal on another; and, fourthly, by seeking to explain and justify, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, constantly reminds us, how the proposals fit into an overall constitutional framework.
The coalition seeks to justify the rush to legislation on the basis that the referendum on AV needs to take place on 15 May next year, but that only justifies Part 1 of the Bill. It does not justify Part 2. The timetable for the Bill is so tight that it runs the risk of deadlines not being met. That is why the Bill was rushed through the Commons. Hansard records the controversy in the five heavily whipped and guillotined days, with some Members of the other place expressing the hope that your Lordships would provide the scrutiny that they could not, while the report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is heavily critical of the Bill.
The absence of any full, proper and normal consultation and scrutiny for a constitutional Bill is nowhere more apparent than in the provisions relating to parliamentary constituencies. There has been: no coherent explanation for the number chosen for the reduction in constituencies to 600; no analysis of population shifts and increases; no proper analysis of comparable legislatures or the missing millions from the electoral register; no proper examination of the roles and functions of MPs; no action on the increase in the power of the Executive at the expense of the Back Bench; and no account of the inter-relationship of the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House in the context of proposals for another elected House. How ironic—somebody has mentioned this already—that as 50 elected MPs are hurtled to oblivion from the other place, the door to paradise in here is thrown open and in come another 50 unelected Peers.
Many of your Lordships will wish to comment on the speeding up of boundary reviews, so I simply observe that if the fixed term of Parliament is shorter than five years, for whatever reason, a review could be completed a mere six months before the next election, with the attendant crisis at local level as attempts are made to adapt the new constituency boundaries and contests. Similarly, many will wish to comment on the proposed basis for equalisation. Here, there has been no attempt to achieve consensus and no consultation with the public. What evidence is there that a strict arithmetic formula with little flexibility—just 5 per cent—is preferred by the electorate to more weight being given to geographical, customary or traditional local and historic boundaries?
Finally, may it not be that by removing a right to a local inquiry, many will feel that a sense of legitimacy has been taken away from them, for no good reason, at a time when the confidence and trust of the public is so important? How is this Bill likely to achieve the objectives that I outlined as being the coalition’s avowed intentions? First, the Bill will increase the power of the Executive, not diminish it, while by an absence of consensus, consultation and scrutiny, and by an absence of any solid evidence for its proposal, it has failed to make out a case for greater transparency and accountability for constitutional change. All these arguments are ones that the two parties opposite constantly put forward when in opposition. I see now from the papers that the coalition is going to have the audacity to ask us all whether we are happy. I fear that there may be many who, when they actually hear of the provisions of the Bill, will answer in the negative.
My Lords, I will be brief and confine myself to a single point. I have chosen not to speak on the issue of alternative voting, the referendum or the size of the other place, because many in your Lordships’ House are far more knowledgeable and can make a far more effective and informed contribution on those subjects than I can. I speak as a man of Cornwall and to issues relating to Cornwall, which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton has already referred to twice today. Cornwall is bounded by the oceans and the Tamar. At the last general election, we returned six Members to the other place: three for the Conservative Party and three for the Liberal Democrats. At the previous election, we returned five Members of Parliament to the other place. As recently as 1832, we had 44 Members of Parliament sitting for constituencies in Cornwall, which tells your Lordships something about the economic decline of that beautiful part of England.
The boundaries, however, of Cornwall—the boundary of the Tamar river—have not been crossed by a parliamentary constituency for 750 years. The Tamar has not been crossed by any local government reorganisation in the past 200 years. Yet this Bill proposes such transgression into the county of Cornwall by voters from the county of Devon. We heard earlier about the preserved status of the Western Isles and the voters from Orkney and Shetland. I am persuaded of the good reason why they are given such a preserved status, but I ask myself whether they are the only constituencies that so qualify. It seems clear to me that Cornwall does, by dint of its geographical extremity. In terms of getting from there, it is probably a longer distance from north Cornwall to London by public transport than from any other constituency in the country of England.
Cornwall has a distinct culture. It has a Celtic history and an economy which is very distinct and different from that of Devon and of Plymouth in particular. The economic position of Cornwall is dire; it is one of four parts of this country which qualify for EU poverty-related grants. The people of Cornwall, even where their homes, their schools and their communities abut the county of Devon, look to the south and west for leadership and self-identity. They look to Cornwall and regard themselves as Cornish, even if they live on the borders of Devon. They do not want to be absorbed into Plymouth or north Devon and it is, quite frankly, shameful that arithmetic should take precedence over identity and common sense.
Not a single Member for a constituency in Cornwall spoke in the other place against this proposal. Not a single Member from Cornwall in the other place voted against the Bill. Today, we had an opportunity, on the earlier Motion from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, for those Members of this House who have had associations with Cornwall to have voted in support of the hybrid proposal. They did not do so, and those from Cornwall and with associations in Cornwall will be recognised as such for their failure to vote and speak up for Cornwall in our earlier debate.
Some people in Cornwall are saying that now is not the time for dissent. They mislead their constituents, arguing that the Bill is not important and that the real point where you exercise your leverage is with the Boundary Commission for England. Yet under the powers of the proposed new schedule in Clause 11(1), in its paragraph 5(1)(a) to (d), the interests of local communities are recognised by the Boundary Commission but are at all times subordinated to the 5 per cent tolerances, while no arguments about boundaries are to be taken in a public arena. I regard this as a very unhelpful step if we want to engage people in democracy, with a sense of being involved in the choice of their own constituency and in having control over the political process.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, who I see is not in his place, asked earlier whether there was any opposition to these changes from the people of Anglesey or those of the Isle of Wight. I cannot speak for people from those constituencies, but I can tell your Lordships that the feeling in Cornwall on this issue is absolutely intense. In our anthem, we sing of Bishop Trelawny and of 20,000 Cornishmen who will want to know the reason why. But 250,000 Cornishmen will want to know why the Liberal Democrats are supporting this change, which strikes at the heart of the identity of Cornwall and its uniqueness.
When we come to Committee, I for one will be proposing that we widen the tolerances from the 5 per cent currently allowed in the Bill to 10 per cent or 15 per cent. As noble Lords have suggested in this debate, that will also provide a greater continuity of relationship. We simply do not want, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn pointed out, people in a constituency for one election but out for the next election. That would be a terrible outcome anywhere in the country but would be devastating in Cornwall.
In the same way that preserved status has been granted to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so that parliamentary constituencies will not cross national boundaries, I will argue that that should also apply to Cornwall. The integrity of Cornwall should be protected by preserved status.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my fellow Cornishman in this debate. He may well know that I am a direct descendant of the great bishop Jonathan Trelawny, about whom he spoke and about whom we sing in our national song. He is, though, technically incorrect: it would have been totally inappropriate to deal with Cornwall under the hybridity issue. It is much more appropriate, as my colleagues in the other place indicated, to deal with it under Clause 11 and revised Schedule 2. It would be quite possible to amend the Bill if that was the wish of your Lordships’ House.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, seemed to have one core message for the House today. What he was really saying was that, because his Government failed in 13 years to make progress on central constitutional reforms, promised to the electorate in their manifestos at a series of general elections, somehow the present Government should therefore proceed more slowly. That seems to come within the definition of “hypocrisy” that he was preaching to us about earlier.
I turn to Part 1 of the Bill. I do not want to spend precious minutes on the merits of AV; that, as has been indicated, is a debate that we will take to the country next year. It seems, though, that the public already see that the first past the post system is no longer fit for purpose. In the 1950s, when I was first interested in politics, that system worked—the two-party system was well represented by first past the post. In the 21st century, though, it patently does not work; the electorate are cheated. When the battle is joined next year, those in the yes campaign can surely robustly challenge the idea that two-thirds of MPs should continue to be elected with only a minority of support in their constituencies. Surely they will challenge the stark fact that, at present, no single Member of the other House could put their hand on their heart and say that they represented more than half of those who could vote for them. That is how we should be approaching the change to our electoral system.
I hope, too, that when the public are given the opportunity, they, not politicians, will enthusiastically sell AV’s potential to strengthen the connection between people and Parliament that was so woefully damaged last year, affecting both Houses; to end the scandalous complacency of safe seats; and to make politics positive again so that elections are about expressing a full preference for those who want to represent you rather than a bald vote against the candidate that you most fear.
That will be the case, and it is a strong one. I am delighted that Ed Miliband, in his speech to his conference, said,
“I support changing our voting system and will vote yes in the referendum on AV”.
Hear, hear to that. I am sure that all those on the opposition Benches who have supported AV during the general election and since in supporting their new leader will support Part 1 of the Bill.
That brings me to Part 2. This is where there will be legitimate and proper concerns that we will need to address carefully in your Lordships’ House. I agree that, by drawing attention to this section of the Bill and making it clear that this is the really controversial part that we have to analyse and scrutinise, the Constitution Committee has given us a great deal of assistance.
I feel confident that your Lordships’ House will not want to challenge the basic principle of Part 2; I think that that was indicated even in the speech from the opposition Front Bench. I hope that we will not challenge the right of the elected House of Commons to give people a say in how MPs are elected, as in Part 1.
The principle in Part 2 is quite simple, as well, as has already been indicated. It is that votes should have an equal value, an equal weight, whether you are in the farthest reaches of rural Cornwall or in the inner cities, and whether you are in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. That is the principle spelt out clearly nearly 200 years ago by the Chartists, from whom Labour claims political descent. Along with their calls for a universal franchise, they recognised that votes for all would be of little use without challenging the rotten boroughs.
Incidentally, I should say to the noble Lord from Cornwall that it was not because of Cornwall’s economic strength that we had so many rotten boroughs there—it was because of the Duchy of Cornwall. As it was a royal possession, it was always possible to promote the Court party by having more Members improperly elected from that part of the country.
So, the Chartists expounded the key idea of constituencies of equal size—or, rather, of equal worth. There would be no seat that could simply be constructed to suit vested interests, and no election could be bought with the votes of a few poor and pliant electors.
I am much obliged to the noble Lord. The fifth point of William Lovett’s charter was equal-sized constituencies. Whether he meant it literally is another matter; he was applying his mind to the question of Old Sarum having, I think, seven people living in it and one Member of Parliament while Manchester had two MPs. At the same time, of course, along the same avenue of thought—trying to make Members more answerable to the public—the noble Lord will remember what the sixth point was: annual general elections. Thank God it never came to that.
My Lords, I should not have gone so far into the issue of the Chartists; the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, is an expert on everything that can be taken literally. I do not wish to pursue him down that course. Perhaps I should say, though, that I represented North Cornwall, and one of the rotten boroughs in that constituency was Bossiney, of which Sir Francis Drake was the rotten borough Member. I think that here were only two electors, one of whom might have been himself.
We in this House would be incredibly unwise to subscribe to the hubris in the other House about alleged gerrymandering, led ad nauseam—I have followed this both in print and in person—by Mr Chris Bryant. At best this was misplaced and, at worst, deliberately misleading. At present, Mr Bryant has 51,554 constituents. I had over 87,000 constituents when I represented North Cornwall. If ever there was a gerrymander, that is it. That is something to which we must surely attach a principle, and it is justifiable to do so.
Since the Bill is about voters and their relationship with Members of Parliament, though, we need to look in detail at how Part 2 will be implemented. There must be a vital role in your Lordships’ House for revising that. Having represented Cornish constituencies for some 14 years, I know that special connection between MPs and their constituents. For years people campaign in an area, helping constituents or putative constituents and hoping to earn their trust. We must be careful that the Bill ensures that those links, those distinct local ties, are enabled to stay in place. The Deputy Prime Minister clearly wants that. I carefully examined the statements that he gave to the Constitution Committee, and he said that he is seeking only to give primacy to the electoral numbers in each seat, not to completely override the other factors, which he—not I—lists as follows: community relations, community cohesion, history, the character of an area and the disruption that might be caused. So the issue of disruption to existing constituencies and communities is, at the moment, a serious question under the Bill and we will have to look at it carefully. I think that there are Members on all sides of the House who have formally performed that important constituency role and will agree with me that that is a proper role for us to undertake.
The Bill could lead to an electoral map drawn from scratch, with all the ties that constituents and campaigners have made with one another severed at a stroke. However, I do not believe that that is what Ministers or indeed your Lordships want, and we have a vital role in addressing that problem. I look forward to hearing the Minister.
I was interested in the noble Lord’s quote from the Deputy Prime Minister. This is what the Bill says—no matter what the Deputy Prime Minister says—in relation to the factors that the noble Lord just outlined:
in other words, the effect of community and so on—
“has effect subject to rules 2 and 4”.
It says “subject to”, not “alongside”. The rules about the equalisation of numbers take precedence over all those other considerations. That is what we are so worried about on this side of the House.
That is precisely the role of your Lordships’ House. When we reach Committee stage, I am sure there will be general agreement on both sides of the House that we need to look carefully at the order of priority of those criteria. That is precisely what I said. I am delighted to have the support of the Minister who was previously responsible for these matters and sadly had so little effect on other, more senior members of the Administration. We would have made more progress on these issues if he had had his way.
As I have already said, I have a special connection to Cornwall. My ancestry is there and my constituency was there. There is strong evidence from the people I have spoken to and heard from—whom I knew over 40 years in public life there—that keeping Cornwall whole, as the campaign is called, is a priority. It may be that it is a higher priority even than the equality of representation. I hope we can do something in this House to meet that demand, as perhaps we might for others with a particularly compelling case, such as the Isle of Wight. However, we should recognise that it is a dilemma. In both cases it may be that the communities concerned are prepared to accept a lower level of representation in exchange for maintaining their identity. That dilemma is one that should be put fairly and squarely to the people concerned.
The Bill is not a panacea. It is not some holy grail in the scripture of political re-engagement, but it is a good start. Again, I say to noble Members opposite: it is a great pity that they did not start this process when they were given such a long opportunity to do so. The Bill says that people, not politicians, should have the final word over the architecture of their voting system. It says that whichever system we use, everyone’s votes should be of roughly equal value. These are good principles from a good Government, and principles that the latter day Chartists on the other side of your Lordships’ House should endorse as well. In short, it is a good Bill and, with some work along the way to improve Part 2, it is a Bill we should all be able to support.
My Lords, as a Welshman in your Lordships’ House, I will direct my remarks to the impact that the Bill will have on Wales and address three main issues: the impact of the Bill on the union; the ending of community-based representation; and the silencing of local opinion in parliamentary boundary changes.
As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, Wales will be more adversely affected than any other part of the United Kingdom by the Bill. If this measure becomes law, Wales will lose 25 per cent of its elected representation in this, the Parliament of the union. It will be the biggest shake-up in representation since the 16th century and it will leave Wales with fewer MPs in Parliament than at any time since 1832. One hundred and seventy-eight years ago Wales sent 35 MPs to Parliament. If the Bill gains the statute book, we will send just 30. It will weaken the voice of Wales in Parliament and it will weaken the union—something I and many others have fought against all our political lives. As I look across to the almost empty Benches opposite, occupied by a once great party that was proud to call itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, I cannot believe that for short-term party-political advantage the Conservatives are prepared to put our union at risk, but that is what the Bill will do.
The Bill will adversely affect the predominantly Welsh-speaking parts of Wales. This was powerfully illustrated in a letter that Lewis Baston, senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, sent to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place. The committee, which has also been mentioned and which has a Conservative chairman and a non-Labour majority, conducted an inquiry into the implications of the Bill, concluded it was wrong and roundly condemned it. Mr Baston said:
“There are currently 5 majority-Welsh constituencies: Ynys Mon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Arfon, Ceredigion and Carmarthen East & Dinefwr. All of these are undersized, and the Bill will mean reduction accompanied by radical boundary changes. The Bill risks severely depleting the representation of Welsh-speaking areas in the UK Parliament”.
As I look across the Chamber to the left, I shake my head in disbelief at the Liberal Benches. How can the heirs to Lloyd George, who loved Wales, loved its people and loved its language, support this Bill? Lloyd George must be turning in his grave. Both Tories and Liberals will pay a high price for the Bill when their candidates face the electorate in Wales next spring.
Mr Baston, in the paragraph I quoted, mentioned constituencies that are undersized. This brings me to the heart of the second part of the Bill. The mantra that the Bill’s supporters use is “fairness of representation”. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke about it on the radio this morning. Its supporters say fairness of representation can only be achieved by creating constituencies of equal numbers of electors. Why is that the only criterion? Why is that the only definition of fairness that they will admit to? The union of the four nations of these islands, which has allowed us to live as a united country for centuries, recognises that fairness means allowing the smaller nations to have greater representation in Parliament than their population might justify. That sense of fairness and understanding is the glue that has held this union together.
We do not have a written constitution. Some of us say, “Thank God for that”, but had we sat down to write a constitution, would we not have had the good sense to allow for the smaller states of our union to have greater representation in our Parliament than their populations must justify? The United States did that, as did the Australians. Both the United States and Australia give greater representation to smaller states within their unions, recognising the benefits for the whole—the benefits for the union. Look across the Atlantic. California, with a population of 37 million, sends two senators to Washington, as does Wyoming, which has a population of 544,000. Even at this stage, I urge the Government not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. Do not harm the union. If noble Lords will forgive me for paraphrasing: it is the union, stupid. That is the big impact that the Bill will have. I can think of no single act more likely to threaten the union than to cut Wales’s representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom by one in four.
My second point is that the Bill will bring an end to community-based representation in Parliament—a feature of our parliamentary system since the earliest times. When giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, Mr Paul Wood, a member of the Boundary Commission for Wales, said that,
“issues such as local ties and historical ties, which may have had more weight previously, are clearly subsumed in the legislation to the numerical issues”.
My good friend the right honourable Member for Torfaen, who is a former Northern Ireland Secretary and has twice been Secretary of State for Wales, said:
“The creation of very large constituencies, rigidly defined by numbers, will destroy community-based constituencies since it would appear that, to create such constituencies, local ties, geography and tradition are likely to be ignored”.
What will the ending of community-based representation in Parliament mean in practice? I see from an exercise carried out by the Electoral Reform Society to redraw the boundaries in Wales based on this Bill that my former constituency of Islwyn will disappear. I am not suggesting that the society’s report is definitive but it gives a flavour of what could happen. It suggests that the community of Abercarn should be part of the new constituency of Caerphilly. Abercarn is in the Ebbw Valley; Caerphilly is in the Rhymney valley. They are separated by two mountain chains and three rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. The community of Cefn Fforest, the society suggests, could become part of the new constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Ystrad Mynach. Historically, Cefn Fforest and Merthyr Tydfil are in different counties—they are miles apart—separated by mountains and rivers. There is no community of interest between the two. If this Bill becomes law, we will not need a Boundary Commission to settle new boundaries—the new parliamentary seats can be created by anyone with a map, a pencil and an abacus. We might as well give the job to the Flat Earth Society for all the good it will do in preserving local representation.
My third and final point is the proposal to end local public inquiries into boundary changes. The Bill, most disgracefully, does away with this, thus denying local people a say in the drawing up of constituency boundaries. The abandoning of local public inquiries into proposed parliamentary boundary changes will silence the voice of local people. What price the big society now? The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement said of the big society that the aim is,
“to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will take power away from politicians and give it to people”.
The Prime Minister said in an article in the Guardian in September that this is the Government who will give power back to the people. How hollow all that sounds now with this Bill, which is silencing the voice of dissent in a way that only people such as Robert Mugabe is used to deploying. The Bill is partisan and there is no motivation for redrawing the constituency map other than Tory Party self-interest. The Liberals have gone along with it in exchange for the holy grail of electoral reform, except that the Bill does not give them electoral reform—it merely promises a referendum on changing the voting system to AV. They do not like it and nor do the Tories, so why on earth are they pursuing it in this way? I suspect that many Liberal supporters in Wales will think that is not much of a prize to gain for the betrayal of selling out the Welsh people.
This is the most partisan Bill I have ever seen. Its aim is to manipulate our constitution to assist the governing parties to remain in power. This House has long prided itself on being the guardian of our constitution. This is the great challenge we face now in defending our constitution from subversion to party-political interests. If we are worthy of our role as constitutional guardians, we need to find the stomach to fight and tackle this Bill head on. To do anything less would be a dereliction of our constitutional duty.
My Lords, my interest in this Bill is not so much in the reduction in seats and its effect on boundaries, although I regard the truncation of process in the boundary reviews as outrageous, and from what I hear it is causing concern across the Commons.
I have been through two Boundary Commission inquiries and I know that you simply cannot short-circuit the whole process—it leads to mistakes. For those MPs who do not pull their weight, it does not really matter, but for MPs who take pride in offering a service it is hugely important and can be very disruptive. Anyhow, enough of that, that is for the Committee stage.
My interest is AV and the question asked in the referendum—the Liberal Democrat agenda. Therefore, I direct my contribution to their Benches. I hope that they seriously consider my concerns. I believe in electoral reform and in a preferential voting system for the Commons which allows for the use of more than a single preference. I do not believe in STV for the Commons. I could stomach an additional member system but I am not advocating it. If AV as proposed survives the Bill, I shall reluctantly vote for it but I believe that the system is flawed and should be amended. Furthermore, I do not believe that the public will vote for it. A turnout of more than 30 per cent would surprise me.
A system which allows voters to number candidates 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, eliminating the least popular in turn, has major flaws, which will be exposed during a referendum campaign. I believe that the Liberal Democrats are allowing their electoral reform agenda to be hijacked by a system which they do not believe in and which, if defeated, will delay the electoral reform agenda for a generation. They bear great responsibility. Even at this late stage, they should take stock and change tack. Too much is at stake.
The system is far too complicated. Even the Electoral Commission reports admit that the public find it difficult to understand the numbering of candidates and their relevance to the result. The commission believes that public education will help. I do not believe that. People will not be interested. Secondly, Ministers have repeatedly stated that candidates need more than 50 per cent of the vote to win. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said it again this morning on the “Today” programme. That is plainly not true. Furthermore, they are still peddling this myth, using carefully crafted language and skilful juggling of statistical argument. It will all fall apart when exposed to public scrutiny. The 50 per cent argument has become the central plank pushed by advocates of optional preference AV. It will crumble when exposed, as indeed will the argument of those who suggest that AV is some form of proportional representation.
Then there is the argument, so clearly expressed by a Mr Attenborough of Lincoln in his article in the Daily Mail of 9 September, under the headline,
“Why this unfair system won't get my vote”.
He reveals in simple language a real concern already known to we anoraks. In tightly fought seats, the second preferences of the bottom candidate, the first to be eliminated, can determine who wins the seat. What that means is that the BNP and other extremes, can actually determine who wins, while all second and subsequent preferences of the majority are not even taken into account.
Then we have the work of Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, of the University of Plymouth. Their research into voting behaviour in Queensland, Australia, which uses the Government’s proposed system, concludes that the most likely scenario over time is that many voters will treat an AV election just like first past the post, and not cast multiple preferences. Incredibly, in Queensland in 2009, 63 per cent of those who turned out at the state elections voted for just one candidate. It defeats the whole raison d’être of the initiative that the Government are taking. This will be music to the ears of my noble friend Lord Grocott. We then have freak results. Do we really believe that when the public learn that third-placed candidates on the first ballot and, in extremis, fourth-placed candidates, can leapfrog the top-placed candidates and win seats, that they will support the AV system proposed? I believe not.
So why did the Labour Government propose a similar system? The answer is very simple. It was due to a combination of a lack of detailed research, insufficient consultation and a failure to draw lessons from our experience in the mayoral elections. We should have acted years ago and learnt from our experience. In 1990, in an attempt to select a credible system, Labour established the Plant commission, under my noble friend Lord Plant. The commission undertook the task of examining a number of electoral systems, and in its landmark and authoritative report recommended the introduction of a variation of AV called the supplementary vote—SV. In the previous year, prior to the Plant commission being established, I had worked on this system with the support of Professor Patrick Dunleavy, of the London School of Economics, and I recommended it to the commission. The benefit of SV was its simplicity. It would be easily understood by the public and it has subsequently been described by Dunleavy as “London AV”.
With the supplementary vote, there are two columns on the ballot paper—one for first choice and one for second choice. Voters can mark an X in each column if they so wish. All the first preferences are counted. If a candidate has more than 50 per cent, they are elected. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent, then the top two remain and the rest are eliminated. The second preference votes of the eliminated are then added to the top two candidates and counted. The candidate with most first and second preferences is then the winner. It is simple and easy to sell to the general public.
When the system of mayoralties was established in 1998, Nick Raynsford MP and his department had to select an electoral system. They opted for the supplementary vote, the London version of AV, because of its simplicity and the fact that it was easy to sell to the public. It is a well proven system, already in use in the United Kingdom, that has worked very successfully for millions of voters in multiple elections. Boris Johnson and the mayors are elected under it, so why not MPs?
Professor Dunleavy at the LSE, Professor Helen Margetts and a number of other academics, including Professor Simon Hix and a few international commentators, all seem to prefer the supplementary vote, or London AV. Peculiarly, when asked to comment on how the Bill’s version of AV would work, both Labour and government spokesmen have used SV arguments to support AV. They did not even know how the system they were supposed to be advocating works—a sort of plagiarism in advocacy. I have often asked MPs how AV works in detail, and most of them got it wrong.
London AV is very popular in London and elsewhere. If we chose the London AV system, support among Labour and Conservative voters for a yes vote would go up and the referendum would be won, whereas the Bill's complex and problematic imported Australian AV model will fail to gain public support.
How do we get ourselves out of this mess? The Liberal Democrats might wish to ask themselves that question, as they control the agenda. We could amend the referendum question in Committee or on Report. I intend to table an amendment on London AV/SV, which I regard as a form of alternative vote, as does Professor Dunleavy. Alternatively, we could amend the referendum question in Clause 1, which states:
“Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”.
This could read, “Should an ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”—we could substitute “an” for “the”. The effect would be that, after a yes vote in a referendum, Parliament would have to decide between AV systems. Professor Dunleavy's view is that the electorate may have difficulty in supporting a system that had not been specified. He suggests that an amendment might refer to a question being placed before the electorate after Parliament has specified the system that it wishes to legislate for. I shall therefore also table such an amendment.
Some of my amendments will introduce delay. I am afraid that that is inevitable if we are to place a credible system before the electorate. I appeal to the Liberal Democrats, who have it in their hands to sort out this problem. I am sure that they will find support on the Conservative Benches for a tweaking of the proposed referendum question. I remind the House that it was a Conservative Member of Parliament who moved the SV amendment in the Commons only a few weeks ago. It is not too late to do the same in this House and to change the question that will be asked.
My Lords, I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in talking about the alternative vote system and the question that will be put in the proposed referendum. Before turning to the main burden of my remarks, I will make one or two observations about things that have been said, and will ask the Minister three questions.
First, I return to a point that I made in an intervention on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. I refer to the question of public inquiries and reiterate my belief that the public should have the right to contest decisions made by the Boundary Commission. In the 25 years that I served as a local councillor, and the 18 years as a Member of Parliament for an inner-city neighbourhood of Liverpool, I was struck by the alienation and the detached nature of democracy from the grass roots. It is important that we do not entrench that further. Having been through two public inquiries and successive boundary reviews in the constituencies that I represented, Liverpool Edge Hill and Liverpool Mossley Hill, I was very conscious of how important it was that the process was given legitimacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, remarked a few moments ago, if we do anything to undermine the legitimacy of the process, it will not inspire confidence in our democracy.
I am also struck by the remarks that have been made about registration in inner-city areas—which, again, I wholeheartedly support—and by what has been said about geographical and community considerations being taken into account, as well as sheer arithmetic. In another place, Mark Durkan MP said that he felt that the process had been,
“driven by robotic computer-generated arithmetic”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; col. 718.]
He particularly raised the issue of Northern Ireland, which has not yet been referred to in our Second Reading debate. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say something about the effect of the arithmetic on the very delicate balance that has to be sustained in Northern Ireland. Of course, we should do nothing in this legislation that in any way jeopardises what has been achieved there.
My other remark concerns the process through which we have got to this point today. I am aghast at the fact that we have not used pre-legislative scrutiny and that we have not had the opportunity in a Select Committee to try to reach more consensual positions on issues that I think need not divide the House as much as they have done today. I think that we have been driven on by other factors and considerations which the coalition Government will come to regret in due course.
I said that I had three questions that I should like to put to the Minister. First, given that Jenny Watson and Peter Wardle, the chair and chief executive of the Electoral Commission, have said that they need at least six months to prepare for a referendum, how can that requirement now be met, as we have passed 5 November and the ballot is scheduled for 5 May 2011? Secondly, can the Minister explain why the Government resisted threshold amendments in another place? Will he confirm that a referendum could be won on as little as 15 per cent of the popular vote? Furthermore, does he accept that such an outcome would, again, call into question the legitimacy of the process? Thirdly, do the Government regard the proposed change to the voting system as a constitutional change—hence the need for a referendum—or is this simply an incremental change in how we govern ourselves? If it is a constitutional change, will the referendum be used as a precedent for how the voting system is determined for your Lordships’ House when the Government’s next reform Bill is laid before the House? If not, why are elections to the two Houses to be treated differently?
I said that the main body of my remarks would focus on the referendum question which will be used to determine the future shape of our voting system. I will join others in seeking to amend that question, so I was particularly pleased to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, say today that he intends to table amendments to broaden the scope of the referendum question, and I am sure that many others will support him in that.
On 11 January this year, I initiated a short debate in your Lordships’ House and argued the case against closed party-list systems, which of course we continue to use in European elections, and for carefully assessing other electoral systems before contemplating any changes to Westminster elections. In that debate, I recalled that at the age of 17, and perhaps in danger of being called an anorak—a word used earlier by one noble Lord about those who are interested in electoral systems—I chaired a meeting for the late and indefatigable Miss Enid Lakeman, who was then director of the Electoral Reform Society and had been sent to our town by Mr Grimond to extol the virtues of the single transferable vote, or STV, system.
We currently use STV in Northern Ireland, where, for well known reasons, we say that we need the fairest possible system. However, we also use it in local elections in Scotland—an experience addressed in evidence by Mr Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy in remarks that he made to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. He said on 22 July, reported at page 3 of the oral evidence:
“I think that STV in Scotland is a very clear example of something which increased accountability and increased the influence of voters compared to first past the post”.
Therefore, I was particularly glad last May to see that in the general election Mr Clegg gave a pledge that his party would support the single transferable vote in any reform of the voting system. Sadly, pledges seem to have become a devalued currency in politics. Our politicians should beware of losing authority and respect if they too easily jettison their beliefs and commitments.
On 5 October last, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, gave an explanation as to why the decision had been made to jettison previous support for STV. He said:
“If we could persuade our coalition partners and the Labour Party of the merits of STV, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree … we could then go to one system in all elections”.—[Official Report, 5/10/10; col. 8.]
I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, truly believes that, but it is not about persuading his coalition partners or even the Labour Party about the merits of a particular system; surely it is about allowing the electorate to express their views on several alternatives.
We were told earlier that the referendum is to cost £30 million of public money; I think that was the figure given. If it is entirely to exclude a question on whether we might move towards a proportional system—which the alternative vote, AV, is not—this political deal, which superseded the manifesto commitment, will miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a truly fair, just and representative system. Even worse, from the noble Lord's point of view, it is likely to create an alliance among those who oppose the political fix of the alternative vote and leave us with the status quo. Certainly from some of the speeches we have heard today from both sides of the Chamber, the noble Lord would agree that he is likely to be caught in that kind of pincer movement.
This argument is not about persuading other political parties; it is about whether the public should be allowed to decide on something other than the alternative vote, which is neither proportional nor much of an improvement on the present system. This argument involves popular sovereignty and it is surely a matter for our fellow citizens to settle, not political caucuses.
I need hardly remind the noble Lord—in those times we were noble or at least honourable friends—that the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead’s 1998 commission reported to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that AV can be even less proportional than first past the post and that:
“So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it”.
Contradicting something that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said earlier, he said that,
“there would still be large tracts of the country which would be electoral deserts”,
and that most seats in the country would remain safe. As the late Lord Jenkins warned:
“AV on its own is unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality”.
Mr Clegg has reportedly said that he sees AV as a step towards a proportional system. Perhaps the noble Lord could clarify that remark. What is the timetable? What would be the system? In political life, do you not get some credit for arguing for what you believe in rather than something less? In any event, you do not usually get to your destination by walking in the opposite direction.
As it stands, the Bill provides that the question should read: do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the alternative vote system instead of the current first past the post system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons? As proposition questions in the United States illustrate, voters are quite capable of understanding multiple choices and they are also capable of understanding when real choices are denied them. What are these arguments for STV, arguments which the public have a right to hear?
I set out some of those considerations in my short debate on 11 January when I said:
“By contrast with AV, single transferable votes give voters a choice of different candidates whom they can support within each party—a kind of built-in primary, without the extra expense ... Since each party has more than one candidate, there is wider voter choice and the power to eliminate the least suitable”.
I pointed out that:
“There is also far more scope under STV to promote candidates from such underrepresented groups as women, ethnic minorities and so on, without quotas—a point highlighted this weekend by the Speaker, Mr Bercow … in comparison with STV, AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons”. —[Official Report, 11/1/10; col. 354.]
Like AV, but unlike list systems, STV retains a crucial geographically determined constituency link, something that I greatly valued during my 18 years in another place.
Another contrast between STV and AV is that AV would still allow parties with minority support to have large majorities in the Commons. That is something which many of us are vigorously opposed to. By contrast, STV would ensure fairness, with the parties’ share of the seats more closely reflecting their share of the vote, while avoiding the fragmentation and centralising effect of party lists. That would change the culture and the conduct of politics, ushering in a permanent need to build relationships and alliances and to win pre-legislative agreement before introducing legislation.
One of the outcomes of the 2007 Scottish elections, to which I referred—elections which used STV—was that nearly three-quarters of voters are represented by their first-choice candidate. They now have a choice of representatives to turn to when the need arises. By contrast, AV would leave many voters without a local representative whom they had supported at the ballot box. Nor would AV do anything to end the relentless focus on a handful of key marginal seats—100 or so—which so distorts British politics. Under STV, there are no safe seats and no no-go areas for any party. STV has the added advantage that it requires political parties to coexist, as it has done to such historic effect in Northern Ireland.
By comparison, AV is a very complicated and uncommon voting system, used only in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and, as we have heard, Australia—where, incidentally, 60 per cent of people are reported to want the system scrapped. That does not seem like a compelling case for taking a small step in the wrong direction.
The political reality is that we are saddled with a proposal which neither coalition partner likes. The Conservatives will campaign against it, and the Liberal Democrats—and certainly the old Liberal Party, of which I am a one-time Chief Whip—have never supported it. Only the Labour Party argued for the alternative vote at the general election and, from the debates on the Bill thus far, there seems to have been some sort of aberration when that support was given.
When we come to Committee, this House should do its historic duty and amend the referendum question so that there is genuine voter choice about the way in which we cast our ballots. In this generation, there will be only one opportunity—one chance—to achieve electoral reform, and we have a duty to get it right.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has already outed me, I begin with the confession that I was indeed the Minister in the previous Government responsible for the issues with which the Bill is concerned. Had my party been re-elected, I am sure that we would have approached these issues rather differently, but that has not led me to oppose the Bill. I oppose the Bill because a large part of it attempts to rewire our constitutional arrangements for partisan advantage; and that is unacceptable.
Part 1 sets out to deliver a referendum on the alternative vote. Had the Government adopted the approach pursued by the previous Government, I might have felt able to support them on that, although I recognise that some of my colleagues in this place will differ from me on this in all conceivable circumstances.
If agreed in a referendum, I believe that the alternative vote could help to tackle the problem of legitimacy created by the phenomenon of Government after Government—including the present Government—being elected to power with the support of only a minority of the electorate. The alternative vote system is not a panacea for all the problems of legitimacy faced by our political system, but it at least ensures that more MPs will be returned from their constituencies with the support of a majority of those voting. Crucially, it does so while retaining the MPs’ direct link with their constituents. Here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who made exactly that point. That is vital for accountability in our democracy.
Sadly, the Government have not followed the careful approach of the previous Government, they have pushed ahead with a process which, as we have already heard, is precipitate; it denies Parliament a proper opportunity to scrutinise such an important constitutional measure. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, pointed out, this referendum is post-legislative.
I shall return to some other flaws with this process shortly, but I turn to Part 2. It aims to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons and equalise the size of the constituencies that remain. It is reasonable at the very least to debate such reduction and equalisation. There is nothing axiomatically right about that Chamber's current size. As the House will know, the principle that all constituencies should be a broadly similar size is already written into legislation.
However, when we examine how the Government are setting about these tasks, we see principles and practice which have long ensured the fair working of our constitution rejected in what I am afraid can only be construed as partisan self-interest. It has long been accepted, as we have heard over and over again this evening, that the boundaries of a constituency should be shaped not only by numbers but also by the specific character of the constituency, local identities and natural boundaries, such as mountains and rivers, which have throughout history helped to define communities. But in this Bill such considerations have been demoted by the Government.
Nor do the Government appear to have given any consideration to other relevant factors—for example, the optimum size for a constituency; not a number plucked out of the air, like 76,000, but the optimum number, taking into account the respective role of MPs in their constituencies and their role in Parliament, and the implication for both those roles of further decentralisation of power to local authorities and, indeed, then to local councillors.
Instead of a proper consideration of all these important issues, what we see is the Government claiming that the equalisation of constituency size must be elevated above all these other important considerations. Why? We are not given any satisfactory answer whatever. But then they do not uphold even this dubious principle consistently. Wales, as we have heard, is to lose in one swing of the axe 25 per cent of its parliamentary representation while Northern Ireland, for perfectly understandable reasons, is allowed to depart from the electoral quota rule.
Moreover, as we heard in a previous discussion earlier today, the Bill makes an explicit and privileged exception for two Scottish seats, one of which, I am sure coincidentally, is held by the Liberal Democrat MP, the Deputy Chief Whip of the Government. And then again, as we have already heard, a further exemption from the electoral quota is given on the basis of the territorial extent of a constituency, drawn up coincidentally, I am sure, in such a way that it can have practical effect in only one area of the United Kingdom—the Scottish Highlands, where only one constituency currently falls into this special category: the seat held by the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. So why exactly does the Bill allow the factors of sparsity and geography to be given priority over electoral equality in these places but nowhere else?
It is hard to find anywhere in the Bill anything that could pass as a consistently applied informing principle. The Bill abolishes the ability of local people to have any significant say in the shape of the constituency in which they live, even though local representations have significantly influenced boundary revisions in the past. As we have heard, the Boundary Commission report in 2007 found that just about two-thirds of local inquiries had led to changes in the original recommendations of the Boundary Commission.
The Deputy Prime Minister has justified this change with these words—I quote them because they are worth hearing:
“The review process is lengthy and time-consuming”.
Lengthy and time-consuming—exactly the same might be said for democracy itself. Administrative convenience for the Executive is never a good argument for attacking the foundations of accountable democracy.
Then we have the decision on the proper size for the House of Commons. How exactly did the Government alight on the figure of 600? Both the coalition partners were committed before the election to reducing the House of Commons to below the number of 600. They had different figures but they were united in their belief that the House of Commons should be reduced to a figure below 600. So what exactly changed their minds? Will the Minister tell the House whether any modelling was done by the Government or the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative Party on the effects on those parties’ representation in the House of Commons of reducing the number of MPs below 600; and if so, what such modelling showed?
Then the Deputy Prime Minister tells us—we have heard a lot about this from the government Benches already tonight—that,
“it is patently obvious that individuals' votes should carry the same weight”—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 35.]
That is right—but they already do. They are only counted once. Every vote is only counted once. What the Deputy Prime Minister appears to mean is that on average it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative or Liberal Democrat MP. However, that is not because votes for the Labour Party weigh more than votes for other parties; it is the consequence, in part, of the fact that turnout and electoral registration are lower in Labour areas and in part it is because Labour’s vote is currently distributed more efficiently within the first past the post system. There is no inherent, systemic bias in favour of the Labour Party. The same system worked against the Labour Party throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
As Liberal Democrat MPs, of all people, should know, if each vote weighing equally means that the share of the vote translates directly into an equal proportion of seats held in the House of Commons, there is only one electoral system that delivers that. We have already heard that tonight. It is proportional representation, which is not on offer in the Bill and carries with it all sorts of other problems that mean that I for one would never want to see it introduced as a method of election into the House of Commons.
If the Government were really so concerned about equality among voters, they would not be seeking to redraw the electoral map on the basis of a register that fails to include over 3 million voters who would otherwise be eligible to vote. Do the Government seriously believe that any credible equalisation of boundaries can take place when some constituencies achieve nearly 100 per cent registration rates while others achieve barely half that? When we look at it, another so-called principle crumbles.
Then there is the way the Bill has been introduced in a display of contempt for Parliament by the Executive. The Labour Government introduced a raft of constitutional reforms, and they always did so by seeking consensus wherever possible on the grounds that whenever constitutional changes are made, they should be made in the interests of the legitimacy of our constitutional system as a whole. This is a crucial principle. These changes should not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued. I am truly sorry that this Government have rejected this approach.
In the rushed passage of the Bill through the other place, not a single Opposition or Back-Bench amendment was accepted by the Government. That is not the only example of the Government’s contempt for good practice. The Electoral Commission has consistently made clear its view that:
“The rules on how the referendum will be conducted must be clear from at least six months in advance”.
For that to have happened in this case, the Bill would need to have been passed on to the statute book two weeks ago.
If due process and consistent principle do not underpin the Bill, why are the Government bringing it forward? A clue might be provided by the speed with which these measures are being rushed through: speed in rushing this through the other place, speed in holding a referendum less than six months from the presumed passage of the Bill on to the statute book and unprecedented speed in completing the wholesale revision of constituency boundaries. Why the rush? Surely such important constitutional measures deserve appropriate pre-legislative and legislative scrutiny. Surely people should have the time and opportunity to have their say on the shape of the constituencies in which they live.
It is clear that the reason for this haste is that the Government want to get the new system in place by the next election, but why? Important as I believe these measures to be, there is no popular clamour for them, nor any other compelling reason to rush these measures through. Why rush to draw up the boundaries on the basis of an inaccurate and incomplete register when legislation has already been passed by the previous Government—this is the answer to the charge laid by the noble Lord, Lord Baker—to task the Electoral Commission to make the register comprehensive and accurate by 2015 and gave it new powers to do that? The Governments that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, so illuminated in his time in the other place never did anything like that to achieve a proper register. The date selected in that legislation was 2015 because it was judged that that time was needed successfully to compete the task, not least because the key to guaranteeing that the register is comprehensive and accurate is going to be using the results of the 2011 census, the most up-to-date figures we have on the population, to validate it.
Such an analysis is unlikely to be available before 2014. So why are the Government rushing it through before that crucial analysis is available? Why could the Government not wait just a few months longer to be sure that boundary revisions can take place only on the basis of a comprehensive and accurate electoral register, which is the only fair basis on which such revisions can be conducted? The only reason can be that the new boundaries would not be in place for the next general election, but constitutional changes of this significance should be drafted to endure for generations. In this context, whether they are in the place for the coming general election or the one after that really should not weigh in the balance.
Why, after all this, might the Government still be so anxious to get these measures in place by the time of the next election? They must have foreseen these criticisms. I am sure that they did. But why are they proceeding like this nevertheless? Is it too cynical to suspect that it is because they expect to benefit from them? It is widely accepted that revising the boundaries when millions of eligible voters are missing from the register is likely to damage the Labour Party most.
Let me quote from a prominent Conservative, Mr Mark Field, Member of Parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster. On his website, which is available to all Members of this House, noble Lords can read that,
“the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office”.
That is the purpose of this legislation in the words of Mr Mark Field MP.
It should not need me to say that political expediency for one party is an unacceptable basis for constitutional change. This is not the new politics we were promised. It is an old politics where constitutional arrangements are subverted for partisan advantage, which should have no place in our democracy. Far from restoring legitimacy to our politics, as the Government claim, this Bill will damage it further. It is a bad Bill. I hope that this House will do its duty in making all the changes necessary to make it a better one.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend. I have only one quibble about what he said: it is not just one party attempting to rig our constitution in this Bill, it is two of them; it is the coalition. That is the purpose of it all and what is behind it. There is no magic figure of 76,000 as far as electors are concerned. Anyone who has read reports from the Boundary Commission—I do not say that they are exactly compulsive reading, although those of us who served in the other place will know that they are if they refer to your own constituency—will know that sheer numbers is not what they are about. I think that the figure was 66,000 in my time in the other place. That is a general aim, and an avowed intention when new constituencies are created and old ones are altered. But it is not a hard and fast rule. There are other considerations too.
As my noble friend Lord Touhig said earlier, there are geographical considerations to be looked at. He amplified the nonsense of seats in Wales where it is possible to cross two mountain ranges and three rivers, or whatever the figure was, in order to arrive at this magic figure of 76,000 electors. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said, it is community that is important—community is the vital aspect of any constituency. This is a cynical attempt at gerrymandering.
As my noble friend Lord Hart reminded us, this is part of a triple attack on our constitution by the coalition Government. It does not apply just in the other place; it applies here too. They want to reduce the other place by around 50 and to increase this place by, coincidentally, the same number. The problem is that they will not be the same people. The idea is to get rid of a majority of Labour Members from the other place and plant—it has been said in the newspapers—another 50 or so Liberals in your Lordships’ House. I am not sure, given the rate of attrition in the Liberal Party currently, that there will be 50 of them left to come in here before Christmas. But certainly that seems to be the avowed intention, which would make this House anything but a revising Chamber where traditionally it has been said that that is what we are about.
In opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, threw out a comment about the number of Labour Peers created by the Labour Government. I would remind him that it took more than a decade of Labour Governments, two of whom had majorities in three figures and one with a substantial majority, before Labour Members of your Lordships’ House outnumbered the Conservatives, let alone formed a majority on the Floor, which of course we never did. But that is the clear intention of the gerrymandering that is taking place in both Houses. It will ensure that a Conservative/Liberal alliance or something similar will continue up to and, they hope, including the next election in 2015. But I hope it is our job to see that such a philosophy does not go unchallenged, and when we come to the Committee stage, I hope that the battle for some of the things that have rightly been pointed out during the course of this Second Reading debate is waged loud and long. I say that because if we are still a revising Chamber, at least until the parties opposite have done their worst, then if ever a Bill needed revising, it is this one.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was at his ebullient best earlier today, saying that the Bill is almost a tidying-up exercise that makes a few minor alterations, with nothing really to concern your Lordships. But that is not the view of his distinguished noble friend Lord Baker, who let the cat out of the bag in his speech. I have always envied his capacity for swallowing his words and inventing new ones. He talked about the small size of some constituencies, predominantly Labour ones, but I remember that he won a by-election in St Marylebone. His hair was darker and shorter in those days, if I may say so, but I am sure it was he who represented one of the smallest constituencies in the country. However, I do not think he made any protest at the time about the relatively low number of constituents. Indeed, like many of us who represented inner city areas, I bet he was grateful that his constituency was a bit smaller because your Lordships will recognise that social problems in the inner cities are enormous. I do not say that Conservative or Liberal Democrat Members in the other place have fewer problems so far as their constituents are concerned, but in my experience the number of social problems in inner city constituencies can considerably outweigh those in the more affluent parts of rural areas. So there is a good reason for the relative size of constituencies.
I shall reflect on his distinguished career, but I was surprised that he failed to point out to your Lordships that he has had some experience of a small constituency and made no protest at the time.
Let me turn to his article, a copy of which I have with me. I am not sure whether the Times is compulsive reading on either side of your Lordships’ House, but I can imagine the conversation that took place between a senior journalist on the Times and the noble Lord at the beginning of October: “Ken, what’s your view on the coalition?”. “Oh, I am broadly in favour of it”. “Good. Knock us out a thousand words for 4 October”. Being the sensible man he is, my computer says the article is only 985 words, so I hope the Times does not ask him for a rebate for the words he has missed out. The very readable article about this legislation appeared under the headline,
“Stop worrying and learn to love the coalition: A Tory government with a tiny majority could not achieve what we are able to do now”.
The noble Lord then set out exactly what the coalition hoped to achieve. I have to say that the article is not entirely accurate, and again I hope that there will not be a demand for his fee to be returned. However, it is eminently readable, as one would expect given the talents of the noble Lord. He said:
“It begins to look as if the chances of one party having a significant overall majority will only come about if an incumbent government is greatly unpopular”.
We might test that theory over the next few years. He went on to say,
“as it was in 1979 to the benefit of Margaret Thatcher, and in 1997 to the benefit of Tony Blair”.
Again, that rather ignores the lessons of history. I seem to recall that Tony Blair, if I can call him that in your Lordships’ House—repeating the noble Lord’s words—was pretty successful in 2001 as an incumbent and did not do too badly in 2005, again as an incumbent. I am not sure about the accuracy of that part of the article but I am sure about the part I am about to read out because, despite the emollient words from the Leader of the House to which I have referred, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, went on to say:
“The greatest prize for the Tories is yet to come: constitutional change that will eliminate Labour’s 8 per cent advantage at every general election. This will be achieved by equalising the votes in each constituency to around 76,000 and by reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs”.
That brings it down to the 600 figure that my noble friend Lord Dubs was accused of mentioning and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was afraid to mention, or chose not to mention, during the course of his speech.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, went on to say in his eminently readable article:
“MPs of all parties are coming to accept that there will not be an election in 2011 or 2012, when the British public will not want to be diverted from enjoying the Olympic Games”—
to get rid of this lot, some of them might be prepared to be diverted—
“and celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”.
I was around for the silver jubilee, as was the noble Lord, but it did not stop us having by-elections and a continuance of the normal political toing and froing. The article continued:
“In 2013 the rewards of austerity are still likely to be meagre, so an election in 2015 looks odds-on. This coalition has staying power”.
For the sake of the noble Lord’s colleagues in another place, he had better hope that that is right because, in the short term, the coalition is going to be unpopular.
I thank the noble Lord for drawing to the attention of a wider audience the words that I wrote in this article in the Times. The point I wanted to make is that the Bill will be very significant in removing the basic unfairness in our democracy that at the last election we had to be eight points ahead in the opinion polls even to come level with Labour. That is manifestly unfair in any democratic system and cannot be justified. The Bill removes not all but about half the unfairness and means that the checkerboard of politics will for a long time be set out on a level table.
There were a few clichés there which I would not care to follow too far. I do not agree that the present electoral system gives the Labour Party an 8 per cent advantage, nor do many independent commentators, for the reasons amply outlined by my noble friends during the course of the debate.
Before I leave the noble Lord’s article, I should say that I am pleased that he feels the two of us should embark on a crusade against AV because, like him, I am against it. Before we go round the country together, however, I have one request to make of him: that he lets me speak first because, given the quality of what he has said tonight, he could empty a hall even faster than me. However, it would be worth while to undertake such an exercise because on this issue he is right. During my 27 years in the other place I never heard a great clamour for AV. Indeed, I have yet to hear from any of my former constituents that they would be happy in West Bromwich only if they had AV at the next general election. AV is about transporting the party that traditionally comes last in the electoral system—that is, the Liberals—into permanent second place and, of course, into permanent coalition with whichever party happens to come first.
The Bill is a blatant attempt at gerrymandering. It arises not from a desire to do good in our thankfully unwritten constitution but from a desire to survive. The coalition Government hope that the voters will have short memories and that, with a rigged and gerrymandered system, they will sneak back into power in 2015. It will be up to us during the Committee stage and in the debates on the Bill to ensure that none of that comes about.
My Lords, as someone whose title was taken from Lerwick in Shetland, I was somewhat startled and delighted this afternoon to arrive here to find that Shetland is once again in the cockpit of history. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, was equally delighted as a former MP for Orkney and Shetland. I do not think that Orkney and Shetland have been so near to the pulse of the nation since Charles James Fox was for a short time the Member of Parliament for the rotten borough there. That was after he had contested the Westminster by-election and there was an inquiry into whether the result was fraudulent. However, I do not think that I ought to go into the merits of the special treatment of Orkney and Shetland.
I wish to follow the noble Lord, Lord Snape, in one respect, as I shall talk mainly about AV. On Part 2 of the Bill, which seeks to reduce the size of the House of Commons, I agree with the point made by my noble friend Lord Baker that, when we compare the size of our legislature with the size of legislatures in other countries, we should look not at Europe—as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, did—but at countries such as Japan, the United States and India. There is a strong argument for saying that our legislature is too large.
Briefly, on the second principle of equalising constituencies, I will listen carefully to what the Opposition say, but I do not think that so far the case has been wholly convincing.
I want to deal briefly with this, as I really want to talk about AV, if the noble Lord does not mind.
We heard moving speeches from the noble Lords, Lord Myners and Lord Elystan-Morgan, about natural boundaries, rivers, county boundaries and history. I remember in my suburban constituency of Kingston that people used to think that Worcester Park should be excluded simply because it was on the other side of the bypass. I am sure that in Shetland, too, some people think that Orkney should be excluded because it is too far away. These are, as has been said, important points and principles, but the overriding factor must be the integrity and fairness of the democratic system and, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, elegantly said, ensuring that as far as possible each vote is of equal value.
Part 1 of the Bill stems from the coalition agreement. As I support the coalition and the necessity of a coalition because of the economic situation that we face, I support the general principles of the Bill. However, I have some suggestions for improving it. In the coalition agreement, there is one statement with which I disagree. The agreement says:
“The Government believes that our political system is broken”.
“our political system is broken”,
was last used by Sir Oswald Mosley. I do not believe that our political system is broken. Of course we have had, rightly, anger and disillusionment with politicians over expenses. We have had some rotten apples. We have had some people who should be and will be punished. However, that is not the same as saying that our constitution is broken. There is no connection between the scandal of expenses and arguments about fixed-term Parliaments, an elected House of Lords or, indeed, AV; they are totally separate. There might be more respect for politics, which is what we all desperately want, if we admitted that AV is being put forward because of a political alliance, as a result of which one party that would not naturally have favoured it has conceded it to the other party. There is no reason to justify this by saying that our political system is broken.
Bismarck once remarked that laws are like sausages, in that it is better not to see them being made. Many laws, many aspects of our constitution and many anomalies in our constitution are the result of accidents of politics and political deals. That applies even to the wonderful and pure theory of PR in Europe. In continental European countries, PR was often introduced in order to save the Liberal party from the rise of socialism and Labour parties.
None the less, we should be cautious about trading permanent changes in the constitution for short-term political advantage. We do not want to get into the situation of Latin American countries, where people campaign on changes to the constitution. We do not want to get into the situation of the fourth republic in France, where there was an old joke about the man who went into the library and asked for a copy of the constitution and was told, “We don’t stock periodicals here”. We do not want to get into the situation whereby one political change is seen as a precursor to the next. Some see AV as precisely that—as a precursor to a move towards PR.
The support for AV in the Bill and the coalition in some ways seems quite surprising. In February this year, the Deputy Prime Minister described AV as a “miserable little compromise”. As has been said, AV is the system used in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. In Australia, AV has proved to be often less proportional even than first past the post and to lead to even larger swings—the large swings under first past the post have been among the things most criticised about our present system. AV has not reduced the proportion of safe seats, which is a very high proportion that is similar to the number in this country. In addition, the system of AV often leads to deals, which are not always declared publicly, between major and small, minor or fringe political parties in order to secure office.
The intellectual justification for AV seems somewhat elusive. The system was first proposed in 1917 in the Speaker’s conference, which is more likely to be remembered for having proposed votes for women over 30. The system was put forward in 1931 as a positive solution, and Winston Churchill described it at the time as,
“the worst of all possible plans … the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal. The decision … is to be determined by the most worthless votes given to the most worthless candidates”.
As has been said in this debate, in many cases the outcome of a poll in a constituency under AV will be decided by the person who comes bottom, who might be the British National Party candidate, as has been said. In any case, it seems difficult to justify why the result should always be decided by the second preferences of those who voted for the candidate who came bottom, even if he is only the third candidate. I recently read an article by an Australian academic who suggests that, under AV in Australia, it is possible that, depending on the number of candidates standing, someone might actually be elected who was nobody’s first choice.
As was said by my noble friend Lord Forsyth, the referendum proposed on AV is unusual in that it is not an advisory referendum but an implementary one. That raises an important matter. Changing our voting system is a very significant move. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said, when we make such changes they ought to be for generations—for the long term—and the outcome must be seen to command confidence and respect. They must be seen to reflect a real demand for change. If there is a derisory turnout, those conditions will not be met. I submit that this is a significant change.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made some points against the first-past-the-post system, but I say that it has served us well. The same system is followed by leading democracies such as the United States, India and Canada. It has accommodated change, such as when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the interwar period. What some see as inflexibility or the insensitivity of the system has often protected us from extremism, such as we see when we look at the different electoral systems in Europe and the rise of far-right parties in Holland and Belgium. That was particularly the case in the 1930s, when extremists of both left and right failed to get any parliamentary representation whatever in this country, which was quite different from the experience in continental Europe. We like to put that down, of course, to the moderation and good sense of the British people. I am sure that that exists, but we should not deceive ourselves too much. It may also have a lot to do with our electoral system, so I suggest that we have to think carefully before we change that.
That brings me on to the point about referendums and constitutional change. Many countries have a specific threshold, either of turnout or of the numbers voting yes, before constitutional change can be made in a referendum. Germany and Spain have provisions for a fixed majority before they can effect a change in their constitutions. In Denmark and Italy, the requirement is for a specified proportion—in Italy, it is 60 per cent, I think—not in outcome but in turnout. In 1979, of course, George Cunningham inserted into the Scottish devolution bill a requirement for a 40 per cent yes vote. That has possibly somewhat scarred the Labour Party—I am not quite sure why—so I was particularly interested that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, returned today to the subject of a threshold.
I want to put a question to my noble friend Lord McNally, the Minister who, as I understand it, will answer at the end of the debate. I understand that the coalition agreement specified that there should be a simple majority in the referendum without an outcome-specific threshold—that is, there should not be anything similar to the Cunningham amendment. Am I not therefore right that the coalition agreement does not specify that there could not be a turnout threshold and that a provision in the Bill which said that the result of the referendum would only have the effect of law provided that there was a certain turnout would not be inconsistent with the coalition agreement? That turnout provision could be put at whatever level the House decided. It could be quite low. It could be in accordance with the recent turnout in local elections—in the high 30s or higher than 40 per cent—which would mean that, to get a yes vote, you would have to get the votes of 20 per cent of the electorate as a whole.
Some people object to a turnout threshold on the grounds that it encourages people to abstain but, first, the referendum is to be held—this is a subject of controversy—on the same day as local elections, when people have every reason to participate. Secondly, in order to encourage someone who would have voted not to vote as a gesture with political meaning, you would have to have some sort of campaign. I do not really accept the argument that having a turnout threshold would simply encourage people to stay away and would invalidate the whole idea of initiating a debate on this subject. The result of the referendum vote would be much strengthened if there was a provision for a minimum turnout. That would lend much greater legitimacy to the outcome of such a referendum, and I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will give it serious consideration.
My Lords, having sat through this debate so far, I have been greatly encouraged, as I suppose we all are, by the number of people who I found myself agreeing with wholeheartedly—not least the previous two speakers. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, made a series of points very effectively—I will not repeat them—while my noble friend Lord Snape, with whom I have not knowingly disagreed for 36 years, likewise made some very powerful points indeed. Yet I do not want to put false optimism into this debate because, overall—trying to find the right adjective to describe the Bill—I find it depressing. That is the best adjective I can offer to the House.
I find it depressing, in part, because it is a political fix. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, tactfully described it as a political alliance but we know what we are talking about. I was not born yesterday; I know perfectly well that parties have to reach agreements and that compromises are made. However, I cherish many aspects of our constitution and I do not like the idea of it being the subject of a political fix, not least for the reason, which was mentioned earlier, that once constitutions are changed, the chances are that they will stay changed.
I am also depressed because there is no overall view of the constitutional reform structure, if I may put it as grandiosely as that, that the Government are engaged upon. There is no attempt to explain how each of the three Bills that we are promised—there is another one as well, I think, about recalling MPs, so I make that four—relate to each other. Not least, why are we discussing changing the electoral system in the Commons in such detail when we are about to talk about introducing an electoral system into the Lords? Surely those things should be considered, at least in part, in relation to one another.
I am depressed as well because the Bill damages two or maybe three important parts of our parliamentary democracy. First, it damages the relationship between MPs and their constituencies, which for me has always been at the heart of our democracy. It is what brings all MPs back to earth every weekend, whatever part of the stratosphere they have inhabited during the week. It is what gives you strength and direction. What is more, it is generally appreciated by the public; amid all the difficulties of recent months and years, the one constant has been that, while the public do not like MPs in general, generally speaking they quite like the work that their own Member of Parliament does.
I find the Bill depressing because it weakens Parliament in relation to the Government. There is no answer to that and no Minister, as far as I know, has tried to offer one.
The Bill is depressing for another reason too, and the Minister really will need to address this. He repeatedly prayed in aid big majorities in the Commons. Now, he knows the Commons pretty well, as do a lot of people in this House, and he should know it well enough to know that if people had been voting in the way that they strongly felt—in a free vote, let us say; a funny thing for an ex-Chief Whip to talk about, but let us surmise for a moment—my guess is that there would have been at least a two-thirds majority against changing the electoral system. Nearly all the Conservatives would vote against it, although they can speak for themselves, and my estimate, although it is a low one, is that 60 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party would have voted against it. I do not suppose that any Liberals would have done so because they vote as a bloc in a Stalinist way, but the rest of us would have made our own minds up. That is my guess. So let us not feel any inhibition whatever about what we do in dealing with the Bill, because the House of Commons, and I could cite names if that were required, wants us to do some work on the Bill and make changes to it.
I shall say a word or two about first past the post versus AV, which is a crucial part of the Bill. If anyone should hate the first past the post system, it really should be me. I have lost more elections under that system than I care to remember: four out of eight general elections, not to mention sundry country council elections and others. In this case, though, experience gives me an even greater respect for the first past the post system, certainly in comparison with AV. Indeed, for me it is not first past the post versus AV; I prefer to see it as being first past the post versus second or third past the post, which is obviously what AV amounts to. It means that the person who comes first is not necessarily declared the winner. As someone who spent a bit of my youth talking to bookies, I must admit that I quite like the notion of the horse that comes third or fourth being declared the winner—I would be richer—but that is not a good basis on which to operate a constitution. I find the arguments in favour of AV almost totally unconvincing and almost dishonest. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, suggested, it is not at all the solution to the difficulties that the parliamentary system has encountered recently.
A whole new concept has been introduced, which made me do some research. I was suddenly being told by Liberal Democrats and others that there was a crucial determinant of someone’s eligibility to be a Member of Parliament—namely, whether they achieved 50 per cent of the vote. That is what gave them legitimacy. If they did not have 50 per cent, they did not have legitimacy. Not being an anorak as far as numbers are concerned, I thought I would check whether I achieved 50 per cent in those four elections that I managed to win. Frankly, I did not have the faintest idea. I am happy to report to the House that the figures were as follows. My first win was on 42.6 per cent; my second was on 42.8 per cent; and my third was on 48.3 per cent, so at least the figures were moving in the right direction. My fourth win was on 57.8 per cent; at last I was legitimate.
I simply report to the House as a matter of fact—I am happy for someone to intervene or contradict me on this—that not only did I not know whether I had got 50 per cent until I checked the figures, but I absolutely assure the House that my constituents would not have had the faintest idea. Whether I had 50 per cent did not make a scrap of difference to the work that I did in the constituency. The same people came to me about the same kind of problems. Nor did it make a scrap of difference to my work as a Member of Parliament. As far as I know, no one said, “Don’t listen to him” or “Listen only to 48.3 per cent of what he says because he hasn’t got 50 per cent of his electors behind him”.
I hoped I could pray in aid the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on this. I took the precaution of checking the result in Stockport South in 1979. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, achieved 45.1 per cent of the vote. I had not appreciated the angst that he must have suffered because of this. When the returning officer declared him duly the Member of Parliament for the said Stockport South constituency, he would have been consumed by guilt, I imagine, because he was not a legitimate Member of Parliament. He must have felt quite ashamed when he came down here as an illegitimate Member. It is beyond parody or sarcasm. It simply bears no relationship whatever to how people here or in our constituencies ever think about the legitimacy of an MP.
I will say two other things about the weakness of the alternative vote system, which I hope are relevant to our debate. First, we surely have enough different electoral systems operating in this country at present. We have five by my calculation: first past the post, the additional member system, single transferable vote, supplementary vote and—wait for it—the d’Hondt system of proportional representation, which I do not understand and I suspect many other people do not either. More to the point, we will now not only have another electoral system for the Commons if the coalition has its way, but we will also have another electoral system for the House of Lords. That makes seven different electoral systems in this country. I would have one simple question in the referendum: would you like to revert to the first past the post system, which has served us so well in the past, for all these elections? I am certain that it cannot possibly be right to have seven different electoral systems. Added to which, we are warned—let us acknowledge the warning—by Nick Clegg and others that this is only a temporary phase. I wish those who are going to vote in favour would be honest with the electorate and this House and say, “We are voting for it but, as Nick Clegg has said, it’s a miserable little compromise. It won’t last long. Get ready because we’re coming with the real job later”. That is no basis on which to change the electoral system of a country. When its most prominent supporter describes it only as a miserable little compromise, that is not a great rallying cry: “What do we want?” “A miserable little compromise!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”. It is not the kind of thing which inspires an audience, quite apart from the fact that it will cost a lot of money. We keep being told that it will save £12 million to have fewer MPs, yet we are embarking on this hugely expensive referendum.
I want to comment on the “making constituencies bigger” section of the Bill, which I prefer as a title. Again, I offer the House my own experience, which may or may not be accepted. I had the privilege of representing two constituencies during my political life: one was Lichfield and Tamworth, with an electorate then of 101,343; the other was The Wrekin, which, before its redistribution, had an electorate of 90,872. Thank heaven, the dear old Boundary Commission came along and split that constituency into two, as it has also done with Lichfield and Tamworth. The link between MPs and their constituents is at the heart of our constitution. However hard you work—and, my word, I did work hard, as do most Members of Parliament—you cannot give the same service to constituents when you represent 101,000 as you can when you represent 60,000 or 70,000. For the life of me, I cannot see the justification for increasing constituency size in the way enshrined in the Bill.
I can conclude only where I started. I hope that this speech is not too depressing because I feel depressed about the Bill. The coalition has a huge majority in this House and in the other House and so far there is no sign that the Government are listening to any of the arguments. However, I am encouraged by the overwhelmingly hostile contributions which so many noble Lords have made today. Their speeches were overwhelmingly hostile to large sections of the Bill. I hope that we will do our job in this House and put it into better shape.
My Lords, whoever drew up the speakers list clearly had a good sense of humour since my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I have debated the electoral system just about since the river Tamar came to mark the boundary between Cornwall and Devon, and I am sure that we will go on doing so in the run-up to the referendum, whenever that may come.
Before I turn to the other side of the case that he has put so well this evening—the case for AV—I want to refer to the other bits of the Bill in a couple of considered sentences. Governments of every complexion have generally proceeded cautiously on electoral matters, giving them due consideration, using, where possible, the independent judgment of the Boundary Commissions, and avoiding any charge of partisan manipulation. Most Governments have been extremely wary, and rightly so, of making electoral arrangements a kind of war booty to go into the hands of whatever party wins. We have only to look at France, which has enjoyed no such tradition, to see how wise we have been to adopt that. Therefore, it is our duty in this House to ignore the spurious arguments that have been put forward that somehow this is the prerogative of the House of Commons, which, incidentally, has not had a chance to consider very much of the Bill. We must do our duty and give this Bill the most careful, objective and, where possible, non-partisan consideration.
I want a referendum on AV but I do not want it on 5 May next year. Whenever it comes, I hope that the country returns a yes vote. I speak as a member of the Jenkins committee on electoral reform, on which my noble friend Lady Gould, who is not in her place this evening, also sat, and which recommended AV as part of its recommended solution. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who rightly quoted the report, that Lord Jenkins, who chaired that committee and was held in respect on all sides of this House and in British politics, had, by the end of his life, changed his mind. He wanted a move to AV, and he would be arguing for it if he were here tonight.
What is wrong with first past the post? In days of yore, maybe there was not much wrong. In 1951, 97 per cent of voters backed one of the two big parties—Labour or Tory. Nine MPs in 10 received half or more of the votes cast in their constituencies. The change has been dramatic. Today, the two big parties have just two-thirds of the national vote between them, and only one-third of MPs—one-third—are the choice of at least half the voters in their constituencies. That may not bother the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—as long as he was there, he felt all right about it—but it should worry anyone who believes in majority rule.
These facts create a disproportionate House of Commons, of course, but that does not particularly bother me. My objections to first past the post are quite different. It starves MPs of the legitimacy that comes from election. First past the post delivers Menshevik MPs. It encourages perverse political tactics by MPs. We should seek an inclusive politics where MPs try to get as many votes by reaching out to as many voters as possible. With first past the post, the temptation all the time is to concentrate on just enough of your core voters to get you back into Parliament. It gives too many MPs safe seats for life—a matter to which I shall return in a minute. It robs voters of choice. What do you do if you are a voter? Do you back the candidate you most want, or the candidate who has the best chance of beating the candidate you most do not want? First past the post, like rotten boroughs, the all-male franchise and university seats, is a system which people back out of nostalgia. Its day has gone, it is broke and it must be fixed.
Should we therefore go full circle?
The noble Lord alluded to the situation in the 1950s when he said that first past the post worked very well. We are often told that the Conservatives received a majority of the votes in Scotland in 1955. Was not part of the reason for that that really only two parties stood in most constituencies, because the Liberals had been destroyed as a result of their involvement in a previous coalition?
The noble Lord is, of course, completely right historically, although he makes a wholly irrelevant point. In the political circumstances of those days, in a two-party system, first past the post was great. Once you do not have a two-party system and you have a multi-party system—with nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, a complicated situation in Northern Ireland, and a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party—first past the post does not work any more. It is as simple as that.
I do not want to go full circle by going for a fully proportional system—partly because I have never seen the advantage of it. I do not very much like the additional member system, which applies in Germany, because it too much erodes constituency loyalties. I do not like STV, loved by the much-mourned kind of Liberal who went around in sandals. STV again breaks the constituency link. In any case, in our constitution, we prefer to proceed by evolution rather than revolution. That is why we should have AV now and then in a few years, we could take stock again, or go further, stay where we are or, if you like and you can make your case, go back to first past the post.
I want here to confront a paradox. We AVers argue that AV is a relatively modest change and that it would be a change significantly for the better. How can we ride both these horses at once? As Jimmy Thomas said, if you cannot ride two horses at once, you should not be in the political circus. The resolution is like this: it will not make an enormous difference to the results of elections. At the general election in 2010, according to the academics David Sanders, Paul Whiteley, Marianne Stewart and Harold Clarke, it might have led to 22 fewer Tory seats, 10 fewer Labour seats—sorry about that—and 32 more Lib Dems. The effect, if there were to be a general election tomorrow, according to Professor Patrick Dunleavy, would be much less. Even changes of this magnitude would of course have mattered in a close election such as that in 2010, but they are scarcely seismic. However, there would have been far more seats in which the result was genuinely in doubt—so more MPs would have had to work harder to reach out to more people to win them.
I come finally to the main argument that I hear used against AV; namely, that it would help to create a situation where we had permanent coalition government and disproportionate power was given to the third party. I hear this complaint mostly from Conservative politicians. I am not sure how they square their enthusiastic support for the present coalition with the belief that coalition government is by definition a bad thing. It must be understood that in the new political geography of Britain, the strong probability is that coalition will be the norm. It is true that the eight general elections up to 2005 all produced majority Governments, but psephologists have compared this to tossing a coin that comes up heads eight times in a row—unlikely, but it happens. I often back eight even-money shots in a row at the races and they all lose.
First past the post has lost its potency to deliver majority Governments in most circumstances. There has been a very sharp decline in the number of seats that are marginal. According to Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, the number of marginal seats has fallen from 166 in 1955 to just 85 in 2010, so a given swing is much less likely to bring about the number of changes in seats that will deliver a majority to one party or another. There will be fewer majority Governments under first past the post in future.
Perhaps my noble friend will give way. One of his arguments is that first past the post creates rotten boroughs. Would he tell us what happened to the Tory rotten boroughs of Stirling, Dumfries, Eastwood and South Edinburgh in Scotland? Are they still Tory rotten boroughs?
My Lords, over a very long period of time, of course, political geography changes; but, in each contest, most MPs contest boroughs that I would not call rotten, but in which they can reckon themselves to be wholly safe. That is why so many MPs do not reach out as widely as they should, and as we would desire them to, to get the support of a wide section of the electorate.
I was about to say, when we took a slight diversion into Scottish local politics, that AV may indeed make it more likely that there will be majority Governments in future, because AV tends to be good for parties that are making ground and advancing. Anyone who can predict that first past the post will deliver more majority Governments than AV simply has not done the electoral arithmetic.
I would not expect AV to be popular in this House. Among those who benefited from first past the post in the House of Commons, there is a great affection for that system, though I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lost some elections as well as won some. However, I am confident that when the arguments are put fully before the British people in the referendum that is to come, voters will opt for a system that gives them more choice and more power.
My Lords, I will speak mostly about the principle of the referendum proposed in the Bill. I would like the House to imagine an organisation with 650 consultants working for it, each of them on a fixed-term contract. What would we think if that organisation gave the 650 consultants the exclusive power to determine all the details over whether to renew their contracts? We would say the organisation was barmy, yet this is effectively what happens at present with the House of Commons. It is a closed shop of the sort that employment law some time ago rightly prohibited trade unions from operating. At present, only Parliament has the power to determine the system by which MPs are elected. Unsurprisingly, MPs in the past have tended to support the system that got them there and that they feel is most likely to keep them there. However, the people who pay for their services have had no say in how their representatives are chosen.
I will look briefly and in turn at the positions on this referendum of the Constitution Committee of the House, of the Labour Party and of the coalition Government.In my view, the Constitution Committee was right to be sceptical about the legitimacy of the widespread use of referendums, but in its report, which we recently debated, it accepted that, if referendums are to be used, they are most appropriately used in relation to fundamental constitutional issues, of which this must be one.
Secondly, the commitment to holding a referendum on AV was of course a core item of the most recent Labour Party manifesto. It said:
“To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011”.
The Labour Party manifesto said six months ago:
“To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”.
Thirdly, it is greatly to the credit of the Prime Minister that he agreed, as part of the coalition agreement, to allow people to have their say on the fundamental constitutional issue of making a change to the voting system. The coalition agreement says:
“We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies”.
I do not propose at this stage to enter into the subject matter of the referendum itself but I will say that I think it is right that it should be held. I will address briefly two areas of controversy relating to the referendum. First, there is the timing issue.
The noble Lord, when arguing the case for the alternative vote system, said that it is important for the person elected to get 50 per cent of the votes. Does he favour thresholds for the referendum? Is it important to receive 50 per cent of the votes from the electorate in a referendum, for example?
I shall turn my attention to thresholds very shortly because in my view they are tied to the issue of turnout, and turnout is tied to the question of when the referendum is held. If it is held at the same time as other elections, in my view there will be a higher turnout and greater legitimacy.
First, on the issue of timing, there is in my view no ideal or perfect time to hold a referendum. However, we know that we struggle to get voters to turn out at polling stations to choose their elected representatives, and we should not assume that they will be any more likely to want to turn out to vote in a referendum which is held on a day separate from when any elections are held. It is actually convenient for many voters if an election and referendum are combined, and I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of people in this country to put an X on two or three different pieces of paper within the space of a few minutes. Indeed, it is a rather easier task than filling in a National Lottery form.
On the question of a threshold and whether there should be a minimum turnout for voters’ views to be deemed valid, there are those who want to say that anyone who does not turn out to vote should effectively be recorded as having voted no. However, I do not see any democratic argument whatever in counting abstentions as no votes. There is no more legitimacy for that argument than in counting them as yes votes and saying that change should certainly happen unless most people turn out to vote against it. We have elections in this country for councillors, MPs, MEPs and Members of devolved Assemblies with sometimes very low turnouts. If a minimum turnout threshold were imposed in this referendum and it were held at the same time as other elections in most of the country next May, would we be saying that those elected representatives—members of local councils and Members of the Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament—with the same low turnout should be disqualified from serving because the turnout was not sufficiently high? That is not a logical argument. A minimum turnout threshold—
My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that there is a difference between voting in local and parliamentary elections and voting for constitutional change. Surely, we are arguing that there ought to be a bigger majority for constitutional change than for a normal election.
My Lords, I am arguing that if people do not turn out to support an alternative, it is equally valid to say that their vote could be counted in favour, as it is to say, as other noble Lords have argued, that they should simply have their vote counted as a no. It is in the interests of democracy always to encourage high turnouts and that is why I believe that the first Thursday in May next year would be a good time to hold the referendum.
I also want to address briefly the issues of boundary reviews.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord, but perhaps he can help me. Is not one of the problems the fact that the question that is being put is between AV and first past the post, with no mention of STV, for example? Might there not be many Liberal supporters who support STV who might abstain because they were not getting any of the choices that they wanted?
My Lords, there are other noble Lords who favour a two-horse race between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. In an ideal world, I would not favour a two-horse race between AV and first past the post, as many noble Lords will know, but in the practical politics of not having won the general election and having to make compromises, the overarching principle is to allow the voters to have some say in how their representatives are chosen. People have been appalled in recent years that MPs were able to fix effectively the benefits of being in Parliament. A much more important issue is the means by which MPs are chosen and allowing people to have some say on that is of paramount importance. Risking giving them a further choice, which would be my first choice, may mean that they get no say whatever.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for allowing me to intervene. Is he recalling that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House has not only said that there should be,
“a general presumption against the use of voter turnout thresholds and super-majorities”,
but also that,
“the presumption should be in favour of questions posing only two options for voters”?
On both counts, as many Members of your Lordships' House have been quoting the Constitution Committee earlier today, they have stated specifically their advice to the House.
My Lords, my noble friend has said that it would not be difficult to have multiple choices on the same day, with people voting in several different contests, such as for a devolved Parliament, a local election and the referendum. Therefore, why is it such a problem for people to vote on, for example, propositions for AV, STV or against first past the post?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that point. As many noble Lords will know, I was very proud to be his agent in elections some years ago. We have discussed this issue many times. I noted very carefully his comments when he spoke of it not being a question of persuading people that they should have more options than simply two. I wish it were as easy as that because I think the electorate could cope very easily with that choice, as other electorates do in a number of elections in other countries. It is not a matter of persuading the people that they could do this; it is a matter of persuading people in other parties to allow this to happen. Sadly, people in other parties will not allow it to happen so we have to make what progress we can.
My Lords, I remain very puzzled by the noble Lord’s explanation. Surely, Mr Clegg simply messed up the negotiation. He was in a very strong position indeed to get anything he wanted into the coalition agreement and he missed the opportunity to get STV on this ballot paper.
My Lords, I can think of a number of very good books that are to be recommended, some of which are currently in circulation and more are due out, which will explain the fallacy of that argument. From personal experience of the 1990s, I know there were clear commitments from the party which the noble Lord now represents to hold a referendum on proportional representation and to support the outcome of that referendum. In 13 years of trying, no progress was made. More progress has been made in the past six months at least in allowing the voters to have some say on this key issue of how representatives who serve them should be chosen than was made in the 13 years the Labour Party was in office with three good majorities and a manifesto in 1997 pledging to give people the choice between proportional representation and first past the post. I am grateful now that at least some progress is being made and a precedent is being set to allow people some say in how their representatives are chosen.
Let me briefly address the question of the boundary review, because it is a very important part of the Bill. I think that the consequences of the reduced and equalised proposals are greatly exaggerated by many people. Most of the academic research on the issue confirms that marginally reducing the number of MPs increasing slightly the size of the average electorate, and making the number of the electors in each seat close to the average will not have much benefit or disbenefit.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is not in his place, but he made the most effective points psephologically in our debate so far. He pointed to a number of factors as to why there is the apparent advantage—it has been described as an 8 per cent advantage—that the Labour Party holds over the Conservatives in the present voting system. He highlighted a number of reasons why, of that apparent 8 per cent advantage, very little is to do with the different sizes of electorates in Labour and Conservative-held constituencies.
The highly respected psephologist, Lewis Baston, was also prayed in aid by noble Lords opposite a few hours ago. He has made calculations suggesting that perhaps eight or 10 seats may be varied between what the Conservative Party or the Labour Party might have as a result of these reviews. Those are figures in line with all the previous Boundary Commission reviews—and there have been three in the past 27 years. There is no big change out of this.
To some of those whom I must now call my noble friends, I must say that the enthusiasm in their party for making these changes—although I note a little lack of enthusiasm looking at their Benches at the moment—is misguided, but so is the opposition on the Labour Benches to the changes, because they will not actually have a big outcome in the general election. Of course, changing boundaries is never an easy process for MPs, candidates or parties, but the principle that MPs should generally have the same number of electors must generally be a sound one. It is the same principle for which the rotten boroughs were eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act 1832. It is not a principle that is unusual, unfair or undemocratic, and it has been at the heart of all the previous boundary reviews—perhaps in a less rigid way—conducted under previous Governments.
I close on what is a very important point for me about the process of the boundary reviews. I think that the Bill may make the problem of redrawing the boundaries a little more problematic than it needs to be. All the previous Boundary Commission reviews have had a guideline asking them to respect the need to minimise inconvenience among other logical factors when redrawing boundaries. The Bill provides for that provision to apply in reviews for the 2020 general election and in subsequent reviews, but it does not do so for the next review to be published in September 2013 for a general election in 2015. There will, of course, be significant changes to constituency boundaries when there are significant reductions in the number of MPs.
Of course, it would be much easier for the staff in the Boundary Commission to start with clean maps that do not have existing boundaries marked on them which must be considered as part of the new configuration, but I believe that it would be much better to allow the commission to take into account the existing boundaries—at least as far as it sees fit. This would go a little way, at least, to addressing the many concerns raised in the debate about the consequences of the review in many areas.
My Lords, the parliamentary Boundary Commission has always been respected for being independent. I happen to think that the process of reviewing whatever it might decide might be far better conducted openly and transparently online than through expensive and slow public inquiries, some of which have produced changes. Having been a part of them on many occasions, I also think that many of the arguments made by QCs representing the parties, not generally the voters, have had disproportionate sway in the forum of the public inquiry and that a legitimate online consultation and proper, open representation may be a much better way of dealing with these issues. But the significant point on which I would like to finish is simply that if the Boundary Commission was asked in the next review—as it was in the past, and will be in the future—to take into account the existing parliamentary constituency boundaries, a number of the problems that have been raised in both Houses would be more effectively addressed.
My Lords, I do not think that I have ever agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, but I certainly agree with him that it is absurd to suggest that our politics is broken. It is manifestly not broken, but we are naive if we do not accept that the craft of politics has seldom been held in lower regard. I regard this legislation as a wasted opportunity. Had the constitutional conventions been adhered to, had we had proper consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and had we had time to go through the Bill in its entirety, there would have been the opportunity for cross-party agreement on the issues that are raised in the Bill. That would have been for the good not only of the country but, especially, of this House and the other place. Instead, we are left with a shoddy piece of legislation that has been cobbled together at short notice. The only thing on which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is his comment that his party did not win the general election. My party lost the election. No party won the election. In such circumstances, I should think that it is important to show humility rather than arrogance; this is an arrogant piece of legislation.
It is very notable that in the other place there were very few Liberal Democrat or Conservative Back Benchers who supported the legislation. It has also been extremely interesting tonight to look at the Benches opposite—the wasteland on the other side of the Chamber. Where are the supporters? Among those who have spoken tonight I have counted three who support the legislation. I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is not in his place, supports the Bill or whether he just supports AV.
I support the idea of a referendum on AV, but I also have to say that, after four and a half years in Australia watching AV in operation, I have become extremely sceptical about it for one simple reason. Deals have to be struck for AV to work. Some of those deals are done openly and transparently, but some of them are done behind closed doors and you get very bizarre results as a consequence. The balance of power in the Australian Senate is held by the No Pokies party. “Pokies” to people of my noble friend Lord Foulkes’s generation and mine usually means ice cream cones, but in this case it means one-armed bandits. Because of the operation of the system of preferences, No Pokies, which is a one-man party, can hold the Australian Government to ransom. That is one of the consequences of AV.
Australia has compulsory voting. If we had had the opportunity properly to scrutinise this Bill, perhaps we could have discussed issues such as compulsory voting, which would provide a long-term, rather than short-term, benefit to society. In Australia, the fine for not voting is peanuts—something like 20 or 30 Australian dollars—but people are so used to going out to vote that they do so automatically. You do not have to vote for a political party; you can spoil your paper. If we had had the opportunity to discuss these matters, we would have had a real opportunity to advance the progress of the legislation.
I also find it bizarre that the Prime Minister, immediately after the election, went up to Edinburgh and spoke about respect for the Scottish Parliament. What respect was shown when it was told, not even consulted, that the referendum would be on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections? A Motion has been passed by the Scottish Parliament opposing that, and we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Touhig about the situation in Wales. That lack of consultation does not show respect, nor does it show a proper understanding of, and respect for, the constitution.
I want to address the issue of 600 seats. I am pretty agnostic about the size of constituencies, but I find it bizarre that in the coalition discussions the Conservatives, who have a history of arguing for 585 seats, and the Liberal Democrats, who have a history of arguing for 500 seats, reached a compromise of 600 seats. How did that work out? It is incumbent on the noble Lord, Lord McNally, when he replies to this debate, to explain to us why we are to end up with more seats than were in the manifestos of the two parties that are now in coalition. It is bizarre. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, could not keep his face straight—as well he might—when he had to answer questions on these matters. We need an answer on these matters.
I do not want to delay the House too long as the hour is late, but I want to look at the parliamentary boundary commissions and public inquiries. In the other place, I was privileged to represent the town of Airdrie, which is even older than the Church of England. The first references to Airdrie were in 576, but it was at the peak of its national significance between 1160 and the middle of the 19th century. Airdrie was a base for the Covenanters. In 1832, the town hall became a hospital for the victims of cholera, which is very much in our minds at the moment. The reason that I make those points is that Airdrie is an historic town. In the early 1990s, a proposal was made to split Airdrie right down the main street. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, pooh-poohed the idea of local communities being interested in such matters, but I have to say to the noble Lord, who is not in his place, that he needs to get out more because, where I come from, people are passionately interested in the history of their communities—perhaps that is because my constituency included 19 mining villages, as we know that miners are passionately interested in history. In that public inquiry, there was great unanimity of support for retaining Airdrie as one town and a very convincing case was put for retaining Airdrie’s historic links with the towns and villages known as the Fortissat villages—a reference to the 40 who sat with the Covenanters in those villages. That case was made by John Smith, who died 36 hours later. As a consequence of the hugely persuasive argument that he put on behalf of his community, the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts was preserved and I went on to represent it.
I make that point about local inquiries because, if you come from where I come from—I take my title from the village of Coatdyke, in which I was born and brought up, which lies between Airdrie and Coatbridge and has been alternately contained in a constituency, split and quartered in all sorts of different shapes such that it should probably be renamed “Hokey Cokey”—everyone in the communities of Airdrie and Coatbridge has a real view about the importance of their community. Years on—and, like Miss Jean Brodie, I am in my prime—I am still referred to in Coatdyke as Bessie Lawrie’s daughter, regardless of the fact that I am now a noble Baroness, because communities have histories and those histories are very important indeed. For this House and this Government to demean that sense of community and involvement is to show contempt for society. As we heard earlier, the hypocrisy of a Government who promote the big society to argue against people’s faith in society and love and admiration for the society that has forged them, is indeed a travesty.
My mother used to say, “Marry in haste; repent at leisure”. Here, we are legislating at haste, and the country will repent at leisure. I hope that, in the best traditions of this House, we can be a genuine, revising Chamber to save the coalition from what it has achieved with this legislation. There are many Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches in this House and in the other place whom I count as friends. They have been let down by this legislation. AV is not PR but a miserable little compromise, which has been cobbled together only to save skins for the future. However, the electorate are not daft and will see through it. That is why, in the days and weeks that lie ahead, we must do our utmost to amend this legislation to make it at least in some way fit for purpose. As of now, the Bill is not fit for purpose.
My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting debate. We can tell the degree of interest by the number of noble Lords who wish to speak. I am sorry that the government Benches have been so sparse all evening. I do not want to repeat the points made by many other noble Lords, other than to say that I have similar concerns about the Bill. It seems to be being rushed through and pulled out with indecent haste. I take on board the comment made by my noble friend Lady Liddell about the Bill being a missed opportunity.
The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, with his perhaps usual modesty may have overstated it when he said that his plans for change were the greatest constitutional reform since the Reform Act 1832, which we should recognise had deficiencies in itself. But it remains that this legislation is highly significant. It is extremely important for the future of and the legitimacy of our democracy.
I want to address two issues. The first is the constituency boundary changes and the abolition of public inquiries as outlined in Clause 10. While it may be initially superficially popular, I have not been convinced by the arguments put forward of the need to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. If we are to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons, should there not first be an examination of why it is considered to be the right course of action and, if so, what would be the appropriate number of MPs? Nowhere have I heard a coherent case being made, other than the Deputy Prime Minister’s assertion that the Government need to reduce costs and that this will save around £12 million a year. I do not think that factored into that are the additional costs of the greater workload for MPs with larger constituencies. But it has to be said that that reason alone is insufficient. It is also an argument that is difficult to sustain when the Government are also seeking to increase the number of paid professional politicians in the second Chamber, the costs of which we do not know yet. There may be a great deal of good arguments, but the case has not yet been made.
The number chosen seems random, as we have heard from other noble Lords. When the Leader of the House was asked about this earlier, he should have been embarrassed to admit, although he seemed quite gleeful about it, that 600 was “a nice round figure”. I assumed that he was making that comment in jest, but nothing else came forward. There was no other explanation of why 600 was a good figure. I have too much respect for him to believe that he thinks that 600 is “a nice round figure” and should be used. But he did not even try to give an explanation of why 600 MPs is the right number.
As a former Member of Parliament for 13 years, I represented my home constituency. The relationship between the constituency and its Member of Parliament is important and precious. It possibly is more so today because the workload of MPs is increasing, particularly in constituency work. I could never support any form of electoral reform or change which would reduce that relationship between an MP and his or her constituency.
The proposals before us today have the potential to change every constituency in the country—bar two, bizarrely—and we have to recognise the enormous upheaval that will bring. The boundary commissioners will have the duty to define the new boundaries of the 600 constituencies. Every election sees reviews. At the last election, my own constituency of Basildon suffered significant changes; indeed that constituency no longer exists in that there is no longer a seat named Basildon. Sometimes we get electoral changes we like from the boundary commissioners, and sometimes changes that we do not like, but that is not the issue. The system in place allows representations to be made and in some cases inquiries to be held. It confers legitimacy on the system. The Government say that public inquiries do not add much to the process and they will not be missed. They also argue that there will be few changes and most of them will be minor. That entirely misses the point.
In the last boundary review, the majority of constituencies remained unchanged, but significant changes in all areas and most likely to most seats will be made in this review. There could be changes in areas that have not seen any alterations for generations. We are setting a hard task for the boundary commissioners. The Bill also seeks to change the ground rules by which the commissioners will operate. For the first time, changes will go across constituency boundaries and, depending on the recommendations, we do not yet know how they will affect local government or the conduct of and arrangements for elections. The boundary commissioners are already tasked with seeking to maintain recognised communities, but this is now subordinate to ensuring that the electorate is no more than 5 per cent more or less than the new electoral quota, along with a limit on geographical size. So, for the first time, arithmetic—the physical size of a constituency and the number of electors—will be the dominant features. Those criteria undermine the conviction that constituencies should take into account communities and their histories. Given that this is to be overridden by the numbers game, it will be all the harder for the commissioners to draw up meaningful constituencies that residents can identify with. Furthermore, it must all be completed in time for the next election, so it will be a mammoth task.
It is interesting to note the views of the boundary commissioners themselves. I was struck by the comments of Robin Gray, a former boundary commissioner, in evidence to the Select Committee of the other place. He made the point that having the review system and the opportunity to hold public inquiries enhanced the legitimacy of the changes. He also said that even when representations were minor, that reassured the commissioners that they had got right the changes made. He made it clear that even when, as we have heard, the political parties played the major and sometimes the only role,
“they do actually provide some assurance for the public that the issues have been looked at, debated and an independent, barrister, solicitor, whatever, has come to a view about that”.
That is not to say that it is not possible to improve the system, but it is wrong to abolish the principle.
I have to ask this because I do not understand it at all: why the haste? This issue is huge and significant, and it deserves to be given the opportunity to be undertaken properly. For all the talk we hear from the Government about the big society, about engaging the public and about the public having their say, this Bill does exactly the opposite. Reducing the number of Members of Parliament takes democracy just that little bit further away from the public, and the Bill then denies the public the right to be heard at an independent public inquiry. So although the Government talk about giving power back to the people, on a fundamental issue that strikes at the heart of our democracy—that of redrawing the entire constituency map of the country—the public are to be denied even the opportunity of a public inquiry.
It does not matter if people choose not to avail themselves of that right, but it does matter if they are not given the opportunity to do so. If they have concerns later and there is no legitimate route to address them, that undermines the legitimacy of the entire process. This legislation will mean that the legal process does not even allow for the legitimacy of the proposed changes to be tested in a public inquiry. That is fundamentally unfair to the commissioners themselves, who will see their work and their efforts undermined by a lack of belief in their independence through no fault of their own. It could also mean legal challenges against the proposals.
My final point concerns the implications for the Executive in reducing the number of Members of Parliament. It seems illogical, if the size of the House of Commons is reduced, not to reduce the number of Ministers. The Minister, Mark Harper, when asked about this by the Commons Select Committee, said that to reduce the number of Ministers in the Commons would increase the number of Ministers in the Lords. Some of us may not think that that is a terribly bad thing, but did he not understand what the committee was saying to him? In his article yesterday in the Observer, Professor King raised his concerns that, if the Bill was to go through, Ministers would be selected from a smaller gene pool of MPs. To reduce the number of MPs but maintain the number of Ministers would significantly rebalance the role of government and the Executive, which goes against everything the Government have said about enhancing parliamentary democracy. It will shift the balance of power further towards the Government and erode accountability.
Your Lordships’ Committee on the Constitution raised concerns on both of these issues. It felt that a proper assessment had not taken place and that,
“it is an unsatisfactory basis on which to embark on fundamental reform of the register”.
I endorse those comments. Once again, the Government have got it wrong in their haste to make changes without thinking about the implications or effectively marshalling decent arguments.
My Lords, with the Division today I would not have wanted to see jeopardised that part of the Bill that I, with reservations, support. On the other hand, I have various concerns about the other part of the Bill. This is two Bills—or perhaps, more accurately, bits of two Bills. My approach is to take the point of view, for the first part, of the voter; and, for the second, of the constituent—two distinct political roles of the individual member of the public.
The first half of the Bill is like being taken to a wonderful expensive restaurant—possibly a once in a lifetime experience—and being offered a starter, the alternative vote system, but only one out of numerous main courses available, that dish being first past the post. It is ludicrous that proper proportional representation in any form is not on the menu. I realise, of course, that what we have before us is a political compromise, but it is nevertheless insulting to the public, given this extraordinary opportunity, that they are not allowed to make the important choice about precisely which voting system they would prefer.
Like other noble Lords, I voted in the general election this year. In past elections I have voted for larger parties and for smaller ones, but I have always maintained the belief that it is unfair that voters for a smaller party are so heavily discriminated against by our current system to the extent that one can consider some votes to be almost worthless before they are cast. It is because of this that, whatever would be the political consequences of the introduction of true proportional representation, I believe such a system to be inherently more democratic.
Under the first past the post system, the voter suffers a difficult internal conflict, often torn over the choice between personality, political party and pragmatism. A good voting system should take all three of these elements into account. The additional member system used all over the world, and now in the UK in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, is not an option within the Bill, although it should be, as indeed should be the single transferable vote. AMS is a system that would go a long way towards solving these problems as the voter can vote for both the political party of their choice and for their constituency MP. It also preserves the geographical link to a single constituency MP, to which the British public are attached.
It is true, of course, that we would not be having this referendum if the Liberal Democrats did not themselves want PR in the first place. AV is better, arguably, than first past the post on the basis that it is more proportional, although the fact that it is also more of a consensual system means that you would probably have fewer mavericks in Parliament, which is a shame.
I would support an amendment to this Bill so that the public can make their own choice from the alternative voting systems available. I am fully in favour of a referendum, but as it stands the public are forced to play political games. Does a voter who might prefer what is in my view the real alternative—a true PR system—therefore vote against AV or does he vote for it, hoping that AV will be a stepping stone towards that? We know, of course, that this is the political reality, but it is ultimately disrespectful to the public that they are put in this position of limited choice.
The second half of the Bill is also a part of another Bill. I believe in principle that it is a good aim to equalise the size of the electorate for every constituency, but the problem with decreasing the number of MPs at this stage is that we do not know what our end point is likely to be in the overall reform of the other place and, indeed, of Parliament as a whole. For example, if we kept first past the post or opted for AV in the long term, I would say that, no, I am not in favour of decreasing the number of MPs, simply because the larger the number of constituents, the less your MP is going to be your MP, and the larger the constituency, the larger the workload and the less the local work accomplished. That is as long as there are no other kinds of MPs, but if one believed that at some stage the MPs would be topped up and we would have stronger regional government across the whole of Britain, it would be a different matter.
If we had true PR, there would be no more political manoeuvring through boundary changes, which we seem to get with every change of government and whose administration no doubt costs the country unnecessary money. Neither would a Government see fit inflexibly to clamp down on appeals to such changes. This wrangling would simply stop, because it would become politically irrelevant. We might then concentrate our minds solely on how a constituency might be defined in ways other than by the thought of potential political advantage.
Finally, I share the concern of many others about whether the number of Ministers should not be reduced alongside a reduction in the number of MPs and whether there should not be an agreed formula for this. This Government have already shown in the Public Bodies Bill that they are not afraid to try to increase the power of the Executive at the expense of wider, properly democratic scrutiny and consultation.
My Lords, for the second time in seven days I am speaking in your Lordships’ House as one of a long list of over 50 speakers to talk against a Bill with whose principles I more or less agree. In both cases, the Government face a very critical report from the Constitution Committee. I think that, as with the Public Bodies Bill, this is bad Bill because of process.
I favour a fairer voting system for the House of Commons, as I favour a voting system for your Lordships’ House. I am therefore very happy to support the principle of a referendum on moving from first past the post to the alternative vote. Similarly, I cannot disagree with the principle of equalisation, although, like my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, I would favour a figure of give or take 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. Also like my noble and learned friend, I believe that these historic changes could be much more easily taken forward on the basis of consensus over process.
What has happened on process? Why this ridiculous rush, which is now causing such opposition? Why, yet again, so little consultation? Why no consultation with the devolved Administrations? Why not listen to them and avoid the problems attached to holding the referendum on the same day as elections to the devolved legislatures? Perhaps the Minister can tell us, when he winds up tomorrow, what estimate has been made of the differential turnout in different parts of the UK as a result of that, beyond the confusions that rightly the Scottish Parliament recently legislated to reduce by moving the local elections.
There are some who argue that this House should not concern itself with these matters of how the other place is elected. Indeed, the noble Lord the Leader of the House pretty much argued as such in his opening speech. I beg to differ. This Bill is part of a wider parliamentary reform to try to restore confidence in Parliament as a whole. In that endeavour, we should all work together, particularly given the events of the past couple of years. As a Member of your Lordships' House, I am after the bigger picture before we are asked to legislate on these elements, or bits of a Bill, as the noble Earl just said. We should not pluck out bits of wider parliamentary reform and have to consider them in isolation. To me, the logic would be first to define the role and working practices of both Chambers, including their relationship with the Executive. Then we can better determine their size, especially given that we bizarrely are currently considering reducing the size of the elected Commons while increasing hugely the size of the appointed Lords. We can then consider how each Chamber is elected or appointed. At that point, these principles should be put to the electorate, on a day without the distorting effect of other elections, in a referendum or series of referenda. Indeed, has the Minister considered a referendum on the same day as the one on the voting system, on the principle of whether the Lords should be wholly or substantially elected? Would that not make his job easier in pushing Lords reform through this House, if he had such a mandate?
With a mandate from a referendum on a voting system, we can then determine whether we have fixed-term Parliaments, how long the term should be and how regularly the constituency boundaries should be reviewed. Finally, we can then commission the review of new constituency boundaries, with public inquiries at least in the first instance given the scale of change. Given that we are talking about 600 brand new constituencies, I cannot see any argument for not holding proper public inquiries, at least in the first instance. I accept that that would take time, but with such huge constitutional change we should attempt consensus at least on process. The current rush seems to be driven by a political deadline that would allow the Liberal Democrats the iconic achievement of electoral reform within a year of forming the coalition, and give the Conservatives the prize of cutting the number of Members of Parliament in Labour cities and in Wales and Scotland.
The other substantive point I should like to make tonight is around reducing the number of MPs to 600. I was intrigued by the Leader's explanation that it was a “nice round figure”. While he is the embodiment of a nice round figure, that is not good enough to persuade me. Why reduce the number at all? I note that the number of MPs has increased by 25 since 1950. That is 3 per cent increase in 60 years. In the same time, the size of constituencies has increased by 25 per cent and the volume of correspondence, especially in this age of e-mails, has exploded exponentially for Members of Parliament. That is in part why the 3.5 million unregistered voters are important. When I was a Member of Parliament, until my contract was cut short by the electors of south Dorset earlier this year, I did not check the electoral roll to see whether a constituent was registered. I confess that one of my staff obsessively did, and would make sure she told me whether the person had a vote. If she is listening, I am sorry, Lena, that I completely ignored that information. I am absolutely certain that if any MP is approached by someone in housing crisis, with immigration problems, as a victim of bureaucratic incompetence in respect of tax credits or benefits, in any of the bread and butter pieces of casework, all MPs will try to help regardless of whether they are electors. The sense of public service is strong in Parliament and we should acknowledge that.
In my former constituency, I had pockets of significant deprivation in the west, in Weymouth and Portland, and in much more affluent areas in the east, in the Purbecks. There was a great difference in electoral registration and a great difference in workload between the more and less affluent areas. On that basis, we need the Government to do more on electoral registration than the Government that I was a part of managed to do, before we move to such a tight prescription on equalisation.
The Bill's current position of working off the electoral roll as of December this year is untenable, and I cannot support a review every Parliament. Like others, I believe in the importance of the community link with MPs, and as someone who lives 400 yards from the constituency boundary, I do not want to do the hokey-cokey—to use the phrase of my noble friend Lady Liddell—out of west Dorset.
Finally, why is there such a hurry? I can only think that it is for political gain. Your Lordships’ House adds value by being less political and by ensuring constitutional rigour and, on that basis, I urge that Part 1 be separated from Part 2 to make two Bills. I also urge proper time for boundary reviews, with public inquiries on these 600 new constituencies. Ideally, I urge a proper road map of parliamentary reform that defines the roles of both Chambers before legislating on their size and how their Members get there.
My Lords, at this late hour I shall avoid the temptation to repeat many of the arguments that we have already heard, but I should perhaps declare one interest. When I was in the other place it was as Member of Parliament for Stirling, having been elected in 1983. Leaving aside the birth of my children, my marriage and other personal events, arriving at the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament was my proudest day. I think that I did so with about 35 per cent of the vote when we had four parties fighting that election, so getting 50 per cent of the vote would have been quite an achievement.
At subsequent elections, without the split in the Labour Party and the SDP, it became harder for me to hang on and my majority dropped to around 700 and then to 500. By then, I was Secretary of State and I had to sign the order produced by the Boundary Commission to take Bridge of Allan out of my constituency and put it into another; that was probably about 4,000 Conservative votes. I did so without any concern at all, other than for me, because it was a fair process with a proper adjudication and inquiry. By the way, it was not just the political parties which put forward their views: views were expressed by the local community and, in the end, the right decision was taken. The result was that I got kicked out of Parliament —there were one or two other factors in that as well—and I found myself in this place.
This place has a very important role to play. It is the backstop; that is our whole purpose. A Question was asked in the House the other day of my noble friend Lord McNally as to the purpose of the House of Lords. If nothing else, it is to protect the constitution. I feel that the Bill is not Parliament’s finest hour. There has always been an understanding and a convention that on constitutional matters we should try to proceed with consensus and by agreement and, if we cannot do that, we should go through a process where matters are properly discussed and evaluated, whether by a Speaker’s Conference or something of that kind.
I understand, of course, the deal that was done after the election but I wonder at the reasons being given for this Bill and for some other Bills which are yet to come before us that are being put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister in his new role. One of the things being said is that it is about restoring trust in Parliament. In my opinion, a number of the best speeches tonight have been made by former Members of the other place. I say “best”, because they convey that sense of relationship which Members of Parliament have with their constituents, whether they voted for them or not, and which they have with the area that they represent. Even when you have been out of Parliament for a long time—I live in my old constituency —you still go around and remember that that was the place where there was this or that problem, and you have that feeling of identity. You come to Parliament as the champion of your constituents. Yes, you are there as Labour, Conservative or whatever, but you are also there as the man or woman for your area.
That is a real and powerful identity, so if you depart from that principle and if Members of Parliament start to be seen as the representative of the party for this block of population in this part of the country, something disastrous will have gone wrong. Thinking back to 1983, one thing that was very sad was that I was a Tory; a third of my constituency had never had a Tory since the Twenties; a third had never had a Tory since before that; and a third had never had anything else. There were bits of my constituency where Tories, particularly with the miners’ strike and so on, were not very popular. Yet you were respected as the Member of Parliament; you had standing and status. The expenses scandal and other things have damaged that, and I find the extraordinary notion that we can repair that damage and restore the status of Members of Parliament with this kind of Bill and this kind of reform a little unnerving.
My experience, going around canvassing during the election, was that people said, “You’re all the same. You’re in it for yourselves. We only see you at the election. You say one thing at the election and then do another”. If we want to counter that kind of cynicism and distrust, one of the things that we might do is keep the promises that we put in our manifestos. The Bill fails miserably on that count. The manifestos made promises about the voting system and the size of Parliament. The Conservatives campaigned for first past the post and against AV. The Liberals campaigned against AV. The Labour Party campaigned in favour of AV. Now we have a Bill that puts forward AV, produced by the Conservatives and the Liberals in coalition, being opposed by the Labour Party, which campaigned on having AV.
A pre-legislative referendum, rather than the post-legislative referendum that is proposed in the Bill. The ordinary voter being faced with the clips that will be shown during the referendum campaign of the Deputy Prime Minister describing AV as “a miserable little compromise”, while at the same time he is promoting the Bill, will do nothing to restore trust in Parliament.
If trust in Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean trusting the voters. The noble Earl spoke eloquently in favour of giving the voters a choice. I would prefer to have the status quo; first past the post seems to work perfectly well. If you are going to open up the issue of changing the voting system and consult the people, however, it seems strange to choose one system and not allow the voters to express a view on it. I look forward to amendments to the question in the referendum that will enable the inclusion of STV.
The Deputy Prime Minister, as part of this exercise in increasing trust and the accountability of the Executive, set up the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. It was specifically set up to look at the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in respect of the constitutional reforms. Its first report repudiates the Bill and the process by which it is being carried out. How does that help to restore trust in Parliament?
The coalition Government have resolutely refused to reduce the size of the Executive in line with the proposed reductions in the size of the House of Commons. I have put down a Written Question, which I have not had an Answer to, asking how many people are now members of the Government or Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and what the size of the payroll is. I have the feeling that it has gone up substantially. That is not increasing the authority and standing of Parliament.
In a number of speeches today, people have made the point that it seems bizarre that we have Members of this House sitting in the Gallery that is meant for the public because there are not enough seats to accommodate us, but we are increasing the size of this House while at the same time justifying a reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the grounds of expenditure.
There is another thing: it was my party’s policy to reduce the size of the Scottish Parliament. That has 129 Members. It is hard to believe that you need 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament if you are proceeding on the basis of having 55 Members at Westminster. The public will find it difficult to understand why, having previously been in favour of reducing the size of the Scottish Parliament, we now want to keep the Scottish Parliament at its present size while reducing the size of Westminster.
I am conscious of the time. It has been suggested that this is all being done for political advantage. I have a cautionary tale. The Members opposite may not recognise this view of events. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who I am sorry is not in his place, telling me that devolution would kill nationalism stone dead. I remember people believing that, if they had a Scottish Parliament, Labour would dominate Scotland’s politics for ever. It did not quite work out that way. Constitutional change to secure party advantage seldom does. The unexpected has a habit of happening.
On AV itself, I thought that the 1997 defeat for us was an absolutely catastrophic rout. However, the information I have seen suggests that if we had had AV it would have been even worse. AV tends to reinforce the big shifts of the kind that have taken place. We should be very careful about making huge changes to a system that works perfectly well. It is true that there are anomalies in the system. However, the Bill has not been properly discussed in the country. It is the product of a political deal and that is no basis on which to amend the constitution of our country.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I am quite depressed about the Bill but I am also now very confused, as I find for the first time, sitting opposite the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that I completely agree with him. That certainly did not happen often in the other place. On the other hand, there were elements of my noble friend Lord Knight’s speech that I completely disagreed with. I do not support AV—I support first past the post—and I certainly do not support elections to this House. It would be ludicrous if, while we are reducing elected representation to the other place, we start to increase it in this House.
However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Knight that the Bill should be two Bills, not one. It seems that it has simply been cobbled together for convenience. The two parts of the Bill bear no relation to each other and were made not in a coalition but in an unholy alliance. The noble Lord the Leader of the House told us that this coalition was what the country wanted. How do we know this? We know that the country did not want the Government that were in place. It did not want the Conservative Party; it certainly did not want the Liberal party. What did we get? Everybody got what nobody wanted—not a consensus but a coalition. The electorate might have been telling us that they wanted some consensus but what they got was a cobbled- together coalition, rather like this cobbled-together Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, told us that he did not support AV but it was a price worth paying. I am sorry he is not in his place now because I would tell him about a price that the Labour Party thought was worth paying in relation to the Scottish Parliament. Before the legislation for the Scottish Parliament there was something called the Scottish Constitutional Convention, in which the Labour Party, the Liberal party, several other parties and parts of civic Scotland—such as churches and trade unions—took part. We came to an agreement before the legislation that we, the Labour Party, would support a system of PR for the Scottish Parliament if the Liberal party supported a gender balance for the Scottish Parliament. Subsequent to the legislation, the Labour Party tried to deliver a gender balance within its own rules. I am sorry to say that the Liberal party at no time tried to deliver that gender balance. So I say to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, be careful what you wish for here as you might get something completely different from what you set out to achieve.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was right again; the Labour Party did go forward with AV in our manifesto, but we lost the election with that in our manifesto. I am astounded that the coalition is taking up what we lost. If there is genuinely to be a referendum on PR systems—
The noble Baroness has explained that some people in the Labour Party might now abandon their commitment to AV because they lost the election, but why did they abandon their commitment to a referendum on PR given that they won the elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005?
I personally was never committed to AV but we are not abandoning it. Many on this side still support it. I happen to be one of those who do not. The noble Lord did not support AV before the election. It was not in the Liberal manifesto. It certainly was not in the Conservative manifesto, so why is he supporting it now? He should explain that to me rather than the other way round.
First past the post appeals to me, as it does to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, because the electorate know where they are with it. They know that the first person past the post has won the race, like the horse that he told us about, and that we do not end up with the third horse wearing the rosette at the end of the night.
The first election for the other place in which I stood was a by-election. I got 42 per cent of the vote. In three subsequent elections, I got 61 per cent of the vote. I was very fortunate indeed, no doubt, but I was part of the community. What really concerns me about the second part of the Bill is the loss of community. I am surprised at the Conservatives going forward with this because they consistently tell us that the family is paramount to society. But where does the family fit, if not into a community? I came from a community where I can trace one side of my family back as far as records go. I was very much part of that community and was fortunate to represent it.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Baker, any time that I attended a boundaries inquiry the place was full, and not just with political parties. Given that the Conservative Party came fourth in my constituency and had only about 12 members, it would have taken a lot of them to fill the hall. The 1,500 or so people who were there were not just political parties, agents, sitting Members, candidates and councillors but came from all parts of the community. Community cohesion was very important to them—and so it should be. People do not want to become just another brick in the wall—a numbers game whereby we draw a square and say, “You 76,000 over here; you 76,000 over there”. Again unlike the noble Lord, Lord Baker, I never went to a Boundary Commission where there was not substantial change in the outcome of the original boundaries, and I gave evidence to three Boundary Commissions. Only recently as regards the Scottish parliamentary boundaries it was proposed that my former constituency should span the River Clyde with Renfrew on one side and Clydebank on the other. Those areas are only a river apart but are very different with very different local ties. The local communities gave evidence to that commission and their evidence was accepted but later rejected.
I agree that Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles should be excluded because of their geographical position but am astounded that Argyll is not included. I know that area very well as it is where the other half of my family come from. If I go from my home in the outskirts of Paisley to Argyll, I have to take a three or four-hour car journey, because there are few flights and I cannot rely on them, and then I have a two-hour ferry crossing. The Member for Argyll leaving here to go to a surgery in Port Ellen on Islay would take four hours to get to Glasgow Airport. He would then take another four hours to get to Kennacraig on West Loch Tarbert. The ferry crossing would be two hours before he got to Port Ellen—and that is provided it is all going well and the weather is okay. Argyll at the moment is half the size of Denmark. What size will it be when we have to put 76,000 electors into that constituency? It is not manageable and it would certainly miss the constituency link with the MP. If he wants to go on to Jura for another surgery, he has to cross Islay and take another ferry. There are only 120 people on Jura, but are not those 120 people just as entitled to their MP’s time and representation as the person who lives across the road from the House of Commons, here in the West End of London? I would contend that he was.
When we are drawing up these boundaries, we should ask ourselves: why are people disinterested in politics? If we tell them that they are just a number, just another brick in the wall, and we really do not want to go to inquiries, find out what their constituency links are and what their community ties are, then no wonder they say to us, “You are all the same”, because that is what we are doing. We are totally discarding the electorate when we tell them that their communities no longer matter—that it is just the number that matters.
My Lords, that was a very thoughtful and honest speech, which I am sure the House followed with interest. However, I found the beginning of it and the previous speech rather interesting examples of the cross-dressing that seems to be going on in this House. There have been some very powerful speeches against the Bill, but none more so than that of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I am sure that, with friends like him, my noble friend Lord McNally will feel when he winds up that he does not need enemies.
I, too, want to talk a little about islands. I cannot believe that the Isle of Wight has ever been mentioned so often in one day in this House before. I should start by admitting that I am not an islander but an overner—as they are called on the Isle of Wight—although I am Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay. However, we have happily had a holiday cottage on this beautiful bay for many years, and my wife’s family has had connections there for nearly a century. The Isle of Wight Liberal Democrats and many local people of all parties and none have asked me to help their campaign to keep the island as one seat.
If it is kept as one seat, the Isle of Wight’s electorate of 110,000 will be 34,000 more than the new quota of 76,000. That is much closer to the quota than either of the two constituencies preserved in the Bill as it stands. Orkney and Shetland, with 33,100 electors, is nearly 43,000 below the quota, while the Western Isles, with 22,200 electors, is no less than 53,800 short. To put it another way, the Isle of Wight would qualify for 1.45 seats, whereas Orkney and Shetland would be on 0.44 of a seat and the Western Isles would be on only 0.29 of a seat, which is barely a quarter of the quota.
I support the exceptions made for the two Scottish island seats, but there is an even stronger argument for adding the Isle of Wight as a third preserved seat. I intend to move an amendment to that effect in Committee. The island, as local people call it, has a strong sense of identity and is clearly divided from the mainland, physically and psychologically, by the Solent. If a third of the island had to be joined to a mainland constituency, those islanders would consider themselves to be second-class citizens. There are three main ferry crossings, so either Ryde would be joined to part of Portsmouth, the Cowes area would have to link up to Southampton Water, or West Wight would be linked to the New Forest. What would be the names of these seats? I suppose that you would probably have to name them after ferries. You might be the MP for Solent Hovercraft, Solent Red Funnel or Solent Wightlink, but those would be highly hybrid constituencies.
All the main political parties on the island support the “One Wight” campaign, led by our excellent weekly paper, the Isle of Wight County Press. The island’s MP, Andrew Turner, and the Liberal Democrat candidate at the general election, Jill Wareham, presented a petition to Downing Street with 17,000 names. People of no party feel equally strongly that they should keep a single MP. Last time I had a pint at the Pilot Boat in Bembridge, the customers were all signing the “One Wight” petition on the bar. That must be a first in popular participation in parliamentary redistribution.
The Isle of Wight is nearer the electoral quota than the two Scottish island seats. The other key reason why the Isle of Wight has an even stronger claim to preserve its status is that it is asking not for special treatment, through extra representation at the expense of other constituencies, but quite the reverse. The island wants fewer MPs, not more, than it is entitled to. Although the mood of most islanders is clear, that could raise a theoretical problem if some people were to argue that petitions do not prove what voters want and that they should not be deprived of extra representation by having just one MP serving 110,000 constituents.
However, there is a simple and cheap answer to that. The Bill provides for an AV referendum to be held everywhere on 5 May. Why not have a second, local referendum on the Isle of Wight on the same day to ask electors whether they want the island to stay as a single seat? The extra cost of printing and counting the second set of ballot papers would be very modest as the polling stations would all be open anyway. I have no doubt that the vote would be overwhelmingly for one Wight, but it would be only fair to let that be confirmed if electors were being asked to give up some theoretical representation. Island people feel different. They want one clear island voice in Parliament, not mixed messages from an MP with divided loyalties across the Solent. I hope that the anomaly of the Isle of Wight will be sorted out sensibly.
This is a fair Bill that is long overdue for our democracy. For many years past, Britain's electoral system has been skewed in Labour's favour. First past the post on out-of-date boundaries is simply a fix. Labour's two worst performances at general elections since the First World War were in 1983—as has been referred to already—and 2010. Each time, it got less than 30 per cent of the vote. I remember the 1983 election well, as I came close to winning Cambridge on first past the post and certainly would have won on AV. However, in the national election Labour beat us by a whisker—8.5 million votes to 7.75 million—but it got 209 seats to our 23, or 34 per cent of the seats to our 4 per cent. This year, Labour received only 25 per cent more votes than we did, but it still got 4.5 times as many seats, or 40 per cent of the seats to our 9 per cent.
Our hopelessly slow system of boundary reviews also has the effect of loading the dice in Labour's favour. As Balinski, Johnston, McLean and Young point out in their very useful report for the Royal Academy, Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom, if Labour and the Conservatives had received the same number of votes nationally, Labour would have had 185 more seats than the Tories in 1997, 142 more in 2001, 111 more in 2005 and 54 more in 2010, even on the new boundaries. That cannot be right.
We must move now to a fairer voting system. As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, to be fair to Labour, it did at the end of its term at least open up to that—and thank goodness for that. We must now move both to a fairer voting system and to fair and much more frequently updated parliamentary boundaries.
My Lords, I recall a veteran US Congressman stating that we have reached the stage of the debate where everything that can be said has been said, but not everyone has said it and I propose to make what I hope are one or two new points.
I start with a confession. I have a considerable degree of sympathy for the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, I am sorry for them because I feel that they have reached, with the Conservatives and the coalition, a sort of Faustian pact, but in my judgment the result will be a tragedy for them of Greek proportions and one of their own making.
AV is an orphan concept—it is unloved by all and cherished by none. No one wants it, and the Conservatives, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said very well, prefer first past the post. They do not want any change. Many of my Labour colleagues, like me, were rather unwillingly led to accept it as part of a pre-election matter, but after the general election defeat they no longer feel any obligation to support it. The Liberal Democrats do not want it; they prefer a full multi-member system. For them, therefore, AV is second best and of course ultimately the electorate will reject it.
The debate is, in part, about the Liberal Democrats’ towering obsession with constitutional reform. It is, for them, an all-pervading priority and they are willing to dump long-held principles for it, whether it be tuition fees, where their leader was going to die in a ditch, or welfare reform and housing benefit. If one were asked to say which policy has been most distinctive for the Liberals over the past decades, it has surely been a devotion to the European Union, yet the Liberal Democrats appear willing to abandon even that, as they have tamely accepted the EU sovereignty Bill, which is populist and against all their instincts. It is designed to block possible changes in the European Union—even those, such as matters relating to QMV, which are manifestly in the UK’s national interests. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats appear willing to yield most of the field to the Conservatives to achieve their aim of constitutional reform, which for some, I suppose, is the enduring legacy of Lloyd George.
However, now we come to the Greek tragedy element of this—that the Liberal Democrats will not achieve their aim. They will be left with nothing because, in my judgment, the public will vote against AV. Therefore, all these concessions and the dropping of long-held principles will be in vain, and equally the public will punish them because of the unpopular policies and cuts that they have accepted. That is bound to lead to conflict within their ranks: those in government will wish to keep the trappings of office; the rank and file will feel betrayed. I think there is an old US saying that a platform is something to run on, not to stand on. That is perhaps what has happened with many of the promises made prior to the election.
I have one further thought on AV. There is a real danger that there will be a low turnout in the referendum. The public do not share the obsession with constitutional reform; it is very difficult to motivate people in such areas, as former Members of the other place will confirm; and the Electoral Commission found very low levels of public understanding about voting systems. This does therefore back the argument for at least a threshold in the referendum.
So far as concerns the reduction in the number of constituencies, the Government are determined to press ahead. No amendments were made to the Bill in the other place and there is a whiff of gerrymandering. The number of 600 has clearly been chosen deliberately as the most disadvantageous to the Labour Party. What is the aim if not party advantage? In one sense, the Government have sold the pass in terms of community by recognising the special nature of the two island constituencies. As has just been said very well, what about the Isle of Wight, what about Ynys Mon, and what about other areas with clear community identification? The boundary commissioners will, inevitably, have to divide communities and the disparity should be 10 per cent and not 5 per cent. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that there will be only one central Boundary Commission. The joy of these local inquiries, as I have witnessed, is that the views of the boundary commissioners can be tested and challenged by local opinion because a central body will not understand the intricacies of local identity. All will be sacrificed on the altar of mathematical correctness and precision. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn said, there is a danger of in-and-out communities.
I wish to make two brief points on Wales and they were made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. My old constituency, Swansea East, I know very well. I like to think that I share the prejudices of my community. I was born there, went to school there and went to university there and I am the only member of my family ever to leave there. I know very well all parts of that constituency. Currently, the area is divided into three seats, Swansea East, Swansea West and Gower, each with an electorate of about 60,000. If the electoral quota is to be 76,000, we will have two and a half seats, and how one divides a proud city, composed of a series of villages held together by gossip, into two and a half constituencies I do not know.
On broader Welsh issues, I adopt the concerns of the Select Committee which I quoted earlier and which I shall not quote again, but England will lose about 5 per cent of its seats; Scotland about 16 per cent; and Wales 25 per cent, probably falling from 40 seats to 30. In the past there has been a compact—even in 1832—which meant that Wales was somewhat over represented with 35 Members, but that compact has now been broken. Welsh weight at Westminster will be reduced and very possibly encouragement will be given to separatists by the so-called unionist party.
Finally, the government juggernaut has moved on from the other place to the House of Lords. There has been no amendment. When I lecture to schools about this place, I talk about the traditional role of this Chamber as being a chamber for second thoughts and for thinking again, based on the fact that no one party holds a majority. The fact of the coalition has overturned that presumption—a safe majority now, as we saw in last week’s debate, which is to be increased within a few weeks by the new coalition appointments. In my judgment, this is a bad day for democracy.
My Lords, this Bill is a serious disappointment to me too. I think there is a need for constitutional reform and I have campaigned for such reform over many years. It needs more careful consideration than that which has produced this Bill. I have always believed that the public should play an active part in choosing the kind of reform they want when dealing with the architecture of the political system. This Bill does not trust the general public.
If you believe in representative democracy, it follows that you believe that Parliament should be representative. Yet it is remarkable how efficient our political system has been in placing individuals in key positions of power who simply do not accept that argument or come up with convoluted arguments for how, magically, first past the post delivers representative democracy.
You can look at any election over the past 30 years and see the distortions at work. With only a third of the votes, a political party can win an overwhelming majority in this country. To make it clear that I am not being partisan, I shall use an example where it was my party that was the beneficiary, but it can work in different directions. In 2005, six voters in 10 supported parties other than Labour, yet Labour won six in 10 of the seats in the House of Commons. My party was the beneficiary on that occasion, but was it fair? Only 35 per cent of those who voted cast their ballot for Labour. More people abstained than voted for the party that came to govern with a majority of 60. A system which can deliver such a result cannot be described as rational or fair.
What shocks me is that members of the Conservative Party still refuse to see the urgency of changing the voting system, because they hope that, next time, the unfairness of the system will work in their favour. I say to the Liberal Democrats across the way that they may at the moment be enjoying their period in the sun, but the reforms in the Bill will not work to their advantage in the long run.
When research was conducted into why people are not voting in the numbers that they once did—we should not be happy that only 60 per cent, and sometimes less, of the people who could vote do vote—the reasons were not about apathy, or about people feeling contented with their lot, as some people will tell you. Those explanations are wide of the mark. The explanations are much more complex. When you are gathering evidence on this, people say that they do not feel that there is any point in voting because, in their constituency, the same party always wins, so what is the point of voting? That is a constant refrain. They also feel that they are not being listened to; they have little choice; and they distrust a political system where politicians say one thing but do the opposite. I urge that on the Liberal Democrats at this moment, where people are feeling strongly about student fees and other things. People are becoming increasingly aware of the unfairness of the system. It is not, as one of my noble friends has suggested, that people know where they are with the system as it is. They do not, and that is one of the reasons why many are not voting.
The membership of our House of Commons should in some way reflect the way that votes are cast, so that people feel that there is a purpose in voting, even in a safe seat. Indeed, the very idea of a safe seat should be rattled. In the 21st century, we should be moving from majoritarian to pluralist democracy. It has been mentioned already that we get only one chance for certain kinds of reform in a generation, and we could easily be missing a very important opportunity here. The alternative vote system is not proportionate, as so many people have said. Indeed, the reason why it is being promoted is because it is the least voting reform possible. I support a much more radical change and would like to see a proportionate system. I strongly support the position presented by the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Alton, that AV+ or STV would be a far better reform.
I also believe that we are incredibly patronising about the general public, believing that they are incapable of making sensible decisions. They make sensible decisions when they are given good evidence and information. I would be happy for a number of choices to be presented in a referendum, but I would like deliberative processes enriching the discussion, consultation and debate before any such referendum took place.
I recommend that the House look at the work of Helen Margetts, Stuart Weir and Patrick Dunleavy, a group of political scientists already mentioned, who have examined the workings of AV over a long period. They conducted simulations, one in 1992 and another in 1997. In the 1992 simulation, the outcome is changed in 28 constituencies, creating improved proportionality of only 3 per cent, so it will not improve proportionality. In 1992, though, it would have denied John Major his majority. In 1997, Labour would have had an even greater victory, as the Conservatives would have lost a further 55 seats if AV had been in place. Labour would have won 17 more seats and the Liberal Democrats would have doubled their number of seats in the 1997 election. In 2005, Labour's majority would have been even greater than it was despite the low turnout and despite the fact that it got only 34 or 35 per cent of the vote. So the research shows that AV can exaggerate outcomes, particularly where comparatively few people go to the polls. When you have a low turnout, you get these exaggerated results, so we should not regard AV as a satisfactory way to move forward with reform.
However, it is still better than first past the post, and if push comes to shove I will end up voting for it. I think that it might concentrate political minds on the importance of getting the vote out, and I think it will stop many candidates falling into complacency and overconfidence about winning, which is no bad thing. But I am not sure that we can say that this is the start of a journey towards a better system. I hope it will be.
Constitutional change has to be holistic. Consideration of any reform of the electoral system of the House of Commons has to be part of a bigger picture. If the House of Commons is being looked at with regard to constituency boundaries, should we not have considered reducing the size much more considerably than is being done here, down to 600? If we had gone down to a lower figure, we might have found that it did not have that whiff of the numbers being chosen to advantage particular parties.
The other factor which has been raised by many other speakers is the concern about holding the Executive to account. This is one of the concerns expressed generally about recent failures in our political system. The payroll vote is now far too large, and it will be even more disproportionate when the size of the House is reduced as recommended here. We should be concerned about that. It is an important element that we should have in mind in any period of reform.
I also think that we should be concerned about this business of reforming the constituencies without communities having the opportunity to argue their case for keeping things as they are. It is an issue of principle that people should be involved in that. People in an area may well feel that they value their community of interest more than they do having a greater voice. It is important that we should have that in mind. A failure to give people the opportunity to be heard on this would disappoint many across the country. I also think that we are risking the disfranchising of large numbers of poor people in our inner cities. I hope that there will be some rethinking in the weeks to come.
This reform has all the hallmarks of a reform that consolidates old inequities and could add new unfairness. Constitutional reform is important. It is too important to be gone at in a way that will ultimately undermine trust. That is the risk that we are currently taking.
My Lords, I agree very much with my noble friend Lady Kennedy about the importance of being deliberate in approaching constitutional reform and not rushing at it pell-mell. I think that we are making a lot of mistakes. I do not disagree on some of these issues, such as equalisation; but because of the way in which it is being done, it has all the hallmarks of being a first-class mess.
I think there is widespread agreement on the importance of the constituency link, which is fundamental. One of the key challenges in our politics is to improve the relationship between MPs and the people they represent. I judge this Bill, at least partly, in terms of whether it succeeds in improving that position, and I contend that it does not.
I do not want to spend my time talking about the merits or demerits of AV except to say that AV does keep the constituency link. In assessing the effect of AV or any other change, it is no good looking at it statically; one has to look at the dynamic effects of a change in our voting system as well. I believe that some of the issues to do with AV are a result of the fact that there will be a dynamic effect which is harder to calculate, but which I am sure will be there.
However, to go back to the heart of the Bill, as other noble Lords have said, it is very difficult to reconcile reducing the number of MPs in the Commons with increasing the membership in this place. We will have other chances to debate that, but it seems to me that it is an indication of how badly things have been thought out.
Let me turn to the referendum in particular. I am concerned, as are other noble Lords, that the referendum is to be held on the same day as local or devolved elections. It is difficult to see how the campaigns will go. If all the attention in, say, Scotland, is on getting a majority in the Scottish Parliament, the arguments in favour of the referendum taking place at all and its content will be swept aside. However, there is another difficulty that has not been mentioned which is that it is likely that where there is a hotly contested election—I think it will be in Scotland—turnout will be higher, which will pull up the turnout in the referendum, even if people have no particular interest in it. Contrast that with what will happen in areas where there are no local elections—I believe London is one of them—where the turnout will be lower. We will have a very skewed result for the referendum. There will be a high turnout in some parts of the country and a low turnout in others, which will make a nonsense of trying to evaluate the result. It is not right as an approach.
I agree that the timing is far too tight. The Electoral Commission has said that it is just about okay, but if there is any slippage, it will spell doom for having a properly conducted referendum. I therefore agree with those who have suggested splitting the Bill in two and dealing with one part first and then the other. I fear that it has not been thought through very well and all the signs are that we are going to get ourselves into some difficulties.
I am very concerned that there has been no consultation on these proposals, especially with the devolved Administrations. Nobody has mentioned Northern Ireland yet. If the devolved Administrations are all unhappy about the referendum being on the same day, they should be listened to. It is important because they are the people who know what is going on on the ground.
There is something anomalous in the fact that Members of this House can vote in a referendum that will determine how the next general election is to be conducted, even though we do not have a vote in that general election. It is ridiculous. I think there is a way of moving an amendment to the Bill that will sort that out, and I trust it will have widespread support. However, people have died for the right to vote. The suffragettes campaigned for years for the right to vote. Some Members of this House say, “Oh, it’s not important whether we have the right to vote or not”. Since I have been in this House—and it is a privilege to be here—every time there has been a general election, I have felt a real twinge of unhappiness that I could not vote, even though I was shepherding voters to the polling stations in the constituencies where I was helping. I think there is something wrong in principle. If we are going to give prisoners a vote, it will leave us even more out on a limb. The people of this country are not going to demonstrate in Parliament Square to give us the right to vote, but I think it matters and represents an important point of principle.
I move on to the plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. I made a gesture earlier on that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, thought was a comment but, frankly, there has been no argument at all about why it is 600, except the view that looking at it, it will damage the Labour Party and the Conservatives will gain. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is shaking his head, but the fact is that if one took an average between the Conservative plans to reduce the Commons and the Lib Dem plans, we would have had an even lower figure. There is no logic to this, except that 600 is a figure that somebody thought of. It is too arbitrary for us to be happy about it, and unless there is a reduction in the size of the Executive, it will simply mean that an even larger proportion of the Commons will be on the payroll.
The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, mentioned the Isle of Wight. My mother lived there for a time, so I know it fairly well. However, it is not just the Isle of Wight; there are also serious concerns in Cornwall, Cumbria and many other parts of the country that the sense of local community will be damaged. I think that that is absolutely crucial. Anyone who has represented people, whether at a parliamentary level or at local government level, will know that the local community is crucial. It is the bedrock of our political system, and the bedrock of the relationship between elected politicians and local people. I contend that under the Government’s timetable, there would be very little time at a local level for the parties to prepare for boundary changes. Anyone who has been a constituency MP and has gone through the agony of boundary changes will know how everything gets upset. The local parties have to be reorganised. One’s whole political sense of who one represents is altered if there are significant boundary changes. In 1983, I went through it in Battersea and I had to contest the seat against a candidate from the other part of the constituency. There is a lot of turmoil and difficulty.
Eighteen months is barely time for the local parties to sort out any changes. If by some chance there were to be an earlier general election, say one year earlier, there would be only six months in which to sort things out, which is patently ridiculous. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has fought elections—no doubt, he probably has—but I am sure that some members of the Government have not. I say to those people that it is not workable. The local constituency party associations need time to sort out the effects of boundary changes, which will be much more dramatic and widespread. Because they will bear little relationship to existing communities, they will be even harder to manage. It will be hard to ask local parties to do it and to ask local communities to accept it.
The Government have not thought this through. The Bill has all the hallmarks of a Bill which was rushed in because they said, “We have got some deadlines. Anyway, there is no legislation, so we have to find something to fill this long time”. After all, we have had no legislation in this House pretty well since the election, except for the Public Bodies Bill, which has been an equally botched effort. I just wish that the Government would say, “Let’s slow down on this. Let’s think this through. Let’s consult on it”. We would end up with a better system than we will get now.
My Lords, it is not my wish to block legislation that has come out of the House which I served for more than 30 years. But I think that I am entitled to make some constructive criticism, perhaps in the form of amendments. I was interested when listening to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who brought back memories. It was very commendable of him when he had to sign the Boundary Commission report and get it put down on the Floor of the House for debate knowing that it would cause great difficulty for his local constituency. I remember a Conservative MP, Phil Gallie, who always fought his corner for the Conservative Party. The boys, like myself, and the girls who sat under the Gangway used to have some banter with him.
Doonfoot is a community I know well. I think it would be safe to say that it was a traditionally Conservative area. It was put into South Ayrshire, which was at that time the constituency held by George Foulkes, now my noble friend Lord Foulkes. That meant that Phil was fighting a seat that would go from Conservative to Labour. No words of bitterness or rancour came from Phil Gallie. He took it with dignity when he lost the seat, and everyone admired and respected him.
My noble friend Lord Dubs touched on the problems of boundary changes. We should forget about reviews every five years. I would like to see an amendment to make it eight years. We have done a great deal in this House to educate young people. I do not know a noble Lord who would refuse to go along to a school or college to talk to children and young people about the value of serving their country in politics. That goes for the other place.
I was asked whether I would go to Northern Ireland to speak and I said, “Of course I will. We are talking to young people”. I remember my noble friend Lord Healey saying, “You know Michael, our generation neglected our young people. We had to spend six years in the war and those of us who were lucky enough to get back wanted to get on with our own careers. We forgot about going into colleges and universities and schools because we wanted to get on with our lives”. It meant that people felt then that politicians were too far apart from them.
When I was asked to try for the nomination for my old seat of Glasgow Springburn, the first thing I did was sit down with my wife Mary and talk about it. I remember her saying, “Michael, your father was a merchant seaman and your mother told all her boys and her daughter never to take a job away from home”. I said, “Mary, I am not going to win the nomination”. I won by one vote, and to this day Mary says that I knew I was going to win, but I did not know, and that is the way it turned out. But Mary and I did not need to up sticks and get our children into another school or move to another part of the country. The culture I am so proud of and wanted my children to be brought up in would be different.
Some of the many Members of Parliament who came in with me in 1979 came from Edinburgh and had been fortunate enough to win English seats. The whole family would move and change jobs because they had to bed themselves into the new communities they were representing. With five-year Parliaments and five-year boundary reviews, if a young couple in the same position that Mary and I were in 35 years ago were asking whether to go for a nomination, they might say no, especially women being encouraged to come in to Parliament. They would see that they were doing well in their careers, but would have to leave to serve for one term. It is one thing to take a chance with the electorate, but you will have to take your chances with the boundary commissioners as well.
I know what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was talking about when he mentioned the difficult situation where two seats are merged and two Members of Parliament have to go to selection conferences. Frank Dobson is still down at the other end, but Jock Stallard came into this House and served it well. It was a great pity that those two parliamentarians had to fight it out for one seat. We are going to get that every five years. If you go for eight years, at least people will say, “The chances are that we will get 10 years out of this Parliament, so why not try for it?”. But let me say that when the Boundary Commission has finished, the fun starts because the new boundary has been taken up.
An MP might have two wards that he has his eye on, but his adjoining neighbour might think they belong to him. When I was Speaker in the other place, I had to hold the jackets over a dispute about sending out leaflets. Someone would say, “Those two wards are going to be mine under the new boundary review, so I want to put leaflets out”. I will have to check Hansard, but I recall making a Statement from the Chair to say, “Look, Members of Parliament in this House represent their old boundaries, not the new ones that the boundary commissioners have produced”. That kind of fighting is going to get worse because if a Member of Parliament takes on a ministerial job in those circumstances, they will have to be in their department on a Friday. But the adjoining neighbour has none of those responsibilities. I know who is going to turn up at the Women’s Institute, the Union of Catholic Mothers and the bowling club. They will ask, “Where’s Michael?”, and the answer will be, “Oh, he’s awful busy. He’s a Minister and he can’t make it”. There will not be a word said against the colleague, but a hint will be put out that if you get me under the new boundaries, I will be your man. I do not want to know about being a Minister.
I have many friends in the Liberal Party, but maybe the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, could pass the word along. Sound bites fall off the tongue, and the sound bite is this: no one should have a job for life. The implication is that no one should have a safe Labour seat. It has been said a few times tonight that nobody should have such a thing as a safe Labour, Conservative or Liberal seat.
When I represented Glasgow Springburn, I always cringed when someone said, “You’re all right, Michael, you’ve got a safe Labour seat”. I worked just as hard to ensure that my electorate were well looked after as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in his marginal constituency. The worst thing that anyone can do is take their electorate for granted. The only branch of Marks & Spencer that could beat the store in Argyle Street was the one at Marble Arch. I can remember the manager, Aubrey Green, saying, “If a customer says to one of my assistants that he or she is displeased about the service or the product, I want that customer to come in for a coffee and a chat about why they are displeased”. This was a very successful company and yet he had it in mind that that one customer fitted the parable of the lost sheep. That was the view I took about my constituents regardless of the majority that I had.
I know that the night is getting on and that other noble Lords wish to speak. All I can say about public inquiries is that they are very fair. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that I went to a public inquiry which was held in Glasgow in about 1981 in preparation for the 1983 election. The people who turned up there came from every walk of life, some of them with no political axe to grind. Scotland would have lost a seat had we not put our argument—which was accepted—to the Boundary Commission. It was not a case of QCs arguing in front of another QC, the inquiry chairman, but of men and women coming from their communities and saying, “This should not happen and this is why we wish to give evidence”. So inquiries are worthwhile. Sometimes when inquiries were lost and the person or the party did not win their case, they always went away feeling that they had had a good hearing. That is very important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Adams, mentioned Argyll and the islands of Jura and Islay. I advise noble Lords to visit the area, particularly Islay. I am a teetotaller but it has some lovely distilleries there if anyone likes a whisky. It is a widely spread out area. However, on the mainland, if the Member of Parliament representing Galloway arrives at Glasgow airport, he will have to travel further south than Carlisle in order to get to the Mull of Galloway; and to get from the Mull of Galloway to Carlisle is a job and a half because in some of these isolated places there are only one-track roads. Consideration should be given to these communities.
My Lords, I want to concentrate my remarks on the proposals for voting reform. I agree with the criticisms of the rest of the Bill as set out by many noble Lords, particularly by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and put crisply by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. However, I shall leave that on one side and concentrate on the issue of the referendum and electoral reform.
If there is going to be a referendum there obviously needs to be a case for reconsidering the voting system, and that case has to be set out in terms of looking at wider social and political change. Usually, the considerations adduced by reformers cover some of the following issues. First, they claim that we live in a more diverse society but that that diversity is not properly reflected in Parliament. This argument is used mainly by those in favour of a form of proportional representation. There is also—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke powerfully on this from his experience in Liverpool—a sense of alienation from politics. It is not entirely clear to me that the voting system is necessarily the best solvent of that alienation, but I am pretty sure that that sense exists and we need to be alert to it—perhaps the voting system can play some part in ameliorating it.
The third point that is often made is that people have lost a lot of confidence in the effectiveness of political processes and perhaps look to civil society organisations in particular as an alternative to political involvement and even voting. It is certainly true that many civil society organisations have much larger memberships than political parties. I think that I am right in saying, although I would not want to go to the stake over it, that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than all the political parties in Great Britain and Northern Ireland put together.
There has also been a sharp decline over the years in party identification and party loyalty. People vote far more instrumentally now. First past the post in a largely two-party system was a good vehicle for mobilising party identification and party loyalty. However, if people vote more instrumentally and in a multiparty system, that feature of first past the post seems far less salient. In addition, it is argued that first past the post has worked well enough in a two-and-a-half-party system, but we no longer have such a system. The Lib Dems no longer fit in a telephone box or a taxi—the party is larger than that—and we have the growth of the nationalist parties as well. We no longer have that kind of two-and-a-half-party system in which first past the post worked effectively.
It is argued that first past the post has often been supported by the doctrine of the mandate: a single party would be elected under first past the post and would have the right to carry out its mandate. However, this idea of the mandate and the right to carry it out in full has been eroded by the declining percentage of people supporting the successful party at an election, which was a point made very effectively by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. The doctrine of the mandate is less secure if a governing party gets a substantial majority of seats from a very low percentage of the vote.
Some people have said that first past the post was good at preserving a sense of political identity and differentiation. There would be a Conservative Party, a socialist or social democratic party and a Liberal Party and this sort of differentiation between parties, which fitted in with first-past-the-post politics rather well, mobilised party members and offered clear-cut alternatives to the voters. However, the criticism is—there is a lot of academic evidence on this—that the winner-takes-all system, which first past the post is, gives parties a strong incentive to move towards the position of the median voter or, to put it more colloquially, the centre ground. This has clearly happened. It has happened since 1982 with the Labour Party and the invention of new Labour as a vehicle for getting to the centre ground. It has also happened with the Conservative Party since 1997. The idea has been attributed to the Prime Minister, although I do not know whether he used the exact phrase, about detoxifying the Conservative brand. That is because of the pressure to move towards the centre ground for which the winner-takes-all system provides the incentive.
The struggle is now over the middle ground and not ideological purity, whereas first past the post was a kind of defence of ideological identity. The expenses scandal in the House of Commons has weakened the authority of that House, which is not helped by the fact that many MPs, as critics say, are elected on much less than 50 per cent of the vote. Perhaps the final point in favour of some kind of consideration of the electoral system is one not often put, but is quite a powerful one. In a position where we are likely to be devolving more power to the devolved Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in Wales, it is very important to increase the authority of the House of Commons and of Members of Parliament within it, as the national Parliament. If people elected in the devolved bodies are seen to have greater legitimacy compared with MPs in the national Parliament, we are in for some problems.
Let us assume for a moment that these are good reasons to re-examine the electoral system and consult people, should the choice be between first past the post and AV. There is a case for saying that it should be a broader choice, because both first past the post and AV are majoritarian systems, whereas many criticisms of first past the post embody the idea that representation should be more proportional. Yet there is no guarantee at all, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that AV would produce more proportional outcomes. There is a case for saying that the choice should be between a majoritarian principle and a proportional one or between two majoritarian systems like first past the post and AV, with the option of a proportional system. But of course that makes any referendum far more complex and the results of it much more difficult to determine.
AV is more pluralistic than first past the post, which allows the elector to choose more widely, should he or she wish to do so. While being pluralistic, it is also more consensual, which I suppose is an advantage to it, and it preserves the constituency link, which in the light of the expenses scandal is a very effective form of political accountability, to the electorate and not just to the party. Of course, it makes coalition government much more likely, but the pressures from the media in particular at an election run on those lines would be such as to require political parties to indicate before the election what their preferred coalition partners would be. That would make the whole process of forming coalitions, if they were indicated by the results, much more transparent and open.
It is sometimes said that one great advantage of first past the post is that it creates strong government, and no doubt it does. We can all think of examples over the years where governments have acted in a very strong and decisive way, but it is not necessarily the same thing as effective government, whereby a decision sticks and has wide consent behind it. There is nothing particularly partisan about this; the Suez invasion, the poll tax and the Iraq war were examples of strong government, but I am not sure that they were clear examples of effective government. It would be absurd to say that Germany, which has a coalition, has not had effective government over the whole time of its existence as a federal republic. So we need to be wary of assuming that single-party government is the same thing as effective government. If we have this referendum and it goes in favour of the alternative vote or if there is a proportional option on the agenda, we have to accept that coalition will become the norm and not the exception. We would therefore need to think much more clearly about the processes of coalition formation, rather than the protracted and not very edifying experience that we had earlier this year.
My Lords, in a few hours I am catching a train back to Hull because I am teaching in the morning before returning tomorrow afternoon. I mention that because I have just worked out that I will have a bigger audience in my seminar in the morning than I have here this evening.
As various speakers have noted, this measure is two Bills in one. I deprecated the practice of the previous Government of bringing forward omnibus Bills and I do not endorse its continuation under the present one. I shall address the two parts of the Bill. I start with two overarching concerns, the first of which has been variously mentioned this evening. Unrelated to the merits of the particular proposals, it is the speed with which the Bill has been brought forward. As the Constitution Committee has noted in its report on the Bill, and I declare an interest as a member of that committee, it is to be regretted that there was not time for consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny. I know there are reasons why Bills cannot always be subject to such scrutiny, not least in the first Session of a new Parliament under a new Government, but Bills in such a situation have usually been contemplated and worked on prior to the general election. In this case, because the government manifesto or programme was a post-election product, there is a somewhat greater case for rigorous scrutiny.
The second concern is the relationship of the Bill, primarily Part 1, to the stated aims of the Government. I am uncertain about how a referendum confined to the alternative vote relates to the principles enunciated by Ministers as underpinning proposals for constitutional change. Voters are to be offered a referendum but on a restricted choice, which derives from a compromise; I understand the politics. My concern is how electors will feel about being offered such a choice. It does not necessarily deliver on the Government’s stated aims, and I have problems with the premise that underpins the proposals for change. Like my noble friend Lord Lamont of Lerwick, I do not accept that our political system is broken. There has been a crisis of confidence, but it has been in politicians rather than the political system. Electing the same people by somewhat different means will not restore confidence. The answer lies in behaviour and not in institutional change. I regard what we are engaged in here as a form of displacement activity.
On Part 1, I have a principled objection to referendums. However, the Government, like their predecessor, do not. As the Constitution Committee notes, if there are to be referendums then reform of the voting system is a constitutional issue that merits being subject to one. However, the proposal raises two basic problems. Reform of or, as is proposed, abolition of the House of Lords is also a major constitutional issue. Why a referendum on one but not the other? The other problem is the provision to give effect to change if more electors vote yes than no. If there is a turnout of only 20 per cent of electors and they split 51 per cent to 49 per cent in favour of change, to what extent can one claim that the change enjoys legitimacy through endorsement by the people? I appreciate that there are problems with thresholds. One has a choice between having some form of threshold, be it in terms of turnout or the proportion of those voting yes, or omitting or amending Clause 8 so that the implementation of a yes vote is not automatic but instead is left to Parliament to determine what to do in the light of the turnout and outcome.
On the second part of the Bill, I shall focus on the reduction in the number of MPs rather than on constituency boundaries. On the provisions for boundary changes, I confine myself to endorsing some of the proposals embodied in the report by the British Academy Policy Centre entitled Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom. In particular, I see the case for providing for an extra period of consultation, following publication of representations received in the initial 12-week period, in order for counterobjections to be made, thus following the practice of New Zealand and Australia. I also endorse the proposal for more assistant commissioners to be appointed, not least for dealing with the representations made on boundary proposals.
I turn to Clause 11 and the provision that the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600. I support a reduction in the size of the House of Commons. I chaired the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000; my noble friend Lord Forsyth was a member. We were more radical than what is proposed here in terms of numbers, though less ambitious in terms of timing. We favoured a staggered reduction in the number of constituencies. That would give time for not only the Boundary Commission to prepare, but also the parties and the Members themselves.
My noble friend the Marquess of Salisbury introduced a Parliamentary Government Bill in 1999 providing for a staggered reduction over a 20-year period. At the end of that period there would be a House of 400 members. We recommended a staggered reduction resulting in a House of 500. In our view, that would leave us with constituencies that were still quite viable—some MPs already serve their constituents well in seats with electorates in excess of 90,000—and not damage the capacity of the House of Commons to fulfil its functions effectively. Indeed, we believed it could enhance the efficiency of the House, given that we identified the current number as contributing to the strain on the House’s resources. Better resources for fewer Members would, in our view, aid rather than hinder the efficiency of the House. We also took the view, though it may seem counterintuitive, that larger constituencies may facilitate a closer, longer-term relationship between Member and constituents, in that less radical changes would be required to constituency boundaries to take effect of demographic changes.
I accept that there is no magic number. As I say, our view was that a House of 500 could deliver efficiently what is expected of the House of Commons, but one could make a case for a smaller or even a greater reduction. The principal point is that there is a case for reducing the size of the House. However, there is a necessary corollary to such a reduction—that there must be a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. Indeed, in our report we argued that there was a case for having fewer Ministers, even if the size of the House of Commons remained unchanged. Various people who gave evidence to our commission, including former Ministers, argued that there were too many Ministers. We recognised that Ministers were seen to be busy people but, as Frank Field put it to us, the amount of work increased to occupy the time made available by Ministers. The case for a reduction in numbers was well put to us by my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell, who told us that,
“a decision by an incoming Prime Minister to abolish twenty ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload. The Whips and those who enjoy exercising or receiving patronage would be dismayed, but the benefits would be great”.
A reduction is not only desirable but also essential if the number of MPs is reduced. So far, the Government have resisted attempts to amend the Bill to provide for a reduction proportionate to the reduction in the size of the House. The Minister in the other place, David Heath, argued that the demands of government necessitated the number of Ministers. If my noble friend wishes to argue that when the debate finishes, I will be interested to see what empirical support he is able to provide.
The other argument advanced is that the issue could be considered later and does not need to be addressed in the Bill. I do not accept that argument. I do not regard reducing the size of the House of Commons by almost 10 per cent to be a matter of greater importance than the fundamental relationship between Parliament and the Executive—in this case, between the House of Commons and the part of it that forms the Government. I do not wish to see the Government strengthened through a reduction in the number of MPs. The so-called payroll vote—or rather the jobsworth vote, as it includes unpaid PPSs—is already too large. It will be even more so if the Bill is enacted. I know that providing for a reduction in the number of Ministers in the other place does not then deal with the number of Ministers in this House or with PPSs but that is not an argument for not amending the Bill. There is a compelling case for reducing the number of Ministers and for doing so now, and then for addressing the other elements of patronage. There are too many PPSs, for example, and their independence has been eroded over time, but that fact is not a reason not to move now in respect of the number of Ministers.
When we published our report, the then party leader, William Hague, described it as a route map for a future Conservative Government. I hope the Government will now revisit this issue with some urgency. It is a matter of constitutional significance.
My Lords, at one point I felt that I would give up on this debate and go home, but I am glad that I stayed. The last two speeches, by the noble Lords, Lord Plant and Lord Norton, bear serious assessment by the Government and by this House. It is regrettable that the Bill before us is very partisan, but it purports to address big issues: the nature of our democracy and the standing of Parliament. We all know that neither of those can be entirely resolved simply by fiddling with the system, but we also know that the system at present neither achieves a democratic result nor improves the standing of our elected representatives.
Unlike some of my colleagues, I do not have a firm view on what the correct size of the House of Commons should be, and I am a supporter of some form of electoral reform on the grounds that my noble friend Lady Kennedy outlined earlier. However, the Bill is not suitable to address either matter. For example, surely the size of the House of Commons must take account of what other elected representatives exist, both here—when we have reformed this House—and in the devolved Administrations, and the number of councillors that we have. If we look at international comparisons, it is clear that we have roughly the same number of MPs as France and Italy and rather more per head of population than Germany. However, if you take the total number of elected representatives, we have far fewer. Unless you take this big picture into account, there is no answer to the question of how many MPs there should be.
On voting systems, I said that I am in favour of reform, but AV is not my favourite form of reform and I do not believe that it will achieve the objectives that the Liberal Democrats have been pressing on us for many years. AV reinforces swings and, by and large, region by region, reinforces the position of the top two parties. The Liberal Democrats might gain a few seats in the south-west, but in most places they would not gain. If the Bill is being put forward to keep the coalition together or to provide some advantage to the Liberal Democrats, I am afraid that that party’s Members will be seriously disappointed.
One central flaw in the Bill on which I want to concentrate is the way in which its approach to deciding the boundaries and number of MPs will, in effect, sacrifice the concept of community and replace that with one of statistical mean. Ever since the late Earl of Leicester, otherwise known as Simon de Montfort, proposed the model for Parliament that we have followed for most of the past few centuries, Parliament’s representation—or that of its lower House—has been based on the boroughs and shires of this country. They were definable communities that knew where they were. The nation is an aggregation of those communities, and Parliament should be the aggregation of the representatives of those communities.
In one sense, this issue is irrespective of the nature of the voting system. You can have one, two and three-member constituencies—or even subregional constituencies—but the members must come from a definable area where people understand what that community is—as the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and others have underlined in the course of this debate. If we move away from that principle and provide as the overriding principle for setting constituency boundaries a given figure plus or minus 5 per cent, that will override not only the sense of community but other layers of government—in particular local government—and the way in which people approach the political process. Noble Lords have talked about the way in which people became involved in inquiries. That is true in some cases but not so true in others, but people become involved on the basis of the communities in which they operate, whether they belong to voluntary organisations, political parties or churches. All sorts of people turn up to those inquiries because they wish to know who their representative is and how well the community will be represented as a constituency.
Of course the total number of voters in a constituency is important and of course we should not depart dramatically from that except in a few exceptional circumstances, but allowing a variation of 5 per cent is far too tight a definition. A figure of 20 per cent would be closer. The number of voters is not the most important factor either, because the total population of constituencies can differ dramatically from those that are on the register, as other noble Lords have pointed out. Therefore, as well as the numbers on the electoral roll, the boundary commissions should take into account other considerations such as the total population, community identities, local authority boundaries, the views of local individuals and institutions and the whole question of sparsity and accessibility for constituents. Many such issues need to be balanced out. To present this House with a system that has one overriding concept does not serve democracy well and certainly does not serve representative democracy well.
I wish to make two points from a party point of view. First, if you base this issue simply on communities, you may get a distorted aggregate picture but you adjust that by having a proportionate element built in as well, as happens in Scotland and Wales and in the post-war’s most successful democracy in Germany. If we do not do that but base constituencies simply on electoral size, which can change significantly over five years, we will have a situation where—to end up on a slightly cynical note—all parties will have Members of Parliament looking over their shoulder at how their constituency may change. A chicken run will develop and colleagues will fight each other over the nature of boundaries and over seats. In those circumstances, good government will suffer and I suspect that good coalition government will suffer even more.
I plead with the Government to look at the provisions again, both in terms of the principles of democracy and localism that the Government have enunciated and from the point of view of good governance. This Bill matches none of those objectives. I am sure that the House of Lords will give it detailed consideration, but the Government should think again.
My Lords, I wish to focus my remarks on Part 2 of the Bill as I am concerned about the proposals to change constituency boundaries and reduce the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 Members. I want to make clear at the outset that I am not against the principle of equality and therefore can see the need for more equal numbers of voters per constituency, but I am worried that the Bill pursues that objective in a partisan and inflexible way, which may do as yet unforeseen damage to our parliamentary system. I also believe that its proposals to cut the number of MPs are not based on a true understanding of the nature of how constituencies work and the way the public engage with their representatives.
I should be interested to hear why the figure of 600 has been chosen as the right number adequately to represent the United Kingdom—it was not a figure suggested in either of the two parties’ manifestos that now form the coalition, nor was it included in the coalition’s programme for government. That is a serious omission because the proposed reduction of 50 seats is the most dramatic shake-up of Parliament since Irish Members were removed from Westminster following the partition of Ireland in 1921.
I believe that this drive to cut the number of MPs somehow diminishes their work. The Commons has not in fact grown disproportionately in recent years. It has increased by only 25 Members—just over 3 per cent—since 1950, but the electorate has increased by 25 per cent over that time. This has dramatically increased the caseload of MPs and I do not believe that fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services.
This Bill fails to recognise the real work of MPs—not only in Parliament but in their constituencies. MPs are vital to the communities they represent, often as the last port of call for those in severe difficulties in regard to their housing, health, education, anti-social behaviour harassment, immigration status and every other issue where people find themselves up against the brick walls of inflexible bureaucracy. I know of offices that receive an average of 200 e-mails a day on top of the letters, phone calls and face-to-face surgery cases, all asking for their MP’s help.
MPs are often the focal point of community activities, too—the pensioners groups, the school prize giving and the veterans’ fundraising. This surely is the big society at local level. The 7th report of the Select Committee on the Constitution on this Bill, published just last week, shares my concern about the proposals to cut the size of the Commons. In paragraph 29, the committee states:
“We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the basis of any considered assessment of the role and functions of MPs”.
I would urge the Government to think again about reducing the number of MPs.
I would also suggest that more thought be given to the very rigid new rules which the Bill proposes for drawing constituency boundaries. As I said, I am not against the idea of a more equal distribution of voters per constituency; indeed the principle has long been written into the law. However, the inflexible rule that no constituency can be more than 5 per cent above or below the arbitrary figure of 75,800 does not make allowances for natural boundaries, local authority areas or regional and community identities. As a Londoner, I may have difficulties recognising the important differences between Devon and Cornwall, but I am absolutely sure that those living there do not, as my noble friend Lord Myners so eloquently confirmed earlier.
Mention has already been made that more than 3.5 million eligible voters are likely to be missing from the 2010 electoral register. The Electoral Commission says that the missing millions are largely younger, poorer people, ethnic minorities, people living in private rented accommodation, and predominantly located in urban areas. The commission also reported in March that there were 100,000 unregistered voters in Glasgow alone. If they were all counted, the city would warrant at least one extra seat, but that will not happen under this rushed timetable. If these missing millions are ignored in the redrawing of boundaries, it will have a distorting effect on the electoral map and unforeseen social consequences whereby government bodies do not recognise the true nature of the communities they should be supporting with grants per head, and so on. Where these people are not missing is in MPs’ surgeries up and down the country, seeking help, advice and advocacy. Just because they are not on the electoral register does not mean that these people do not exist—they do.
In conclusion, this Bill needs to be revised to make it fairer and more practical. It needs to be more responsive to the level of parliamentary representation that citizens want. It needs to strike a better balance between the speed of a boundary review, the strictness of an adherence to electoral equality, and the strong tradition of public involvement in boundary reviews that underpins the legitimacy of our widely admired system.
My Lords, if the lecture of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is half as good as his shrewd speech, his lecture room will be full to overcrowded later today. There have been many twists and turns in this debate, and one thing that remains in my mind is the rather elegant point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, who said that we are legislating to denude membership of the other place, the House of Commons, while here we are facilitating ever-more overcrowding by receiving and introducing more Barons and Baronesses. I do not think that you should have two Bills in one. This is an error and it may become more obviously an error as the stages of the Bill proceed here in your Lordships' House.
In his wise speech, my noble friend Lord Plant referred to the advance of the nationalist parties. I find it astounding that they are in office in Belfast, in Cardiff and in Edinburgh—and rather speedily so. Perhaps that reflects discontent with some processes, but I will not argue strongly on that point at this hour of the day.
To debit 10 seats from Wales's parliamentary account is unjust. Wales's MPs do a sound job of propelling Wales's needs to the forefront of proceedings in the mother of Parliaments. We are talking of Wales's parliamentary birthright. Our people in the constituencies look to their MPs for help. They get it—and they get it in the constituencies. The modern MP of whatever party gives constant service to the underprivileged, to the poor and to local groups and bodies who make their often bewildered and exasperated way to advice bureaux and MPs’ surgeries. This is not the time to denude Wales of Westminster champions. Throughout the debate, the sense of community has been heavily emphasised. I would be dismayed to see the two Flintshire parliamentary seats hacked about: that would not be a good thing.
Westminster too often legislates first and later picks up the unintended consequences of careless, hasty legislation. Our contemporary parliamentary history is littered with depressing examples of legislative mistakes. I suggest a pause for thought and a rethink—in this instance, to Wales's advantage. To the coalition, perhaps, the concepts of the Bill are beguiling, but in the cold light of day, despite this miserable hour, it is clear that Wales needs every Member of Parliament that it has. The economy of Wales is under major pressure. The society of Wales is undergoing rapid change. We should draw back from striking out 10 Members. Now is not the time to shrink the Welsh parliamentary forces.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have stayed here for so long to enjoy my two and a half minutes of fame in this debate. The bad news is that, having already missed my last train, I might as well stay here and speak until at least three o’clock in the morning, or until whenever the café downstairs opens for breakfast.
I have enjoyed much of the debate so far. In terms of the Bill generally, I agree absolutely with the idea of reducing the size of the House of Commons. I have never been a Member of that particular House of Parliament, although I have been a Member of another Parliament. However, it seems to me that, as has been said, a reduction to 600 MPs may be rather modest. I should have thought that reducing the number to 500, staged in the manner suggested by my noble friend Lord Norton, would be a good approach to the issue, although that is not really the matter on which I wanted to speak.
One thing that comes out of the Bill is that there are a number of electoral commissions in the United Kingdom and, because of that, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not have the problem of parliamentary constituencies crossing those boundaries.
I want to come back to the issue of natural communities, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Myners, and the opposition Front Bench. Although I believe that constituencies should be roughly the same size, as that is important for electoral democracy and equity, I do not think that the notion should be so firmly adhered to that it destroys or breaks away from natural communities. That is why, as someone who lives in Cornwall, I would also support a limited change to the second part of the Bill so as to allow some of those natural communities to be represented properly. I agree with my noble friend Lord Oakeshott about the Isle of Wight—that seems to be a sensible proposition—and it seems that a proper case can also be put with regard to Ynys Mon in Wales, as well as some additional ones in Scotland.
I thought it was a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Myners, brought a very party-political angle to the Cornish issue. If he were here—unfortunately, he is not in his place at the moment—I would say to him, as someone who co-ordinated the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign in Cornwall, that that campaign goes across all political parties, including the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party, Mebyon Kernow and the Greens. We are united in trying to protect the boundary of the Tamar and therefore its historical, cultural and community regions. That is something that I would like to bring forward in amendments to the Bill as it progresses through Committee.
With regard to referenda and electoral change, I say “Bring it on”. It is time that we changed the way that the country votes for its Members of Parliament. How can I as a democrat argue against giving the people that choice rather than just parliamentarians? Let us reduce the number of parliamentarians and spread power down through national Assemblies and national Parliaments and to principal local authorities. I speak as a member of the unitary authority of Cornwall.
I shall finish there. It is time that we all had our cocoa, headed for the trains and went to bed before resuming this stimulating debate tomorrow. I rest my case.
Debate adjourned until tomorrow.
House adjourned at 12.37 am.