Second Reading (2nd Day)
My Lords, in rising to speak on day 2 of the Bill, first, I express my personal gratitude to the business managers of the House for finding myself speaking at this relatively civilised hour rather than, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, had to do yesterday evening, trying to hold the House’s attention at half an hour past midnight.
The debate so far has been wide-ranging and thoughtful, with noble Lords on all sides showing their passion for and commitment to our constitution and its future evolution. I do not propose to comment on Part 1 of the Bill, about which many noble Lords spoke so eloquently last night, but I want to express my strong agreement with the proposition that, in practice, we have two distinct Bills before us, which should have been considered separately and sequentially. While I appreciate the desire to hold an early referendum on the parliamentary voting system, there is far less justification for rushing through the proposals in Part 2 on the proposed reduction in the number of MPs and the mathematical equalisation of the numbers in each constituency—or at least of those names included on electoral registers.
Few speakers last night dissented from the proposition that this Bill—certainly Part 2—should have been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, when many of the questions that Ministers have been struggling to answer could have been considered at greater length. We were reminded yesterday that the Leader of the House strongly favours pre-legislative scrutiny, but not apparently for this important constitutional Bill because, as he explained rather lamely, it has come forward too early in the parliamentary Session. Of course, had there been two Bills, with one following the other, this would not have been a problem at all. The indecent rush to redraw 600 constituency boundaries in the next three years has created the problem.
We are further led to believe that action has to be taken urgently to create greater equality. Cynics among us have rather seen the strong temptation of political gain. There is nothing new in promoting constitutional change in the hope of political gain. Indeed, 19th century historians can point to many precedents for that, but they would also agree with last night’s sage observation from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that constitutional change to secure party advantage often fails to deliver what was anticipated because the unexpected has a habit of happening instead.
Noble Lords opposite claim to want more transparency in policy-making, greater accountability and the transfer of power to local communities. These are all noble sentiments and admirable principles, but the Bills that are coming before this House do not reflect them very noticeably—indeed, quite the contrary in Part 2 of this Bill. The Government have decided on a rigid methodology to divide up the country into parliamentary constituencies and local people will lose the opportunity they have hitherto enjoyed to make representations in person to Boundary Commission public inquiries, to which they could put their views on where boundaries should be drawn and which local wards should be included or left out.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, who is not in his place, yesterday welcomed the proposal to drop local inquiries, but I have to tell the House that I deplore that proposal. We know from the Boundary Commission’s report of 2007 that about two-thirds of local inquiries led to changes to the original recommendations of the Boundary Commission and that it saw great value in those challenges. Yes, it is true that, in the Deputy Prime Minister’s words, the review process is “lengthy and time consuming”, but it fulfils a vital local function. What is at stake here is local identity and the need for local communities to feel that the different layers of district, county and parliamentary representation have some organic connection. There needs to be some sense to such boundaries to enable people to access services and advice at the appropriate level. Individuals and organisations will still be able to make representations in writing but not face to face with members of the Boundary Commission.
I have to tell the House that in my part of north Lancashire, where parliamentary boundaries have changed quite a bit over the past 20 years, there have been a number of high profile public inquiries during which feelings ran very high. Not everyone secured the changes that they wanted—indeed, few people did—but the debates strengthened local democracy and spread political awareness. At a time when turnout at parliamentary elections is not that high, especially among younger voters, we should be combating political apathy and alienation rather than closing the door to legitimate local debate about topics on which people have strong opinions. I am worried that this proposal is reinforcing a view that people at grass-roots level are being excluded from important decision-making and that their input is not welcomed. I do not believe that we should be putting out such a message in the present political climate.
Public inquiries are being abolished to save time so that boundary changes can be rushed through in the next three years. The resulting upheaval and administrative change will be profoundly disruptive. Everyone agrees on that. The review will leave few, if any, constituencies unaltered, it will cut across long-established local communities and it will divide wards and create patchwork constituencies with little common identity. I listened with interest yesterday to noble Lords from Cornwall spelling out how Cornish people would never willingly be joined with those from Devon across the River Tamar. I noted the contribution of the noble Lord opposite explaining why the Isle of Wight should not have its identity diluted in any way. I tell the House that those examples pale into insignificance beside the situation in my part of the world, where Lancastrians will be dragged kicking and screaming into predominantly Yorkshire constituencies, and where protesting Yorkshire minorities will find themselves imprisoned in Lancashire citadels. People in east Lancashire are still fighting county boundary battles of many decades, if not centuries ago. Are we seriously suggesting that we are now going to unleash a 21st century war of the roses?
Will the noble Baroness accept that that already happens in the case of Saddleworth, which we know is part of Yorkshire but is attached to Oldham? Under the Bill, the Boundary Commission will be expected to follow as a guideline the European parliamentary regional constituencies, which by and large would prevent Yorkshire and Lancashire constituencies being brought together.
I understand that, given that numerical considerations will be paramount in the Boundary Commission’s decisions, what I am describing is very possible. I fear that we will create more anomalies, not reduce them.
All sides of the House have agreed that to proceed at such break-neck speed, and to compound that by insisting that a tolerance of only 5 per cent greater or smaller than the average constituency size should take precedence over all other factors to be considered, is to court disaster. The proposals will cut links between MPs and their constituencies and further alienate voters. I was struck by the evidence that the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place received from Democratic Audit, which argued that, if the figure of 10 per cent had been adopted, county boundaries, community identity and the practicality of representation could all have been taken into account. Indeed, the previous constituency review found that nearly 90 per cent of constituencies were within 10 per cent of what they should be. That caused the electoral systems expert Lewis Baston to ask whether it was worth the disruption that the adoption of 5 per cent would assuredly produce. That is exactly the sort of question that pre-legislative scrutiny would have explored in a very helpful way. I hope that the figure will be the subject of an amendment in Committee.
Just as the 5 per cent figure is arbitrary, so is the figure of 600 constituencies. Where has that come from? Such a figure is not in the election manifesto of either coalition party but is, as the Leader of the House told us yesterday, “a nice, round figure”. I can see that response being analysed and dissected to destruction in the future by constitutional historians puzzling over the motivation for this proposal.
One thing that I do know is that the burden of work on MPs has grown enormously over the past 40 to 50 years, while the number of MPs has scarcely grown—up by 3 per cent at most—over the same period. Whereas each MP had around 66,000 constituents at the end of the last war, each MP now has close to 96,000 constituents and informed estimates suggest that the number will increase to 105,000 by 2015. I know how hard the average MP works. I know how difficult it is for MPs to keep up with the ever-increasing flow, or tide, of e-mails, calls, letters and surgeries. To increase that burden yet further by cutting the number of constituencies without reviewing the workload or role of MPs—while at the same time increasing the size of the House of Lords to more than 800 Members—reveals pretty blatantly to me that there are no great constitutional principles involved in the Bill. As far as I can discern, there are only the rather basic political calculations that some noble Lords referred to yesterday.
Some apologists for the coalition have deployed the argument that other countries have fewer elected representatives, but such an argument considers only the national level, which is only one part of the picture. Countries such as France, Germany and the United States have many more elected representatives at local or town level and at regional or state level than we have in the United Kingdom. If you look at our councillor numbers and the number of MPs relative to population, we lag far behind other comparable democracies. Cutting the number of MPs to 600 would make the disparity worse.
I am aware that there was a debate in the other place about whether ministerial posts should be reduced along with the number of MPs because, otherwise, the effect of the Bill would be to reduce the influence of Parliament in holding the Executive to account. That is clearly very worrying. However, I do not want to comment further on that aspect of the proposed changes, because my final point relates to the large number of people—estimated at more than 3 million—whose names will not be on this year’s electoral register. We know that many young people, in particular those between the ages of 18 to 25, are missing from the register because they move fairly frequently around the country. That is certainly a big issue in my part of the world. To ignore that factor and to press ahead on the basis of registers that are, in some areas, seriously incomplete is, to my mind, totally unsatisfactory. Why not wait until a much clearer picture of population distribution after next year’s census enables the Boundary Commission to do a more thorough and accurate job? That would be a principled approach, but I suppose that it would not meet the political objectives of the coalition.
In conclusion, this is a bad Bill that will have profound constitutional effects. I would like to believe that the Bill will be thoroughly revised as a result of the renowned detailed scrutiny of noble Lords in this Chamber. The Bill certainly deserves to be revised in a number of important respects. However, I fear that the operation of the coalition Government in this Chamber may seriously undermine the capacity of this House to operate as an effective revising Chamber. I very much hope that I am wrong and that my fears in this regard will prove to be unfounded.
My Lords, the coalition kids are trashing Parliament. They are trashing everything else, after all—schools, humanities teaching in universities, the arts and the heritage, general practitioners, social housing, the Armed Forces, the police, the Civil Service, local government—so why should we expect Parliament to be spared? It is not that I think they mean to vandalise the national life; I acquit them of ill will. If it does not seem too patronising, I think the problem is lack of judgment. The Deputy Prime Minister said at Second Reading of the Bill in another place:
“We promised a new politics”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 44.]
A new politics, my Lords. I have to say that I detect a certain cockiness and callowness in that. At any rate, it is an excessively simple view that, because Members of Parliament were disgraced and the deficit needs to be cut, it is appropriate to cut the number of MPs by 50 and to save £12 million by doing so. No other justification has been offered for the reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
The coalition kids’ overconfidence and impetuosity has led Ministers into evident errors. A number of things that the Deputy Prime Minister said to the House of Commons were simply wrong. He was wrong to contend that the policy would save £12 million. If you take into account the cost of supporting Members of Parliament to serve larger constituencies and the enormous cost of a total upheaval in 2013 and of five-yearly boundary reviews thereafter, clearly the costs heavily outweigh any small savings that may be achieved by reducing the number of Members of Parliament by 50. He was wrong to say that the number of Members of Parliament had crept up over the years. He was wrong to say that local inquiries had had little impact, as noble Lords have already pointed out. He was wrong to assert that, with equal constituencies and the alternative vote, all votes would be of equal value. Under the alternative vote, general elections will still be decided in marginal seats. Tight contests will be determined by the third, fourth and fifth preferences of UKIP and BNP voters. Their votes will count more than the first preferences of supporters of the major parties.
Worse than errors of fact is confused thinking. The Deputy Prime Minister said at Second Reading that people must see us taking action to restore trust, including,
“ensuring that politics is transparent”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 34.]
The alternative vote is a uniquely opaque electoral system; it is impossible to foresee the consequences of the second, third, fourth and fifth preferences and so forth—the residual preferences of supporters of residual parties. It would be more rational and safer to hold elections by lottery, it seems to me, than by election under the alternative vote system.
Worse than confusion is poor judgment. To hand power to extreme parties in marginal seats is surely profoundly unwise. To subordinate every other important consideration to arithmetical equality in redrawing constituency boundaries, to discount the factors of geography, history, identity, continuity and to ignore the significance of local government boundaries is surely very unwise indeed. Is this a worthwhile new politics? How is anybody to make sense of this in relation to the Government’s ambitions for a big society and a new localism?
My noble friends Lord Touhig and Lord Elystan-Morgan spoke powerfully about the damaging impact on Wales of enlarging the size of constituencies. To reduce the parliamentary representation of Wales by 25 per cent at a time when there are also going to be Assembly elections and when a referendum is anticipated on the powers of the Assembly is surely in effect an invitation to the people of Wales to withdraw from engagement with the United Kingdom.
I had the honour to represent Newport in the House of Commons. Newport is a city with a long history, of which its people are very proud. It has been a settlement since Roman times, it was the home of Chartism, it was a significant port and it has been a major centre of steel manufacturing. Newportonians are intensely conscious of their local identity and the special character of their city. Before then, I had the privilege and happiness to represent Stratford-upon-Avon and South Warwickshire in the House of Commons: a rural constituency, equally forged by history and embraced by county boundaries that differentiate Warwickshire from Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. Wise politicians do not meddle with these realities and attachments; they do not transgress these boundaries for a theory; they understand that you cannot rally hearts and minds through an arithmetical formula.
Many of the mistakes that we make in public policy arise, it seems to me, from the fact that politicians, officials and, indeed, members of boundary commissions suffer from the characteristic handicap of our neophiliac age—they know no history. For them, it is always year zero; they lack understanding and respect for institutions and what others hold dear.
The Deputy Prime Minister asks us to measure the reforms that he proposes against the standard of 1832. As I understand it, it was the Great Reform Act that first constructed the concept of the constituency based on locality, to which its MP or MPs were accountable. The new manufacturing cities such as Manchester—I speak with diffidence on Lancashire in the presence of the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, but not in the presence of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, who is no longer in her place—wanted to have their own Members of Parliament to speak to their concerns. Mancunians were not satisfied to be represented by the county Members of Parliament for Lancashire. Equally, rural Lancashire wanted Manchester and the new cotton towns to have their own Members of Parliament to stop urban votes swamping rural votes and confusing issues and representation. The 1832 Act redistributed seats from rotten boroughs to new towns and cities and enlarged the boundaries of small constituencies so that each seat represented a community and its interests. The view was held that when MPs spoke for defined constituencies with shared interests and a common sense of place, Parliament could better clarify the issues and come to decisions. The removal of the rotten boroughs, which had been tools of patronage, strengthened Parliament against the Executive.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 built on the foundations that the 1832 Act laid down. Under that legislation, communities could petition for incorporation as entities of local government. That process produced a map of local government that was erratic, anomalous and untidy but which accurately and authentically expressed people's sense of place and identity. That structure of local government lasted well over a century.
The Deputy Prime Minister's reforms move in the opposite direction to the reforms of 1832. They destroy the expression of community and identity in parliamentary representation, and they advantage the Executive against Parliament. Abraham Lincoln said:
“I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives”.
Any Government so insensitive as to offend people's pride in the place in which they live are acting to alienate people from the political process. This is being done in the name of restoring trust in politics.
It is also unwise for the Government to create constant instability. Just as Parliament is convalescing from the horrors of recent years, everything is to be uprooted and torn up again in 2013. New local parties will have to be formed in short order before the next election. There will be candidate selections, bitterly contested, no doubt, between those people who regard themselves as the heirs to the previous constituencies. Every five years thereafter there will be traumatic discontinuities both for constituencies and from Parliament to Parliament.
The Government are further weakening Parliament in the name of restoring trust. There will be no reduction in the number of Ministers commensurate with the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. This Administration are larger than any that we have ever had before. There are 95 Ministers. That is five more than there were in the previous Government, and 12 more than there were in the Administration of Margaret Thatcher in 1983 when I first came into the House of Commons. Since then, of course, there has been devolution, so there should be a need for fewer departmental Ministers. The category of Ministers that has most increased in number is, of course, the Whips.
Government patronage is growing. The reduction in the number of Back-Bench Members of Parliament will enfeeble what is already an all too feeble capacity of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account. What is being done is in plain contradiction of the commitment in the Tory manifesto to a,
“sweeping … redistribution of power … from the government to parliament”.
The way in which the Government have handled the Bill so far in Parliament demonstrates an unreconstructed attitude on the part of the Executive to Parliament. Major constitutional legislation was programmed in the House of Commons. Twenty years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Remember the debates that we had, for example, on the Maastricht treaty. Clauses 3 to 6 on very important matters—the conduct of the referendum, combining polls, and the rules about media coverage—and Clause 11, on the number and distribution of seats, were entirely undiscussed in the other place in Committee or on Report. If the House of Commons is so effete and supine as to tolerate that, it is clearly the responsibility of this House to scrutinise the Bill with great rigour and to amend it in the many respects in which it is deficient.
All Governments should be humble in the face of their responsibilities, exercise a decent restraint in the use of the huge powers that our system of parliamentary government confers on them, and respect the views of others. This applies particularly in the case of a coalition Government, neither of whose parties won the election and who have no mandate for their policies.
Too many of the reflexes of Ministers and too many of the measures that they have brought in show disrespect for Parliament. We saw it in the Local Government Bill, where Ministers were content to exploit for their political convenience a decision by a judge to override a previous decision by Parliament. We saw it in the resistance to refer to the Examiners both that Bill and this Bill yesterday. We saw it shortly after the formation of the new Government in the attempt to rig future votes of confidence. When we come to scrutinise the fixed-term Parliaments Bill, we shall be on the lookout for further such chicanery. We have seen it in the Public Bodies Bill, which confers massive Henry VIII powers on the Government. Your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Constitution has excoriated that measure. We see it in the packing of this House to stack up a majority, destroying the character and value of this House and undermining our capacity as a revising Chamber.
Reform of the electoral system is massively important. I happen to believe that it is right and timely that people should be given the opportunity to choose a new electoral system. There is a crisis of alienation from our politics. Far too many voters across the country feel that their votes at elections make no difference. The choices offered to them should include the single transferable vote—a proportional electoral system. The Deputy Prime Minister said on Second Reading that,
“it is vital to our political system as a whole that they are considered to be legitimate and fair”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 34.].
Why are people to be offered AV but not STV? After all, the commission chaired by Lord Jenkins found that AV was even more disproportionate than first past the post. The reason the Deputy Prime Minister gave when challenged on that was feeble. He said:
“For the sake of simplicity, however, it is better to present people with a simple yes or no alternative”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 41.].
However, he could have got STV on the ballot paper. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said yesterday that that was not practical politics, but the Liberal Democrats were extremely powerful at that moment. It was only with Liberal Democratic help that the Conservatives could form a Government, just as now only the Liberal Democrats—and not, for example, the National Union of Students or the PCS—can bring down this Government. The Liberal Democrats are happy to condone and tolerate the economic recklessness of this Government, their casual cruelties, for what? For a referendum on AV. What scale of values is that?
Constitutional reform should be embarked on not hastily, not casually but with the greatest care and sensitivity. Ministers should recognise that the constitution is intricate and its parts interdependent. The future of both Houses needs to be considered together. The future of central and local government needs to be considered together. There should be no taint of exploitation for party advantage and no suspicion of gerrymander, as there is with the Bill. There should be no rush towards deadlines contrived for political convenience. The case should be made on the basis of a full laying out of the facts and of honest, sustained debate. Genuine consultation should lead to compromise and the building of consensus.
There must be consensus. That is why it is essential that there is a threshold for the vote on AV in the referendum. It is quite unacceptable that major change should be introduced on the basis of low turnout by an electorate who are ill informed, through no fault of their own because they have not had time to inform themselves on the matter, and no doubt disgruntled and unhappy with the policies of the Government. It is a reform that is not supported by a substantial consensus.
Nor should the vote in the referendum be confused with other votes in elections held on 5 May. The Electoral Commission was robust when it responded to Tony Blair as Prime Minister when he was minded to hold a referendum on the introduction of the euro at the same time as Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003. It said that combining an election and a referendum could,
“have a distorting effect on the conduct and outcome of both polls”.
Whatever its views now, it was right then.
The Bill provides for change to the electoral system, change to the nature of our constituencies, change to the number of MPs, change to the relationship between MPs and constituents, and change to the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. Those of us who honour and cherish the Parliament of the United Kingdom—while always, I hope, being ready to accept duly considered, timely, gradual reform—will relentlessly oppose careless, improper, damaging constitutional change, as threatened in the Bill.
For the reasons I have given, I do not think it is a good idea to hold a referendum on AV; nor did I think so then. I would be deeply hesitant about moving from first past the post, but given what has happened to public attitudes to politics and Parliament in this country, I believe it is appropriate that people should now be given the choice, the opportunity, to switch to a different electoral system.
My Lords, whenever I have spoken in your Lordships' House I have tended to concentrate on medical and health matters, so this Bill is somewhat outside my comfort zone. It is clear that I am not an ex-Member of Parliament, and as this Bill is rather political I have to tread rather carefully. I am afraid that some of what I have to say may sound a little familiar, but I am so disturbed by some aspects of the Bill that I feel I must just express my dismay. Other noble Lords have spoken, sometimes at length, about many of its defects, but I want to say just a few words about one particular aspect that I feel strongly about: the way in which it is proposed to change the constituency boundaries with little or no consultation with anyone. I have nothing against changing them if that is deemed necessary, but to do it in a way that is so clearly undemocratic and unfair is unacceptable.
The new boundaries are to be set by central diktat based entirely on population numbers, but only on the part of the population that is registered to vote and ignoring the 6 or 7 per cent who are not registered, largely the young, the poor and the ethnic minorities. They will not count in the way boundaries are redrawn and this will, of course, disproportionately affect inner-city population counts. However, that is not the worst of it. The boundaries are to be drawn without any regard to local geographic features—rivers, mountains and other natural divisions—and across all sorts of county and council ward boundaries. However, much the most important thing is that they are to be redrawn without any local community input whatever. There will be minimal possibilities for adjustments, no public inquiries, no local consultation and no local appeal. Where is the big society in any of this? It is more like big brother.
The other day, the right honourable Kenneth Clarke was speaking at Runnymede, home of the Magna Carta, and extolling the virtues of a Government, his Government, that give power and responsibility back to the people. Where is there any hint here that the people will have any say in the boundaries that define their own communities? The Bill seems to me to be undemocratic and politically driven, and I sincerely hope that the coalition Government will think again. If they do not, I shall oppose at least this aspect of it as strongly as I can, even though I know that my politically naive voice may be hardly heard.
My Lords, if the noble Lord was speaking on medical matters, I would be very reluctant to tangle with him in argument, but I think that some of the doubts he expressed about the Bill are simply not right. The new boundaries will not be set by central diktat but by the Boundary Commission that has a long history of independence from political parties and will have to take account of what people make as local representations. I have been to several public inquiries over boundary changes, and everybody who has been to them knows that the only people who bother to turn up are political parties wrapping up self-interest in high principle and trying to get boundary changes that suit them. The Boundary Commission can receive representations, it has longer to consider them and geographical features are one of the things that it can expressly take into account.
The Bill corrects a fundamental unfairness in the discrepancies between the sizes of constituencies. It is that that I want to address. I realise that the first part of the Bill dealing with the alternative vote on the referendum is a price that is being paid for coalition government. It is very important to the Liberal Democrats. I am perfectly happy that there should be a referendum. I will vote no in it because I think that the present system is much better, and I am slightly surprised that the Liberal Democrats are satisfied with this because I do not think it will do much for them. I suspect that the big party—Labour or Conservative—that is doing well will do even better under AV.
I want to talk about the second part of the Bill. I have some form on this because almost exactly five years ago I introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill in another place to achieve the objectives of this Bill. It was called:
“A Bill to equalise of the size of parliamentary constituencies”.
I wanted to call it “A Bill to abolish rotten boroughs”—but the Clerks would not let me—because that is what we have. The smallest constituency at that time had 21,169 voters and the MP was elected with 6,200 votes; the largest constituency had 107,000 voters, five times as many, and the MP had to get 32,700 votes to get elected. There are massive discrepancies that on the whole work to the advantage of the Labour Party, which is why there has been so much special pleading from it in this debate. Although it has managed, quite cleverly, to wrap it up as high principle, I am afraid that special pleading is what it is.
The average size of a constituency at that time was 68,000 voters, but 440 of them were more than 5 per cent away from that average and 240 were more than 10 per cent away. This is massively unfair, and it is demonstrated in the majorities that the two main parties have to get to win an election. If Labour got 32 per cent of the vote and the Conservatives 29 per cent, there would be a Labour majority of 10 seats in the House of Commons; if the Conservatives got 32 per cent of the vote and Labour got 29 per cent, there would be 280 Labour MPs and 231 Conservatives. The Conservatives have to get 40 per cent of the vote to get an overall majority, but all Labour has to get is 32 per cent, and it is all a direct result of the 1986 Act under which boundaries have been drawn. If the 2010 election result were reversed and the Conservatives had got 29 per cent and Labour 36 per cent, Labour would have got 363 seats, and the Conservatives 171, whereas we know what happened: we got 306 and Labour got 258. A hung Parliament, as opposed to an overall Labour majority of somewhere in the region of 80, is the discrepancy that these constituency sizes produce.
Let us look at some of the causes of that discrepancy. The biggest is Wales, and that is where the most eloquent special pleading has come from as, I suppose, one would expect from former Welsh MPs, but why should a Welsh seat be so much smaller than an English one? The Welsh quota is 55,000, but in England it is 70,000. Why should there be 40 seats in Wales when what it would get if it had the same quota as England is 32 seats? The Act under which the Boundary Commission draws boundaries does not require there to be 40 seats; it requires there to be 35, but for some reason Wales has 40. If there are parts of the United Kingdom that are not justified in being overrepresented, they are surely those with their own elected Assembly. The worst case in that respect is Scotland, although the discrepancy there was corrected in the Scotland Act, but there is still a discrepancy of two seats in Scotland, eight in Wales and a couple in Northern Ireland.
As the noble Lord knows, we support the idea of equalisation. He is blithely saying that all these discrepancies are caused by different sizes of constituencies. To what extent does he believe it is caused by different sizes of constituencies and to what extent does he believe it is caused by differential turnout in constituencies? I think the House would like to know where the split between the two comes.
I prefer to make my own speech, and that is not a subject that I want to deal with. This Bill is about boundaries, not about increasing turnouts. A large part of the cause is the difference in the size of constituencies. It is not, I agree, the only cause. Differential turnout and the stacking up of votes in safe seats is certainly part of it, but the differential size of constituencies is part of it, and it is demonstrated by some of the figures I have just given.
I think that it is undoubtedly a problem, and it is particularly so with young people, but it is much easier now to register than it has been for a very long time. When I first got involved in elected politics, the registers were changed, I think, only once a year in the spring before local government elections. They are now updated every month, so it is perhaps up to all elected politicians of all political parties to encourage people to register. There is no bar to them doing so, and it has never been easier.
As I have said, Wales is over-represented. We have had quite a lot of former Members of Parliament in their speeches saying how some constituencies are much more difficult to work with than others. But in my experience—having represented two constituencies, one of which I represented not at the same time but in common with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and the other was Lewisham West in London—they could not be more different. One was three square miles of concrete and the other was, I think, 600 square miles of south Warwickshire farmland with the town of Stratford-on-Avon in the middle. Each presented its own problems and difficulties. There were certainly more people with social problems and more immigration and housing cases in Lewisham. But a constituency such as Stratford-on-Avon has a very articulate electorate who write lengthy letters to their Member of Parliament demanding their opinions about this and that. When they decide to get a local campaign going about something, they are incredibly well organised.
Lewisham did not have an identity with Lewisham: it was just three square miles of south-east London. I do not think that many people knew which borough they lived in. As the noble Lord will know, in south Warwickshire, the historic town of Stratford-on-Avon represents about one-quarter of the electorate. There are 132 villages and parishes. A big issue in one part of the constituency can be absolutely irrelevant in another part. If, as has recently happened, the eastern part of our old constituency is hived off into a new one, I do not think that those people will feel that a great historical link has been broken.
In Scotland, the discrepancy was largely represented in the Scotland Act, but there are still two extra seats. There are 59 seats when there should be 57. In Northern Ireland, the quota is 16 to 18 seats, and it has got 18. As a result the average constituency size in Northern Ireland is 10 per cent less than it would be in England.
What gives rise to the discrepancies between English seats? The first is population shift. People are moving on the whole out of old inner city areas to new suburban areas. That is happening the whole time, but because of the nature of the way in which the Boundary Commission works, it uses old registers. The recent election was fought on, I think, the 2000 or 2001 registers. At the time when I moved my Ten Minute Rule Bill, Banbury was 19,000 voters over the average and Sheffield Brightside was 19,000 under. At the last election, on the new boundaries on which the election was fought, that discrepancy was already being repeated. Banbury was 9,000 over the average and Sheffield Brightside was 9,000 under. Therefore, one of the faults of this Bill—one of the few faults I say to my noble friend the Leader of the House—on which I might try to move an amendment is that the Boundary Commission should have the right to look forward at potential population changes that are known about because of housing and population movement. Otherwise, the figures will be out of date before they start.
Secondly, the Boundary Commission cannot cross county and local government boundaries, which is a small price to pay for fairness. But it is illustrated again in Warwickshire where for all the time when I was a Member of Parliament we were entitled to 5.45 seats on the quota, so we got five seats. On the last boundary review, it went up by 0.07 per cent to 5.52 and we got six seats. That is nonsense. There was no difficulty in managing a constituency the size of Stratford-on-Avon. There was no need for that extra seat. But it is this ratchet in the way that the Boundary Commission works which produces an ever larger pool. The basing of electoral boundaries on electoral registers which are already many years out of date is part of the problem.
My Bill, which was introduced five years ago, sought to have a maximum 5 per cent discrepancy from the average, which I am delighted to see that this Bill has; that the rules should be the same for the whole of the United Kingdom; that the Boundary Commission should be able to cross local government boundaries; and that there should be reviews every four years, which is what I wanted, but five years would be fine if we are going to have five-year Parliaments.
Those noble Lords who talked about the disruption that this will cause are wrong. This review will be big, but after that a small review every four or five years will cause much smaller changes than a big review every 12 or 15 years, which is what we have at present, with wholesale changes of constituencies such as we saw at this election. I would like to see the use of projected population figures.
I am absolutely unconvinced about the special case for the two Scottish Highland seats. They are so much smaller than the average. I am sure that there are geographical difficulties in working in those constituencies, but there are difficulties in other seats that I am sure they do not have. I expect that they do not have huge immigration problems to deal with.
Lord Wills: My Lords—
Lord Maples: I have given way to the noble Lord once and I do not think that I will do so again. They do not have many of the problems the others seats have, such as a large seat like I had. The case for those to be so far below the quota—I think that in the case of one of them there are 22,000 voters and in the other 33,000—is very difficult to justify. If they are to have special representation for their position within Scotland, those two seats should come out of the Scottish quota and not the United Kingdom quota.
On the 2010 election, which, as I say, was based on electoral registers which were already 10 years out of date, only 218 seats were within this 5 per cent band. There were 161 between 5 per cent and 10 per cent; more than 200 between 10 per cent and 20 per cent; and 60 were more than 20 per cent out. Of those, 59 were too small, and one, the Isle of Wight, was too large. Of those 60 seats, 45 were in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Isle of Wight was the only one that was too big.
There has been a lot of argument about whether this is party political and what the advantage is. I believe that it will correct a massive unfairness in favour of the Labour Party. But of the 10 seats that are too small at the moment, only two are Conservative, three are Labour, two are Liberal Democrat and three are held by nationalists. Of the 10 that are too large, four are held by the Conservatives and six are held by Labour. One has to be slightly careful about calling where party advantage lies in all of this.
This Bill will implement that maximum 5 per cent discrepancy and reduce the House of Commons to 600, with which I have no problem at all. It could easily be reduced to 550 at an election after that, but it needs a bit of time to do that. I agree with those noble Lords who have said that that requires a reduction in the size of the Executive as well. If the House of Commons were to be reduced much below 600, an Executive of 95 in the House of Commons would be far too dominant.
I agree completely with the five-yearly reviews, crossing local government boundaries and removing the massive distortion in favour of Wales. But the Bill still looks backwards. In five years’ time, the election will be based on registers that will by then be four and a half years out of date. In the long run, 600 Members of Parliament will be too many. I do not agree with the exemptions for Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles. I will not attempt to pronounce the Scottish name of the constituency. I agree with reducing the size of the Executive in the House of Commons.
But the idea, as the opposition spokesman in the House of Commons said, that this Bill is gerrymandering is simply standing the truth on its head. The truth is that the current system contains a massive unfairness in favour of the Labour Party, which is unwilling to see that change and is wrapping up self-interest as high principle in a very hypocritical way.
Baroness Nye: My Lords, this Bill is in two parts so it is perhaps fitting that Second Reading should end up being in two parts as well. Last night’s debate contained many thoughtful contributions and I found myself agreeing with a great deal of what was said from all sides of the House. I was a little concerned that supporters of the Bill had decided not to speak, but I am relieved that the noble Lord, Lord Maples, has risen to the occasion.
There are many aspects of this Bill, so I will concentrate on Part 2, which deals with the reduction in the size of constituencies. From the debate that we have had so far, I believe that it is recognised on all sides of your Lordships’ House that there is an urgent need to restore trust and confidence in our Parliament and our elected representatives. But that urgency should not mean that we rush headlong into change without proper scrutiny, consultation or safeguards in place. Our democracy is worth rather more than that.
We need to remember that what is proposed in this Bill was not put before the electorate at the last election by either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. It is the result of an agreement which has been subsequently cobbled together between the two parties that make up the coalition Government. The coalition cannot claim that this Bill has been sanctioned by the electorate.
As we all know, the Liberals Democrats’ manifesto argued in favour of the single transferable vote, with the number of MPs in the House of Commons being reduced to just over 500. The Conservative Party wanted to retain the first past the post system, while reducing the number of MPs by 10 per cent across the board, with no exceptions. They wanted to equalise the size of constituencies in all parts of the country. There was no common ground between the reform plans presented to the electorate by the two parties which have formed the coalition. Now we are presented with this Bill, which has an arbitrary number of 600 elected Members of Parliament and a referendum on AV. This Bill represents the glue that keeps the coalition Government together.
As has been said by many noble Lords, the Government intend to reduce the size of the other place, while leaving the number of government Ministers unchanged. This will automatically reduce the number of Back-Bench MPs available to scrutinise the actions of an ever-larger Executive.
Professor Anthony King, one of our leading constitutional academics, wrote on Sunday that this is a very bad idea which will enfeeble Parliament and further reduce its ability to hold the Executive to account. Yet the coalition has pledged to strengthen Parliament's role relative to Ministers. It has not taken them very long to introduce a Bill which will do exactly the opposite. Not only does it have no legitimacy from the electorate, but it was not even mentioned in the coalition agreement. That merely said that the Bill would make provision,
“for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies”,
so at that point there was still an opportunity for the coalition Government to present a Bill that would allow the Boundary Commission to undertake a far-reaching review of every constituency in the land in a way that would restore trust and confidence in the political process. I should remind the House that my own party’s election manifesto promised to introduce a non-partisan parliamentary boundary review to examine the rules for constructing parliamentary constituencies. I believe that that would have been a fairer way of redrawing the political landscape. Alas, however, that opportunity was not taken.
The arbitrary number of 600 seats has been plucked out of the air because, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said yesterday, it is a nice round figure. I point out to him that 500 is also a nice round figure and has the merit of having been in the manifesto of one party to the coalition. I hope that when the Minister winds up, he has managed to come up with a better rationale for that figure.
What is even worse is that the review is to be concluded in a timeframe that is many years shorter than would usually be spent on such a critical matter. How is this to be achieved? It will be done by abolishing all public inquiries into Boundary Commission proposals, so there will be no mechanism for local people to object to the constituency boundaries that will reshape their political lives. The coalition Government are showing scant respect for people’s feelings about their communities. In Britain, we have a long established and open democratic process for the redrawing of political boundaries. We have developed this open process for a very good reason. It builds public acceptance of what could otherwise be a very contentious and divisive matter. It does this by allowing local residents to object, by requiring the Boundary Commission to respond and, crucially, by permitting a further and final round of public discussion.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who is not in his place at the moment, that there is a dilemma here. On the one hand, people like the simplicity of the notion of equal-sized constituencies, but on the other, they would be happier with a lower or higher level of representation than proposed if it better maintains their feeling of local identity. Communities will not have their trust and confidence restored in Parliament if their ability to influence decisions at the local level is taken away. If the new equalisation rules are drawn as tightly as proposed, it will mean that the new constituencies will cross county, metropolitan and ward boundaries. There is a real danger that with this rushed approach and minimal consultation, the public will come to doubt the independence and objectivity of the Boundary Commission itself, and that cannot be in anyone’s long-term interests.
Your Lordships’ House should take account of the fact that this Bill is not just a routine matter. It will bring with it an historic change in the size of the other place that would enfeeble Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account and bring about a fundamental change in the way in which we have always drawn our constituency boundaries in this country. The greater the change, the greater the need for accountability, so why abolish local inquiries? It is true that inquiries sometimes take an inordinate time to complete, but surely it would be far better to find ways of speeding up the process while safeguarding the rights of local communities to influence the outcome.
As we know, the Bill restricts the size of the electorate in each constituency to within 5 per cent of the electoral quota. But as has been said, this simple mathematical equation will be based on an electoral register that is out of date—a register that does not take account of the 3.5 million people across England and Wales who are eligible but missing, according to the Electoral Commission. Who and where are these missing voters? They are predominantly young, from black and minority-ethnic communities, and living in rented accommodation in metropolitan and coastal areas. Why is the coalition so eager to reduce the representation of this group of people? These people exist even if they are not on the register and have problems that have to be dealt with. After all, a census is planned for next year, as my noble friend Lady Henig pointed out. Instead of rushing headlong into these changes to our political landscape, why not wait until we have the data we need to make them both fair and legitimate?
When registration levels can vary so widely from constituency to constituency, why can the Boundary Commission not be given more leeway than the 5 per cent that this Bill envisages? Surely 10 per cent would mean less cross-boundary and geographical problems arising.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the Minister why he is proposing to abolish local inquiries when we all agree, and I quote, that:
“Localism brings people closer to political power and gives them control over their own communities”.
Those are not my words, but those of the Minister’s right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I quote again, this time from another of the noble Lord’s colleagues in the other place, that,
“if this reform is to carry weight and legitimacy, it must be seen to be fair to all parties, not to the naked advantage of one party”.
That is absolutely right, and perhaps it is why the coalition Government are not giving a coherent explanation of the arbitrary 600-seat proposal.
The other day I was trying to find out what the big society meant, and I read an article which contained these words:
“When one-size-fits-all solutions are dispensed from the centre, it’s not surprising they so often fail local communities”.
They are the words of the Prime Minister in 2009. I do not frequently agree with the Prime Minister, but I think they are words that we should keep to the forefront as we continue to debate this Bill.
My Lords, what we are considering here is a nasty and partisan Bill. No clear answers have been given by the opposite side, and I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply—I nearly said “my noble friend” because we have called each other different names at different times—will give us some better answers than we have had up to now. On the question of why the figure of 600 seats has been chosen, it was pointed out in the speech just before mine that all we got was a wave of the hand with no clear indication as to why that should be. My other question is: why are we having this at all? After all, the Boundary Commission considers these issues every eight to 12 years, and the review took place only at the last election, in 2010. Why are we going into another review at this time? One can only think that it is to gain some political advantage.
The review itself is based purely on the size of constituencies. Surely that cannot be right. The question has been asked time after time: why is this being done? Again, I hope that we get some better answers than we have had up to now. Two constituencies have been taken out because this is not going to apply to them. The noble Lord was asked why there is to be this differentiation when there are many constituencies which ought also to have special consideration given to them.
We need to say again and again that constituencies are about far more than the size of the electorate. There are historical and national boundaries, and there is the community. My noble friend Lord Howarth said that he was sticking his nose into Lancashire. I must say that he is a very brave person to do that, but we do not mind when we get the constructive remarks he made in relation to it. That is because the Government have not seen anything yet compared to what they will see if they start to interfere with the boundaries either there or in Cheshire. They will run into tremendous problems. Whatever may be said, there is a sense of identity. Indeed, I am rather surprised that the noble Lord opposite talked about constituencies as though there is no sense of identity. He must have been a very unique MP because that was certainly not what I found in the east Lancashire constituency I had, which is now Pendle but had been Nelson and Colne. There was a real sense of identity. Indeed, it was so strong that at one time people who lived in Nelson would not work in Colne and vice versa. I think also of Warrington and how when we had to split it into two constituencies, that caused all sorts of problems. There is far more to this than what is being said.
Another thing that has been said time after time is this: why are we doing away with public inquiries? It is a disgrace. It is being said that people or communities who have objections will be satisfied with making a written complaint. What happens when they find that the reply they get is not satisfactory at all? Where can they go then? Is it going to be carried up? Surely that would be far better. Again, the reason for this is haste: minds have already been made up.
I hope noble Lords on all sides of the House will join in the demand for a real examination of this change in constituencies; we have got to put more into it and think more deeply about it. I hope that we can come to a different conclusion and that the people living in the affected constituencies will have a right to make not only written objections but something more desirable. We need to look again at the issue of holding public inquiries. They need not take the time they have done in the past, but people are certainly entitled to them.
The intention to change the system of voting that has served us so well over many years concerns me equally as greatly, if not even more. People understand the first past the post system; it has led to strong government in the past and I have no doubt that it will do so in the future. The electorate know and understand the system. They know that if a party puts forward a manifesto and is elected, it will be called to account—but it will have the chance of putting its manifesto into operation under the system that we have now.
Again I ask: why is this being changed? One can only conclude that it is because of the coalition, because of a sop thrown to the Liberal Democrats. We know it is a sop because of what the Deputy Prime Minister said about it. As was said yesterday, he referred to it as a “miserable little compromise”—yet it has been accepted by them. He went further—and this really concerns me—and said that AV is a baby step in the right direction if only because there can be nothing worse than the status quo. That gave the game away—that this is only the start. They see it as a starting position from where they can begin the change. We know what they want to do—they want to bring in an era where there will always be a coalition in which they see themselves playing a role. That is the reason for the change; it is not because the change is desirable. The change will take power away from the people. They do not decide whether there will be a coalition Government; that decision is taken and agreement is reached behind closed doors, and the people suffer because of it.
No one on the other side of the House has put forward a good reason why there should be this change. I shall resist it. I shall fight against it in this House and, if it goes to a referendum, I shall fight against it then as well. I return to where I started: why the haste about this matter and the issue of the constituency boundaries? Why is the Bill being rushed through? Why is a constitutional change, which affects all of us, being pushed through with haste when there is no demand for it? Whenever I fought an election as an MP—and many of my colleagues will agree—the issue was never raised on any doorstep; no one ever said, “The electoral system is wrong and we need to change it”. So where is this coming from other than the fact that it is a coalition and the sop has been given? It is a small sop but, as I say, they wish to build upon it. It comes back to this: why should the British public suffer a change in the system and MPs suffer a change in their constituencies to bring about, in the first case, a permanent coalition through the method of how we vote; and, in the second case, a political advantage for the parties opposite? I disagree completely with both of them and it will be my duty to fight them in every way I can.
My Lords, as a Lewisham resident, I disagree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, about the borough. It is a wonderful borough; it has a vibrant, multicultural community of which I and my wife are proud to be a part. It is not only a few square miles of concrete; people know exactly where they live.
I declare an interest as a member of the Electoral Commission. With that in mind, I shall restrict my remarks to matters concerning the proposals to reduce the number of seats by 50 and to changes to the way in which boundary inquiries are conducted as these matters are not within the remit of the Electoral Commission. I shall make no comment on matters on which the commission has to take a view or will be charged with delivering when the Bill is passed into law.
The proposals to reduce the number of seats and to deny citizens the right to make representations at a local inquiry to determine the area their elected representative will cover is not only a matter for the House of Commons. I and other noble Lords in this House will not let the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats get away with suggesting that that is all it is. These proposals go to the very heart of how we are governed. They are politically motivated, as was the proposal to bring in another group of Peers so soon after the summer intake, of which I was a Member. So on the one hand we have proposals to further increase the combined strength of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers in this House and, on the other, proposals to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons by 50 to 600, of which it is suggested approximately half will be Labour.
I have no issue with equalising seats; it is the reduction by 50 to which I object. Where did this figure come from? It was in neither party’s manifesto. How will the citizens of our country be better served with 50 fewer Members of the Commons to represent them? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will tell us a little more than the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told us yesterday. “A nice round figure” were the words he used.
No matter how the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats try to dress it up, there is only one way to describe their actions—gerrymandering. They are partisan and seek to gain political advantage for their respective parties. My noble friend Lord Wills referred to the website of the honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mr Mark Field, on this point yesterday.
The proposals for the boundary review are the most far reaching in modern times; there has never been a boundary review like the one proposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It will take place every five years, shorter than normally, and the Government want a full review in three years. How do they achieve that? They do it by denying citizens the right to make representations in person at local inquiries. I asked the Government a question on boundary inquiries a few weeks ago. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, advised me that there had been an initial inquiry and five periodic reviews since 1944, and that the legislation which brought in local inquiries dates from 1949. That is 61 years ago. The Labour Government of the day had just brought in the NHS the year before.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, further advised me in his reply that at the last boundary review a total of 205 seats had changes made to their boundaries from what was first proposed by the Boundary Commission as a result of evidence received, including local inquiry reports. The last election was fought on that review of parliamentary seats for the first time, and the Labour Party lost that election. That is nearly a third of the seats in the House of Commons today.
No case has been put forward by the Government as to why this change is justified. This system works: why cannot the Government speed up the process but still keep the inquiries? That would be achievable, keep what is good in the present process and allow citizens to have as full a role in the process as possible. Having the ability to send in a letter; having the review use a mathematical formula; and having no respect for communities is no substitute for what we have at present.
Why also do the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats want reviews every five years, so that we have a review after every general election with as little as possible involvement from the public?
Not everyone in the Conservatives and Lib Dems is happy about this. The honourable Member of Leeds North West, Mr Greg Mulholland, who is a Liberal Democrat MP, said in the House of Commons recently:
“Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of the process of introducing boundary changes”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 882.]
He made those remarks when introducing an amendment which would have required a boundary review every 10 years. I agree with Mr Mulholland; he is absolutely right. We should be working towards having a review every 10 years.
I am sure that we will be told that the Government want communities to be respected and local ward boundaries to be the building blocks. Their problem is that by imposing such rigid rules on the Boundary Commission and allowing only toleration of only a 5 per cent variation, they make it impossible. The Boundary Commission must be allowed more flexibility in looking at issues such as geography, culture and community ties. If the Government relaxed the toleration margin to 10 per cent, they would not only achieve their objective of more equally balanced constituencies but also allow other considerations to be taken into account.
Mr Lewis Baston from Democratic Audit made this very point in written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, saying:
“A general principle of toleration of 10 per cent variation allows for county boundaries, community identity and practicality of representation to be taken into account, while a rigid 5 per cent rule cannot … Of the 533 English constituencies in the last review, 474 (88.9 per cent) were within 10 per cent of the English quota … One has to ask whether it is worth imposing the disruption … when the bulk of them are within 10 per cent of what they ‘should’ be anyway”.
Reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 was in the manifesto of neither the Conservatives nor the Lib Dems. No justification has been provided for this proposal either. The honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Mr Mark Field, who is a Conservative MP, has not been convinced on this point. He said during the passage of the Bill in the other place:
“Neither can I see any justification for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/10; col. 1049.]
So we have reductions in the number of seats; citizens denied the opportunity to make their case in person in front of a commissioner; and rigid rules imposed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. This is the new politics, with no attempt made to reach a sensible consensus on which all such types of legislation should be based. It is partisan politics at its worst, seeking to achieve change for narrow party political advantage. There is nothing one nation or Liberal about this Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, may be jumping the gun. We should give this House a chance to consider this Bill in an intelligent, fair-minded way. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Members of this place will do just that. While I support the Bill generally, I want to hear more debate about the 5 per cent variation either side. I also want to hear more debate about the reduction in the number of MPs, because it strikes me that, in the modern age of communication, the intensity of work that MPs have to undertake is utterly different from what it was even 10 years ago. There is a lot of water to go under the bridge before we finalise the shape of the Bill.
I was nearly provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, into debating the merits of electoral systems, but that is not what this debate is about. This debate is about the Bill and the referendum. We are going to put this issue to the people of this country, and quite rightly. All of us will say our pieces hither and yon, and the people of this country will decide what they think are the merits of this complex argument.
I shall concentrate on just one aspect of the Bill: the way in which the public are to be prepared for their referendum choice. I plead a special interest in this as founder and president of the Citizenship Foundation. I hope that my remarks are entirely without partisanship. Noble Lords may be forgiven for having missed, in a 301-page Bill, two lowly paragraphs—paragraphs 9 and 10 of Schedule 1—that prescribe just how the British public is to have a good chance of understanding what all this is about and being fired up to get out and vote. I am sure that one thing on which we all agree is that, if we are going to have a referendum, we must make the best of it. We must get the best possible turnout, regardless of which side it takes.
Paragraph 9 of Schedule 1 states that the role of the Electoral Commission will be, first,
“to promote public awareness about the referendum”.
That is an excellent requirement. The commission tells me that it has already decided to put a leaflet through every door in the four countries. Secondly, the Electoral Commission is to have discretion—I wonder whether that should be a requirement—to,
“take whatever steps they think appropriate to provide … information about each of the two voting systems referred to in the referendum question”.
Paragraph 10 of Schedule 1 is headed “Encouraging participation”. I give credit to the Government for including a provision that will require steps on the part of various people to encourage participation. What I question—it is a very open-minded question—is the way in which the obligation to encourage participation is split among four groups: first, the chief counting officer, who is, under the 2000 Act, the chair of the Electoral Commission; secondly, the regional counting officer, who is given an obligation under the Bill to encourage participation; thirdly, all counting officers; and, finally, all registration officers. Does that not make matters more complex than they need to be? Should not there at least be very early collaboration among those four groups to ensure that they do not each reinvent the wheel and to ensure that certain key matters do not fall between two stools and are not left unexplained and unencouraged?
Paragraph 10(5) states:
“The Minister may reimburse any expenditure incurred by an officer for the purposes of”
the encouragement provisions. Can the Minister give the House some indication of just what the Government propose in this regard? Unless an early, solid assurance can be given by him that the expenses incurred for the purposes of encouraging participation will be at least partly met by the Government, that will be a serious inhibition of what should be a highly effective propaganda campaign—if one wants to use that loaded phrase—to get people fired up to go out and express their view with knowledge enough to enable them to reach, each according to his own, a right conclusion.
I refer back to Section 108 of the 2000 Act, which states that the Electoral Commission shall decide which organisation on each side of the divide shall be designated for the purpose of the Act. Only one organisation can be designated. Section 110 of that Act states that each of the designated organisations shall have up to £600,000 to enable them to undertake their roles as organisers of the referendum campaign. There are provisions about free postage, free meeting halls and so on. That figure of £600,000 was established in 2000. Can the Minister assure the House that that figure will be increased, so that the task of the organising designated bodies can be fully and well undertaken? I repeat: to have a referendum with a poor turnout would be the worst of all worlds.
My Lords, I shall take a minute or so to outline the context and the background against which I shall make my remarks. When I came to the other place, quite a long time ago, I did not have much time for this place and did not understand it. I thought that this place was undemocratic, illogical, irrational and all the rest of it. That was quite a naive attitude to take and was based on a lack of knowledge of this place. When I was in the government Whips Office in the other place and there was ping-pong going on, at the third ping-pong I decided to come here to try to get a grasp of what was going on. Back and forwards the Bill went, and then the Conservative spokesperson got up and said, “Well, it’s our job to revise and to get the Government to think again, but we have asked them three times with three revisions and they have chosen not to take our point of view. However, they are the elected House and they must have their way”. That was quite a shock to the system, because the people who had the power to defeat the Government chose not to use it. That made a powerful impact on me, and since then I developed quite a bit of respect for this House long before I arrived here.
The Leader of the House, in speaking against the hybridity Motion yesterday, had some fun saying that what was happening on our side of the House was House of Commons-style. That was quite provocative and, to me, it was quite clear what he was doing. He was condemning the House of Commons style as being confrontational and partisan, with all this argy-bargy. He was creating a diversion by provoking the type of behaviour that he was condemning to show that the opposition to this Bill is based on Commons partisanship and Commons-style oppositionism. That is completely wrong, but I certainly knew what he was up to.
I accept that the role of the House of Lords is that we revise and send legislation along and ask the Government of the day to think again, but the partisanship did not start on this side of the House. David Laws blew the gaff in his account of the coalition negotiations. The bit that hit me between the eyes was when he said that the Tories came forward with their proposed reform of the constituencies to “remove Labour over-representation”. The reform was nothing to do with democracy or about over-representation being a bad thing; it was about removing Labour over-representation. As my noble friend Lord Wills proved when dealing with the over-representation argument, at the very least it is debatable that there is over-representation.
The word that I would use to describe the Bill is “gerrymandering”, which has been used quite a lot this evening and yesterday. I know that sensitive people on the other side of the House do not like that word, but it is a fact—we regard it as a fact on this side of the House. I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, would still be in his place and I am sorry that he has left—one thing that I have noticed about this place is the weighty contributions from speakers, on both sides, who have ability, experience and judgment, so this place impresses me—because he referred yesterday to the dangers of trading permanent changes for short-term advantage, which he said would be wrong. In the Bill, we have a collaboration or coalition Government who have come together for their own short-term party-political advantage. The Conservatives, of whom I notice that there are only two in the Chamber at the moment, can only do that with the support of—guess who?—the Liberals. Members on both sides of the House have long experience of dealing with Liberals—we know what they are like—and we can see that, from their condescending position of taking the high moral ground with their fine principles, the Liberals are now displaying hypocritical behaviour. As anyone knows who has watched this situation, they have sold their souls. And what have they sold their souls for? They have sold their souls for AV.
My Lords, I have a very real affection for the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, but I recall only too well that he was the past master of the black arts in the Whips Office in the other place for many years. I have the greatest respect for his opinion, but does he really think that it is appropriate that my former constituency comprised 87,000 constituents? I wonder how many constituents he represented. Does he think that it is a gerrymander to try to level things up to provide equality of voting strength among constituencies when there is such a discrepancy? Perhaps he would like to tell us how many people he represented.
As ever, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has hit the nail right on the head.
Let me tackle the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. First, I felt a sense not of unease but of strangeness in being described as a past master, because that phrase is not usually associated with a name such as Thomas Anthony Martin McLaughlin McAvoy. If he is not sure what he is talking about, he should come up to the west of Scotland. I certainly believe in more equalisation, and I have no problems with the Government tackling that. How the Government are going about that is the problem for me.
I am absolutely delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, has come in to the House, because he is the second Conservative Peer that I would like to quote. He need not look so worried, because it is a semi-compliment, although perhaps that might upset him. He said yesterday that constitutional change should be as a result of consensus. Those are wise words, but we do not have consensus here. That starts with the timing of the referendum in Scotland in particular, where the timing could do damage in relation to turnout. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned, there was a large number of spoiled votes in the Scottish elections of 2007 because of confusion and change.
My noble friend Lord Grocott talked about the MPs’ constituency links, which are the bedrock of the parliamentary system. Dividing constituencies on numbers alone by taking boxes of 75,000 people would totally destroy the concept of that bond. Any MP whom I have ever met—no matter which party they were in—felt that special bond with their constituency. I was surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Maples—I am sorry to say this because I have always found him personally amenable—apparently denigrate both his former constituencies. I do not think that he meant to do so, but that was how it came across. That link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency is undervalued in the Bill. However, I do not want to repeat how an MP can link up with his or her constituency, because that has been dealt with quite a bit already.
Noble Lords have referred to the fact that a referendum on AV was mentioned in the Labour Party manifesto. I do not have a problem with having a referendum. I am opposed to AV and I shall campaign against it if a referendum comes about, as I believe in first past the post. To come back to my friends the Liberals, with proportional representation—or any variation of it—parties and their leaders will say one thing before an election and then, once they get into the smoke-filled room, they will do a deal and forget what they promised the public. For example, right up to days and hours before the general election, Mr Clegg pledged not to vote for increased tuition fees, despite the fact that, internally, the Liberals had acknowledged two months before the general election that going back on such a pledge would be a distinct possibility. Yet what happened? They made a deal. Proportional representation is undemocratic. I do not believe that people should get their way on PR, which just allows the hierarchies and elites to go and make their deals.
It has been acknowledged on all sides of the House that 3.5 million people are not on the register that will be used to draw up these parliamentary boundaries. It is particularly undemocratic that there are to be no local inquiries; that is an affront to democracy. If Liberal-held constituencies can get special treatment, why cannot my former constituency? My former constituency faces being split, despite regaining our community cohesion as being part of South Lanarkshire rather than, as was the case previously, being situated in Glasgow. Yesterday, the Leader of the House—again, I note that he is not in his place—invited my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton to come up to the Western Isles to face the people there about the size of their constituency. I invite the Leader of the House, in his absence, to come to another constituency by coming to Rutherglen or Cambuslang or Halfway.
Even better, I invite the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to come to Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway to advocate that the constituents should again be in with Glasgow. If the noble Lord, Lord McNally, accepts my invitation, I will be absolutely delighted to make the arrangements now. As the chair of the meeting, I will give him fair and impartial treatment. I would like to see him come and tell the people of my former constituency that they do not care whether they still have their own local community, which we have been in for 500 years. We are going to be ripped apart by a deal done for political convenience.
I start by declaring an interest; I have been a professional election organiser since my teens, I was general secretary of the Labour Party and I am still proud to be a grass-roots activist, so I am really passionate about what I do. I also know that many Members of this House, from all political parties, are passionate about working in the community and on elections, so I was excited to see this Bill coming through and to see whether it would meet the new challenges that I feel we face in this century: those of apathy, exclusion and isolation. I not only read the Bill but looked at everyone’s speeches on why they were introducing it. I can only come to a few conclusions.
First, this Bill is actually built on a complete and utter falsehood. We have heard the noble Lord, Lord Maples, articulating it this evening. It is that the Conservatives need more votes to win elections than Labour, because Labour has small seats and the Conservatives have big seats. That is completely untrue. It is true that Labour needs fewer votes than the Conservatives to win an election, but for this reason only: Conservative voters tend to be—not exclusively, but tend to be—older and wealthier and more likely to be managerial, to be homeowners, to be a stable population, to be well educated and to have gone to university. Labour voters are likely to be poorer, to have more problems with literacy or language, to be younger, to be in insecure accommodation, to have to move and to be on minimum-waged jobs. That mobility and all those reasons lead to Labour voters being less likely to vote than Conservative voters, so what happens is that you win Labour seats not proportionately but on fewer votes than in Conservative seats. That is a geodemographic fact.
I will let the House into a secret. It is not a fact just in the UK; it is a fact all around the world that those who are poorer, more mobile and less well educated are less likely to vote than people who are better educated, wealthier, older and more established. This can easily be sorted out. We heard it tonight and we heard the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, agree with it yesterday. I call upon the noble Lord to write to the House and show statistically that the case is that Labour gets elected because it has smaller seats than the Conservatives.
If the whole of the legislation is based on a false premise, another problem with it is that it impacts the whole basis of democracy in the United Kingdom. The basis of our democracy has always been one small and simple rule: that Members of Parliament represent a community of interest. They have always done that. This Bill says, “There is no such thing as community”. This is a very dangerous path to follow. I say to your Lordships: I have always believed in society and I am glad that all parties now believe in it, but I also believe in community and I think that nearly everyone in this House believes in it.
There is one little thing to think about. When walking around this—
Is the noble Baroness aware that, of the factors which the Bill prescribes must be taken into account by a Boundary Commission, the third are,
“local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies”.
What are local ties if not community?
Exactly—but to create those local ties you have to be able to build from a local government ward and to recognise natural boundaries, county boundaries and other boundaries. That cannot just be put into the Bill without allowing those people whose responsibility it is to be able to draw communities; you are going to break wards.
I was about to explain that when I see noble Lords taking people around the House, or when I hear them at a dinner, it does not take visitors very long to ask them about their title. Every time, somebody has a story about when they went along to Garter and how they got their title. The reason for that is that it is about a community that they believed in. Having listened and looked—and I have seen a few people this evening—I do not believe that this House shares the Bill’s view of community. By the time it comes back for its next stage, I would hope that your Lordships will have been able to talk to your counterparts in the other place and will bring back amendments that recognise clear county boundaries, local government wards and natural boundaries.
We can all see that there are a few anomalies, but they are not there because somebody in the past has had a narrow, sectional interest. Let us take Wales for an example; by the way, Scotland is not a good example because Labour-held Scottish seats are large. In legislation, it says that you cannot reduce the number of seats in Wales to under 35. A previous Government did that because one of the constituencies would have ended up being a quarter of the size of Wales. They thought that was ridiculous; now, who was that Government? Was it Labour? No—it was in a parliamentary Act of 1986 and it was the then Conservative Government who recognised that there were proper boundaries and communities of interest. If a 1980s Conservative Government recognise that, it seems strange that this Government cannot.
It is not only the coalition that gets some of these things wrong. My own party, for example, got the issue of individual registration wrong. The Bill would be a fantastic place to bring it back and ensure that there was household registration. Some 3.5 million people are already under-registered, and now there are cuts of 28 per cent to local government. I hope that the Government will come back and explain—this was not answered properly yesterday—what advice is being given to registration officers about this, when it is now so important.
I was out knocking on doors last week, doing registration. I went to a small home, a lady came to the door and I showed her the names on the register. There were three adults. It looked like a busy household so I said to her, “Is everyone in your household registered? Everyone needs to be registered from the age of 16 and three months upwards”. She looked at the floor. I said, “Look, if they’re not, I’ve got a form here and I’m happy to help register the people who aren’t registered”. She started to give me the names of all the other adults who were not registered. I got up to six additional people. I was getting on with her, so I said, “Why didn’t you put these people’s names down when you sent in the original form?”. She said, “I was ashamed that so many of us had to live in one home”.
That is a problem for many people in our community. There is a need for registration. I do not think that the coalition Government really appreciate how much they are going to alienate people with this legislation. Having said that my own party got this wrong, I ask that the coalition Government to look at this issue again.
I also do not understand—this keeps getting asked, but I do not understand what the answer is—why this has to be done so quickly. No one seems to have answered that although it is such an important issue. I cannot understand why the Government would not want to consult; there are so many people who could bring improvements to the Bill. Apart from anything else, this legislation is actually very badly written. It has to be interpreted by many other people. The Government will have to table a serious number of amendments to the Bill just to make it understandable.
We are so privileged to be here in the home of democracy, when so many people before us fought the fight to get the vote and were able to establish Parliament in such a way that we could be a role model for the rest of the world. I do not know what any of them would think if they were looking at our legislation now. While our ancestors fought for the vote, our fight is against apathy, isolation and exclusion. Does anyone here think the current legislation meets any of those tests? Does anyone think that a young person starting out would feel included by this legislation and that it would speak to them? The legislation seeks to exclude. It divides our nation and damages our society.
I have one other thing to say to the Conservative Party. I have heard many of its statements, and it must be a great disappointment for it not to have been able to get an overall majority at the general election, but the Conservative Party was not robbed. It was not tricked out of its majority. What happened is that the public were fearful to give the Conservative Party a majority because they were worried that it would introduce sectional-interest legislation and that it would seek to divide. This legislation shows them that they were right to be worried.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. Much of what we have heard seems to treat the electoral system as something that is static and could well be stagnant, but it has always been evolving. There was the secret ballot, generally advancing the number of adult males who could vote. Then there was more or less universal suffrage, with the introduction of votes for women. Then the voting age was reduced to 18. It has always been an evolving system. As it has evolved, it has largely adapted to the needs and demands of the time.
The first past the post system was possibly far more acceptable when there were only two parties, as in the 19th century. There were the Whigs and the Tories, then the Liberals and the Conservatives, so in every constituency there would be a straight fight. That meant that whoever won would have had to have won 50 per cent of the vote. It was only as the other parties came on the scene that fewer than 50 per cent of the electorate could enable a party to win a seat. I refer to Wales in the 1910 general election. There was one two-Member constituency, Merthyr Tydfil, and let us admit that it did the nation proud by electing Keir Hardie as one of its two Members. However, there were 32 single-Member constituencies, and of those 32 only a Swansea seat had a three-cornered contest, won by Ben Tillet, who entered the fray on behalf of the Labour Party. In 31 of those Welsh seats it was therefore just a straight fight, so those Members would represent 50 per cent of the electorate.
One hundred years later, we rarely see a two-party fight. There is a multitude of candidates for every seat. In Wales, as in other places, since the Labour Party emerged we have had Plaid Cymru and the Green Party; we often have between five and eight candidates contesting the one seat. That means that of those seats, very few of them see more than 50 per cent of the votes cast for the winning candidate. For instance, I was looking at the 40 seats that we had at the general election, and in only six of them did a party have 50 per cent or more of the votes. We have a situation that demands adaptation and modernisation or else we are back in the dinosaur era of the 1900s.
I am thinking of north Wales—I can speak of the area that I know. We have nine parliamentary seats in the regional list area for the Welsh Assembly. Of those nine seats last May, no one winner came anywhere near having 50 per cent of the votes. Aberconwy was won with 35.8 per cent for the winning Conservative candidate, while 63.2 per cent voted against that candidate. In Alyn and Deeside, 39.6 per cent voted for the winning candidate while 60.4 per cent voted against. So it was throughout the region. Arfon, Clwyd West, Delyn, Clwyd South, Vale of Clwyd, and Wrexham were all won with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Usually the winning candidate had around 40 per cent or less.
Ynys Môn, the last one, was won by Labour with a vote in favour of the MP of only 33.4 per cent. That meant that 66 per cent of the electors in that constituency did not vote for the winning candidate. Is that a fair result? The Bill that we are discussing is a Bill for the representation of the people. Do figures such as these give us adequate and fair representation of the people? When there was a straight fight in Anglesey in 1910, Ellis Jones Griffiths, who I am happy to say was a Liberal, got 70.7 per cent of the vote—more than double the 33.4 per cent of 2010. I suggest that, whatever our traditional approach to this, the system is horrendously unfair. Two-thirds of the electorate in a constituency are unrepresented directly.
When we fight elections every party uses the two-horse race theme, saying that it is a fight between Labour and Conservative or Liberal and Conservative. We try to squeeze the vote, instead of having a straightforward system whereby the people themselves choose the second name that they want to vote for. It is a far more transparent and much fairer system. Under the system that we have today, if we go for larger constituencies—if, say, Ynys Môn were to go from 50,000 to 75,000—and just 33 per cent still vote for Labour, it will mean that even more people are unrepresented. If we have larger constituencies it is absolutely essential that we have the AV system of election.
Let us also look at something else. The system that, a century ago, gave at least half the electors an MP of their choice, today denies that to the majority of the electorate of the United Kingdom. We speak of 3.5 million people who are unregistered. Can I speak for the 20-odd million people whose votes are not influential in electing a Member of Parliament? We have the opportunity in the AV Bill and the AV referendum to put that right.
How do we encourage young voters? I have another meeting tomorrow evening in Parliament.
My good friend the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has informed me that in 2005 my electorate was just over 74,000. In response, I should have said “approximately 77,000”. I needed to get that clear. In 2010 it must be near enough to 77,000. Does the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, take into account that the bigger the constituency in numbers, the more casework there will be? In my old constituency I went from having 53,000 to that 74,000 after the reduction of the Scottish seats. It made for a considerably increased amount of work.
That has nothing to do with my argument. My argument is that in larger seats more people will not have a direct influence on the Member that they elect, which is very serious.
I come to mention the Bite the Ballot campaign, which aims to engage young people in democracy and bridge the gap between democracy and young people’s apathy. Are we going to say to those young people, “We want you to be engaged in democracy but, remember, two-thirds of your votes will not count”? Are we going to say that more than 50 per cent of the votes that they cast will have no influence whatever? That is why we need to support not only the Bill but the AV referendum when it comes.
To conclude, the system that we have today is unfit for the 21st century. It was worn out in the 20th century and barely acceptable in the 19th century. I ask those who say, “Let’s keep the old system”, what is your alternative if we are to tell young people that their votes count? Under first past the post we say, “Hard lines—you just haven’t come up with a winner”. What is your alternative? Will you continue to support a dinosaur system of elections, or are you ready to move into the future?
My Lords, it is late so I will make just four points. First, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who sat through most of the debate, is not here. I want to take up something that he mentioned—a threshold for the referendum. That has also been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport. This, as has been said, is an implementing, not an advisory, referendum. However, it will turn on a single moment of thought. There will be no Second Reading, no Third Reading in both Houses on the issue, and no time for ifs and buts—just a sudden death play-off between two sides and only two sides. Can we really think it is a great idea to change decades or centuries of voting habits on a turnout of, perhaps, 15 per cent and a majority of, perhaps, 1,000, in a single moment of thought? That moment, incidentally, might reflect delight with or contempt for the Government of the day, rather than a real verdict on the issue on which the noble Lord has just spoken.
On the issue of turnout, there were referendums in Scotland and Wales, introduced by the Labour Government in 1997, and proposals by the Labour Government possibly to consider referendums on the European constitution and the single currency. Indeed, in the last Labour manifesto, there were proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote. Where was the mention, at any point in any of these referendums, of a threshold being applied?
At that stage I would also have argued for a threshold. George Cunningham remains a friend of mine; he reminds me frequently of the importance of a threshold. However, there is a difference in that this is an implementing referendum, rather than what they would have been.
I ask another question. There is the threshold issue, but is a majority of one across the whole nation enough? In a way, I look forward to our debates on the equivalent of the hanging chad. Will there be spoilt ballot papers and people outside polling stations unable to get in? Will Peers or EU citizens perhaps be forbidden to vote in the referendum—one correctly and one incorrectly? That should tie up the electoral court for many a long night. What if Wales votes one way and England another? Have we considered having different voting systems in these two different countries?
Secondly, I turn to the question of numbers. I enjoyed the grasping at the air of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, yesterday on where he thought the number 600 came from. My noble friend Lady Liddell said yesterday that she hoped the Minister would explain this lovely round number when he replied. We look forward to that later this evening. The Constitution Select Committee concluded that this number was chosen without consideration of the role or functions of MPs and, as has been said many times in this debate, that it unbalanced the relationship between government and Parliament with no reduction in the payroll vote, boosting the power of the Executive rather than the power of the legislature. What do the Government have against Wales that they have decided to drop a quarter of its seats? Perhaps that was vengeance for Wales not voting Tory often enough. That step certainly does not show an understanding of the very special geography, history, culture and language of my original home.
Thirdly, as many noble Lords have said, it is important that boundaries take account of more than numbers. They should take account especially of geography, whether of Anglesey—where I used to live—across the Menai Bridge; that of Cornwall, across the Tamar; or that of the Isle of Wight across the Solent. They should also take account of the geography of valleys—coming from Wales, I know about those—and of rivers. I now live in London, where almost my biggest decision in life was to move from Battersea Bridge Road, just by the river, across the river to the north bank. I have only just got over that and that was 26 years ago. The Scottish boundary is sacrosanct but other boundaries, such as the river in London, are not recognised, and will not be recognised in the drawing-up of boundaries. In the days of the Empire when we were carving up the colonies, people with pencils drew lines across countries to which they had never been. I have visions of that happening here, with the same bad results, because we should not take into account simply physical geography—important though I think that is—but travel-to-work zones, hospital and school catchment areas, transport hubs, even football supporters and where they come from. These are also important issues for community, as my noble friend Lady McDonagh said. Local government, especially education authorities, has to work very closely with its populations. Education authorities must ensure that there are adequate junior school places, and senior school places for pupils to feed into subsequently. This is something about which parents feel very strongly and on which they frequently lobby their MPs, but how can MPs understand the issues involved if they are dealing with two or even three local authorities and MPs’ boundaries shift every five years, just when they have got to know the characteristics of their local schools, local communities and the travel and local hubs?
Furthermore, it is not simply voters who contact their MP, as all those in the House who have been MPs will know much better than me. Hospital staff, the police, businesses and school heads also contact their MPs and may well have views on how their community can best be represented in Parliament. However, they will have no say in decisions on boundaries taken by the commission. Such groups and individuals should be able to make representations to the boundary commissions on constituencies other than the one in which they live. Businesses, which rely heavily on local and transport services, may find themselves dealing with a number of different MPs for no other reason than that this Government prefer tidy numbers to the true representation of local interests.
The proposal that constituency numbers are based solely on registered voters does serious disservice—indeed, disrespect—to the role of MPs, whose workload, responsibilities and pastoral concern extend to, and are generated by, the whole population of their constituency, as many of your Lordships have said. We therefore need a greater margin than the simple plus or minus 5 per cent to allow for these vital attributes. As Andrew George—I believe that he is not a Labour MP—has said in another place:
“The Boundary Commission should be given the discretion to recognise identity, culture, tradition, history, geography … so that places with strong identities, historic communities”,—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; col. 680.]
are not divided up to satisfy statistical equalisation.
Perhaps the most fundamental issue comprises boundary reviews. Only written submissions are to be permitted. Let me think who that might favour. Will it favour those with money who can employ clever specialists and PR advisers; those well used to the written word as their weapon of choice; and those with access to computers, design facilities, photocopiers and postage? Let me think who they might be. Would they be shop workers, local parents, hospital patients, tenants’ groups or youngsters? No, they would not have access to such facilities or the ability to undertake such a campaign, but hitherto they have had the right to hear, see and comment on the submissions of others. The process will become the equivalent of the sealed bid process, with substantial documents being received on the closing day from well heeled vested interests. It will be much harder for local groups—the big society, on which our Prime Minister is so keen—to make their voices heard.
I contend that this point is particularly important in view of the fact that the first major redistribution exercise will affect every seat—sorry, every seat bar two—in the country. This redrawing will disrupt and destabilise community identity and voters’ identification with their existing MPs. Worse, it will then continue in each Parliament, thus damaging the ongoing pastoral role of MPs, which depends on working relationships not only with their population and its representatives—whether that is local tenants’ groups, parents’ groups or local business communities—but with the relevant decision-makers, who might be local authorities, hospital trusts, water, gas and electricity suppliers, PCTs, GP commissioners or the police. Those relationships really matter if an MP is to do his or her work properly and effectively on behalf of their electorate. Constituencies need community identity in order to function as part of our democracy and local people are best able to explain that, including the relevance of a constituency’s name, which might be the biggest issue that the boundary commissions have to face. There need to be public hearings for this matter to be debated and to enable the community to become involved in it.
If the Government truly believe in the big society, they will want that community involvement. The old Liberal Democrats—how we miss them—favoured public involvement and democratic scrutiny of the Executive, but they now seem to be afraid of public hearings about these proposals. I wonder why.
My Lords, I declare a past interest in that when I worked at the Policy Unit at No. 10 before the last election, constitutional reform was part of my brief. At the risk of compounding my earlier indiscretion in your Lordships’ House this afternoon, I hope that I am not betraying too many state secrets if I say that a number of the Bills that are currently rolling up here from the other place bear a remarkable resemblance to some of the work that I was doing before May. That is very interesting and is much to be welcomed, although it is sad that so many differences are appearing between the packages of material that we would have brought forward, had we been returned in May, and what we are reading now.
I should like to make two points. The first is about principles. First, Parliament in general should deal with the packages of constitutional reform that we consider, because I fear that we are not doing our best on them. Secondly, a balance needs to be struck between numerical equalisation within constituencies, and the trust and confidence in Parliament that should flow from having regard to our communities right across this country.
Over our time in government, the Labour Party made a large number of substantial constitutional changes of which we are right to be proud. There were approximately one a year during our time in office. Our experience during that process drew out for me the following principles, which should underpin any constitutional package proposed by any Government.
First, constitutional reform should not be rushed. The evidence is that people care about what we might call the hard-wiring of our country. Their eyes certainly glaze over when you talk detail, but that does not mean that they should not be involved or have some engagement with it.
Secondly, constitutional reform should take time. While we discussed it when we were in power, we used to recognise that it would take longer to consider any constitutional measure than any other piece of legislation, and we would say “rightly so”, because it needed to be addressed properly in all its ramifications. If you rush it, you will make mistakes.
Thirdly, and consequently, major constitutional changes need time to bed down so that any unintended consequences can be assessed and, if necessary ameliorated. Given that there were so many changes under the previous Administration, it is a little surprising that so much has been rushed forward in such little time.
Fourthly, all our measures were immeasurably improved by deliberative and inclusive processes, particularly pre-legislative scrutiny. That should be an absolute feature of all constitutional measures. I do not know how that could be arranged, but it is something that Ministers should think carefully about.
Fifthly, it is rare for a constitutional measure to work if it is not given all-party support. We certainly strived for that when we were in power, and I hope that the same will apply on this occasion. It is not clear where that support is coming from, but the attempts that have been made so far in this House to be party to the process seem to have been rebuffed.
My final point on the principles is that it is rare to have a constitutional measure that stands on its own. All constitutional measures inevitably bear on each other, and there does not seem to be space in the processes that we are going through to take a long look at what is happening in the round. Changing the way in which the House of Commons is elected inevitably involves a process of change for this House and the way in which local government operates. These things need time to be thought through and discussed. The Bills that we are seeing at this time do not measure up to the principles that I have outlined, and we will all be the poorer for that. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, can point out ways in which the Government are trying to come alongside these principles. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
My second point is about the UK-wide electoral quota and a wish to base every UK constituency bar three on that resulting figure. I am not sure why we are working on this idea of notional equalisation on a particular number. Once we move from first past the post to AV—I assume that that is what we will do—presumably some weighting of the total electorate will be required to accommodate the way in which a constituency has voted with its second and third preferences and to arrive at some quantum figure for how the constituency should be constituted. I should be interested to hear comments on that.
Having said that, we on this side of the House see merit in trying to eliminate gross discrepancies in constituency size, but my concern is that in so doing, we may be concentrating too much on process and not enough on content. The Select Committee on the Constitution concluded 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”.
That is surely the starting point.
Of course, part of the function of any general election is to provide a cadre of people who can form a Government and ensure that the Government get their programme into legislation. However, MPs, as has been said many times in this debate, are also there to speak up for and represent constituents and, as we have heard in many eloquent speeches, this function will vary across the country, affected as it must be by specific economic situations, geography, history and circumstance.
The principle here is that by focusing on the quality of each vote, we will drive out representations that should be made from many voters, particularly those in marginal areas of the country that are remote from the main urban centres. Presumably it is this train of thought that permeates the Bill and that has earned the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland their reprieves, and the constituency that I come from—Ross, Skye and Lochaber—its immunity from the general rules. This constituency is described on the website of its MP, Charles Kennedy, as the largest in the UK. Perhaps somebody should point out that we are told that the Isle of Wight is the largest in the UK, but I will let that pass. He has held it in two successive elections with more than 50 per cent of the vote. Of course, this is without AV.
We need to focus on this because it is the largest geographical constituency in the United Kingdom, so there is a case, which I accept, for it to be considered separately. However, it is so large and so extraordinarily put together that it is very hard to see why it should be there. I support it—but if I support it, surely I also support the argument about the need to take into account the sparseness of the electorate, the range across which it operates and the history and culture that it comes from must apply to Cornwall, mid-Wales and other parts of England such as the north-west. Surely similar aspects of history, geography, kinship and economic difference should allow the boundary commissions to foreground the representative aspects of an MP's role over simplistic notions of numerical equality.
Size matters, as always, but it should not trump proper representation from all over the country. I urge the parties opposite either to relax the plus or minus 5 per cent straitjacket on constituency size, or perhaps, radically, to allow communities and localities to propose for themselves the sort of constituency size they think is appropriate to their needs.
My Lords, I will make a brief contribution. The noble Lords, Lord Lyell and Lord Rennard, are here as gatekeepers for their parties. It shows the interest that those on the Benches opposite have in the issue. The relative numbers on both sides are representative of the contributions to the debate. I begin by saying how much I enjoyed the contributions of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter, Lady Nye and Lady McDonagh. They paid a great deal of attention to the detail of the Bill. I will not do that; my concern is process, especially the process through which major change is taking place against a background of the democratic right of an affected community to complain at a public inquiry not being allowed.
I have not had a lot of experience, but when I was leader of Enfield Council, the London Government Act 1963 came in. I attended the public inquiry and made a contribution on behalf of the council. We were represented by Ashley Bramall, who was well known to London politics. His brother was a Member of this House.
Yes, he is a Member. It gave me a dramatic feeling of being involved in a major piece of legislation. For the life of me, what we have had, more than once, on this Bill and on others, is a tight timetable. The timetable has been fixed not by Parliament but by the political machinations of the coalition. It ought to be honest enough to say to the public that it is cutting corners because it wants to get the legislation through by a certain date, to benefit not the public but the programme and the timetable that it has set for itself. The public are rumbling the coalition and I hope it will get it its comeuppance.
I have no axe to grind on the alternative vote issue. I fought a number of elections: won some, lost some. The first parliamentary election that I fought was for Enfield West. My opponent was Iain Macleod, whose name is well known in this House. I remember saying to someone at a function, in Iain's presence, “Of course, I fought Iain at the last election”. He said, “Well, Ted, you may have done, but you never laid a finger on me”, which I did not because it was my unwinnable seat. The House has been invited to connive with the machinations on the other side. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, who is in his place, commented earlier on political gerrymandering. The Labour Party was upset because some benefits that we had were going to be taken away. The noble Lord is naive if he thinks that people on this side of the Chamber do not believe that people on his side of the Chamber are as guilty as we are in seeking an advantage.
Of course, all parties try to present their case as benignly as possible, but let us be realistic. In my view, the public are well aware of what politics is about, and at the moment it is about the credibility of the coalition parties. If they do not stand together, they will fall. So far as I am concerned, the legislation before us tonight is not in the best interests of the country or Parliament, and when the public realise what is being foisted upon them in the name of democracy, they will have second thoughts. I simply say that there is still time for the Government to reflect on the pace at which they are bringing about change.
Very little in the arguments is new. What we are talking about now is the substance of the legislation. The arguments are pretty well understood. Some people on this side of the House have said that they are in favour of one thing, whereas others have said that they are against it, and the same thing will happen on the other side. The Minister, as a person, has my respect and I know that he will be fair when he winds up the debate. However, I think he ought to take back to his masters the fact that democracy in this country is being ill served by this legislation and that it should be altered.
My Lords, as the 53rd contributor to this debate, I could readily succumb to the temptation of the old days and seek to summarise the main arguments that have been presented. However, I see that time is moving on and it might be thought highly improper if I were to make a two and a half hour speech, or even a 25-minute one, at this stage. In any case, I am of course leaving to my noble friend Lord Bach the task of summarising the debate from the perspective of these Benches and to the Minister the job of wrestling with the fact that the vast majority of contributors to this debate have been immensely critical of the Bill. Even the contributions from purportedly his own side have registered enormous and significant reservations about parts of the Bill, so the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has his work cut out.
I assure the House that I shall restrict myself to three points and a short speech. Those three points are, first, the alternative vote issue; secondly, the question of the inquiries into the way in which the Boundary Commission will work in the future; and, thirdly, the size of the legislature.
The problem with this legislation is that it lacks coherence and is a reflection of the political dynamic. That is why the alternative vote is spatchcocked on to the Bill. Who believes in it? The Prime Minister is going to campaign against it. The Liberal Democrats have indicated that it is merely preparatory ground for what they regard as the pristine and pure version—that is, proportional representation—as if the country would ever either understand what the Liberal Democrats were advocating in those terms or vote for it. We in the Labour Party are in favour of a consultative referendum but this involves a mandatory referendum that obliges a Minister to act the moment the Bill becomes law.
So who is in favour of the proposals in the Bill? The answer, as everyone has indicated, is that it is a compromise between the two political parties in the coalition. It has nothing to do with principle; it has nothing to do with the advancement of democracy; it has no appeal to the popular support of the nation. It is a fix, which is part of the cement that is keeping the coalition together. That is a pretty poor prospectus on significant reform to put before the nation, and it reflects the fact that the Bill is so ill thought out. We surely have the right to expect constitutional change to be subject to consultation and considered thought. After all, not even the coalition can believe that it will go on for ever. It is part of a constitution of which we are all part. That is why it is essential that there should be a modicum of agreement on how to go forward. It is on the basis of that agreement that we protect the political stability of our nation, ensure the respect in which our institutions are held and increase the respect of our individual Members of Parliament.
We all regret and know of the terrible costs of the past 18 months to two years of the expenses issue. It is still overwhelmingly the case that Parliament may be subject to challenge at certain times. Why should it not as it never delivers all that the nation wants? Political parties are open to challenge, and Members of Parliament within their political parties are often criticised. But I maintain, even at this stage—it has certainly been true over the decades—that the individual Member serving his constituency is held in high regard. That is so in Britain because of the relationship of MPs to their constituency and because the job that they do is recognised as valuable. Most of all, they are representatives of that area, which is why this issue of constituency boundaries is of such importance. You trample over local loyalties at your cost if there is no serious attempt to ensure that the political building blocks of wards and local authorities are crucial to constituencies. You are setting at nought the crucial role of the Member of Parliament.
My speech was preceded by that of my noble friend Lord Graham. At one stage we both represented Enfield constituencies. Let me say that those three Enfield constituencies—of course, it would take time for the electorate to be enumerated—will fall just outside the 5 per cent tolerance. It was clear in the borough that irrespective of who was in control of the local authority, it could get its case across to the three Members of Parliament irrespective of whether the MPs were all of one party. In fact, they never were of one party, as I recall—there was always at least one Conservative and one Labour representative in the borough—but because they would fall short of the tolerance level imposed by the Bill, the Boundary Commission may have to spatchcock on to them an additional group of electors either from another London borough or from Hertfordshire. How will that community in the locality of the borough of Enfield be represented by such a spatchcock addition? How is a Member of Parliament meant to relate effectively?
Does the noble Lord accept that that already happens with the crossing of London borough boundaries? For example, the constituency of Richmond Park is part of the London Borough of Richmond and part of the London Borough of Kingston. The city of Liverpool, where I come from, crosses the Liverpool city boundary and the Knowsley boundary.
Of course it does. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is probably the best placed of anyone in this House, given his intense interest and commitment to these issues, to know that the Boundary Commission listens to representations and that these are cut to the minimum. The Bill sets it at nought. It merely sets a figure that has to be complied with; no other considerations will count for the boundary commissioners. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, talked about my objections, although I have in fact maintained a series of principles that have had to be abrogated in certain instances in the past. Those principles are set at nought in the Bill. The question of locality becomes of very limited significance indeed and this is one reason I intend to oppose this part of the Bill.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is saying, as some of his colleagues have said in the past, that the Bill sets out four factors that the Boundary Commission take into account. They include local ties, inconvenience, local government boundaries and special geographical considerations, so I do not understand the point that the noble Lord is making.
Has the noble Lord not noticed that the tolerance level around the figure of 76,000 is a mere 5 per cent? If the noble Lord cannot see the straitjacket within which the Boundary Commissioners will be operating across the country, he is not showing that degree of insight into local politics and boundary-drawing which I would have expected from him.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I wonder if he has noticed that this is the second intervention in which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has only quoted part of the Bill. The part of the Bill that he has quoted goes on to say that that provision, that rule, will be subject to Rules 2 and 4, on the electoral quota. In other words, all those considerations are still subject to that electoral quota rule, which only goes to prove the point that my noble friend was making.
I am so grateful to my noble friend, although he will recognise that I said that I would speak briefly and he is already extending my time. I want to get on to my third point on the size of the Commons. We all remember the histrionic gesture in this debate yesterday that suggested that the number did not emerge from anything more than thin air, as indicated by my noble friend Lord Dubs. I think we all know the motivation behind the reduction in numbers. The motivation, of course, is a £12 million cost saving and fairly obvious gerrymandering on the part of the party opposite.
It might be thought that I have dropped into a fairly severe partisan contribution at this stage and I want to avoid that. After all, we are talking about constitutional change and should, if we possibly can, avoid partisanship. I want to offer my congratulations to a Conservative Member of Parliament in the other place. He happens to be my Member of Parliament, because he represents the constituency in which I live. He is Charles Walker, the Member for Broxbourne. His concern, in the Chamber in the other place, was straightforward. He wanted to ensure that the House of Commons maintained, or perhaps increased, the capacity to hold the Executive to account when, as we all know, that capacity has been reducing over time.
There is no doubt that the Bill significantly reduces that capacity. It reduces the number of Members of Parliament and says absolutely nothing about the number of Ministers. The payroll position increases in proportion to the Commons and, crucially, affects its capacity to hold the Executive to account. I am pleased to agree with a Conservative Member of Parliament who tabled an amendment at the other end that got short shrift. What did not get short shrift were the guillotines on a constitutional Bill at the other end and the Government using their whipped majority to ram it through.
We are a revising Chamber: no more than that. We ought not to appropriate to ourselves any greater responsibility, particularly with regard to how the other place is elected and how it organises itself. Therefore I suggest that in the course of the Bill’s proceedings we merely give the other place the chance to think again, that we look at the size of the Executive—unchanged, of course, under the proposals that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is about to defend—and that we provide opportunity for further consideration. I have no doubt that the principle on our side will be quite clear. I have hopes that we will get support elsewhere in the House, and I do not have the slightest doubt that there are enthusiastic advocates at the other end for that change to the Bill, including my own Member of Parliament. Lest it be thought that in my fulsome praise to him I automatically pledge him my vote at the next election, I will remind him that I do not vote in general elections.
My Lords, from the Opposition Front Bench, I thank all those who have spoken during Second Reading. Of course, a large number have been from my side, and I am very grateful to them, but there have been very worthwhile contributions from all sides of the House which have also been illuminating. As my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham just said, one cannot help being struck by the lack of support for the Government's position. From all sides of the House, there has been pretty outright opposition. Occasionally, a Peer has had a good word to say for the Bill; and, very occasionally, one or two have even shown signs of enthusiasm for it.
Indeed, the only noble Lord who showed great enthusiasm for the Bill—I am so sorry that he is not in his place, but I am sure that he will be in a moment—was the noble Lord the Leader of the House. He seemed in favour of his Bill—and quite right too—but I am not even sure about him. I admire him very much, and I very much regret that he is not sitting opposite me at present. I admire him for many reasons, but above all I admire him—
Here he is!
It is funny; I was just talking about the noble Lord. I admire him so much for his many qualities, but, above all, for what can only be described as his chutzpah. Anyone fortunate enough to hear him on the subject of Lords reform will know exactly what I mean—perhaps even those who saw him earlier today. For those who have not much experience of the noble Lord’s repertoire, we saw a pretty good example yesterday.
How could the noble Lord argue with a straight face that this is a proper constitutional Bill, one that has gone through all the procedures that he has so often told us—or, at least, he used to tell us when he was in opposition—are necessary for such a Bill? They are: extensive public consultation; pre-legislative scrutiny; a search for consensus; and perhaps above all, fairness and a lack of political partisanship. His speech yesterday was as good an example of both cheek and nerve as can be found.
The truth is that the Bill is rotten at its heart. It is rotten because it puts the party interests of the two parties that make up the coalition before fairness. It is rotten because no attempt has been made to consult the public or have pre-legislative scrutiny of its contents. It is rotten, too, because it seeks to decimate the role of the independent boundary commissions in determining appropriate parliamentary boundaries. It is, in effect, two Bills, and depends on a third yet to pass the other place.
Why are measures to set up a referendum on the electoral system in the same Bill as measures to set up new parliamentary constituencies? If it is appropriate to join them together, why is not the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill included as well? I am afraid that the answer is obvious: this is a Bill that is not primarily based on principle. If it were, how could either coalition partner press for a referendum that asked a question about, of all things, the alternative vote, but not about proportional representation? As has been said so often in the debate over two days, the Bill is based on a political deal. Of course it is. I would describe it as a kind of Faustian pact. The Helen of Troy in this Faustian pact is a share of political power. I must admit that I am not sure who at this stage is playing Doctor Faustus—the good Doctor Faustus—and who is playing the devil, but I think I can make a shrewd guess.
Part 1 is the offer for the Liberal Democrats although, frankly, to have settled for a referendum on AV—described by the Deputy Prime Minister in the phrase, almost now a cliché, that we have heard so often, “a miserable little compromise”—does not seem a great result, more a 0-0 draw, at least for the time being, rather than a win. Part 2 is the Conservatives’ prize as part of the deal: an unthought-out proposal to cut the number of Members of Parliament to a certain, fixed, strict, unbending, inflexible, unalterable figure of 600 to cause the coalition’s political opponents the maximum damage. All this low politics is hidden under the cover of political principle. It is described as a “new politics”, while the Deputy Prime Minister claims it is the most important political reform since 1832 and that he is the greatest reformer of them all. Stand aside Disraeli; stand aside Gladstone; stand aside Lloyd George, Churchill, Macmillan and Attlee. Bring forward the new hero of the hour, the new kid on the block, the Deputy Prime Minister. It is not unusual to hide motives under the cover of high-sounding principle, but here we see the art form at its most blatant and it needs, I would have thought, a great political writer to catch the flavour of it. Trollope! You should be living at this hour.
As to Part 1, one question stands out from many others and has been asked many times. Why the rush? Why the haste? We are to have a referendum as early as 5 May. Why combine the referendum with other elections in a large part of the United Kingdom but not everywhere? Why have the rules for the referendum been shoved into the Bill at the last moment and not been dealt with in the usual way? Why so little consultation? I ask again: why the hurry? I suspect that the answer is depressingly party political yet again: the Liberal Democrats desperately need an early sign that they actually matter in the Government. Perhaps they feel that they have more chance of winning the vote for AV if the referendum is held early, but perhaps they should listen rather more closely to my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is a strong supporter of AV and who believes that a positive vote has much more chance if the referendum is held on another date. So often have we been told in this debate, and so often has the question been asked: is this really the way to change something as important as the electoral system of one of the oldest and most respected democracies in the world? I think the answer has to be no.
When we come to Part 2, I believe that we see the deeply partisan nature of this rushed legislation. We have heard of distinguished Conservative MPs during the course of this debate. We heard twice about the honourable Member for where we are tonight, the Cities of London and Westminster, who said:
“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”.
It was not some idiot or some fool saying that, but a Conservative Member of Parliament.
Indeed, I am sorry to quote the Member of Parliament of my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, who is an independent-minded, respected MP, but it is important. He said:
“When introducing this Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister dressed it up as the beginning of new politics … it is old politics exercised at its very best or its very worst, according to one's disposition. It is about the Executive—the Government of the day—seizing more power for themselves. Let us not be coy about this … The arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 are nothing more than very flimsy. We are told that cutting 50 Members of Parliament will save £12 million. Well … that is what 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy adds up to—we are going to save £12 million. Why stop there? Let us get rid of 300 Members of Parliament and save £72 million. There may be many good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons, but saving £12 million is not one of them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 98.]
Finally, I remind the House of the words quoted by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark from the Liberal Democrat MP, Greg Mulholland. He said:
“Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of … introducing boundary changes”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 882.]
Hear, hear, to that. Greater equalisation is a good thing, but at what cost?
With this Bill we know that something is wrong. This does not look or sound like serious, well thought-out constitutional reform. It lacks that thought-through quality and that achieved consensus that come from proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and the reason is not hard to find. This is a constitutional measure that breaks the long-established and fundamental convention that such measures should not be taken for party gain.
I want to test this view by putting a number of questions to the Minister. First, why is there the need to undertake such an enormous boundary review by the next election? We have just been through the fifth periodical review, and new and important changes were made for this year’s general election. Why is there the rush? Secondly, crucially and without apologies, I come back to why should there be 600 seats. This is the first time in modern history that a Government have sought to set down a number that cannot be altered. Rule 1(1) of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 states:
“The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613”.
That gives the boundary commissions the opportunity to use their independent judgment, balancing the need for equality of electors and other proper considerations, such as geography and community ties, before coming to a fair conclusion. This system has worked. It has almost universal support.
A convenient myth has grown up that the number of MPs has risen greatly since 1945. As Professor King argued, in Sunday’s Observer, this is just not true. He went on to say that, at a time when the number of people each MP represents and the workload of MPs have been greatly increased, the number of MPs has risen by 10 over 65 years. So why should we have 600 seats? We have not had a satisfactory answer from the Government. Neither Mr Harper in another place, nor our own Constitutional Committee, nor, with great respect, the Leader of the House has given a satisfactory answer. For him to say that 600 seats strikes him as “a nice round figure” is humorous and well meaning. We know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who will be answering, can be a cheeky chappie. But I would ask him tonight to take this question seriously and to give the House an answer. Why should the figure be 600? Why not 585, as in the Tory manifesto? Why not 500, as in the Lib Dem manifesto? Was it picked out of the air? Is it random? Is it some kind of magic number?
It is not a bad rule in politics that no decision or choice about a particular number or form of words happens by chance. There is always a motive of some sort—good, bad or in-between—behind it. It is not chance that the number that has been chosen is 600. Let me put forward a possible reason. At 600 seats, the main opposition party stands to lose many more seats than its opponents. At 585 and even at 500 seats, the party advantage evens itself out. Psephologists, I am told, agree on this. Is the Minister denying that conclusion, and if he is, what convincing reason can he give for the figure of 600? If we are right, and this is being done for political partisan reasons, is it not a constitutional outrage? Are not the Government using their majority in both Houses of Parliament to usurp the role of the independent boundary commissions?
In many ways, of course, the final clue to what we argue is a partisan Bill is to be found in the abolition of public inquiries. Why are the Government proposing this? For many years they have been a vital and integral part of the difficult and sensitive process, and it is that, of redrawing parliamentary boundaries. To abolish them is to remove at a stroke the key benefit of having the original proposals of the boundary commissions tested and argued in an open public hearing before an assistant commissioner with legal qualifications. Worse than that, it removes local involvement, the opportunity for ordinary people from the area under consideration to put forward their points of view. I reject entirely the argument that public inquiries are merely a vehicle for political parties. In any event, political parties are actually made up of local people. I want to let the House into a secret. It is not that unusual for members of the same political party to put forward different proposals to the same Boundary Commission.
In my experience, and I have appeared at quite a number of these public inquiries, many years ago now and for nothing—pro bono, because I thought I saw that look in the noble Lord’s face—there are always many other citizens who put their views across. Those views may be absurd or they may be brilliant, but that is not the point. The point is that local people have the opportunity to be seen and heard, to be agreed with or contradicted, and above all to be active citizens. Is not that what, as I understand it, the big society is supposed to be all about?
The alternative proposal set out in the Bill that there should be a written consultation is, frankly, an insult. What I do not understand is how two parties which both speak about localism and the need for greater influence to be given to local people can consider abolishing public inquiries, particularly when the boundary review that is planned in this Bill is going to be the largest and most wide-ranging for a very long time. The painful answer, of course, is that all these arguments come a poor second to the Government’s need for a quick fix, a radical redrawing of the boundaries by 2015, a cutting of corners and established well-proved practices, in order to give them an advantage over the opposition party. That is the uncomfortable truth about this Bill—not so much a con trick as a Con/Dem trick. If a Labour Government had brought forward these proposals, we would have been ridiculed and savaged, and what is more, we would have deserved it.
One of the roles of this House is to help Governments to avoid the follies and mistakes of their proposals. Let me tell noble Lords that if you are in Government, it can be a fairly uncomfortable sort of help. In fact, it does not seem much like help at all. I have been there. In our view, this is a Bill where the Government need assistance from this House—and not just from our side, but from all sides, to move away from proposals that, frankly, are not worthy of the great traditions of the two parties that make up the coalition. They are traditions which accept that constitutional changes should be made, but always under two guiding principles: caution and consensus.
The Bill is deeply unsatisfactory in many ways, as our own Constitutional Committee said in its withering report last week. It represents a genuine abuse of power. I cannot believe that the Government want to gain a reputation so soon after they have come to office. For what it is worth, my advice to them is to listen to what has been said, loud and clear, by the House in this Second Reading debate; otherwise they will deserve the reputation they will undoubtedly get.
I return to the proposition that the argument for bringing the number of MPs down to 600 is to save £12 million. The reputation the Government will get is that they will be accused of knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bach. I know how thoroughly he has prepared his speech and I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House will read it, and we will listen.
Before I turn to the main thrust of my speech I should say to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that I was extremely touched by the warmth with which he spoke of the House of Lords. It usually takes a left-wing Labour MP, although he is now denying that he is one—I am sorry, I forgot who I was talking about but I wonder how long it has been since you have been called that, Tommy—a little longer than three months before they fall completely in love with this place and adopt a “No change I like it” attitude. It is called the “I’ve got the foreman’s job at last” syndrome, and he has been quick to get it. It was also good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in a passionate speech, advocating change with all the subtlety of one of Baldrick’s cunning plots. We will watch him for that.
It has been an interesting debate. As I look around, I see that I have more Labour Members listening to me than I used to have when I was a member of the Labour Party. We have had the benefit of some old, nostalgic, vaudevillian performances. Last night the noble Lord, Lord Snape, gave his Max Miller impression, which is always good for the show; the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is not in his place but Rab C Nesbitt would not go far with the noble Lord intervening; and I have always considered the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, to be a genuine small ‘c’ conservative on constitutional reform. I suspect that if he had been around in 1832, not only would he have defended the retention of Old Sarum, he would probably have been the Member for Old Sarum.
It is good to have gone through this debate. Certainly the Labour Party cannot claim that the Bill has not had a thorough examination. It has had two days in this House —
It has not even started yet.
It has not even started yet and already we have had over 40 interventions. So any complaints about thoroughness go awry.
Time is running on and so let me deal quickly with some of the points that have been raised. On timing and speed—an issue referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson and Lord Davies, and a number of other contributors—as anyone who has studied our history will know, there has always been a battle and a discussion in terms of constitutional change between consensus and leadership. On balance, people who believe in constitutional reform and fight for it have at least as much success as the consensus builders.
Whether it is on Lords reform or voting reform, the same arguments are trotted out: “Well, this is a shock. We’ve never had time to deal with this. This should really go to a Royal Commission or through some further stage”. As has been pointed out, AV was first offered by the Labour Government in 1931, some 80 years ago, so it is hardly a shocking introduction.
I say to those who talk about consensus that I was on the Cook-Maclennan committee that looked at constitutional reform before 1997. From that report emerged a Labour Government commitment to a referendum on voting reform. That, we believed; that, we followed through. But it was quietly buried by the Labour Government, sitting on their 180-plus majority. I say to those who advise consensus that there are some of us who can remember other things.
As a coalition, we have put together a Bill which has been given very thorough examination, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, rather grudgingly accepted. Eight days on the Floor of the House of Commons, as noble Lords—particularly those with experience—will know, is a pretty good run. It will be given a similar run here.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, expressed shock and horror at the Government’s objective, but it is no secret that the Government want the boundary review completed before the next general election. There is nothing unusual about a Government wanting to see their programme implemented. Faster and more frequent reviews are more accurate and fair. I have listened carefully to descriptions of experiences of the Boundary Commission’s work. It is barmy to have general elections on the basis of boundary reviews that, by the time they come to be tested, are nine years out of date. It has been said before, and it bears repetition, that the boundaries that were used in England at the last general election were based on electoral register data that were almost 10 years out of date.
Let us look at speed. Several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Wills, have pointed out that it is now less than six months until the proposed referendum date and questioned whether it will be possible for the poll to be run effectively to those timescales. I believe that it is, not least because we tabled all the legislation, including the detailed rules for combining the referendum with the elections for the devolved legislatures, more than six months before the date of the poll. We have been working with the Electoral Commission and administrators to draft the Bill. The commission has confirmed that it is “broadly satisfied” with the discussion and scrutiny that the Bill has received. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, said that not a single opposition or Back-Bench amendment was accepted by the Government. That is not true. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place proposed amendments in Committee which prevented modifications to the boundary commissions’ recommendations without the consent of the relevant commission and determined how the media should be regulated for the referendum. The Electoral Commission suggested a different wording for the question. The Government listened carefully to all the arguments in the other place and, when convinced, brought forward their own amendments.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, talked about the lack of constitutional overview, claiming that that Government had failed to take an overview of the constitutional reform structure. That is simply not true. The Government have made a number of proposals for constitutional reform in the first Session. Indeed, Members in the other place are today debating the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but there is no compelling argument that needs to be all contained in one piece of legislation. We need to go back to Cook-Maclennan—
The argument is not about whether it should all be contained in one piece of legislation. It is about whether there is any consistency between the three or four separate constitutional Bills. Can the noble Lord answer one specific point? Why does he think that it is right to have a referendum on the voting system in the House of Commons, but no referendum whatever on the abolition in its current form of the House of Lords?
I seek not to see the distant sea. This is absurd. This is going on all night. You are afraid to discuss the central pillars of the Bill and every few minutes you pick up something else. Now we are off running on Lords reform. You will get the Bill on Lords reform, as we promised, in the new year, and we will have the opportunity to discuss that matter.
I know that the noble Lord comes from Blackpool, but could he move away from the music hall act and try and answer the questions? Could he answer the specific question, which is why on the narrow issue of Commons voting he thinks there should be a referendum? Clearly, there should, but he will not answer me the very straight, simple question whether he agrees that there should be a referendum on any move to abolish the Lords in its present form.
We will have the debate on the future of the Lords in due time. Whether I come from Blackpool or not, I would prefer to debate this Bill, whose central issues the Labour Party is obviously petrified to debate, or we would not have had the collection of red herrings that are being paraded around this Chamber.
We are all here.
Oh, you have all turned out—but we shall get later to what this Bill is really about and what you are really afraid of. It is about fairness. I did not hear any discussion of fairness when the Labour Government were elected by 36 per cent of the vote in 2005.
The noble Lord most certainly did hear that in the course of this debate from these Benches. But it was also pointed out that, although there was unfairness, there was a possibility that this Bill might add to that unfairness because it is so ill considered.
The Bill is being considered, and considered on the basis of fairness. I know that the noble Baroness is often a lone voice on those Benches. My point, which is central to the issue of first past the post, is whether we are to continue to have the kind of distortion that produces majorities of 66 on 36 per cent and then no majority at all on 36 per cent. With those kinds of distortions with first past the post, the rot sets into people’s respect for the electoral system.
The noble Lord said a few minutes ago that Members on this side of the House were afraid of debating this Bill. I sat through most of the debate yesterday and have listened to most of it today and I have heard innumerable contributions from my noble friends debating the very essence of this Bill, while his Bench has been empty. Is it not an insult to suggest that it has not been debated by Members on this side?
I will tell him exactly what action we took, and I want to bring him back to a question that he has avoided answering so far, about the action put on the statute book by the last Labour Government, which placed on the Electoral Commission a duty to ensure that the register was comprehensive and accurate. It was given new powers to achieve that end, which I noticed the Deputy Prime Minister boasting today he is going to bring forward. That was the action that we took.
I should now like to ask him about one of the distortions that he is so keen to avoid addressing. That is the distortion of a wholesale revision of constituency boundaries on the basis of a register which everyone knows is neither comprehensive nor accurate. If the Government waited just a few months, we have every likelihood of having a register that is comprehensive and accurate. Why will he not wait until the register is comprehensive and accurate? Why not?
With respect to the noble Lord, his argument does not hold together intellectually. He is chastising us for a first past the post system when this party had in its manifesto a referendum on the alternative vote. He is repeating a falsehood: that the current make-up of constituencies leads to Labour getting elected on fewer votes than the Conservatives. It is not true. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is back because I asked earlier if he would send around to the House the psephological evidence that that is the case, because it is not. Yet the noble Lords keep repeating this falsehood.
All that I am repeating is the cold fact that 36 per cent of the vote delivered Labour an overall majority of 66. That is the only point I am making. As for the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Nye, we have had this debate before. First, 93 per cent on a register is not a bad outcome. Anybody—and by God, I can see so many ex-party apparatchiks around this place and I am one as well, so—
In the 30 years that I was in the other House, there was a time when all I had to look up where my constituents were was one register which was renewed every year. Now in recent years, in fairness, every month a new register came in with additional names going in and names coming off. That was surely better than the register that was only updated once per annum.
Of course it was. I remember at Transport House the calculations of whether Harold should go in March when there was a new register or in October when it got old. Again, that has nothing to do with the Bill. As for the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I can see that the previous Labour Government, rather late in the day, brought in reforms. We intend to carry through some of those reforms to keep the register up to date but, again, it really is not central to the Bill.
On the question of the 600, if your Lordships would let me have a go and not try to work it out as if they were going to have constituents—I have not asked on this so it is just me working it out—if you are going to have constituencies of around about 75,000 with our electorate, I suspect that that comes to somewhere around 600. Perhaps one of your Lordships will get your slide rules out and tell me whether that is true. But what, in God’s name, was so important about 650, 640 or any of the other numbers? It is an obsession and, quite frankly, with the theories of the noble Lord, Lord Bach—
The noble Lord is very considerate but was it not the case that in the manifesto of the party that he supports, its figure was 500, while in that of the party he is in coalition with the figure was 585? Normally, the compromise is somewhere in the middle. How did it come out at 600?
I actually want to help the noble Lord, I really do. He is in a lot of trouble and here is my suggestion to him. Rightly or wrongly, there is a great deal of suspicion here, which he will recognise, that that figure of 600 was chosen because it was the figure of maximum advantage to the coalition parties. Now, he can remove that suspicion immediately by answering the question that I asked him in my speech yesterday. Did the Government—the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative Party—do any modelling of the different effects on their representation in the House of Commons of its size being 600, 585 and 500? If they did, what were the results? He can answer that question now and remove all discussion about this.
For goodness’ sake, here we are, with everyone telling me that this is a constitutional Bill of the greatest importance, and the Labour Party gets obsessed with some conspiracy theory about the number 600. Perhaps we should have chosen 666; that would really have frightened them. Let us have the debate—we are certainly going to have a good debate and, I suspect, a lengthy one—and I am willing to go through all these points.
If you want to be mentioned in the debate, the key thing is to be either a Liberal Democrat or a Conservative against the Bill or a Labour Member who is speaking helpfully as far as the Government are concerned. On the question of thresholds, Mr Chris Bryant, spokesman in the other place, said that they are not a good idea:
“We should have a straightforward system where people fight to win their side of the argument. They win that side of the argument by getting people past the ballot box to vote either yes or no”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/10; col. 850.]
The amendment to have a threshold was defeated by 549 votes to 31. Again, we can discuss this, and I am sure that amendments will be tabled.
On the number of Ministers in the Executive—
I do not think so, and I do not think that we are going down that road.
On the boundaries, the Bill corrects the flaws in the current legislation that not only has seen the number of MPs creep up—by only a small number, I admit—but leads to the unfairness of constituencies with vastly unequal electoral sizes. As both my noble friends Lord Norton and Lord Oakeshott quoted a British Academy report, let me quote from it:
“the rules set out in the Bill are a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commission (they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory)”.
On the question of exceptions—
I apologise for interrupting, but my noble friend asked a question that he raised in his speech yesterday. It is an important point because our understanding is that the coalition agreement rules out having a threshold that is based on outcome as opposed to being based on turnout. It would be helpful for us to have a specific answer to that question so that we know which amendments would be within the terms of the coalition agreement.
As so often in my career, my noble friend comes over the hill like the seventh cavalry.
I turn again to the British Academy report. We heard a lot about local inquiries. It is interesting that the British Academy report says that these,
“would not significantly impair the consultation process”.
The Bill proposes a two-stage process, with 12 weeks, instead of the current four, in which the public may make representation to the commission, and another 12 weeks for the commission to revise its recommendations.
I will deal quickly with a point made by my noble friend Lord Phillips about expenses. There will be reimbursement of all reasonable expenses. We are committed to ensuring a high level of participation but we are unlikely to change the £600,000 basis for the two campaigns. On the two campaigns, several noble Lords will remember the yes/no campaign for the EU referendum. Whatever else may be said about that, the system of two groupings to fight the campaign worked. I have absolute confidence that it will work again. Therefore, I look forward to the Committee stage. I say to my noble friends behind me that I have seen redistributions and psephological calculations but I do not know who will win this referendum. I have heard people say that we are bound to lose it. I am willing to trust the people. I am willing to see this in place and then take our case to the people.
Is one of the problems with the referendum now not the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement that this is a “miserable little compromise”? Have we not effectively got that around our neck now? It will be used constantly throughout the campaign against those who are in favour of electoral reform. Does that worry the Minister?
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is too pessimistic. At the heart of the Bill—and this is why the Labour Party, tonight and last night, have been so ingenious in trawling for red herrings—are two basic principles. We will have fair votes in fair constituencies. That proposal for fairly drawn constituencies takes out the distortions that we have seen previously; and gives us an opportunity to get rid of tactical voting and wasted voting, and give people a vote that carries real weight.
I have just explained. They will have weeks of opportunities—massive opportunities. The Labour Party has suddenly resurrected the public inquiry to be some massive issue of principle when it knows as well as I do that public inquiries were often the cause of delays that left us with boundary commissions that were nine or 10 years out of date. But, as I say, we shall have plenty of time to—
My Lords, I intervene as I detect that my noble friend is about to finish. I noticed that a little earlier he was about to touch on the number of Ministers but was interrupted and did not come back to that. Will he deal with that point quickly as it is important?
As I have said before—I think that this has been put on record in the other place—if the general opinion is that the 8 per cent cut in the number of Members of Parliament is such a distortion of our constitution that the payroll vote should be trimmed, we will look at that. We will have plenty of time to do that, and we are on record as saying that we will do it. I will give way but we will have lots of time to discuss the issues.
I would hate the Minister, as a Liberal Democrat, to miss the opportunity to explain to the people of Wales why it is right that they should have a 25 per cent reduction in their representation in the UK Parliament. I am sure that all the Liberals in Wales are eager to hear that.
The Liberals in Wales will hear those arguments when they are discussed in Committee. It is not a case of my not answering that question; we can all go on discussing these matters until a quarter to one but it is clear that the Labour Party is not willing to face up to the distortions in our present system. This measure is a fair way of approaching that.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 9.36 pm.