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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has been committed that they divide the Bill in two so as to separate the provisions relating to the parliamentary voting system from those relating to constituencies.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former General Secretary of the Labour Party and also, like many people of all political persuasions in this House and none, I have been a lifelong grass-roots community campaigner, passionate about how democracy works in our communities. That is why I was interested in this Bill and looked forward to examining it. I was slightly worried because, on the face of it, it appeared this was two Bills not one. I then read the Bill and indeed it read like it was two Bills and not one. Who was I to question it as a mere Back-Bencher? I was sure it would all become clear to me when we came to debate it. I entered the debate and, yes, it debated like it was two Bills, not one. It was a car crash. It was impossible to scrutinise and the Minister was unable to answer the points and the questions that were raised.

This reads, looks and debates like two Bills because it is two Bills. It is what we in south London call a cut and shut. I do not know how many noble Lords are familiar with the term but I will explain it. A cut and shut happens when rogue traders buy cars that have crashed. They have either hit something from the front or been hit from behind. The cars are split and the two pieces are welded together. To the unsuspecting buyer it looks like a fantastic car, but woe betide the person who gets into it: it is a dangerous vehicle. That is what the Government are creating with this cut and shut—a dangerous vehicle for our democracy.

To be fair to the Government, no one has tried to say that this is anything other than politically expedient. No one has pretended that it is other than two Bills. I appreciate it when everyone tells me that this is very clearly set out in David Laws’s book but they did not need to do that. On this side we are all a little bored by political biography and we would not have got around to reading it. However, I understand how it happened. When you go on a date, you are not that sure of the other party so you enter into a pre-nup. Both parties wanted two separate Bills and each was unsure that the other party would vote for theirs, so they were put together. Now that you are in a secure marriage—it certainly looks like that to me—you can rely on each other to vote for each other’s Bill.

So that we can properly scrutinise this legislation, I—again, as a Back-Bencher—attempted to table amendments. I thought to myself, “This can’t be the right way to go about this”. I took advice from our fantastic Clerks, who explained that the Bill could indeed be split. It has been done twice in the past—once successfully, albeit in the originating House. That Bill was split four times. The second time, the vote was lost. I read the rules—this has been a great Bill for my learning experience, so I thank you for that—and could find nothing that would prohibit splitting the Bill. It seemed a sensible way to proceed, particularly as there is a time constraint on the referendum. It is an important debate for the public to have.

However, subsequently, I now understand that there may be problems if the Government were not to support the Motion. It is not my intention to do anything that would stop us getting this legislation through properly and efficiently. Therefore, I call on the Government to support the Motion. That will allow us to treat the Bill in a timely, efficient and properly scrutinised way. I beg to move.

I remind noble Lords that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, reported to the House earlier this month that it understood the need for urgency in relation to Part 1 of the Bill, which concerns the proposed referendum. However, it suggested that the case for proceeding rapidly with Part 2—relating to constituencies—was far less strong. We expressed regret that the Bill was not the subject of any pre-legislative scrutiny or any prior public consultation. We further advised the House that, because of the lack of prior consultation and consideration of the important issues raised by Part 2, several vital constitutional concerns had not been properly addressed by the Government—for example, the impact that the proposed changes might have on the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. It is very important to ensure that there is sufficient time to give Part 2 the closest scrutiny. I, too, am concerned—speaking entirely for myself and not the committee—that the Government’s understandable wish to proceed speedily with Part 1 may adversely impact on scrutiny of Part 2. It would be no answer to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, if the Minister says that there will be adequate time for debate on the whole Bill. Time is required not just for debate but for reflection by all noble Lords and the Government and for cross-party discussions before changes of this constitutional significance are made.

My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, with some trepidation because he always speaks with great authority, as those who have often appeared in court appear to do in your Lordships’ House. There is a wider issue here that your Lordships’ House needs to address. I am absolutely certain that the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, has the best of intentions but, as we all know from our early youth, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The effect of delaying Part 2 by separating out that part of the Bill into a separate Bill would be, inevitably, that it would be delayed dramatically. In a way, it reflects the point that the noble Lord has just made, but it should be taken in a different direction. On these Benches—and on all sides of the House—we want to make sure that the boundary revision is fair, workable and sensitive to local conditions. It will take time in your Lordships’ House to decide how to do that.

I recognise that there are differing views about different parts of the Bill on all sides of the House. The problem is that, if we simply discard Part 2, separate it out and take it later, it cannot be implemented with proper consideration of all the local conditions in time for the next general election. There is wide concern on that point. It really would be ridiculous at the early part of this Parliament to delay this process so dramatically that it could not be implemented in time for the next general election. I hope, therefore, that you Lordships will very carefully consider what has happened in the other House on these issues.

Why does the noble Lord aver that this Bill, if properly considered, could not be implemented in time for the next election? It is absurd.

My Lord, my point is that, if it is held together as one Bill, it can. So the noble Lord is supporting my position. However, if it is separated into two Bills, then, by definition, and, indeed, because of the way in which this has been presented, it is clear that that would be a delaying tactic. That may not be the intention of the noble Baroness but, no doubt, we will hear from noble Lords on the opposition Front Bench. I will be very interested to hear what exactly their position is on this because, for all those who profess to want to make this a careful consideration of important legislation—of very considerable importance to the other place—there seem to be others in this place who think that it is a very good opportunity to delay, divert and derail the acknowledged agreement between the two coalition parties that we want to make progress on both counts. Both are trying to give more power to the individual voter so that in each constituency there is a better chance of having equal value.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has made it clear in this House, at Second Reading and since—privately and publicly—that his position is to try to delay, divert and derail this Bill. What fun it would have been if he had adopted the role of courtroom jester when he was Lord Chancellor. This is an important Bill. Your Lordships’ House could do great damage to its own reputation—and possibly even to its future role in our constitution—if it simply seeks to play games with this Bill. It is a Bill, after all, which almost uniquely deals with the other place. Of course we have to try to improve it but, if we are seen to be simply standing in the way of the other place—where this Bill has been passed as one Bill—then we will be doing great damage.

I am sure that I do not need to remind the House that the previous Administration, in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, played a very distinguished part, committed themselves to a referendum on electoral reform way back in 1997. There is no question that that part of the Bill has not been discussed ad nauseam over the past 13 years so we are not rushing into that part of the Bill.

As to more recent commitments, it was of course a last-minute death-bed repentance on this issue, within the context of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, that in the past 12 months permitted and committed the previous Government to having a referendum, and there the commitment was again in the Labour Party’s manifesto just a few short months ago. In those circumstances, if we sought to delay this legislation in a way that is out of character with your Lordships’ House, we would stoke up further irritation that Peers always seem to be devious and seeking to delay and dilute reform when they should be proceeding in a sensible and businesslike way.

If we want to guarantee the fate of most Cross-Benchers, when Peers are seen to be delaying important changes to our House of Commons, passing this Motion is the best way to do it. The political and public pressure for a fully elected senate will increase if your Lordships are seen to be playing games.

My Lords, I know and fully acknowledge that this is not the other place, but I am slightly alarmed by the sort of threats being made by the noble Lord opposite. When this House comes to deliberate on House of Lords reform, it will do so in due course and with the wisdom and knowledge held by every Member of this House. No Member should be under any threat in terms of the legislation which is about to be debated by this House.

I understand precisely what the noble Baroness is saying and I understand that that will be the role of your Lordships’ House. All that I am saying is that we have to be extraordinarily careful with this measure which, after all, deals entirely with the other place. It is not relevant to how your Lordships’ House is composed. If it is seen by the public outside that this is simply an attempt to delay and dilute important legislation, and to prevent it reaching the statute book in good time and in good order, we will not be doing anything to improve the reputation of your Lordships’ House.

I think it would be helpful if I set out the Front Bench’s position. Our position is that it would be a good thing to split the Bill. At the end of last week, I believed that the Motion would have the effect of splitting the Bill. Further constructive discussions with the Clerks yesterday revealed that if the Bill were split, it would nevertheless have to come back together again before it went to the Commons. In those circumstances there is no purpose in a split unless the Government agree to a split which allows the two Bills in the hypothetical split to go at separate paces. It seems obvious that the Bills should go at separate paces, because one has the drop-dead deadline of 5 May whereas the other, which is much bigger, will take longer.

The Front Bench’s position is that we support the principle of a split but recognise that this Motion cannot achieve it. We will therefore not support it in any vote. I understand from my noble friend Lady McDonagh that she will not press it to a vote. We support her in asking the Government to think about that. I have just one further point. Should anyone in this House wish there to be any delay, I suggest that they urge the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to make more speeches.

My Lords, I rise just to respond to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton—it is a brief point. Life is always difficult in opposition, particularly when one has been in government for so long. I underwent 13 years of opposition and recall that I could have resorted to procedural devices on many occasions.

It is no use the noble and learned Lord shouting from a sedentary position.

Let me make clear our position: we are not supporting the Motion. So perhaps this avuncular chat could be postponed to another occasion.

I want to know who is the uncle.

All I will say is that we have suddenly begun to embark on a number of procedural debates. That is all well and good, and it is part of the tradition of the House that we should do so. However, I question whether we need to explore the uncertain waters of hybridity, and whether we should ignore 99 years of tradition by questioning a money Bill. Now when we need to proceed to our normal function of revising and improving a Bill, I simply say to the Opposition that they should take time to think.

When I was opposing the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, of Foy, on the Postal Services Bill, I was made aware that there were two or three procedural devices that I could have resorted to had I wanted to delay the Bill. I reached the conclusion that I should do my best from the Front Bench to enable this House to do what it always does well, which is to revise and improve. I would just say that reputations take generations to build, but they can be lost overnight by an irresponsible Opposition.

I know that my uncle, the noble and learned Lord, responds to Shakespeare. Perhaps I may just quote again:

“O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial”.

They should think again.

My Lords, I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, criticises the Opposition when in fact the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, got up to say that he does not support the Motion and that—if it were put to vote, which it is not going to be—he would not vote for it. I really cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, started to put it about regarding the noble and learned Lord.

The problem arises—do not make any mistake about it—not because of this Motion but because the Government decided to put two separate matters together in a single Bill. That is the real problem. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may laugh, but he knows perfectly well that if he had been sitting on those Benches he would have been doing exactly the same thing. He would be opposing the bringing together of two completely separate issues.

To make it even worse, the Bill presumes to hold a referendum on a very important constitutional issue—the method of voting—on the same day as the local elections and the Assembly elections. That has already been discussed at Second Reading but, nevertheless, it is a bad thing to do. The issue of AV voting is so constitutionally important that it should have been dealt with on a separate date, after proper examination and proper information to the people of this country.

My Lords, I take issue with the assumption of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the House of Lords is not, as part of its responsibility, a guardian for the proprieties of passing legislation. It will not do for him to suggest that when we seek to establish whether a Bill is hybrid or whether it is proceeding properly or requires other forms, we are time-wasting, dithering or trying to delay. It is part of the task of the House to establish propriety. When I was a Minister, time and again Members opposite wished on Report to move back to Committee. I could have alleged, with the same force as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, did today, that this was time-wasting and impeding of the Government, and that the party opposite was trying to use process to delay important legislation. I would not have dreamt of it, because it was proper and right that, if there was a concern about the propriety of how we were handling legislation, those views should be listened to and, even if it took extra weeks to get the legislation through, we should take that time—and we did. I take it very ill indeed, when the Opposition are rightly reminding the Government of their responsibility to observe the proprieties of legislation, to be accused of time-wasting and hindering the pace of the Government to succeed.

I am surprised that neither the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, nor the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to the big change that will be made in the process and procedure for determining constituencies. I do not declare an interest because at the moment I do not have a vote in elections to the House of Commons. However, I know from years of experience in politics that the public are very interested in and concerned about the process of how parliamentary boundaries are determined. I believe that we have a duty and resent anyone telling me that I am party to time-wasting. In my imagination, I could hear the howls of rage that both noble Lords I named would have uttered had the previous Government attempted to do away with the right of people in our communities to express a view.

Ultimately, I would like to be out of this place and have my vote back, because, as noble Lords know, I have a personal commitment to reform of your Lordships' House. However, while I am a Member, I bitterly resent anybody implying that my motives are unworthy. In my experience, the Conservatives’ partners have in the past used to the full their right to locally-based inquiries into where boundaries should be. On this issue, we are defending the rights of communities to speak for themselves. We are the only ones who can do it, and if we do not, the rights will be abolished.

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, effectively accuses this side of the House of procedural malpractice, he might care to consider that the coalition is introducing radical proposals for constitutional reform without any authority to do so from the electors. He might also care to consider that the Bill comes to us from the other place with very important parts of it entirely unexamined, both in Committee and on Report. Against that background, perhaps he would accept that it is the duty of the Opposition to scrutinise this legislation exhaustively.

My Lords, we are in danger of having a rerun of Second Reading: let us not to do that. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for what he said. I completely agree with much, although not all, of it. He spotted that the Motion before us is defective and would not do what the noble Baroness intends. I am glad that he confirmed that, if there is a vote, he will not be able to support the Motion. I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, who spoke extremely well, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, who made some important points about the Bill, some of which I will return to.

Most Peers came here to attend the Committee on the Bill. Instead, we have had yet another procedural device. I am not questioning the motives of the noble Baroness. I am sure that she believes that it should be two Bills rather than one. However, to put that Motion now gives the impression that noble Lords opposite do not want to engage in the proper debate in Committee that I hope we will have in a moment.

Noble Lords opposite do huff and puff rather too much. Only a few months ago, earlier this year, we had the previous Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Noble Lords opposite will remember that legislation joyously. It included provisions on no fewer than 13 different subjects ranging from a referendum on the alternative vote to freedom of information, the removal of hereditary peers and the ratification of treaties. Not one Peer opposite—including the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis—jumped up with great outrage about how wrong it was to do that. It was not wrong then, and it is not wrong now.

No, please—I did not want to tempt the noble Baroness to her feet for more outrage.

Noble Lords opposite also sought to progress that legislation with unseemly haste. Was that politically expedient? I cannot possibly guess their original motive. So it is somewhat surprising to hear it suggested today that a referendum on the alternative vote merits a stand-alone Bill. If our Bill is a car crash, their Bill was a multiple pile-up.

My noble friend Lord McNally and I made it clear during the Second Reading that there are compelling reasons why the Bill before the House takes the form that it does—as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I am sure knows. The two parts of the Bill are fundamentally related: both concern how MPs are elected to another place. Together, they concern arrangements for the next general election in 2015, and as such merit consideration in the round, as a package. It would not make sense to prioritise reform of the voting system while leaving the fundamental unfairness in constituencies untouched. Nor would it make sense to tackle unfair boundaries but deny the public the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the voting system—something that noble Lords opposite promised in their own manifesto.

It is simply not the case that the referendum can be separated from the boundary reviews, which can then be scrutinised at leisure. Current boundaries in England are 10 years out of date, and it is not unreasonable that they should not be 15 years out of date at the next election. The Boundary Commission must be allowed to get on with its reviews so that there is time for proper consultation on boundary recommendations and all concerned are given an adequate period to prepare for a general election on the new constituency boundaries.

The measures in the Bill were foreshadowed in our coalition agreement. They form the key plank in our commitment to reform this country’s political system, having been endorsed in another place.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House accept that he is wrong in one of the assertions he makes? Many parliamentary constituency boundaries were changed in 2005—my previous one in particular.

All of them may not be out of date, but many are. We are going to put that fundamental unfairness right. Surely the noble Lords opposite are not supporting the continuation of unfairness.

A couple of weeks ago this House gave the Bill a Second Reading. I believe that, in doing so, the House accepted its general principles and indeed its overall architecture. The House accepted it as one Bill. We are due to go into Committee on the Bill, in its entirety, this afternoon. Some noble Lords have put down amendments to the Bill. That is the normal way that we go about scrutinising legislation in this House. The instruction tabled by the noble Baroness would pre-empt that scrutiny process. I very much hope that the noble Baroness, having heard this short debate, and having made her point, will now withdraw the Motion.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, and I would like to refer to a couple of the points. I say to noble Lords opposite that the Motion would not discard Part 2 of the Bill and that every bit of work done up to now would remain. It would simply allow us the opportunity to have proper scrutiny.

I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde: please do not tell us that we do not wish to debate the Bill. When we were debating it, there was not one Conservative Member on the Benches opposite. The Motion is a genuine and constructive attempt to make both Bills work, and I am sorry that the Government have not seen it as such. I think that it would make it much easier to pass the legislation, but I will not be pressing it to a vote. However, I make it clear that, like many other Back-Benchers, I will not take criticism or be harried for fully discharging our responsibility to scrutinise the legislation properly. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.