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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 723: debated on Monday 20 December 2010

Committee (6th Day) (Continued)

Amendment 44A

Tabled by

44A: Clause 8, page 6, line 6, after ““No”,” insert—

“( ) more than 40% of those eligible to vote have voted,”

My Lords, I do not wish to move this amendment or Amendment 45A, but I reserve the right to raise the matter at an appropriate time.

Amendment 44A not moved.

Amendment 44B not moved.

Amendment 45

Moved by

45: Clause 8, page 6, line 7, leave out paragraph (b)

My Lords, I apologise for my eagerness to get on with the House’s consideration of the Bill. I know we have a lot of work to do and that the House is eager to do it. With this amendment, to which my noble friend Lord Bach and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer have appended their names and added a complementary amendment, we come to the political heart of the Bill. This is the buckle that ties together the two bits of the Bill—the AV referendum on the one hand and the reduction of MPs and redrawing of constituency boundaries on the other. The first bit is the fervent wish of the Lib Dem partners in the coalition; the second is the fervent wish of the Conservative partners in the coalition.

Before I explain why I believe that to be misguided, I will get my retaliation in first to an intervention that I would otherwise expect. My objection is not to both measures being in one Bill. I know that there is a case to be made that the Government I supported included many more than two measures in their Constitutional Reform and Governance Act before the general election. It is interesting to speculate about what the full purpose of that Bill was since it clearly could not pass before the general election. Partly, no doubt, we felt that the wise British people would be very appreciative of all the proposals that we were putting forward, but we were particularly interested in the reaction of the Liberal Democrats. We realised that we might have to form some kind of agreement with them after a general election and we wanted to show that we shared their views. After a few months of observing the Lib Dems in government, I think we were totally wrong about what their views were. We thought they were constitutional and economic liberals; it turns out that they are constitutional conservatives and economic reactionaries.

I will pass swiftly on. What I object to is not that the two measures appear in one Bill but that they are conditional. They enter the concept of conditionality into our legislation. You can only do the one if you do the other, too. This seems wholly wrong. Either these two proposals—the AV referendum and the constituency redrawing—are justified on their individual merits or they are not. There can be no case whatever for saying, “We’ll only do one if we do the other”, in logic or constitutional parlance, although we understand the political realities of this. It says a lot about the nature of the coalition and, in particular, the atmosphere in which it was formed. This stuff is here because the two coalition partners, when they were negotiating their agreement, did not trust each other. They could see that there was a grubby deal to be made.

The Lib Dems could make some headway on electoral reform. They did not want AV and there was a system they liked more but they understood the realities. The Tories were trying to change the number of constituencies and their boundaries so that they won more seats at the next general election. The deal that was made between them was that they would do both. Because one proposition was likely to lead to fewer Conservative seats and one to more Conservative seats, they decided to bung them together—all that I understand. What is sad, and does not increase one’s confidence in the long-term viability of the coalition, is that the parties so distrusted each other that they wanted it incorporated into legislation in the subsection before the House at the moment.

This is a more political speech than I would like to make in Committee but this is a political clause. We have to understand it. Some bits of the Bill are technical. We will come to those and deal with them in a technical way but this is a political clause. My next observation about this provision is that it says a lot about the balance of power within the coalition. The Lib Dems did not say, “Our condition for giving you the boundary changes that suit you is that we get the electoral system that suits us”. They feebly said, “Our condition for your getting the boundary changes you want is that we get not AV but a go at AV through a referendum”. However, if the referendum is lost, which, as a strong supporter of AV, I hope it will not be, the Conservatives can still have their boundary changes and reduce the number of MPs.

We will come to the substance of the case about the number of MPs later in our debates. Suffice it to say that no case of merit has yet been put forward for reducing the size of the House of Commons. It may be that there is such a case to be made—I look forward to Ministers developing it—but we have not heard a word about it yet. So far we have just heard the Government admit that they got a figure straight out of the air and incorporated it into a Bill. We have seen no case made—not for greater constituency equalisation, which I would grant—for the figure of 5 per cent included in the Bill, which, as we shall see when we get to it, is not a sensible figure for the variance in the size of constituencies. Nor has the case been made that the exemptions in the Bill get anywhere near meeting the very strong case that can be made for further exemptions.

The suspicion must be that the measures in Part 2 of the Bill are entirely designed for the sole purpose of increasing the number of Conservative seats at the next general election. If the Government can produce a statistical analysis from a reputable team of psephologists that says that it will not have that effect, the House will be delighted to see and discuss it. However, I say with no little confidence that they will not be able to do that because the effects are as I have described them.

I do not want to detain the House for too long on this but my third point is about how much the Government must regret the need to link these two measures. How sorry they must be. In any sensible world, if it is true that the coalition wants the referendum to take place on 5 May 2011, it would have introduced two separate pieces of legislation. There would have been one on the alternative vote, which might well have concluded its stage in your Lordships’ House if not tonight then in the first session in the new year, after the good examination that we have given it. The Government could then go ahead with the AV referendum. They could then take a more measured approach to the constituencies bit of the Bill. They could even have allowed it to be subject to some measure of joint scrutiny, without prejudicing their timetable to get it into effect by the next election. They could have allowed, as we propose later in the Bill, that there should be some conference—a royal commission or Speaker’s Conference—on the number of MPs to take a rational view as to what should happen. That consideration could have moved in parallel to your Lordships’ House considering the AV bit of the Bill.

Where are we? Your Lordships have an awful lot of the Bill to consider as yet. We are to do so against the looming timetable; the Electoral Commission has made clear when it requires the Bill to be passed to allow the campaign for 5 May to occur on an orderly path. We are struggling to meet this wholly artificial timetable, imposed by the Government solely because of the political deal that they have done and the fact that neither party trusts the other to abide by its words.

Is it not even worse, from the Liberal Democrat point of view, that they are clearly not very good negotiators? The deal that has emerged is wholly lopsided, as the chances are that their part of the deal—they wanted AV—will not happen and therefore they will have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

My noble friend would say that, but I cannot possibly comment because I believe of course that AV will win a referendum whenever it is held.

They would have something to say if the amendment that I tabled was accepted. I have tabled an amendment that would be extremely helpful to the Liberal Democrats on that very issue.

When we table amendments from this side of the House we do not consider their partisan impact; we merely consider their impact on the constitution of this country. I am sure that if my noble friend’s amendment meets that test, it will be given proper and due consideration by the House.

In moving this amendment I give the Government and the House an opportunity to say that each of the two propositions—the AV proposition and the number of MPs/seats proposition—should have separate consideration. They should be taken on their constitutional merits as a whole and treated in that way. I deeply regret, and what is more I believe that the Government will have reason deeply to regret, that the reality of the way in which they have chosen to proceed will make consideration of the issues on their merits more difficult for the House.

I will speak to both amendments. The first is in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who has moved it so ably, and the second is in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Clause 8(1)(b) is an astonishing paragraph of this Bill. It is very remarkable. It was overlooked in debates in the other place, which perhaps makes it all the more important that we debate it properly in this House and in this Committee.

Clause 8 informs the Minister what to do following the result of the referendum being announced. If more votes in the referendum are cast in favour of the answer yes than in favour of the answer no, the Minister must make an order that brings into force provisions to change our voting system for elections to the House of Commons from first past the post to this type of alternative vote system. However, that is not the end of it. An affirmative result in the referendum is not sufficient according to the Bill. The changes in the boundaries detailed in Part 2 of the Bill, particularly in Clause 10, must also have taken place before the alternative vote system can take effect.

In Committee last Monday the Committee was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, tell the House that he and the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, were joined at the hip on this Bill. I wondered what it is that joins them at the hip on this Bill. I now believe it sincerely to be Clause 8(1)(b) that joins them thus. It has been clear from the introduction of this Bill that this clause is the glue that holds the Government together. Part 1 of the Bill, as was said at Second Reading, is clearly and plainly the Liberal Democrat part of the deal. However AV may have been described by their leader in the past, the Liberal Democrats have decided that it is worth the candle and that it is best not to go searching for some sort of proportional representation, or certainly not at the moment.

Part 2, which we will come to in due course, slashes the House of Commons by 50 Members of Parliament, from 650 to 600, with all the consequences for the quality of representation. It redraws every constituency boundary according to a rigid mathematical formula, and that is the Conservative part of the deal. The Conservatives sometimes appear haunted, indeed almost obsessed, by a suspicion that the current electoral arrangements are biased against them. This Bill is their fight back; their chance to get their own back. Of course biases exist, but electoral geography is merely an element of this. As has been debated in Committee and at Second Reading, other factors such as the efficiency of the distribution of parties’ votes, are, we would argue, much more significant. However, I do not think the Conservative part of the Government, or the Government as a whole, believe that—or will not acknowledge it.

This Bill is the coalition agreement in miniature. It is vital for both sides to get their parts of the bargain. I assume that is why noble Lords on the government Benches, those who represent both parties that make up the coalition and whom one might have expected to speak out more on various elements of the Bill, have been so—I was going to say well behaved but perhaps quiet is the better word. As the high point of the coalition agreement, this Bill, and specifically Clause 8(1)(b) and Clause 8(3), accurately demonstrates the inequity, mentioned by my noble friend mentioned a moment ago, of the deal bartered out over those famous five days in May, about which so many books have already been written—and how many more can we expect? As it stands, even if 99 per cent of the population were to vote in favour of changing the Westminster voting system to this version of AV, this change could not come about until the Secretary of State had laid before Parliament the reports of the boundary commissions and a draft Order in Council giving effect to the recommendations contained in the reports of the boundary commissions.

We know, or we will soon find out, that Part 2 of this Bill is controversial in itself, as was clear in the debates in the other place and from the lobbying that we have all received all the way from academia to the Keep Cornwall Whole campaign. The intended rules to redraw the constituency boundaries are unpopular, not least because they subjugate the sensible and logical needs to acknowledge community ties and geography when formulating constituencies.

It is not beyond possibility that the boundary changes detailed in Clause 10 are delayed or altered in some way. What then for the alternative vote? What then if, for example, a large majority has voted for AV? Is that result of that referendum simply to be ignored? As the Bill stands, it seems to say yes to that question. Why did the Minister’s party accept this? Why did it not insist at the very least in writing a reverse bind into the Bill? We support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey.

My noble friends Lord Bach and Lord Lipsey have made me think about one slightly wider aspect that really troubles me and which should trouble Conservative Members opposite. My noble friend Lord Bach has just outlined how we face a major change in the electoral system for the House of Commons and a major boundary revision being rushed through without appeal. In addition, we are to get a Bill for a fixed-term Parliament, which we still have to discuss, which again is a major change for the United Kingdom and is totally different from anything that we have had previously in the UK Parliament. We will also soon get a Bill—it has not yet been published—to reform this second Chamber. The proposal is for all these major constitutional changes to be rushed through in one Parliament. It really is quite a frightening prospect. It is bad enough for Labour Peers, given all our radical—

Instincts. I thank my former boss—the former Secretary of State for Scotland—who always chooses the right word for me. However, it seems astonishing that Conservative Members can face this situation with equanimity.

My noble friend has only just begun to touch on the scale of the changes that are impetuously and dangerously being rushed through Parliament. We also have the European Union Bill, which will lead to a proliferation of referendums every time there is a possibility of some shift of power between Brussels and London. We have the Localism Bill, which will turn local government absolutely upside down and will, in many ways, eviscerate it. This Government are extraordinarily reckless.

Reckless is the word for it. As my noble friend Lord Bach was talking, I was sitting here and considering what the common factor was behind all this. It is the Deputy Prime Minister. I must choose my words carefully, but I do not think that he thinks in British terms. He thinks in terms of continental European constitutions and is moving our constitution inexorably towards some kind of continental European constitution, with fixed-term Parliaments, a different electoral system, and changing the composition of the second Chamber—all of this. Okay, that is the agenda, but is it a Conservative agenda? Is it one that all my friends on the Conservative Benches really feel in their guts, in their blood, their water or their instincts? Some of them are my friends—there are only three on the Back Benches at the moment but there were quite a few earlier. I am sorry, there are more; there are five of them. I missed the two distinguished Members perching in the corner. Do they really want this country to go that way?

Someone is shaking his head almost imperceptibly, but I can see it. I know that I am going well beyond the terms of the amendment. If someone with the powers of a Speaker of the House of Commons was in the chair, they would be drawing my attention to it. However, this is relevant, because we are going down a road which is really troubling me and should be troubling Members opposite even more.

My Lords, I wonder whether it is possible for us to imagine the state of mind of those on the other side who, having suggested AV, now consider this to be evidence of a plot. They themselves recognised that we should have a system whereby constituencies should be at least more or less the same size, which was why they stopped—it was they who did it—keeping a special factor to enable people in dispersed constituencies to have fewer Members of Parliament. It was a Labour decision to stop that. They now come to the House and argue that both things are unacceptable. Surely being fair is a Conservative concept. Should we not have constituencies of the same size? That seems to be a very Conservative principle.

Is it not also a Conservative principle to suggest that the public might make their own choices in these circumstances? It happens to be a Conservative principle with which I disagree. I do not believe in referenda and I never have believed in them. However, it is very curious that noble Lords opposite suggest there is something intrinsically un-Conservative in having a referendum. I do not understand that at all. There is something deeply wrong in referenda, but that does not mean that people who believe in them could not be Conservative.

Why are Labour Members making such a fuss about this matter? Could it possibly be that they are seeking with some real difficulty to find reasons why they should spend as much time as possible discussing these matters? I do not want to help them in that, so I will finish by saying one simple thing. I came to this House expecting and finding that there was, in many cases, a degree of quality in debate unfound in my 35 years in the House of Commons. I am very sad to find that during these recent Bills, those who have experience of the House of Commons and those who have been press-ganged into the little battle have used all the techniques which brought and bring the other House into such disrepute. I am very sorry that yet again on this Bill we have lowered ourselves to doing the kinds of things which are done elsewhere. It is a pity that we cannot look back on our traditions, even for someone as newly hatched as myself, and raise the standards again.

Perhaps the noble Lord can help me. It is really just information that I seek. He says that it was the Labour Government who changed the rules to make it not possible for more rural seats to have a smaller electorate. I should be grateful if he could give us chapter and verse on that. As I understand them, the rules we work under now were passed under a Conservative Government in 1986 of which I think he was almost certainly a distinguished and leading member. We actually believe that those rules are well worth preserving.

Perhaps I may reply to that. The change to the sparsity rules, continued in the 1986 arrangements, was brought in by the Labour Government, who argued that it was unfair that some constituents, because there was a smaller number of them in a constituency, would have a bigger vote than other constituents. All that is happening in this Bill is that we are repeating to the Labour Party something which it has long forgotten.

The noble Lord must have been very upset in the mid-1980s, when he played a prominent role in the then Conservative Government, who just followed what Labour had done.

I do not believe that I get upset as easily as the noble Lord thinks. All that I believe is true is that we tried for a consensus. What is happening now is the correction of a deeply offensive fact that some constituents have a much smaller vote than others, because of the retention of very small constituencies which ought not to be there.

My Lords, I am very surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is suggesting that the debates so far on the Bill have not been appropriate. If he reads Hansard, he will see that contributions from all around the House have been thoughtful, succinct and related to entirely appropriate matters that Parliament ought to be thinking about. I put it to him that the cynicism of the motivation of the coalition in yoking, as they have, the two main components of the Bill together is a sore provocation to us and might have tempted some of us to engage in wrecking tactics. The fact that we have not done so reflects very well on us.

I do not want to follow the line pursued by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, because it sounds to me like he was embarking on a filibuster in debating party political issues. I simply say to him that if he is worried about traditions—and he ought to be worried about them—one of the traditions he should remember is that it is particularly important that you do not drive through major constitutional changes without a large measure of agreement between the parties. One of those changes relates to the size of the House of Commons. As the noble Lord will know, if you act as an international observer at elections overseas, one thing that you note is who decides the size of the Parliament and how they decide it. If the Government decide it without the consent of opposition parties, you usually mark the election down. However, that is another matter that we shall pursue at a later stage. The Minister will recognise the filibuster by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who has long experience of doing that. From my experience in the House of Commons, he was one of the people who got a reputation for filibustering there.

I have a particular question for the Minister raised by this amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. It came to my mind when my noble friend Lord Bach was speaking. My noble friend mentioned the important issue of the commission having to report first. The Minister will know that there is an agreement whereby Orkney and Shetland and, I believe, the Western Isles have already been accorded special status. He will also know that there is very strong pressure from the Member for the Isle of Wight—a Conservative Member—and all the major political parties representing the councils on the Isle of Wight to be treated in the same way as the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. He will also be aware that there is a major campaign in Cornwall for Cornwall to be treated in a way that recognises its historic—and, I should add, traditional, to keep the noble Lord, Lord Deben, happy—boundaries. My question to the Minister is this: if there is a legal challenge based on the fact that Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have not been accorded the same conditions as the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, could these changes go ahead? I know that people are talking of a legal challenge, so it is an important issue. I do not know whether such a challenge would be possible. It occurred to me when my noble friend Lord Bach was speaking so I have not been able to take advice on it. However, given the reasons that we have already heard as to why the two Scottish areas have been given special circumstances, it would seem at least possible for the Isle of Wight, certainly, and possibly Cornwall, where it would be a bit more difficult, to mount a legal challenge. I should like the Minister to address that in his reply.

Indeed, if there were to be such a challenge, perhaps I may make the case on behalf of Ynys Môn, otherwise known as the Isle of Anglesey, where there is a similar situation and which is clearly a compact, single constituency. If the Isle of Wight were to issue a challenge, I do not know whether the representatives of Ynys Môn would do the same. Clearly, if there were such a challenge, it would be likely to be at least prima facie justiciable. It would therefore very likely take some time and the Government’s timetable would be knocked sideways.

My main point during this brief intervention is that I am perhaps the last person to lecture the opposition Front Bench and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, on the principles of Conservatism. However, I should have thought that one of those principles would be a respect for the constitution—a broadening down from precedent to precedent. The great Conservative thinkers, be they Burke, Hailsham or Oakeshott at the LSE, have all adhered to an enormous respect for the accumulated wisdom of the ages and have therefore had a certain unwillingness to go full steam ahead in changing structures for their own sake. The point has been well made by my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Howarth that this seems to be an enormous bundle of changes, many of them ill thought-through and ill digested.

Finally, another Conservative principle which, again, perhaps is not honoured on this occasion is respect for the wisdom of Parliament. One conclusion that I have reached in listening to this debate is that there seems to be no willingness on the part of the government Front Bench to listen and to modify their position in the light of arguments that have been adduced. I do not think that I have ever come across a case where the juggernaut of the coalition has moved at such a pace, is so deaf to the quality of the arguments that have been raised and is unwilling to make any concession at all. I say with all humility that I cannot see the coalition Government gaining from this if they act in a traditionally non-Conservative spirit which wholly ignores the quality of the contributions not only from this side but in excellent speeches from the Cross Benches. They may well live to regret the attitude that they have taken to this Bill, and I hope it is not a precedent for other Bills that come before this Parliament.

My Lords, I shall be even more brief than my noble friend who has just spoken. I shall not be bullied or harassed by the tetchiness shown by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. I specifically put on the record a refutation of the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Deben. I remember very clearly the noble Lord when he and I were Members in another place. My summary of the situation was that, when the Conservative Opposition wished to delay or prolong debate, he seemed to be wheeled on to speak at great length. To give him credit for consistency, he has always managed to speak with self-assurance and self-confidence and with an air of always being right. That is very impressive.

Perhaps I may inform my noble friend that, having heard the son of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, in the House of Commons, it is clear that there is an hereditary factor there.

Surely not. That could not possibly be the case on the other side of the Chamber. I shall get to my point. One evening last week, I spoke on this very important Bill for two periods of about two minutes each and then for a third time for about five or six minutes, making 10 minutes in total, so I do not think that I can be accused of filibustering and so on. I was involved as much as anybody and the only House of Commons attitude that I see in this House is a capacity of Governments of both kinds, Labour and Conservative—because it is an elected House and that is fair enough—to ram Bills through with strict timetables and so on. Here, the Government are trying to ram through an important constitutional change without any regard to the views that are put forward, and they are getting very annoyed because people want to make and answer points. If they do not answer them, they will be on record as never having answered. I genuinely do not believe that there is any filibustering going on here. If the noble Lord had been here more often, he would have heard the wide range of different views on this side of the Chamber on these very matters. Therefore, he should be a bit fairer about this.

I hope that my noble friend will not feel constrained in developing his points at whatever length he considers appropriate. After all, this Bill had no pre-legislative consultation, it was not consulted upon with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, which have a vital interest in the provisions of the Bill, and it was programmed in the House of Commons, so very important parts of it were not considered in Committee or on Report there. Therefore, I think that we have a responsibility to examine it closely and I am very glad that my noble friend is doing so.

My noble friend is absolutely right. I am not going to repeat all the points that have been made but shall leave it at that. However, I am certainly not going to allow attacks such as those to stay on the record without being refuted, despite the annoyance of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.

I shall make a brief response to the noble Lord, Lord Deben. I was not intending to speak in this debate but I have three points to make, one of which he will not know. Until two years ago, I had served as a Minister for eight years on the Front Bench here, having come from the other place. I am on record in several places as saying—and I repeat it, although I know that it annoys people down the other end when I say it—that I was under greater scrutiny in my eight years here as a Minister than I ever was in the other place. I am quite happy to say that. It was because of the nature of the way this place works, whether Question Time, Select Committees, or the Floor of the House. There is no doubt about it. I speak only from my own experience. It takes a while to get used to this place, and it can be irritating.

My other two brief points are these. I have been here on this Bill virtually every day, missing only a couple of hours one day, because I just happen to be interested. I do not agree with everything that is happening, as I will make clear in a moment. I have taken several Bills through this House, and in no Committee stage in which I was involved was I aware of ever being forced to say, or of agreeing to say, to the House, “I will take it away and think about it”; or of saying, “I will take that part of this argument away, think about it, and then promise to come back on Report”. If you cannot make a change of rule, you come back openly, having looked at it in the department. Not once, as far as I know, in these debates in six days has any Minister ever said, “A good idea, or maybe a good idea, and we will take that away. There might be something we can do. It does not wreck the Bill, and it may add to things”.

Not once has that happened, and that is fairly unique, in my experience, I say in all humility.

There was one occasion, probably in the two hours that the noble Lord was not here, when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, promised to take one item away, but the point that my noble friend makes is a good one.

I stand corrected then. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for that. As I say, I was here for all but two hours.

The other point is that there was talk about the previous elections and, to be honest, on this issue concerning equality of constituencies I agree 100 per cent with the noble Lord, Lord Deben. There is nothing between us. If you are going to have one person one vote in a constituency-based system, you have to have the constituencies as near as damn it the same size. This was argued out years ago in the 1970s. I can remember there was an argument at a boundary inquiry. I even remember the late Denis Howell lecturing us and saying, “Look, we might argue for smaller seats in the inner areas because our workload is greater, there is deprivation and there are all the other issues. On the other hand, you have to balance that against the massive distances that country members have to travel. It is different”. What is important is the number people who are voting for one parliament.

Frankly, if you look at the history and take the trouble to read or listen to John Curtice, you will see that Labour lost the 2005 election. I know the arithmetic says we came back with a majority of 66 but, if you look at all the facts and stats that came out, the writing was on the wall then simply because of the way the electoral system worked, the shape of the constituencies, and the slowness of the boundary inquiries. For that reason—it is also why I have no amendments to table to the second half of the Bill—I do not think there should be more than 500 Members of the other place. However, as I do not want to upset anybody by tabling such an amendment, this is my only opportunity to say so.

My Lords, following that welcome note from the unforgettable noble Lord, Lord Rooker—and I will be returning to what he said a moment ago about the fairness of equality of votes—I first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, who thought in some way I was irritated. Far from it—I just did not realise that he was getting up and I got up to speak at the same time, but I deferred to him because he wanted to interest us in what he had to contribute to this part of our discussions.

I am tempted to speculate, as my noble friend Lord Deben invited me, on the mindset of noble Lords opposite. However, on this occasion I will try and resist temptation because it might take us down further highways and byways. I pause to observe that it might be difficult to do so because while on the one hand some noble Lords from the Labour Benches have indicated that the coalition agreement was to the disadvantage of the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, indicated that was a threat to the Conservative Party and its view of constitutional reform.

I also want to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who thought that perhaps the pace of constitutional reform was too much. He was, of course, a member of a Government—and I pay huge tribute to them—who by this equivalent stage in their first term had had a referendum on their programme for devolution for Scotland and Wales, and then introduced legislation on freedom of information and some reform to this House, and passed the Human Rights Act which put forward proportional representation for the European elections. I just regret that they ran out of steam when it came to implementing their election manifesto promise on a referendum on the electoral system, or we might have been able to avoid some of these discussions.

Will the noble and learned Lord confirm that, in relation to the referendum and the legislation establishing the Scottish Parliament, there was not just pre-legislative debate; there was a whole constitutional convention which he and I were part of, which discussed the whole set-up, including the electoral system? It was discussed almost ad nauseam to get a consensus, not rushed and pushed through in this way.

As my noble friend, Lord Strathclyde, said earlier, people have been talking about electoral reform for years and years. Indeed, it is less than 12 months since the Government which he supported brought forward their own proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote, so it has had plenty of exposure.

It is important that we address the amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, proposed some time ago and which was supported by the noble Lord, Lord Bach. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, indicated, this was part of the coalition agreement, and it is worth recalling that back in those days in May this year, it was very clear that no party had won the election. Indeed, given the instability in world markets at the time and the potential political instability which could be fed by that, my own party, the Liberal Democrats, came to an agreement with the Conservative Party to form a coalition Government to bring, I believe, much needed stability at a very crucial time.

There were several issues in that agreement with regard to constitutional reform and the coalition’s programme for government made a clear commitment to both the issues involved in this Bill—a referendum on the alternative vote and a boundary review to ensure a reduction of the House of Commons and equality of value of votes in constituencies. It was the Government’s view that both issues should be tackled and implemented together, and we have never made any secret of that particular fact.

The noble and learned Lord must have been privy to some of these negotiations. Why was it in those negotiations that the Liberal Democrats did not demand from the Conservatives that the question in the referendum went wider than one system? Why did they not ask for a multiquestion to be placed on the referendum ballot paper?

The book from Selsdon suggests that Gordon Brown offered it to the Liberal Democrats, so surely there was a basis on which they could have asked the same from the Conservative element in the coalition.

It was the late Lord Butler who said, and no doubt he was not the first, that politics is the art of the possible. All I can say is that, casting one’s mind back, agreeing to a referendum on the alternative vote was a huge move on the part of the Conservative Party. Indeed, together with other elements, it formed part of the basis for the coalition agreement. Speculating about other voting systems does not take us much further. This is what was agreed and this is what provided the basis of the stable Government which we formed in May of this year.

Does he not understand that the Conservative element in the coalition would not have backed down if the Liberal Democrats had asked for it; it would not have blocked an agreement being made; and, in fact, they were walked over during the course of the negotiations?

I am interested that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, seems to have greater insight into what the Conservative Party would do than the Conservative Party itself seems to have.

This was the basis of an agreement which has formed a stable Government for this country, and part of this agreement features in this Bill.

This is the third time the noble and learned Lord has put forward the claim that the coalition exists to provide stability for this country. Why, then, this Maoist approach to the British constitution?

As I do not recognise the allegation that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, has made, I am not really in a position to answer. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has identified that these two are linked together. He went on to argue that it was not the Liberal Democrats who got the better of the deal. He made the point that if there is a no vote in the referendum, the boundary proposals still go through. If there was a no vote—as I hope not, and our parties in the collation are agreed about what the outcome of the referendum should be—as a Liberal Democrat, I do not think I could ignore the view of the people. It would be wrong. If the people vote no, I expect that my colleagues will accept it.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, made a point about fairness and the equality of constituencies. He said that that is a Conservative principle, and I am sure he would claim that it is not unique to the Conservative Party because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, endorsed it, and I have no difficulty in accepting that as a principle. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord McNally has said on a number of occasions, this Bill is about fair votes and fair boundaries. It shows that the two are, in fact, linked. It shows how the two will be linked because it will shape the way in which the other place will be elected in 2015.

Will the noble and learned Lord also address the question of indecent haste and the fact that there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny? Is he aware, for example, that in Wales, the Welsh Assembly seats are based on 40 existing Welsh parliamentary seats and 20 proportional representation seats? Had they bothered to consult the Welsh Assembly, they would have been told of the substantial implications for the electoral system in Wales arising from the way in which the Welsh constituencies will be reduced from 40 to 30.

That is similar to the changes that occurred in Scotland after the noble Lord’s Government, which he supported, reduced the number of Scottish Members in the House of Commons from 72 to 59 when Scotland had 73 first past the post seats and 28 seats. I am not sure whether he objected when that legislation was brought before this House back in 2005 or 2006, but I hear his point. When we come to that part of the Bill, I have no doubt whatever that there will be discussions on the subject of Wales and the Isle of Wight.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked whether a boundary review could be judicially reviewed. I remind the House that the question of hybridity was raised at the first stage of the proceedings on this Bill in this House and was rejected. Indeed, the position is that the Boundary Commissions can be judicially reviewed. It is our hope that they will not be and that there will be no grounds for doing so. Whether any challenge would delay a review would depend on the nature of the challenge, the time it took to be heard and whether any action had to be taken as a result. Clearly, we will have ample opportunity to debate issues that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, raised about the Isle of Wight, Ynys Môn and Cornwall—I have no doubt whatever, because I received the representations, too—when we debate the second Part of this Bill.

I am very grateful for that answer. Can the Minister get the advice of the legal officers of the Government and write to me or put a copy in the Library, because I would like to know what the judgment is about this? It is clear that the Government have made a clear commitment to Orkney and Shetland, the Western Isles and the Welsh constituency too, I understand. If that is the case, it is hard to see why the Isle of Wight and, I say perhaps less confidently, Cornwall, would not at least have a case. I would welcome hearing the Government’s law officers' view.

I recall very clearly that when we discussed this in the debate on the Motion tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on hybridity, the very clear advice we got from the Clerk was that there was no issue of hybridity, which is the other side of the same coin to which the noble Lord, Lord Soley, was referring.

I appreciate the Minister’s courtesy to me and to the House as a whole. He just said that he personally believes in the principle of numerical equality between constituencies. As the former Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland, does he now hold that that principle ought to apply to Orkney and Shetland and that they should be subordinated to it?

For good reasons, which the Bill addresses, there are exceptions. There are only two, and I do not want to take up the time of the House, although we will, no doubt, have plenty of opportunity at a later stage to explain why in these two limited cases, which by any stretch of anyone’s imagination are different from any other part of the United Kingdom, an exception has to be made. Two out of 600 does not really depart from the principle of fairness that I illustrated.

I would not want the Minister to mislead the House. It is not just two constituencies. The area provision also excludes the constituency presently represented by Mr Charles Kennedy. Is that not correct?

That is not correct. The relationship between the area provision and the constituency represented by my right honourable friend Charles Kennedy is that he currently represents the largest area in the United Kingdom. The area referred to in Part 2 is just slightly larger. It is not to preserve a particular constituency. Indeed, if one thinks about it logically, if you start at the top and come down, it would eat into his present constituency anyway. It is not an automatic read-across. The noble Lord has just got it wrong on that point.

Can the Minister clarify something very simple for me? Perhaps I misunderstood. Is he saying that one judicial review in one part of the United Kingdom could block the boundary changes that trigger the introduction of AV? Is that exactly what he is saying? Can we have that clarified?

I shall repeat what I said. I said that the Boundary Commissions could be judicially reviewed. Of course, I hope that that does not happen and that there will be no such a challenge. Whether any challenge would lead to a delay would depend on the nature of the challenge and the time it took for it to be heard. I remind the House of the provisions in the next Part of the Bill at Clause 10(3):

“A Boundary Commission shall submit reports under subsection (1) above periodically … before 1st October 2013”.

We hope that that will find favour with the House and will be in the statute to which the Boundary Commissions will have to adhere.

The Minister said that the boundary commissions could be reviewed. Can I isolate within that Boundary Commission review whether a judicial review within one particular part of the country will in itself lead to this blockage of the introduction of AV that is being referred to?

I think I also said in my response earlier that the length of any possible delay would depend upon whether action needed to be taken as a consequence of that ruling and whether there was a knock-on. I also indicated that as the Bill stands the Boundary Commission review would have to report by 1 October 2013, and that is what we wish to put into statute.

Just before we leave the point about those special exemptions to which the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and others have referred, in order to avoid the need for judicial reviews later on or for discussion when we get to later parts of this Bill, could the Minister isolate for us those constituencies that are in dispute? Mr Andrew Turner from the Isle of Wight has written to each of us, as has the leader of Cornwall Council, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, mentioned Ynys Môn. If just those three examples are as narrow as that, would it not be sensible between now and Report, in the spirit mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Bach and Lord Rooker, earlier, for the officials of the noble and learned Lord’s department to meet representatives from those areas to see whether further exemptions could be made?

The noble Lord is right to identify the ones he has. The others were, I think, incorporated into an amendment that was moved in the other place and that related to some of the highlands seats and Argyll and Bute. I hear what he says. I can assure him that I have already met elected Members from Cornwall as well as elected Members from the highlands and islands of Scotland on these issues. We are certainly alive to the issues that he has raised, and I have no doubt that we will have plenty of opportunity to debate them in due course when we return in the new year.

The Minister said that I am just plain wrong. Can he therefore explain the purpose of new paragraph 4(2) in substitute Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act:

“A constituency does not have to comply with rule 2(1)(a) if … it has an area of more than 12,000 square kilometres”.

Paragraph 2(1)(a) provides, of course, that it need be,

“no less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota”.

My understanding of that is that in the highlands at least one constituency, if not the existing constituency of his right honourable friend, would be exempt from that rule, and on previous voting patterns it is likely that it would be a Liberal Democrat constituency.

I think the noble Lord specifically said that it would be the constituency of my right honourable friend, but in fact that is wrong. Obviously parts of the Highlands and Islands, and perhaps even parts of mid-Wales, raise the potential for large areas to be covered. It would be wrong for us to second guess how the Boundary Commission will apply that. I can certainly assure him that although as a party we have had a consistency good record in the Highlands and Islands, we never take that for granted, and I would certainly not presume from this Dispatch Box that any resulting seat would be a Liberal Democrat seat. However, we would work hard to win it.

The point I was making was that the noble Lord said that he agreed with his noble friend Lord Deben that the prime consideration should be the number of electors: that that was supreme. The Bill exempts Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. Now there is another exemption, is there not?

Yes, but as I indicated earlier, I do not think that that detracts from the fundamental principle because it reflects common sense on the areas. I am sure that the noble Lord would be the first to complain if we had not done something similar. Let us hear from a fresh voice.

The noble Lord said that there were good reasons for these exemptions. Given that the Bill says that a constituency does not have to comply if it covers an area of more than 12,000 square kilometres, can the noble Lord, in advance of the debate at a future time, place a letter in the Library of the House of Lords detailing the criteria on which these decisions were made so that we can be better informed when it comes to that debate?

I am sure that they are very similar to the criteria which the previous Labour Government adopted when they gave Orkney and Shetland separate seats in the Scottish Parliament, and did so for similar reasons. His having been a member of that Government, I am sure that the noble Lord will be well aware of those criteria. However, I have no doubt that we will come back to this.

I shall conclude where we came in by indicating that Amendments 45 and 46A would separate the two issues. The first amendment moved by the noble Lord would do this by removing the stipulation that the alternative vote provisions are brought in only after the draft Order in Council is laid, and the second amendment would do this by removing the provision that requires the alternative vote provisions to be brought into force on the same day. It does not actually break the linkage as it would leave the requirement that the order bringing the boundaries provisions into force must have been laid first, although that would not necessarily be on the same day. It may be the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to put the amendments together.

I have indicated that the coalition programme for government makes a clear commitment to both issues, and it is the Government’s view that the issues are linked, particularly in terms of how the House of Commons will be shaped when it is reconstituted after the election in 2015. As my noble friend Lord McNally has said on many occasions, the linkage is fair votes and fair boundaries. The Government are committed to both provisions if a yes vote is carried in the referendum. The Government therefore wish to see both provisions, if the yes vote is carried, to come into effect in time for the next general election. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

The Minister has been quite helpful on some of these points. I agree that the Boundary Commission can be judicially reviewed and I accept that the House decided that this is not a hybrid Bill. What I am interested in is that when I asked him about the Isle of Wight, on which I will focus in relation to the amendment that we are discussing, a challenge under this current amendment would prevent the system going forward in the way the Bill envisages; so the question whether there can be a legal challenge is crucial.

Let us put Cornwall to one side for a moment because I am not familiar enough with its case. I know the area of the Western Isles rather well, but I do not know Orkney and Shetland. However, I do know that those two areas have similar problems to the problem faced by the constituency of the Member for the Isle of Wight, who has argued the case very strongly in the House of Commons. If there is a similar problem, there are the conditions for a possible legal challenge. Indeed, I think the Minister used the phrase “it is common sense” when he said that the two Scottish seats are very different. I am a great believer in common sense, but I have to say that it can get you into deep trouble when you go into a court of law.

This goes back to a point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker that there is a case for the Government to be more willing to compromise on this Bill and at least to offer to investigate. I would very much like to know, and I am sure that councillors on the Isle of Wight would love to know, the government law officers’ view on whether a legal challenge could be mounted because there was no Boundary Commission review of the Isle of Wight. It seems at least possible, so it would be good if we could have the lawyers’ views on this.

My Lords, I hesitate to say because, although I am only seven or eight months into office, one of the cardinal rules for a law officer is not to expose what your advice to the Government is. Indeed, you do not even disclose whether advice has been given. However, I will reflect on what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has said and not necessarily answer his question about advice but perhaps revisit the advice that was given to the House by the Clerks when the particular issue of hybridity was looked at.

On another subject, which I asked the noble Lord about in my contribution, does he agree that even if, by way of exaggeration as an example, 99 per cent of the population were to vote in favour of changing the Westminster voting system to this type of AV, that change would not come about if the boundary changes were not made? How can he seek to justify that?

I will not justify that particular point, but I will draw the noble Lord’s attention to the fact that the Boundary Commission report is due, as I have already said on two or three occasions during these exchanges, on 1 October 2013. There will be time to debate the fixed-term Parliament Bill, but the assumption is that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday in May 2015. Therefore there will be ample time for both orders to be laid and implemented together, assuming of course that there is a yes vote. If it is a no vote, no time is attached to bringing forward an order to repeal the relevant sections of the Bill, or the Act as it will be by then.

I reiterate that if the Boundary Commission report is brought forward by 1 October 2013, there will be ample time. Obviously this is also important for electoral administrators and the political parties, and it would ensure that the next general election would be fought both within the boundaries that would then be implemented by order and under the alternative vote system.

If the constituency changes do not go ahead for any reason, AV cannot take place. However, if 99 per cent of the people have voted for AV, is that not unfair?

Ninety-nine per cent of the people voting for AV, much as I would like to see that, is hypothetical. It is also purely hypothetical that the boundary changes will not go ahead either.

My Lords, the Minister stood up to speak 25 minutes ago and he has been most courteous in his responses to the many interventions. He said rather wryly that it seemed to have been a long time since I stood up to move the amendment in my name. I did not manage to speak for as long as he did. I do not think that I spoke for more than 10 minutes, and I was trying to make a substantive case, on which we have had a good debate.

However, I think that the debate was thrown off course at one point by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, whom we all greatly admire. The noble Lord made a partisan attack on ex-Members of the House of Commons on this side of the Committee in a speech made by an ex-Member of the other House. I do not think that we progress best in this House by swapping partisan insults of that kind. Perhaps this should be a warning to us to keep them to a minimum. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Deben, I was never a Member of the House of Commons and so I have not adapted to the kind of things that I understand from this debate go on there.

It is important to get away from the partisan, and I do so, as part of my concluding remarks, by referring to the non-partisan committee of this House— the Constitution Committee—which examined the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and had many prominent Conservatives in its ranks, including the noble Lords, Lord Norton, Lord Crickhowell and Lord Renton of Mount Harry. It said:

“In general, we regard it as a matter of principle that proposals for major constitutional reform should be subject to prior public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny. We recognise that there may exceptionally be good reasons for departing from this principle, but the perils of doing so are well illustrated in the present Bill. The case for proceeding rapidly with one Part of this Bill is far stronger than for the other”.

In other words, the non-partisan examination of the buckle in the Bill said that it should not be there. However, it is there—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was commendably frank about this—and it is there for purely political reasons. Therefore it is right that we in this House, with our responsibilities to the constitution as a whole, should examine whether those reasons are convincing.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, was a little less convincing when he tried to explain the reasons for it being there when he said, “Of course, if the AV referendum is lost I would not want to push ahead with it”. With great respect, that is not the point that we on this side of the House are seeking to make. Our point is different: it is that the two sets of proposals are not treated the same. Of course, if the AV referendum is lost, noble Lords should not proceed with an AV proposal, but there is no such conditionality on the proposals for constituency and boundary changes—they are to go ahead nevertheless.

Before the House has even started to examine these proposals—and before the Boundary Commission has started on the extremely onerous, some people believe impracticable, task it is being set—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, says that the boundary changes and the change in the number of MPs will go ahead. If they do not go ahead—and all kinds of happenstance could prevent them from going ahead—neither will AV. As my noble friend Lord Bach points out, AV could be prevented from going through even though it had the overwhelming support of the British people. That cannot be right.

I do not propose to force this issue to a Division today. I hope Ministers will think carefully about the situations, that wiser counsels will prevail, and that even now they will find a way of separating the two bits of the Bill so that each can be taken on its merits. I withdraw the amendment hoping that Christmas cheer will suffuse the Government’s approach when next we turn to these matters on 10 January.

Amendment 45 withdrawn.

House resumed.