Committee (7th Day)
54ZA: Before Clause 10, insert the following new Clause—
“Committee of Inquiry on Parliamentary constituencies
(1) There shall be a Committee of Inquiry, chaired by a High Court judge, comprising members of both Houses of Parliament, including representatives of the principal political parties in the House of Commons, as well as individuals with no party attachment, and others.
(2) The Committee of Inquiry shall—
(a) review the current rules for conducting Parliamentary boundary reviews (contained in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986) considering in particular— (i) how to address the inequality of constituency sizes;(ii) how to stabilise the size of the House of Commons;(iii) the relative importance of electoral equality against the specific character of individual constituencies, including the rules relating to geographical considerations, local ties and ‘inconveniences’, and the rules on crossing borough and county boundaries; and(iv) make recommendations;(b) examine in this context the question of the optimum size of a constituency taking into account the need to maintain the Union, the proper role of MPs in their constituencies and in Parliament, and the implications for these roles of the responsibilities of other representative bodies including local authorities and the House of Lords, and make recommendations;(c) consider the implications of an optimum size for the House of Commons for an optimum size for the House of Lords, and make recommendations;(d) review the time taken to conduct boundary reviews, particularly in England, and make recommendations;(e) review the alignment between the timing of local and parliamentary boundary reviews to ensure that stable local government electoral boundaries can form the basis for each parliamentary review, and make recommendations;(f) examine the question of a role for keeping the operation of the rules under review and ensuring consistency of approach by the four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions, including monitoring their standards of performance, and make recommendations; and (g) examine the arguments surrounding the statistical basis on which electoral areas are currently constructed, in particular whether the eligible population rather than electoral statistics should be used, and make recommendations.(3) The Committee of Inquiry established under subsection (1) shall report to Parliament annually on its progress, and deliver a final report with recommendations to the Secretary of State within three years of the passing of this Act.
(4) Within 6 months of the Committee of Inquiry’s report the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament, for Parliament’s consideration, a scheme including draft Bills to implement the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry.”
My Lords, perhaps noble Lords would leave as quietly and as quickly as possible, so that we can all hear the noble Lord introduce his amendment.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his courtesy.
Rather curiously for this House, I support the Bill’s objectives. I support a referendum on the alternative vote system and I support any attempt to make the process of boundary revisions fairer and more efficient. Who could possibly be against any reasonable attempt to cut the cost of politics? However, as I and many other noble Lords have already argued, there are profound flaws in how the Bill proposes to achieve those objectives. The amendment is designed to remedy some of the worst of those flaws in Part 2. It is lengthier than I would have wished, because it sets out to provide a comprehensive solution to those problems, but I would be happy to withdraw it if the Government could give an assurance today that they will find a better way to secure such a solution.
At the heart of Part 2 lie assumptions about the optimum size of the House of Commons, the optimum size of a parliamentary constituency and the process of altering constituency boundaries. Those issues are central to the machinery of our democracy, yet the Government have conceded that the assumptions that they have made are arbitrary. They are not subject to any governing principle and they have not been subject to adequate consultation and scrutiny by the people whom they are meant to serve. Those issues are all the subject of vigorous debate.
Our electoral arrangements should never become the subject of partisan dispute, as that corrodes public trust and undermines the foundations of our democracy. Therefore, for many years, all political parties have sought consensus on such issues and, for the most part, they have succeeded in finding it. The Bill is a deplorable exception to that good practice, to which the amendment attempts to return. The amendment would not substitute my judgment for that of the Government in addressing these issues. Instead, it sets up a process for an independent, fair and principled set of judgments to be made. In doing so, it is intended to restore faith in the impartiality of the process for changing our electoral arrangements by requiring the Government to set up a committee of inquiry, such as a royal commission, to investigate and make recommendations on all those key and contentious issues.
The royal commission is a tried and tested mechanism for addressing such important, complex and contentious issues. It has worked well in the past and is generally accepted as a fair mechanism for dealing with such contested issues. Its composition would be for the Government to decide, but it should include Members of both Houses of Parliament, including representatives of the principal parties in the House of Commons, as those with most direct experience of such issues, as well as individuals with no party attachment, and others.
It would be for the Government to decide the process of such a committee of inquiry, but I draw Ministers’ attention to the Liberal Democrat conference resolution of 2008, which pledged to set up a constitutional assembly or citizens’ summit as a deliberative mechanism for the people of this country to pronounce on precisely such important issues as this. I am profoundly sorry that the Government have not followed the recommendation of that Liberal Democrat conference of 2008. It may be that they will now seize on this amendment as an opportunity to do so. They could even vote with us on this.
The remit for the commission would include consideration of how best to equalise constituencies, particularly taking into account all those issues of local identity and character about which such widespread concerns were expressed at Second Reading, which I think all Members of this House have had expressed to them in correspondence since Second Reading. The amendment proposes that the commission examine the optimum size for a constituency. This is a crucial consideration in creating a principled approach to the equalisation of constituencies. I am not against equalising constituencies, but I want to see it being done according to a fair, impartial and principled process.
What is the appropriate relationship between a Member of Parliament and their constituency and what size of constituency best sustains that relationship? The United States, with a population approximately six times that of the United Kingdom, has 435 Members of the House of Representatives and 100 Members of the Senate. A proportionate adjustment for the United Kingdom would result in a House of Commons of around 90 MPs.
Would my noble friend not accept that the United States has a federal system so that every state has its own Senate, House of Representatives and governor and within each state there are county legislatures? Therefore, the system is very different from that in the United Kingdom.
Of course I accept that. I was about to make very similar points in my remarks. What my noble friend has so accurately pointed out is that this is a subject for debate. He has made a very good point. This is precisely the sort of issue that should have been debated before the Government brought forward this legislation. What is the best size for a constituency in this country? I will come to the other constitutional changes that might affect this in a moment, but of course my noble friend is right.
If 90 is not an appropriate size for the membership of the House of Commons, why not? The Government have given us no clue. Surely, as I was saying, before embarking on such radical reform we need to seek agreement as far as possible between all political parties in this country on what principles should determine the size of the constituency and hence the size of the House of Commons.
In arriving at such principles, any review must take account of the other impending changes in our constitutional arrangements such as the increasing decentralisation of power to local authorities. All parties agree on the need for this. There are measures already coming forward from the Government. We need to look at the impact of those measures on the optimum size of a constituency, but the Government have not done so. We also need to look at the implications for the size of the constituency and the relationship between the Member of Parliament and their constituents of the impending reforms to this Chamber. Many Members will oppose such reforms, but the Government want to bring them forward and they owe it to the British people to have a proper discussion about the implications of such changes on the optimum size of a constituency. What will be the implications for the nature and role of the Member of Parliament? We have had no such discussion, and this amendment offers the opportunity to have it. I think that it would be very valuable for the health of our democracy for that to happen.
The commission would also need to take account of the principle that has been followed by all parties that believe in the value of the union of differential protections for the minority nations of the United Kingdom. This is a crucial point for all those who believe in the value of maintaining the union. The nature of the union has changed dramatically since the Labour Government brought forward measures of devolution, and that relationship is continuing to evolve. There is no evidence whatsoever in the Bill that the Government have appreciated this or recognised its significance. This amendment gives them a chance to look at the implications of the changing nature of the devolved constitutional arrangements of this country on the proposals in this Bill.
The statistical basis on which the size of constituencies is equalised is also crucial. It is bad enough that the Government are seeking to conduct a wholesale boundary review on the basis of an electoral register that is neither comprehensive nor accurate. It is deplorable that they appear to be doing this in the pursuit of partisan advantage. It is perhaps even worse that this fundamental redrawing of the electoral map should be done in such an arbitrary way, leaving key questions not even raised, let alone answered. How far, for example, should the electoral register be the basis for such equalisation? How far should population be the basis? These are clearly issues that any committee would need to consider, so they are included in the amendment.
Speak to the House. Face forward.
I am very grateful to my noble friend. As he said, the previous Government—I was the Minister responsible for this—did a lot of work on how we could more fairly ensure that everyone entitled to be on the electoral register was on it. We brought forward legislation putting a duty on the Electoral Commission to bring forward such measures. That is another reason why I am in such despair that the Government are rushing ahead on the basis of such a flawed electoral register. If only they had had a little patience and had waited just a few months longer. There was every chance that the Electoral Commission’s work would produce a significantly improved register, which might even have been comprehensive and accurate, as it should be.
These issues now need to be debated. They are issues not just for this House or for the other place; they are issues for the British people, who have had no say in this fundamental building block of their democracy. This amendment offers the opportunity to the Government to give the British people that say in these arrangements. I very much hope that they will take it. I have also included provision—I think that everyone will agree with this—for boundary reviews to be timely. I do not think that there should be any dispute about that.
Finally—I know that this will be of concern to the Government—there is the question of a timetable. I had some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, when he said at Second Reading that the time had almost come for constitutional reformers just to get on with it. I hope that I am not quoting him inaccurately. Of course, anyone who wants to see constitutional reform must beware delay, which is always the enemy of truly radical reform. I recognise that cynical members of the Government—I am sure that noble Lords on the Front Bench are not so cynical—may regard this proposal for a committee as nothing more than a device to push all these issues into the long grass. That is not my intention. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I support the objectives of this Bill.
My amendment does not leave this process open-ended, but specifies a timescale. In my judgment—I did considerable work on these issues when I was the Minister responsible in the previous Government—three years is an appropriate timescale in which to explore all these issues with appropriate rigour, to hear evidence from all concerned parties, including members of the public, and to produce recommendations that can command popular support.
More generally, this is a typical timeframe for a royal commission. The average time to report for the past 10 royal commissions has been slightly less than three years. This is a reasonable amount of time to give the committee to report. But I have added further comfort in this amendment to those who might be concerned about undue delay. The amendment includes provision for the commission to report annually to Parliament on its progress, so that Parliament may have regular opportunities to contribute to the continuing deliberations of the commission. The Government will always have the option to take steps to ensure a speedier dispatch of this work should they think that that is necessary, which I very much hope that they will not.
This amendment is detailed and complex because the issues covered are detailed and complex. They are also vital to the health of our democracy. I hope that the Government may feel able to accept the amendment, if not in this exact formulation then at least in one perhaps better drafted to achieve the same objectives. Whatever view is taken of the merits of the objectives of Part 1 of the Bill, no independent observer could consider Part 2 to be anything other than at best botched legislation and at worst a partisan attack on fundamental constitutional proprieties. Such profoundly flawed legislation is unlikely to endure and I just say to Ministers opposite that history is not likely to look fondly on its perpetrators.
The amendment offers the Government a chance to find a way out of the swamp into which they have waded with little care or consideration. It gets them to the place that they say that they want to be with a delay of only a few months to allow for independent examination and the engagement of the public in issues of great importance to our democracy, which, after all, is meant to serve the public, not the interests of the Government of the day. It would enable this legislation to proceed on the basis of constitutional principle not on that of arbitrary and partisan calculation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak this early, but I may as well intervene to support my noble friend in his amendment. I begin by commenting on my reflections over the Christmas Recess on how I see the progress on this Bill. My comments stem from conversations with Members of the other place, some of whom spoke on the Bill during its transit through that House. The conclusion that we have all come to is that the way in which this legislation is being handled is a clear breach of any reasonable process. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, looks as if I am saying something that causes him some anguish, but the reality is that this is a constitutional Bill in its two principal components. AV, which is a huge change to the electoral system with massive constitutional implications, and the change to constituency boundaries are big constitutional issues that in both cases require, in my view, a proper inquiry before this legislation goes through Parliament.
The reality is that, because of our arrangements in the House of Lords, at least we are able to give the Bill some level of scrutiny, but I do not believe that the level of scrutiny that we can give it satisfies in any way the gravity, importance and significance of the legislation that the Government are seeking to introduce. I am saying all this as a strong supporter of a change to the electoral system. Indeed, I would probably go down the route of the Liberal Democrats on this matter if only they would be honest in the position that they took as against supporting this miserable little compromise. Also, the concept of a reduction in the number of seats is not altogether alien to me; indeed, it has never been a great problem for me. The question is the process by which we arrive at that.
I believe that my noble friend’s amendment is critical for securing proper consideration. As he said, it was the subject of a resolution carried at the Liberal Democrat conference. Both the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, are in their places today and I hope and expect them to have the courage to argue on the back of this amendment the case that was argued forcefully at their annual conference basically in support of the principles that my noble friend is seeking to establish.
I thought that I was taking an intervention. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me. The Government will not get off that lightly.
The Government should be reminded of the relevant sections in the very well written report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I understand that the report’s recommendations were carried unanimously by the membership of that committee. All parties subscribed to the principles set out in paragraph 11, which states:
“We regret the fact that this Bill has not been subject to either pre-legislative scrutiny, or to prior public consultation”.
That is to say, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Peers all support that statement.
The report continues:
“We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the basis of any considered assessment of the role and functions of MPs”.
My noble friend’s proposed inquiry would do precisely that. It is fair to ask the question: why 600? Why not 590? Why not 500, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has suggested? Why not 550? Why not 700 or 800? All the coalition Government have done is pick figures out of the air and say, “Yes, the Liberal Democrats want 500; the Conservatives want 600. Let’s settle on that figure”. That is not the basis on which the size of what is perhaps the most important Parliament in the world should be decided.
We then have to consider the whole issue of Lords reform. Until we know what the arrangements for an elected House will be, how can we even begin to comprehend the nature of the relationship that will develop between individual constituents—because there may well be individual constituents—and Members of an elected House of Lords, and the extent to which that will impact on how many MPs there should be in the House of Commons? That matter has not even entered into the discussions that have taken place prior to the introduction of this legislation.
There is also the whole question of population, on which I intervened during my noble friend’s speech. I have pondered over the Christmas Recess on why population should not be taken into account when, particularly in the inner cities, many of the people who come to MPs’ surgeries would be excluded from the electoral register. I cannot see why those groups who are excluded should not be taken into account when one is deciding the workload of a Member of Parliament and the size of any constituency.
The noble Lord makes a valid point about people who are not on the electoral roll. I think of my previous constituency of Glasgow North East, to which the Home Office decided that a large number of asylum seekers would come. Not one of them, with the problems that they had, was turned away. Moreover, almost every asylum seeker had a lawyer who would also make representation to me as the local MP. It got to the stage where 90 per cent of the cases coming to surgeries were those of asylum seekers. Only those who were Commonwealth citizens as well as being asylum seekers were entitled to go on to the voters’ roll.
That intervention by my noble friend is extremely significant. That matter has not been taken into account by the Government. I know that there were problems in Glasgow, because I have been reading about them. There was a huge campaign that was referred to a few weeks ago by my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock to deal with the whole issue of registration, which threw up the particular problem to which my noble friend referred. Indeed, the Democratic Audit paper on further findings on equalisation, which no doubt most Members of the House will either have read or will want to read prior to our debates in the future, deals precisely with this issue of population. Mr Lewis Baston says:
“Approximately half of the countries that delimit districts use ‘total population’ as the population base for determining equality across electoral districts. Another third of the countries employ registered voters as the population base”.
Several European countries use citizen population as the relevant base for determining population equality. Lesotho uses the voting age population as the base and Belarus uses the number of voters in the previous election, although that would not be particularly helpful here, would it?
The facts are that countries can use census material and population statistics as against registered electors, particularly when we know that the registered electorate, as far as the purposes of this Bill are concerned, are based on a register that is effectively out of date and which excludes, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton was saying only a few weeks ago, some 3.5 million people. Some 3.5 million people are excluded from the register. Why cannot the great proportion of those be included on a register by changing the basis on which the register is drawn by moving it over to a more population-based system?
Has my noble friend seen the Electoral Commission’s excellent report published in March this year entitled The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain? Not only are there that number missing from the electoral register, they are not missing in a proportionate way. There are areas where there are numbers missing disproportionately and Glasgow particularly comes to mind. With an average in Scotland of 92.1 per cent completeness, Glasgow is only 67.8 per cent complete.
I have not read that report although it is on my reading list. There are a number of reports I have to read next weekend in preparation for the debates that will take place next week.
The point is that this is not the peg on which to argue the basis on which people register. My noble friend’s amendment simply says, “Let us have an inquiry that does precisely that”. He is saying, “Let someone, somewhere, do some homework on this whole area before Parliament is required to carry any particular piece of legislation”. That is my case.
My noble friend has made an important point about the importance of considering population. But does he agree that this emphasises yet again the folly of rushing this? In a short space of time we will have the results of the 2011 census—probably around 2013 or 2014. It is absolutely crucial in deciding the validity of going forward on a population basis, but also in ascertaining just how under-registered the British people are. What is the degree of under-registration in different constituencies and different population groups throughout the country? Does this not prove the folly of rushing ahead like this?
I could not agree more with my noble friend. If we are going to have a five-year Parliament, why cannot those data be used? It would still leave the opportunity for legislation to be introduced to deal with this whole issue. Why, in other words, on the back of a whipped vote on the coalition Benches, is this measure being driven through this House when we all know it is an abuse of process and wrong in every possible way?
My Lords, I, too, endorse the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Wills and follow some lines of argument developed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. Lord Randolph Churchill described Gladstone—presumably still something of an inspiration to at least some noble Lords opposite—as an,
“old man in a hurry”.
This Bill and other pieces of legislation we are seeing are redolent of a Government of young men in a hurry. That hurry is palpable and inexcusable. I would not accuse the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of being young men—in a hurry or in any other sense—but the hurry is certainly still there.
A reference has been made to the interesting report of the Select Committee on the Constitution—a most distinguished body, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours remarked. There are some additional matters on top of those to which he referred, but first, following the valid point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, about asylum seekers, another point has been overlooked. Within towns and cities, and across the country, EU citizens resident in this country and entitled to vote in the local elections—though not parliamentary elections—are also outside the compass of this proposal to determine the size of constituencies. They have a vote and are undoubtedly contributing to council tax and the rest in this country, which might be thought a material factor.
The report also concludes in paragraph 29 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 matter was touched on by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. The committee concluded that the Government,
“have not made a proper assessment of the impact which the reduction in the size of the House of Commons may have on the relationship between the executive and Parliament”.
That is also a significant point. The committee was not persuaded that the reduction—essentially to be made among Back-Bench Members in another place— would necessarily be adverse to the balance but the matter does not seem to have been considered at all and it was,
“concerned that the Bill could possibly result in the Executive's dominance over Parliament being increased”.
On the timing of the boundary review, the committee observed that,
“additional resources will be required, particularly for the first such review”.
What estimate has been made of the additional resources required if and when this Bill goes through, in particular for that first review? The committee shared the concern of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that it was,
“not clear whether political parties have the necessary resources and resilience at a local level to adapt successfully within this timeframe to contesting new constituencies”.
The report goes on to say that,
“the Government should set out how they propose to meet the need for parties, candidates and electors to know the shape of their constituencies a sufficient length of time in advance of each general election”.
One of the Ministers giving evidence to the committee rather dismissed that issue but it is significant for those of us on the ground.
On the crucially important question of equalisation, the committee affirmed that,
“pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation would have enabled a better assessment of whether the new rules as to equalisation are overly rigid”.
What does the Minister make of that judgment?
On public participation, I mentioned in a previous debate that I had been engaged—on one occasion professionally and on another in a political capacity—in giving evidence at local public inquiries about both ward and parliamentary boundaries. The Bill in effect proposes to end the system of public inquiries of that kind and to rely on written evidence. The crucial difference between written evidence and a public inquiry is that the evidence cannot be tested by those with a contrary view—whether they be a different political party, an individual citizen or any other interest group. It is most important that, particularly when dealing with sensitive areas of locality, these issues are properly argued out in public. Written submissions will not, I believe, have that effect.
We already have experience of some rather difficult hybrid constituencies. For many years, I have represented a ward that was at one time in the constituency of Newcastle Central and then became part of a constituency called Tyne Bridge, which included part of Newcastle and part of Gateshead and was divided only by the River Tyne. I have occasionally likened Newcastle and Gateshead—of which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton has intimate knowledge, as chairman of a concern that tries to unite the two areas in promoting their economic interest—to the city of Budapest, which also comprises two quite separate places brought together, although I hesitate to indicate which might be Buda and which might be Pest. Nevertheless, even in an area as compact as Newcastle and Gateshead, there is a distinct feeling of difference, so the Tyne Bridge constituency was never a happy compromise. Most of us, on both sides of the river, are glad that our respective constituencies are now confined to areas on either side. Such significant local issues would be even more salient, as many of your Lordships will know from the many e-mails and letters received, in areas such as Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. However, all of that appears to have been dismissed.
The Constitution Committee’s report also states,
“we believe that a number of concerns, particularly with Part 2 of the Bill, have not been properly addressed by the Government”,
but it does not look like the Government have much intention of giving them that further consideration. Indeed, it is sad that a committee of the distinction and weight of the Select Committee on the Constitution should have to conclude:
“We are concerned that the constitutional relationship between the provisions of this Bill and the Government’s other proposals for constitutional reform have not been adequately thought through. … The Government should set out how they consider that this Bill and its place within their programme of constitutional reform makes the political system ‘more transparent and accountable’”.
To that I would add that the Government should also set out how the Bill will make the political system more comprehensible to the public, whom the Government are here to serve, who must be encouraged to participate more fully in the democratic process.
My final point is on the continuing problem with electoral registration. Levels of registrations are very variable up and down the country, as noble Lords have mentioned. Given the requirement for individual voter registration that will eventually come into force, it seems likely that the existing problem will become worse rather than better. I ask the Minister what resources will be devoted to ensure that the maximum effort is made to have as full a register as possible. What methods might be used to promote registration? For example, will data sharing and the like be promoted, and would that be compatible with the individual registration that will be required in due course?
There is certainly scope for improvement in our electoral system, but that is not likely to be achieved if legislation is rushed. Like many noble Lords—on, I suspect, all sides of the House—I hope that the Government will think again about the process and look sympathetically on the very constructive Amendment 54ZA, which has been moved by my noble friend Lord Wills.
My Lords, I am slightly hesitant in rising to speak to the amendment because I had hoped that we might hear a contribution from the other side of the House. No one could argue—perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, could respond to this point—that the issues that we are discussing today are not of profound constitutional significance. The provisions in the Bill will alter the relationship between MPs and their constituents, the overall number of MPs and the ways in which the public can be involved in determining the electoral areas from which they will send their representatives to Westminster. If those issues are not of profound constitutional consequence, I do not know what issues are.
I must also say—if I may get my retaliation in first—that I really find it offensive to hear continual references to filibusters taking place when discussions of this significance are before the House. In fact, I would say that there is negligence on the part of groups, parties and individuals who do not make a full contribution to this debate. No one could possibly argue that there was a full debate in the House of Commons. I remind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace—it is convenient that he is in his place—that it was his leader who described these changes as the most profound since the Great Reform Bill of 1832. I have not had access to those debates, but if they really consisted of only one party having anything whatever to say about those proposals, and if those proposals were shovelled through both Houses in next to no time—this is a timetable that I have never seen before—then I would be very surprised indeed. It is our duty to examine these issues. They are of profound significance.
As for my noble friend’s amendment, although I would guess that he and I disagree on a huge range of issues connected with constitutional reform, I regard this as a masterly amendment. I defy anyone in this House to explain in detail why this is the wrong way to go about major constitutional reform. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, when he sums up, will not read out what I would guess his briefing notes suggest—that this legislation must be passed by 15 February in order for there to be enough time to hold the referendum on 5 May. That is not a reason for rushing through major constitutional reforms, so I hope that he does not say that.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord also does not say that there has already been excessive consideration of the Bill. This Bill—a huge Bill, a constitutional Bill—has so far had six days in Committee on the Floor of the House. I would ask him to look through the record of the previous Government, or of any other Government, to see the amount of time that was taken on Bills of far less significance. That is not to say that those Bills were not important—they were—but they had far less long-term, irreparable and unchangeable significance than this one. If you are changing the constitution, it is very difficult to change it back. The noble and learned Lord will find several Bills that took longer than this one has taken. We have got through roughly half the Bill—through Part 1—in six days in Committee. If the next period in Committee takes six days as well, it will still be impossible to meet the deadline of 15 February. That is not filibustering—that is the minimum required scrutiny. In fact, I would regard that as far too slight a scrutiny of a Bill of this importance to enable us to say that it has been considered properly by this House.
I must confess to being politically naïve. When I heard that the Conservative Party was suggesting that there should be a reduction in the number of MPs, I did not like it, but I was relatively relaxed about it because I knew that there would be plenty of time for discussion. I knew that you could not hurry Boundary Commissions. I knew that the last Boundary Commission for England took six years, so I thought, “Well, at least I will have plenty of time to discuss whether this is a good or a bad proposal”. It honestly did not occur to me for a moment that they would be scrapping the whole system of democratically accountable local inquiries—it just did not cross my mind that they would do that. Nor did it cross my mind that they would want to spend £12 million or so having a rushed Boundary Commission report—which is what the last Boundary Commission for England cost—when they keep telling us that every penny has to be saved.
As for the Liberal Democrats, it did not occur to me in my wildest dreams that they would say, “The thing we must do first in this new Parliament is to ensure that by 5 May we are asking the people whether they want the alternative vote system of proportional representation”. We know what the Liberal Democrats think about that system—I will not embarrass them by quoting their leader yet again; I think we all know the answer to that one—but for them it is a temporary, short-term arrangement so that they can move on in due course to full proportional representation.
I say to the Government that if they are wondering why the Bill is taking a long time, as they seem to suggest, they should look at the issues raised in my noble friend’s amendment. They should give us some sensible answers to the questions about why there cannot be a commission, and about the relationship between the two Houses. Here we have a Government who are reducing the number of Members of Parliament by 50 but, let us get this on the record, since the general election the number of new Members appointed to this House—many of whom I am delighted to see here; I am not complaining about them—is 117 so far. I remind the House that this is what the Deputy Prime Minister has described as a hugely important series of constitutional Bills that are all interrelated, and that great brains have been operating on them in order to show the nuance of the balance between the various pieces of legislation that are being brought forward. If there is any rational overview that allows simultaneously 50 fewer MPs and 117 additional appointed Members of the House of Lords, please could the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, explain to me what it is?
I have a final plea but it is one not made in hope, or indeed in expectation. Maybe just once, in response to one of the amendments from this side of the House, the Government could do what most Governments do from the Front Bench—many of us have been there—and say, “Look, we don’t really like the form of this amendment”, but at least acknowledge that there is some really powerful argument or justification for the points that we are making. At least they could say, “We’ll look at some of it, and we’ll bring some proposals back on Report”. I ask the Government not to regard this botched Bill as an impregnable piece of perfect legislation that should not be subject to any change.
It will be a test for the Government to see how they respond to a totally justified and well argued amendment, supported by people on very different sides regarding electoral reform and the future of the House of Lords; my noble friend Lord Wills and I are certainly on different sides. Let us hope for something better from the government Front Bench than we have had on any amendment so far.
My Lords, I follow my noble friend Lord Grocott’s earlier remarks about the debates that we have had so far on this enormous piece of legislation. For the same reasons as my noble friend, I feel strongly about much of its content. Like him—perhaps I could put this slightly stronger than he did—I deplore the lack of speeches from the Benches opposite. Indeed, having attended every day of the Committee so far, I have to say that this is the largest attendance that I have seen from the Conservative Party. The flesh might be present, though, but the spirit is pretty weak; we are still not seeing any contributions of either support or opposition from the Conservative Benches.
The Conservatives are slightly shamed by their coalition partners who are here in strength, although we are not hearing a great deal from them either, other than expressions of cynicism and impatience from one or two of them so far. It is regrettable that they cannot bring themselves to put some coherent arguments together in support of this enormous and extremely important piece of legislation.
My noble friend Lord Grocott mentioned the fact that there are accusations—this has not so far been said publicly, but there have been attempts to give this impression—that there is somehow some sort of filibuster taking place on the Labour Benches. I was contacted during the Christmas Recess by someone purporting to be from the Sunday Times, not a newspaper that I am overly fond of these days. I understand that investigations were taking place into the contents of some of the speeches on this legislation from this side of your Lordships’ House. Nothing has appeared in the Sunday Times yet because, I fear, when the reporter concerned put this story together, as reporters do, they managed to give the impression that what had been happening so far was that the Labour Benches had been doing the job for which they were appointed to this House and the Benches opposite had not. That would not for a moment satisfy the editorial tendencies of the Sunday Times, so it is no wonder that we have seen no more. However, the constitutional outrages in the Bill ought to be properly reported. If we had a press in this country that reported proceedings in this House and in the other place, rather than paying braying public schoolboys to pour buckets of verbal ordure on those they consider to be their social inferiors, the country at large might be alerted to the coalition Government’s outrageous behaviour and their attempts to rig both Houses of Parliament under these proceedings.
Like my noble friend Lord Grocott, I find myself in many of these arguments on the opposite side to my noble friend Lord Wills, who moved the amendment. However, it is an important and comprehensive amendment to which I hope the Front Bench opposite will give due and proper consideration. My noble friend’s amendment should certainly be considered in so far as it mentions local ties in relation to future constituency boundaries.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the Local Government Act 1972 will be aware of the dismay which was caused throughout the country by some of the boundaries of the then new local authorities. Indeed, in West Bromwich East, the constituency which I had the honour to represent in the other place for 27 years, many people were never reconciled to the new borough of Sandwell, which was created by the 1972 Act. After nearly 30 years many people looked blank when that name was mentioned. Yet here we have a Bill that proposes that constituency boundaries should be drawn up while paying no attention to local sentiment or action. Imagine, again from the point of view of my former constituency, a constituency that embraced West Bromwich East and West and Walsall. There is no great love between those two areas; they have their own football teams, structures and local authorities. They do not love each other. However, under these proposals, someone will have to try to represent such a constituency.
I look at the party opposite and one or two of the Conservative Benches. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who is as diligent as ever in these matters, is in his place. Imagine what would happen in Sutton Coldfield—his former constituency, which he represented with such distinction—if it were put next to somewhere like West Bromwich, for example. The uproar would be enormous. Reconciling the respective populations to it would be extraordinarily difficult, but these are the proposals that we are asked to approve in your Lordships’ House. This is the direction in which the Bill intends to take democratic matters in the years to come.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, who is not in his place today, wrote a piece in the Times some weeks ago, to which I have referred previously, in great support of the Bill. He said—I paraphrase—that the important thing in the Bill was to ensure that constituencies were of about the same numerical strength, taking one with another. He felt that the present imbalance in constituencies—the fact that some inner city constituencies, largely represented in the other place by the Labour Party, were smaller—was unfair. In his eyes the only way forward was to equalise constituencies numerically, although he conceded that there would be some electoral advantage for the Conservative Party in this. However, reference has already been made—I think by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—to the United States system of government. In the House of Representatives, that is exactly what happens. I do not think that the United States is in exactly a happier frame of mind because everyone in the House of Representatives represents around the same number of electors.
There are no great differences between them, as my noble friend says. However, to be honest, I would not be much concerned if there were. That is a red—or, rather, a blue—herring as far as this argument is concerned. It is surely a recognisable fact on both sides of your Lordships' House that voters are apt to be found in clusters, with Labour voters in inner-city areas and Conservative voters in more rural areas. Liberal voters are, however, diffused throughout the country.
We must not continue with that misunderstanding and misapprehension. For many years I represented 800 square miles of rural Scotland, and in 1997 I had a Labour majority of 21,000. Constituencies throughout Scotland such as Eastwood, Edinburgh South and Dumfries, which were thought to be Tory constituencies in perpetuity, are now Labour seats. We can win these seats and we will win many more of them.
I will do my—no doubt inadequate—best to do so. There are, of course, seats in England—we are not talking about Scotland now—where a Conservative voter is a lone voice indeed and where Conservative councillors are non-existent. Perhaps we should leave it there before I provoke any more reminiscences from my noble friend about what happens north of the border.
Before my noble friend Lady McDonagh intervened, I was talking about constituencies being based on numbers and nothing else. I looked up the origin of “gerrymandering” but with my customary forgetfulness—it must be old age—I have forgotten what my conclusions were. However, I understand that the word originated in the United States, so if gerrymandering takes place big time in the United States I do not see how a numerically even system of government is necessarily a fair one. I hope that I do not raise any further ire, or knock the scabs off any old sores, when I point out that for many years gerrymandering was said to be a way of life in Northern Ireland, although seats there were not based on numerical balance. I cannot for the life of me see how the coalition can claim that equalising constituencies numerically in the way proposed under the legislation will prevent at least the accusation of gerrymandering in the future.
My concluding remark on the widely read and circulated article of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is that this matter is all about political advantage, and the coalition Government ought to have the courage to say so. Conservative Back-Benchers who are silent but supportive ought to have the courage of their convictions and say, “We in your Lordships' House are not prepared to put up with legislation being rushed through in this way”. I do not feel any obligation not to participate in this debate in order to enable the Government to hold a referendum on a certain date in May to please their coalition partners. That is a matter for them, not for this House as a whole. I hope and believe that if my noble friend Lord Wills, who has so ably moved this amendment, is not satisfied with the response from the Front Bench—having participated in previous debates on the Bill, I think that it would be pretty unusual if he were—he will test the mood and will of the Committee. Let us see proper impartiality prevail before we wreck our unwritten constitution and rig the other place as well as your Lordships' House.
What I find extraordinary about this debate on the topic raised by my noble friend is the question of,
“the proper role of MPs in their constituencies and in Parliament”.
Is there any doubt about that? Should we be raising it at all? My noble friend is quite right to address this issue. There is a profound difference between the way in which Members of Parliament in urban and poor constituencies react and the way in which MPs in country districts react. They are quite different. Perhaps this issue is being addressed by my noble friend.
The amendment is rather convoluted and we should address the issue directly: is there a difference between the way in which urban and country Members react? I represented an inner London constituency for a long time, and I held six surgeries a month—which is quite a lot. There is no doubt that my constituents put numerous questions to me and I found that I could not satisfactorily react to them by holding only four surgeries a month. That was inadequate. That is why I held six a month. I found that that also was inadequate, but I could not do more.
It is essential that this issue is addressed. Perhaps my noble friend is doing that—I do not know. The issue ought to be addressed directly, which is where the amendment falls down. On the whole, I was impressed by what my noble friend had to say, but he has not directly addressed this point.
In supporting the amendment, I will make two brief points on subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause on what the basis of how we set up representation in this country should be. I should be very hesitant to criticise one word of this excellent amendment, but reference to the European Parliament would also have been useful. MPs have to consider how they relate not only to local government—or, if they are in London, to the Greater London Authority—but to the European Parliament and what will become the elected House of Lords. If this amendment or something like it is supported, I fear that an enormous opportunity to look at how those different levels of elected politicians can relate to each other will be missed. That is important not simply for politicians, although it is important for any of us in this profession, but from the point of view of the electorate. To whom do they go with their problems, whether those relate to asylum or housing?
I am sure that any Members of your Lordships' House who have been Members of Parliament—I have not—will know that people will go from one to the other. They will start with a local councillor, and if they cannot get an answer there they will go to their MP. Occasionally they come here, but they certainly go to where I used to work in the European Parliament. It is not good for the consumer or the citizen if they cannot know easily which elected Member can help them with their problem. This amendment should have been an opportunity to look at how those various elected members work together. That would have been invaluable if this amendment were to be passed.
I raise a second issue: what is the proper way for a constituency to be put together? In case not everyone reads the Guardian, I quote Michael White discussing—this will be no surprise—the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. He describes the constituency and asks:
“What unites its redbrick Victorian terraces … and snooty”—
forgive me, it was the Guardian—
“stone villages such as Diggle, Delph and Saddleworth are high-handed boundary changes which lumped the villages into Oldham in 1974. In 1997 they created the marginal constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth. It is Coronation Street meets Last of the Summer Wine … a shotgun marriage”.
I am not certain, much as I respect Michael White, that he is accurate in thinking that it is wrong to have a constituency with such a varied make-up. I have often thought that it would help Conservative Members if they had some very deprived areas and understood the problems that some of us go on about. Perhaps, looking at it the other way around, Conservative Members might think it advantageous for Labour Members to have more rural areas and an understanding of different issues such as hunting.
That is quite a different argument. I am saying that I do not know whether it is better for a Member of Parliament to represent a much broader area of the country and our communities and therefore to unite and understand those, or whether it is better for them to be very specialised and to represent an area that feels very close together with a lot of shared interests. I see the merit of the amendment as enabling a committee of inquiry to think about how our communities can best be represented, whether at local government level, or, as it particularly addresses itself, within the House of Commons. Building on that, because I assume that it involves the same building blocks, would be an elected House of Lords, and indeed an elected European Parliament.
My Lords, I want to make a point not about individual constituencies, because I have never been in another place, but about the importance of the amendment as making certain things statutory. Those of your Lordships who have read Richard Crossman’s diaries may remember the glee with which he said, “Oh, the Boundary Commission are our people and they will fix these boundaries in our favour”. For many years we have conducted affairs more or less according to the idea that the party in power has a licence to fix things in its own way. I think that we have now come to the stage at which it is very likely that we will have coalition Governments, and when you have coalition Governments you have to stop doing that sort of thing. You have to put things on a statutory basis. What I like about my noble friend’s amendment is that it very systematically establishes a committee of inquiry that will report year after year and will take a comprehensive look at a number of these issues, including the time to conduct boundary reviews, et cetera. What we are debating here is not so much whether one should equalise or not—maybe we should equalise—but how we equalise. It might be inevitable that diverse constituencies are put together. This is not so much about what we do but about how we do it and how we continue to do it on a permanent basis.
That is an important part of the amendment. By putting it in the way he has—and I hope that the Minister will take this very seriously—my noble friend is adding something to the constitutional reform process on which the Government are embarked. This will prove a very important brick to give greater legitimacy to the kind of reform the Government want than they have got so far. Therefore, when it comes to House of Lords reform and determining the size of the House, if this amendment is accepted it will be much easier for the Government to propose the new size of the House of Lords because they will be able to say that a committee of inquiry has been permanently established that can consider and report on the matter. This is why I commend my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I make no apology for speaking briefly from these Benches. I do not believe that it is proper to criticise the detailed approach to this question of many Members of this House. If we did not give the matter our deepest thought and most conscientious consideration, we would have no right to call ourselves a reviewing Chamber.
I follow very much the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, in regarding the amendment as a breath of fresh air, sanity and common sense. I suppose that every Member of this Chamber would accept the proposition that the mother of Parliaments, when considering a totally new regime relating to so many aspects of its life, deserves the best and most assiduous efforts that we can imagine. In other words, we should not approach any one of these problems in a piecemeal way. Nor should we think of a final solution to any of these matters. These are immense problems and we should not think in terms of any ultimate solution save after carrying out the most detailed and assiduous scrutiny of all possibilities that are open.
I am tempted to comment but, mustering all the neutrality that I can command as a Cross-Bencher, it would probably be better for me to remain silent. I invite noble Lords to consider the issue of determining that the number of Members of the House of Commons should be reduced from 650 to 600. I mention in passing that the effect on Wales would be utterly disproportionate. It would lose about a quarter of its Members of Parliament; the number would be cut from 40 to 30. The case that I put to the House with humility and sincerity is this. I can imagine that if one had a body of the wisest and most appropriate people to examine this question, one might find considerable support for the proposition that the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced from 650 to a lower figure. The argument in favour of that might have something to do with devolution, although we were told many months ago by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the reduction from 650 to 600 had nothing to do with devolution and that any reduction would be simply on account of the determination in general that the number should be reduced.
I can also imagine that that body would come to a totally different conclusion and state that, if one looks at all the duties that have been added to the working life of an ordinary Member of Parliament over the past 50 years, there is a strong case for having a number of MPs greater than 650. I can also imagine that a body, having looked at the matter conscientiously and competently, would come to the conclusion that while on the whole there was a case for an increase, there were good psychological and social reasons for leaving the number at 650. In other words, each of those conclusions can easily be imagined in the case of a body charged with that particular duty; yet the Government are deciding this matter in a wholly arbitrary and rushed way, without any evidence to support them.
In relation to the question of the size of constituencies, many of us in the House commented at Second Reading that the idea of equality based on a mathematical commonality is utterly chimerical, artificial and misleading. On the one hand it might seem attractive to say, “Let every constituency be more or less the same size—76,000 give or take a small percentage”. That does not give equality at all. If you live in an urban constituency which you can cycle across in 15 minutes, you can have access to your Member of Parliament’s office in a matter of minutes. Just imagine doing that in a vast rural constituency, such as Brecon and Radnorshire in Wales, or Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in Scotland. The idea of equality turns on many different factors. Mathematical uniformity is only one and probably the most misleading and artificial, yet the coalition Government have worshipped at that altar on this matter.
My only criticism of the proposed new clause is that it should have preceded Clause 1. Everything I have said applies to Part 1 of the Bill. I ask the House to bear in mind conscientiously and sincerely that as a Parliament we may well be rushing into decisions that we will greatly regret in years to come.
I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, as he made a powerful speech from a point of view that I share, in that he referred to the amendment as a breath of fresh air. I would go as far as to say that my noble friend, in tabling the amendment, has offered a lifeline to the coalition. I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in his place. He is someone for whom I have the greatest respect, and he must be uncomfortable with the process that brought this legislation to the House. There has been no consultation or prelegislative scrutiny and there is a rumour going round, which I hope is not true, that on the coalition Benches a timetable is being kept on how long Members on this side of the House take to speak. Frankly, I regard that as bullying. Anyone who attempts to bully me usually comes slightly unstuck. I am glad to see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, agrees with me. The fact that we have this amendment gives us an opportunity to get the Bill back on to a proper track.
One of the areas that I found most difficult on Second Reading was the figure of 600. I am not absolutely wedded to the idea that there must be 650 Members of the other place; changes come about and we should be prepared to look in detail at the construction of areas. In my former constituency, one village, Chapelhall, went from being a sleepy village to an agglomeration of a number of very attractive housing estates. The very place from which I take my title, Coatdyke, has been linked with one town or another on about half a dozen different occasions. I do not feel too strongly about that, but I should like to know where the mandate is behind the figure of 600. One coalition party in its manifesto wanted 500; another coalition party wanted 575. I did not go to a very posh school—my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan and I went to the same school—but normally, when we worked out a compromise, it came in the middle. How do you go from 500 to 575 and come away with 600?
I see that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is in his place. Perhaps he and his noble and learned friend Lord Wallace could collude and come up with an answer as to why that figure is 600. I heard another rumour that some work has been done proving that the figure of 600 disadvantages the Labour Party more than any other party. I am with my noble friend Lord Foulkes in that I do not care what gerrymandering goes on with the constituency boundaries. It is the arguments that will sway people and we have seen that in other parts of the country.
I, too, am perplexed by how the figure was arrived at. My noble friend may wish to know that I made a freedom of information request some time ago for any deliberations made on the electoral consequences of different figures for the size of the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, promised on Second Reading to let me have such deliberations, if in fact they had taken place. I am still waiting to know from him whether such calculations were made and, if they were, to see them. I am still waiting for the freedom of information request to be responded to. I think that it is already out of time; I hope that I will not have to wait too much longer. I will of course share the results with the House.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for that interesting piece of information. This is a subject to which I shall return—as, I am sure, will my noble friend—again and again. I will not be bullied into shutting up about it.
My noble friend Lady Hayter also made a valid point when she referred to subsection (2)(b) in my noble friend's amendment and the European Parliament. The issue of where someone with a problem goes becomes even greater in areas such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If I, as a constituent, wish to get some advice, I can go to my local councillor, or should I be going to my Member of the Scottish Parliament, my Member of Parliament, or my Member of the European Parliament—or should I even be bothering a Member of your Lordships' House? One complexity that has not been addressed in the legislation—one that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, knows well—is that constituency boundaries for the Scottish Parliament are shaped and based on the former Westminster model, because a decision was taken to retain the membership at 129. Therefore, there is a disjunction between the boundaries of the Scottish Parliament and what is proposed.
On that point, I advise Members of the House to listen very carefully to what my noble friend is saying, not because of any reputation that she may have but because—I hope that I am not giving away a secret; I know that she will tell me off if I am—contrary to what my noble friend Lord Desai said, when she was Secretary of State for Scotland and had a decision to make which could have advantaged the Labour Party in relation to boundaries for Westminster seats in Scotland, she took the very principled decision to accept the view of the independent Boundary Commission, and the redistribution went ahead. That is why she should be listened to with great care, because of the great integrity with which she took that decision.
I am very grateful to my noble friend. Since he has given up the chairmanship of Hearts Football Club, he has become secretary of my fan club. I do not know whether that is more auspicious or inauspicious than being chairman of Hearts Football Club.
The issue of the shape and construction is very important. I say to the Liberal Democrat members of the coalition, who have, over the years, made a very convincing argument for localism in politics—that all politics is local—that what is proposed is an aberration. It completely denies the local input into the shape and size of constituencies.
I made reference on Second Reading to the fact that the very last speech that the late John Smith made in Scotland, the day before he died, was to the Boundary Commission, because there was a proposal to split the constituency that I went on to represent right down the main street. People assume that if you come from a mining community or a working-class community—if you do not come from a 12th-century mansion house and can trace your ancestors back to 1066—you do not care about the history of the place that you come from. My experience is that you care passionately about the nature of the place that you come from. People become grossly offended when bureaucrats—as they see it—simply pluck a figure out of the air and construct an artificial community as a consequence. That becomes enshrined in this legislation, and this adoration of localism is why my noble friend’s amendment is so important. It is critical to stand back, take time and do this properly. I urge the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, when he replies, to give us an answer on the figure of 600 and to recognise that these are not partisan points, but are about the nature of the communities that make up this country. He should properly take into account that the passion that people feel for their own communities requires that there be a proper consideration of the nature of their democratic representation.
My Lords, this legislation has been constructed in haste and is being pushed through Parliament in haste. It was constructed in haste during the hasty negotiation of the coalition agreement; it is being introduced in the first Session of a new Parliament—so there was no Green Paper, no consultative process, nor, indeed, as has been noted, was there any pre-legislative scrutiny within Parliament; and it was very hastily proceeded with in the other place before it reached us. For all these reasons, it is right and proper that it should be carefully scrutinised not only by us here in this House now, but also on the basis that my noble friend Lord Wills has put forward.
Under my noble friend’s proposal for a committee of inquiry, the great advantage would be that people of enormous experience and wisdom would be brought into the process, and it would be conducted in a context that would ensure impartiality. I am sure that noble Lords want to produce the right outcome in the broader interests of our constitution and our country, but it is in the nature of the adversarial processes that characterise our Parliament that it is very difficult to achieve a consensus in parliamentary proceedings. However, under the process that my noble friend has advocated there would be a real prospect of being able to reach a large measure of agreement, proposals could be recommended not only to us but to the people of this country, and there would be a wider public debate on the interim recommendations of my noble friend’s committee and then, of course, on its final conclusions. That would be a better way to approach these enormously important issues and responsibilities than the way that the coalition Government have adopted.
Frankly, the way that the Government have introduced this Bill, and the way they are proceeding with it, is not a good way to govern. These are major issues that need to be treated with proper deliberation, bipartisanship and responsibility—issues such as the appropriate size of constituencies, the number of Members of Parliament who should serve in the House of Commons, the make-up of a House of Commons that very possibly will be elected under the alternative votes system instead of first past the post, the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents, and the relationship between Parliament and the Executive. One recites the issues that fall to be resolved in this process and it is self-evident that they are of major importance to the health of our democratic culture and to the good functioning of our Parliament. So my noble friend’s recommendation is one that we ought to welcome and embrace.
Among the particular issues that he has itemised and drawn attention to in his complex amendment is the relative importance of electoral equality. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, spoke very well on that issue. Coming—as he also does—from Wales, I am particularly conscious of the devastating impact on the structure of political life in Wales that a dogmatic insistence on numerical equality in the size of constituencies would bring about. We have a responsibility not to proceed as recklessly as that. Of course it is desirable, other things being equal, that constituencies should be more or less of equal size, but I think that the very narrow margin of fluctuation of 5 per cent either side of the norm of 76,000 electors that the Government propose is simply inadequate.
So the committee of inquiry ought to examine the options for a 5 per cent toleration, a 10 per cent variation and, indeed, other margins of flexibility, so that the desirability of constituencies being of equal size should be weighed against what is also, surely we must all agree, highly desirable—that the integrity and character of particular communities should be recognised and respected and, of course, that the relationship between parliamentary constituencies and the boundaries of local authorities should also be so designed as to make sense.
The Deputy Prime Minister compares this legislation in its significance to the Great Reform Act of 1832. But the difference between his approach in this measure and the approach which was enacted in the 1832 legislation is that it was the 1832 legislation that, for the first time, established in our parliamentary culture and our practical parliamentary arrangements the representation of communities. It was because people in the newly urbanising and industrialising communities, particularly in the north, objected to being represented in Parliament by county MPs, and because people in the counties themselves found that unacceptable, that the pressure grew to look again at how parliamentary representation was constructed. It was in consequence of the 1832 measure that the great industrial cities and the new industrial communities—Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bury, Rochdale, Bradford; these very significant and very important places—got proper parliamentary representation and that, for the first time, the people who lived in those places had the chance to elect their own Members of Parliament and to hold their own Members of Parliament to account. Of course the accountability was imperfect on the limited franchise, but we saw a development from that point which led to a state of affairs in which—even though the pressure for reform rightly persisted for more than 100 years after that, and there is still pressure for reform—there was a pride in the British constitution and an ownership of the British constitution.
We all are concerned that that pride in our constitution has diminished. However, hastily spatchcocked reforming measures which are perceived, fairly or unfairly, to be tainted by a bias in terms of party interest—for example, whether the number of 600 constituencies, a figure apparently arbitrarily chosen, has been calculated to be to the disadvantage of the Labour Party—give rise to doubts and questionings about the process that we are engaged in at the moment, not only for noble Lords on this side of the House but for many people in the country. Many people are very uncertain whether this is the right way to be going.
If we could take the suspicion of partisan politics out of the process through the establishment of the committee of inquiry proposed in this amendment then we would help to build the public’s confidence in this important reforming process. We shall of course have opportunities to debate specific amendments about numerical equality and what exceptions should be allowed for that, but let us recognise now that there are protests coming from Cornwall, from the Isle of Wight and Ynys Mon which have to be taken seriously. There is a danger that places which regard themselves as authentic communities will be split and that others will be yoked together with places with which the residents of both feel that they have nothing in common. That will not be at all good for confidence let alone for pride in our parliamentary democracy.
My noble friend Lord Wills also rightly makes the point in subsection 2(b) of his amendment that the House of Commons is part of a much larger system. You cannot simply take a chunk of the constitution and push it, pull it around, mould it and remake it as if it was a piece of plasticine while ignoring the impact that a change in one part of the constitution has on other parts. If you alter the size of the House of Commons, if you alter the relationship between Members of Parliament and the Executive, and if you alter the capacity of Members of the House of Commons to scrutinise legislation, from all of these things there necessarily follow major implications for the work of this House.
It has been noted by a number of speakers that we ought also to consider the relationship between the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the devolved representative institutions of government. I think that that point is not included in my noble friend’s amendment, but perhaps we can reconsider his amendment on Report, and perhaps amendments can be made to his amendment so as to perfect the excellent scheme that he has put forward for our consideration. Additionally, the relationship between Members of the House of Commons and elected members in local government has always to be considered when you are considering making changes to the House of Commons. You cannot change the House of Commons in isolation without there being very important implications. It is not of course just the interests of MPs and elected councillors that count, although their capacity to do their job is in itself important, but we have to consider above all the interests and views of members of the public.
My noble friend and indeed all of us agree that the present system of boundary reviews is imperfect and needs to be reformed because clearly it takes too long to achieve changes in boundaries. But how long the Boundary Commission ought to take in its processes is not something that we are going to be able to resolve in the course of debates in this House or back in another place. As a number of noble Lords have already argued today, it is again of the greatest importance to ensure that boundaries are appropriately determined, and particularly that the people who are to be represented by Members of the House of Commons have themselves had an opportunity to contribute to the formation of the judgment and decision as to what the revised boundaries ought to be. This is a complex matter that needs impartial, expert and thorough consideration which again a committee of inquiry would be well placed to undertake. For this and a considerable number of other reasons, what my noble friend has suggested is a helpful and excellent idea.
My noble friend did suggest the committee of inquiry should be a Royal Commission, but hearts are slightly liable to sink at that suggestion because Royal Commissions have a reputation for taking minutes and going on for years, or whatever the saying is. But he has written in to his amendment that an interim report should be made each year and that there should be a final report within three years of the passing of this Bill. Although I think it would be a tight squeeze, it would then be possible for all the key decisions to be taken within the life of this Parliament. Perhaps not all the consequential legislation could be enacted, but the decisions would be taken so that this would indeed have proved to be a great reforming Parliament. The coalition could claim with better justification that it was a great reforming Government, but the reform should have been designed on the basis of impartial, expert and thorough deliberation instead of hasty legislation subject to the force majeure of the Whips. That is not a good basis for ensuring lasting and well-judged reform.
My Lords, I speak as an independent who usually supports the coalition Government, but I must say that I am very much influenced by the speeches in favour of a committee of inquiry and of delay on this matter. Again, I speak as a completely independent Member, and there is one thing that should be considered. If there is a committee of inquiry, there is the fact that the other place made one major change during the course of the 20th century which was not legislated for and was not really discussed either in this House or in the other place. It is the very large increase in the number of governmental supporters who receive some kind of emolument or support from the Government of the day. In the case of the last Government the figure went up to about 100 Members as a matter of course. There has been no parliamentary approval of that, it has just happened. Perhaps we should not allow such a monumental change to happen again without discussion.
My Lords, with this amendment, we move from Part 1 to Part 2. I shall make one important observation relevant to the case that my noble friend Lord Wills has made. In the case of Part 1, there was an inquiry—I know, because I sat on it. It was the Jenkins inquiry. It is perfectly true that the referendum will be not on the recommendation of Jenkins but on half of it; namely, the alternative vote. That inquiry did not completely crack the problem, but it moved the debate forward. As we found when we debated Part 1, all the speeches made were informed by the famously articulate report of Lord Jenkins and the analysis that it contained. Some agreed with it and some did not, but it shaped the analysis and therefore enabled us to have a much better debate.
The second advantage to flow from having a prior report is that, between the setting up of Jenkins and the introduction of this Bill, many people, whether mostly or wholly, changed their minds. There are many people, particularly in my own party, who are adamant first-past-the-posters and can still see the arguments for it today, but they are prepared to contemplate the argument set out in Jenkins for moving a little way in the other direction by having the alternative vote, which is an improvement on first past the post in the view of many of them.
A visit from the dead!
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for giving way. He was a very distinguished member of the commission that was set up and chaired by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Why does he think that, 10 years afterwards, we have had no action on its report? Does he not share our cynicism that the proposal of his noble friend is simply a way of privatising, pushing out and delegating responsibility for these important decisions so that nothing should happen? The experience that he and I have had of the complete failure of the Government whom he supported to do anything on the basis of that commission’s recommendation, makes us very cynical about asking somebody other than Parliament to take decisions on this matter.
The noble Lord was very grateful that I gave way, but I am even more grateful to see him popping up to speak. The silence is broken—omertà is finished with. I am sure that we will have many contributions from him in the future.
There is no intention among anyone, I think, to stop this legislation, as considered properly, going through. Let us be clear that what will destroy the legislation is not the danger of delay but the danger of haste. The danger is that this ramshackle legislation, half considered, will be forced into law and that a subsequent Government, seeing that it is half baked, will force it out of law and we will have achieved nothing. That is the plan that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is urging on the Committee. I beg this House, which is a great example of the benefit of the rational consideration, to reject that way forward.
I was saying before I gave way to the noble Lord that many first-past-the-posters have been converted to the alternative vote, but I take more pleasure in another form of conversion that has taken place. There were many people, and the Electoral Reform Society was in their hands, who believed in wholesale, immediate electoral reform and full-scale proportional representation. I have never been persuaded of the case made for proportional representation; I do not believe in it and I do not agree with it—nor did Jenkins. However, during those years since Jenkins, and in months and years of debate, those people have moved their position so that now the Electoral Reform Society is a very strong backer of the yes campaign in this referendum. I think that it sensibly sees that a consensus reform that goes half way is better than a wholesale reform that later gets reversed, and that it is more likely to get reform by settling for a halfway house than by holding out for ever for the whole cake.
Through the post-Jenkins process has emerged a greater level of consensus on where we are going. It is not a wholesale consensus—that would require the verdict of the people in a referendum—but there is a greater level of consensus and a greater clarity on the arguments. That makes a hugely strong and powerful case for proceeding by reflection.
I made my criticisms of Part 1 during its passage. We have another chance to consider it on Report. I think it can be improved but I am broadly in favour of everything about it except the referendum date. That is my broad position. It is also my position that Part 2 needs much more improvement than Part 1. I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the chance to make that point.
Without absorbing too much of the Committee’s time with interventions, perhaps I may be forgiven if I take one example of the kind of issue drawn from the long and comprehensive list in my noble friend’s amendment on which really considered inquiry and judgment is needed. That is the number of MPs. The figure was snatched out of the air. Half the time Ministers admit that. It should not have been snatched out of the air. There are lots of facts that are relevant. It is true that since 1950 the number of MPs has grown by 3 per cent. It is also true that the electorate have grown in the same period by 25 per cent. That is to say that every MP has 22 per cent more constituents to service. On the servicing of constituents, I have never been in another place but I did work for a Member of another place, Anthony Crosland, in 1972, and if we received 30 constituency letters per week we were astonished. They were dealt with by his constituency secretary and his local party without difficulty. Now I am told that 300 letters is the average and there is much more communication in other ways.
The research think tank, Democratic Audit, has produced some other facts that should be weighed. For example, it turns out not to be true, as the Government have argued, that we have vastly more representatives than other countries. We have barely more than France and practically the same as Italy. But other countries benefit from having far more local elected representatives to deal with a great many other things that our Members of Parliament have to deal with themselves. Whether we should go down that road is another matter but that is what was concluded. Then there is the question that has been raised briefly in this debate about the danger of cutting the number of MPs but keeping the number of Ministers precisely as it is. The Executive become even more dominant in our politics and in our political culture and even more able to get their way with the minimum amount of criticism and fuss.
I do not say that these arguments are conclusive and that the number of MPs should stay as it is, be reduced or increased. I understand the populist wave of emotion that causes people to think that the number of MPs should be decreased. It may be that an objective inquiry concludes that that is right. I do not express any opinion on those matters at this stage. All I say to the Committee is that it is surely reasonable that arguments and facts such as these should be independently weighed and considered before a final verdict is reached and before legislation making it the law of the land is forced through Parliament.
The Committee should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Wills for his amendment because it gives it and the coalition partners the chance to take stock and reflect on this seventh day in Committee on the Bill. If they were to adopt the proposals in the amendment that my noble friend has moved perhaps we would start to move towards some consensus on major constitutional change. That would be the common-sense approach, although I well remember as a teenager, my mother used to say to me, “Son, in life you’ll find that sense isn’t that common”.
My brief remarks all relate to subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause, which says that this inquiry would take,
“into account the need to maintain the Union”.
This is a matter I referred to at Second Reading because I believe that the Bill as constructed is a threat to this precious thing we have: the union of the nations in these islands. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, briefly referred to the Bill’s impact on Wales, where it would reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 25 per cent. If the Parliament of the United Kingdom treats Wales in this way, it will have an adverse effect on the view, Wales takes of the Union.
Welsh is the first language of the majority of people in five parliamentary seats in Wales—Ynys Môn, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion, and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Wales is the only part of the Union where a substantial number of people—some 20 per cent of the population—speak two languages. If my noble friend’s amendment were accepted, it would at least give an opportunity to look at the impact that this legislation has on the representation of people whose first language is Welsh in this Parliament of the United Kingdom. Only Wales has a big linguistic issue so far as the rest of the union is concerned.
Does the noble Lord recollect that this matter has been carefully considered before, in 1992 when the Boundary Commissions Act was passing through both Houses? In the House of Commons, the invitation was held out to Kenneth Clarke, the then Home Secretary, to considerably reduce the number of constituencies in Wales. He said that he would do no such thing because it had long been accepted that the national, cultural and many other considerations in relation to Wales were of such nature to demand that the same number be maintained.
I endorse the point made by the noble Lord. As part of the structure of our unwritten constitution—thank God we do not have a written constitution—it is important that we recognise that elements of the Union have to be taken into account. I made the point at Second Reading that in California, tens of millions of people send two senators to the United States’ Senate as does a state like Wyoming which has fewer than half a million people. That needs to be taken into account. If my noble friend’s proposals were accepted, the Government would then have a chance to reflect more sensibly on how we should proceed with these major reforms.
Welsh representation in Parliament goes back to the 16th century, although there is evidence that in 1322 and 1327—700 years ago—Wales was invited to send 24 Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. The Bill as proposed would give Wales just 30 MPs. The regular reviews of parliamentary constituencies have their origins in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944. The Act instructed the Boundary Commission for Wales to look initially at abnormally large constituencies but also to conduct a review of all seats with a view to keeping them under constant review. The rules for redistribution for the initial review stated that Wales should have not fewer than 35 seats and that rule remained in place for the first periodical review published in 1954. The second periodical review in 1958 stated that Wales should have not fewer than 35 seats. The fourth and fifth periodical reviews did much the same.
We shall perhaps get into this wider debate as we progress this Bill through Committee. I believe strongly that to treat Wales in this way is a threat to the Union. We will have a referendum in the spring on more powers for the Welsh Assembly. Whatever people’s views—they are entitled to them and I am sure they will express them—it is putting the cart before the horse to say that Wales will have fewer seats whether or not the people of Wales decide to transfer more powers to the Assembly in Cardiff. It is also offensive to people in Wales whose first language is Welsh to say that it does not matter if the Welsh language is well represented in the House of Commons. The point was made in evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Committee in the other place that this would adversely impact upon Welsh-speaking areas.
I urge the Government to take great consideration of my noble friend’s amendment. It would give us a chance to reflect and gain some consensus. I say to the Government that I think that the people of Wales will take offence at being treated in a way in which no other part of the union is being treated. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, one in four Members of Parliament from Wales would cease to go to the other place. That is disgraceful and, I believe, would be injurious to the Union.
Both the Conservative and Unionist Party, which once prided itself on being the party of the union, and the Liberal Democrats, which is the party of Lloyd George—Lloyd George would be turning in his grave at what is being proposed—need time to reflect on the issue. If they would take on board those points in the way that my noble friend’s amendment would allow, we could perhaps reach some consensus. I say to the Government: “Do not be so offensive to the Welsh people”.
I support Amendment 54ZA, in the name of my noble friend Lord Wills, because it would give us an opportunity to put together the bigger picture of constitutional reform, in the absence of such a picture from the Government. The amendment would help the Government greatly if it offered us an insight into their thinking across the range of constitutional reform proposals and how all the measures that we are debating might fit together. Indeed, the amendment would allow that picture to be put together in such a way that no one would even voice a suspicion that the measures were being put together in any kind of partisan political interest.
For such significant constitutional reforms, I believe that it would be in the interests of the country for us to start by setting out the roles and responsibilities—as mentioned in subsection (2)(b) of the new clause that Amendment 54ZA would insert—of all our representative bodies, starting with Parliament. Starting with the relationship between the legislative and executive functions in both Chambers and taking into account the representative function of the other place, we could then go on to examine, in the language of subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause,
“the proper role of MPs in their constituencies and in Parliament”.
Having established that point and having had some consultation and agreement on those very basic issues around how Parliament and our democracy should work, we could then work through the issue of Parliament’s relationship with other Parliaments and Assemblies, including the European Parliament, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Hayter, and the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Touhig and others. The role of local authorities could also be considered, as my noble friend Lord Beecham set out.
Once we had established those sorts of relationships, we could then discuss what a sensible fixed term for Parliament might be. Instead, we are to consider in due course the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in isolation. Such a piecemeal approach to legislation does not enable us to see the bigger picture.
Once we had established all those matters, we might then be able to think about what the appropriate size of each Chamber in Parliament should be. Having established the appropriate size of each Chamber, as referred to in subsection (2)(c) of the new clause proposed by Amendment 54ZA—indeed, we will discuss later tonight if we are lucky, or on Wednesday otherwise, my Amendment 63YA that also deals with the relationship between the size of the membership of this place and that of the other place—we could then discuss, in the context of the committee of inquiry that my noble friend Lord Wills proposes, the size and composition of each House and how each House would get there. Unfortunately, Part 1 of the Bill, which we have already debated, anticipates the need to ask the question about the alternative vote through a referendum, but that is a piecemeal approach. We should be doing this as part of a much wider picture that we could all understand, so that we can all make judgments accordingly.
Of course, in thinking about the composition of both Chambers, we could then get into some of the more interesting and thorny issues, such as that which came up in Questions today on whether a reformed Second Chamber should include a place for the Lords spiritual and what value is provided by having the voice of independent expertise of the Cross-Benchers, whom we all know and respect. In a radio programme that was broadcast last night, I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss these matters with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and all three of us agreed that there is an absence of that bigger picture at the moment. We are having to discuss and debate—at great length, I am afraid—these issues in isolation. If we had a more coherent vision of where things are going on constitutional reform, perhaps that would save time. The phrase “more haste, less speed” comes to mind in the context of the Government’s approach to these matters.
I have one or two things to say about the phrase,
“the proper role of MPs in their constituencies”,
in subsection (2)(b) of the proposed new clause, because there has been some debate from some on this side—they would be on this side, as there has not been much debate from anywhere else, except for an important pair of contributions from the Cross Benches—about the characteristics of different constituencies for Members of Parliament. For two Parliaments, I was fortunate enough to represent the constituency of South Dorset, which has both very urban areas, some of which were quite deprived, and very rural areas. It was notable to me that the characteristics of the caseload that I had in the different parts of my constituency were profoundly different.
When I was holding surgeries in the borough of Weymouth and Portland, I predominantly had housing cases. I also had a fair amount of immigration cases and a fair amount relating to problems with the tax credit system and the child support system. I had far fewer of those sorts of cases over in the Purbeck end of my constituency, where things such as planning would come up much more regularly along with fundamental issues about the rurality and isolation of that part of the country, including the islands that I represented. Brownsea and one or two others were a real struggle for me to get to because I had to go through several constituencies to catch the ferry to visit my constituents.
That leads me to make some final comments about subsection (2)(g) of this proposed new clause, on examining,
“the arguments surrounding the statistical basis on which electoral areas are … constructed”.
I could seek to detain the Committee by talking through some of the excellent arguments in the Electoral Commission document that I referred to earlier when I intervened on my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but I will save that. Suffice it to say that in my own experience, having represented that seat of South Dorset for two Parliaments, drawing boundaries in such a way that they do not take account of such basic things as the ability of people to get around creates problems.
For me to visit Brownsea, which I was able to do on only a few occasions during the time I represented that constituency given that it had only about six electors on it, I had to travel about an hour and a half from my home at one end of the constituency to get a ferry. The ferry would go every now and then and ultimately I would get there. It took all day to meet one or two constituents who might have issues that they wanted me to address. Thank goodness for the telephone, and in this case for e-mail, although some of the comments that we have had about the amount of correspondence that Members of Parliament have show how much is generated by e-mail now. It is quite astonishing.
Equally, the main industrial estate where the vast majority of my constituents in Weymouth worked was not in my constituency but in the neighbouring constituency of West Dorset, because it sat just the wrong side of the local authority boundary. I certainly welcome some of the freedom that the Bill might offer the Boundary Commission to cut across local authority boundaries. Brownsea Island is in Dorset and Poole is in Poole. That is why Brownsea Island was lumped into South Dorset. Making some sense of all of that would certainly be welcome, but to have some kind of very crude system that is based only on numbers and not on constituencies of interest would be very retrograde.
That is why the Government are being offered a fantastic opportunity to accept this amendment from my noble friend Lord Wills, which has clearly been thought through in some detail, as demonstrated by its length. It gives them the opportunity to allow us, as a country, to think about these constitutional reforms in their entirety and not to see individual measures rushed through which I am sure we would all live to regret.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wills has done the Committee an enormous service by presenting this amendment today, because it has enabled those of us who have engaged with the debate at least to consider the conspiracy not to talk about certain matters that really needed to be resolved in advance of taking final decisions on this legislation. I know there has been a lot of comment about an apparent conspiracy among Labour Members of the Committee to spin the discussion out. I have to say to your Lordships that I am not part of that conspiracy. I have not previously intervened in Committee on the Bill to speak on any of the amendments.
I am merely saying that some people—the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is clearly one of them—believe that there is such a conspiracy. I can assert that I am not part of any such conspiracy, if one even exists. I wanted to speak today specifically because of the importance of considering the nature and character of representation. This is the issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred, and on which I intervened previously, not in Committee but when we debated in the Chamber the Bill’s potential hybridity and what it is about a locality that underpins the nature of representation.
While we may have had the silence of the lambs on the Benches opposite, with the notable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Lord who has just intervened on me, what has been most notable about the discussion is the dogs that did not bark—the specific issues. The amendment provides an opportunity for those points to be considered in depth. The dogs that have not barked are serious debates about the nature of representation and of Parliament, and about what we want the House of Commons and Members of Parliament to do and how we want them to operate.
The issue of optimum size is critical, but we have not debated or discussed it in any real detail; the number appears to have been offered down from on high without any consideration. I have not had the privilege of being an elected Member of the House of Commons, but I was an elected public representative in London for 26 years. For part of that time I was the directly elected representative of 5,000 people in the Hornsey central ward of the London Borough of Haringey. For part of that time I was the directly elected representative of the people of Brent and Harrow, a constituency with an electorate of something like 400,000. I have therefore had experience of two extremes of the nature of representation, and the 400,000 figure is probably more consistent with the size of the constituencies of the United States Congress.
My point is not that I am advocating one or other as being the norm for the House of Commons; I am simply saying that there is a world of difference between the type of representation at the lower end of that scale and the type at the higher end. To pretend, therefore, that there will be no difference whether Members of the House of Commons represent 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 or 90,000 people is ludicrous. There has to be recognition of the nature of the relationship between constituents and their Member of Parliament, and that seems to be lacking in the Bill.
I have had the privilege of serving in the other place. I started immediately after a boundary redistribution with 60,000 to 65,000 constituents, and finished up with 95,000. I hope the noble Lord is not suggesting that in the latter years my constituents got a worse service.
The case that I am making is that we have to define the appropriate numerical relationship between the electorate and the Member of Parliament. If you want to go down the route of equalisation, you should first define what the appropriate ratio is. If you do not know that, the argument is, frankly, pointless and otiose.
However, I do not necessarily believe that equalisation is the sole point that we should be looking at. One of the dogs that have not barked in this debate has been the question of what other factors are important, and the amendment provides the opportunity to consider the character of localities and their different natures. When I was the elected Member of the London Assembly for Brent and Harrow, I had the privilege of representing the most ethnically diverse local authority area in the country and, separately, the most religiously diverse. To suggest that the characters of those areas did not influence the nature of the work that I did as a public representative is, again, ludicrous. The characteristics of local constituencies matter. You will find that nearly every other jurisdiction recognises that as part of the factors that need to be taken into account when it comes to deciding where to draw boundaries.
The other dog that has not barked has been the size of the House of Commons. The issue has been brought up today but we have not had that debate. What will be the most effective size of the House of Commons to do the work that we believe it should carry out? What is the effective size for both representing constituents and scrutinising legislation? Where is that debate? We are sidestepping it because of the desire to push ahead without proper consideration of these issues.
My noble friend Lord Beecham talked earlier about the relationship with local authorities. My noble friend Lord Knight, who has just spoken, said that he was in favour of this. I have to say that I am against it. The Bill encourages, or at least would make it far easier for, constituency boundaries to cross local government boundaries. I do not believe that that is in the interests of good and effective representation. It will make it more difficult for MPs to cover the ground, and for them to have a relationship with local authorities so that in partnership they can achieve things for their constituents both at local government level and in working with central government in Parliament. Those are the issues that make talking about crossing local government boundaries in this way so inappropriate.
The final issue that I want to refer to, in terms of dogs that have not barked in this debate but that should have been allowed to be considered in detail, is the nature of the electoral data on which all this is based and the frequency with which they change. I have spent all my political life in London. London is an area in which, historically, there has often been underrepresentation because of the number of people who are registered to vote. That underrepresentation was at a particular peak when the community charge—the poll tax—was introduced, and all that went with that. A large number of residents in London chose to drop off the electoral register, as they did in many other urban areas and no doubt elsewhere. That legacy of underrepresentation remains.
We should also consider the turnover in big inner-city populations and the number who come in. At one point when I was leader of my local authority, the collection register for the community charge turned over by one-third each year, indicating a great flow of population dropping into and out of the area. That was partly a consequence of migration and partly because of the mobility of populations at that time, but it also involves the recognition of particular areas. Because the Bill is constructed around drawing up these boundaries and quotas on the basis of an already flawed electoral register, we are building into the system an inappropriate bias against areas with historic underregistration and areas with an historically very high turnover.
My noble friend is absolutely right. The projections that people have talked about—of the flows of people having to move because they will be displaced by changes to housing benefit—necessarily means that he will be right. I also suspect that we will see more people dropping out of the system and being difficult to pick up. They will be trying to avoid various obligations as a consequence of that. I thought the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was moved to intervene again but he has not done so, which is fine.
My point is that these are fundamental issues which should be considered before we make a final judgment as to the direction we are taking in this legislation. It may be that, after proper consideration, a simply numerical allocation would be the most appropriate way forward. It is not one that I would favour but I can see how we could get to that. First, let us debate these issues properly. This legislation is not giving us the opportunity, whereas my noble friend’s amendment would enable that to take place, for the public to be engaged in it and for this to be as transparent a process as possible. If I remember correctly, transparency is one of the objectives of this Conservative-led coalition Government; they believe it is so important. Let us see that importance reflected in this legislation.
My Lords, I make just two brief points, which arise from the debate so far. The first follows what my noble friend described as the dogs that did not bark. I ask Members of this House to imagine a Labour Government proposing an arbitrary number in the House of Commons, without any consultation or a Green Paper, and without any hearing arrangements whatever. What squeals we would hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We would have heard lectures from the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, about how it breached human rights. We would have heard squeals of high dudgeon and moral outrage from the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, about its being disgraceful and undemocratic. What have we heard in this debate of now two hours and 16 minutes? There have been three interventions from the opposite side, which is not prepared to engage in the argument.
I understood that the House of Lords gave us an opportunity to revise legislation—to debate it, which means to look at both sides of the argument. The situation now appears to be that the coalition is prepared just to sit there on its Benches, waiting for the debate to finish and prepared to use a built-in majority to push the Bill through without any debate. That is a negation of democracy. I do not understand how Liberal Democrats who sat through the Labour Government, attacking and criticising us for such things, can sit there and accept it. My noble friend Lord Grocott will recall that in the Labour Government there were certainly people on the Back Benches of the Labour Party arguing the case, questioning, challenging and making sure that the issues were properly discussed. It is quite astonishing that, apart from Labour Members and two distinguished, excellent contributions from the Cross Benches, no one has entered this debate.
My second and last point is for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who will reply to this debate and who I know very well and have great respect for. I hope he will reply properly to the debate and deal with the issues that have been raised. I want him to deal specifically with this one. The Scottish Constitutional Convention preceded the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. It involved all the parties, civil society in Scotland, the universities, the trade unions and everyone in Scotland. It discussed what the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be, what should be devolved, how many Members there should be and what the electoral system should be. Before legislation was introduced, the Labour Government allowed that debate to take place. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, will not agree to this for a major constitutional change to the House of Commons, he needs to search his conscience very strongly. Those are the only points that I want to make.
My Lords, we are privileged in this House to serve in a Parliament that is widely perceived the world over as the mother of parliaments. That is a privilege we enjoy and one that several of us have now enjoyed in both Houses. I had a period of almost five years’ absence from the Palace of Westminster, living and working in a country that was a new democracy. It valued its written constitution, which encapsulates some of the highest possible ideals of democratic participation and values. However, it was located in a continent—Africa—where, frankly, democracy has, over the years, been stretched and at times broken, albeit a continent that is now beginning to demonstrate a degree of movement towards a better and more truly representative democracy. Therefore, along with many other Members on all sides of this House and in another place, I have spent time—through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other institutions—working with parliamentarians and groups of citizens globally. They have seen in the Westminster system of democracy something that they seek to emulate and aspire to.
I have had an opportunity, over the past four years while I have been absent from this place, to see at first hand how parliamentarians and civic groups throughout Africa look to this place for examples of how they can better conduct themselves and how they should embark on constitutional reform. It is worth this House’s while to reflect, just for a moment, on how this measure is perceived outside Westminster—not just in our own country but abroad and, in particular, in those places that have traditionally looked to Westminster as the best example of how to conduct constitutional reform and embed democracy in governance.
When we pause for a moment to think about how we are perceived externally, we might see something of value. I certainly see something of value in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. It gives us time to pause and reflect; it seeks to proceed on a firm basis of evidence; it seeks to arrive at a consensus on the way forward in crucial matters, as many noble Members of this House have articulated in this afternoon’s debate and earlier on Part 1; and it seeks for that to take place under the auspices of a High Court judge. That is important. Members from all sides of this House have been out and about globally, talking to and sharing with colleagues in other Parliaments on issues of governance, sometimes in very fraught situations. In the past we have always been able to reply in the affirmative to one of the questions that they have asked us: in the United Kingdom we proceed with constitutional reform on the basis of consensus. Speaker’s Conferences and other devices have brought about a degree of consensus, and only when that consensus has been achieved are we prepared to go forward, even when it has meant delay or perhaps taking longer than many would have liked.
What I find so disturbing about Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill is that they are clearly being driven through without consensus; for us to pretend otherwise is just spurious. It will weaken our hand in the world as we argue for better governance globally, as we will no longer be able to say, “In our country we proceed by way of consensus”. We will no longer be able to say that in our country—this applies particularly in relation to how constituency boundaries are drawn—we proceed only on the basis of an inquiry presided over by a legal figure in which people on all sides are able to give evidence and in which their views are heard.
I am grateful to my noble friend for touching on an important issue that I want to raise when we discuss Amendment 59: namely, that when we act as international observers at elections overseas, most notably in some of the former Communist countries, one of the things we always look at is who decides the size and structure of a parliament in the context of whether that is done with all-party agreement or on an independent assessment. That is one of the ways in which we can flag up warning signs.
I am grateful to my noble friend for reflecting on that. Many Members on all sides of the Committee, some of whom are sadly silent this afternoon, know that what my noble friend says is true and that we will be weakened by the measures that we are debating and which some seek to push through the House. I ask us to pause and give serious consideration to the proposal in the amendment, as it would at least enable us to say that we have sought consensus and respected the role that the judiciary can, and ought to, play in this area of constitutional reform. A number of us have visited countries in the immediate aftermath of hotly contested and inconclusive elections, just as our election was hotly contested and inconclusive. We have said to them, “The last thing you as a Government should be doing now is pushing through a measure which could be perceived as enshrining your own power for longer than the electorate have given you a right to expect”. Noble Lords on all sides of this House have given that message to others; it is a lesson that we ought to take on board ourselves.
My Lords, I have no mandate to speak on this matter for the coalition but I have listened to the debate for two and a half hours and I have heard assertions being made which certainly ought to be rebutted, not necessarily by the Minister but by those who have taken a strong interest in constitutional reform in this House and in another place. I have served in Westminster for 44 years and I am bound to say that the view that constitutional reform should be based on consensus is so unhistorical that I cannot recognise it as having even a scintilla of truth. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, suggested that we should react to the recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference. I served on the Speaker’s Conference when it considered the voting age of members of the public. If that is not a fundamental question, I do not know what is. The Speaker’s Conference recommended that people should have the vote at 20. The Labour Government of the time did not consider that that was right. The late Lord Gardiner, for whom I had the greatest respect, summoned me to his chambers to ask why the Labour Party’s policy on having the vote at 18 had not been reflected in the Speaker’s Conference recommendations. Did that Government respect the recommendation of the Speaker’s Conference? No, they did not. They went ahead with the vote at 18.
Time and again we have had references to the 1832 Act. What sort of a royal commission was called before that 1832 Act was passed by Parliament? What kind of consensus was there in the country? There was nothing. There was political leadership from Earl Grey, who had strongly advocated these matters for some time.
I have great respect for, and pay tribute to, the noble Lord’s very distinguished history as a constitutional reformer and he was right to remind the Committee of that. I know that it was a long time ago and he may have forgotten exactly what I said in my opening remarks but I do not think that he was listening quite as carefully as he should to those remarks which informed the rest of this debate. I specifically mentioned practice over the past 100 years or so. I am not talking about the 19th century but of relatively modern times. I am not talking about the broad constitutional issues about which there will always be debate. My noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Snape talked about the broad constitutional issues of the alternative vote system and I fundamentally disagree with them on that. I am talking about achieving consensus on a process that is, as far as is possible, independent and fair minded. Does the noble Lord not recognise that?
What I do recognise is that in my lifetime the entitlement to vote has changed considerably. There was, for example, a multiple vote. My father cast two votes for parliamentary elections in different constituencies and that was perfectly legal. I am conscious that that change in the law did not come about as a result of a high-powered discussion led by a judge. We know the opinion of judges. We have heard from former judges in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, gave us his view. What is there to suggest that a judge sitting on a committee comprising partisan people drawn from both Chambers will come up with any different view from that of the elected House of Commons, backed or not backed by this Chamber? It is a chimerical view that we could have a consensus on this set of propositions. It is a method of delaying decision, and constitutional reform requires decision.
Does my noble friend—I still think of the noble Lord as my noble friend—not agree that the Scottish Constitutional Convention, of which he was part, provided us with an excellent model whereby we had a White Paper, then an all-party discussion and discussion with people from the community—indeed, I think there were some lawyers on it as well—and that that is exactly the right kind of model that we should be encouraging in this instance?
I, alas, disagree with the noble Lord on that. As he said, I served on the Scottish Constitutional Convention but I am bound to say that it was a device to fill a gap in time when it was not possible to extract from Parliament the decisions that reformers such as the noble Lord were in favour of. It was a method of trying to cover up political delay. I am sorry but I do not think that it was ideal. I think it was he who suggested that all parties had participated. That is not the case. The Conservative Party did not participate.
I also sat on another convention which was attempting to draw up a constitution for Europe and, again, was filled with representatives of national Parliaments from all around Europe. I am bound to say that it came to nothing. What has come to something has been the treaty of Lisbon, which came about as a result of executive government in a number of different countries plucking from that convention the best that they could to give us a framework for our European constitution.
I am sorry, but I profoundly disagree with the thread of argument that has been built upon the amendment that we heard eloquently defended and advocated at the beginning of this debate. We have seen this process of setting up commissions. We had a commission—a royal commission—set up on the reform of this place, sitting under the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. How many of its recommendations, consensual as they were, have been implemented here? Virtually nothing has happened.
The most notable reforms of the Government which preceded the present one did not all come about as a result of commissions of inquiry or looking for consensus. One of the most remarkable reforms was that which resulted in the appointment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to the Cabinet and concerned taking out of this Chamber active judges—active Members of the House of Lords, sitting in its judicial capacity—and the creation of a Supreme Court. That was done by the decision of the Prime Minister, backed by some influential members of his Cabinet. It was certainly not accepted generally or widely. There was no consensus about it. It was torn apart in this House and was considered for months in a committee of this House, but it was certainly not produced as a result of seeking consensus. After the event, it seems to have been a very wise move, which was backed by the then great Lord Bingham, who was the senior Law Lord.
Yes, I will. We have a very imperfect system of participatory democracy, because we have a rotten electoral system. The first past the post system does not reflect in Parliament anything like the aspirational end of participatory democracy, and although I do not regard the alternative vote as the ideal system—again I speak for myself and not the coalition—it is none the less a step towards a better representation and a more participative end point in our constitution. It will, I believe, make people feel in their constituencies generally that their vote does count.
There are many ways in which one can be an active citizen, and I enumerated some of them when introducing a debate on that very subject in this House shortly before Christmas.
I do not wish to detain the House, and I am conscious that the hour is late and that many will wish to reach a decision on this. However, I want to say that I am distressed by the fact that so many noble Lords for whom I have a high regard should imply that this deliberative process would bring about a better end point than the deliberations of our Parliament, which the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, referred to as the mother of Parliaments. It is so highly regarded largely because it is thought to act, usually, in a deliberate and wise way. On this occasion, the silence on these Benches indicates consent to what the Bill is putting forward, and an awareness that those opposing it are seeking to stop it from making progress and to stymie the efforts to achieve the constitutional reform that is long overdue.
My Lords, in the 27 years that I was in another place I represented all that time the good people of Dudley. The extraordinary thing is that I represented no fewer than three distinct and different constituencies, and was chosen to stand as a candidate for a fourth constituency, within the boundaries of Dudley. That was not so much an inconvenience to me, but an infuriating irritant to the good people of Dudley.
I have also seen the consequences—as, no doubt, many other noble Lords have—of constituencies that cross local authority boundaries. That is not only an inconvenience to the Member of Parliament but an enormous inconvenience to elected councillors and paid officials of the different local authorities. It is beyond an irritant; it drives ordinary citizens berserk because they do not know who to go to. It is not a question of parliamentary convenience.
Long ago I came to the view that this manic idea that we have to have precise mathematical equivalence in constituency numbers is a hobgoblin of very small minds indeed. We should be big enough to accept certain anomalies in our constitutional system without recoiling with shrieks of “unfair, unfair”. There is no such thing as a fair system, because what is unfair to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, whose speech I largely agreed with, is fair to me; and vice versa. There is no such thing as an ideal fair system which is just to be grasped and which ordinary reasonable people would sit down and agree with. Ça n’existe pas, it never will, and we should accept anomalies.
Earlier in this debate, one noble Lord talked about his difficulties in visiting a part of his constituency which was an island. When I first represented Dudley, it was an island.
Oh yes it was. The centre of Dudley was a part of Worcestershire that was wholly surrounded by Staffordshire. I represented a constituency called Dudley, but which was actually and simultaneously Dudley and Stourbridge. The country got by quite well with that, except rather inconveniently at electioneering time when my wife and I swapped ends. In the mornings, I was in Dudley while she was in Stourbridge, and vice versa in the afternoons and evenings. However, the principle was exactly the same as that adumbrated by my noble friend. Surely to god this country is big enough to accept a few minor anomalies and have something like the Isle of Wight with a much bigger electorate, if it wants that. The idea that we should try to produce equivalence in numbers of constituents—with all the consequences that it produces—is quite absurd.
My Lords, this is a very important amendment and is the inevitable consequence of doing what the constitutional committees in both Houses of this Parliament have complained about.
The chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the Commons issued a report on 2 August which stated:
“Your legislative timetable has put me and my committee in an extremely difficult position. When the House agreed to establish the committee, it did so, in the words of the Deputy Leader of the House, ‘to ensure that the House is able to scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister’. In the case of these two bills”—
one of them is this Bill—
“you have denied us any adequate opportunity to”,
scrutinise. Our own Constitution Committee 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”.
It is possible that the effect of Part 1 of the Bill as drafted will have no effect on our constitution. There is no doubt that if Part 2 in its current form goes through, it will have a substantial effect on our constitution. I very strongly empathise with the very powerful speech by my noble friend Lord Boateng. What would we say to a country that said, “We are going to reduce the number of Members of Parliament in our country by 50 by using our majority to do so”? We would say, “It may well be sensible to reduce or increase the number of Members of Parliament in your country, but presumably there is some sort of independent process by which the number is to be assessed”.
The number of Members of Parliament in this country has fluctuated over a period of 60 or 70 years. That fluctuation has always been as a result of recommendations of the Boundary Commission. It is a very dangerous precedent for a majority in the House of Commons, and then a practical political majority in this House, to push forward a change in the number of Members of the House of Commons.
Even if there was not some independent justification for the reduction from 650 to 600, is there some intellectual justification for the reduction from 650 to 600? How many of your Lordships were present when the Leader of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, gave as the justification that it was a nice, round number? There is no intellectual justification and no independent justification of any sort whatsoever. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, whom I respect for the work he did in pioneering the way for constitutional change, says sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and go for it; it is leadership that matters. We have never done that in this country since 1944 in relation to how our democracy is based.
In 1944 a Speaker’s Conference set up the current method for determining constituencies and the number of Members of Parliament. That was given effect in an Act of 1949. There was a further Act in 1954 which gave effect to a consensus that there should not be too radical changes in the number of Members of Parliament. There were further changes in 1986 by a Government led by Mrs Thatcher—the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—which we, the Labour Party, broadly supported. Further changes were introduced in 1992 by a Government led by Mr John Major, which we broadly supported. There was one occasion in which jiggery-pokery was attempted by a Government and that was in 1969 by a Government led by Harold Wilson and the Labour Party. What happened was that this House rejected the Bill that sought to tamper with a boundary revision.
So do not tell us that Parliament has not proceeded by way of consensus; Parliament has behaved exceptionally well. I think that it is a disgrace that there is absolute silence from the other side, as without independent justification and without intellectual justification a Leader of this House treats this House and the parliamentary system with contempt by saying it is a nice, round number. I see Back-Benchers nodding that it is a perfectly respectable argument, but it is not; it is a disgraceful argument.
There are two alternatives. The alternative that was forced upon me when I sought to reform the role of the Lord Chancellor was that this House spent 18 months looking at that Bill and a much better Bill came out at the end. A better alternative would be to do what the two cross-party committees say is the right thing to do, which is to have proper consideration of the Bill. Perhaps we could go through some of the issues which have not been considered at all. First, what is the right size of our Parliament? What has been said on this side of the Committee, as well as by a whole range of independent commentators, is that the way to determine the right size of the House of Commons is by identifying what you want your Members of Parliament to do. That has two aspects to it: first, what they do as constituency MPs and, secondly, what best makes the House of Commons function well. Some work should be done on that.
I ask the wholly admirable noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, what work has been done on that? What consideration have the Government given to that issue? What foreign examples, if any, have they sought to guide them in relation to that? What effect do they think that an increase by 25 per cent in the population over the last 25 years, when there has been only a 4 per cent increase in the number of Members of Parliament, has had on the work that they do? Do they agree with the implication of the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, that it has had absolutely no difference whatsoever on the workload of MPs?
As the former MP for Great Yarmouth, Tony Wright, said last year, today we need to ask the question as to what Members of Parliament are for, not least because they are asking it themselves and others are asking it of them. Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place:
“I would have preferred a debate about what the function of the House of Commons should be and what the appropriate number of MPs should be for that function and then having the debate about the number of constituencies”.
Just for the record, I made no such implication as the noble and learned Lord has attributed to me. The point that I was seeking to make was that, whether the number of constituents is 65,000 or 90,000, it is perfectly possible for a Member of Parliament to handle that level of workload.
I apologise. I misunderstood what the noble Lord said. Obviously, further work would need to be done. I am happy to say that when I said further work was required, the noble Lord nodded—that is the point that I am making. First, what is the workload on a Member of Parliament and what is the right size for Parliament in relation to that consideration?
Secondly, what should be the basis of determining the constituencies? Of course, I think that it should be the electoral register, though there is an issue about population. There is a respectable view that says, where you have constituencies which have very significant populations which are much higher than the electoral register, those constituencies should, in some way, reflect that increase in the size of the population. For example, just as we have a geographical limit because we think it is too far for an MP to travel all around the constituency, is there a population limit above the electoral register which should have some effect on the size of constituencies?
Thirdly, the purpose of the deviation figure of 5 per cent from the electoral quota is to ensure that constituencies are broadly the same size. That would lead to a difference in the size of constituencies of about 7,000 if 76,000 is the average size of a constituency. The purpose is to get rid of what is described as the malproportion factor. Published work, in particular by Thrasher and Rallings, and by Lewis Baston, suggests that a deviation figure of 10 rather than 5 per cent would have the same effect in reducing the malproportion figure yet at the same time allow one, in determining constituencies, to keep communities together and not have the radical effect that the government proposals would have. What work have the Government done on whether 5 or 10 per cent would make a substantial difference to malproportion? Has any research been done on that? What effect on, for example, crossing county boundaries would a 10 per cent as opposed to a 5 per cent deviation have? The Government will not be able to answer all these questions; I am asking about the research that is being done on them.
Thirdly, what effect will this have on the Executive? Reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 will increase the size of the Executive and reduce the number of Back-Benchers. Is it the intention of the Government to stick with that? If so, what effect will that have on Parliament as a place to hold the Executive to account?
Fourthly, what will be the effect of removing local boundary reviews that can be conducted in person? These reviews have had a 64 per cent effect on changing constituency boundaries. What work has been done to determine the effect on the reliability and acceptance of the boundaries that removal of the reviews will have?
If the Government will not answer those questions or have not done the work, the questions should be answered by somebody. This is not a great reform like the 1832 Act, as the Prime Minister said; it needs work doing on it. The effect of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Wills is that that work can be done. As my noble friend Lord Boateng said, our democracy is something that we rightly prize. The idea of rushing into this change, which has the support only of one side of the Houses of Parliament—let alone of either the country or the rest of the world—is wrong. It is not an acceptable justification to say that the Tory party agreed it with the Liberal Democrats between Friday and Tuesday after the latest general election. That looks like the worst sort of political gerrymandering. I ask the Government to reconsider and to give ground in relation to an independent look at the changes that they are making.
My Lords, first I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for introducing a debate that has given rise to a considerable number of important contributions. I am not sure that I can address all of them, but I will do my best to pick up most of the salient points. It is clear that the debate on this amendment has touched on many issues that will inevitably come up as we go through the Bill. Future amendments have already been tabled that deal with some of them. I hope to explain the principles that underlie the proposals that we will debate further. I hope also to explain why the proposals are reasonable and why a committee of inquiry is unnecessary.
It is clear that the amendment would slow down the proposed reform of our political process and system. It is highly unlikely that the proposals in this amendment would be in place in time for the next election. There would be a three-year deadline to report, six months to draft measures giving effect to the recommendations, and then time to legislate. That would be only for the legislation that set new rules for conducting boundary reviews. The reviews themselves would then need to be carried out. Therefore, even if the rules were in place before the next election, the new boundaries could come into effect only at the election after that.
I do not want to suggest that the political purpose of this has been to kick the Government's proposals into touch, although my noble friend Lord Tyler referred to previous committees of inquiry that delayed and postponed for many years what were seen by many as desirable reforms, and there was a general groundswell of support for his point on this side of the House. I also want to knock on the head the idea that I have accused noble Lords opposite of filibustering. The only complaint I would make is about the time taken up by them complaining that I might accuse them of filibustering. I also take great exception to the suggestion that the proposal is partisan. I do not believe that the opposition case stacks up. The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, pointed out that the issue of the size of constituencies applied as much to Conservative constituencies as to Labour ones. One cannot on the one hand say that reform will have the same impact on Labour and Conservative constituencies and on the other say that what we are trying to do is partisan.
I will pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about his freedom of information application. I apologise that the noble Lord has not yet received a reply to his request. I will seek to ensure that he receives one as soon as possible. However, my noble friend Lord McNally, who is sitting with me, has indicated that as far as we are aware no work has been done on any kind of partisan measurement of what a new size of 600 for the House of Commons would bring about. No modelling has been done on that basis. I also say at the outset that amid all the outrage that we have heard from the other side, one would think that it was a constitutional outrage to support the principle of one vote, one value. That is what is enshrined in this part of the Bill; one vote should have one value in all parts of the United Kingdom. I do not believe that to be a constitutional outrage, except in Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. I am happy to argue that, as the noble Lord's party did in the Scotland Act in the case of Orkney and Shetland.
My second point is that there would not only be a delay. If the 2015 election is to be fought in England on boundaries that took as their electoral registration base the year 2000—15 years previously—can anyone suggest that that is a constitutional principle that we should seek to uphold in this House? We wish to make progress with this so that we can have a boundary review that will deliver its report and be in effect by the 2015 election.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way, albeit slightly after the point that he was making. He said, on behalf of himself and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that no political modelling had been done on the implications of this reform. I would have been very surprised had he told us that the Civil Service had done an exercise on behalf of Ministers that had demonstrated what the political consequences of these changes would be. However, is he also giving us an assurance that such an exercise was not prepared either by a special adviser—a political adviser in the relevant government department—or by the political parties concerned?
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, is absolutely right about the Civil Service. It would be improper for it to do this, and it has not done it. Nor are the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I aware of any special adviser who has done it. I cannot speak for the Conservative Party, and while I may be able to speak for the Liberal Democrats, I honestly do not know what the answer is. I simply reaffirm the point that the principle here is one vote, one value. It would be a rash person who would predict the political fallout from this reform.
How does the noble and learned Lord square what he is saying about this part of the Bill being about one vote with one value, with the argument that he and his Lib Dem colleagues have put forward for years that the only votes in our system that have value are those in marginal seats, because in all other seats the votes do not count at all because of the huge majorities?
We are debating the earlier part of the Bill and are not going to debate electoral systems. That would be beyond the scope of this amendment. What we have done in Part 1 of the Bill will lead to a better system. That is my personal view, and the view of my party. The Government as a whole will not take a view in the referendum. I have a number of important points to make and would like to do justice to them.
I understand the noble and learned Lord’s problem in that he is a member of the Liberal Democrat party but is speaking for a coalition Government. The idea of reducing the size of the House of Commons to the suggested figure is not new. It was first put by the Conservative Party in 2004 and reiterated in 2009 and 2010. The two reasons given were, first, that the Tories did not get sufficient seats from the system with the current number, and, secondly, the cost. Those are the only two reasons that were given until the general election. They are in writing in a number of Conservative Party documents.
The noble and learned Lord has dismissed suggestions as to why the Government might have alighted on the figure of 600 parliamentary constituencies. He has explained why they did not make that choice, but what is the rationale for that figure?
I thank the noble Lord for that question, because he has illustrated that if he had not intervened I might have reached that point by now. I hope noble Lords will allow me to answer that important point, which was made by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. I hope to respond to these points as we proceed.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, has made an ambitious attempt to balance the effect of almost every electoral procedure against every other one. His amendment asks us to wait longer to turn the Bill from a Bill that is workable and achievable into a deeply analysed but almost impossible one that would then have to be taken forward. As I have said, our objectives are clear and we believe that they are attainable. We want one elector to have one vote throughout the United Kingdom. By contrast, the amendment promises a comprehensive overhaul of the whole system that we are considering, including the maintenance of the union and the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament that might produce a magic number of electors and the optimum constituency size.
The current rules by which the Boundary Commission carries out its work have not been considered by a committee since the 1940s. They have been changed on a number of occasions since then by the decision of Parliament through legislation. There is a clear precedent for adjusting boundary rules in the light of experience. The changes have included important elements, such as a longer period of reviews of 10 to 15 years rather than three to seven years. It was right for a Speaker’s Conference to determine the basis for boundary reviews when that happened for the first time back in the 1940s. When the Boundary Commission has asked in its reports for the rules to be made more coherent, Parliament has not asked a conference, a committee or an inquiry to consider what an independent—I stress independent—Boundary Commission has asked for. It is right for the debate to take place in Parliament. Even the 1944 Speaker’s Conference recommended that electoral equality across the constituencies of the United Kingdom should be an overriding principle. We should allow the Boundary Commission to commence that work without delay.
On Second Reading my noble friend noted the dangers of a perfectionist approach, which perhaps is the approach summed up in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, when he said:
“The Bill is not a panacea. It is not some holy grail in the scripture of political re-engagement, but it is a good start”.—[Official Report, 15/11/10; col. 594.].
Again I say to noble Lords opposite that it is a great pity they did not start the process when they were given such a long opportunity to do so. The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, that there is no perfection of fairness; one person’s fairness may be seen as another’s unfairness. I believe that the Bill, by establishing one vote of equal value across the country, goes a long way to getting a better perception and reality of fairness. I would add that the British Academy report found that the new rules set out in the Bill,
“are a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented”,
“they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory”.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, asked how the figure of 600 was reached. We have never suggested that there was anything magical or ideal about a House of Commons of 600 any more than the current size of 650 is ideal. It is flawed legislation that has allowed the size of the House of Commons to creep up over time.
The noble and learned Lord says that in the past Parliament has directed certain matters regarding the redistribution of boundaries, and he is right about that, but does he agree that no Parliament has ever set an exact number, such as the 600 in this Bill? No Government have ever done that. In the 1986 legislation and other previous legislation, Governments have left the Boundary Commission to set the exact number as a result of its inquiry. This Government in this Bill are trying to set a number of 600. That is unique, is it not?
I will give way to the noble Baroness in a moment. The noble Lord is factually correct but as I was about to say when he intervened, the legislation in place has allowed the number to creep up and up. The only occasion on which it has come down since 1945 has been post devolution to Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, indicated that the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, brought forward the order, quite properly, to reduce the number of Scottish constituencies from 72 to 59. Under this proposal, we are going even further. That is the only occasion when the number has come down. The fact that no number has been set has allowed the numbers to creep up and up over the years.
Indeed, but the point I was about to make about the present size of the House of Commons is that it is the largest directly elected national chamber in the European Union, and at 600 it would still be relatively big. It would have fewer than the chambers of some comparable countries. The Bundestag, for example, has 622 members and the Italian Chamber of Deputies has a similar number. As indicated in an exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Wills, each country has its own internal arrangements, be it some federal situation as in Germany or the United States, or devolution in our own country.
The noble and learned Lord said that the numbers have gone up. I am sure that he knows that the number of Members of Parliament who were elected in 1945 was 640, with a population, as my noble friend just said, of 33 million. The number elected in 2010 was 650, with a population that is much higher than that. Will the noble and learned Lord admit that those figures are correct?
I do not want to delay progress unduly, but the noble and learned Lord misrepresented, or misunderstood, the exchange between me and my noble friend Lord Foulkes. The point was not that one country has a better system than another. Those other countries—Germany and the United States—all had a profound, rigorous public debate on the right arrangements for their constitution. They have written constitutions. We are not having that debate now about this Bill, and we should. That was the point of the exchange and what we are asking the Minister to consider. We want a proper public debate on these crucial issues.
The point that I was making about the exchange between the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Foulkes, was that a point was made about the Senate having 100 members and the US House of Representatives having approximately 434. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, pointed out that there are also state legislatures in 50 states. We are not comparing like with like. I took the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that international comparisons take you only so far. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, made the point about the word “gerrymandering” coming from the United States and seemed to suggest, although I am sure he did not mean to, that the Boundary Commission would somehow be heavied by the Government of the day. In the United States, as the commentaries following the elections in November made clear, the new boundaries will be set by the state legislatures, not by an independent boundary commission. That is the fundamental difference. I hope that noble Lords will accept that.
To elaborate further, under our proposals, the 1 December 2009 register suggests that the electoral quota for the United Kingdom would be about 76,000. More than one-third of existing constituencies are already within 5 per cent either side of that illustrative quota, so the impact of our proposals will see constituencies of a size well within existing norms. However, if the House were to have, for example, 500 Members, that would push the size of the average UK seat above 90,000, and only three existing seats would be within 5 per cent of that quota. For that size to become commonplace would perhaps be too great a departure from what Members and the public are accustomed to. We therefore thought that 600 would seem to strike the right balance without reducing by too much and having regard to the fact that one-third of existing seats would be within 5 per cent either way of the existing norm. In addition, a slightly smaller House will mean that savings can be made without, in the Government's view, losing the capacity of individual Members or the Chamber as a whole to perform their functions.
Other points have been raised: for example, the fact that that should be linked to reform of your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that there will be ample opportunity to work out the implications for the reform of your Lordships' House when the draft Bill is brought forward. An important point was made first by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and picked up by several other noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. That is the relationship between the Executive and the elected House, the other place, if the number of MPs is reduced but not the number of Ministers.
The Government indicated in the other place that we agree that that is indeed an issue to be considered, but we do not believe that it is one that needs to be resolved in the context of the Bill. Reduction in the size of the House will not take effect until 2015, and we should therefore consider that issue in the light of decisions on, among other things, the size and composition of a reformed second Chamber. Historically, there has not been a consistent relationship between the size of the House and the number of Ministers within it. The number of Ministers in the Commons will be determined by what is needed to carry out the Government’s parliamentary business, and will not be affected by the change in the size of the Chamber. It is not clear that legislation is the answer. If the issue is the size of the Government’s payroll vote, there are ways to address that without legislation—for example, a reduction in the number of PPSs.
That was an absolutely riveting piece of information that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, dropped into the conversation—which is that, as I understand it, the size of this House will determine whether the Government are to reduce the number of Ministers. Have I misunderstood what the noble and learned Lord said? If I have, can he please explain it? Is it better if this House is bigger or smaller for the size of the Executive?
I indicated that an important factor would be the size of the reformed House, because if the overall number of Ministers is to be retained, it may be considered preferable to draw them from the elected House, with tested accountability mechanisms, rather than increasing the ministerial numbers elsewhere, including in this House.
The noble and learned Lord raised that issue, although the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, raised it first. It is an important issue. It is an issue which the Government have indicated needs to be addressed, but not in the Bill. There are other implications. For example, if Ministers were not to be in the other place, would they automatically be in this place? Would they have voting rights in this place? There are a whole host of issues which are perhaps more relevant to the debate about the constitution of the second Chamber in the context of a reduced House of Commons than to be dealt with in this debate.
Another consideration which the amendment addresses is the time taken to complete the boundary reviews. As I said, the issue at hand here is simple. Reviews take too long, meaning that boundaries become out of date. The Government propose five-yearly reviews, with the first review to report in 2013. That leads on to another issue raised by noble Lords, such as the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Harris of Haringey, and Lord Wills, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. That is whether we might use a population base rather than an electorate base to draw up constituencies. The electoral register has always been used for that task. I took the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to indicate that that is still his basic position. The 1986 Act, which contains the current rules, passed through Parliament without the intervention of a committee of inquiry. The secretary of the Boundary Commission for Scotland gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee where he discussed the practical problems with using population. I cannot see what an inquiry of potentially three years could resolve here that previous Acts of Parliament and the opinion of an independent Boundary Commission cannot.
The noble Lord will get an opportunity to reply.
That does not mean to say that that is not an important issue. We have debated it in the context of Part 1. As the Committee will know, the Government are committed to taking forward the proposals already set in train—by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, himself—on individual registration. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has also indicated that there will be a pilot scheme to allow local authorities to data match with other sets of data to try to get a better understanding and a better way to identify those who are not on the electoral roll.
To think that to fight an election in 2015 on an electoral roll that has as its basis the electorate in the year 2000 is in some way better defies rational consideration. What the Bill proposes—a rolling review every five years and efforts which we are making which, I think, will be widely supported across the Committee, to encourage individual registration and to identify where there are people who ought to be on the electoral roll but who are not—is far more likely to have an effect for the general election of 2020 than setting up a committee of inquiry that might take ages to report and then to have legislation following on the back of that. We are more likely to achieve what is a perfectly laudable and proper aim of ensuring that as many people who are entitled to vote as can be are on the electoral roll by the way that we are going about it. That is more likely to lead to success.
The noble Lord’s amendment also questions whether equally weighted votes should be given priority over other factors. We are aware of and sensitive to other reasons—the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and others mentioned the importance of local ties and communities—for proposing exceptions to the principle. An identity with or affiliation to certain areas of community is something that many people feel to be of considerable importance. Those of us in this House who have been Members of the other place feel that in particular. We acknowledge that there is a strength of feeling, and we would certainly want those with a local interest to make representations to the Boundary Commission in relation to local ties and for the Boundary Commission to be able to take them into consideration. The Bill will allow for constituencies to vary in the number of electors by as much as 10 per cent—that is, 5 per cent either way—of the UK electoral quota. That will allow the commission to take local factors into account. We will no doubt debate possible exceptions: I am sure that amendments have already been tabled to allow us that debate.
Another issue raised was workload. It is not the case that workload is a factor taken into account by the Boundary Commission at the moment. One speech suggested that somehow the Government excluding that was another manifestation of evil. It would be a judgment of Solomon for any independent inquiry to work out what is a relevant workload for a particular Member of Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, mentioned the high asylum-seeker numbers in the constituency which he formerly represented with great distinction. I remember as a Scottish Minister once visiting his constituency on an asylum-seeker issue; I know precisely what he means. However, as a representative of a landlocked constituency, he never had to deal with an oil tanker carrying 84,000 tonnes of crude oil crashing and spilling its oil in the middle of his constituency. There are different things which different Members of Parliament have, by the very nature of their constituencies, to deal with. It would be more than a judgment of Solomon to try to weigh up what the different workload was for different Members of Parliament.
And the mind boggles as to what kind of issues that may have given rise to. That probably just proves the point that every person who has been a Member of the other place can say why their constituency was that bit different.
I turn to the specific point raised by the noble Lords, Lord Touhig and Lord Elystan-Morgan, about their concern about the union. I am as passionately concerned about the union as they are. The important point to remember is that the reform means that a vote in Cardiff will have an equal value to a vote in Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh or London. To me, that does not undermine the union; giving an equal value to a vote in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast and London will, we hope, bring the union closer together. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, indicated that she brought forward an order that was of significant cost to the Labour Party in terms of the number of seats in Scotland following devolution. Indeed, if this Bill goes through, there will be a further decrease, but I have to be honest and say that I do not really remember the rafters falling in in Scotland. Indeed, people thought that it was important. My party argued within the Scottish Constitutional Convention that there ought to be a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster if we got a Scottish Parliament dealing with a whole range of domestic issues. When it comes to workload, how are we going to evaluate the workload of an English MP vis-à-vis a Welsh MP or a Scottish MP? Is there going to be a differential? I do not think that anyone has suggested that we should have different MPs in terms of their quality.
The question of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, asked me to address was partly addressed by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart. The noble Lord’s mind is perhaps playing tricks. It was not facilitated by a Labour Government prior to legislating for the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was established under a Conservative Government. It not only did not include the Conservative Party; it did not include the Scottish National Party either. That was through no fault of the convention, I hasten to add, but because those parties chose not to join it.
There is no way in which I can say that the number of 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament was a consensus arrived at by all the parties. One day, I will perhaps tell the House how the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, and I reached the number of 129 but if I do—“Not now” says the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—it probably means that the number of 600 will hit the heights of scientific measurement compared to how that was done.
One day, I will be very interested to know how the figure of 129 was arrived at. There are many different versions of the story. The point I would make to the noble and learned Lord is that when we came to the point of laying the order that reduced the number of MPs coming to Westminster, it was done with broad agreement across the House. This is the very point that I and others are trying to make to the coalition: if you proceed with consensus, or even seek to achieve consensus, you end up with a much more robust constitutional settlement at the end of the day.
I sincerely hope that when the Boundary Commission produces its review, if this Bill goes on to the statute book and the Boundary Commission review takes place, whoever is the Minister responsible for bringing forward the order will do so with the same determination and integrity as the noble Baroness. An acknowledgement that it had been done by an independent Boundary Commission would command support right across both Houses of Parliament.
A number of noble Lords made the point about how we bring this together. I conclude by indicating that the Government have an ambitious programme for political and constitutional reform. We are keen that Parliament has adequate time to debate all the proposals, and I have not complained that this debate has taken so long. Important issues have been aired. The committee is interested in how the Bill makes the political system more transparent and accountable, but our proposals will give the people a say in determining the method of electing Members of Parliament under Part 1, which they have never had the chance to express a view on before. It is with the people in mind that we want to equalise the size of constituencies to give their votes more equal weight. With these thoughts and reflections, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this has been a significant debate. Everyone who has sat through the past three and a half hours would agree that everyone who has spoken has made an important contribution to public discourse on these important constitutional issues. However, in many ways the most significant speeches are those that were not made. As has already been pointed out, apart from a handful of brief interventions and one speech which seemed not to have been premeditated but to have been motivated by the rather noble intention to fill the great silence echoing across the Chamber from the other Benches, there was nothing from the Liberal Democrat or Conservative Back Benches. I wonder just how it is that all those distinguished Peers sitting on the government Benches have nothing to say about these crucial constitutional issues. As many noble friends have pointed out, that is revealing.
Then there was the speech that the Minister did not make. I would have hoped that he would have shown some recognition of the potential risks of rushing through this legislation in the way that the Government are doing. There are risks. These are very technical issues. They are complex and relate together, and the consequences are potentially profound. They have not been considered. Over and over again we have heard it admitted by Ministers. These issues have not been thoroughly considered. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer asked for evidence of the deliberations and discussions. It could not have been deliberated upon or researched with any seriousness in the timescale available to the Government. That is what is needed. These signal a profound change in our constitutional arrangements, yet the Minister has avoided any recognition that there are risks involved in proceeding in the way that he has.
Nor did he produce any serious argument against this amendment. The only argument that he produced is that there is a need for speed, but what is this need for speed? This amendment does not kick it in to the long grass. I respectfully disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. It is not inevitable that a commission of inquiry will mean that it is going to get bogged down and will never happen. It is simply a question of political will. If the Government have the political will to drive this forward now, surely in just three years, within the lifetime of this Parliament, they can muster the same political will again. It is entirely a matter for them. There is nothing inevitable or inexorable about this getting bogged down if this amendment were accepted. The Minister produced no good arguments.
I would have hoped that at the very least he might have done what my noble friend Lord Grocott urged him to do, which is what Ministers since time immemorial have done, which is to nod wisely and sagely and say that they will at least consider the issues raised by this amendment and perhaps return to it on Report. But he did not even do that, and I am surprised. I had not expected to push this to a vote because I had thought that I would have a more encouraging response from the Minister. But I did not get it, so I am now in two minds. On the one hand, I think that the frailty of the Government’s position has been so exposed in this debate that it should perhaps be tested in the Lobby. But I am not without hope, so the other part of me still hopes that even now the Government may reconsider their position. I hope that they will recognise that their current position is so bereft of principle and so damaging to their credibility, not just in this Chamber or the other place, but among the people of this country who deserve and demand a say in the arrangements by which they will choose the people to represent them in Parliament. I hope that that will give them pause and that between now and Report they will reconsider and see whether there is a way that they can engage seriously with these issues.
Finally, I remind the Minister that I am not seeking to substitute my judgment for that of the Government on all these important issues. I am simply asking for an impartial, fair and independent process to resolve these issues within a timescale that most people would recognise as reasonable. In the end, I have decided that I will withdraw the amendment in the hope that the Government will reconsider. If they do not, I am afraid that we will have to return to all these issues on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 54ZA withdrawn.