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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011

Committee (8th Day) (Continued)

Amendment 58ZZZD

Moved by

58ZZZD: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end insert—

“( ) No Boundary Commission shall begin work on a report to be submitted under subsection (1) above until both Houses of Parliament have approved a separate report issued by the Secretary of State confirming that particular action has been taken to maximise the proportion of black and minority ethnic British residents who are on the electoral register.”

My Lords, Amendment 58ZZZD is in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thornton. As a newcomer to your Lordships’ House, I hope that the triple Z does not denote the degree of torpor that the amendment might induce in the Minister, who has heard it all before—at least twice in the form and wording of the amendment, albeit that it deals with different content. It deals with a different section of the population, which stands in danger of being underrepresented on the electoral register.

A big society is a cohesive society. A cohesive society is more likely to come about when there is inclusion. There can be no more important form of inclusion than inclusion on the electoral register. It is that, in a democratic society, that constitutes the link between the subject—in our case the citizen—and the state. One of the strengths of our democracy, which is rooted in our history as a nation and a Commonwealth, is the right of all Commonwealth subjects to vote. That right has undoubtedly contributed to the greater degree of democratic participation on the part of black and minority-ethnic communities in this country in comparison with any other country in Europe, where the same right was not automatically conferred.

This amendment draws attention to the reality, now well documented and well researched, of the state of the register. A reality that has been the case for many years is the underrepresentation of the black and minority-ethnic communities. I will come in a moment to possible reasons for that, the nature of the evidence, what it has been proposed might be done about it and its relevance to the Bill. It is worth reflecting for a moment on the progress that has been made, which is not insignificant. There is no room for complacency but, certainly, in my own time in both Houses of the Palace of Westminster I have seen real progress made. I came into the House of Commons in 1987. At that time there were only four black and minority-ethnic Members of Parliament and I was one of them. Since then that number has grown—slowly, initially—until 2005 when it reached 15, or 2.3 per cent of all Members of Parliament. Interestingly, this House, post-war, has always had a better record than the other place in its representation of the rich diversity of our country. I have no doubt that that contributed hugely to the quality of the debates in this place. You can see that in the contributions of the late Lord Pitt, the noble Lord, Lord Chitnis, and others on all sides of this House.

However, last year there was a great leap forward. I hesitate to use that term, bearing in mind the references that were made earlier in today’s debate to the state of perpetual revolution that it is alleged Members opposite wish to impose in the context of this constitutional regime. References were made—approving references if my recollection is right—by senior Members of the majority party opposite to Mao. The speed of the reform and action across the board was seen as a Maoist approach to government, which is novel, coming from the party opposite. However, this is the new politics so perhaps we ought not to be entirely surprised. Be that as it may, there was a great leap forward in 2010, when 27 Members of Parliament from the ethnic minorities were elected—some 4 per cent of all MPs. That is real progress.

A major contributing factor to that progress was the fact that 11 ethnic-minority MPs were elected from the Conservative Party. That is to the credit of that party. It is to the credit of the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister and his team, who clearly came into positions of leadership in the Conservative Party with an expressed intent to ensure that the party was more representative of the whole community in the make-up of its elected representatives. That was achieved in a remarkably short period. There were none in 2005—the last Parliament of which I was a Member—although there had been one prior to that, but there were 11 in 2010. I make this point because it did not just happen; it came about as a result of an expressed determination to do something—and something was done. Steps were taken to redress an imbalance and an inequity. That is what we all seek, surely, for the electoral register. That is what we need to do to make sure that the electoral register is more representative of the whole community, promotes inclusion and cohesion, and therefore strengthens the basis of our democracy.

I have listened very carefully to the Minister’s response to two previous amendments that were similar in shape and form to that which I am now proposing, so I do not expect him to accept it. I know the arguments that he has ably rehearsed against the amendment in its current form. However, I hope he will accept that something must be done to address this inequity and imbalance. I hope that he will begin to demonstrate the nature of his and the Government’s thinking on this issue and a willingness to reach out to others to see what can be done, what has worked and been successful and what has not been so successful to date in making sure that our electoral registration system works better so that in the years to come—I put it that way quite deliberately—whatever the outcome of our deliberations on this Bill and whatever the form in which it finally arrives on the statute book, the new dispensation will be based on a register whose completeness and accuracy is greater than that which currently exists.

We ought to be indebted to the Electoral Commission for the work that it has already done in this area, which is of a very high quality. The Minister has cited previous references to the Electoral Commission’s report of March 2010. Paragraph 4.18 on page 75 of the report refers specifically to the fieldwork done among members of black and minority-ethnic groups in compiling it. The paragraph states that the fieldwork confirmed the fact that:

“BME groups are … more likely to be absent from the electoral registers”.

It was not possible in this fieldwork to distinguish between different black and minority-ethnic groups, although there are differences which I shall discuss briefly in a moment. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Thornton, who hails from Bradford, will no doubt be able to share with us the distinctions that undoubtedly exist in terms of participation in the register as between Asians and south Indian communities on the one hand and Caribbean and African ones on the other. Those distinctions are real. However, the 2010 study also revealed that,

“registration levels were found to be significantly lower for eligible BME British electors (69%) compared to white British electors (86%)”.

The Electoral Commission makes the point that:

“Further research would be needed to identify the extent to which under-registration among BME groups arises from confusion about eligibility to vote within some BME communities or from language difficulties, versus the extent to which it is largely because of the socio-demographic profile of BME British residents (who are, on average, younger, have higher levels of residential mobility, and are more likely to live in the private rental sector)”.

Therefore, BME communities suffer from a treble bind, as it were. They are likely to be young and therefore not on the electoral register for reasons that have been well canvassed today. They are likely to live in the private rented sector in multi-occupation residential premises and therefore are again less likely to be caught by the registration process. In addition, they have the other factors to which the commission refers and on which some research has been done, not least by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Therefore, the problem is well established. It is clear that a disproportionate number of the 3.5 million people not caught by the electoral register are drawn from the black and minority-ethnic communities.

We have identified the problem, which is accepted by noble Lords on all sides of the House, but what is to be done? Something must be done. The Minister accepts that something needs to be done. What I am seeking to tease out and to progress in this debate is what that might be. We know that this issue, if left simply to the passage of time, will not get any better. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced an excellent publication, How Fair is Britain? The First Triennial Review, Equality, Human Rights and Good Relations in 2010, which indicates that in some areas the problem has been getting worse, particularly in urban metropolitan areas. The problem of registration has been getting worse and the level of self-reported turnout in elections, even for those registered, has been falling unevenly across ethnic groups between the 1997 and the 2005 elections. If we leave it to just time and good intentions, the danger is that things will get worse, rather than better.

Has my noble friend considered the consequences of individual registration for black and minority-ethnic groups? Might there be a particular problem there? Perhaps he can comment. There may well have been a discussion with those communities—I do not know—but I should have thought there were major dangers.

My noble friend anticipates the first point of action on which I seek clarification from the Minister, because thought has been given to this matter. I must say that there is growing concern about what the impact of individual registration will be in these circumstances, particularly in communities and cultures where the “head of the family” takes responsibility for ensuring that the response to all official documentation that comes into the family home is co-ordinated by him.

I have not heard the noble Lord say anything so far about whose responsibility this should be, but I take it that he would agree with me that the real responsibility lies with the political parties and, for that matter, with organisations which can persuade Afro-Caribbean, Asian, white and all other minorities to register to vote. He is not saying that this is the responsibility of government, is he? The political parties, as he will know, have obligations under the Equality Act not to discriminate, directly or indirectly on the basis of race, colour or other factors, and they have positive obligations. Does the noble Lord agree with me that that is the way forward?

I have huge respect for the noble Lord’s contribution to community relations in this country, not least when he was an activist in the party of which I am a member and when landmark legislation was introduced in this area as a result of his activism, that of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, and that of others, including the late Lord Pitt and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who were then leading members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination. That is the point that I am making to the noble Lord. If that legislation had not been introduced by the Government to which he was a special adviser, we would not be where we are now. This matter entails a major responsibility for the political parties—all of them. Indeed, I began by paying tribute to the Conservative Party for the action it took between 2005 and 2010. However, the reality is that this issue is too serious to be left to the political parties alone.

My noble friend is making a fascinating series of points which, to someone from my background, is a new experience. Given the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about the responsibility of political parties to ensure voter registration, does my noble friend agree that there is a real danger that if we put responsibility exclusively on to the political parties, we are in danger of going down the US route, where you end up with either a registered Democrat or a registered Republican, and the middle ground of politics—ironically, the middle ground which the Liberal Democrats should be seeking to enter—becomes extremely blurred? We would change the nature of the political system in this country, which is why we have an independent Electoral Commission and boundary commissioners.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the point my noble friend makes, given her intimate experience of the role of political parties in promoting voter registration. However, one of the things that I find heartening about the United States experience of democracy is the way that the churches and others are actively engaged in the process of promoting registration. That is something we would do well to emulate in this country, and best-practice local authorities are beginning to emulate that. I know that in my own borough of Brent, when I was Member of Parliament for Brent South in the other place, the returning officers and the local authority reached out to the churches, community groups and others in order to assist in the registration drive. My point is that somebody needs to hold the ring and somebody needs to encourage and resource that.

My noble friend argues that political parties should be involved in this process, but that is not what we want at all. The cases of corruption that have arisen over the past few years have invariably occurred when political parties have engaged in this area of activity. Political representatives have sought multiple votes and got people to sign forms and send them in to local authorities. This has led to many cases that we are now dealing with in the courts. It is the role of the public sector and of local authority electoral registration officers to do that work; politicians should keep out of it.

I am not sure that I would go as far as my noble friend in saying that politicians or political parties ought to keep out of promoting electoral registration. They have a role. However, it is important that they should conduct that role within the law and that, if they do not, the full force of the law should be brought to bear on them regardless. It is very important that the law be brought to bear on those who break the electoral laws of our land.

The point that I was coming to was that somebody has to hold the ring. That primary responsibility should fall, in terms of accountability to Parliament, on the Secretary of State. That is why the Secretary of State appears in the amendment. The Electoral Commission has an important role in terms of research and bringing together good practice, and then the local authorities need to deliver. They must be resourced to deliver and one must make sure that they have those resources, ring-fenced and not scattered amid their other proper responsibilities. The Secretary of State should be there to hold the ring and to be accountable to Parliament. That is why I and my noble friends who have tabled similar amendments take the view that the Secretary of State must be in the Bill.

My second point is that it is open for debate—and this is a welcome opportunity to have that debate—what the precise role of the Secretary of State should be, what the nature should be of their statutory responsibilities, and what the relationship should be between those responsibilities and those of the Boundary Commission, the Electoral Commission and local authorities. I ask the noble and learned Lord to give some thought to that between now and Report, so that the problem is recognised and identified as an issue in the Bill. The issue of underrepresentation of various groups on the electoral register must be seen for what it is: a threat to democracy. There must be a duty for someone to ensure that something is done, because it is when something is done that things change. They have changed on the Benches opposite, in the other place and in my own party, and we are all the richer for it.

I do not ask the noble and learned Lord to accept the amendment tonight, or to give any indication that he is about to accept it, because I do not think that I will get that. However, it is reasonable to ask that he should consider how the issue might be addressed in the Bill on Report. I also ask him to recognise the role of Operation Black Vote. The leadership of the Conservative Party and of my own party addressed OBV in the run-up to the election and paid tribute to its role in promoting BME voter registration. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord would consider meeting a delegation from OBV in order that they can share with him their experience of working with local authorities, the Electoral Commission and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to promote best practice and share what the research shows. The research is helpful. It indicates the sorts of measures that lead to better registration and the cause of paucity of registration in areas where that is a particular problem.

I end my remarks by referring to London, where the situation is most extreme in all three categories which your Lordships are debating tonight. Indeed, in reporting in March last year, the constitutional affairs Select Committee in the other place shared with us the grim statistics that the Electoral Commission had brought forward in its work in this area. Those statistics show that only 6 per cent of people living in non-metropolitan areas are not on the register, whereas for inner London the figure stands at 20 per cent overall; and in rented unfurnished accommodation for the non-metropolitan areas only 2 per cent of owner-occupiers are not on the electoral register, yet for those living in furnished rented accommodation, which includes council housing, the figure for inner London rises to a massive 38 per cent. The statistics show that 36 per cent of new Commonwealth citizens in inner London who are entitled to vote are not on the register at all, and the figures indicate that the situation for young people is only a little better. Only 2 per cent of people aged over 50 are not on the register, yet for people aged between 20 and 24 the figure is 20 per cent. Therefore, the situation is dire. Something needs to be done and I hope that the Minister will have an open mind and an open door for those who suggest to him what might be done. I hope that on Report something will appear in the Bill indicating that this situation needs to be addressed if we are to have the sort of constitutional reform in which we can all take pride.

My Lords, I am going to use Bradford as my example as I think that it illustrates very well what my noble friend Lord Boateng has just described. I am very proud of my city and love it very much, and I want to put that on the record. On two or three occasions today and on Monday I have spoken about the challenges and problems that Bradford faces in this respect, and I want to make that completely clear. I am grateful to the Leader’s office for making available to me information which amply illustrates the issue that my noble friend has just described. For Bradford, you could substitute Birmingham, Leicester or Tower Hamlets. This is a very serious problem.

On two or three occasions the Minister has repeated the mantra of what the Government intend to do and how they intend to push forward, saying that we cannot go forward with a register that is 10 years out of date and so on. However, that is not what any of us are proposing. I shall come to that in a moment, possibly suggesting a solution. I do not think that what the Minister says will do, as this is a very serious problem in some parts of our towns and cities. Because I do not think that reading out figures in your Lordships’ House is necessarily helpful, I shall write to the Minister setting out what the figures would be if the Government’s proposals in the Bill were superimposed on Bradford. Bradford currently has five MPs representing all the different major parties, so this is not a party-political point. If the proposals in the Bill are applied to Bradford, we will lose a Member of Parliament, which would be very serious. We will go down from five Members of Parliament for our city to four if the proposal goes ahead. It will be on a very inaccurate electoral roll because Bradford has a growing population. As I said, it is expected to grow by 27 per cent over the next 20 years, which is the fastest in the whole Yorkshire region.

A quarter of that growth will be among young people, and we have already discussed the problem of young people not being represented on the electoral roll. We know that the Electoral Commission says that the figure is more than 50 per cent, and Bradford has a young population. The highest birth rates will be in the inner city and central Keighley, so Bradford West and Bradford East are likely to see significant increases in both population size and electorate. The Bradford district has the third highest proportion of BME residents outside London. Research done by the Electoral Commission suggests that there are low levels of voter registration among the BME population, which has been described very adequately by my noble friend. About 31 per cent are not registered and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that south Asian adults—particularly Muslims—are less likely to be registered than other groups.

This is not a specifically Bradford problem but it illustrates that there is a serious problem. I have two questions for the Minister. First, the shadow Justice Secretary in another place, Sadiq Khan, called for a delay of one year and an intense voter registration programme to be undertaken. Why is that not possible? Will the Government consider coming back on Report with such a proposal? That would go a long way to satisfying many of these issues. It would need resources, of course. Secondly, did the Government seek advice from the EHRC about this matter and the fact that such communities will find themselves disfranchised? That is very serious in a city like Bradford. I want Bradford to be a healthy, thriving city, and an important way for that to happen is for its citizens to be registered to vote and to participate in civic life and all our elections. I hope that this legislation will help them to do that. That is what we are asking for.

I sympathise with the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng. I live in Herne Hill, which is between Brixton, Peckham and Dulwich, and have done so for almost 40 years. I was the area organiser with the SDP when it was founded, so I have practical experience of the problem, which is a real one in any area where there are ethnic and religious minorities.

I think that the amendment is misconceived because it would place a block on the work of the Boundary Commission until the Secretary of State can certify,

“that particular action has been taken to maximise the proportion of black and minority ethnic British residents who are on the electoral register”.

One of the proud achievements of the previous Government, in which the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, had a major role, was the enactment of the Equality Act 2010. That Act and the previous one empowered the Equality and Human Rights Commission to play a major public education role in promoting equality. The EHRC was given powerful, strategic roles in law enforcement and the power to deal with political parties that were too passive and which discriminated indirectly, as well as directly.

That body was set up and the Act gave power for positive action to be taken where there was underrepresentation—for example, of black voters—on the register. That should be the body—well funded and with those powers recently approved by Parliament—to deal with the matter. This should not clog up the work of the Boundary Commission. This work needs to go on right now; it needs to go on every year. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission does not do its job properly, it should be called to account by, among other people, Members of this House. It is not sensible to be holding up the work of the Boundary Commission for that to happen. That does not mean that I do not share the objectives; I simply disagree with the means.

It is appropriate to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to this debate. He made an excellent contribution. Indeed, this is becoming a debate because I disagree with him. I believe that the more individuals and organisations that we have encouraging people from black and minority ethnic groups, the better.

I said that. I said, in intervening on the noble Lord, Lord Boateng—if the noble Lord heard me—that political parties and voluntary organisations have the major part to play.

But now, in the contribution that the noble Lord just made, he implied, if not specifically suggested, that it should be left to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That is not the right thing, unless he meant—perhaps I misconstrued him—that the co-ordinating role should be left to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, rather than the Boundary Commission.

I do not want to debate unnecessarily. I simply meant—and I think that it was obvious to everybody from what I said—that political parties have a major role. If they do not perform that role, they can be dealt with by the law and by the equality commission. As we said in the original White Papers in 1974 and 1975, the law itself cannot change attitudes; that requires voluntary action by all our citizens, including political parties, the churches and the statutory body. It should not be some clog on this excellent Bill.

My noble friend Lord Boateng indicated that the exact wording of the amendment was not something that he would go to the stake on. He said that the purpose of the amendment was to raise the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has contributed helpfully to the debate.

I want to make just two brief comments. First, when the noble Lord was talking about the great leap forward, I got a bit worried, because it reminded me of George Osborne, who said, I think—I do not know—“We are now at a precipice. Now is the time for the great leap forward”. It always seems to be dangerous when you get your metaphors mixed up. I know that my noble friend was not getting his metaphors mixed up.

I start by mentioning a friend of mine—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, might know him—Professor Geoff Palmer. He is professor of brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University. I can see noble Lords wondering, “What on earth has that to do with the amendment?”. Professor Geoff Palmer is one of the world’s experts on brewing and is a renowned world expert on whisky. Noble Lords are still asking, “What on earth has it got to do with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng?”. Professor Geoff Palmer is a black Jamaican who has lived in Scotland for the past 50 or 60 years. He has made his home in Scotland. He has become a distinguished professor and he knows more about Scotland than I do—perhaps even more than my noble friend Lady Liddell, although I doubt that. He is not the kind of person about whom we are worried. I have no worry at all about Geoff. He is registered and will make sure that all his family are registered. We are talking about groups of people, some of whom do not speak English, some of whom live in difficult circumstances and some of whom have difficulty getting about. Those are the people whom we are talking about getting to and making sure that they are registered.

My noble friend Lord Boateng said that the purpose of this amendment is to tease out some ideas and suggestions. That is what I want to do very briefly. I think that at the moment leaflets about registration are available in different languages. With the greatest of respect, although all of us think that leaflets are the thing to do, the truth is that they do not get to the vast majority of the population—the underclass—and they do not get to the vast majority of the black and ethnic minority population. People from those parts of the population do not pick up leaflets, read them in the same way and follow them.

I suggest that more work should be done using broadcast media. For instance, in Edinburgh there is a wonderful local radio station—Leith FM—where a lot of black and ethnic minority people produce the programmes. There are programmes produced in different languages. I am sure that in other areas—in Bradford or London, where there are lots more groups and lots more people in these categories—there are more radio stations that could be used. I hope that in his reply the Minister will give some indication of whether more will be done using broadcast media to get this message over in all the different languages that are available. No doubt if my noble friend Lord Maxton is motivated to contribute to this debate, he will tell us, as he always does, about how new technology can be used to encourage people to participate.

We have been talking about black Caribbean and African and Asian sub-continent groups, but work also needs to be done with other groups, such as the Poles. There is a huge number of Poles in Edinburgh, for example, who are eligible to vote because they have become British citizens. Again, they do not automatically register to vote. Indeed, some of them may be unaware that they are eligible. If they are still Polish citizens, they are not entitled to vote, except in Scottish Parliament and local elections, but if they have become British citizens they are entitled to vote. I hope that we will find some way of getting to them. I hope that this has been a very small contribution to the kind of suggestions that my noble friend Lord Boateng would like to come forward in this debate.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Lester, or anybody on the government Benches: why are the roles of government and the big society mutually exclusive? I find the notion quite shocking that it should exclusively be political parties that deal with underregistration and with underregistration of individual groups. I think that government and not-for-profit membership organisations in the voluntary sector should work in partnership to achieve these goals. In the run-up to Christmas, I was out every week doing registration as part of my local Labour Party. All the political parties were doing that work, as was the local authority. We increased the register by just under 4,000 voters across the local authority. That would have brought in 1 million voters across the country if people had done likewise everywhere. Every strong democracy in any country in the world sees government as responsible for compiling an accurate register. I think that it is quite shocking that you would not see that as the role of government.

My Lords, the life of this country has been enriched and energised generation by generation by waves of immigrants coming to Britain and forming communities here. Whether they were Huguenots in the 17th century, Jewish refugees from central and eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century, the Afro-Caribbean influx in the second half of the 20th century or Ugandan Asians within that same period, they have all contributed immensely to our society. The brilliance and energy of this capital city, London, seems to arise from the fact that it is a completely open international city, not that that is something that any Government have ever intended. Indeed, we have attitudes to immigration in official policy that seem to be curmudgeonly and mean and which are getting worse.

The question at issue is how those members of black and ethnic minorities, and other minorities, who are legitimately resident in this country should be engaged in the democratic process, should be entered on the electoral register and should be motivated to play their part and to exercise their democratic rights as citizens. Of those people legitimately here in the minorities, far too many are grievously disadvantaged. My noble friends Lord Boateng and Lady Thornton have both explained in reference to London and to Bradford just how bad the situation is.

This polarisation of our society is shameful. It is something that we must act on and not simply contemplate with regret. The voices of those who are unenfranchised as it is need to be heard. Their needs and their aspirations need to be represented, but they will not be unless they are registered to vote and exercise their vote. The best possibilities for the future of our society depend on their doing so and on the fullest integration within our society of those minorities.

The one-nation tradition has been a proud tradition of the Conservative Party. I hope that that tradition is not in abeyance and is not dead. One nation, of course, has to be characterised by a rich diversity economically, culturally, socially and politically. The condition of the electoral register—its completeness and accuracy—is a crucial test of our progress towards achieving that fullness of integration that will enable all our people to have the opportunities that they ought to have and our society to achieve the potential that it ought to recognise and to see. Failure to achieve that political integration must be a source of division, of tension and of the impoverishment of individuals and of us collectively.

I strongly support the view that has been expressed by my noble friends in moving and speaking to the amendment, and as was expressed by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton earlier today, urging the Government to accept that there should be a drive this year to achieve a step change—a major improvement—in levels of electoral registration. That has to be a responsibility of all sorts of institutions, agencies and different groups within our society.

During this debate, mention has been made of the role of the political parties, the churches, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission. We have spent some time discussing the role of local authorities and their capacity to promote electoral registration. Above all, it should be the role of the Secretary of State to lead. I hope to hear from the noble and learned Lord the Minister, in his response, some account of how the Secretary of State will lead this process.

While we can disagree with many aspects of the reforms to which the Government have committed themselves in this Bill, all of us will accept that we must have a voting system that engages people. We must have a Boundary Commission and procedures for it to ensure that the boundaries are sufficiently contemporary and appropriate for the proper functioning of our democratic system. Without the improvement that is needed in electoral registration, those reforms will be deprived of their utility and the value that they ought to have. Reform, therefore, in the sense of real improvement in electoral registration, is no less important than the other reforms to which the Government are committed in the Bill.

I was surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lester, say to the Committee that the law will not change attitudes, as one of the virtues of the equality legislation with which he is so honourably associated is that, while it may have taken decades longer than many of us would have wished to achieve the purposes that were enshrined in it, the way in which it has worked has been, as much as anything else, declaratory: it has stated a principle and established new norms in our society so that people understand what is proper. Gradually, attitudes and practice have conformed to that. I believe that the law can change attitudes. If this amendment is incorporated in the Bill, it will, by the declaration that it makes, help to change attitudes for the better and will have significant practical effects. I think that we should welcome that.

May I suggest that the noble Lord reads the White Papers of September 1974 and September 1975, where he will see what we wrote and what I have just repeated, apparently in vain, which is that the law is not a panacea? In order to be given effect and to change hearts and minds, the law has to be translated into action by voluntary measures taken by ordinary men and women. I would also add, for the benefit of another noble Lord, that I did not say that the functions of the state and the private sector are mutually exclusive. I said that they are complementary.

I shall be happy to follow the noble Lord’s suggestion and look again at the White Papers, but I believe that the benefit of those papers and the legislation was in part that they established principles to which as a society we should commit ourselves. It has taken far longer than we hoped that it would for the reality of our national life to match the aspirations set out in that legislation, but without that legislation that change would not have happened.

My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to follow my noble friend Lord Howarth because the point he has made about the law changing attitudes in this case is very valid. If we were able to see this House accept my noble friend’s amendment, it would be a signal of the determination of the establishment of this country to reach out to those in minority communities. It had not been my intention to speak to this amendment, but my noble friend Lord Boateng’s very persuasive argument in relation to it has made me rethink some of my own attitudes. I think that some of us assume that communities are to a large extent homogeneous and that people go out and register their vote. However, I discovered a key thing in the 1970s when I was general-secretary of the Labour Party in Scotland, having come from a community that had almost no minority members at all but was also made up largely of incomers.

I come from the industrial west of Scotland where people settled either as a consequence of the highland clearances on the one hand or the Irish potato famine on the other. The policeman would be a native Gallic speaker and the miner would be a native Gaelic speaker. Often the two communities existed in complete oblivion of each other. It was probably not until I went to university that I was aware that I had actually been brought up in a Scottish town because all my heritage had been Irish. One of the reasons for making that point is that there were very few black people in that community. The only black people were Pakistani shopkeepers, and only a couple of handfuls of them at that. They transformed the community because, for the first time ever, you could get a pint of milk after six o’clock at night.

Thirty years later, I was elected as the Member of Parliament for that community. What was interesting was that the demographic had barely changed. What had changed was that those Pakistani shopkeepers were extremely wealthy small businessmen and absolute pillars of the community. But the real eye opener for me when I moved on to the Scottish stage was realising the sense of alienation, particularly among the Chinese community, who operated pretty much in isolation. The most shocking thing I found as someone trying to engage other women in the political process was the extent to which Pakistani women were completely blocked out from the opportunity to participate politically. At the time it caused me to look hard at how you get people from minority communities to engage in the political process. The light bulb moment was the recognition that it was not just about language, although that was significant. I was helped enormously by people like my colleague from the other place, Mohammad Sarwar, who helped to engage the Labour Party in the Pakistani community in Glasgow.

I also discovered the extent of suspicion of the political process. That was because of people’s backgrounds and fears, which were perhaps linked to the reasons why they had left their countries to come and settle in the United Kingdom. Some of them were second and third generation, but they were frightened of the consequences of being seen to be part of a political system and perhaps of taking the wrong decision as to which party to support, thereby being disadvantaged in the community.

I was enormously impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, just as I was the other night, when he emphasised how important it is for us, as the country that boasts that it has in this Building the mother of all Parliaments, to be able to set examples. The Deputy Prime Minister has called this the greatest piece of constitutional reform since the Reform Act 1832. Were the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to look at some of the issues contained in the amendment of my noble friends Lord Boateng and Lady Thornton, he would have the opportunity to table a “Wallace of Tankerness” amendment to the constitution, which would help to make this society a much more engaged and co-operative one in which to live. The more I have listened to this debate, the more I have found myself thinking about issues such as compulsory voting. If we are to reach out to communities that feel detached from the political process, we give them an opportunity to play a much fuller part in society.

We have so far seen no movement in this House or the other place on this legislation. It is regrettable, because opportunities are being missed to change the nature of political debate and engagement in this country. I urge the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and his ministerial colleagues to look seriously at the amendment, although not necessarily to give us an answer tonight. The action proposed in it would require a significant advertising campaign, perhaps using the new technology that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, knows so much about. It would certainly require the leadership of the Secretary of State, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, set out. This is an opportunity to do something that should span every political view in this House—except perhaps one or two that we shall not mention here—and make this a much more inclusive and democratic society.

My Lords, I am not an expert on the new technology, despite what some people think. In terms of this Chamber, I am the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Just in case the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, thinks that he has inspired me to my feet, I say that it was not him but the Minister—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. On several occasions now, in response to these debates, he has mentioned using databases in relation to the register. That gives rise to two questions.

First, which registers and databases will he ask local authorities to use? They will obviously use their own records, such as school records, local housing records and perhaps their leisure facility records. Can they use social security records? After all, many of the people about whom my noble friend has spoken may be registered as unemployed or registered for social security in some form or other. Will the local government registration officer be able to use social security records to reach them? The Government may be able to instruct them to do so, because they control social security and other areas of that nature. However, there are bodies in between that are public—they are financed by the taxpayer—but which are responsible neither to local government nor to national government. I have in mind in particular the National Health Service, which is run by a series of trusts and organisations that are supposedly at arm’s length from government. Will GPs’ records be available to returning officers? Can they go to a GP and say, “You must tell us all those who have just reached the age of 18”? GPs will know the names and addresses if they are registered. Can they, more controversially, go to an A&E hospital and say, “These people come to your hospital with accidents. Can you give us the records of where they live and the date on which they were born?”? I do not know the answer, but the noble Lord has suggested that on several occasions.

Equally, a large number of these databases are in private hands. Obviously, you can ask community organisations, but you can only ask; you cannot instruct—or are the Government intending to take powers to instruct local authorities to approach banks, local community organisations and local sports organisations that are not directly funded? Where do you go on this? How far will a local authority go?

That gives rise to the second question. If you listened carefully—and I will read carefully what the Minister has been saying—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, implied that local authorities will positively draw up a register based on these databases. They will go to the databases to find out who left school and where they live and put them on the register. Is that what they intend to do?

Is it not fair to say that this whole complex exercise could have been avoided if the Government had simply introduced national identity cards?

My noble friend, inevitably, gets there before me. I will come to that in a minute.

Is it the Government’s intention to draw up the register based on these databases, which local authorities will be able to go into, and therefore add large numbers of people who have not registered to vote? If the Government are not going to do that, what is the point of going into the databases? There is no point at all.

The Minister has implied that the Government are drawing up a register from the databases and then basically saying to people, “You’re on the register. If you wish, you can prove to us that you do not live there any more and come off the register”. However, as my noble friend has quite rightly said, all this would have been solved—and considerable sums of money saved in the longer run—if we had introduced compulsory national identity cards and a national identity register. Each local authority could have used that and drawn up its own register without any bother whatever.

That would not have been the only use. You could then use the card itself to vote electronically wherever you wished. That would have increased the number of people taking part in our democratic process, which would have been to the major benefit of our whole electoral system.

This is an important issue. The debate has been greatly assisted, first, by the very forceful and well researched way in which my noble friend Lord Boateng introduced it; secondly, by the exceptional speech of my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke; and thirdly, by the speech just made by my noble friend Lord Maxton. He asked the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, quite a number of pertinent questions about what he has been saying in response to this collection of amendments—namely, “We are doing a bit of data matching and we want to see how the pilots go”. We need to know the legal basis of data matching and the consequences of data being matched.

This issue raises important points of principle. Those outside this Chamber may think that this debate is about political parties’ different views on the methods of selecting boundaries for constituencies and voting systems. If we are genuinely about to introduce a new system for identifying constituencies, there must be a real sense that that connects with the people who currently do not connect with our democracy.

The statistics that my noble friend Lord Boateng referred to make it clear—I do not believe that this is seriously an issue in this Chamber—that members of the BME communities in this country are underrepresented on the electoral register by comparison with white British electors. The figures produced by the Electoral Commission find that overall registration levels among the BME communities stand at 69 per cent compared to white British electors at 86 per cent. I do not think there is any dispute that that is a bad figure and that efforts should be made to increase the levels of electoral registration by BME communities—though I wait to hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness.

The much missed Robin Cook said that democracy is not just a method by which we select those who govern us but also a system of government that expresses our values. Diversity is one of the critical values of our country, as is that there should be genuine equality. In producing an electoral reform described by the Deputy Prime Minister as the most significant since 1832, the least that could be done is for the legislation to have some explicit recognition of the problem relating to registration of BME groups. Surely it is at least as important to reach the hard-to-reach groups as it is to go through a technical change in the way that we define the constituency boundaries in this country.

The response of the noble and learned Lord has been twofold: he does not want it to be fixed on information that is out of date—I hope I dealt with that before dinner—or on an indeterminate date. I indicated that there was a determinate date, which seemed to cut the ground from under him. His second answer was that it must be done before the next election. Why? Does he regard it as more important to do it before the general election than to ensure that people are reached who are not now being reached by our electoral system? If he has the time, can he explain why the next general election is so critical? Is that to do with party politics or with crafting a good system? Ultimately, we will be judged—not just this House but Parliament generally—by whether people believe that we are producing a system that is trying to reach the whole of our community rather than simply serving the electoral interests of one or other party. That is why it is important that the noble and learned Lord at least makes some effort to explain why he thinks the next election is more important than reaching the hard-to-reach groups.

My noble friend Lord Boateng proposes that Parliament express a view that this is important. He suggests that the Secretary of State should approve a process by which hard-to-reach groups, especially BME communities, are reached before we move to the next phase, the boundary review. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, says the responsibility for that lies on political parties. I accept that but registration should be separate from political parties. Yes, all political parties should make their contribution but nobody doubts that those responsible for registering people on the electoral register—the electoral registration officers and local authorities—also have a responsibility for it. That is why, without disputing the responsibility of political parties, it is important that the state undertakes its responsibilities as well. I know from my experience as a Minister that you really get the state to change its view of things by making the things that the Government want conditional on some improvement in the delivery of public service or public policy. The effect of the amendment would be that the boundary changes would be introduced only if there was an improvement in the registration of BME groups.

If the noble and learned Lord has a better suggestion as to how such an improvement should be made, I would be very grateful to hear it. From his comments so far—which he made before dinner—I understand that the data-matching pilots that are going on in respect of the registration of people in the private rented sector and of young people would, he believes, be better than our proposal that the Secretary of State should be required to approve a report stating that the people involved in electoral registration have brought about such an improvement. So far, I am unconvinced by what the noble and learned Lord has said. I do not in any way disrespect the efforts that he has made, but I would like to hear why he thinks that such efforts are a better way of improving electoral registration among the BME community than what my noble friend Lord Boateng proposes.

It seems to me that we disagree neither on the desired outcome nor on the existence of the problem, but the proposals that the noble and learned Lord has made and the pilots that he says are going on seem trivial by comparison with the problem; I say that with the greatest respect to him. Therefore, I very much hope that he will explain to us, first, why it is more important to improve the register by the date of the next general election than to improve the registration of BME communities and, secondly, why the proposal contained in the amendment is worse than the Government’s data-matching pilots.

My Lords, I think that we could legitimately ask why, in amendment after amendment from the Opposition, such efforts have been made to ensure that the next general election is fought on boundaries based on such an outdated electoral register. Perish the thought that those efforts are motivated in any way by thoughts of party-political advantage—I would not suggest that of the noble and learned Lord. Amendment after amendment has been designed to frustrate our attempts to ensure that the next general election is fought on boundaries that are determined by an electoral register that is far more up to date—by up to 10 years more—than the electoral register that would be used if the opposition amendments were agreed to.

Let me give the noble and learned Lord some reassurance. Whereas his proposals would mean that the 2020 general election would be fought on boundaries based on an electoral register for which the relevant compilation date would, if we allow one year, be 2011—I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, nodding that that is his position—the Government’s position, and the position in the Bill, is that the relevant qualifying date for the electoral register that will be used for determining boundaries for the 2020 election will be December 2015. That will allow even more opportunity for the registration of young people, people in the private rented sector and people from black and minority-ethnic communities. In fact, we are going further than would be possible under the amendments that the Opposition have moved today.

Is the Minister saying that the 3.5 million people who are not on the register will need to wait for five or six years? Whether or not they are allowed to register, the fact is that those people are not currently on the register. Does he think that it is acceptable to make those people wait for five or six years before they can participate in our democracy? What is he saying?

I am beginning to wonder whether the noble Baroness understands what electoral registration is about. No one is being denied the opportunity to participate in our democracy by registering. The noble Baroness has suggested that, somehow or other, the Bill will disfranchise people. If people register to vote, they will have the opportunity to vote—although whether or not they in fact vote is a matter for them. I think that there is common ground on both sides of the Committee that we ought to encourage registration.

The proposal that has been made by the noble Baroness’s party is that we should use a relevant qualifying date of 2011, which would mean that the 2015 election boundaries would be fought on data dating back to 2000. I am indicating that we can go better than that. Rather than require that the 2020 election be based on data from December 2011, the Bill will mean that we will use data from December 2015. I very much hope that, during that period, we will have made the kinds of steps forward that have been called for from all sides.

I am getting slightly confused. No one is suggesting doing away with rolling registration. Therefore, at any time a person can get on the register and it can be as up to date as the people coming in. We are saying that there should be a big effort to get people on to the rolling register, so all these things about 2011 for 2020 are a load of nonsense.

That just confirms that the noble Lord does not actually understand what this is about. No one is disputing the importance of the rolling register and of getting people on the register to vote. The point of these amendments and of this part of the Bill is the relevant date by which the Boundary Commission has to have regard when determining what the size of constituencies will be. That does not detract in any way from trying to increase the amount of registration, so when it comes to—

Well, there is no Speaker here. We are not arguing any case that would prevent any member of the public registering to vote prior to the 2015 general election. Nothing that we are arguing in any way interferes with that, so why does the noble and learned Lord keep suggesting that we are?

I have not suggested that. If that was the impression that the noble Lord got, I have to correct him. I have not suggested that anyone is standing in the way of having people registered for the 2015 election. With respect, I have not yet heard anything—

I am trying to be helpful. When I raised this on Monday, the Minister said that it was helpful. Would it not be much easier to separate registration from the decision of who we should take account of on the boundary? I suggest in Amendment 89C, which we are going to consider eventually, that we should take account of those people who are eligible to vote. We know the figures for that and if we take account of them, it separates it from the question of those who are registered to vote.

We will come to Amendment 89C but there is a relevant point that the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, made in moving this amendment. He conceded that, for the reasons that I have already given, it was not likely to be accepted but he still made a pertinent point about addressing the underregistration of people from black and minority ethnic communities. That is a pertinent point which we wish to address; I give him that wholehearted assurance.

To take on board the question of the data matching, I found that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, dismissed that. We have not actually heard much that is constructive coming from the Opposition Benches about what they would do after they had 13 years in government to do something. If there is a deficit at the moment, it is not the responsibility of this Administration. I suspect that those who are protesting so much have much on their conscience to protest about, because they did precious little during that period to try to make sure that the deficit has been made up. What we have done, in a short period, is to try to identify some measures—practical measures.

I do not believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, that putting it into statute is necessarily a panacea. I believe that there is practical action on data matching. What we will be doing, if I can make it clear in answering some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, is comparing the electoral register with other public databases—I think that I made it clear in the past that they were public databases not, as he was suggesting in his inquiry, private databases—to find people missing from the electoral register, to see how effective that is in boosting its completeness. Based on these trials, we will decide whether to roll that out more widely.

The noble Lord asked about GP records. We are looking into that, although it will be accepted that there are sensitivities around health records. On private records, I have indicated that that is a matter for the public sector although, as other noble Lords have mentioned in this debate, we want to engage the voluntary sector in trying to boost registration. It may well be that engaging the voluntary sector in that way will give us access to other records as well. We will be using match data to identify people and invite them to register. Ultimately, however, it is up to the individuals themselves whether they register but that is what we will be aiming to do. In addition to that, a series of events is planned over the next few months, as part of the introduction of individual registration, where we will consider with stakeholders what further steps can be taken to engage with underrepresented groups.

The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, asked specifically about Operation Black Vote. I am advised that we are talking to groups representing the black and minority ethnic communities as part of the move to individual registration, including Operation Black Vote. He asked if there would be an open door, and I can confirm that the Government will be happy to consider ideas regarding who we should talk to among the black and minority ethnic communities in order to improve registration. I am not suggesting that we have a monopoly of wisdom on this. We are certainly open to the idea. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and my noble friend Lord Lester indicated that there was a role to be played here by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is not exclusive, as has been suggested by some who are misinterpreting what my noble friend had to say.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned broadcasting. At the most recent election, the Electoral Commission used broadcasting to try to get across in different languages to different minority groups. I see no reason why that should not be pursued. There is a variety of ways in which we are trying to do this.

The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said that determination was needed to do this. I assure him that we are determined to try to address this problem. I believe that it can be done with the sort of practical measures that I have outlined and by there being a willingness and an openness to hear from others who have positive suggestions—indeed, from young people, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, expressed earlier. That is more practical than anything that we have heard from noble Lords opposite, with the exception of national identity cards, which this Parliament has debated and rejected.

I say that we can always do more, and this Government intend to do more. That is not to say, though, that a boundary review, which will prevent constituencies being even more out of date than they are at present and votes being more unequal than they are now, should not take place. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, my fear that my “ZZZ” amendment might have induced torpor in the Minister was clearly quite misplaced; his response was more triple X than triple Z. Nevertheless, it was welcome in its passion, a passion that I think we all share on this issue. I return to the point made with force by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that we all ought to be able to share in the ends—to enhance registration and improve the effectiveness and completeness of the register—even though we may disagree about the means. I am seeking, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, to find some consensus on the means by which we may proceed, to ensure that the register is complete and that it is effective for the purposes that it has to fulfil if the reforms proposed in the legislation are to achieve their ends, which are to enhance our democracy.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. I welcome the fact that he is focused very much on practical action. That is necessary and will make a difference. I welcome the fact that he has said that his door is open; I take that as an invitation to me to see him, together with representatives of Operation Black Vote, which, as Members on all sides of the House know, is an entirely non-partisan body that has been consulted widely by Government, in the past and currently, on these issues. I thank him for that and will take him up on it before we complete our consideration of the Bill, so that he might seek a way of incorporating the concerns that have been raised in the course of this debate into the delivery of the reforms that the Bill is meant to bring about.

There is a way forward that the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has suggested to me. It embraces the points that have been made by the Minister and puts to bed completely the suggestion that what lies behind this amendment is a desire in some way to stymie the Bill. That is not what lies behind it. It would be possible to envisage wording in the Bill that required the Secretary of State, the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission—all of which have functions to perform in the course laid down by the Bill—to take into account, in performing their functions, such guidelines and advice on electoral registration as were issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That body is accountable to Parliament and was set up, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has indicated, by Parliament, with specific duties and responsibilities in this area. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to require the Secretary of State, the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission, in exercising their functions under the Bill, to take into account guidance delivered by the equalities commission.

I suggest that on the Floor of the House at this stage as an indication to the Minister and those who advise him that, on the basis of what I have heard from him today and the helpful contributions from all sides of the House, it would be my intention in seeking a meeting with him to urge that course of action on him. He might then bring back to the House on Report just such a requirement on the Secretary of State, the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission. That would meet the concerns on all sides of this House about the shared ends, without in any way delaying this legislation and the exercise of those bodies’ powers and functions in delivering the reform on which the Minister is set. I very much welcome his nodding in assent. That is the course that I intend to embark on. Having heard the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 58ZZZD withdrawn.

Amendment 58ZZZE

Moved by

58ZZZE: Clause 10, page 8, line 15, at end insert—

“( ) For the avoidance of doubt, the financial provision in section 16 includes any additional resources which a Boundary Commission deems necessary to complete its duties under subsection (2).”

My Lords, we change topic now and come to a short amendment, which deals with the question of resources for the Boundary Commission. The purpose of this amendment, which is in my name and that of my noble and learned friend, is to gain a degree of reassurance from the Minister that the Government are committed to doing all they can to ensure that what can only be described as the dramatic boundary review proposed is carried out smoothly and effectively, and has the necessary resources.

It has always been a huge task to redraw constituency boundaries. It was the responsibility for many years of the Boundary Commission. However, there is a huge difference in the review planned by the Bill. In usual periods, boundary commissions will indeed look at all constituencies, but in many cases no significant change—or no change at all—would be recommended for a large majority of those constituencies. However, reviewing the boundaries, as is the intention, on very tight mathematical rules, and the crucial factoring in of a large reduction in the number of Members of Parliament, make the Boundary Commission’s task significantly harder. There will be much more work.

In giving evidence on the Bill to the other place’s Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the boundary commissions said that the task was achievable but difficult. I think that is a fair summary of their evidence. The point is that every single constituency will change as a consequence of this boundary review, as set out in the Bill. There are numerous potential manifestations of redrawn constituency boundaries; that is just a statement of the obvious. What is also obvious is that the task itself is immense. I hope the Committee agrees that the timescale of the task makes this boundary review very different from those that have occurred in the past.

As the Bill stands, the task facing the boundary commissions must be completed by 1 October 2013. The Government recommend that after that a review should occur every five years, but the first major change has to be completed in considerably less than three years’ time. We argue that it follows that the resources required will be greater than what the boundary commissions are used to having at their disposal. Will the Minister reassure the Committee that the boundary commissions will be granted all the necessary resources that the commissioners, who after all are the experts in this area, deem necessary for delivering the task that the Government are asking them to do? It would be helpful if he could remind us out of what budget the resources that are necessary for this inquiry come. If extra resources are found to be necessary in due course, out of what budget will they come? In other words, we are asking him to fill in the details for the Committee. I beg to move.

I support my noble friend on the Front Bench. The Government could give important reassurance on this. The amendment does not ask directly for more funds now but recognises that what the Government are imposing constitutes a complex and continuing problem for the Boundary Commission, which already struggles at times to deliver what it needs to deliver on time. We all know that at present, when the Government are looking for savings in all these areas, there is a danger that the Boundary Commission will be expected to carry out a task that is beyond it. It seems to me that the wording of the amendment is so reasonable that it would be unreasonable for the Government not to give an assurance that if the Boundary Commission needs more money, it will be given it. It is important in that respect.

My Lords, I seek some figures from the Minister, although he has indicated that he will not give any and has adhered to that stance so far when responding to amendments. Time and again before the election the parties that are now in government said that the reason for reducing the number of MPs was to reduce the costs of democracy. I was never able to work out how that would happen, principally because I knew the cost of a normal Boundary Commission review from Questions that I had posed to my noble friend Lord Bach when he was a Minister long before this was ever an issue. From memory, I was told that it was around £13 million. When pressed on the matter, Nick Clegg has said that the saving to the Exchequer of reducing the number of MPs by 50 would be about £12 million. As I knew that there would have to be an advanced Boundary Commission, it was obvious to me that the cost of the Boundary Commission alone would be more initially than the savings gained from that reduction in the number of MPs, so there are no savings in the costs of democracy.

What I did not realise in those early stages was quite how frequently Boundary Commission reviews would be required under the legislation. We now know, should the Bill become an Act, that because the Minister rejected our various proposals to extend the period between boundary redistributions, those redistributions would be roughly twice as frequent as they are now. They now occur between every eight and 12 years; if the Bill is enacted, they will happen every five years.

Unless my basic maths is completely wrong, the savings to the Exchequer from the reduction in the number of MPs will be £12 million, while the cost of a Boundary Commission review will, I assume, remain at about £13 million, but reviews will occur twice as frequently. I am even being generous to the Government in that respect, because if all these reviews are to be accelerated, they will presumably be costly. More commissioners will be needed to do things quickly.

It is therefore not unreasonable—although I fear that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, appears to indicate that he thinks it is an unreasonable request—for us to know the cost of the Boundary Commission reviews, given that they will occur twice as frequently. Given that the Government’s principal justification has been to reduce the cost of democracy, we ought to bear in mind that the cost of the referendum will be about £90 million.

We know well enough that all areas of public expenditure are being very closely scrutinised as to whether they are necessary, and it is reasonable to ask these questions. If I do not get a response now, I shall have to table a Parliamentary Question on the subject. If the noble Lord cannot provide the figures now, perhaps he would be kind enough to tell the Committee in due course what they are. What are the costs of the Boundary Commission? How much more will they be when the reviews are twice as frequent as they are at present? Can he confirm in passing—I am sure that it is easy for him to do—whether cost of the referendum will be £90 million? If those figures are anything like what I estimate, and I do not have the noble Lord’s resources, can I at least appeal to him and his colleagues on the Front Bench never again to say, as a justification for this legislation, that he is “reducing the cost of democracy”?

My Lords, the weakness in this amendment is the first five words:

“For the avoidance of doubt”.

There is no doubt. The 1986 Act and this Bill already make provisions for the payment of the commission’s expenses, including any additional resources necessary to complete the review referred to in this clause. In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretary of the English commission, which of course will have the most sizeable task to complete, told the committee that the commission has been working closely on the question of funding, in discussion with its sponsoring departments. Those departments are the Cabinet Office for England and Wales, the Scotland Office for Scotland, and Northern Ireland Office for Northern Ireland.

In addition, the secretary of the commission confirmed that he was confident that sufficient resources would be available to complete the review. It is the Government’s view that this is the best approach—a dialogue between each of the commissions and their sponsoring departments to ensure that their funding is appropriate. We have no doubt that the review will be conducted with a careful regard—I repeat, a careful regard—to public money. That matter, of course, can be examined at a later stage. However, there is no doubt that the commissions will have the resources that they need to complete the review, and the 1986 Act and this Bill already make provisions for that. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I thank my noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Grocott for their contributions and support for the amendment. My noble friend Lord Grocott pressed the Minister, and I should like to press him a little further about whether this whole enterprise will make democracy more expensive or cheaper.

A great deal was made some time ago of the £12 million being saved by reducing the number of elected Members of Parliament by 50. However, as my noble friend demonstrated clearly, there are additional costs in the new proposals, not just with the referendum itself but also with the Boundary Commission. Will the price of democracy go up or down as a consequence of these reforms? The Committee and the country are entitled to know. As I said, this is a probing amendment. I am grateful to the Minister, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 58ZZZE withdrawn.

Amendment 58ZZZF not moved.

Amendment 58ZZZG

Moved by

58ZZZG: Clause 10, page 8, line 20, at end insert “and the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords”

My Lords, I was asked to move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who asked me to express his apologies for not being here. I am sure that he is sorely missed by all noble Lords. This is a probing amendment. Nevertheless, it is a relevant role for a revising Chamber to scrutinise legislation, to point out flaws, hopefully to get them dealt with, and to seek more information from the Government on how they arrived at the composition of the Bill that they have put before Parliament.

I arrived with some trepidation to attempt vainly to fill the shoes of my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I would have been filled with even more trepidation if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, had still been on the Front Bench. The fierceness with which he dealt with previous speakers filled me with fear and trepidation. I felt quite intimidated when my noble friend asked me to move the amendment. I have never seen the noble and learned Lord in such a—shall I use the word?—crabbit mood. He was very fierce and gave the appearance of being a wee bit intolerant and authoritarian in questioning a Member’s right to put forward amendments. I feel that I have escaped the hangman’s noose now that the noble and learned Lord is not on the Front Bench to deal with me. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be gentle with me.

My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock was eagle-eyed in spotting something that reflects—perhaps I am dipping my toe into the pool of controversy here with what might be seen as a vicious attack on the Government—the rushed nature of the Bill. Why has the legislation not caught up with changed realities? To say that this should go to the Speaker of the House of Commons but not the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords does not recognise the new reality. Legislation goes through both Houses of Parliament. This is not a major thing that will bring revolution. Nevertheless, in terms of respect, thoroughness and exactitude, this seems daft. I am trying to clarify whether this has been missed or whether it is a deliberate omission—and if it is the latter, why has it been done? It does not reflect the fact that we are a bicameral Parliament. This should come before the Lord Speaker as well.

In asking these questions of the government Front Bench, I hope that I do not get torn to pieces or ripped apart because I have the temerity to speak to an amendment. The only thing that I can think concerning the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is that he has been working very hard and perhaps is a bit tired. However, the hour is not our choice; it is the Government’s choice.

I just want to be clear about what we are looking for here. Is the exclusion of the Lord Speaker from the Bill just an act of omission or is it deliberate? If it is deliberate, I should like to know the reason. If it is a mere act of omission because of the rushed nature of the Bill, will the amendment be accepted and placed in the Bill?

I congratulate my noble friend Lord McAvoy on his courage in moving the amendment. The absence of the reference to the Speaker of the House of Lords—the Lord Speaker—presumably means that it is not intended that there should be a debate on the report in the Lords. Presumably the argument is that, by giving the report only to the Speaker of the Commons and not to the Speaker of the Lords, the Government envisage a debate in the Commons but not here. However, it would obviously be important for both Houses to debate it. As we said earlier in our debates, this House has tended to be more effective in relation to Boundary Commission reports—1969 has been referred to. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is about to respond. I do not know where he was in 1969. He may well have been helping the then Home Secretary, who was perhaps responsible for trying to go round the corner in relation to the Boundary Commission report. I think that it would be good for democracy if both Houses debated such reports produced by the Boundary Commission. Is the fact that the Lord Speaker is not referred to intended to mean that the focus should be on the Commons, or is there no such intention? If the Government are happy for both Houses to debate the report, might a way of indicating that be by saying that the report should go to both Speakers?

My Lords, first, I reassure the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that he and I have bonded—I think that that is the only word that can describe it—since he came to this House. If my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness should be threatening in any way, the noble Lord would find me between him and my noble and learned friend in an attempt to protect him.

We have had a fair amount of paranoia during the Committee stage of this Bill. The Opposition have suspected us of rigging this and that, but the simple fact is that the report is delivered to the Speaker of the House of Commons in his capacity as the ex officio chair of the Boundary Commission. He then lays it before Parliament on receipt, which ensures that Members of both Houses have the opportunity to read it. The laying process involves papers being received in the Journal Office and reported to the Commons in the daily Votes and Proceedings, and to the Lords in the daily minute, after which they are said to have been laid on the Table of the House. Therefore, Members of both Houses are able to see them. I have no doubt that, once they are laid on the Table of the House, there will be usual channels discussions to enable a debate in both Houses. There is nothing up my sleeve and no mystery here; this just involves the basic procedures of the workings of the Boundary Commission. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.

My Lords, I am still not sure what the obstacle is. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, describe the process and I understand what he says about the Boundary Commission, but I am not sure why the report should not be at least on the agenda here before the Lord Speaker. Is the Minister able to clarify whether there is a legal obstacle to doing that? If there is no legal obstacle, I do not see—

I do not agree with the noble Lord. I will not push the point too hard in case the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, tries to get between the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and me, although I am reminded of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road—they get knocked over.

It is a bit obstinate of the Minister not to take on a simple act of courtesy and respect for the House of Lords. At least I have been spared the hectoring and barracking that the three noble wise men on the Front Bench subjected my noble friends to previously, so I shall sit down before getting mauled any further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 58ZZZG withdrawn.

Amendment 58ZZA

Moved by

58ZZA: Clause 10, page 8, line 33, at beginning insert “Subject to subsection (5AA) below,”

I start by reminding the House why we are here at this time of night because members of the coalition may have forgotten. I am sorry that we find ourselves debating the Bill at this time of night but we do so only because the Government have failed to treat it as a constitutional Bill and subject it to the procedures that Parliament has repeatedly stated should apply to constitutional Bills.

I shall read from a report of the Constitution Committee of this House, to which I know the noble Lord will wish to defer, although he may wish to do so on his feet. It unanimously said that in general,

“it is a matter of principle that proposals for major constitutional reform”—

which is what this is; remember the Great Reform Act 1832—

“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 the other. That is why I am on my feet tonight. Let me make it absolutely clear that I object, as a Member of this House, to the way in which this Bill is being driven through Parliament when it has huge constitutional significance. Everybody, including all the officers of the House who are probably worried about what is going on in the Chamber, should be well aware of that.

I now turn to the amendment, which is very interesting. It was born not in my mind but that of our very brilliant Jessica, who has been a considerable help in providing research support to a number of us during the course of the Bill. I shall refer to it as the Jessica amendment. It has been adopted by me because it gives me the opportunity to help the Liberal Democrats. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is in his place because he may wish to intervene. I was thinking of him specifically when the amendment was tabled.

Considering the quality of debate I have listened to in the past hour and a half, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might want to go home and go to bed.

I am in all in favour of the noble Lord going home to bed. All the Government need to do is accept that this is a constitutional Bill and proceed on that basis. They have not done that, so I find myself having to move amendments of this nature.

It gives me the opportunity to argue the case for a recalibration or readjustment in the relationship between the two elements in the coalition. The relationship at the moment is unbalanced; it is one-sided. In questions on the Statement on banking yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, drew attention to the way in which the arrangement in the coalition agreement is unbalanced and favours the Conservative element.

The Bill is a product of a coalition with two very different objectives. The Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform; the Conservative element of the coalition wanted a reduction in the number of seats. However, in the introduction of what the Liberal Democrats want, they show a very opportunist desire in pursuing a system that they have never believed in, never subscribed to, and repeatedly argued against over all the years that I can recall. They have argued in the Electoral Reform Society and outside that it is an utterly inadequate system. It is a product of the coalition. They want that; and the Conservatives want, as I said, a reduction in the number of seats.

However, the introduction of AV is dependent on two factors: a yes vote in the referendum, and the passage through Parliament of orders bringing in boundaries. I add a third: in my view, the introduction of AV should also be dependent on turnout thresholds or question approval thresholds, but that is a matter that we have already debated.

The reality is that if the boundaries do not go through, voting reform is blocked. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, may want to confirm that. What could delay the boundaries going through in the way that the Government want? There could be legal challenge. There could be judicial review. My noble friend Lord Soley, in a very interesting debate on 20 December, was pressing the Government precisely on the question of judicial review and the circumstances in which it might arise. There could be delay as a result of public dissatisfaction, leading to the petitioning of Parliament. No one has thought of what might happen then.

As I understand it, the Government are proposing in separate legislation some arrangement whereby electors will be able to petition Parliament. What happens if an electorate within a particular constituency decide to petition Parliament against the recommendation of the Boundary Commission? Would that in any way influence what the Boundary Commission recommends? Technically, that could happen in the course of an inquiry which, under the Bill, may well not take place. To what extent could a local referendum-based petition or local petition objecting for the arrangements for the boundary review for a particular constituency affect the final decisions by the Boundary Commission?

There could also be further legislation in Parliament. When I say further legislation, the coalition agreement appears to be holding at the moment, but we do not know what the future holds. A couple of weeks ago, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer moved an amendment which worried me—I am sure that he does not mind me saying that. It was to insert an amendment in Rule 45B(4) in the Representation of the People Act 1983—rules which deal with amendments to primary legislation. I think that my noble and learned friend was concerned that the Bill provided for amendment of primary legislation, whereas I was in favour of that. Even at this stage, it is possible—we do not know what is going to happen over the coming months—that there may be some desire to change the Bill's provisions which require amendment in primary legislation. Again, that could delay and hold up the publication by the Boundary Commission of the draft Orders in Council.

What all this means is that there are circumstances in which if a boundary review has not been given final clearance by Parliament, a change to the voting system is blocked. I would call that a very one-sided agreement between the coalition parties. If the Conservative element does not get its boundary changes, the Liberal Democrats do not get their AV. I keep on repeating this because it is very important that they understand that that is precisely what happens. But what happens if the Liberal Democrats do not get their AV? The answer to that question is that the Conservative element in the coalition still gets its boundary changes.

Let me tell the Liberal Democrats what that could mean for them because Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit did some work on these matters. His article is entitled “Do Turkeys Vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg’s party will lose a fifth of all its MPs”. It states:

“Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit models the effects of a smaller House of Commons and finds that while we cannot be completely certain of the outcome at this stage, it could well be disastrous for the Liberal Democrats”.

Are they getting the message? This is not a very good deal for them. If they lose their system, they still get the boundary review. They might have to revise their position. They get the new boundaries under which, as I will now show, they lose. The document states that,

“the first detailed model of what the new constituencies might look like shows that the worst hit party will probably be taken by the Liberal Democrats, as my first Table below shows. It is possible that the ‘reduce and equalise’ policy could end up being what is known in Ireland as a ‘Tullymander’—an electoral change introduced for partisan reasons that backfires on its authors”.

Under the modelling he has done, the Conservatives lose 21 seats, 7 per cent of their total, Labour loses 13 seats, 5 per cent of our total, and the Liberal Democrats lose 12 seats, 21 per cent of their total.

“The model redistribution was undertaken using the rules proposed in the government’s Bill, giving special treatment to two island seats in Scotland and then distributing the 598 other seats across the four nations. Constituencies were then allocated to the English regions, and the entitlement of each county was calculated ... The Liberal Democrats are badly affected by the upcoming boundary changes for two reasons. First, their seats tend to be geographically isolated rather than clumped together … Changing the boundaries of Liberal Democrat seats will tend to pull in areas of neighbouring seats, where the party’s vote is much lower. Second, on average, Liberal Democrats have much smaller majorities than Tory or Labour MPs ... Their seats are therefore less able to withstand adverse boundary changes ... In terms of the numbers of Conservative and Labour casualties of redistribution, there are several reasons for this surprising result. One is that the journalistic standby of the ‘depopulated inner city’”—

let us get it all on the record so that we all know what he says—

“is largely a myth ... We do not know how the Boundary Commissions will choose between the different schemes that are within the rules. Accordingly, we looked as hard as we could at all other possible extreme results based on essentially the same template, with boundaries systematically tweaked to their maximum extent within the rules so as to boost one or other of the top the three parties”.

We will not go any further. I think I have made my point that it is a bad deal for them. It was negotiated in the heat of the moment, in the panic conditions of trying to create a Government. It does not say much for the deal.

I want to help the Liberal Democrats. The Jessica amendment puts a little more balance into the coalition’s agreement on the Bill. It would mean that the Government do not get their boundary changes approved unless the referendum has approved the new voting system. Now why would I want to do that? It is very simple. At the moment, the Conservative element in the coalition has no incentive whatever to change the voting system. All of them, or nearly all of them, as we know, are completely opposed to it. They are already lining up the expenditure and the personnel to take part in a national campaign to block electoral reform. They are being assured of substantial support in the national media.

If the Liberal Democrats want their Conservative partners to be more flexible, more supportive and more understanding of their position, they have to give them a little bit of an incentive. The Conservatives need an incentive. What better way to do that than to arrange the Bill in such a way as to deny the Conservatives their boundary changes unless they tone down their opposition to electoral reform? Surely that must commend itself to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. He wants to see that case, that argument, against electoral reform, which he knows is coming. He is the guru for the Liberal Democrat party on this issue. Surely he wants to maximise the support for the change and reduce the emphasis from the other element of the coalition that will argue against the change.

If the Conservative element in the coalition is really driven down this route, the first thing it will want to do is ditch Queensland AV because it is well aware of the dangers in it. That is where I come in. I know that many Tory MPs support the electoral system that I have been promoting throughout this Bill, so if the noble Lord or the Liberal Democrats want to see a change in the Tory position away from opposition at least towards mild support for the proposition of electoral reform, what better than to choose another AV system that will deliver the kind of support or remove the opposition to electoral reform which they know may lead to defeat for their case?

There may be those who dispute what I said when I said that some Conservative Members of Parliament were winding us up and asking us to argue passionately against this Bill. Indeed, some of them went as far as to say, “Block the Bill”, but we do not want to block it; we simply want to amend it. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is not in his place, said from a sedentary position, “Name them”. I can name some of them, although not those who have talked to me, because they are on the record in the House of Commons Hansard. Their speeches are to be found in the debate on an amendment moved by Mr Christopher Chope, MP for Christchurch. In moving the SV system—my system, which I have been pushing—from the Conservative Benches in the House of Commons, he said:

“Were my amendment to be carried, it might make it easier for those who want to secure a yes vote in the referendum—that is the irony of my amendment—because it will actually make the system much simpler to understand … However, it is a lot more satisfactory than the full alternative vote system, which is what is proposed in the Bill … That leads to a very undesirable system, in which not even the person who came first or second past the post is elected, but instead somebody who came much further down the running order, all on the basis of the lowest common denominator, which is the wrong way to choose representatives to this House”.

Miss Eleanor Laing, another Conservative Member, said:

“My hon. Friend's amendment is therefore technically and linguistically absolutely correct. If the system is to be called the alternative vote system, the sense of ‘one of two’ must come into it somewhere, not the sense of ‘one of four or five’”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/10; col. 837-38.]

There were a number of further interventions, including one from Mr James Clappison of Hertsmere and another from Mr Robert Syms of Poole. That was in an empty House.

I know from conversations with those on the Conservative Benches that many of them are prepared to support the supplementary vote. I am giving the Liberal Democrats a way around this problem. All they have to do is go to their coalition partners and say, “Hang on, this deal is a bit unbalanced. Perhaps we should just accept the amendment being moved by Lord Campbell-Savours because it redresses the balance and gives us a bit more of an opportunity to win our referendum. It will also get you off our backs because we know that you”—that is, the Conservative element of the coalition—“loathe intensely the proposal that is in this piece of legislation”.

I come back to why we are here. We would not be debating this issue at this time of night if all these issues had been dealt with during prior scrutiny of the Bill, but there was no prior scrutiny. That is why we have to scrutinise it in detail now. It is because of the stupid way in which the Government sought to proceed with this legislation. I beg to move.

I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours because he has put his finger on one of the critical issues that has made me feel very angry and frustrated throughout this process. We are dealing with a constitutional Bill that changes the nature of the House of Commons without all-party agreement and without any independent assessment of it, in a way that we would look askance at if it was happening in a country that was emerging from the communist world. We would not accept it. Why is that? It is because we know that normally you change the numbers of a Parliament either by all-party agreement or after some independent assessment.

My noble friend has pointed out the central constitutional issue here and has drawn attention to the fact that we all know that we are debating this because of the political deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. I understand that. Indeed, the rather weak argument can even be made that it was put to the electorate before the general election inasmuch as the Conservative Party campaigned on the basis of a reduced membership of the House of Commons. You could also argue, again weakly in my view, that the Liberal Democrats had put before the electorate a view that the electoral system ought to be changed, although not to the system that that has been put into this Bill. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has made the point that this is a very strange deal for the Liberal Democrats. It may be strange, but it has been my view for some time that it is a very clever deal struck by the Conservative Leader, David Cameron. What we have here is a deal in which the Conservative Party and the current Prime Minister get a majority in Parliament and the Liberal Democrat party gets a once-and-for-all opportunity to commit political suicide. It is in the process of doing that; you can see it happening before your eyes.

Do we have to worry about that? From time to time people both within and outside this House ask whether this issue is mainly just a party political one. The problem is that while it is party political, it is so because the constitution is being changed in a way that disadvantages other parties—and not just the Labour Party, incidentally. It is that issue on which we need to focus and make the core of our debate.

My noble friend, with his newly christened Jessica amendment—I rather like that title—makes the very fair point that if this deal has been done for political reasons, which we all accept it has and I acknowledge that that is a perfectly reasonable thing for two political parties to do, how on earth have we ended up in a situation in which one party gets the guaranteed reduction in seats in the House of Commons and the other party may or may not get a type of electoral reform that it does not really want anyway? It is a very strange deal. My noble friend is saying that if we are to go down this road, at least the other half of the deal ought to be delivered.

Personally, I am much more relaxed about voting systems than many of my colleagues. I quite literally have not yet decided whether I would vote for first past the post or an alternative vote system. I am becoming much more educated in the arguments since listening to the debates over the past weeks, but I do not have a strong commitment to either side. It is all too easy to know the problems of the current system but then not to look at the problems that emerge from other systems. Our attention has been drawn to some of those.

As my noble friend has so ably and forcefully pointed out, a political deal has been struck between two political parties to enable them to stay in government. Under it, the constitution of the United Kingdom and the structure of the House of Commons will be changed in a way that favours one political party. That is what is so deeply unhealthy about it. We will turn—I hope, on Monday; I do not suppose that we will get there tonight—to amendments that address this issue again. As one would expect from a previous Minister with his experience, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, made an excellent speech on his amendment. It was so detailed that it could have been plonked into any Bill. The amendment would strike at the very heart of the political deal between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.

I would have no trouble supporting the amendment, although, frankly, it is really a matter between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. However, if we are to be forced to change the constitution of the country on the basis of half the deal, it should at the very least be done on the basis of the other half of the deal being delivered. At the moment, there is no evidence of that, and the Liberal Democrats, for reasons that are totally beyond me, have made the politically fatal error of putting forward their half of the deal in a way that makes it highly unlikely that they will get it. One cannot guarantee that they will not get it, because the electorate might vote for it, but the referendum will be hard fought. You then have to ask what they are doing making such a deal and whether it really is just for the sake of getting a few seats in government.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has made a powerful case for why his amendment is in the interests of the Liberal Democrats. I shall make a case, probably not quite as powerful, for it being in the interests also of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives to whom I talk are all absolutely confident that AV will be defeated in the referendum. I do not happen to agree with them, but they are very confident.

Let us just think what the situation would be if the Campbell-Savours amendment, or “Jessica’s law”, did not apply and the Liberal Democrats were defeated in the referendum. What would then be the situation of the Liberal Democrats? They would have lost AV, which they are relying on to deliver them extra seats at the next general election, as everyone agrees it would. However, coming along the line will be the 5 per cent rule and the equalisation, and what is also agreed is that those rules will hit the Liberal Democrats much harder than any other party. According to Democratic Audit’s calculations, they would lose 11 of their 57 seats, whereas Labour and the Tories, with many more seats, would lose 18 and 17 respectively. It would be a real reduction in the proportion of Lib Dem representation in the House of Commons.

I do not know what bedlam the coalition will be in if and when we get to such a stage. I do not expect that the coalition will be very politically popular; it will need to last to have any chance of regaining its political popularity. In those circumstances, what will the Lib Dems do? If the Boundary Commission review comes into force, as it will in 2015, they will be faced with a loss of seats as a result not only of losing votes but also of the redistribution. The sensible thing to do, therefore, would be to find the nearest and quickest excuse to bring this coalition Government to an end and to adopt a sauve qui peut stance in a general election where they might preserve more seats than they would in a general election eventually to be held under the new system proposed by the Government. It would not suit the Tories to have a general election in the middle of this Parliament, because they would be extremely unpopular, and no doubt deservedly so. I come to the conclusion that it is very strange indeed that this side is arguing for the amendment, although I see no nods of agreement on the other side with any of the arguments that we have put forward.

The amendment would mean that you would get the constituency boundary changes only if the AV vote was yes. I do not support that, but it is an inevitable consequence of the loose language in which the coalition puts this. On 20 December, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said:

“Indeed, as my noble friend Lord McNally has said on a number of occasions, this Bill is about fair votes and fair boundaries. It shows that the two are, in fact, linked. It shows how the two will be linked because it will shape the way in which the other place will be elected in 2015”.—[Official Report, 20/12/10; col. 882.]

My understanding of this Bill is that, if the AV vote is no, you still get your constituency boundary changes. Am I wrong? Please confirm that. If I am right, why did the Minister say that on 20 December?

Because we are going to win the referendum.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for his amendment. I particularly thank all noble Lords opposite who have shown such concern for the interests of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. It has been very touching. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats and my Conservative colleagues, let me say how appreciated it is.

When we eventually got around to it, the motive behind this amendment was that it got us back to the supplementary vote, which was the product of what was, I am sure, a stimulating dinner party in 1989. To be fair to the noble Lord, he has persisted in this throughout these debates.

The amendment would provide that the first boundary review, which would create fewer and more equalised constituencies, would not have effect until the referendum had taken place and only then if the electorate had voted yes. As Members of the Committee will be aware, there are differences on these Benches on the merits of the alternative vote system and first past the post. We have made no secret of that. However, both parties in the coalition are agreed that the public should choose which system we use and should do so in a referendum.

Linking the boundary changes to the referendum would effectively mean asking more than that, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said. If we change the Bill in the way proposed by the noble Lord, we effectively make a vote against the alternative vote a vote against the boundary changes, too. He described that as a way of incentivising the Conservatives to support the alternative vote. If the referendum result were to be no, it would prevent the modest and sensible reduction in the number of seats, for which the Bill provides, from taking effect. The amendment would see the existing constituency map, with its inequalities in electorate size based on data from, as far as England is concerned, 10 years ago, continue until those data were even older.

As a democrat, I would be bitterly disappointed if the people voted no in a referendum on the voting system, but I would accept that that was the vote expressed by the people. It would be wrong to use that as an excuse to break off an agreement.

I wonder if my noble friend has noticed that for hours in this Chamber we have been told that the whole Bill is a political carve-up to enhance the potential support for both coalition parties, yet for the past half hour or so, with commendable and encouraging concern for our political support, we have been told that it is nothing of the sort and that the proposals in the Bill will have a neutral effect on the Conservative Party and Labour Party in the future and will damage the prospects of the Liberal Democrats. Will Members opposite withdraw all their accusations of gerrymandering that we have suffered for hours and hours in the Chamber, not just today but on many previous occasions?

I had reflected on that. I thought that it was somewhat ironic that, having been lambasted, as my noble friend said, for allegedly bringing forward legislation of a partisan nature, we were accused of having partisan advantage as a basic motivation for supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. That was a perverse argument.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is wrong. What was said is that the Liberal Democrat party has campaigned for years for a different voting system in the belief that it would increase its majority. The alternative vote system is not a full system but would improve its position. Similarly, the Conservative position, as has been indicated in a number of statements over the years by the Conservative Party, is that 600 seats instead of the current number would increase the proportion of its MPs. Both parties have stated that these systems are to their advantage.

I am sorry if I got in the way of a dialogue between the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Tyler. The noble Lord said that we Liberal Democrats put this forward to increase our majority—if only we had a majority to increase. I doubt that the amendment would achieve in the long term what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, intends, because it would have an impact only on the first boundary review. Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, the outcome of the second boundary review, to be held on the same rules with 600 Members of Parliament, would be implemented. It would only mean a stay of execution, if that is how he wishes to put it.

I have indicated, as have noble Lords opposite, that this agreement was reached by the parties. It allows the people to have their say on which voting system they will use. It will also allow the election that takes place in May 2015 to be held on the basis of boundaries that are far more equal than was the case at the last election or would be the case if we did not pass the Bill. In these circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

To explain, it is the second review that worries me. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, looks on it favourably. The second review will be under a system of individual registration. That will be extremely damaging to the work historically done by the Boundary Commission. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton mentioned, there will be huge variations in registration levels in the various authorities throughout the United Kingdom because of problems in securing reasonable returns under individual registration arrangements by local authorities. To reply to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this issue of gerrymandering, I have never accused the Government of gerrymandering.

No, I am sorry, but that is not our case. Our case is that to handle legislation in this way is an abuse of procedure in the House of Lords. Were the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, sat on this side of the House—as he was until last May—he would be getting up and arguing precisely that case at this time of the night. He knows that it is an abuse of procedure. What is happening is that the Liberal Democrats feel that, in the longer term, they will gain seats. We are not talking about gerrymandering. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats will pick up seats, but only under that portion of the Bill that deals with AV. Under the other portion of the Bill they will lose seats.

I should make it absolutely clear in moving my amendment that I have always supported much of the Liberal Democrat position on electoral reform—certainly over the past 10 or 12 years. I have had many discussions with the Liberal Democrats over the years. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is a passionate supporter of AV and my noble friend Lord Soley said this evening that he is wavering. It may well be that the arguments being deployed by the few interventions that come from those Benches, along with the interventions of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, are beginning to convince him, although I suspect that if he goes into detail on this Bill he will end up in exactly the same position as I did when I looked at the matter in 1989.

To get the record straight, it was not a dinner party but a dinner table in the House of Commons dining room. Mr Brian Sedgemore, the late Mr Roland Boyes, Mrs Ann Clywd and I had a dinner where we argued about whether we could change the electoral system. The result of that was the inquiry that I undertook.

I thank my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton for his speech, which I understood to be asking a series of questions. Did he get answers? I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, might care to rise to his feet to answer those questions specifically. The speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer was brief and precise and contained no embroidery of language. He asked specific questions, to which I believe he deserves answers.

Notwithstanding the failure of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to get to his feet to answer those questions, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment. I suggest to the noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches that they should send Jessica a bunch of flowers, which I am sure she will appreciate, for the work that she has done on their behalf.

Amendment 58ZZA withdrawn.

Amendment 58ZZB not moved.

Amendment 58ZA

Moved by

58ZA: Clause 10, page 8, line 39, leave out “may” and insert “must”

Perhaps noble Lords may take this as a sign to take their tea break—at this time of night, they might require something a bit stronger—as Amendment 58ZA is really a probing amendment. The amendment seeks to probe what to me is a puzzle.

If the Boundary Commission makes proposals for a change to the draft order in council, would it not be right to say that the Minister “must”, rather than “may”, accept the Boundary Commission’s proposals? In all our efforts on the Bill, one of the great things that we are trying to protect is the independence of the Boundary Commission. However, the Bill is drafted in a way that suggests that Ministers would have the discretion—the word used is “may”—on whether to accept the Boundary Commission’s recommended modifications. I suspect that the word “may” is used by accident, but if its use is deliberate it is disgraceful.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for Amendment 58ZA. When I first read the amendment, I immediately identified what he was driving at and had some considerable sympathy for it. He is absolutely right that, if the Government could simply disregard a modification that the Boundary Commission suggested, that would not be acceptable.

I am afraid that the issue comes down to textual analysis. Amendment 58ZA proceeds on the assumption that Clause 10(6)(5B) confers a separate discretionary power whereby the Government may decide whether to include a modification that has been requested by a boundary commission. However, we do not consider that to be the effect of new subsection (5B) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Rather, new subsection (5B) explains how the modifications referred to in new subsection (5A)—the two subsections need to be read together—can come to be included in the order in council. On that basis, the inclusion of requested modifications is part and parcel of the requirement to give effect to the Boundary Commission’s recommendation, as provided for in new subsection (5A). Therefore, the Bill requires the Government to include such modifications in the order in council.

I should perhaps also point out that the noble Lord’s amendment might make it less clear that the Government are not permitted to make any modifications other than those requested by the boundary commissions.

I hope that the noble Lord is satisfied with that answer. I readily acknowledge that the matter is textual. After reading the subsection several times, I was persuaded that new subsections (5A) and (5B) need to be taken together and that there is nothing malign intended. No doubt the noble Lord will want to read what I have said, but I am certainly prepared to consider—although I am already satisfied with the wording, which we have discussed through—satisfying myself further on the matter. However, on that basis, I ask the noble Lord to reflect on what I have said and to withdraw the amendment.

I completely understand the point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has made that the draft Order in Council can be modified only if the Boundary Commission requests a modification. However, is the implementation of the modification optional if such a request is made? The wording of the Bill appears to suggest that the Minister has discretion on whether to accept any modifications that have been requested.

With respect, I think that the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, made was whether Ministers have such discretion. It is certainly my understanding that the power is not intended to be discretionary. The intention is that, if a boundary commission wants a modification, Ministers will be obliged to incorporate that modification in laying the Order in Council. The two new subsections (5A) and (5B) need to be taken together. New subsection (5B) describes the circumstances in which a modification would be made.

As I have indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and indeed to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I will read this again. I have done so already and I am satisfied that there is no malign intent that would oblige Ministers to follow a request from one of the Boundary Commissions, but I am willing to give it further reconsideration and others will no doubt look at it and read it.

I am looking at the Explanatory Notes to Clause 10 of the Bill. It seems to be very clear that discretion is left to the Secretary of State in laying,

“before Parliament a draft of an Order in Council for giving effect to the recommendations in the boundary reports”,

to accept or not to accept the modifications that the Boundary Commission may wish.

That is perhaps a good reason for us to examine it again. I have indicated what the intention is and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for flagging this up. It will give us an opportunity to be satisfied that the wording reflects the intention.

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord and if I gave any impression that I seriously thought that there was an attempt to get away with anything, I withdraw that unconditionally. I accept that it is, as he says, a textual matter. In fact, he has kindly promised to reread the clause and check that he is satisfied with it, as will I. Actually, I have found it more effective than taking two Sleep-eze to get off at night—so, after tonight’s debate may be a very good time for him to apply his mind to it. After I read his remarks, I will return to it on Report if I want to. In the mean time, I thank him for considering this so carefully and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 58ZA withdrawn.

Amendment 58ZB not moved.

Amendment 58ZBC

Moved by

58ZBC: Clause 10, page 9, line 7, at end insert—

“( ) In Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act (the Boundary Commissions), in paragraph 5(d) (assessor officers of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland)—

(a) for “and the” there is substituted “, the”;(b) at the end there is inserted “and the Chief Survey Officer of Land and Property Services”.”

My Lords, Amendment 58ZBC adds the Chief Survey Officer of Northern Ireland to the list of assessor officers of that commission. At present the Chief Survey Officer advises the commission but does not hold the formal status of assessor. The Chief Survey Officer’s counterpart in the other nations of the United Kingdom—the director-general of Ordnance Survey—is an assessor to the other commissions, and the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland has requested of us, in its report for the last boundary review, that the position in the other nations be replicated in Northern Ireland. This we now do in this amendment and I beg to move.

Can the Minister tell us whether this was also the request of the Assembly in Northern Ireland, or of an officer? I was not quite sure what he was saying on that.

It was not from the Assembly but from the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, which simply asked that the status of the Chief Survey Officer of Northern Ireland, who is doing the job anyway, be given this formal status. We are happy to do that.

I am sorry to pursue it, but the reason I pick it up is simply because of my past knowledge of Northern Ireland, which is now a little dated, but where things such as boundaries were very contentious, to put it mildly. Obviously, the officer in charge would have wanted to be treated in the same way as in Scotland and Wales, for example. I understand that but I would hope—I do not know whether the Minister knows this—that the Assembly took a view on it. In other words, that it is not an initiative by the officer but the Assembly itself recognising that it is being grouped into line, because there may well be two different views within the Assembly on whether they ought to be treated in precisely the same way as Scotland and Wales. It has always been one of the things that has bugged the politics of Northern Ireland. I just want some assurance; it may be that the Minister cannot give it to me now, but it would be quite useful to know whether this was a simple request by the officer to the Government here or one approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly. If he cannot answer it now, I am happy to have it later but we need to have some indication, if he would not mind.

When I moved this amendment, I thought, “This is the one bloody thing I’m going to move all night which the conspiracy theorists will not be able to work into their paranoia”. I have no idea, but I suspect that since it is a report of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, it has gone before the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has simply been a request for us to give this man the same status as his British counterparts. I will make inquiries and if I find that beneath this is some seething sectarian dispute, I will report back to the Committee.

I am grateful to the Minister. The reason why this point is important is that things do not always get picked up in the way that they need to. This is not just some minor point. I have seen problems before with anything to do with the Boundary Commission or elections in Northern Ireland; the Minister must know that. He should have known, as soon as he saw an amendment with the words “Northern Ireland” in, that it could be contentious. It is not really a matter for now, but for the comfort of the Government they need to make sure that the Assembly was signed up for this.

I will take comfort in it. It is still seared into my soul—we should count ourselves lucky here—that I once had an order in the other place that involved Northern Ireland. There was me, the government Minister, and five Ulster Unionists, and we finally got away at about 2.20 am. I take the noble Lord’s Gypsy’s warning; I will check on this, and if there are any worries I will bring it back to the House.

Before the Minister sits down, I want to pick him up on his use of the term “paranoia”, which he has used a couple of times.

I ask the Minister and his colleagues on that side of the House to understand that there is deep and genuine concern on our side that great quantities of constitutional legislation are being driven through Parliament by the coalition, which has no mandate for it and has not offered the public or the political system as a whole the opportunity to consider it in advance of its introduction. The legislation is being driven through on a fast track. We have a responsibility to guard the constitution, and if the Minister considers that our objections to the process that the coalition Government are adopting are paranoid, he is being extraordinarily obtuse and insensitive.

This side of the House has treated serious amendments seriously, but I invite any future historian to read Hansard and then they can make their judgment.

I wonder if my noble friend might note that amnesia, rather than paranoia, seems to be the prevailing atmosphere. Only a few months ago, those over on the other side were pushing the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill through this House, with no pre-legislative scrutiny for huge chunks of it, trying to do so at great speed before the general election. Amnesia, not paranoia.

I want to raise the issue of these reports. I have done two inquiries, but I have never seen the Boundary Commission documentation, which I presume must be made available to inspectors during the course of their inquiries. What happens here? When the commission issues its review and sends it first—if I remember correctly—to individual Members of Parliament in political parties, it provides a report, but I have never seen that document. This is important, because in constituencies in places such as Cumbria—the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who lives near Carlisle, knows exactly what I am talking about—the boundaries of the mountain ranges that separate parts of Cumbria are critically important during the course of consideration of boundary reviews. I wondered in what circumstances individual Members of Parliament are entitled to have access to the documentation produced by the survey officers for Land and Property Services in Northern Ireland, and for the Ordnance Survey within the United Kingdom.

Perhaps I can make a short contribution. I assure the Minister that we do not intend to vote against his amendment. I want him to understand that and feel relieved about it. I want to ask him this, though: what is an assessor officer? What are his or her functions, please?

I am relying now on my responsibilities, which I think the noble Lord once shared, as the Minister for the Land Registry.

I am misleading myself. I mean the director-general of the Ordnance Survey, who is an assessor. I suppose, using common sense, that if you are drawing lines on maps, it is worth having somebody who knows about maps to give advice.

Amendment 58ZBC agreed.

Debate on whether Clause 10 should stand part of the Bill.

I have two questions about Clause 10. We have gone through several points on Clause 10, which changes the review dates. We have not referred to this but Clause 10(5) repeals Section 3(3) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. As I understand it, it deprives the Boundary Commissions of being able to carry out interim reviews between general reviews. That would mean that the Boundary Commission could not do an interim review short of five years to deal, for example, with a significant change in population. What is the reason for repealing that power, which presumably would be of use in certain circumstances?

Secondly and separately, the clause as I understand it does not change the basic structure of how the Boundary Commission operates, which is by producing reports at specified intervals. The reports then define what the new constituency boundaries are. What are the circumstances in which there can be a modification after the Boundary Commission has reported? How is that consistent with a process whereby representations can be made, on the basis of which a final report is issued? I know modifications can be made that can affect the report after it has been produced because this is referred to in the amended subsection (5).

My Lords, if I speak for long enough I might get a full answer to the second of the noble and learned Lord’s questions. With regard to his initial question about the interim reviews and the repealing of subsection (3), the reason for this is that the existing legislation reflects the fact that the constituencies may require adjustment during what is, at present, the long period that elapses between full reviews. However, it is believed that if the full reviews are to take place every five years, there may not be a need—certainly there will scarcely be any time—to conduct an interim review. Clause 13, for completeness, makes transitional provisions for the outcome of the interim reviews, which are currently under way in Wales.

With regard to the modifications, the clause allows modifications to the Boundary Commission’s recommendations only in an Order in Council that gives effect to those recommendations at the request of one of the four commissions and with its reasons set out in writing. This was tabled as an amendment on Report in another place, following an amendment that was tabled in Committee by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It was done to get the substance of that committee’s amendment into proper form. I do not necessarily anticipate that it would lead to any significant change to the proposals that were being brought forward. As I indicated, any modifications would require some explanation in writing, which would be at the behest of the Boundary Commission. I regret that I do not have the views of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee as to why it wishes the original amendment to be brought forward, but my information is that it was in response to that.

If I just keep on talking, I am sure that I will be able to give the noble and learned Lord an even fuller answer to a perfectly legitimate question. As far as we know, the power to make modifications has never been used but has existed since the 1940s. It is envisaged that it may be used to correct an error that comes to light only after the initial report has been made. I hope that that explanation satisfies him.

This is a bad clause. It is not bad simply because of its content but, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions, because it has been drawn up in a way that is designed to meet a short-term political problem and has not been dealt with in the way in which a constitutional reform of this type ought to be dealt with. The Boundary Commission of all things, given its implications for the future of MPs, constituencies and constituents, ought to have been given far more detailed consideration, but the Bill has been brought forward in just a few months following the deal between the two political parties. It is a good example of bad law. It comprises a constitutional change that is underpinned by Boundary Commission reports that were necessarily drawn up in haste. All the things we have heard about the electoral register and the whole electoral registration process indicate the detailed work that should have been done on the Bill in a proper constitutional way either by committee beforehand or through an inquiry. Instead, it has been hastily drawn up and placed before us at short notice.

I have worries about the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission being able to complete this task in the necessary detail in the time available. It troubles me that when you rush something like this, you could well get into difficulties with it. I remember the previous time when we tried to change how votes were cast and push things on the Electoral Commission that it was unhappy about. My Government were in power at the time, so I have to accept some responsibility for this. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, it resulted in considerable problems on the ground.

There is a part of this debate that has not been answered, and this is the only opportunity that we have to discuss it—that is, what happens in the event that the public petition over the recommendations of the Boundary Commission by using legislation that the Government say they intend to introduce? What happens if the boundaries were to be changed in my former constituency and 10,000 or 15,000 people went down to the town centre in Workington, signed a petition, gave it to their MP and said, “We object to what has been decided and we want it to be revised”, and the Boundary Commission has taken its decision? I still do not know what happens in those circumstances. I am not exaggerating. It is quite possible that that will happen. It could happen in any constituency in the United Kingdom. I wonder whether my noble friend might give thought to other cases as well.

To some extent my noble friend anticipates me. I was thinking not just of that example. There will be a number of possibilities here of problems on the ground, and there will be either legal challenges or else what we had because of previous attempts to legislate in a rush in areas such as this: confusion, uncertainty and alienated electors who feel unable to vote in certain circumstances. There will be big problems. The point that my noble friend has just made highlights a classic example of them. As I said, there may well be legal challenges. I am sure the Minister will say, understandably, that in that case the courts will decide the matter because that is their role. However, he has to accept that because this Bill is driven by a particular timetable, that timetable may not be met unless the Government ignore the courts’ decisions. I hope that the Government are not prepared to go down that road.

I simply say at this stage that if you put forward a clause such as this, the duty on the Government to look at it in considerable detail is important. I know that Members opposite have sometimes grumbled about time and, dare I say, even got paranoid about it. However, I had better not use that word after the confusion in the previous exchanges, which I assume did not apply to me, although I shall have to read Hansard to make sure. There is a genuine problem, and it is not something that can be just airbrushed out.

The Minister has given considerable thought to this and, to be fair to him, he has responded in a much more constructive way than the Government have done on some occasions on this Bill. I welcome that, but he must know, as I do, that the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission will have problems with this. I am confident from my own contacts—noble Lords know that I am one of the political advisers to the Electoral Commission—that those bodies will deal with the problems, because they are actually effective and good. However, you are up against a time deadline, where just a few weeks here and a few days there can make an awful lot of difference, and you are up against the sort of legal challenges that might emerge. On matters such as Boundary Commission reviews, they really do.

I asked my previous question on Northern Ireland precisely because I know, from past experience, that these matters can be incredibly contentious. I see the noble Lord, Lord King, sitting there. He will know that, too. Although Northern Ireland is a special case that we do not need to involve in this general debate, it would be unwise to assume, particularly given the nature of the new boundaries that are being drawn up, that there will not be challenges of some type.

The Government will also find themselves in difficulty with their arguments about the big society, a concept that has been around for some considerable time. I hear many people saying, “We are doing that already”. However, if you then bring in a system that overrides local communities in a number of different ways, you will invite the local communities to challenge it; and if they get legal representation, they might well take such cases to court.

I hope even at this late stage that when the Minister takes this clause away he will look at it, bear in mind many of our debates on it and make sure that the Boundary Commission and Electoral Commission will be able to deliver on this without having to face sudden legal challenges or problems on the ground that have not been anticipated by the Government.

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Soley, I oppose the Question that Clause 10 stand part of the Bill. I say to my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.

My reason for opposing the clause is primarily based on the lost opportunities. A number of amendments to it have been proposed that would have given us a great opportunity to improve our democratic process in this country. It is an example of how, if time had been taken to include a process of consultation with all political parties involved in British politics, we could have come to an arrangement that would have greatly improved the process of electoral registration.

There is a crisis of democracy in this country. Every one of us who has ever knocked on a door knows that. One of the most irritating things that has ever happened to me in a long career in politics is when I knock on a door and a young woman comes to it, perhaps with two or three kids around her feet, and says, quite proudly, “Oh, no, I never vote. I would not dream of voting”. That is because there is constant publicity around the fact that there is something slightly odd about the way our democracy works.

In a number of the proposed amendments, which I really regret that the Government refuse to consider, we have looked at, for example, improving the franchise for young people and for those who traditionally have not appeared on the electoral register by providing a process that would have improved their registration levels. We had a very powerful debate, led by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, on black and ethnic minorities.

If the Government had not been so obsessed with the timescale for this for their own narrow political purposes, there would have been an opportunity to radically improve the Bill and the process of electoral registration in this country, and perhaps all of us who have a joint interest in improving the attitude to democracy in this country would have made some moves forward in reaching out to people to say that we are not all in it for what we can get out of it. It is primarily for that reason that I oppose Clause 10 standing part of the Bill. There is still a considerable amount of the Bill to be gone through, but the clauses that we have discussed tonight represent a huge missed opportunity. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. It is a very sad day when narrow partisan interests have caused us to miss this opportunity.

My Lords, the hour is late and I will do my best not to repeat the points that I made in previous debates. I return briefly to the rush to judgment on this. The process and timetable do not give due consideration to a properly conducted exercise to get people to register. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, criticises the previous Labour Government with some justification—although I wonder when we will stop getting blamed for everything under the sun—for not doing extra registration. That is not entirely true or fair, because various exercises and pilot schemes were done. However, they could have been pursued better. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is a logical person most of the time—except when he is shouting at people outside the Chamber. However, I do not see the logic or the ethics of saying, “We have the power now, but because you did not do it, we are not going to do it either”. I am sure that he will contradict me if that is not his point.

It is that point that particularly annoys me in this clause, as well as the obduracy of the Government in resisting normal amendments. Once again, I find the whole process skewed and abnormal because it is getting rushed and concertinaed into a certain time for the political convenience of the coalition parties. I would like to put one thing on record. Earlier, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours indicated that he was moving an amendment that would help the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. That amendment would certainly not have got my support; I would have been in the other lobby like a shot. I do not go along with that at all.

My noble friend Lord Soley talked about the constitutionality of the Bill. I am no expert, but I am interested in history and I see examples of electoral systems being manipulated and gerrymandered by political parties for their own purposes. This is a breakthrough in the United Kingdom, because we have a combination of political parties putting through a change that will affect the composition of the House of Commons and is designed to affect the political balance within the reformed House. As we all know, no matter how long it takes—it took 18 years to get rid of the Tories and it took the combined opposition 13 years to get rid of us—sooner or later the pendulum swings, Ministers make mistakes, Governments get tired and the electorate see it. Then the motor of change takes over and the change is effected by the British public. The example has been set, the new Government will tamper with the political system to their advantage and we will end up like some of the emerging African states, where all sorts of things happen. It is not just African states. I do not have much experience of the political system of the United States, but I am told that it is in the hands of the politicians. I genuinely think that it would be bad if that happened. I believe that this coalition Government, or collaboration Government, will regret the haste with which they have conducted the passage of this legislation. It is wrong in principle and I shall certainly be opposed to the tenets of this clause.

My Lords, they say that those not inclined to speak can sometimes be provoked to do so by those not inclined to shut up. I was encouraged to make a modest contribution having listened to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, who is indulging his new freedom of being able to open his mouth—something which I do not think he enjoyed too much in the other place with his other responsibilities. We had the first honest admission from him—half-hearted and in the guarded language of a Whip—that perhaps there was some justification in saying that the system should be changed and that the allocation arrangement of seats is not right.

Perhaps I may complete what I was saying; I shall be extremely brief. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who said that this matter takes time and should have been done some time ago. There is no question that the electoral arrangements of this country have shown a considerable bias in recent elections. The purpose of the amendments —the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, referred to this—

Perhaps I may complete the sentence. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, referred to the fact that a number of frightfully useful amendments have been tabled that require all sorts of further consideration to be given in the interests of minority communities and younger people. All sorts of things should be dealt with and full reports should be made on them. No efforts should be made to change the electoral arrangements of this country and the Boundary Commission should do no work until all this important work has been undertaken. I say this simply not as a former Conservative Member of Parliament but as someone who sees the Conservative balance and remembers the 2001 election, in which we won the vote in England. I cannot remember—perhaps someone will remind me—but I think that we ended up with 60 or 90 fewer seats, having received more votes in England. The whole thesis of the Opposition is to keep the situation like that.

The suggestion that we are seeking to gerrymander—I have heard the phrase and the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to it—has been made from the other side of the Committee, although perhaps not by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He and I worked together on many occasions quite harmoniously. In that situation, it is absolutely sensible—

I am on my last sentence if the noble Baroness will allow me to finish. In that situation, it is perfectly responsible for the Government to deal with the matter. I hear noble Lords opposite saying that they have been dealt with in an aggressive or dismissive way. However, the Ministers on the Front Bench seem to me to have been extremely reasonable and accommodating, as the former Lord Chancellor used to be when I raised issues in the House. That is the tradition of this House. Very difficult issues are being dealt with here. I hope that this House will rise to the occasion and recognise that we have a very difficult problem, which must be dealt with in a responsible and constructive way. I have not spoken previously on this Bill but I think that this House will do itself great damage if it cannot recognise the responsibility that it has to deal with these issues. They are primary matters. A number of noble Lords here would have taken great offence in the other place if they had thought that your Lordships were interfering with issues which they considered to be principally their concern as elected Members of Parliament. I rest my case.

I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, has not taken part in previous debates but, by getting to his feet, he has exposed the problem with the legislation. The problem is that it is built on a falsehood, which, as he explained, is that there has been a bias in recent elections. There has not. His problem, as he set out in his 2001 example, is that he believes that the Conservative Party takes more votes to get elected than Labour because of a differential size in constituencies. It does not. I shall not do it at this late hour, but in future debates other Members will produce Conservative documentation that they have read. This myth has gone on for many years. It takes Conservatives more votes than Labour to get elected because of the social, economic, demographic issue that in Labour seats we primarily represent those on lower incomes than in Conservative seats and with all sorts of other factors that people appreciate. We have lower turnout and those social, economic demographics are not simply particular to the United Kingdom but are the world over. People being on lower incomes—with less education, language problems, less mobility, shift-working and so on—means that they are less likely to turn out. Irrespective of the changes that the Government make, that will always be the case.

The relative size between Labour and Conservative seats is no different other than in Wales, where the number of seats was defined by a previous Conservative Government in 1986 when they made that requirement because of the geographic consequences of a change in the number of seats.

I rise to respond to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord King, and to say how pleased I was that, for the first time in the many hours of debates on this Bill, we had a contribution from the Conservative Back Benches. I totally agree with the noble Lord that the way in which this Bill has proceeded through this House is more than somewhat regrettable.

The reason why it is regrettable is that everyone agrees that it is a constitutional Bill and that constitutional matters are, or ought to be, above party politics. Everybody would agree that it is very desirable that any constitutional change, if possible at least, should gain the widest degree of consensus between political parties before being pushed through and that reasonable attempts should be made to build up a consensus by the Government who take the initiative to change the constitution in one particular way or another.

There have been at least three very unfortunate aspects to the passage of this Bill. I am not privy to conversations that may have taken place through the usual channels or otherwise, but if they have taken place they have left no trace in the debates that we have had in the past few weeks on this subject. It appears that no attempt has been made even to investigate whether there might be scope for some sort of compromise or negotiation. Of course, everything is not perfect with our electoral system at the moment. Of course, there are enormous anomalies, some of which we have drawn attention to on these Benches, such as the very high levels of non-registration among certain categories of our population. Another anomaly and a problem to which the Government have rightly drawn attention is that our elections take place on the basis of electoral registers that are excessively out of date. That is a real problem.

There is a possibility here for an adult, sensible, open-minded discussion at least to see whether there could be a basis for agreement or consensus on some of these issues. It is deplorable to take a constitutional Bill through this House without any such attempt even being made. If it is made and the Opposition are unresponsive, it will be open to the Government to say, “We tried. We discussed the matter formally and informally but you guys were unwilling to have a serious discussion on the subject”. That is the first reason why I regret the way in which the Bill has gone through the House in this fashion.

Secondly, and why I was so pleased to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord King, it seems to me to be extraordinarily anomalous, artificial and even a little sinister that, although we have all these intelligent men and women of the world on the Tory Benches who we know have strong views on political and constitutional subjects, they have all been completely silent. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. It seems to me that the legislature is not doing its job when half, or at least a large proportion, of it seems to be forced into silence. That seems an odd state of affairs, but it is a feature of our debate that will be very striking to any historian who looks at the record. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is nodding at me when I say that. He may be in a better position than I am to talk to some of his Tory colleagues to see what the inhibition on them is. The noble Lord’s party’s Back-Benchers have taken part. We have enjoyed their contributions. I have sometimes agreed with them.

The third big problem about the way in which the Bill has been taken through the House is the apparent complete lack of any margin of manoeuvre, flexibility or negotiating power on the part of Ministers. We know them; they are able men and women. I remember the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, being an extremely distinguished and able Member of the House of Commons when we both served there. I have to respect the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for the way in which he conducts business from the Front Bench, but even when a moment ago we came across the tiny matter about “may” or “must” in relation to the obligations of the Government to implement the Boundary Commission’s recommendations, it was quite clear that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, had the same difficulty that we had in understanding unambiguously what the text was meant to say.

Surely this is the job of a legislature. If the Government produce a text that is unclear, we improve it; we make a change and we write a simplified, better version in clear English. That is our job. Why do we not do that? Why are the Government so frightened to make the slightest change of one word in the text of the Bill as it goes through the House? What is the point of our having all these discussions for hours if the Government as represented in this House—Ministers in the Lords—have so little room for manoeuvre, so little delegated power, that they cannot make progress on some minor point in the course of our long debates? We will not do a good job on the Bill if those three problems remain.

The answer to the question that my noble friend is putting is that there is a contractual agreement between two parties. That is what is silencing this debate. Members of one party cannot get up to object because they know that it is a negotiated position with the other party to the coalition. I am in favour of coalitions, but this coalition is in an experimental stage. It has not mastered a way to freely debate within the contractual agreement.

I hear my noble friend with great interest. He is postulating a possible cause of the triple malaise which I have just described. I am trying to limit myself to describing the facts as I see them; I am not going in for any normative judgments or hypotheses about why or how the situation has arisen. I just hope that if we all recognise that if there is a malaise or a problem and that the fault is not with one particular section of this House alone, we might make some further, better and more edifying progress on the Bill over the hours, days or weeks—I have no idea how long it may last—as we proceed in this piece of our legislative work.

My Lords, I thought that my luck was too great to answer just two questions from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, but I will try to keep this short.

Some important issues have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked about petitions. As he will be well aware, the Government have not yet published their proposals on parliamentary petitions, so it would be premature to speculate. If, during the consultation period, people submit petitions, the commission would take them into account, as at present. Outside that period, it would be for the Boundary Commission to decide how to respond and whether it was within its statutory duties to do so.

As I think that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, would acknowledge, there is no intention that we should oust judicial review. If a boundary review is delayed past the statutory timetable for any reason—including, for example, because of an attempt to challenge the commission by judicial review—the commission's report would still be valid and its recommendations would still have to be implemented. The courts have in the past shown some reluctance to interfere, and they have made it clear that they would be very slow to interfere with a decision of a Boundary Commission.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, and to other noble Lords who expressed concern in this stand part debate and earlier, that there is nothing in the Bill or specifically in this clause that is a barrier to trying to take steps to improve the levels of electoral registration. I hope I made it clear that initiatives are being taken. I think there is common ground across the Committee that it is an important thing to do. I share the noble Baroness’s aspiration that we improve the levels, particularly among those groups that we debated earlier that are at present underrepresented on the electoral roll. This clause does not inhibit that, and I repeat the commitment I made earlier for this Government that we intend to take initiatives to try and improve that.

Reflecting on what my noble friend Lord King said, I conclude by indicating that there is an issue, because the longer the period between boundary reviews, the greater the divergence from the quota established at the start of a Boundary Commission’s review. I gave figures in an earlier debate. What we propose to do is set out in this clause and is to have a boundary review whose outcome is to be in place by the time of 2015 election and thereafter to conduct boundary reviews on a five-yearly basis, which will allow for boundaries to be more reflective of a recent state of affairs with regard to the election. With these remarks, I beg that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 11.58 pm.