Committee (9th Day) (Continued)
59: Clause 11, page 9, leave out line 18 and insert—
“The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be decided by an independent commission established by the government, but shall not exceed 650 or be less than 500.”
My noble friend Lord Lipsey will speak to Amendment 60. These amendments go together. Amendment 59 is one of the core amendments about the nature of what the Government are doing. As regards this Bill, I have been troubled for a long time about the importance of constitutional issues. Everyone, including the Government, accepts that this is a constitutional Bill. I get the feeling that the Government have not recognised just how important this issue is, particularly to the opposition party, because the Opposition have not been consulted on the size of Parliament. I regard that as particularly important.
I have been a member of the Labour Party for a long time. But it is not being a member of the Labour Party that drives me in politics; it is my strong belief in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. I have held that view for many years. It goes back to when I was about six years old and watched adults dancing around an effigy of Adolf Hitler burning in the street. I wondered what sort of planet I had ended up on that people should be behaving like that. Over the coming years, it made me understand better why parliamentary democracy was so important and, much later, made me understand why the rule of law was so critical to it.
This, for me, is not a party political issue in that sense, but it has become party-political precisely because the Government have chosen to determine the size of the House of Commons. This amendment points out that that is not right way to do these things. There ought to be an independent assessment of what the size of Parliament should be, and ideally—it is why the amendments are grouped together—that should be done through something like a Speaker’s Conference or, better still, all-party agreement.
That is profoundly important because what matters in constitutional Bills of this type is that if it is perceived that a party in government is altering the size of the House of Commons to suit its own party purposes, that immediately makes the Bill deeply party political. That is what I do not think the Government have taken on board. In summing up, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said that there was some suggestion of secrecy about the numbers. There has never been any secrecy about the numbers. Actually, I quoted from Andrew Tyrie’s paper which made it clear that the Conservatives would win more seats if they could reduce the size of the House of Commons by 60 seats, and originally they thought they would win even more if they reduced the size by 120 seats. That does not mean that he did not also have a view that the House ought to be smaller, because he did, as did other people who supported him. It also did not mean that he was wrong to say that it would save public money; it probably would. But what you do not do is just change the size of the House of Commons without all-party agreement.
To his credit, as I said in the last debate, Andrew Tyrie made that point. Indeed, he made two points, the first of which was that the Government of the day should seek all-party agreement. He referred to agreement with the Labour Party, but I would simply talk about all-party agreement. His other point concerned the payroll vote issue, which I shall come to in a moment. Why is this so important? I have said in one or two other interventions that one of the problems we face is that whenever we act as international observers in overseas elections, which many Members of this House have done from time to time—certainly I have done it—we do not just look at how well protected the ballot boxes are or at how well the polling stations are protected. We look not just at how the electoral register has been drawn up, but at how the number of seats in the parliament has been drawn up. If we found a situation where one of the major parties in that parliament had been excluded from that process, we would be deeply worried.
I want to put it this way, particularly to Members opposite. They may recall that on the last amendment I referred briefly and in passing to when we decided, quite rightly in my view, to remove the judges from the House of Lords to a newly created Supreme Court. One of the many factors behind the change was that European countries coming out of communist regimes were saying, when they were told by the European Union that they had create judiciaries separate from their legislatures, “But Britain doesn’t”. We were trying to create a situation where we could separate the legislature from the judiciary, but what matters now is a question that I would like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to address, if he is going to respond to the debate. If anyone from this House is observing an election, not least in one of the eastern European countries, and they are told that the Government of the day have decided on the size of the Parliament without the permission or agreement of one of the major political parties, will they really say “Yes, that is all right. It is not a problem”? I ask this of all the Members sitting on the Benches opposite because it is very important.
I cannot resist. Did the noble Lord think that it was outrageous that the Labour Government decided in 1997 to remove the hereditary Peers from the House of Lords without any consultation and agreement? Of course he did not.
I answered that question before, but in a different way. I said, and I say again, that what matters is that, if you change the constitution in a way that reduces the chances of a political party winning an election, you cannot reverse what the Government have done. Removing hereditary Peers from here did not change the opportunity for a party to win an election. It is an important difference. That is why I make the case that one has to look at constitutional Bills differently. Of course, constitutional Bills about removing hereditary Peers or judges are very important, but when you change the composition of a House, which alters the ability of a major party to win an election, that party can no longer assume that it is in a position to reverse what the previous Government have done. That makes all the difference.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has thrown in our face the deal done in 1997 or 1998 over the future of hereditary Peers. I hope that my noble friend will agree that that, surely, was a fine example of negotiation—a very delicate and complicated but very successful negotiation. I believe, indeed, that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, played a not-undistinguished part in that very successful and historic compromise. What we have this evening is a complete absence of any desire to even talk, let alone have a negotiation or a compromise. Surely that is the fundamental difference between the two situations.
My noble friend is quite right and he has reminded me of something. I remember being in the Corridor outside when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had had talks with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, or with his office, and William Hague, the then leader of the Conservative Party, had got to hear about the deal that my noble friend refers to. I happened to bump into William Hague as he came back down the Corridor having seen the noble Lord. His face was as black as thunder. I only heard a bit of what he was saying, but it certainly was not complimentary about the deal that had been done. I diverge, but the point is right. There was a negotiation.
I must admit that I was always impressed that the noble Lord survived the experience, so I give him full marks for political survival. Let me get back to the central point, because it is critically important. When we observe elections in other countries—this was particularly true of the communist countries in eastern Europe, where a number of the communist parties had reformed themselves but still wanted to hold on to control—we see that, if you allow a Government to decide the size of a Parliament, you prevent another Government from having a chance to come in and alter it. You see it in Russia today; it is precisely what President Putin has been doing. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and David Cameron are not President Putin and the British Parliament is not the Duma or the Russian Parliament in general, but this is one of those principles that matter. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that principles do not matter in these things. I have to say that, on things like this, they do. They matter a lot. The feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that if one party loses out you undermine the credibility of your electoral system in a major way.
The other problem that the Government have got themselves into is that, presumably, the Liberal Democrats signed up to this 60-seat reduction on the basis of the discussions that had been going on in the Conservative Party over the previous seven or eight years, which I referred to in my earlier speech. However, there is absolutely no need to have a set number of seats. One of my noble friends made the point that you can instruct the Boundary Commission to create a number of seats within a certain range. That is much better, because it allows the commission to take into account everything from geographical to socioeconomic factors. You do not need to decide the number of seats in a precise format.
The reason why I put the range of 500 to 650 in my amendment is that I recognise that the Government have said over many years that they want to reduce the size of Parliament. I also recognise the importance of the deal politically between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. For them it is crucial and it is one of the reasons why we are having this big fight right now. I say again to the noble Lord, though, that I would like to compromise to some extent. Personally, I would prefer these things to be decided by all-party agreement, and I toyed with putting that in. I do not think, however, that the Government could live with that in the present climate. What they could maybe live with and recognise is that it is vital that Governments do not decide the size of Parliament.
With the amendment, I have tried to give flexibility to the Government, not only in setting up the independent body but also in deciding its timescale. I do not pretend that it would be possible for that body to come up overnight with a definition of what MPs should and should not do, but there are different ways in which this can be addressed, one of which is to say, “If we’re going to have a smaller number of MPs, what parameters should there be?”. You could do that as a starter before addressing some of the other issues.
What are the other issues? One of the most crucial, which has been totally ignored in the Bill, is that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons but do not at the same time reduce the payroll vote—those people who depend on the Government for their jobs—you immediately increase the power of the Government and decrease the power of Back-Benchers. There are fewer Back-Benchers to hold the Government to account and more Members in the pay of the Government of the day. That is not desirable. Someone else referred earlier to the professor at Essex University whose name escapes me for the moment—
Professor King made the point that, if you reduce the number of MPs from which Ministers are drawn, you also reduce the “gene pool” for Ministers, as he described it. He said that that was quite important. I do not want to get into a detailed argument about why I am sympathetic to the idea of reducing the size of Parliament; I just want to make a couple of points in relation to it.
Would my noble friend describe for us what he means by an “independent commission”? I cannot understand why the Government would resent that and be opposed to it. My noble friend is suggesting that they would establish it and it would be independent. Can he give us some reason why he thinks that they may not want it?
I am afraid that the only answer—this is the core of the problem that is making us do things such as debate this late at night when we could be doing other things with our lives—is, quite simply, that there is a political agreement between two parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, to do this regardless of the consequences or of the Opposition. That is what they are doing.
I accept that the wording of my amendment is not perfect and that the Government would have to take it away and work on it, but there is no doubt in my mind that they could appoint an independent commission to look at this and come forward with some guidance on the basic issue of the numbers.
It is very important and it would also allow the commission to look at what is, for me, a critical point: the principle of a Government deciding the size of Parliament without the agreement of the parties within it. That is what is so dangerous and undesirable about this proposal.
I want to extend my comments a little on the implications of the payroll vote. As I said earlier when I referred to pulling a thread on a jumper, the trouble is that when you pull at the thread of the number of parliamentarians and change it, you change other things as well. If you reduce the number, you inevitably change the power of the House to challenge the Executive. You also inevitably, as Professor King points out, reduce the pool of people from which Ministers can be drawn. However, it is possible to provide answers to those problems, although this is why I say that reducing the number is not a nice, simple option. It is perfectly possible to say that we will reduce the payroll vote in the House of Commons. You could, if there were agreement, then increase the number of Peers in the House of Lords or you could take a really radical step and increase the number of Ministers who are drawn from outside Parliament but who have to be called before Parliament. You could pursue all sorts of very radical proposals if that was what you wanted to do. The Liberal Democrats have occasionally said that they want to do things such as that. They have said that they want Ministers from outside this place who can be called in and cross-examined on the way in which they run their departments. All those things are possible, but what is not possible—
I am pleased that the noble Lord is on the ball. That is probably why he ran rings round William Hague. He is quite right, but I cannot not mention it in the context of an independent commission looking at the implications of a reduction in the size of Parliament. The other point that I want to make—
Before my noble friend leaves that point—it is not for me to make his speech, as he is doing a more than adequate job—why does he not reply to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, by pointing out that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who is in his place this evening, has made it quite clear why he feels that the size of the House of Commons should be reduced? It is for pure political advantage. That is what he said in his article in the Times and that is what this debate is all about.
My noble friend is quite right, but I am seeking to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am wooing him, if you like. He does not look as though he is being wooed, but we will keep working at it and I might even get the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on my side. I indicated earlier that, when the noble Lord made his suggestion, he knew that it should happen with all-party agreement. I think that I am also right in saying that it would have implications for the size of government.
I want to touch on another very important point. If this proposal goes through in its current form, the Government will be not just opening the door but laying out a welcome mat to any future Government of any complexion to say, “We’ve decided that this is the right size for Parliament and we are going to legislate to make it that size”. That is what is so dangerous about this measure. If it goes through in its present form without an independent assessment of some kind, all-party agreement or a Speaker’s Conference, the noble Lord will have no grounds for complaint if a future Government—
I shall give way in just one second. The noble Lord will have no grounds for complaint if a future Government, be it a Labour Government or any other kind of Government, come forward with a proposal that, they will have worked out, will benefit them politically.
Does my noble friend not agree that it is very puzzling that this completely arbitrary figure has been given for Members of the legislature but that no figure has been given for the size of the Executive, even though many civil servants have made such proposals? Perhaps, in the course of his fascinating remarks, he will be able to draw out from the Leader of the House an explanation as to why one aspect has been stressed and not the other.
Perhaps I may marginally disagree with what my noble friend has just said. He said that a Labour Government would have to have in mind the way in which we have been treated. The reality is that a Labour Government would not do it, because we think that it is wrong and unprincipled. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, should understand that, and that is what is making us very angry.
My noble friend is right, although I thought that I said “any future Government”, not particularly a Labour Government. Any future Government could come in and simply say, “We are going to change the size”. That goes back to the previous amendment, on which I do not want to dwell but where I quoted from Andrew Tyrie’s booklet produced for the Conservative Party and referred to things that were said by other members of the Conservative Party in the intervening period; that is, that the figure of 120 over 10 years was too many, too fast, but that 60 over five years was manageable. My noble friend intervened with a question, but the real question is: should this Government win the next election, will they then go for the other 10 per cent? It is in the booklet; it is not a secret. There was considerable discussion of that figure. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he wanted the House to be reduced by 150. It is legitimate to ask whether the Government think that it is wise even from their point of view to have a system where the Government of the day get elected, look at the size of the House of Commons and say, “Well, we could have done better if we had this number” and then legislated accordingly. If in five years they are here, fighting such a proposal late into the night, they will not be feeling as they are feeling now and going around saying, “Oh, this is a filibuster. We don’t like it”. They will say, “This is an abuse of the constitution”. Every one of them will be doing it, the Liberals more than anyone else. This is where the Liberals say one thing in one place and another in another place.
I thought that the noble Lord was agreeing with me, but I might be wrong. Let us make no bones about it: if we are going to lay out the welcome mat to any future Government, not just a Labour Government, to be able to legislate on the size of Parliament, we are breaking one of the principles that we all observe when we check international elections. We are going against what is said in the European Union, the United Nations and the Commonwealth about checking elections. We all look at that as international observers for those bodies, yet here, all of a sudden, we are saying, “No, it’s all right for the Government to legislate for the size of Parliament. It doesn’t matter at all”. Of course it matters.
This Government might think that cutting the number MPs will be popular. Up to a point, they are right, but the problem is that they are playing the role of the overly powerful Government. It is not just the Public Bodies Bill and powers which they have taken which are over the top—Henry VIII powers are used in so much legislation now. I would be the first to concede that Henry VIII powers were taken to some extent under the Labour Government, but it is happening much more now—the Public Bodies Bill is virtually a Henry VIII Bill. But it is not just that; it is also putting enough new Members in this House so that the two political parties which form the Government, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, have a near-majority over the other political party. In other words, we are in danger of breaching that constitutional principle which we have all followed for years: that no political party should have a majority over the others here. I understand fully that the Government do not have a majority over the Cross Benches and the Labour Party jointly, but they certainly come very close to having a majority over the Labour Party. That differs greatly from what happened previously.
Before my noble friend concludes, am I the only one—I am sure I am not—who can see the irony that since we started debating Part 2 of this Bill last Monday, which is basically about reducing the number of Members of Parliament by 50, during just that week 14 new Members have been introduced into Parliament—into this House? Can he explain the rationale of that situation?
It is what I call over-powerful government again. Again I point out what Andrew Tyrie said. I am not attacking Andrew Tyrie. There are things I think he got wrong in that document, particularly about the figures of representation in other countries. However, it is a well written document and well argued. One of the other things that might make my noble friend sleep less soundly at night—assuming he gets to sleep any night in the near future—is that Andrew Tyrie actually said that the MPs who are displaced by this reduction in size should be given peerages, so we will have even more coming in here. It would be quite nice if the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, answers this and says that will not automatically happen, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might.
I have sat, like many other people, for many hours and have only just decided to contribute. There are several reasons that have been given by noble Lords on this side of the House why this is absolutely unacceptable. For me the most moving and convincing argument was that of my noble friend Lord Boateng, who talked about the role we play when we are asked to go out to Governments who are being formed as democracies. The Governments we belong to have always prided ourselves on being absolutely the epitome of governance and everything else. How do we ever accept the opportunity to go and guide and help those people when we have this situation ourselves now?
My noble friend is making a point I made with very great emphasis right at the beginning of my comments. It is important to understand that we will be doing something radically different from everything we tell other countries to do. We look at elections overseas with the various bodies we work through—the United Nations, the European Union, the Commonwealth and so on—but we will be doing something we are telling other countries not to do. There are no ifs and buts about that.
Like me, the noble Lord spent a bit of time in the other place. Like me, no doubt he can recognise a filibuster when he sees one. Can I please invite him to consider the danger under which he is placing this House in standing up against the expressed will of the other place by a substantial majority, and in masquerading and taking advantage of the customs of this House whereby we do not enjoy the facilities that are enjoyed in the other place precisely to bring to a conclusion boring filibusters of this kind?
I am sorry to hear the noble Lord say that. He is so wrong and so misled on it. I have not in any way filibustered at all. The Committee has sat for nine days. I have made 13 speeches, none of them more than 15 minutes. I have made 19 interventions in nine days. Is that a filibuster? I am asking the noble Lord. Of course it is not. If he thinks that, he has a very strange definition of a filibuster.
On a constitutional matter of this importance in this Chamber? What makes the difference is that this Chamber safeguards the constitution against abuse in the other Chamber at times. If the noble Lord does not understand that, he does not know why he has been here. Maybe he ought to think that perhaps he should not have come here if he takes the view that we ought to just roll over and have our bellies tickled every time the House of Commons says so. It is not like that at all and I think it is sad that someone of his experience should actually say that. This is a matter of considerable importance. It really is. If he is complaining that it has become party political, he needs to take on board that it has been made party political by a Government who have decided to do what other Governments are not allowed to do under all the systems we observe when checking elections—to change the size of a Parliament to suit their own political ends. That is what makes this different, and that is what makes it party political.
I shall end with a quote from Vince Cable, who put it very well.
Before my noble friend concludes his valuable and very interesting remarks, would he care to remind the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, that until very recent years it was unthinkable that constitutional legislation would have been timetabled and programmed in the House of Commons. This really is an abuse. Since it has happened, it is only in this House that it is possible to give adequate scrutiny to this legislation. Does my noble friend recall that, in the House of Commons proceedings on this Bill, Clauses 3 to 6 on very important matters—the conduct of the referendum, combining polls and the rules about media coverage—along with Clause 11 that we are now debating, on the number and distribution of seats, were entirely undiscussed in the other place, in Committee and on Report? My noble friend is absolutely right to treat these important matters at some length and searchingly as he is.
That is right. It is not just Labour Members in the other place but Conservative Members too who wrote to us asking us to cover these matters in our debates in the House of Lords, because they were not covered in the House of Commons as they should be.
I end with a quote from Vince Cable, who, in an eavesdropped conversation—and in my view the journalists have something to answer for, but it is out so it must be said—stated that there was a real danger of the Government becoming Maoist in their tendencies. That is right. There is a foolish rush of power—perhaps of power to the head—which is driving them forward.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for giving way. I perfectly understand the legitimacy of arguments about the proper way in which one should reduce or not reduce the number of MPs. Where I do not follow him—and what seems an illegitimate argument—is for him to say, as he has said a number of times, that this is being done as a gerrymander, in effect. I put it to him that there is no evidence for that. What is the purpose of the Boundary Commission if it is not to ensure that any change in constituencies is fairly effected?
Nobody has moved the word “gerrymandering”, myself included. But let us be very clear what was being said, and not just in Andrew Tyrie’s document. He says that the current numbers are unfair as they overrepresent the Labour Party and that the Conservative Party is underrepresented. He does not use those last words, but it is there throughout. In a number of the speeches, comments and articles written in newspapers, which I have going back over that period, it is repeated on numerous occasions by Conservatives that the Labour Party has too many seats. What he is basing that on—although I do not want to go over my last speech—is the number of the electors. But of course it rules out the underregistration problem and the social and economic factors that we referred to, so it is not appropriate. What matters is that with those figures, he has worked out, quite rightly—although I know there are arguments about this—that the Conservatives would win more of those seats. The argument gets a big convoluted if you put in the alternative vote, when it becomes more difficult to predict. But there is not much doubt that in the mind of the Conservative Party since 2004 there has been the view that the Labour Party has too many seats in Parliament and that the Tory Party should have more.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soley. Uncharacteristically, he seems not to have been attending to all these debates. If he had been listening, he would have heard the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, making it quite clear from the democratic audit analysis of the potential effects of the proposals in the Bill that there is no substantial increase in advantage for the Conservative Party. Indeed, I have to say that there is some disadvantage to my own party. In all fairness, I should have thought he would recognise that. It is the most legitimate, careful analysis of the potential impact of this Bill.
I said a number of times, as I did in my last speech, that I am not sure whether the Tory Party would gain as much as it thinks, but it clearly thinks that it is going to gain. They are saying it over and over again. Does he deny there is evidence of that? It is also in the speeches. David Cameron said in 2009, “We are unfairly treated”, so what is he saying? Do your Lordships think that he really has not asked his party workers to work it out? Of course he has.
I am grateful to my noble friend. I wanted to suggest that he might direct the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who asked for evidence of the partisan nature of this legislation, to the website of Mr Mark Field—a prominent Member of the other place on the Conservative Benches—where he made it explicitly clear. I think that this is still up there; it was a few days ago. It says quite clearly that the party managers in the other place were going around seeking support for this legislation precisely because it would be to their partisan advantage.
There is no doubt that that is how most people in the Conservative Party view it. I shall simply sit down on this point; the Government have made a fatal flaw. They are trying to decide the size of a Parliament without the agreement of the major parties. No other modern democracy would do that. All the bodies that we are part of, which oversee elections in countries emerging from dictatorships, look for that problem, identify it and point it out. The Government have also not looked at the other factor which I have referred to: the size of the payroll vote. They had something in here which said that they would reduce the size of the payroll vote. I know that we will come to that later. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will vote for it. He has obviously noticed it and clearly recognised its importance. It may be that I can tempt him into the Lobby on that one; who knows?
This is so important, not some stupid idea of: “Well, just filibuster for the hell of it”. I do not want to go back to what we did in the other place, staying overnight. I have far better things to do, frankly, with the remaining years of my life than to stay up night after night. But if a Government change the size of a Parliament without all-party agreement, they are driving a coach and horses through all the agreements that exists between parties in this place. They therefore cannot and must not assume that we will not fight it, because they would fight it if we did to them. If we did come back—and, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours says, I hope that we will not—with a figure in the House of Commons that suited us, do not tell me that they would not all be lined up on the other side doing everything that they could to prevent it. I beg to move this amendment.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 60, which is a companion amendment to that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. Before I go into the substance of the argument, perhaps I could make an offer—I must say that this is without any permission from my Front Bench—to the party opposite. We will happily stop accusing you of gerrymandering if you stop accusing us of filibustering. I heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Soley. It was all material and to the point. If I was filibustering, I would have been extraordinarily grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, who unfortunately is not still in his place—I expect he thinks that he has made his point—for prolonging the debate. Yet I was not grateful for it because it seemed to do what we all want to avoid doing: to turn this into a party political argy-bargy instead of being, as it should be, a proper scrutiny of the Bill before this House of Parliament.
In the interests of proceeding reasonably rapidly, I shall not go over again the arguments that my noble friend Lord Soley put so well for an independent look at this. My remarks are devoted more to the case for that being done by a Speaker’s Conference. A range of views have been expressed on the substantive issues of whether we should stick with 650—my conservative noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has strongly argued that case; or whether we should reduce the number—the reductionists include the noble Lord, Lord Maples, and my noble friend Lord Rooker; or should, like me, sit on the fence but say that there are arguments against a reduction. I am bound to say that I did not find the Minister’s response to the earlier debate terribly convincing on why the number should be 650. He did not say the figure was plucked out of the air because he is too shrewd an operator to do so, but it did not sound very different from being plucked out of the air to me. I am therefore taking as made the case for independent inquiry, and I will detain the House only to make the case that that should be by a Speaker’s Conference and not, for example, by a royal commission, an independent inquiry headed by a judge or whatever.
The main reason that I think it should be by a Speaker’s Conference is that this is essentially a matter for parliamentarians. I say “parliamentarians” because I should want this House to be represented on any such Speaker’s Conference. This is not because it is Members of another place who are going to be most adversely affected by what is being proposed. That is an issue—they have trade union rights, if you like—but that is not a good reason why they should be involved. The first reason that they should be involved is that they are the most knowledgeable about the issues involved. They may not all agree, but they have the experience of representing their constituents and existing in the House of Commons to weigh the arguments. There are arguments for a reduction; there is no doubt about it. It is difficult, for example, to get to speak in a debate in the Commons now. It is important that they should be weighing those arguments with the issue of which they have more knowledge than anybody else, which is whether the workload can be coped with by the average MP with the current level of staffing or even an increased level of staffing. They would bring that wisdom to bear, and we need it.
The second reason for thinking that a Speaker’s Conference is right is that however wise the verdict, if it does not attract political consensus, it will not be right and it will not necessarily stick. It is important that we achieve such a consensus, and it is important that all parties are agreed on it. A Speaker’s Conference could achieve this. The coalition should be very sympathetic to this line of argument because the figure we have came about not because either one of the two parties involved was committed to it but because they sat down together and this was the figure they came up with. Widening the consensus to embrace all parties would seem to be an argument that should appeal to the coalition. It seems to me that those are the two fundamental cases for a Speaker’s Conference.
I wonder whether my noble friend heard me arguing earlier for some flexibility for the Boundary Commission. Would it not also be possible for the Speaker’s Conference to recommend a range so that it should be between figure x and figure y to give a little bit of flexibility to the Boundary Commission? Is that not another advantage of his proposal?
That would be a possible outcome of a Speaker’s Conference. It might also decide that the way to deal with the particular problem that he is advancing is by increasing the tolerance allowed in the size of constituencies, and that is a matter to which this House will return.
In order to have a look at whether a Speaker’s Conference is the right way forward, I devoted a happy Sunday to examining the records of past Speaker’s Conferences. Funnily enough, that is not as easy a task as you might think, partly because there is no agreement on how many Speaker’s Conferences there are. I started off with British Political Facts, which is the bible on all these matters, and it said six, but I then found a speech made by Jack Straw in another place—Official Report, Commons, 12/3/98; col. 781—in which he listed two Speaker’s Conferences not listed by British Political Facts in 1908-10 and 1930. There is also the ambiguous case of the 1919 Speaker’s Conference on devolution, which was chaired by Mr Speaker Lowther, and nobody seems to be able decide whether it was a Speaker’s Conference. Let me confine myself to the six Speaker’s Conferences that everybody agrees on and the progress that they made.
There was the Speaker’s Conference on electoral reform of 1917, which is my favourite. It not only advocated extending votes to women but—prize of prizes for the Lib Dems—it recommended STV. This, alas, was subsequently voted down by seven votes in the House of Commons. There was a Speaker’s Conference on electoral reform in 1943-44, which dealt, for example, with Welsh representation. The 1944 Speaker’s Conference was notable, incidentally, for including three Peers of the realm. It set out lasting principles for redistribution and directions to the Boundary Commission, which endured well. Sixty of 71 quite controversial recommendations by the 1965-68 conference on electoral law and procedure, under Mr Speaker Hylton-Foster, were accepted.
The 1973-74 Speaker’s Conference was under Mr Speaker Selwyn Lloyd. I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is not present because I believe he sat on that as an MP, as did the noble Lord, Lord Pendry. That brought about an increase in election expenses, which otherwise would not have come about, for the February 1974 election. There was the 1977-78 Speaker’s Conference, under Mr Speaker Thomas, on Northern Ireland representation. I see my noble friend Lord Radice is with us evening but the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, who also sat on that conference, is not present. That managed to solve the question of increased representation for Northern Ireland, although not everyone got everything they hoped for out of that. Then there was Gordon Brown’s Speaker’s Conference on electoral turnout and women and ethnic minorities in Parliament. It is not a flawless record but it is a considerable one, covering some of the most difficult problems that have faced this country’s constitution.
On the Speaker’s Conferences, I genuinely am ignorant about this one question. To what extent was there a clear remit to each of these Speaker’s Conferences? From this debate, it is rather important that there should be flexibility and that a number of principles should be put to the Speaker’s Conference to decide. Has it been the practice to give a very broad remit or to set out in extenso the various principles on which the Speaker’s Conference should decide? Since my noble friend has devoted all of one Sunday to the study of this subject, I am sure he can enlighten us.
Noble Lords will find that a range of experiences are set out in a Speaker’s Conference Standard Note, House of Commons document, SN/PC/04426, which has in it most of the knowledge that I have tried to impart. In some ways we should learn from the shortcomings of past Speaker’s Conferences in setting up this new one. They have tended to be rather big, often having 27 members. Not all of them have included Members of this House. For very good reasons I am sure that this time we would want to include Members of this House this time. In particular—this deals with the point that the Government might make against them—this one will need a speedy timetable as it is no part of the purpose of this side of the House to delay a decision or to make it impossible to introduce these changes for the next general election, if that is the desire of Parliament. Indeed, it would speed the passage of this bit of the legislation through this House if there was such a speedy conference. I really do not think this issue is so complicated that two or three months of hard work would not get us a good verdict which would enable the whole process to go forward on a sound basis of consensus, and therefore to endure.
The Government have rushed us into a bad place and now they are complaining that we are rushing willingly into that place. The figure they have come up with may be right, but if it is right it is by sheer fluke, not by plan or consideration. This House, of the parliamentary Houses, stands for a reasoned approach to public policy, and in particular to public policy on our constitution. I therefore commend this amendment to the House.
My Lords, I support the amendment admirably moved by my noble friend. This is my first intervention in discussing this measure. I do so partly because late at night one has an opportunity to make a speech without being shouted down by mass of numbers and because the constitutional issues raised are so enormously important. The proposal for a Speaker’s Conference is very serious and admirable as it gives an opportunity for objective measured reflection, which is manifestly something we are not having through the procedures chosen by the Government to get this measure through. There has been much debate on this and I have heard many noble friends on these Benches correctly say that Parliament has not had a proper opportunity to deliberate on the principles of this Bill. I say, never mind Parliament, the electors have not had a proper opportunity to do so. That is one of the extraordinary anomalies of this case, which was not put together in a manifesto. The Liberal Democrats gave a quite different number for the membership of this House. The Conservatives prudently did not give any number at all. It was not in the manifesto. It was not actually even in the substitute for the manifesto, which in itself was a constitutional anomaly, the coalition agreement, which was not put before the electors but was put before the people in that rather small room who put the present Government together. Some issues are not even in the coalition agreement, which I understand did not produce the figure of 600. This has simply emerged out of the ether and is therefore not to be found in any document, written or unwritten, other than the Bill we are discussing.
A Speaker’s Conference would also provide objective reflection on this portmanteau Bill of policies yoked together haphazardly, as the coalition parties were yoked together. As we have heard so frequently, it is at variance with constitutional tradition whereby major changes have been deliberated over at very great length and with great care. The Bill is being rushed through not because of the constitutional needs of good government in this country but because of the nature of the relationships between the Liberal Democrat leaders and the Conservative Party leaders which affect the date of the referendum for their own, no doubt, proper purposes. This is simply a matter of private deals, not of constitutional necessity.
One of the things that a Speaker’s Conference would most certainly do is what Speaker’s Conferences have previously done, and that includes the very important principle of localism and local identity, which is being swamped in this Bill. Incidentally, if I might add to my noble friend’s admirable historical disquisition on this—I was sorry to interrupt him—the Speaker’s Conference of 1919, which he passed over rather rapidly, dealt very specifically with localism and regionalism and was a conference, incidentally, where the issue of Welsh home rule came up quite strongly. One of the ironies is that the proposals for Wales are likely to make Welsh home rule rather more likely—and they are the work of the party of the union—because of the way in which Wales is being treated.
Speaker’s Conferences have looked at a variety of criteria for assessing whether constituencies should exist, where they should be drawn, their geographical, economic and cultural aspects, and so on. They have used historical identity and the relationship with local government. None of these subtleties are being looked at in detail in the Bill. On the contrary, we have simply a crude mathematical formula. That is not the way that change has been done in this country.
We have heard in previous debates about the Chartists, who called for equal electoral districts. However, the Chartists, in that pre-railway age, had a very strong sense of localism and historic identity. Chartism was an amalgam, a coalition, of dispossessed people in different parts of the country. The Chartists were very aware that a variety of localities were represented in the country’s political system—or that they should have been. They were not objecting to the disparities; they were saying that Old Sarum was deemed to be a community, even though nobody lived there—it was just a lump of ground owned by someone. Other constituencies are equal in historical aberrations. Manchester is a community. Sheffield is a community. Liverpool, Hull and Birmingham are communities. That was the kind of consideration that the Chartists tried to bring.
The Speaker’s Conference on Wales, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, considered very carefully the nature of localism there. Like me, my noble friend who lives there is aware of the subtleties of localism, geography, historic identity and historic relationships in Wales. If I may digress, I am aware of that because my mother and father came from two Welsh-speaking areas three miles apart, but their Welshness and their language were totally different. They were divided by the River Dovey. I grew up not bilingual, but trilingual, because I spoke in my father’s Welsh and my mother’s Welsh, as well as trying to struggle along in the English language, which I am still trying to master after the passage of years. I am doing my best.
It is extremely important that these subtleties should be looked at by a judicious body, chaired by the Speaker, with a variety of legal and historical evidence adduced. No evidence at all has been adduced, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, for the figure of 600 Members of Parliament. That is just a figure, worth no less and no more than any other figure. There is plenty of evidence that the size of the House of Commons is not out of line with that of other Assemblies in the European Union or in North America. Some of those other countries have, in any case, federal systems, such as those in Germany and Spain. Therefore, the comparison is totally meaningless.
It is disturbing that the Bill, with little opportunity for consideration and reflection, not merely decides arbitrarily without evidence, but sets up a yardstick for future determination. Once you have started with this kind of system, it will continue, and its inevitable logic is that the representation of the House of Commons will go down and not up. Therefore, we need to take a careful, considered view of these matters, which are important not just for our constitution but for our historic identity.
I will say one final thing. The Speaker’s Conference of 1944 was an admirable, careful and thorough study of the geographical, sociological and other aspects of the distribution of constituencies. There was quite a lot going on in 1944. A total war was being fought and the resources of this country were strained to the limit. Nevertheless, the Speaker's Conference held its deliberations carefully and at length. It was typical of Winston Churchill, who showed great loyalty to parliamentarism, that he endorsed the work of the Speaker's Conference in 1944. If we had time in 1944 for a proper, considered look at the distinction between national and local considerations, we have time for it now, instead of this botched and rushed procedure.
I have listened very carefully to my noble friend. There was a lot of history that I found very interesting. What struck me most was the issue of localism. I find very confusing the position of the Government. They say that they are all about the big society and that people will decide locally what schools they would like and how their hospitals are run. Local issues are presented by the Government as the way forward. My noble friend mentioned that it was fundamental in the conference that local issues were taken into account. However, this seems totally unacceptable to the current Government. Perhaps my noble friend can elicit from the Government why that is the case.
I am most indebted for that very interesting intervention by my noble friend. Very often those who claim to be localisers are actually centralisers. No Government rolled forward the frontiers of the state more than that of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, in the 1980s. Hers was one of the most centralist Governments in our history. The present Government claim to advocate localism. Mr Pickles says that he advocates localism and the big society. He does that by telling councils what their policies should be on lighting, on the emptying of bins, on the number of local employees, on the stipends of local government officers and so on.
Localism is shot through the history of this country. It is an honoured tradition of the Liberal Party, which was pluralist. Lloyd George spoke of assizes of the people being set up in different parts of Britain. He was a radical liberal and I hope that his spirit still has resonance in the ranks of his mutated successors. The Labour Party used to claim that, but it lost its way. In the era of Keir Hardie and George Lansbury, Labour was committed to localism and local government. It then became a party of centralisers. That was one reason why it lost the last election and why the Conservatives’ spurious claims to be localisers made some headway. I was very pleased on Saturday to hear Ed Miliband reclaim localism for the Labour Party.
The Conservatives used to be a localist party. They used to claim as their patron saint Edmund Burke, who saw localism and varieties of identities and localities as the key to what he called prescription: the evolutionary historical character of a nation.
First, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her great kindness. Secondly, I was endeavouring to say that the Speaker’s Conference and any rational detached look at the electoral system would introduce the issue of localities. That is what I was trying to say and, if I did not say it very clearly, I apologise. It is essential to segregate local and national identities. Edmund Burke said it and I say it.
The answer is clearly yes. If you look at the material of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs in 1944, you find that, when people were asked why they were fighting, they said that they were fighting for Parliament and the Crown in Parliament. That was in the literature. It spelt out, among other things, the imperishable doctrines of the Levellers, who were seen as pioneers of a democratic Parliament.
I am sorry if I did not make it clear, but I think that a Speaker’s Conference would introduce a subtle variety of criteria on the basis of constituencies. You would then conclude the total appropriate number for the House. This should be done in a detached, careful and scholarly way. I hope that even though the present Government are trying to destroy history with their higher education policy, with so little room for history, they will look at the way in which these matters are decided—any way other than this, which seems to me a botched non-compromise and a disgrace to democracy.
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation because I am going to disagree with my noble friend Lord Lipsey and, I am afraid with my noble friend, the very eminent professor, who has just spoken. Instead, I would prefer to support the amendment standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Soley, which calls for the number of constituencies to be decided by an independent commission. I hope that the reasons for that will become clear.
It is probably agreed—perhaps not by the Leader of the House, but by everyone else—that we do not know the right number for the other place. Your Lordships will probably not remember, but in one of our earliest debates—it may have been on Second Reading—my noble friend Lord Dubs made from a seated position perhaps the most effective intervention when he mimed plucking from the air how that figure of 600 was arrived at. He claimed that that got him more fame than all his speeches, but I am not certain about that.
I am less interested in the question that has taken so much of the Committee’s time of how that figure of 600 was reached than by how any number should be reached. That is why I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Soley. Incidentally, he may not know it, but in a book that I have just been reading by Jonathan Powell he is described, as he was at the time, as one of the sanest MPs. He has now been transferred into one of the sanest of our noble Lords—hence the amendment.
What is of interest to citizens—not us, the political class, if I can put us all into the same category, including even the Cross-Benchers, who as legislators would be deemed to be in the political class—on whose behalf we are all here, for whom we work, to whom we owe our legitimacy, to whom surely we have some duty of care and attention and who are the basis of our motivation in everything that we do, should be uppermost in our minds in this debate. For many years I represented the consumers of various goods and services on a variety of bodies and was in negotiations with suppliers from big business and small business, in the public sector as well as in the private sector. I learnt enormously from those whom I was supposedly there to help but who unfailingly taught me much.
I think that we should be thinking of some of the things that I learnt about how consumers, citizens, users and, yes, voters see and relate to those who take decisions on their behalf or whose decisions affect their lives, as we debate. Those people want to know: who decided what? When did they decide it? Where did they decide it? Why did they decide it? Those people ask, “Were we consulted? Were we warned about it? Were we thought about in advance?”. They often asked me whether those decisions respected their interests and their needs. Perhaps most importantly, they would say: “How can I get my voice heard by those people who take decisions that affect me?”.
That is why, historically, trade unions were formed: to give workers some say. It is why user groups are formed, whether of people who use libraries, parent groups, or car groups—all sorts of groups where people who share an interest want to get a voice. What bigger issue is there than how people can get their voice heard by Members of Parliament, who take decisions that affect them or can influence decisions taken by others that affect them?
How constituencies are put together and how many there are should perhaps not be decided at all by the political class, which is why I have to differ with the view that there should be a Speaker’s Conference. I think that the decision on the number should be taken by an independent group hearing from local people as to how they can best relate to their Member of Parliament, who will vote on the big issues here in SW1 but who will also use their influence and interventions over numerous issues—be they planning, hospitals, education, local government services, housing or private issues, such as complaints against a provider.
I have enormous sympathy with the spirit of what my noble friend is saying, but the point is that a Speaker’s Conference would only recommend; it would not decide. The decision would be taken by people very similar to those whom my noble friend discussed.
It is the decision-making that I am interested in, but it seems to me that we need an independent committee that can go out to hear those views before it makes its recommendations. We need to decide how many electors can effectively be represented by a Member in the other place and not how many electors an MP can represent. Let us look at it the other way round: how many electors can effectively be represented by a Member of the other place? That means talking to those voters and asking them how they see the need for such direct communication with their representative, how they want to feel represented and how they want to be consulted.
I think that my noble friend is arguing both for an independent group and for a Speaker’s Conference, because either, in their different ways, could achieve her aim. A Speaker’s Conference could commission public opinion surveys and would have the benefit of having Members of Parliament who could give the view from the front line. That would have a more valuable conclusion. I do not see why my noble friend is arguing against a Speaker’s Conference, which could do very much as she is suggesting.
Indeed, my noble friend, the most eminent professor, has never been there.
My view is that this should be a matter for the electors; their views should have a big say. It may be that these two amendments can come together to meet the essence of what we both want. I am trying to stress that this decision should not be taken by the political class; it should be taken after hearing from voters, citizens and those who will become voters how they think they can best be represented. How will people want to relate to their elected Members? Will it be by phone and e-mail? Will it be in person, one to one, or will it be through groups? I am not on Facebook, but people increasingly want their views to be heard through groups and texting, along with others of a similar position.
That may result in all sorts of needs for the size of the House, because it may be better to go, as I think was said on the Benches opposite earlier, for big constituencies, rather like the old Euro constituencies, which were the size of nine of our current constituencies. It was clear to electors that that was not where they should take local issues and that they should go to their councillors, or that they should take just big policy issues to Members of Parliament. I am not certain whether that is the right or the wrong answer. Perhaps we should have smaller constituencies, so that people can meet their representatives more. The needs of the electors should be uppermost in our minds, or in the minds of those who take these decisions, in relation to the number of seats and, therefore, the relationship that Members can have with their electors.
The same applies to the personal issues or issues of policy that electors have. Again, it may be that people will much more want to gather together, whether they have an interest in the environment, historic buildings, health or education. They may want to be grouped much more when talking about policy. Surely these issues need serious debate, rather than a quick and easy decision.
I do not know what the right number should be but, from my work with the consumers and users of any service, I know that they want to be asked, to be consulted and to be involved in those decisions before the decision is taken. That is why I support my noble friend Lord Soley in calling for an independent commission to work on this, to do real work with voters and to think about those sorts of issues. Then we might get an answer that is accepted by the whole electorate and provides for a House of Commons that really reflects the will of the people.
My Lords, I too support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Soley. It is a hugely important issue—I am troubled that there is some appearance on the other side of the House that it is not—for two reasons. First, it is hugely important for this country how our people are represented. The number of Members of Parliament, for all the reasons that have been described previously, is very important. It is also important for the reason put by my noble friend Lord Soley, and mentioned by my noble friend Lady Wall; namely, the example that we set to the rest of the world.
Other Members of this House have the experience, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, spoke about, of the Council of Europe talking to other countries and helping them to build their democracies and their systems. I have that experience, through a slightly different route, through the work that I have done across the world involved with human rights organisations and lawyers’ organisations. I ask myself this question: if they said to me, “Why have you reduced the number of Members of Parliament? What was the reason for it? What was the rationale? How did you arrive at the number?”, at the moment I can do no better than refer to the answer given to the Select Committee on the Constitution, on which I have the honour to serve.
When we pressed the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mr Mark Harper, with the question, “Why have you chosen 600?”, he could not answer. He told us that it was not a horse trade and that he did not think that it would qualitatively affect the representation of people in this country. But he could not tell us where the number came from. He ended by saying, and here I quote from paragraph 28 of our report:
“I am not going to pretend that there is a magic science to all this”.
I have been listening to cross-examinations all my life, so when someone says that there is no “magic science” to something, what they mean is that there is no science at all. There is no basis for this figure. I cannot explain to people across the world why Britain, the cradle of democracy, has chosen this number. They will know that people have accused the Government of looking to find a way of reducing the number of seats for the party in opposition if I cannot even explain the Government’s own view.
The merit of both the amendments, although I support the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Soley rather than that of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, is that they do two things. They propose a rational way of deciding what the right number should be and they provide it in a way that is either independent or at least non-partisan. Both have the merit that after the event people cannot say, as has been said in this House, that this is being done just in order to favour one party rather than another. I do not want to be part of a democracy, with the tradition we have, where that is what is said about us.
What is the process that is reached? I understand entirely that the Bill, so far as the referendum is concerned, is necessary for the coalition agreement. I have no difficulty personally with that part of the Bill going forward within the timeframe I know the Government want. That is understandable. What I do not understand is why there is a rush to change the number of Members of Parliament without even a degree of rational assessment of what the right numbers are and without considering the evidence.
I want to refer to one of the issues that has been raised, and unlike the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I think it is absolutely a part of this debate on this amendment, and not just for subsequent amendments. I speak of the issues that have been raised, for example, of not just knowing what the people want, or not understanding localism because those issues can be looked at properly through some form of independent assessment. I would not object to a Speaker’s Conference, although an independent commission may be better. The key part is the two things which the Government have not done, but which must be done. The first is a rational assessment of the numbers, and the second is at least a degree of non-partisan agreement about that, or better still, independent assessment.
I turn to the issue that the Leader of the House said, when my noble friend Lord Soley was moving his amendment, was not really for this amendment: the relationship between the Executive and the number of Members of Parliament. I understand it because I was a member of the payroll vote for quite a long time.
There is a fundamental regulation in this House that we speak to the amendments that have been moved. I have respectfully pointed out to the noble and learned Lord that the amendment to which he wishes to speak will, I am sure, be moved later on. That is when we should discuss it. He should stick to the rules of the House.
I am absolutely sticking to the rules of the House because what both of these amendments propose is an assessment rationally based on evidence as to what the numbers should be. It is impossible, in my view, to answer that question without knowing what the relationship between the Executive and the legislature is going to be. Let me remind the noble Lord and members of the party opposite of what was said by the Deputy Prime Minister in explaining the rationale of the constitutional reform being put forward. One of the things he said was this:
“It is an unambiguous judgment on our part that reducing the power of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature, making the legislature more accountable to the people … collectively introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians”.
These are good and fine thoughts, but how do you unambiguously reduce the power of the Executive or seek to boost the power of the legislature if you reduce the number of Back-Bench MPs and do not proportionately or in some other way reduce the membership of the Executive?
It may be that it is not right, as the later amendment proposes, to do that simply on a proportionate basis, but in the Constitution Committee we asked both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister, Mr Mark Harper, about the relationship between the Executive and Back Benchers after these reforms. I remind noble Lords what they both said—it is in paragraph 32 of the seventh report of the Select Committee on the Constitution:
“The Deputy Prime Minister recognised that ‘There is a strong argument that says that you must look at this and adapt the number of people who are on the government payroll so that you do not get a lopsided imbalance between those on the payroll and those holding them to account’”.
He is quite right. When is that going to happen? He said: “I totally accept that”, but it is not happening in the Bill. Unless the Leader of the House is going to surprise us by accepting the amendment later—I strongly suspect that he is not going to do anything of the sort—it is not going to happen in the Bill.
The Minister was asked the same question. He also accepted that,
“there is a problem that needs to be dealt with”,
but argued that the Bill is not the right vehicle to do it. What I say, and I care about constitutional reform—sadly, lawyers do—is that this House is being asked to accept, and indeed the country is being asked to accept, a change in the balance between the Executive and Back-Benchers, purportedly in the context of a programme which argues for a reduction in the power of the Executive in circumstances where we do not know what the end result will be.
On the power of the Executive, I accept the noble and learned Lord’s case that we have to reduce the Executive, but will he accept that when that reduction takes place those who are left should respect the constitution of this country and that the first people to be informed of any ministerial change should be the Members on the Floor of the House of Commons? I am not putting him, as a former Minister of the Crown, in this category, but there were Cabinet Ministers and junior Ministers who could not wait to get into a television studio, but would not come to the Floor of the House. That is why Urgent Questions were accepted. Complaints would come from the then Opposition about this practice, and now I see that the roles are reversed. We are back to square one and there are Ministers who love going to the media, but are not prepared to come to the Floor of the House. The Executive should always be prepared to get on to the Floor of the House.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord and I apologise for not realising that he wanted to intervene. The point that he makes is that part of the point of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature—the Executive and Back-Benchers—is precisely that Back-Benchers and Parliament as a whole can keep Ministers to account. If you get an imbalance, where the Executive stays the same but the number of Back-Benchers reduces by 10 per cent or thereabouts, that ability for accountability disappears.
I come back to the question raised by the Leader of the House—why is this relevant to this amendment? It is relevant to this amendment—to both amendments—because both talk about the need for assessing on a rational basis what the right position should be. I do not see, given how important is the relationship between the Executive and the rest of the legislature, how we can address the issue without dealing with the number of Back-Benchers compared to the size of the Executive. An independent commission could look at the question and make recommendation; so, indeed, no doubt, could a Speaker’s Conference. Either of the amendments has the benefit of that assessment.
Does my noble and learned friend accept that, when he talks about the members of the Executive as a whole, he should include not only the Government, but also Parliamentary Private Secretaries, the numbers of whom have proliferated and who feel themselves equally to be within the big tent of government?
My noble friend Lord Anderson is right about that, which is one of the issues that needs to be dealt with.
On the essential principle, these two amendments raise the critical question: do we have to rush to judgment about the number of MPs, and how should that number be reached? I am going to listen with great interest to what the Minister says—perhaps he will come up with a better answer than the one that the Select Committee on the Constitution of your Lordships’ House was given—but at the moment there is no answer as to why, in those circumstances, the number should not be determined independently, or at least on a non-partisan basis, by rational judgment and by evidence. The case for that, in my view, is overwhelming.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of the spirit of Amendments 59 and 60.
First, though, the suggestion has been made more than once in the past few hours that it is wrong in some way for this House to be concerned with matters that affect the membership of the House of Commons and how those Members should be elected. That, in my respectful submission, is an utterly absurd view. Parliament is one and indivisible. Whether we like it or not, we are wholly responsible as one of the Houses of Parliament—technically, the senior House, although that is not so in practice vis-à-vis the elected House—and we have a duty. That trusteeship means that we cannot avoid scrutinising in the greatest detail anything that affects the future of Parliament as a whole.
Having said that, I believe that, as has been spelt out clearly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, both amendments have this in common: they are a cri de coeur for a grave and weighty constitutional problem to be decided on the basis not of a stab in the dark nor of instinctive feelings—no matter how genuine those feelings are—but of evidence.
The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, with whose speech I completely concurred, in a very scholarly dissemination of the problem—as one would expect from a distinguished historian—put the matter clearly in the context of history, whereas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, put the matter in the context of law. As one who has spent most of his time in the courts, in one way or another, I ask myself this question: if a grave and weighty decision is to be arrived at by any tribunal, how can that tribunal decide other than on the basis of cogent evidence and on the basis of questions such as what construction and weight should be placed upon that evidence and what conclusions and inferences should be drawn therefrom?
The argument that was put forward—with great respect, I think that I do no disservice to the noble Lord the Leader of the House nor, indeed, to the noble Lords, Lord Baker and Lord Tyler—was this: “We know exactly what the parties think about this and what they have said in their various manifestos, so there is no need to look any further”. That misses the point completely. There is every need to look further because we all have deep instinctive feelings, probably genuine and sincerely held, but they are nevertheless no more than feelings and instincts and are not based on evidence. Whether that evidence is gathered in the way that Amendments 59 or 60 suggest or in some other way, provided that it is gathered by an authoritative, independent and well qualified body, our duty in the situation will have been met.
There are two duties in ensuring that Parliament can decide. As the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has said, the matter should be determined not by the Speaker’s Conference or by any other conference but by Parliament. First, Parliament must be able to arrive at an informed decision on the basis of the facts—indeed, the facts may well be in dispute, and Parliament will have to select which facts it accepts and which it does not. Secondly—this is equally important—the people of this country should understand why it was that their legislators came to that decision.
My Lords, my noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Lipsey have done a great service to the House by bringing forward their two amendments this evening. I think that they have also done rather a good service to the Government, although I am not sure that the Government realise it yet, because they may have provided a way out of this situation that would enable the Government to get substantially what they want with the general consent of the Committee.
I am trying to act according to what I think should be the principles of the House of Lords—that is, in good faith, with good will and with a genuine openness to compromise. I think that those are important values, particularly in a Second Chamber, or revising Chamber, as this House is. Therefore, I say straight away in that spirit, and at the risk of shocking some of my noble friends, that I accept that the Government have a democratic mandate to reduce the size of the House of Commons. Unfortunately, the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats won the election. Both parties had in their manifestos a commitment to reduce the size of the House of Commons and that must constitute a democratic mandate. We do not necessarily like that—some of us dislike it less than others—but I think that in all honesty we have to accept that.
However, what the coalition parties sure as hell do not have is a mandate to reduce the number of MPs in the House of Commons to 600. A different figure was given in the two manifestos. The coalition parties can change their mind, as I hope we are all allowed to do, but the fact is that the mandate does not cover the number; it covers the principle. Therefore, by definition, the number must be open to debate and discussion. It is totally legitimate for us to go into that debate and discussion to see whether we can find either the ideal number—which, for reasons that I shall explain, I do not think we can or will find—or an alternative mechanism for ending up with the right solution. That is clearly what we must do.
On this side of the House, we should be honest enough to recognise that the Government have a mandate to reduce the size of the Commons, and the Government should be honest enough to recognise that they do not have a mandate for a specific figure and that, therefore, the debate on the figure must remain open. The Government have already changed their mind about the number and, as I said, they have a perfect right to do so, but perhaps they will change their mind again in the light of the debate that is taking place. That would not be in any way humiliating for the Government; it would be very sensible and democratic for them to listen to the debate and then come to a more mature conclusion.
Again, I may find that I am in disagreement with some of my noble friends on this side of the House, but I am not, and never have been, against the principle of reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons. I do not feel particularly strongly about the figure of 650, although I think that we would all accept that there must be a limit to the size of the reduction that can responsibly take place.
I enjoyed what I considered to be an important contribution to the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, although I am sorry that he is not in his seat at the moment. However, I disagreed with him very strongly when he said, “Well, it’s all right if Members of Parliament have more people to deal with—more constituents, more electors and a greater population, whether registered or not registered—in their constituency, because they can use their staff to look after them”. Having served in the House of Commons for 33 years, perhaps I may say to the Committee that I do not think that that is a good argument. Of course, I had staff—I had very good staff—and I used them to deal with constituency cases, to verify the facts, to look at possible solutions and ways forward, and of course to follow up cases, which is always a very important aspect of a constituency MP’s work.
I also used my staff to draft letters, but I always signed them myself, and I always made sure that I knew the considered advice that I was giving my constituents. It was always I who sent a letter to the authority, local authority, Minister or quango, or whoever I needed to contact to try to resolve the question. It is extremely important that Members of Parliament continue to take direct personal responsibility for that kind of action—responsibility both to the constituent who has appealed to him or her and to the organisation or perhaps colleagues in government to whom one appeals on behalf of the constituent.
I am absolutely horrified at—as has been referred to already in the Committee this evening—the habit of Congressmen in the United States, who allow their staff to draft letters and send them using an automatic signature machine so that it looks as though the Congressman has reviewed the case when he has not. That is deeply shocking. I would be appalled if that habit came into this country. However, if you talk to Congressmen, you begin to understand, because they typically have 250,000 or 300,000 electors, which is far more than anyone here is proposing.
There must be a dividing line somewhere. For most of the time that I was in the House of Commons, I had a constituency that came close to having 75,000 electors, so I would not be shocked by that figure—if the Government had wanted to make it 77,000, I am sure that I could have coped with that, too. However, there is a limit, and we should be aware of the trade-off between having a more cohesive House of Commons, with fewer people there, and being able to offer a personal service to, and have a direct relationship with, those who send Members of Parliament to Westminster, which is such an important part of our democracy.
We have to look at how we achieve that solution and trade-off and how we optimise or reconcile those two different considerations. It is extremely doubtful that this or the other House could ever come to a resolution on that; we would never be completely happy with such a solution. There is no perfect, idealised, atomic number somewhere in the air that, if only we were clever enough, we could identify. The only practicable solution for achieving a majority of a particular number in this House or the other place would be for the Government to take up that number and push it through via the Whipping system. That would be highly undesirable.
I shall not accuse the Government of gerrymandering, as I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, would be a willing party to that. I am sorry that the gerrymandering issue has arisen, but I have to tell the Government in all honesty that any Government who at any time start directly to determine things such as the number of Members of Parliament will open themselves to suspicions of gerrymandering. That is very dangerous. Gerrymandering is like corruption. It is so awful and so damaging to the legitimacy of our—or any other—democracy that not only should we not get involved in it but we should conduct ourselves in such a way that there is not the slightest suspicion that we might be getting involved in something of that kind. That means that we have to take the determination of the number away from the Floor of this House and the other place.
My noble friends Lord Lipsey and Lord Soley have produced alternative solutions—very much for the reasons put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, so I need not repeat them. I prefer the solution of my noble friend Lord Soley. I tell him now that, if he is minded to press Amendment 59 to the vote, I shall be happy to follow him into the Lobby. In other words, it is far better to allow the Boundary Commission or some independent body to determine exactly what the number should be.
It surprises me that the noble Lord and others have said that an independent commission should decide on the right new number for MPs. What makes anyone think that we would agree with the result of an independent commission? We would surely disagree for one reason or another. For that reason, I firmly think that it is right for a majority in the Commons to decide on what the number should be, as they did by a vote of 321 ayes to 264 noes, because they are in a far more rightful place in history to make that decision than any commission will ever be.
I disagree with the noble Lord. I am quite surprised to hear him advance that position, because I know him well and believe him to be a man who believes not only that we should be guided by the political wisdom of the past, by history and by tradition but that we should not ignore that past and should be very cautious in doing violence to the traditions that have served us so well in British parliamentary democracy for so long. I know that there are many other contexts in which the noble Lord would be entirely with me.
We have heard figures given this evening—I do not remember them entirely—for the way in which numbers in the House of Commons have varied during the past 100 years. That has been a reflection of the Boundary Commission’s decisions, not of decisions taken by the House of Commons or this House to go for a specific number. Those variations have been a consequence of decisions made by the Boundary Commission when it has conducted its responsibilities, as it regularly does every decade or so, to look again parliamentary boundaries in this country.
There is another example. The Liberal Democrats will remember it very well; we had arguments about it in the last Parliament. It is the Electoral Commission. There were many times when the Liberal Democrats objected to our objections to aspects of Electoral Commission reports and recommendations, so there is a tradition of accepting independent body judgments when it comes to issues of elections and boundaries.
I am grateful for my noble friend’s support. That, indeed, is the right answer to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. In practice we have accepted these decisions. Part of the consensus on which British politics has been based is that we do not interfere with the Boundary Commission. We let it get on with its job, and we respect its decisions and its independence. It is deeply conscious of its responsibility in the light of the trust placed in it by Parliament and the public. When it has concluded its work, we accept the umpire’s decision. That is in the best British tradition, if I may say so.
Is not the problem with what the noble Lord, Lord Renton is saying that he is arguing that the majority in the other place should be sufficient for the time being? That majority might change after an election. I can imagine the roars of disapproval at that new majority if we in opposition became the majority, and the roars of opposition from the other side. After a change of government, we would have as much legitimacy in changing the numbers as the current majority has if there were no interposition of some independent body, whether it be a Speaker’s Conference or some other form of independent commission.
I very much hear what my noble friend says. Of course, he has said similar things in the debate this evening, and he said them very well. I repeat that I was saddened and surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Renton, take the line that he took. I know he is very conscious of the history of this country and the history of the world. He just has to look at the history of other European countries over the past 100 years to see the terrible things that arise when Governments allow themselves to use a momentary parliamentary majority to change the rules of the game and change the constitution of the country. That is a very dangerous road to go down. If you compare the degree of legitimacy, public support and stability that we have enjoyed in this country for centuries with some of the histories of countries whose parliaments have not had that sense of moderation, limit and self denial in the exploitation of the momentary majority, I think you conclude that we have been very blessed by those traditions. It would be a very sad day if we were to overthrow those traditions and go down the road which the Government appear to be leading us tonight.
On that point, does the noble Lord not agree that at this juncture we need an independent commission to assess and recommend the effective size, given the objective realities of parliamentary service and representation? We need an independent commission to provide advice that would be accepted consensually, as, under the terms of this Bill, the Boundary Commission, which has provided us for 61 years with a fundamental protection against any suspicion of gerrymandering, is to be railroaded and provided with parameters for its operation. Whatever else happens, it must conclude with recommendations that result in a House of Commons of 600 Members. Given the inexact nature of that, and given the absence of science or the absence of objective rationale supporting the figure of 600, is not an independent commission of wise people a fundamental essential?
I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend. The most succinct way in which to put this issue is as follows. The Boundary Commission, charged with its very delicate task, as we know from debates this evening and from our own experience of determining a fair pattern of electoral districts and constituencies in this country, has to manage three variables. They include acceptability, which is very important and which means the degree to which the parliamentary constituency boundaries correspond to local people’s feelings of self-identity and community and perhaps how much they coincide with local government boundaries and boundaries involving other health authorities, travel to work areas and economic and social factors of that kind.
That acceptability has always been a major consideration in the mind of the Boundary Commission, which has always made great efforts to ensure that its recommendations are accepted as far as possible. That is part of making a democracy legitimate and accepted and therefore work happily, and that is why the commission has always placed great emphasis on the opportunity to have public inquiries on its recommendations. It has not run away from that at all. As I am sure the Leader of the House will remind me if I go on any further, that is a subject of further amendments, so we will have other opportunities to discuss that very important matter. The Boundary Commission has always recognised that acceptability is a very important aspect of their work.
The second issue is the extent of the uniformity of numbers. The Boundary Commission has always felt that, other things being equal, it was always desirable that constituencies should have the same numbers. Other things are not always equal, and so it has often made recommendations that do not involve very equal numbers in constituencies. Nevertheless, that has always been a principle at which it wanted to aim.
There is a third criterion, which the Government are introducing now—the actual number of seats that emerge. We all know that there is a trade-off between these things, and that if you have greater acceptability you will have greater variation in numbers because the commission will be more elastic in accommodating local susceptibilities, but at the expense of having some constituencies that have different numbers of electors than other constituencies. Equally, if you enforce a particular ceiling such as 600, you very much restrict the ability of the commission to achieve either of the other two purposes—uniformity of numbers or acceptability. There are three variables, and there is a trade-off between the three. That is inevitable; any system that you had would involve a trade-off between the three. The question is whether you honestly recognise those trade-offs or whether you do not.
My own view is that of these three criteria, two are recognisable general principles. Acceptability is a general principle. It is something that we can all say is right in theory and principle. We want to aim towards it; it is part of the good in our constitution, not part of the bad or dysfunctional. Equally, it is very desirable that we should as far as possible have constituencies of equal numbers, so that everyone has the same weight in terms of their representation in Parliament. Again, that is a general principle. It is part of the good in a constitution, not part of the bad or the dysfunctional. I put it to the Committee that a particular number is not a general principle. Six hundred or 650 is not a general principle, and neither is 525 or 535—whatever the Liberal number was. These are just pragmatics and incidentals. They are the result, or should be, of achieving the optimum trade-off or reconciliation between the two general principles.
My noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Lipsey have actually helped the Government, because they have provided a way by which they could achieve what the Government really want—what all of us really want: a system that is as acceptable as possible and that as far as possible involves constituencies of equal numbers. We could do it by leaving it to the Boundary Commission to come, as it always did, to the consequential conclusion as to what numbers of seats should emerge. If necessary—and I agree with my noble friend Lord Soley here—we could set an absolute maximum and give it some parameters. Fine; I would not object to that, as long as the parameters are wide enough for it to do its job without undue distortion and thereby to achieve, as far as possible, the implementation of those general principles to which all of us in this House must ultimately attach the greatest weight and importance.
I wish to speak to my noble friend Lord Soley’s amendment, but before doing so I shall briefly draw attention to the comments made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones—he is, unfortunately, not in his place. The noble Lord comes down from the mountains bearing great prophecies of doom because of alleged filibustering on this side of the House. Before I start on the detail of the amendment, perhaps I might give some detail from an answer obtained from the House of Lords Library by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark on the time spent on Bills in the last Parliament between May 2005 and April 2010. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill had 19 days, the Coroners and Justice Bill had 16 days, the Identity Cards Bill had 16 days, and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill had 15 days. It really is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, is not here—
I cannot say off the top of my head, so I give that one immediately to the noble Lord. The point is that there are 300 pages here on the second part of the Bill, which is constitutional. Surely that must be recognised. That brings me to the point. Now I am being subjected to House of Commons tactics and bullying. I thought that I had escaped all that, but I will try to survive. Let us get to the context, which is that this is a constitutional Bill. I have mentioned this before but I still have a slight sense of disorientation, because when I came here I was told that this was a place of revising—a place where you take your time to study things, make points and get on with things—and that the conventions were there.
Let me say right away—and I can speak only for myself—that the difficulty I have found is that I have come through here at a time of great constitutional upheaval because of this Bill. The normal conventions have not been applied and are still not being applied because the Government are riding roughshod over that process, which is causing problems. Many Members opposite, and, I think, Cross-Bench colleagues, have made the point that people have not been obeying conventions. I have reviewed my conduct and watched what I have been saying and doing. That pressure is not allowing people like me to learn to adapt to the normal pace of events in your Lordships’ House.
In reviewing how I have conducted myself, I have certainly modified my behaviour because I do not intervene now on Ministers or on other Members, because I know full well and have realised that it is counterproductive. It does not work and the House does not like it. I have had to learn that in a compressed sense of rivalry and animosity, in many ways, particularly because the Government are riding roughshod over the House of Lords on a constitutional Bill. That is the only thing that I recognise.
An independent commission would certainly be far better than what we are getting now. I have a lot of time for my noble friend’s amendment, but it seems not to be accepted because I find that there is an element, especially from the Liberals, of, “We are the masters now”. It is like Hartley Shawcross after the Second World War. We now have an illiberal, authoritarian streak not from Conservative Ministers but from Liberal Ministers and Liberal Back-Benchers who are being dictatorial in their approach to any opposition. Before Liberal Lords fall about laughing too much, I remind them that Mr Adrian Sanders has called Danny Alexander a cuckoo in the nest because he is more Tory than the Tories now, so let them laugh at that as well.
Look at where we are. This is illiberal and authoritarian. I take the point of view that consensus, which has always been my way, is the best way forward, especially on constitutional and electoral matters. I shall give an example of why there should be consensus, and I think an independent commission would have a better chance of getting consensus. It is what happened in the Scottish devolution negotiations between the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. I very much regret the absence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, because he was a beneficiary of that consensus. Orkney and Shetland got two places; Orkney got one place in the Scottish Parliament and Shetland got another. Between them, they have about 33,000 voters. I went along with that consensus because it is a way of trying to get agreement. You look at situations, and there is good will there. I will tell your Lordships' House that there is very little good will and consensus for the Liberals in my heart, especially after the deal that they have got there. If the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, wants to defend his Liberal colleagues—
With the benefit of hindsight, yes, I think it would—if the noble Baroness allows me to answer because I am having a conversation here. We are reviewing the legislation and discussing, which is what I always thought the House of Lords was supposed to be like. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that would have been better because, quite frankly, my late right honourable friend Donald Dewar made a deal with the then Jim Wallace, but we have lived to see the same people who were beneficiaries of that consensus and that deal taking a completely hard line and an authoritarian attitude towards people who have got problems with their constituencies.
I have an amendment for a later stage, and I will be interested to know why Orkney and Shetland is a reserved constituency compared to my old constituency of Rutherglen. The Scottish Parliament negotiations are a clear example of why an independent commission should go ahead. Take the Isle of Wight, for instance. I think that an independent commission would give great weight to the Isle of Wight case. We have had appeals from Mr Andrew Turner, the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight, and a consensual letter from all the political figures in the Isle of Wight Council. That is very impressive: consensus works. I think an independent commission would have a better chance, and it would certainly look free.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford. I do not think anybody seriously thinks that there are corrupt people sitting on the Front Bench over there who have corrupted the boundaries. I do not think that. If I thought it, I would say it, but I do not think it. However, matters like this have to be not only pure but seen to be pure, and I do not think that is the case when you get political interference with the political composition of the House of Lords. I am very conscious. I have said what I have got to say. I have said what I wanted to say. I am glad the noble—the mocking and the abuse and the verbal talk when people are supposed to be speaking is nothing less than bullying and intimidation and it really should stop. I am not used to it. [Laughter.] Well, perhaps I should say that I am not used to receiving it.
Perhaps the noble Lord is an expert in intimidation from his experience as a Whip in the other place. I have just been doing a little maths on this subject, and I think this is now the 19th day that Parliament has debated this Bill. There have been 19 days so far. When the noble Lord was a Whip in the other place on the then Labour Government’s Constitutional Reform Act 2005, a total of 56 hours, 45 minutes was spent deliberating on that Bill.
I did not realise how busy I was in the other place. I am impressed that the noble Lord has an impression of my workload there. I do not agree with the grounds for saying that what we are doing on this Bill is not correct and proper, although I agree that there are grounds for saying that we are talking too much. However, this side of the House is subjecting the Bill to scrutiny; that side of the House is not.
My Lords, I support the proposition put forward by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, although I also think there is a lot of merit in the proposal of my noble friend Lord Soley. I am attracted by the idea of a Speaker’s Conference, partly because I sat on one. I am not sure that many Members of this House have been on one. I was a very junior Member of the House of Commons when I served on the Speaker’s Conference of 1977-78 under Speaker Thomas. It was set up to consider and make recommendations on the number of parliamentary constituencies that there should be in Northern Ireland. It had a cross-party membership. For the Conservatives there was Sir David Renton and the late Ian Gow. The Ulster Unionists were represented by Enoch Powell and Mr James Molyneaux—now the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. The Liberals were represented by Clement Freud. I have not mentioned the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, who was also there for the Conservatives.
It carried out its deliberations very quickly. It took written representations. Nine papers were received from political parties and six from individuals. You can have far more than that but that is what we had. It was a contentious issue that we had to solve. We took oral evidence from the Registrar-General of Births and Deaths in Northern Ireland. The key issue was the population increase in Northern Ireland, which justified further seats for Northern Ireland. This had been resisted by different Governments. We also received evidence from the deputy chairman and secretary of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland and the Lord President of the Council.
We had eight meetings and resolved, by 18 votes to four, that there should be an increase in the number of parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland, and by 22 votes to one that the figure should be 17. We also decided—this is a matter of interest—that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland should be given a degree of flexibility to overcome any practical difficulties. We then agreed, by 22 votes to one, to the final recommendation that the number of parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland should be 17, but that the Boundary Commission should be given power to vary that number, subject to a minimum of 16 and a maximum of 18.
I congratulate the noble Lord and the Speaker’s Conference on the deliberations that he mentioned. However, it arrived at a result that coincided exactly with that which had been agreed as a political deal between Jim Molyneaux and the Labour Government before it was set up.
Yes, that may well be so but it was a sensible way of proceeding on a very controversial issue—more seats for Northern Ireland. However, it produced a result that, if it was not supported by all the parties in Northern Ireland, certainly had the backing of all the major parties in the Commons. That is precisely my point: it produced consensus, which is what the Government have not achieved with the present Bill. I recommend the idea of a Speaker’s Conference or the commission, as suggested by my noble friend who is sitting next to me, as a better way forward if the Government want to achieve consensus. It may well be better for them in the long run if they achieve that consensus.
My Lords, the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Soley proposes that the number of constituencies for the future should be determined by an independent commission and the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey prefers that the recommendation should be made to Parliament by a Speaker’s Conference. I do not think that the difference between these two manners of proceeding is necessarily very great. Indeed, an independent commission could turn out to be a Speaker’s Conference. However, I prefer the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey because my noble friend Lord Soley has thrown into his amendment a stipulation that the number of constituencies to be determined by the independent commission should not in any case exceed 650. If we examine the arguments on whether there should be more or fewer Members of Parliament, there is a strong case not for reducing the numbers of Members of Parliament but for increasing them. But whichever device were to be adopted, both of these modes of proceeding are designed to be reasonable, to gather evidence, to enable all concerned to work towards consensus and for their conclusions to be perceived to be unimpeachable. That last point is extremely important.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in responding to the earlier debate—he did so entirely admirably—defended a case that is very difficult to defend. He reminded us that in the approach to the previous general election both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party signalled their view that there should be a smaller House of Commons. He suggested that there was therefore a mandate, but, of course, no mandate for a smaller House of Commons was provided by the electorate because neither the Conservative Party nor the Liberal Democrat Party won the election. Certainly, the coalition agreement has no status as a mandate at all. Of course, there needs to be a coalition agreement and of course this House treats with the greatest seriousness what the coalition agreement has put forward for the country, but this House is not intimidated by the coalition agreement, nor does it consider that it has some special quality.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, was of the view that in the end the size of the future House of Commons had to be a question of judgment. That is possibly so but, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, reminded us, when you are making a judgment it is your responsibility to make it on the best basis of evidence and of reasoning. Moreover, it is essential that the judgment is perceived to be disinterested. That is where the Government are in some political difficulty as they wax indignant at any suggestion that they are tilting the system in the political interests of one party or another. I will not impugn their sincerity in that matter but their political problem is in part that there is a perception that they are not objective in this matter. Irrespective of whether an independent commission or a Speaker’s Conference were involved, at least the matter would proceed reasonably, whereas the proposition that we have before us in the Bill—that the House of Commons should in future consist of 600 Members of Parliament—is not really even a product of judgment but of an opportunist wheeze.
The Prime Minister was of the view that Members of Parliament were unpopular and that there was a large deficit, which needed to be reduced. It occurred to him and his advisers that it would be a good wheeze to propose to the people that we should therefore have fewer Members of Parliament. That is the kind of opportunistic gimmick that political parties devise and resort to to get them through their relations with the media for a day, but it should be forgotten just as quickly as that.
You need a better basis for determining the appropriate size of the House of Commons. You have to start by looking at what those who elect Members of the House of Commons expect and, indeed, require them to do. Above all, they expect them to debate the great issues of the day, to scrutinise legislation and the propositions of the Government and to hold the Government to account. It is very important that there should be enough Members of Parliament who are not members of the Executive and not Parliamentary Private Secretaries on the payroll vote to be able to hold those independent debates. Such Members will take the Whip and they will have their party loyalties, but when push comes to shove those who elected them expect them to exercise a certain independence that is rightly not permitted to members of the Executive.
I was very interested in and listened very carefully to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. Any of us must listen carefully to the views of a former Speaker of the other place. He favoured a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament on the basis that it might make for better debate, because he recognised that there is a problem for Members of the other place in getting into debates and having the opportunities to speak as often as they would no doubt like. That is true and relates to the procedures that the other place, in its wisdom, has developed over many years. It is interesting that Members of your Lordships’ House, who are more numerous and every day becoming significantly more numerous than Members of the House of Commons, can all individually get into debates when they wish. Indeed, there will be ample opportunity this very evening for noble Lords on the other side of the House to expound their views at length on this extremely important legislation. No Member of your Lordships’ House can say that they do not get the opportunity to contribute to debates. Therefore, it is just possible that the other place, in considering its procedures, might consider how it is that this House, which is more numerous, enables everyone to participate.
My noble friends Lord Soley and Lord Rooker were both of the view that it would be better if the size of the House of Commons were to be reduced. My view is that the House of Commons has great difficulty in performing all the functions that the citizens of this country want of it. It is getting more difficult as more and more Ministers are appointed. We are told that we have to look forward to there being more frequent coalition Governments—heaven forefend, but that is what is anticipated by quite a lot of people. We have seen that, when a coalition Government are formed, there have to be jobs for lots of the boys and girls in each of the parties that form the coalition. We now have an Administration in the House of Commons who have more Ministers than any other Administration have ever had. We are going to need more Back-Benchers who will still have an independent voice of their own.
But even before we saw this unfortunate growth in the size of the Administration, it was commonplace that the House Commons had great difficulty in examining all the legislation that came before it with the care that everyone would wish. For example, the Commons found it very difficult to find the time to scrutinise European legislation with any adequacy. It is an important part of the history of government in this country that over several recent decades there has been a vast increase in the quantity of secondary legislation—statutory instruments—which the House of Commons is entirely unable to scrutinise as much as would be desirable.
Legislative committees, which used to be known as Standing Committees, are set up ad hoc to scrutinise pieces of legislation, but so difficult is it for very busy Members of the other place to give their detailed attention to Bills that these are now routinely programmed. Members of your Lordships’ House will also wryly acknowledge that important pieces of legislation such as this one come through to us without having been exhaustively examined in Committee in the other place.
Separate from the scrutiny of legislation is the work of Select Committees. Departmental Select Committees did not exist before 1979. They are a source of great pride to the other place and to us all, but it is not disrespectful to the other place to note that attendance at Select Committees is less complete than perhaps it should be and that, because Members of the other place are legitimately very busy on a host of matters, sometimes one has the possibly erroneous impression that not all those participating in the work of a Select Committee have entirely mastered the papers before them.
The Public Administration Select Committee, chaired in recent years with enormous distinction by Mr Tony Wright, has persuaded not only the other place but the Executive that there should be greater independence for Select Committees. That raises hopes for the future work of Select Committees. It raises expectations about the amount and quality of the work that they will do. That is a large responsibility that falls on the other place and it may need more rather than fewer Members of Parliament to do full justice to it.
Party committees are a very valuable presence in the life of the other place because they enable the Executive and the Back Benches to explain themselves to each other. However, these meetings take time and, again, their attendance is not always as full as might be ideal. There are also all-party committees that come and go. All noble Lords have a view on whether it is necessarily a good thing that there are quite as many all-party committees as there are at any given moment. However, the best of them have enormous value. I will mention, for example, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disablement, in which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, when he was a Member of the other place as well as when he became a Member of your Lordships’ House, played an outstandingly distinguished part. I see the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, in his place opposite. When he was the Member for Daventry in the other place, he inaugurated the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Archives, in which I, too, had the pleasure to serve. It is a very valuable committee, which brings together from all sides of both Houses Members of Parliament who have a particular interest and some expertise in a topic and, through the work of the committee, are able to relate to professional interest groups and others outside. This is extremely important in the representative work of both Houses of Parliament and very important for ensuring that there is a depth of knowledge on a range of specialised topics.
I mention also the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, which I have been involved with. I promise the House that I will not recite the entire list of all-party groups, tempting though it may be. The noble Lord, Lord Allan, when he was a Member of Parliament—I think it was for Sheffield Hallam—was a distinguished, active and expert member of that group. That is important. However, the reality is that it is very difficult for all-party groups to get a sufficient number of Members in the other place to take a full part in their meetings because there are not enough colleagues to carry out all the work that needs to be done. I could mention the all-party groups that are necessary to enable the House to function, such as the House of Commons Commission, for example, which has to be staffed and served. There is also the Speaker’s Panel. The enormous volume of legislation, particularly from the coalition, that is churning through Parliament creates a lot of demand. There is the international work of the other place. For some years, I was a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We have an important job to do on behalf of the Parliament of this country.
I did not quite catch what the noble Lord asked, but would he accept that we have a general idea that there are a lot of committees in the House of Commons which have a lot of things to do. The noble Lord thinks that there should be more people to do it. He has made his point; we have got it.
There is an important issue and I do not know whether my noble friend has addressed it. With the impending reform of the House of Lords, we may lose much expertise. For example, in my area of science and medicine, we may lose a great deal of expertise. Reducing the number of people in the House of Commons who may have that expertise, particularly scientists who might wish to stand for election, would be a grave problem.
I very much agree with my noble friend. What he says on this subject is bound to carry weight on all sides of the House. We have a scientifically illiterate democracy, but the position has improved somewhat in recent years in that we have seen more people elected to the other place with a scientific background. There has been some improvement in the capacity of the other place to debate issues of science and technology, but it must be self-evident to anyone reflecting on it that this is extremely important. If there is a deficiency in the number of Members of Parliament who are versed in science and technology and able to maintain an adequate debate in this extraordinarily important realm, that must be a worry.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has anticipated my point that if we reduce the size of the House of Commons it will be a lot more difficult for all those necessary functions to be carried out. My final point is that the House of Commons has also to furnish members of the Executive. That means that any comparison with legislatures in a presidential system or one in which the Executive are appointed from outside the ranks of the legislature is nonsensical.
I hasten to draw my remarks to a conclusion because I know that the House is keen to make progress. I could have said much more, but we will see how the debate develops as the evening wears on. It may be that I will have the opportunity to make some additional remarks, but for the time being I rest my case.
Noble Lords have complained for some time that there has been no contribution from this side of the House. I have heard nothing new said by noble Lords opposite over the course of the past four or five speakers, so I wonder whether it would be helpful to the House if I gave an authoritative view from the Front Bench as to my thoughts on the amendment. I am utterly clear as to the views of noble Lords opposite on the amendment, so I will now give a comprehensive reply.
My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House intervened to ask whether that would be helpful to the House. I have a sense on this side of the House that a considerable number of Members want to speak. The normal way that we deal with it here is that the Minister responds, but not conclusively. I think that it would be best if we heard from this side of the House, and if then noble Lord the Leader responded, because that is the normal way that we do it.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for telling us how we normally do business. It is not normal for us to spend two and a half hours on an amendment—this one—and to have spent three hours on the previous amendment. If we are talking about normality, I rather wish that this whole debate had been conducted in a more normal way—
May I finish this point? I said that I have not heard anything new. I have no promise that anything new is to be said, so would it not help, rather than noble Lords opposite continually saying the same old thing, if I now gave a view on the amendments?
To that very point, I have been trying to get in to speak to contribute something new to the debate, which is something of which the noble Lord will not be aware. That was my experience of dealing specifically with these issues and the process for dealing with them when I was the Minister responsible for them. He will not have known this, because obviously, it is a convention that the previous Government’s dealings are not passed to the new Government, so this would be new. I wonder whether he would allow me to share that information with the House before he commences his remarks.
No, I am no longer giving way. I have the Floor and I am not giving way to the noble and learned Lord. We cannot carry on if the noble and learned Lord will not give way. I was asked to give way; I will not give way to the noble and learned Lord. He can speak after I have spoken, when I give way to him.
The Committee will be interested to know that, a few hours ago we passed a landmark where we in this House have spent twice the number of hours in Committee on the Bill as they did in another place, and we still have not completed the Committee stage. The House of Commons debated the Bill for five full days in Committee, and a further two days for Report and Third Reading. Moreover, the Government made use of their ability to programme business to ensure that debate at Report was focused on the provisions which were given relatively less scrutiny in Committee, including what are now Clauses 8 and 11, which were previously Clauses 6 and 9 respectively. So to those noble Lords who said that these issues have not been debated, that is not quite the case.
What we have seen tonight is worth while and instructive to anyone from outside coming to see how the House of Lords now does its business. This is the last hurrah of the dinosaurs in the Labour Party seeking to defend the status quo. All of them wish to see a House of Commons with 650 Members, completely denying that people want fewer politicians. If there has been one growth industry in the past 13 years, it has been in the number of politicians. They have more in Scotland and Wales, they wanted regional government in London, and now they do not want to see a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons.
Absolutely, there was no hypocrisy. The noble and learned Lord has to wait only a few more weeks to see the draft Bill that the Deputy Prime Minister will publish on this Government’s views on the future of your Lordships’ House. These amendments say that this House, or this Parliament, is not capable of deciding for itself the number of Members of the House of Commons. They also would lead to the boundary reviews not being in place in time for the next election, which is of course what I know noble Lords opposite really want.
Perhaps we have got it wrong. Let us suppose that people up and down the country think, “You know, we can’t just get by with 600 Members of Parliament, we need 650”. I assume that that will be the Labour Party’s policy going into the next general election. It may be that the electorate decide to support the Labour Party in that view, but at the last election, in our manifesto, we said that there should be a reduction. We struck a coalition agreement to say that there should be a reduction and we are now producing it as part of the new politics.
I have got no idea from where the noble Lord gets his figure of 400. But of course he is one of the new politicians in this House. If he did not want to come here and he thought that it was wrong, he could always have turned it down, which one or two have.
The figure remains to be seen. I very much look forward to the lengthy debate that we will have. There was a curious sense coming from noble Lords opposite. Some thought that there should be a Speaker’s Conference to make this decision. Some thought that it should be an independent group which had nothing to do with politicians, as if politicians can make all sorts of great decisions about the future of this country, such as on going to war or taxation, but cannot be trusted to decide how many Members should sit in another place. It is the most extraordinary proposition and it is one, frankly, which I find deeply patronising.
The number of Members of the House of Commons has increased and decreased on several occasions over the past 20 years. Noble Lords opposite are making the case that it is wrong for a majority of the House of Commons to decide what their numbers should be. I do not follow that at all.
My Lords, surely, the issue is not about the overall numbers; it is about how those seats are distributed. That will continue to be done by the independent Boundary Commission under the instructions under this Bill to aim at an average of around 75,000 over the country.
I heard the question and I said to the noble Baroness that if I can find the answer to it, I shall let her know. Our contention is simple. There is no reason why Parliament should not decide on the numbers of Members of Parliament. We have no need to go to an external body or to a Speaker’s Conference to decide that for us. We have all the expertise. Noble Lords opposite have demonstrated just how much expertise they have on another place. That is why we took the view we took. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I shall say straightaway that from the way in which the noble Lord has started his contribution I am unclear about whether he is summing up the debate. I do not think he is right to do so because, frankly, he has not answered me. If the noble Lord would listen to what I am saying, he has not actually answered the questions I put to him. I understand that the normal courtesy of this House is for the Minister to answer the questions that are put to him. The questions were things like: what does he say when we are faced with a situation, of which I gave many examples, of overseeing elections in other countries where there is a constant expectation that a Government should not decide the size of a House of Parliament? He has also not dealt with my other question.
I assume that at some stage the Minister will respond to the questions that he has been asked. For the moment I reserve my right to sum up this amendment when people have finished speaking. But I have to say that he has not answered my questions, and I think he knows it, because they are difficult questions for the Government.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has suggested in the most bizarre way that because the Government have decided, and if Parliament decides it as well, that there should be 600 MPs, that somehow this turns us into a Soviet dictatorship and that no noble Lords opposite will be able to go anywhere in the world and argue that we are a democracy. That is completely absurd. In the past 13 years noble Lords opposite decided on the electoral system for Europe, they decided on how many Members should sit in the Scottish Parliament, in the Welsh Assembly and in the London assembly. None of these questions was raised. I do not know how much embarrassment the noble Lord, Lord Soley, can take when he travels abroad and people point out these terrible errors.
This is my winding-up contribution and my answer. We simply do not accept any of the premises that noble Lords opposite have made.
I will sum up when other people have spoken. I want just to repeat that the Leader of the House does no good for this House if he fails to answer the questions that are put to him. I would also say to him that anyone coming to this debate out of the blue would think that his recent contribution was, if anything, a filibuster because it did not answer the question.
I am serious. Let us hear the arguments for a moment. I have brought forward considerable evidence to support what I said about the problems that any Government would have with this. I also asked the noble Lord what he would do if a future Government of any political complexion came forward at the next election or the one after that and said, “We think that this number of MPs would be more beneficial to us and therefore we are going to drive it through”. I challenge him to say that he would not fight that every inch of the way. Those are the questions he has not answered. I am afraid that they have to be addressed because they are too important for the House and too important for the country.
My Lords, I had thought that the noble Lord had given way to me, but I hope that I can now make the speech that I wanted to make earlier, which I make genuinely in the hope of helping the Government.
As the then Minister responsible, I went through all these issues in a great deal of detail, so I think that it might help the House to know the judgments that we made when we were in Government. Both Amendment 59 and Amendment 60 speak to the importance of having an impartial process—which, crucially, is seen to be impartial—in dealing with these issues. I have already spoken about why that is so important, so I will not rehearse those arguments again now, but the instances that I gave of the consideration that we gave to these issues in Government might—even at this late stage and with all the bad feeling that there is about it—persuade the Government to think again.
It is no secret that we looked at these issues. Since 1997, as a Government we were embarked on a developing programme of constitutional reform, whose latter stages have been largely adopted by the new Government, which have claimed credit for the proposals as the new politics. As part of that developing programme of constitutional reform, we were looking at these very issues. As Minister, it was quite clear to me that all the issues that the noble Lord and his colleagues are so concerned about were real issues that should be engaged with in bringing forward any measures. We looked at these issues for some time. It is no secret that the amendment that I moved last week—Amendment 54ZA—was largely based on the conclusions that I came to as the Minister for constitutional reform. I hope that the noble Lord is listening to this, because he might learn something about why he has got himself and the Government into such a mess with this legislation.
Having looked at these issues, we came to the conclusion that the best way forward was to set up the sort of independent inquiry that my amendment proposed last week and that we have again heard advocated today. We did not bring forward that proposal for one simple reason: we felt that there was too little time left in the lifespan of that Government to be sure that we could bring about an all-party consensus on the mechanism. That is why we did not bring forward the proposal, although it was ready and prepared and officials had done the work. We believed that it was absolutely essential to achieve cross-party support for the mechanism. We thought that that would be difficult, because these issues are contentious and complex. As we did not think that we had enough time, we did not think that it was proper to introduce proposals that did not have that basis of cross-party support for the mechanism—not for the conclusions or outcomes or for 650 or 600 or 500 seats—by which we were to get there.
The reason that we thought that that was so important was not that we were unworried about what an incoming Conservative Government might do—of course, we were worried about that. We knew—I knew—that there was a possibility that we might lose the election and that we would get a Conservative Government. Politicians are always worried about what the other side might do, so this was not an easy conclusion. However, so important did we consider the impartiality of the process that we did not introduce our proposals. Even then, I hoped and honestly believed that, whatever Government came in—I did not expect a coalition Government, in the event that we were not re-elected—would abide by those basic constitutional proprieties, which are now being so flouted.
Cross-party agreement is so important precisely because of the element of trust. The issue is not just what parliamentarians think about the process and whether the Labour Party in Parliament thinks that the proposed process is flawed; fundamentally, the issue is about the people whom we serve. The people have to believe that politicians can be trusted to run the system impartially, without any appearance of partisan self-interest. I do not know whether the Government’s calculations are based on partisan self-interest because they simply have not provided the information, but it is so corrosive when such doubt remains. The Government have ample opportunity to deal with the issue by accepting either of these amendments or by saying that they will look at the issue again. What the Government must do is recognise the doubts that their process has created in the minds of many, many people. This will be poisonous if it is allowed to fester in the way that the Government are allowing it to fester.
I do not think that anyone on this side of the House wants to stop the Government getting their legislation through. [Laughter.] As I have said many times, I do not think that that is the case. I do not know how many noble Lords opposite, who are commenting from a sedentary position, have actually looked at what I have said. I have made it clear over and over again that I support the objectives of both parts of the Bill. As Minister, I was going to bring forward legislation. We brought forward legislation for the proposals in Part 1 of the Bill and I was preparing, as I have just said, to bring forward legislation that would have dealt with the issues, in the same way, that are dealt with in Part 2.
I want to see these objectives realised, but I want to see them realised in a proper way that will command consent across all parties and among the British people. The Government could still get their legislation through in this Parliament if they took a pause by taking advantage of one of these amendments to institute an impartial process. Such a process need not take very long—it need not take the three years that my amendment proposed—and could take just a short number of months, if the Government so wished. At least, there would then be an independent, fair-minded inquiry. That is what we were going to do in Government, and I urge and, indeed, beg the Government to follow that example.
If I had not already intended to intervene, the remarks of the noble Lord the Leader of the House certainly strengthened my conviction that I had something that I must say.
The more that I have listened to this debate, the more disturbed I have become. Why? Because I do not believe that there is anyone, in this House or the other House, who believes that the state of democracy in our country is at a peak in terms of quality and spirit. What undermines some of that quality and spirit is a widespread feeling among the public that politics as practised in Westminster is a closed community of politicians and that elections for the other House are about people gaining access to that closed system, from which they continue to run the country without overmuch sensitivity about the real convictions and anxieties of the people.
I do not believe that that is a very mature attitude in society as a whole and it is not altogether valid. To the credit of Parliament, much has been done over recent decades to try to meet that situation—by, for example, the introduction of the Green Paper system whereby, when serious legislation is being proposed, there is a genuine attempt to generate public consultation and debate about the proposal and to give the wider public an opportunity to shape the legislation that is finally put forward. That exists for all kinds of important legislation on social and economic issues.
Nothing is more central to our democracy than its constitution. We have to be incredibly sensitive about this because the constitution is not ours in Parliament—we are the practitioners within the constitution. The constitution belongs to the people. We operate within the context of something in which the people must have confidence.
I am by no means the person with the longest experience in our Parliament, but this year I will have been here for 33 years, in one House or the other, and for the majority of that time in the other place I was involved in government. When I look back, whether from the standpoint of being inside government or outside it, I often reflect that one of the things that have gone wrong is that, so often, politicians of good will and serious intent put forward legislative proposals as a solution to problems before there has been any sufficient attempt to build up a widespread understanding among the public of what the issue is that is being addressed. We get the solutions ahead of the understanding of why we are putting the solutions forward. If that is true about legislation as a whole, how much more central it is to the issue of how we handle constitutional matters.
What alarmed me about the noble Lord’s intervention was that he said, “We have demonstrated to ourselves in this debate”—of course, there was an element of sarcasm in what he was saying—“that we have the knowledge and the qualities that are necessary to make these decisions”. By saying that, he illustrated exactly the problem. The proposals that my noble friends put forward are not exclusively about the decisions; they are about having in place a system that would enable a debate and widespread discussion to take place, so that, when in the end the legislation was introduced, it would happen in the context of the widest possible public understanding of why it was necessary. Our case is that that simply has not happened on this Bill; it is being rushed through without that widespread public discussion.
For me, the discussion is infinitely more important than where the decision is made. I want those making the decision to have to make it in the context of an opportunity for the public really to have debated and discussed what they wanted. From that standpoint, I feel that my noble friends have done a great service by putting these amendments forward today. I beg noble Lords on all sides of the House to take seriously the issue of our being the practitioners of the constitution, not its masters.
In that context, I have been toying with whether I wanted to make the following observation, because it could so easily be misunderstood as playing at partisan politics, but it really grieves me to see Liberal noble Lords sitting there silently while this debate takes place. Almost to the suspicion of some of my colleagues on a number of issues about which I care desperately, I have found myself extremely close to the spirit and values of many Liberal Democrat Members opposite. I have found myself challenged by their conviction on some of the issues about which I feel very deeply. They have always argued that they are about the power and the influence of people in our society. However, here we are debating this issue tonight and where are they? They are locked into a coalition that inhibits them into silence. This is a tragedy in our political situation and I felt that I could not allow this debate to go by without making that absolutely clear.
My Lords, I have listened to a number of speeches this evening. Many of them are an abuse of the procedures of this House and others have been demeaning to this House in the face of a wider public. Therefore, with the utmost regret, I beg to move that the Question be now put.
My Lords, the Companion is very clear as to the procedure when a Motion that the Question be now put is moved. It instructs me to read to the House in the following terms:
“I am instructed by order of the House to say that the motion ‘That the Question be now put’ is considered to be a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House; further, if a member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the motion is put without debate”.
I therefore have to ask the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, whether, in the light of that advice from the Companion, he wishes to persist in his intention.
Amendment 60 not moved.
My Lords, I make this application with a view to the House adjourning. Noble Lords will know that the Companion says in paragraph 3.01:
“The House usually sits for public business on Mondays and Tuesdays at 2.30 p.m., on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and on Thursdays at 11 a.m. The House also sits on Fridays at 10 a.m. when pressure of business makes it necessary. It is a firm convention that the House normally rises by about 10 p.m. on Mondays to Wednesdays, by about 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and by about 3 p.m. on Fridays. The time of the meeting of the House can be varied to meet the convenience of the House”.
It says that where there are to be changes there should be consultation through the usual channels. We have now had a very exceptional move by the House, as the Lord Speaker made clear in her warning to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, before he moved his Motion. So exceptional was it that the consequence was that the Front Bench on this side did not get an opportunity to respond to either Amendment 59 or Amendment 60. If that were to be repeated there would, in effect, be a guillotine on debate in this House. I am happy to see the former Chief Whip Lord Hesketh nodding. The consequence would be that what makes this House exceptional—namely that there can be indefinite debate, particularly on constitutional issues—would be lost. I respectfully suggest that the House should now adjourn. That is why I have moved this Motion to resume. It is far better that we, as a House, keep our reputation—
Noble Lords might laugh but it is appropriate that we do things in the right and proper way. This House exists properly to scrutinise business. The prospect of there being proper scrutiny of legislation deep into the night, then again tomorrow, then again on Wednesday and then again on Monday, in my submission, significantly undermines the standing of the House. I therefore invite the House to resume. It would be the sensible thing to do and would avoid the sense that we are no longer concerned about the constitution but are properly concerned instead about the change in the circumstances in the House. Given that there is a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition, unlike in my previous time in the House it is now possible to ram things through without proper debate. Indeed, the coalition has just done so. That would never have happened when there was not—
There is a certain amount of this that I can listen to, but after a while I find that I cannot listen to it any longer without intervening. The Committee started at three o’clock. It is now 11 minutes past midnight. That means that the Committee has spent the best part of eight hours considering two amendments. If the noble and learned Lord believes that that is ramming things through, his brain does not work in the same way that mine does.
I have always suspected that my brain does not work in the same way as that of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I have always regarded it as being to my credit that that is the position. We have debated two amendments over eight hours—four hours each. The first concerned whether we should reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. I regard that as an important constitutional issue. The second amendment that we debated before the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, brought the debate to an end was whether the size of the House of Commons should be fixed by an independent commission or a Speaker’s Conference. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, whose brain does not work like mine, or, I suspect, like anyone else’s in the House either, might not think that those are important things to debate but I do.
The point I am attempting to make is not that the time that has been used up on these two amendments is excessive, although many Members around the House believe that it constitutes an abuse of the conventions of this House. The point I am making is that this is not a case of ramming things through.
Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, thinks that the time involved is not excessive. I do not know how he voted just now. I assume that he voted on our side in that respect if he did not think that the time was excessive. It is time for the House to stop this, resume and go back to considering this measure in the normal way. That is what has made the House so successful over the past 13 years.
I wish to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, whether he is prepared to offer an apology for the personal abuse that he levelled at the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We have listened to Members of the House and the problem is that the noble and learned Lord deliberately made fun of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Not only was it abusive to him and upsetting to us, it did nothing for the conduct and behaviour of this House. I trust that the noble and learned Lord will feel duly ashamed when he reads Hansard tomorrow.
Of course, I apologise immediately to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I did not mean to cause him any upset. I agree completely with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain. I was teasing and mocking him and I went too far. I unreservedly apologise.
I suppose that I ought to thank the noble and learned Lord for that apology. I can say to him and to the House that it takes a great deal to worry me. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, having a good laugh. If noble Lords, in addition to the noble Baroness, and other former members of Lancashire County Council knew the abuse I got there, your Lordships cannot touch it.
61: Clause 11, page 9, line 18, leave out “600” and insert “630”
I have asked for this amendment to stand alone in the group. I believe that it is right to get on with the business of looking at the number as it was adequately debated in the other place.
I believe that 630 will give the Government the ability to achieve all their aims: to reduce the number of constituencies, equalise the number of voters, and for our constituencies to represent a community of interest, which is important. This is a genuine attempt to be helpful, as was my Motion to split the Bill before the Second Reading began. I wanted the Government to be able to meet their deadline of having a referendum on 5 May and I hope that they understand that this amendment is in the same vein.
Before looking at the reasons behind having a House of 630, it is important to go through why I believe that the figure of 600 will not work. I am against setting a House of 600, because I believe that it will take away the power of the independent commissioners and put the power to draw boundaries in the hands of politicians. That is a bad thing. When you consider the number of 600 and begin to draw maps across the United Kingdom, you see that it will end up looking like the rush of the former colonial powers to carve up Africa. At the time, they thought that it was okay to carve up countries along straight lines—not to recognise a community of interest, natural borders and other interests. This will be a great mistake.
I have a previous experience of something like this happening to a constituency where I lived. My noble friend Lord Beecham referred to that example previously. In the mid-1980s I lived in a constituency called Tyne Bridge. That constituency was drawn from four local government wards in Newcastle and four in Gateshead. While I was living in that constituency, there was a parliamentary by-election. I had worked in some by-elections. I had worked in Peter Tatchell's by-election in Bermondsey and in a by-election in Mitcham and Morden during the Falklands War, so I am used to voters being forthright in their views on the doorstep. I have never had as much abuse on the doorstep as when a constituency was combined from wards from Newcastle and Gateshead, which had the River Tyne running through them. People know where they live. In that by-election, they voted with their feet. It was the first by-election for many decades when less than 40 per cent of voters turned out.
The figure of 600 will also create constituencies that are too large. There are 49 million voters in this country eligible to be registered. Therefore, the constituencies that we draw must allow for 49 million people to be in constituencies. None of us knows what the cut-off register will be at 31 December as it has not been published; and we do not know where the cut-off will be until the Bill is passed. So we need to start with the premise that constituencies will hold the number of people who are entitled to vote. With 600 constituencies, we have about 81,000 electors each. It would have been 75,000 based on the 2010 general election. That is 81,000 if all voters on the register last year are on the new register at the cut-off of 31 December.
A ceiling of 600 constituencies does not take account of any population move. I ask the Minister to answer on this point. Over the next 20 years, the population of the United Kingdom is, we are told, to exceed 70 million. That increase to the voting population will come through in any event. Over the next 20 years, it may also be added to by, for example, lowering the voting age to 16. I have only to look around in my local authority to see that the rising-fours will add 25 per cent to the primary school population. It is wrong and ill thought out to cap a number that does not allow for a movement of population. It would be much better to do it on the basis of the number of voters that you wish to see in a constituency. But if you do not do that, setting the number at 600 makes the constituencies far too large.
Will the noble Baroness acknowledge that under the present arrangements, some of us, myself included, have had the privilege or the task of wrestling with an electorate approaching 90,000 already? Some of her concerns about these overlarge constituencies are less than well founded.
The difference in the situation proposed under the legislation from that which has formerly been is simply that the number of voters in a constituency is taken together with a whole series of other factors, one of which does not have primacy—so you do not split local government boundaries or county boundaries. You can take into account the geography in the Boundary Commission’s book when you know that there is going to be an increase in population. You can take into account other physical barriers, such as motorways and so on. In large constituencies you tend to have an electorate with a community of interests which it is possible to represent. A good example of that would obviously be the Isle of Wight. With this, you will go across vast areas where people do not recognise the other parts of the geographical area in the same constituency.
I need to go back to this issue because I feel that I can answer it. How do we end up with the number 600? I will explain why it would be right to have a House of Commons comprising 630 MPs. How do you end up with 600 MPs when one part of the coalition is suggesting 500 and the other is suggesting 585. I do not suggest that either party is innumerate, but generally you would fix somewhere around the figure of 540. You would not come up with a figure that was larger than either of the two figures suggested if it was not based on something else.
I have seen the figure published on current affairs and news items, and I have read it in the newspapers. I cannot believe that I am the only person in your Lordships’ House who reads newspapers and watches television. From examining them, I know that eminent psephologists of all political persuasions tell us that 600 is the figure that most benefits the Conservative Party. I knew that already because that is what my former counterparts at the Conservative Party head office had told me, so it was no surprise. The problem is that the figure is based on what I would describe as an obsession. There is a belief in the Conservative Party that it was robbed of the elections between 1997 and 2010, and that if only the electoral system had been different the Conservative Party would have won the election.
I will give three quotes from the debate so far. These are just examples, but I could go through Hansard and repeat them. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, said that,
“the general election in 2010 … required the Conservative Party to get 40 per cent of the vote to get an overall majority, but Labour to get only 34 per cent cannot possibly be considered fair”.—[Official Report, 15/11/10; col. 571.]
This is an example of trying to change the constituencies because of a belief that this is what prompts the differential between the numbers of votes for the parties.
The noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, said that he,
“remembers the 2001 election in which we won the vote in England … 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”.—[Official Report, 12/1/11; col. 1522.]
I have heard some noble Baronesses opposite even say that they were robbed of three constituencies through electoral fraud. The reality is this. At the last election, the electorate decided that it no longer wanted Labour to be in government. That is clear. However, it was not sure that the Conservative Party was ready to govern. That is why the Conservative Party did not get an overall majority.
I shall give one other quote:
“The equalising of the size of constituencies would remove an unfair advantage currently enjoyed by Labour”.
That was from a publication by Andrew Tyrie MP in 2004, with a foreword by Damian Green MP, to which I think my noble friend Lord Soley has already referred. This has been going on for many years in the Conservative Party, but it is apocryphal. It is not true; it is a falsehood. Labour gets elected on fewer votes because in Labour constituencies, the voters are people who are less likely to vote because of their social and economic demographics. The reverse is true for the Conservative Party. It seems to have become a real obsession, and I believe that the Government now need to move past it.
When I was in the Labour Party during 18 years in opposition, I remember that I wanted to see my party put many Bills through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They were on matters such as introducing a minimum wage, education reform and reducing hospital waiting lists. My personal experience was that my mother had to wait 18 months in severe pain for a hip replacement operation. I wanted to see handguns removed because of the Dunblane massacre. It is telling that one of the first Bills that the Government wish to introduce would reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600.
Why the figure of 630? I believe that if we introduced 630 with an eligible electorate of 78,000, that would make for reasonably sized constituencies for Members to represent. I also believe that reducing the House by 20 seats would take away some of the worst excesses of large constituencies. Like all around the House, I want as far as possible to see constituencies of the same size, and this figure would allow for that. I say again that the average size of the constituencies of all three parties—Labour, Lib Dem and the Conservatives—does not differ by the quota set out in the Bill, but a figure of 630 will allow county boundaries and local government boundaries not to be crossed. That will make the exercise of the Boundary Commission much more efficient and much quicker. It will also allow a community of interest to prevail.
I would prefer that we concentrated on the number of voters in these constituencies. I think it is important that we represent the public from the grass roots up, not from the top down. The Government have already made it clear that they are not prepared to accept that view, so I am introducing an amendment which I believe will allow them to do what they are trying to do, but in a way that will represent our communities and take the public with us.
Although the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is no longer in his place, I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be aware that the answer to my question about when a Government last sought to control the absolute number of constituencies in the other place was 1832, which is a long time ago. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will accept that there could have been an element of gerrymandering then and now.
My Lords, my noble friend has made a persuasive case that has drawn on her personal experience in a very effective way, but I am not, in fact, persuaded because I do not see what is the magic about the number 630 as against, say, 625 or 635. In my judgment, the exact number should be left to the work of the boundary commissioners, who should be given fairly strict criteria on which to work. That should be the way in which we reach a particular number.
Before going further along the approach that I would favour, I want to make one or two preliminary remarks. First, we are in some interesting and, indeed, unprecedented times. The political scientists among us—I think I saw the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, here, but he may not be in his seat—must be salivating at the way in which we are making precedents. The closure was moved and it may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and other noble Lords intend to move further closures. That is unprecedented, but it may well be that we are moving along the route of virtual guillotines, as they have in the other place. That would put a very different complexion on the spirit of debates in this House. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, will be rather like Max Boyce—whose name was mentioned by, I think, my noble friend Lord Kinnock—who used to go around great rugby games in Wales and say, “I was there”. When he is lecturing to his students about this great new precedent, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, can say, “I was there”. He has probably gone home by now, but at least he was there at the relevant time. When the closure was moved—which could, as I say, be analogous to a guillotine—and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, heard the Lord Speaker read out that that could happen only “in exceptional circumstances”, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland, where “words mean what I want them to mean”. Clearly, in his vocabulary, “exceptional” is a very flexible word indeed. We are moving in this very interesting way.
Secondly, I just want to comment on the intervention made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Given that we had had a debate of about two hours and 45 minutes, it is normal and courteous at the end of such a lengthy debate for the speaker from the government Front Bench to give due weight to the contributions that have been made, but we had just a few minutes for that. Some might have thought that that was arrogant, but I was prepared to give the noble Lord the benefit of the doubt and assume that that was just an hors d’oeuvre—a little taster on the way—and that far more debate would be allowed, to which he would give a second and far more substantive reply. But, no, he colluded with the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in truncating the debate at that stage. Again, that is closer to arrogance.
Finally, I think that the reason that the magic figure of 600 has been raised is due to the inflexibility that has come about as a result of the coalition. A deal has been done in a smoke-filled room—although perhaps we no longer have smoke-filled rooms—and neither party to the coalition is prepared to move one iota away from that. Clearly, that inflexibility may change. Who knows what will happen to the Liberal Party over the next four or five years? Will there be a formal merger of the two parties? In the recent Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, there were hints that one party might make way for the other or at least tell its supporters to support, as best they can, the candidate who has the better chance. Indeed, we do not know in which party Mr Clegg will be by 2015. Things are moving along, anyway, and that may well be the reason for this inflexibility.
I personally am not convinced of the case for 630. I do not know what the right number is—I am prepared to leave that to the wisdom of the Boundary Commission—but I know that any number that is chosen will have party-political consequences. If there are party-political consequences to 600, there will also be party-political consequences to 630 and to 500. In deciding on the numbers, or indeed on the approach, a Government can move in one of two ways. They can make up their own mind and bring down some figure as if on a tablet of stone, like Moses from the mountain, and say, “That is the number that we insist upon”. The problem with that is that the Government’s decision will be tainted. If we accept—as I think everyone should—that any number will have party-political consequences, people will believe that the number that the Government have chosen is the number that the Government think is to their party advantage. However, being an innocent in politics, I am sure that the Government had before them a little notice saying, “The national interest”, and that, in their judgment, the number 600 accords exactly with the national interest. However, the public and the chattering classes may be a little more sceptical than I am.
If one is serious about the numbers, surely one must adopt another device that, in so far as is practicable in the circumstances, enjoys the greatest amount of political support. Otherwise, what will happen is that, just as one Government can choose a number that—rightly or wrongly—the public believe is in the party interest of that Government, so another Government could come along and say, “We will alter the rules for our political advantage”. Surely that is wrong. It is wrong that any number should be considered to be based on partisan grounds. The only way of ensuring that the figure is believed to be legitimate and of ensuring that it has staying power in the longer term is for the Government not to impose a number but to bring in some system whereby there is an independent assessment.
Therefore, however persuasive my noble friend has been—she made a very good and plausible case—I think that her magic figure of 630, although it would be more acceptable because it would provide greater flexibility and a greater opportunity for the boundary commissioners to take account of localism and time boundaries and all the other important matters, would still lead to inflexibility. My judgment is that the boundary commissioners, subject to strict rules, should be given as much flexibility as possible to take account of all relevant criteria.
My noble friend Lord Anderson was so quick on his feet that I did not have a chance to ask my noble friend a point that is directly related and relevant to the amendment that she has moved. I should like to ask her now, if I may. Noble Lords opposite know that I never give long speeches and I always try to speak to the point of a debate when I join it. I should like my noble friend to clarify how she arrives at the figure of 630. I genuinely do not understand why it is not, for example, 625 or 635. It would be very helpful to have the mathematics behind what she is proposing. I do not have a view about how big the House of Commons should be. I am inclined to believe that the number probably should be reduced but I do not understand how she has arrived at the figure that she is proposing.
I thank my noble friend and I shall deal with all three interventions, as well as that of the noble Lord opposite. When my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea said that the number of constituencies has political consequences, the noble Lord shouted back, “Of course it does. We all know that”. That is the first admission that we have had in this debate so far that there is a political reason for coming up with the figure of 600. I do not believe that that is a good reason to state what the number of seats in the other place should be.
Coming back to the three interventions, I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lady Farrington. I personally believe that it is wrong to set in law a cap for the number of seats in the other place. However, in answer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea, because you cannot do everything that you need to do, sometimes you should do something to protect the interests of the public. I believe that setting the number of seats at 630 will allow that to happen and that we will not end up with a map of the UK on which the constituencies are marked out by straight lines.
I turn to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Winston. Under the current legislation, county boundaries are sacrosanct and constituencies are not allowed to cross them. Perhaps a small sample of us should go out and ask the public whether they believe that we should cross their county boundary. I do not know how many people here would like to come with me to Cornwall. I do not know it particularly well because it is not an area where we have had a lot of Labour constituencies. However, if we stopped people in the street and asked them whether they wanted their parliamentary constituencies to cross the county boundary to Devon, I think that we know what the answer would be.
I am awfully sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is not in the Chamber, because he could support me in the argument that it would be very dangerous to go to the dividing line between Lancashire and Yorkshire and start interfering with the boundary. As a former Lancashire county councillor like me, he is aware that there are parts of the dividing line between Lancashire and Yorkshire where people insist on having both the red and the white rose, because they still have not finished the War of the Roses.
I thank my noble friend for that intervention. I hope that noble Lords opposite will not see these points as being petty. These matters really mean something to people; people really know where they live. I have witnessed many noble Lords taking groups of people around the House. It does not take long—it is usually two minutes into the conversation—for them to tell the assembled group, whether it is an after-dinner group or a school party, about how they got their title. It is always the same conversation: “I said this to Garter; Garter said this to me”. Great rigmarole is attached to the story, and that is because your Lordships believe in a community. In our hearts, we believe in a place that has a community of interest. It is what this democracy has always relied on.
My noble friend talked about Lancashire and Yorkshire. I do not know who would think of drawing a constituency that crossed that boundary—I would rather not have to explain it—but it will happen. We are talking about straight lines and not about communities of interest. If the Government wish to do that—
My noble friend is being overly generous to the Government. We are seeing the first part of PR put into the British consciousness. PR cannot work if it is linked to a community. You need to break that link of accountability between place and representative if you are going to have proportional representation; that is the very essence of the system. I believe—and I may be being paranoid—that that is the road down which the Government are taking the first step. I am not sure that every noble Lord understands that, but when one looks at the parts of the Bill together and the Government’s determination not to split them, one sees that that is one of the purposes behind the Bill.
No, it is my point to answer, I believe. I shall be happy to give way to the noble Lord afterwards, if he will let me answer. I thank my noble friend Lady Armstrong for making that point, which she managed to put much more articulately than I could.
If the Government want to break with a community of interest, they should introduce a system like that which exists in Israel. It is a pure PR system, based on a list. I would have no problem with the Government putting that to the electorate. What I have a problem with is their coming in by the back door with a system of government on which nobody has been able to have a say and of which nobody has had any pre-legislative notice.
I turn finally to the question of how I came to the number 630. My starting point was not what would benefit the Labour Party but the assumption that county boundaries are sacrosanct. I used local government boundaries as building blocks, because most local government wards are communities. I also believe—I know that we will get into this later in the debate—that we will cause terrible harm if people have to seek different councillors and MPs within a small area such as a local government ward. By doing this, we will just turn people off our politics and our democratic system. I used those as building blocks. How then can you get constituencies that are roughly the same size? To do that you are forced up; you are forced to build up and you get to 630. It was not a top-down effort on my behalf. I did not approach the exercise in the same way.
I thank the noble Baroness. I have two or three points to make. I did not talk to anybody to get my peerage—I happen to be a hereditary Peer. That is why I am here and why I have been here as long as I have. I am a Conservative through and through, although I of course support the coalition. I live in a country where we have single transferrable voting and a total nonsense at the moment of some form of Executive which seems unable to make decisions. I for one—I think there are many people in my party like me—am not looking to pave the way for a different form of voting, as the noble Baroness said.
My Lords, I very much welcome the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. We have been looking forward to it for some hours since he trailed it a little earlier in the evening and it has been a sweet moment. It has also been a sweet moment listening to my noble friend Lady McDonagh as she moved her amendment. She spoke with a profound knowledge of elections and how they work, and, more importantly, of politics in this country much more broadly and of what makes people respond and behave as they do in politics. I have enormous respect for her judgment. I therefore have a natural disposition to be drawn to her proposal that the House of Commons instead of being reduced from 650 to 600 should be reduced only to 630. However, I have some difficulties with her amendment. One of the difficulties that I find in it I expressed in discussion of the amendments tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. I do not think that it is appropriate for the Government to determine the size of the House of Commons. My noble friend and I both agree that, for all sorts of reasons that we touched on in earlier parts of the debate, it should not be for politicians to fix the size of the elected House of Commons.
However, I do think the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady McDonagh is moving in the right direction. I shall probably be more inclined, when we come to them, to favour the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Snape and Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I am very much looking forward to those debates in due course. As I have already said to the House, I think there is a very strong case for a larger rather than a smaller House of Commons. I put some thoughts to the House earlier on why I think the pressures of business and demands on Members of Parliament within the House of Commons are very great and are difficult to be accommodated with the existing size of the House of 650. Equally, I think that when whichever body it is comes to consider the appropriate number of constituencies, it will also want to look very carefully at the volume of work that is expected of Members of Parliament in their constituencies—the expectations, indeed the requirements, of electors.
As a result of the defeat of the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Soley, we know that a generically independent commission will not determine this, but I live in hope that the solution put forward by my noble friend Lord Lipsey will in the end recommend itself to the House and that we can come back to that at Report. I mean his proposal that the Speaker’s Conference should determine the matter. As the Speaker’s Conference considers what the appropriate size of the House of Commons should be in future, I hope that it will take account of a number of factors that seem relevant. We all know that the age of deference is long gone, but the demands of constituents upon Members of Parliament will grow and grow—and will grow further should we see the introduction of a new constitutional arrangement proposed by the coalition, at the instance of the Liberal Democrats who have been keen, at least up until recently, to introduce a right of recall. I have been interested by the fact that, whereas all the rest of the agenda for constitutional reform, about which the Liberal Democrats have hitherto been so enthusiastic, has been pressed forward energetically and urgently, for some strange set of reasons we are not seeing them put the case with any comparable urgency for the introduction of a right of recall. I do not know whether my noble friends have any idea of why that might be, or whether it is anything that transpired in the politics of our country in recent weeks and months that could have caused them to have second thoughts and even, possibly, to lose their nerve over this.
While the House reflects on the fascinating question that my noble friend raised about the evaporation of the passionate commitment to the right of recall, I take issue with him on his declaration that the age of deference has long past. I look across the House and see the age of dual but disproportionate deference actually in operation. I see the Liberal Democrats who fought the last election on a commitment to have 500 Members of Parliament in conditions of a single transferable vote, proportional representation, and devolution in England. I see a Conservative Party that fought the last election on an arbitrary and populist reduction of 10 per cent in the number of current Members of Parliament, taking us down to 585. It appears that both have deferred to the other, but the Liberals have done a damn sight more deferring, sacrificing a commitment to PR and devolution as well as a commitment to the right of recall. That is a pretty good definition of knee-crawling deference.
Indeed, as my noble friend suggests, they tug their forelocks quite obsessively. My noble friend makes the same very valid point as did my noble friend Lord Judd made so plangently in the previous debate. It is sad to see the Liberals defer to the Tories within this coalition in the way they do. None the less, the threat that the right of recall might have been be instituted has not entirely gone away because those cruel Tories might decide to bring it in, even if the Liberal Democrats have changed their mind about it for very understandable reasons. If there were to be a right of recall, that would enormously compound the uncertainty that already faces Members of Parliament in their own constituency, which would be yet further compounded by the increased uncertainty generated by the more frequent changes of boundary that the coalition proposes in this measure. Members of Parliament are naturally going to be watching their backs even more than has been the case in recent years. They will be worried that they might be recalled and worried in any case that their constituency will no longer exist, or will be so altered that they will have to spend a very great deal of time and energy salvaging their own political situation if they are to have a prospect of being returned again to the House of Commons. For those sorts of reasons, I fear that Members of Parliament in future are unlikely to give the same amount of attention and energy to their work in the House of Commons as they otherwise might have done. That seems to have a bearing on the question of how large the House ought to be.
We also know—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester drew this consideration to the attention of the House some time earlier—that the new means of communication are placing enormous additional demands and pressures on Members of Parliament. I believe that a Member who was newly elected at the last general election testified to the Hansard Society in an inquiry that, as a Member of Parliament, she had received 20,000 e-mails between last May and September. We were talking earlier about the undesirability of importing the American practice of having automatic or electronic signatures—it is pretty well inevitable that you have electronic signatures if you are responding to e-mails—but that will not do. Constituents are not going to be satisfied if they have a sense that the Member of Parliament’s staff are dealing with their representations and speaking on behalf of the Member of Parliament, to the extent that the Member is completely unaware of the representations and requests being put to the MP by his or her constituents.
That is an enormous and growing demand upon Members of Parliament in their constituencies, or at any rate in their offices within the Palace of Westminster or nearby, which again will distract them and draw them away from their duties in the Chamber and in the Committee rooms. It tends to make the case for having rather more Members of Parliament than would otherwise be the case.
We can also expect, in the very fraught politics of the foreseeable period, that added demands will be made upon Members of Parliament in their constituencies. We are shortly to see expenditure cuts being brought in on an unprecedented scale in this country. Their consequences will be felt not just in the relatively near term but for years ahead, and in the period after any measures that are enacted in this legislation actually apply. In particular, what is to be done to social security provision in this country will produce enormous demands on Members of Parliament in their surgeries, as well as in other activities of their constituency life. Consider, for example, what will happen to housing benefit. People are going to be removed out of neighbourhoods by the force of the new, reduced housing benefit—certainly, out of affluent neighbourhoods. They are going to be bewildered, dismayed and desperate for help. They will turn to their local councillors, who will be powerless. They will turn to their Members of Parliament, naturally and properly, who will be very busy seeking to support them.
We are also about to see an assault on elective local government in this country. The so-called new localism is not a policy designed to rehabilitate and revive elective local government but one designed to marginalise and discredit it. Members of Parliament will have to work rather closely with their colleagues, who are elected members of local authorities within their constituencies, in order to sort out what the implications of that will be. Among those implications, for example, will be the drive in education policy towards the establishment of more free schools and academies. The creation of surplus places out of a budget for education which will be, if anything, contracting will lead to enormous stresses and some extremely vexed local proposals and decisions to be taken. Members of Parliament will also have to be deeply involved in those decisions.
We are to see major, gratuitous and unheralded reform of the National Health Service. Let us wait and see what the politics of that turns into once the British Medical Association gets to work, putting the frighteners on the constituents of Members of Parliament. There will be some very rough and unpleasant politics, and very real issues that Members of Parliament will be wrestling with in their constituencies as they seek to rescue or retrieve a worthwhile health service out of the upheaval that the Government have decided that it is appropriate to bring in.
There is going to be a new planning regime and, at the same time, there are going to be far fewer planning officers in local planning authorities. Planning issues are immensely contentious and sensitive within constituencies. While they are arguably not properly the responsibility of Members of Parliament as they are decisions that fall to be taken locally, all the same there are going to be questions that MPs will be invited to involve themselves with and any MP who cares about his constituency will certainly wish to be involved.
My Lords, I am so sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, once again, but he is giving us a lecture about all the possibilities of the future and about all the things that MPs at the other end do. What I, and I am sure people on this side of the House, would like to hear from him is what the party opposite thinks and considers is a sensible number of MPs to be elected to the other House.
I cannot, of course, speak for the Front Bench of the Labour Party, but in my own view it should be not less than 650. I therefore disagree with the proposition from my noble friend Lady McDonagh, although she is shifting the debate in a direction I want to see it move in. I am making a case not only that she is proposing too few Members of Parliament—630—but that we ought to have an amendment down on the Order Paper, and probably will on Report, that will provide for an increase above 650. I do not want to detain the House unduly, but I think that some of these issues—
Let us consider the question of immigration, which is such a staple of Members of Parliament’s surgeries. Indeed, Mr Greg Hands, the Member of Parliament for Hammersmith and Fulham—
Before my noble friend moves on to that point, in response to the interesting point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, which he answered with perfect rectitude and transparency, neither he, I, nor anyone in this House, or indeed in the other place, can anticipate what the finalised policy of the alternative Government—the Labour Party—will be on numbers in the House of Commons. However, does my noble friend not agree with me that it is a supreme irony that the only way for our parliamentary democracy to prove absolutely that the coalition Government are not engaging in gerrymandering is by seeking not to change the number after the next election, which will be won by the Labour Party, in order conclusively to demonstrate that while others may have sought to meet their political convenience by establishing a fixed number for election to the House of Commons, the Labour Party will not engage in the same nefarious practice?
I completely agree with my noble friend. I have said that I do not think it is appropriate for Governments or politicians to fix the size of the House of Commons. That should emerge from the deliberations of the Boundary Commissions, themselves informed by the criteria that a Speaker’s Conference or some other independent body has formulated and proposed for discussion and debate in the country and upon which I hope we could reach consensus.
As I say, I am anxious to conclude my speech, but I just want to say something about immigration. I was mentioning that Mr Greg Hands, the Member of Parliament for Hammersmith and Fulham, stated in 2007 that he had between 700 and 800 unresolved immigration cases in his constituency case load. It is immense. We are now seeing a tighter cap on immigration brought in by the coalition Government, so that it can only be expected that this pot will boil even more vigorously and fiercely than it has in the past and that Members of Parliament will be very busy with that. Of course, they are going to be busy dealing with the crisis about student debt and, very possibly, with bankrupt universities in their constituencies.
My noble friend has given some examples of the increased workload on Members of Parliament: for example, the fact that with increased boundary changes there will also be a degree of internecine strife between Members of Parliament who will fear that a neighbour, perhaps of the same party, will seek to oppose them in future boundary revisions. Is he also aware that it is increasingly difficult to find Members of Parliament to be members of Select Committees? We pride ourselves on our Select Committees, but even the Foreign Affairs Committee—which I had the honour to chair over two Parliaments and which was, along with the Treasury Committee, probably the most prestigious and sought-after committee—frequently did not have more than two-thirds of its members present. That problem is surely likely to increase.
My noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea must not tempt me to repeat myself. We must not repeat ourselves in these debates because there are many substantive issues that we need to look at. However, I suggested in some observations in an earlier debate that there was a problem in finding all the people needed to be members of the important committees in another place.
I had the temerity to touch on that, too, but I did not have time—because I did not wish to detain the House—to talk about the importance of finding people to serve on the Council of Europe and the NATO General Assembly, and for all the other important responsibilities that Members of the House of Commons, between them, all carry.
My noble friend touched on the possibility of internecine strife developing between existing Members, who might find themselves in some contest for the nomination for a future constituency. I will give way in a second. I do not think that in the Labour Party people would be so uncomradely as to engage in that, but who can say what might happen among the Members of Parliament of the parties opposite?
I do not want to delay the House very much, but my noble friend has talked about committees. Is it not also true—I do not think this has been raised before—that Members of Parliament often deal with a large number of very technical issues? For example, as a scientist presenting to them on embryology, it was extremely difficult to get proper comprehension of the science that we were discussing and the ethical issues that were involved. MPs were eager to learn about this but it took a lot of time.
One of the problems I found, both as a Member of this House and before I joined it, was that it was very difficult to find enough Members of Parliament to attend meetings that we had organised with experts to make sure that there was a thorough recognition of the subtleties of the legislation. This certainly applied to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. That is only one of several issues. More recently, it was also true of the issues of hybrid embryos, when there was great difficulty in explaining those things. Members of Parliament would attend a committee for 15 minutes and then be off to the next job. That, I hope my noble friend will agree, is one reason why he is making a very pertinent point.
My noble friend makes an extremely important point. With the abolition of bodies such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which the Government seem to be contemplating, and a whole series of expert bodies that is adumbrated in the provisions of the Public Bodies Bill, we will face yet greater difficulty in ensuring that there is an informed body of knowledge among Members of Parliament to enable them to debate effectively these immensely important and sensitive issues. My noble friend Lord Winston has tempted me to explore that avenue but, in view of the time and the impatience of so many of my noble friends to make their own contributions to the debate, I ought to sit down.
I support my noble friend Lady McDonagh. I have worked with my noble friend over many years. On matters of organisation I always follow her lead because she has great expertise in this area. It has not always been the case on, perhaps, politics or personalities over that period, but this is not the place.
When I spoke at Second Reading, I started by saying that I thought there was a consensus among all the parties that we had a duty and responsibility to look at legislation to see whether it restores trust and confidence in our parliamentary democracy. I have listened to most of the debate in Committee and I am afraid that nothing I have heard has managed to change my mind. In the Second Reading debate I had the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Maples. Unfortunately, he is not present. I did not agree with him then and I do not agree with him now.
As has been said, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny or any kind of consultation on this constitutional reform. We heard this afternoon—it was actually yesterday afternoon—from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the Government still strongly advocate pre-legislative scrutiny. If this Bill had had that scrutiny or consultation, more progress might have been made and we might not have found ourselves in such problematic areas.
I disagree with my noble friend Lord Kinnock—it does not happen very often and I apologise for it in advance—but I understand the position of the Liberal Democrats as before the election they wanted to introduce STV, and therefore saw no need for the other place to have any more than 500 elected representatives. They also wanted to have a thorough overhaul of the state and to introduce a form of federal government which would involve many decisions being devolved to the institutions. I will not comment on whether or not that was a good policy. I do not agree with it but at least it had the merit of being coherent and understandable. The Conservatives also went into the election seeking a reduction in seats of 10 per cent, which would have brought them down to 585. When they drew up the coalition agreement, because the Liberal Democrats agreed to a referendum on AV and not on STV, their proposal to reduce the number of MPs to 500 was obviously not appropriate and was withdrawn. In my humble opinion the next best thing would have been to go back to the figure of 585, but that did not happen. As we have heard in the debate tonight, yesterday and at other stages, we have not really got to the bottom of where the figure of 600 came from. We have heard that savings to the public purse is a priority. I should have thought that forgoing an extra 15 Members would have added to those savings. To go back to my point about confidence being restored, I do not think that it is restored if, within weeks of campaigning for a reduction to 585, the figure suddenly switches to 600, with no explanation.
I take the point that my noble friend Lord Soley made that, whatever the figure is, if this Government set a figure it establishes a precedent for any future Government to set a different figure. Governments should stay out of deciding the number of seats. The amendments proposed by my noble friends for an independent body to look at this would have been a good way forward. Why am I therefore supporting my noble friend? One of the things that the Government could have done was to look at the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 and the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which both had targets of 613 seats. It was a target, not a specific number that we should have, but there was a feeling that we all agreed on 613. An independent boundary commission would then put that into place. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will say whether that figure was considered and whether the Government considered amending that legislation to make the 613 figure not a target but the limit.
I support my noble friend’s amendment because I think that 630 is closer to that 613 figure and therefore would also get rid of some of the problems regarding Cornwall, Ynys Mon and certainly the Isle of Wight, as my noble friend has pointed out. Therefore, it is a way of addressing the issues. I take the point that both parties in the coalition have put forward a reduction in seats and therefore we must take that seriously. I would prefer not to go down this route but, if we are going down it, we need some leeway in what the figure is, and 630 to me would be the best way of achieving that. Therefore, I support my noble friend.
My Lords, I should like to speak about something slightly different, but I am pleased to support the amendment of my noble friend Lady McDonagh.
Before I came into this House, I had the great privilege of being a Member of the European Parliament. That gives me an insight into what it is like to represent a constituency because I represented not only one constituency—as most people here will have done or will have associated themselves with—but seven Westminster constituencies. It just so happens that, before I was elected MEP, each of those constituencies in Northamptonshire and part of Leicestershire were held by men, and each of those men were Conservatives. It was a shock to all of us, including me, that I was elected then—I promise noble Lords that I have never asked for a recount—but that gave me an opportunity of working with those constituencies which, although they were side by side, were unique in themselves.
Perhaps I may remind noble Lords of those constituencies: Northampton North, Northampton South, Wellingborough, Kettering, Daventry, Corby and part of Leicestershire known as Blaby. I can assure noble Lords that, when I spoke in Northamptonshire, I always referred to my constituency as Northamptonshire and Blaby, but it will come as no surprise to anyone that, when I was speaking in Blaby, I called it Blaby and Northamptonshire. I learnt so much working with all those constituencies. Those were places that have developed over the years and over generations. They are not areas from which people move away, as people tend to stay in rural and middle-England areas such as Northamptonshire. Generation after generation can be traced back in those villages. I would urge enormous care to be taken on making too many radical changes in such constituencies.
Each of those constituencies had political divisions within them, but they also had things that united them. If there was ever a threat of a hospital closure, you can be assured that people would all be out on the streets together. In other ways, too, traditional industries were represented quite separately in those seven constituencies—one need only think of Northamptonshire’s old boot and shoe industry. Within a decade, we lost 22,000 jobs. One of my roles in those constituencies was to try to get the European Parliament to provide further support, which we achieved very successfully.
Noble Lords will also remember that Corby was a steel town that had more than its share of misfortune. The whole of that industry was wiped out in the 1980s, but you will recall that the people who arrived in the 1930s to work in the steelworks came down from Ravenscraig in Scotland. I could take you tomorrow to primary schools in Corby where you would not believe that you were not still in Ravenscraig, because the accents are still so strong. The constituencies were unique and the boundaries really mattered.
I most certainly am aware of that. On a Friday night, if you asked anyone in Corby, “What are you doing at the weekend?”, they would say, “We are going home”. I would say, “But you have lived here for the past 50 years”. Coaches were lined up in the high street for the supporters—some to watch Celtic and some to watch Rangers. Traditions died hard in Corby.
What I am trying to say is that we should not upset the apple cart by making radical changes. The development of the composition of constituencies and th