Committee (9th Day)
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on the Bill. In moving this Motion, it may be helpful to set out the Government's intention in relation to progress on the Bill; there has been a little recent comment in the press.
The Government announced as long ago as July last year that there would be a referendum on 5 May to decide the system to elect Members of the House of Commons at the next general election. The Government also made clear our desire to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons at the same election. The Bill subsequently passed all its stages on the Floor of the House
In this House, we are now on day nine of Committee on the Bill. Although it is right that this House undertakes proper and detailed scrutiny of the Bill, it is also right that the House deals with legislation in reasonable time. The Bill was introduced to your Lordships' House on 3 November, and began Committee on 30 November. The Opposition's approach has been consistently and deliberately slow. This time last week, the House debated the Bill for six hours, dealing with just two amendments. That is not good scrutiny; there is no precedent for moving so slowly. I have had many representations from noble Lords on all sides of the House in recent weeks who are concerned about the slow progress on the Bill. The Opposition have dragged their heels; they have had their fun; it is now time for this House to behave responsibly.
For this House to stand in the way of a referendum on 5 May would be extremely serious. The Electoral Commission is clear that in order for the necessary provisions to be made to hold a referendum on 5 May, Royal Assent for this Bill should be granted by 16 February. In order to give proper time for Report and Third Reading, I believe that the House now expects us to make substantial progress towards completing Committee today. I beg to move.
My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to what the noble Lord the Leader of the House said. The Bill has two parts: Part 1 provides for the introduction of an alternative system for electing the House of Commons, subject to a yes vote in a national referendum; Part 2 provides for the reduction in the number of House of Commons constituencies from 650 to 600 and the adoption of new rules for determining constituency boundaries that are designed to introduce equality in the number of electors in each constituency.
As Members will know, the Bill has been described by Mr Nicholas Clegg as the most important constitutional reform since the Great Reform Act 1832. There is no dispute that the Bill is of far-reaching constitutional significance. The Bill passed through all its stages in the Commons, where it was the subject of a guillotine Motion, between September and 1 November 2010. As the noble Lord the Leader said, in your Lordships' House the Bill had a Second Reading over two days at the beginning of November and has so far spent eight days in Committee before today. Six days in Committee have been spent considering Part 1. It will, as is normal, spend longer in this House than in the other place.
The Electoral Commission announced that the Bill has to have Royal Assent by 16 February 2011 to allow the referendum to take place on 5 May 2011. Last Thursday, without consultation, the Government fixed a third day on Tuesday this week for consideration of the Bill in Committee, making three consecutive days for its consideration this week. They have also made arrangements with the House authorities consistent with there being an all-night sitting tonight. I read in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday that the Cholmondeley Room and the Attlee Room are being prepared to be dormitories for male and female Peers. Your Lordships will be concerned to know that the Sunday Telegraph did not indicate which was for male and which was for female Peers.
Members of the Government have criticised the Opposition freely to the press for, they say, taking too long over Committee debates in this House. They have told the press that there has been time wasting and repetition. I believe that I have been present more than any other Member of this House in the debates, with the possible honourable exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. I do not accept the allegation that has been made. I note that in relation to the most relied-on example—indeed, the example relied on by the noble Lord the Leader today—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in the longest debate in this Chamber expressly disavowed with great grace any material allegation of filibuster.
The Government have refused to make the usual sorts of concession during Committee. Of 60 groups of amendments so far, they have given ground on only two. It is apparent to anyone who has been in the House during these debates that this Bill is attended by party politics, but this Bill contains major reform of our arrangements for determining the size of the House of Commons, the method by which constituency boundaries are fixed and the method of voting for MPs. It has been introduced without public consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny—matters of criticism unanimously across all parties in the constitutional Select Committees of both Houses—and it contains vast detail to give effect to its proposals. The Bill runs to more than 300 pages. It has been amended once in this House, and there have been a number of government amendments. It is unlikely in the extreme that, uniquely among Bills, it cannot be improved further by your Lordships' House.
Your Lordships' House has well-tested arrangements for ensuring that Bills get proper scrutiny, which include time during each stage and between stages. These arrangements will be departed from in times of economic emergency, where court orders expire and where the nation faces the threat of terrorism or war. I have never known your Lordships' House to resort to measures such as these when there is no external pressure.
The Bill cannot, consistent with proper scrutiny, complete its still substantial stages in this House, with both parts retained, in time to get Royal Assent on 16 February. The Government’s unprecedented timetable, with three days in one week for Committee and all-night sittings, confirms that. It is a process that I assume will continue through all the remaining stages of the Bill. Votes, as a result, may take place at random times of the day or night at any stage, leaving it entirely to chance what changes get made—in practice, knocking your Lordships' House out of contention as a serious scrutiniser of the Bill. It is for your Lordships to consider the effect that that may have on the House’s standing as an effective scrutiniser. The House’s strength—indeed, its raison d'être—comes from its ability properly to scrutinise legislation.
The Opposition have made it clear privately and publicly to the Government that we will co-operate in splitting the two parts of the Bill, thereby both allowing the referendum to be held on 5 May 2011, if the Government wish, and ensuring that the Bill—in particular, the crucial Part 2—is properly scrutinised by this House. We repeat that offer here and now, and we are happy at any time to discuss the substance of the Bill, so it is not right to say that the referendum depends on this House.
We on the opposition side have thought very carefully what to do. First, we urge the Government to think again about splitting the Bill. In any event, they should consult throughout your Lordships' House on process and on substance. My experience is that widespread consultation will produce a solution. We remain willing at any time to discuss and to co-operate to achieve that. If the Government insist on their timetabling arrangements, we have no option but to do all in our power to ensure that the Bill gets proper scrutiny, and therefore that it will not receive Royal Assent by 16 February if it still contains Part 1 and Part 2.
The BBC interviewed me on Friday. Before the interview, the reporter told me that he had been told by a Minister in the Lords—not, I hasten to add, the noble Lord the Leader, who has assured me that it was not him—that the Government's aim was to keep this going until we dropped. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that with a Bill that fundamentally changes our country's constitution, this is no way to proceed.
My Lords, perhaps I may say one or two words on this issue. However one looks at the position, the fact is that the Government have got into a terrible mess on this Bill. Given the history of the legislation, which my noble and learned friend has just given, it is hardly surprising. The Government should now perhaps heed the great advice of Denis Healey, which he gave to people in similar holes.
It is important that we understand what happened and perhaps analyse the reasons for it. The Government cannot expect to legislate at one and the same time on two entirely separate major constitutional issues without their being subject to detailed examination and scrutiny. Nor can they legitimately complain if that scrutiny is extensive and, indeed, extended, particularly given the size of the coalition votes in this House—a majority that seems to increase daily.
The fact is that they have chosen for their own purposes to join two Bills into one. They must have the first part, which deals with the referendum, in place by mid-February if they are to keep to their chosen date, which I totally understand. However, the other part is quite separate. Had the Bill been divided into two from the outset, the six days that this House spent on the referendum issues could not have been seen remotely as inappropriate or excessive. Indeed, it was about right.
Where it has gone wrong for the Government is in their assumption that they could tack major changes in parliamentary constituencies on to the referendum issue. They must have known that this part of the Bill would be of intense interest and that the political parties would be heavily involved. If they did not realise that, they should have consulted the large number of ex-Cabinet Ministers sitting on their side of the House. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, certainly would have realised this from previous experience.
So why did they do it? It seems to me that there is a fairly simple answer to a simple question. It was obviously a complete misreading of the situation, a political error, with which they now have to live. The remedy is quite simple, as suggested by my noble and learned friend—the Bill should be split.
My Lords, if a Motion is put down on the Order Paper, it is debated and divided on in the usual way. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking to the Motion that the House should resolve itself into Committee. If the Bill were to be split, the Government would get their referendum and on the date on which they want it. Parliament could go on to consider in detail the proposals on the size of the House of Commons, the number of constituencies and the way in which they are constructed. We might even have pre-legislative scrutiny on that, which we should have had anyway and which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is so much in favour of, as he has told us this afternoon.
The Government thought that they could get away with it and it now becomes clearer that they cannot. They have not attempted to produce any evidence of a link between Part 1 and Part 2 that would necessitate their being considered together. So we have the present absurdities in the way in which this House is now being asked to consider these two issues. First, there will be three days this week in Committee, which is an unprecedented move as far as I can remember. Secondly, there could be an all-night sitting tonight, with perhaps more to come. My experience of all-night sittings is that most of the time they are self defeating. They do exactly what the Government do not wish to happen: namely, they encourage Oppositions to talk, not to keep quiet. We seem to be in for a bout of parliamentary attrition at the whim of the governing party opposite.
The Government in this instance have gone far too far. They made an initial mistake, which they are not now prepared to acknowledge: hence the ludicrous way in which this House is now being asked to consider the Bill. It is unprecedented. It is not in accordance with the understandings by which this House operates. The most likely result is that scrutiny of the Bill will continue to be intense and lengthy.
I considered whether there should be a vote on this Motion. If there were to be a vote, I would vote against a decision that we should resume Committee. The Government should think about this again carefully, and think about the implications not only for the Bill but for the proceedings in this House. If they do so, I do not think that they would find this side of the House unforthcoming.
I have listened carefully to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said. He is always a powerful advocate, but he must think that we are a bunch of idiots if he thinks that those of us who have been watching what has been happening are not aware that there has been a filibuster. The Cross-Benchers will probably be in the best position to judge that. As a result of Fenian tactics at the end of the last century, a filibuster is dealt with in the other place by a guillotine and closure procedures. In this Chamber, we are fortunate because we have never had to employ those procedures, but we have never had a filibuster. In the 16 years that I have been here, I have never seen conduct like this.
I am not concerned about this Bill but about the future procedures of this House, which transcend any concern as to whether there should be one Bill, two Bills or no Bill. What matters is that we should be able to conduct ourselves in this House in a reasonable way. I do not think that we have been conducting ourselves in a reasonable way. What, therefore, is the choice now—for those on these Benches simply to collapse and give way to in effect an ultimatum or to have to use, I am afraid, the time taken night after night, if necessary, to see Committee completed?
A great leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, once said that we must fight and fight again for the party we love. I believe that we have to do exactly the same in this House today to save it from the kind of things that have happened in the other place and which have recently been imported to this House by some recent additions, some Ministers, who should know better.
My Lords, uncharacteristically, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, cannot have checked on the progress of Bills under the previous Government. I have the figures in front of me. I am happy to present them in the Library, should that be necessary. I shall mention just one—the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which took 19 days to go through the House. In no way am I minimising the importance of that Bill, but I think that a constitutional Bill should involve at least as much time as that.
I recognise and understand the problems faced by the business managers on the Front Bench. It must be much more difficult in some respects when there is a coalition. It is a difficult job managing government business—I can certainly testify to that—but, certainly during the six years when I was responsible, I can find only one occasion on which we considered the same Bill on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. That was overwhelmingly because of consideration of the needs and demands of those on the opposition Front Bench, who find it extremely difficult—understandably because they are part-timers—to do the necessary revision for three days in succession in detail on a difficult Bill. On only two or three occasions did we go through the night.
On all those exceptional occasions, it was because there was the imperative of dates. Usually, the imperative is the Queen’s Speech at the end of a Session. Of course, one cannot notify the Palace a fortnight before the Queen’s Speech is due and say, “Sorry, because Report on a Bill is taking a long time, could you put the date back a week?”. That date is imperative. Alternatively, as happened quite often under the previous Government, the imperatives for Northern Ireland legislation were unarguable. They were clear and demonstrable.
I concede totally to the Government that there is an imperative in this Bill, and we are conceding that publicly today. The imperative is not one I like, and the House knows my views on various forms of electoral systems, but the imperative for the Government is to get the Bill completed by 16 February so that there can be a referendum on 5 May. I acknowledge that imperative and it has been conceded.
However, I put it to the Government and to the House that there is absolutely no imperative whatsoever about Part 2 of the Bill. But before I move on from Part 1, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, as my noble friend has said, that if he thinks six days on the Committee stage of a Bill that potentially fulfils the Lib Dems’ dreams of a change to the electoral system is filibustering, he does not know what a filibuster is.
I say to the Government with some envy that there is no imperative on Part 2 principally because they decided—I am not quite sure how it happened because it was like a rabbit out of a hat—that this should be a two-year Session of Parliament. I would have thought it was my birthday and Christmas rolled into one if, when I was responsible for government legislation, someone had said that we could have a two-year Session in which to put Bills through. The nightmare every year was finishing Bills in time for the Queen’s Speech.
There is ample time for proper scrutiny of Part 2, so again I put it specifically to the Government that it is an accident of the timing of this debate that today, or most probably tonight, we will be discussing the not inconsiderable proposition that the number of Members of the other House should be culled by 50. We shall be doing that at two or three in the morning when many Members of your Lordships’ House—sadly I do not think that they will include me—may well be asleep. I put it to noble Lords that if the situation was reversed so that the House of Commons was about to cull substantial numbers of this House and decided to do it at two or three in the morning when hardly anyone was around, we would have a word or two to say about it, and rightly so.
Finally, I want simply to make this point. We are in uncharted territory. The reason for that, which we are all learning, is that we have a coalition Government. I acknowledge that. We do not know quite what the rules of play are in a coalition Government but what I do know is that this House, under a coalition Government, has an advantage that Chief Whips may have dreamed about but never envisaged. They have 40 per cent of the votes in this House. I have included the Cross-Benchers in that calculation; I would not be presumptuous enough to suggest that they would ever vote as a block, as they never do. The actual majority the Government have over the Opposition, if it is reckoned simply in terms of people with party allegiances and subject to a party whip, is very substantial. It is perfectly within the power of this coalition Government, if they want to, to drive through legislation against the wishes of the minority in the House. They can do that. They can schedule constitutional business in the middle of the night if they want to do that.
I end with this observation. There are three constitutional Bills coming through this House of which this is the first, described by Nick Clegg as the most important since 1832. The third of three Bills is about the reform of this House. I simply put it to those Members of the House who may not be too concerned about this Bill but are very concerned indeed about the fundamental changes involved in a move from an appointed House to an elected House—which I am certainly very concerned about—that if the Government were now to set a precedent that a major constitutional Bill will be driven through in the middle of the night, and that anyone who criticises that is guilty of a filibuster, that is a very bad precedent indeed.
The offer is clear. It is not my offer because it is for the Front Benches opposite. The Government have a way out of this: take the referendum part of the Bill out and agree on a sensible schedule for considering Part 2. We do not like the House to get into the position it is in at the moment; I certainly do not like it. But that is an offer on the table which I think any reasonable person would accept.
My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to put forward, with some diffidence, a perception from a Cross-Bencher, because the Cross-Benchers have been referred to. I think it is known that the Cross-Benchers actually listen to the arguments and we vote according to what we believe are the better arguments. But when a debate on one amendment takes three and three-quarter hours and is not followed by asking the House to decide on it, that is the point at which the Cross-Benchers wonder—I personally wonder and I believe I am not alone—what is actually going on.
My Lords, I wonder if I could ask a brief question: what is all the hurry about? Why do we have to have a referendum this May? Why can we not wait and have it in a year’s time, or at any time? This is something that is too important to rush, as we are doing.
My Lords, I have been somewhat pre-empted by the two previous speakers in asking a question of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, although it is probably inappropriate to ask him at this juncture, so perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would be the right person to address it. He and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, came forward with a perfectly reasonable offer that they would agree to splitting the Bill. However, is there not a difficulty in that, as the noble and learned Lord said, we are now close to the beginning of Part 2 of this Bill, so it would be impossible to do such a thing now? It is therefore necessary, is it not, to continue with Committee until it is finished? At that point, it would not be beyond the wit of the Government to accept the noble Lords’ offer, but I do not think it is practicable at this moment.
My Lords, I want to interject in support of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and say to my noble friend that it is not as simple as that. The House is not allowed to be asked to give its opinion a second time on any issue, and the House decided that this Bill should be given a Second Reading. What is being asked for is to have two new Bills, and that is not feasible.
I want to make a brief point. There are precedents for splitting Bills which have got into difficulties. I refer to the 1977 Scotland and Wales Bill which, after a lot of discussion, was in fact split in the House of Commons. That enabled the Scotland Bill to go forward in that Parliament, and the Wales Bill went forward a little later. It was unfortunate for Scotland, perhaps, that the people did not want devolution at the time. A way was found to split the Bill and there is no reason why a way should not be found to split this one.
On the question of splitting the Bill, the advice I have received is that it is not open to this House to send back to the Commons a Bill that has been divided into two unless the Government give their consent to that. That position was made clear by my noble friend Lady McDonagh and that is why there was no vote on it. The Government did not give their consent. However, if the Government consent to it, it is possible for that course to be taken.
My Lords, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, asked an extremely good question a few minutes ago. She said, “Why the urgency?”. Of course, the answer is that last July, when the Government announced their intention to bring this legislation forward and published the Bill, there was no urgency. There was no urgency when it was debated in another place. There was no urgency when it came here. The situation has become urgent because the Labour Party has decided to go on a marathon go-slow on the Bill ever since we started Committee.
I hope that the Leader will allow me to point out to him that that was not the question that the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, put to him. The question was, “Why should the referendum date be the date that it is?”—not “Why has it taken so long to get to this point?”, but “Why is the date the date?”. That seems to me to be a question that he has not yet addressed.
My Lords, my point still stands. The Government made an announcement soon after the general election that there would be a referendum on 5 May. I really wonder whether it is right for this House to stand up and suddenly say that should not be the case, when there was plenty of time for the Bill to be properly scrutinised.
I move on to reply to the other points that were made. The noble and learned Lord said that we are trying now to rush the Bill through and that there has not been enough consultation with the Opposition. Ever since the Bill arrived in the House, the usual channels—government and opposition—have been trying to come to an agreement, but there was an absolute refusal by the Labour Party, right from the start, to engage in trying to decide the number of days in Committee.
It is said that we have been planning an all-night sitting. I have no desire to have an all-night sitting, or a very late sitting. It is entirely in the hands of the Opposition how long we stay here this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, for whom, as a former distinguished Leader of this House, I have the utmost respect, said that the trouble with all-night sittings is that it encourages the Opposition—he did not quite say to behave even more badly, but it was sort of what he meant. We could not go any slower than we have done over the course of the past eight days.
Let us deal with the substantive point, the issue of splitting the Bill. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, was right in one part of her memory—we did debate splitting the Bill in a Motion put at the very start of the legislative process. That Motion was withdrawn after a debate, but I think that the noble Countess’s point stands. Both the issues that we are dealing with in the Bill are about how MPs are elected to the House of Commons. The Bill will give voters, for the first time, a say in the way in which they elect their MPs and will mean that fairer boundaries and more equal constituencies can be put in place for the general election in 2013.
My Lords, may I just finish this important point? Noble Lords opposite have said that we should split the Bill and that we should not have included these two issues in one Bill. Yet the last Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, introduced to this House last year, included provision on 13 different areas ranging from a referendum on the alternative vote to freedom of information, ratification of treaties and so on. It seems odd to me that, in opposition, noble Lords opposite have so quickly become concerned about these two reforms with a common theme comprising the same Bill. Even worse, we have the noble Lords, Lord Touhig, Lord McAvoy and Lord Browne of Ladyton, who voted entirely happily, without interruption, in proceedings in another place when an amendment was brought forward on Report and yet, as soon as the Bill comes here and they have been translated into Members of the House of Lords, they take an entirely different view. I now give way to the noble Lord.
I thank the Leader of the House. He speaks about urgency in choosing 5 May of this year. That might have been reasonable in previous times, when an election could be called at any time by the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister has said that there will be no election for five years, so what is the urgency about having the referendum on 5 May of this year?
My Lords, that is right. Like the noble and learned Lord, I have sat through many of the debates that have taken place over the past nine days and I have sympathy for the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and other Members—not just on the Cross Benches, but in all parts of the House—who wished to take part in this debate and feel that they have become excluded from it because it has taken so long. The truth is that the Labour Party has a political objective to break this key coalition Bill, stop the referendum and stop the reduction in the number of MPs.
My Lords, forgive me but, on a point of information for the House, I respectfully remind the House that the House as a whole adopted an amendment, moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, which would enable the referendum to take place on any date before 31 October. That was the will of this House.
Clause 11 : Number and distribution of seats
58A: Clause 11, page 9, leave out lines 17 and 18 and insert—
“United Kingdom electoral quota
The United Kingdom electoral quota shall be defined as the total electorate of the United Kingdom on the designated enumeration day divided by 650.”
My distress at the lack of interest in the substance of the Bill is a matter of some import.
Amendment 58A would replace the current proposal in Clause 11 to fix the House of Commons at 600 seats, with an alternative rule which would anchor the size of the other place at its current membership of 650.
As your Lordships’ House’s Constitution Committee made clear in its report on the Bill:
“We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on the basis of any considered assessment of the role and functions of MPs”.
That reality was exposed in the debate last Monday, when the Government again failed to provide any adequate explanation as to why 600 seats is the optimum size for the other place or, in particular, why a 600-seat Commons would serve the public more effectively than the current 650-seat Chamber.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, conceded from the Front Bench that:
“We have never suggested that there was anything magic or ideal about a House of Commons of 600 any more than the current size of 650 is ideal”.—[Official Report, 10/01/11; col. 1222.]
Is that, I ask, rhetorically, the best that the Government can do in a situation where they are using their political majority in the other place in order to push through a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament? It is obviously a dangerous precedent that is being adopted, because it involves using your political power to fix the size of the legislative chamber in circumstances where people will allege, as we do on this side, that it is being done for political advantage.
It is worth saying that that approach to the question of the size of the legislative chamber has not been adopted in this country since the Second World War, when a Speaker’s Conference agreed the arrangement that then became law in 1949 and, though there have been changes to the detail, it has never been disputed that the people who should decide the number of constituencies in the country should be the boundary commissions, which are believed—correctly, in my view—to be beyond party politics. We do not want to get into a position where, when you win an election, you then use your majority to fix the size of the House of Commons to suit your political advantage.
Is there not, as a result of this affront to our constitution in the way that this is being done, the danger that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander? There must be a considerable temptation for any incoming Government to do the same. I would hope that we would resist that temptation, but the pendulum will swing and the party or parties opposite will not be for ever in Government. The danger is that one hallowed principle of our constitution will be wilfully thrown away.
The noble Lord refers to this as a “hallowed principle of our constitution”, but it was not applied to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace said, with regard to the Scottish Parliament, that there were some really arcane discussions, which he said he might reveal to us some time, that resulted in the rather unusual figure there. I know myself, and I will not weary the House, about the political considerations that drove the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I confess ignorance with regard to the Welsh Assembly. But that “hallowed principle” has not been applied by Governments drawn from both sides of this House over the past few years.
I do not want to go into Northern Irish politics because I feel that if I did, I would make a number of mistakes. I can talk about Scottish politics, and I can say this: the effect of the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in Scotland was, in political terms, wholly to the detriment of the Labour Party. However, it was introduced by a Government with a substantial Labour majority. Yes, it was done by a Government, but it was plain that it was being done in a way that was to the detriment of the interest of that Government. So, in my view, it does not raise the issues that the noble Lord is raising.
I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord has misunderstood the point that I was making, which was with regard not to the number of Westminster Members from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but to the size of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a different matter.
May a voice from Wales seek to assist my noble friend in respect of what happened regarding the Welsh Assembly? There was a consensus; it was agreed that there should be 60 seats, 40 of which would be exactly the same as the Westminster constituencies, while the other 20 would be based on regional representation and on a form of proportional representation. It was done not in a partisan way at all but on the basis of consensus, which manifestly has not been done in this case.
I think that that is fair, and it applies to the putting together of the Welsh Assembly, the putting together of the Scottish Parliament and the reduction in the number of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament. As I say, I defer in every single respect to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, in relation to what happened in Northern Ireland.
We believe that the case for a 650-seat Commons has not changed since the current Prime Minister spoke in its favour—indeed, in favour of a slightly larger elected Chamber—at the 2003 Oxfordshire boundary inquiry. Opposing proposals to alter his own constituency borders, he told that inquiry:
“Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs—I certainly hope that is not the case. This is all some way off”.
What has changed in the mean time to alter the view that there is no need for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons? The Government have failed to answer that question.
Our amendment stems from a conviction that the current Commons of 650, which is broadly the figure that it has been since 1983, is the appropriate basis on which to stabilise the size of that Chamber. Although the membership of the House has been pretty stable over the past number of years, both rising and falling, concerns have been expressed about the potential for a ratchet effect resulting from the interplay of some of the existing rules for drawing parliamentary boundaries.
Our amendment therefore follows the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee, in its 1987 report on the rules for drawing constituency boundaries, which proposed that the UK electoral quota should be calculated using the “fixed divisor” method. The Committee recommended that the divisor should be fixed on the basis of a 650-seat House of Commons.
Put simply, under our proposed alternative rules, an initial UK electoral quota would be calculated by dividing the total UK electorate by the fixed number of 650—in other words, not altering the current size of the House of Commons. This mechanism, which should be read alongside our other amendments, would not necessarily fix the House at 650 seats for ever. It would stabilise the House at around that size but with the mathematical rounding up or down involved in the calculation of seats in the four parts of the UK, and once special allowance is made for seats like the Scottish islands, it could be possible to see very minor fluctuations in the size of the Commons—one or two seats either side of 650. We see that as a virtue of the fixed divisor method and an advantage that it holds over the Government’s proposal for a fixed number of seats.
The latter approach—the fixed number of seats adopted by the Government—was criticised by the head of the English Boundary Commission when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry in 1987. He warned that stipulating an exact fixed number of seats for the Commons would require the boundary commissions to use a “Bed of Procrustes” for drawing constituencies, stretching the borders of those that were too small and lopping parts off others that were too big. He warned the committee away from that method and instead urged the use of a fixed divisor, which would result in a broadly stable Commons while allowing the boundary commissions a bit of practical leeway.
Now, of course, even if we could convince the Government of the practical benefits of our amendment, we would still need to persuade them on the issue of the most appropriate size of the Commons. Before we consider the relative merits and demerits of this amendment against the Government’s proposal for a 600-seat House of Commons, though, it is worth reminding ourselves of what the two parties opposite were saying on this subject before the election.
The Liberal Democrat general election manifesto contained a commitment to creating a 500-seat House of Commons elected on the basis of the single transferable vote. The Conservative Party manifesto contained a commitment to the continuation of the first past the post system for elections to the Commons but pledged to cut the number of MPs, saying that it envisaged a 585-seat House. So why did the coalition agreement settle upon 600 seats as the perfect number, as opposed to 500 or 585? I ask the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who I assume will be answering, to explain the reasoning behind that specific decision.
In particular, why did the two coalition partners agree on a figure that was higher than both their original proposals? Compromises usually involve a meeting in the middle—what happened here? Could the proposal for a 600-seat House have had anything whatever to do with the Conservative Party’s fears that the mathematical reality of a reduction below 600 would require the loss of seats in shire counties? Or did that have no bearing on the decision?
Leaving aside the reasons why the Government are so fixated on a 600-seat House, there is a broader question about what is wrong with the size of the current Commons. The Government claim that it is, to use their words, a bloated Chamber and that the UK suffers from something that they describe as “overrepresentation”. The facts show they are wrong on both counts. The claim that Britain is overrepresented in comparison with similar-sized countries is based on simple international comparisons of numbers of elected national representatives per head of population. In fact, the extent to which the UK has more elected representatives in the national legislature per head of population can be exaggerated. As a briefing note from the House of Commons Library makes clear, the United Kingdom has roughly the same ratio as France and Italy. However, the central point is that these calculations take account only of national legislatures and do not include any reference to levels of representation beneath that tier.
It is interesting that my noble and learned friend mentions France. In France, one in 100 adults is an elected official of some kind, whereas in this country the figure is about one in 1,600, if we take into account parish councils and urban districts. France is remarkably democratic and has less pressure at a national level because there is so much devolved democracy—16 times more so than here.
That is an interesting point and, significantly, my noble friend Lord Rooker has prefaced the point that I was just about to make. As I said, the central issue is that the calculations of the numbers of national representatives per head of population take account only of national legislatures and do not include references to levels of representation beneath that tier. If we look below the national level, the United Kingdom has far fewer elected officeholders per head of population than almost all comparable countries. An academic study by Democratic Audit found that, at local government level, the population per elected member is around 2,600 in the United Kingdom, 250 in Germany and 116 in France. Therefore, when sub-national elected representatives are factored in, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has pointed out, it is apparent that the UK does not suffer from overrepresentation; if anything, it suffers from the opposite.
In any event, there is a fundamental problem in seeking to draw simple comparisons between the numbers of elected representatives in different national legislatures. Some countries are unitary states, whereas others are federal states; some have a Westminster model, like that of the United Kingdom, whereas others have a presidential system, like that of the United States of America. As a consequence, their administrative and electoral systems are organised in different ways. Therefore, comparing rates of representation in one national legislature with those in another is a largely pointless exercise akin to comparing apples and pears.
A more sensible basis on which to decide what level of representation is right for the UK is to examine how the size of the House of Commons has changed over time. If the number of Members of Parliament were growing inexorably and out of all proportion to the size of the electorate, there would clearly be a problem. However, the evidence shows that that is not the case. The Commons has not grown disproportionately in size over recent years. The size of the Commons has increased by around 3 or 4 per cent, or by 25 Members, since 1950, but the electorate—and, therefore, the average size of constituencies—has increased by 25 per cent over that period.
There has also been a significant increase in the case load of Members of Parliament, which has grown out of proportion to the size of the population as a consequence of changing social norms, political developments and new forms of communication. According to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, in the 1950s and 1960s Members received on average 12 to 15 letters per week. Today, the average is 300 per week—I am still quoting figures from the Modernisation Committee—and then there are e-mails, faxes and telephone calls to take into account. There is no evidence that having fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services. Assuming that that remains the same, the pressure on the remaining Members and their staff will increase.
If the service that Members of Parliament provide to their constituents is not to deteriorate, and if MPs are to be able to take part in Select Committees and Public Bill Committees, which have become considerably more active in recent decades, Members of Parliament will need greater resources to employ people as caseworkers and secretaries. The savings made through a reduction of 50 Members of Parliament would inevitably be lost, which would undermine the argument that this is a worthy, cost-cutting measure.
The provision on the size of the House of Commons is one of the most important in the Bill. We are being asked to cut 50 seats from the primary political body in the United Kingdom and to fix its size in statute, in perpetuity, at 600, but we are not really being given any proper explanation as to why that is the most appropriate size for the House of Commons. Does anyone in this Chamber honestly think that this is the right way to enact such a fundamental constitutional change? What, I ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is the justification for reducing the size of the House of Commons and increasing the size of this place?
In conclusion, one of the central arguments that can be made in support of an unelected House of Lords is that its Members are able to exercise a greater independence of thought than representatives who are elected—they are that bit freer of the party constraints that have a more restrictive impact on the actions of colleagues in the other place. That is one reason why, down the years, your Lordships have been able to act as the guardians of the constitution and face down Executive moves that are rooted in party interests and not the national interests.
The new era of coalition government is a challenge to your Lordships’ House—a challenge as to whether it is willing and able to act as an independent-minded revising Chamber. The alternative is to become a rubber stamp for the Executive. This Bill, and this issue perhaps more than many others, will serve as an important litmus test on how your Lordships’ House intends to respond to that challenge.
I must advise your Lordships that, if Amendment 58A is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 59 to 63ZA inclusive and Amendment 66B due to pre-emption.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, asks why it should fall to Parliament to make this decision. It seems to me that it must, and that ultimately the will of the House of Commons should prevail but that obviously our views should be sought too. The nature of the rules that the Boundary Commission operates at present involves an inevitable escalation of the number of Members of Parliament at every Boundary Commission review.
I completely agree with the noble and learned Lord that there is no magic number. Those of us who sat in the House of Commons probably would not be able to agree what the optimum number should be. However, there are now 650 Members. I think that there were 625 when I first got in in 1983—or perhaps that was the figure in 1979—and there were 659 in 1997. Therefore, there has been quite a variety in the number of MPs. In the 20th century, the number rose from 615 to 659, but of course that does not take account of the fact that the number of Scottish seats fell by, I think, 13 at the time of devolution. If those are added as well, we are still talking about a number around the 660 mark.
With 600 seats, the average number of voters would be 75,000 per Member of Parliament. I should like to speak—
That is not correct. The boundary commissions legislation states the number of seats in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the legislation says that there will be a minimum of 35 seats for Wales, whereas there are actually 40, and it also gives minimum numbers for Northern Ireland and Scotland. Therefore, I do not think that it is right to say that the matter has been left entirely to the boundary commissions.
I revert to my point that there has been an escalation in the Boundary Commission process. With 600 seats, there would be about 75,000 voters per Member of Parliament. I have tabled an amendment—Amendment 63ZA—that suggests that the House should be reduced in size progressively over the next three boundary reviews to 600 MPs at the next election, 550 at the one after that and 500 at the one after that. If the number got to 500, there would be 90,000 electors per Member of Parliament. I had very nearly 90,000 electors when I was a Member of Parliament and it was not an unmanageable constituency at all. For those with very small constituencies—mostly in Scotland and Wales—frankly I wonder how theirs can be a full-time job, because it was perfectly easy for me to handle an electorate of about 85,000. It is a matter of the number of staff—a point that I shall come to in a minute.
I should like to progress. This is like making a speech in the House of Commons, where people intervene the whole time. The noble Lord can make his own speech in his own time about the number of seats in Wales. Following on from my Amendment 63ZA, I have tabled another—Amendment 66B—which would reduce the denominator and the fraction for deciding the electorate for each seat.
There are several reasons for making such a change. First, we are moving towards a general feeling that the Government should be smaller. I think that the number of Ministers has got too high. Certainly, if the size of the House of Commons were to be reduced, the number of Ministers in it would also have to decrease. Secondly, there is a wide perception—this is based only on anecdotal evidence—that there are too many politicians who cost too much money. I agree that the cost of the House of Commons will not necessarily fall a lot as a result of the proposed change, but the cost has doubled in the past 13 years. The cost doubled under Labour largely because we were all given an enormously increased number of staff. That has to come to an end. Members of the House of Commons are not the most popular people in the country. If people knew that MPs were costing more, they would not be happy about it.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that we should not be too swayed by international comparisons, and I rather agree that we should make up our own minds. He then said that one should take account of other countries’ devolved layers of government—for example, Germany is a federal state and France, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, has elected representatives at all sorts of other levels. If that is so, that is an argument for the quota for Wales and Scotland being lower than for England because England does not have a devolved Assembly. To many of us, it seems that the numerical advantage was taken away from Scotland by the devolution Act. If that argument is to hold sway, it should result in fewer Members of Parliament at Westminster for Wales and Scotland on a quota basis than for England. However, politicians in other countries find themselves perfectly capable of dealing with constituencies that are much larger than 75,000 voters. I think that constituencies in Germany have about 140,000 voters and those in France about 100,000 voters, whereas here, even under my proposal for reducing the House of Commons to 500 Members, the figure would be 90,000.
Let us look at some of the changes that have taken place and the work that is required of Members of Parliament. The devolved Assemblies have, frankly, reduced the workload of the Members of Parliament for those areas for which there are devolved Assemblies, because the work is now split between more people. It may be that Parkinson’s law is in operation and that demand is rising to meet supply, but, in objective terms, there are more elected representatives theoretically doing the same work.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to the increase in constituency work, which is undoubtedly true, but an awful lot of that can be, and is, dealt with by Members’ staff. In most of the run-of-the-mill cases with which Members of Parliament have to deal—which they should not have to sort out, as the bureaucracy should be more responsive than it needing a letter from a Member of Parliament to break some bureaucratic impasse—all that they need to do is sign the letter. They do not have to involve themselves in the details of every case.
We have moved to a House of Commons in which the vast majority of its Members are now professional politicians—it is a full-time job for MPs, who do not do anything else—but the Chamber has become less relevant in holding the Government to account. I suppose that the Chamber is where politicians make their reputation, but, apart from that, the game is so heavily skewed in the Government’s favour that the Chamber is not really where the Government are held to account; that is in Select Committees.
If the House of Commons is to develop, as I hope, in a way that makes it as constitutionally important in the future as it has been in the past, it will be through the work of Select Committees. We do not need a 600 or 650-Member House to staff those. It is my experience from the past 13 years that an enormous number of Members of Parliament, particularly those with marginal seats, have been encouraged to spend less time at Westminster and more in their constituencies. That is another area in which work has expanded to fill the time available in which to do it.
What do you need in the House of Commons? Well, you need a Government. At present, there are 95 Members of the House of Commons in the Government. If the House of Commons were reduced in size along the lines that I suggest, that number should be reduced. However, let us say that you would still need 85 Members in the Government. You would need a similar number in the Opposition to shadow them. You would need some alternatives in both the Opposition and the Government, so that when people either want to resign or have resignation forced upon them, there would be somebody else to take their place. There will be new people at each election. If you add all that up, you come to about 300 people.
Then you need Select Committees, of which there are 17 at the moment. I do not think that 12 or 14 Members are needed on a Select Committee; I have sat on committees of various sizes and would have thought that 10 is about right. Some of the people who sit on Select Committees would also be in one of the other categories in the House of Commons. Opposition spokesmen do not sit on Select Committees, nor do Ministers, but people in the other place who hope to become opposition spokesmen or Ministers are very often on Select Committees—only about 150 people are precluded from being on them.
I would have thought, therefore, that a House of Commons of 500 would be more than enough to satisfy those requirements. That is too big a reduction for one Parliament—it may be too big a reduction for three—but I would be grateful if my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench could respond. Particularly in light of how painful and time-consuming it has been to get this reduction through, perhaps it would be a good idea to build in future reductions as well.
My Lords, I should like to bring to light some of the facts that should come to bear on this decision. I do not think that anybody on the government side has yet spelled out a very good reason for thinking that 600 is the magic number and that 650 is the wrong number. That is a subject on which a judgment can be reached only in the light of all the facts about what is going on and what is likely to happen if we do not do anything about it.
One of the underlying assumptions made by the Government in all their speeches on prior clauses of the Bill is that there has been a tendency for the number of Members of Parliament to increase. Let us look at the facts. Yes, it is true that if you choose as your base date 1950 there has been a small increase from 625 Members of the Commons then to 650 today. It is an increase. But why take 1950? You might, for example, take 1983, which is, after all, more than a quarter of a century ago. Since 1983, the number of Members of the House of Commons has not changed; it has remained at 650. Alternatively, and this is a historically-minded House, one might go back to 1918, when the number of Members of the House of Commons was 707. I readily accept that there are explanations both for the increases and decreases, to some of which I shall come shortly, but this is a case not of an upwards trend ad infinitum but of fluctuations based on various things. One of those things which has tended to force the number perhaps to be higher than might be essential is Welsh representation—we shall come to that later in the Bill; I think that the proposal to cut it from 40 to 30 is too draconian, but, equally, 40 may be rather too many and there might be a saving to be made there.
It has to be accepted that, in the previous rules of the Boundary Commission, which have to be put right, there has been a contradiction which has caused some small change in the rise in the number of Members of the House of Commons. As I understand it, rule 1 requires that the House of Commons does not grow in total size, and rule 5 requires indivisible units—for example, counties—to be allocated the number of seats which makes each constituency as near as possible to the desired quota. This, in technical language, requires rounding-off at the harmonic mean, which is always beyond the arithmetic mean. If anyone wants me to go into that in more detail, I can guarantee to take up all day and all night in doing so, but I very much doubt that it would greatly be for the elucidation of the Committee. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord on the Front Bench would suggest that I do not do any such thing since it would cut across our desire to give this Bill the correct scrutiny in the minimum time that is necessary. Without going into those conflicts in the rules, I suggest that it would be possible to amend the rules in a quite a minor way to reduce that inflating factor in so far as it exists.
I have said that the number of MPs has not increased much. What has indisputably and hugely increased is the number of electors each MP has to service. Let us take 1950, which is the basis for comparison that is most favourable to the Government’s case. As my noble and learned friend said, the number of MPs is up 3 per cent and the electorate is up 25 per cent. If my schoolboy arithmetic is correct, electorate per MP is up 22 per cent. Let us again, because this is a historic House, take the longer perspective. In 1918, the average MP represented 30,000 electors. In 1950, the number was 55,000 electors. In 1983, it was 65,000 and, in 2005, it was 68,000. Under this Bill, that will go up to 75,000 electors. That is an increase two-and-a-half times over. It is possible that that is not right, but it seems a pretty big increase, the last bit of which is entirely due to the reduction brought about by this Bill.
That of course is electors per MP. However, the MP’s workload—and there are many former Members of another place who will no doubt give the House the benefit of their own experience—does not just depend on the number of electors, it depends on how many people live in their constituency. There are some very large discrepancies between the number of people and the number of electors. I have not been able to find, given the truncated timetable we are working to, an actual figure of number of people per electorate since 1918, but I can absolutely guarantee, I think, that it will have grown faster than the number of electors per MP, with immigration and the lack of people registering as a result. It is population that is the generator of workload.
Then, workload per person in your electorate has increased. Last time I spoke on a related matter in this House I mentioned that when I started work for Tony Crosland back in 1972 we got 30 letters a week from his Grimsby constituents and they could all be happily dealt with by an excellent part-time secretary in consultation with the local party. The situation today is nothing like that. It is not just numbers—the 300 letters my noble friend cited—but it is the sheer complexity of the cases. The complexity of an immigration case is enormous, which is of course why the cost to the Commons has gone up. It is not that there are more MPs—that has been a trivial factor. In order to perform the services that the people of this country expect them to perform, MPs need far more caseworkers to help them with constituency cases.
There is another factor which is much less remarked on but I think is quite important. The psephological evidence, until reasonably recently, was unambiguous. It did not matter how hard an MP worked or how lazy he was; there was practically no incumbent effect on subsequent general elections. Whether you won or not depended nearly entirely on the popularity of your party and not on how good a job you did. I hate saying it because I know it might offend some people who were MPs many years ago when that was so. However, I am afraid that the psephological evidence is unambiguous. That evidence has now changed. I will not go into the full detail—I would advise noble Lords that they can read the Curtice appendix to the Cowley and Kavanagh book on the 2010 general election. You will find that even MPs who had been at the heart of expenses scandals did better than new candidates who had not been in the House before. It is absolutely unambiguous evidence. I do not think that anybody in this Chamber would doubt for a minute that the great majority, even near to saying all, Members of Parliament, whatever their other faults and virtues, are deeply assiduous in servicing the needs of their constituencies and constituents. It is a plus factor for me that they get a bit of appreciation for that. I have known Members who lost their seats who were deeply upset for years afterwards because they thought their constituents had not shown them the gratitude they felt they had earned. Well now, their constituents are starting to show gratitude and that is a great thing.
Then there is the question of workload other than constituency work. There are 240 places now to be filled on departmental Select Committees—they did not exist really when I started in business—and 227 other places in committees. There is the sheer volume of legislation, I admit often guillotined down the other end, but you have to read the thing if you are going to take any part. The size of Bills has increased exponentially, largely as a result of the demise of the typewriter and the growth of the word processor which means there is no incentive whatever for draftsmen to cut anything out and every incentive to put things in because nothing has to be retyped. There is the huge effort of looking after our demanding press. There is the huge effort of dealing with the new profession of public affairs consultants, all of whom have good reason to come and see you about matters of one kind of another. The average MP today works far, far harder than the average MP did in the past. That is not going to change and it is the reason why most MPs today have to be full-time Members of Parliament. It makes me wonder whether it is a good idea to cut their numbers when they are having to work very much harder.
Then there is the question, which was again raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, of the ratio of members of the Government to Back-Benchers. This measure would make that ratio worse at a stroke. At the moment, the number of Ministers and Whips in the lower House is roughly just over a third of the number of Back-Benchers. This legislation would change that to 40 per cent. Among the remaining Back-Benchers there are some who are essentially the equivalent of Ministers, in the sense that they will do whatever the Government ask, however awful, in the hope of getting promotion out of the Prime Minister. Therefore, the number of independent Back-Benchers in another place, on whom we rely so much to hold the Government to account, is going to diminish. We have heard airy words that perhaps Prime Ministers in future will appoint fewer Ministers. I have been hearing them for 25 years too and of course it never happens because by appointing somebody a Minister a Prime Minister can bind them to him. On top of that there is the increased number of victims these days of sexual scandal or alleged blunder of one kind or another appearing in the newspapers. There is a greater turnover of Ministers as a result and, in my opinion, the Prime Minister will continue to appoint just as many. Whether all of them have full jobs to do is another matter, but there are good reasons to do it. He also has to maintain party balance and now, coalition balance, because some of the most fed up people with the emergence of this coalition Government are those people, mostly in the Tory party, who thought before they would get jobs and now find themselves on the Back Benches. Disgruntled does not begin to describe their mood. So there will not be fewer Ministers; it is a pity therefore that there will be fewer Back-Benchers. It also reduces what Professor Anthony King in a notable phrase has called the “gene pool” that is available. The fewer Back-Benchers available to promote the less possibility there is of new and excellent talent emerging to replace talent that is exhausted, talent that has destroyed itself and so on. That is another cost of the diminution.
Finally, we come back to the last argument which is extant of those who say that there is an evident case for reducing the number of MPs—and that is money. They say they will save money by doing it. That is not obvious to me because if the work has still to be done, it has still to be paid for. You may have fewer MPs but you are going to have more constituency workers per MP. You must do in order for them to cope with the sheer volume of correspondence and so on. The only saving I can see is that there will be the saving of 50 MPs’ salaries—that comes to a little over £3 million a year. Of that, £1 million will be lost in income tax so that is about £2 million. You could raise that by a decent tax on one banker’s bonus. This makes me feel that the money argument is really just a populist argument, as indeed is the whole argument for reducing the number of MPs. It is not based on fact, it is not based on analysis, it was pulled out of a hat in an attempt to satisfy a popular anti-MP mood, and it is your Lordships’ duty, and a duty in which we should take pleasure, to say hold on, let us look at the facts, let us see whether this decrease is really justified. If it is not, we are entitled to ask the House of Commons to think again.
Is there not a danger that if the workload remains the same and the number of MPs is reduced there will be an increase in the number of Members’ staff, which will in itself almost certainly lead to less of a direct contact between the Member and those he seeks to represent, which cannot be a good thing for democracy.
My noble friend is absolutely right about that. It will also mean that the queue of people waiting to become MPs will be even longer since in my experience most of these MPs’ staff are waiting only for the moment when they can jump into the shoes of the man whom they so loyally serve.
My Lords, I have two questions for the Government about their proposal to reduce the number of seats. Do the coalition parties have the same commitment to increasing the number of women in the other House as the Labour Party has had in its various policy documents for some time? Furthermore, has there been any assessment of the effect of the reduction of the number of seats on the likelihood of achieving an increase in the representation of women in the other House?
The Labour Party has not achieved what a number of us—and I sit by some of them here—have been committed to for a number of years, which is to move from 40 to 50 per cent of our party’s representation in the other House being women. It is no secret that even when we came to all-women shortlists it was possible to move on that only when there was a vacancy, because no party was willing to kick out the male representatives to make room for a new shortlist that could be an all-women shortlist. In our experience—I do not think that I am giving away all our secrets, which were probably covered in the press anyway—because we did not have enough retirements, we could not make the progress that we wanted to make on all-women shortlists. There were no vacancies and therefore there were no shortlists, so we could not put women in.
Noble Lords will understand quickly the concern that women will have that, when we reduce the number of seats, as the Government want, there will be no retirements, only some forced retirements, given that there will be fewer seats. Labour Members may well fight other Labour Members for those seats and I imagine that Conservative Members will fight other Conservative Members for those seats. So there will be very few vacancies. New blood, either men or women, will be extremely hard to bring on.
My second question, having asked how the parties in the coalition are committed to increasing women’s representation, is whether they have done any sort of impact assessment of reducing the number of seats and of what it would mean for the likelihood of bringing on a new generation—partly of young people but even more so of women, which is my particular interest—into the other House.
My Lords, I always get excited when I see a mathematical formula in a Bill. The formula of U over 598 appears in the Bill. The idea, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said, is to have an arrangement whereby each vote counts equally towards electing an MP. That is a very worthy aim, with which I have no quarrel. It is like a programming problem, whereby you minimise the distance between the sizes of different constituencies, subject to various considerations. That is a perfectly good aim.
Where I fail to understand the Government’s approach is why they are adding another completely artificial constraint by at the same time reducing the total number of seats by 50. You can achieve equalisation of votes and seats and achieve the aim of having each vote count equally with 650 seats. It would be absolutely no problem. It might even make it easier for the Government to achieve their aim if they did that. We already know that they have a problem in having to set aside two seats. There may be many more seats, as noble Lords have said, and other peculiar constituencies that would rather not be broken up or merged. There are lots of constraints that the Government are trying to ignore. If they had 650 seats, they would be able to achieve their aim of reducing the anomaly between the size of the seats and the number of votes required for a candidate to be elected and to solve the problem of all the other constraints, such as the peculiarity of certain constituencies.
When most other countries redraw boundaries or do redistricting, as it is called in America, to make adjustments for population changes, as happened recently in India and as happens periodically in the United States, they do not change the total number of seats. They change only the drawing of boundaries between constituencies. With a system whereby you are trying to do several things at the same time, you end up with a very inadequate solution to the problem.
The Government may have a perfectly good, non-political reason for reducing the number of seats to 600, but that has not been stated. One problem that we are facing is in knowing whether the Government’s main aim is to reduce the number of MPs, in which case why make the figure 600? Why not 550 or 500—why not half the House of Commons? We do not know. Are the Government trying to increase the load for MPs, which will clearly be a result of this measure? That surely cannot be the aim.
Are the Government trying to do their best to achieve justice whereby each vote has the same value? Yes. Since every other country that has tried to solve the problem has solved it without reducing the total number of seats, I fail to understand why the Government have added that additional constraint. We could go back to the Boundary Commission solution and adopt it and not put a constraint of 600 seats but try as best as possible to equalise the size of seats and electorates. Then we could see what the number would be. We could see whether we could reduce it slightly within certain limits. That may be possible. Right now we are trying to do something that is very worthy, but the way in which it is being done—hedged in by other constraints—will prove counterproductive.
Here in this Committee stage we are having a discussion of the various conflicting objectives that the Government are trying to achieve in a very narrow and constricted framework. If the framework had not been so narrow and constricted, the solution would have been much easier.
I support the amendment, in the sense that I understand it to be a probing amendment about the Government’s decision to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 Members. I do not have a problem about reducing the size of the House of Commons, but I have a problem when it is not done on the basis of principle and when the process by which the new figure is arrived at has been opaque. That is precisely what we have seen here. In this context, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maples, on a thoughtful and analytical attempt to pursue precisely that sort of argument on the basis of principle. I do not agree with everything that he said but, for the first time that I can recall from the government Benches, we had an analytical approach based on principles, which the noble Lord set out very persuasively in many cases. What I want to know from the Government—and I shall come to this in a moment—is why we have not heard that sort of quality of speech from them on this issue.
I hope that I am not misrepresenting Ministers when I say that, in previous discussions on this issue, they have rather airily waved aside the question of the size of the House of Commons, as if it was a piffling matter. It needed to be reduced and whether it was reduced by a bit or a bit more did not matter very much. But it really does matter, because the size of the House of Commons shapes the size of each constituency, even more so when we are looking to equalise the size of these constituencies, as this Bill seeks to do, and with certain qualifications. Most Members of both Houses of Parliament would support that aim. The size of the constituency crucially determines the nature of the relationship between the Member of Parliament and their constituents. That lies at the very heart of our democratic arrangements. I have touched on this issue in previous debates and Ministers have more or less ignored what I have said, so I hope that they will forgive me if I spell it out in just a little bit more detail now in the hope that they will now engage with this issue, even if they do not particularly agree with the view that I take on it.
When I was the Member of Parliament for Swindon North, I used to deal with about 200 to 300 e-mails and letters every week. I was helped by outstanding staff, but I had to deal with those letters and e-mails, as they were on issues of such importance to my constituents that they were not delegated to staff. I was helped, but I dealt with each of them. Most of those letters—around three-quarters, on one estimate that I took about three years ago—came about because of the problems that my constituents had with Swindon Borough Council. Most of the rest were on problems that constituents had with various agencies of central government. Most MPs, including former Members of the other place in this House, will probably have had similar, if not identical, experiences. That casework is detailed and complex, which is why, in the end, I felt that I had to take responsibility and be directly engaged with it.
It follows logically from that that if any constituency were to be increased significantly in size it would be that much more difficult for any conscientious MP to deal with that casework in exactly the same way. It would be equally hard if further decentralisation of power to local authorities increased the workload of MPs trying to sort out constituents’ problems with local authorities, such as Swindon Borough Council. Those facts may argue for even smaller constituencies and therefore more of them. On the other hand, it could be argued that, should decentralisation result in more powerful, effective and competent local authorities—and, indeed, local councillors—it would lighten the casework of Members of Parliament, leaving MPs freer to concentrate on work at Westminster. That might argue for fewer constituencies; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was arguing for that. These are important issues and he made the case for having a significant reduction in the number of constituencies perfectly well. I do not altogether agree with him, as the work that MPs do for their constituencies is profoundly important in a healthy democracy, but he made a cogent case.
The crucial point is that we have had no realistic, sensible discussion about how far the ability of an MP to manage their casework effectively and personally matters. This is an important issue for debate. We may come to different conclusions, but proper public debate on this is surely important. Even the Government could not deny it, yet they have denied the public and both Houses of Parliament any proper opportunity to debate it. Moreover, as I have said, there is no question but that the increasingly plural levels of government, with a complex and constantly evolving mix of local authorities, devolved Administrations and national and European institutions, are reshaping the nature of the MP’s relationship with their constituents. That must have significant implications for the appropriate size of the constituency and so for the size of the House of Commons.
I discussed all those issues in the amendment that I put forward last week. I hope that the House will forgive me, but earlier in today’s debate a noble Baroness from the Cross Benches—I am afraid that I did not catch who she was—made some comments about that amendment. I fear that she was in danger of misrepresenting my position, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I put on record what my exact position was. She concluded her remarks by asking why we had had that lengthy debate on my amendment, which was then not put to the vote. That was my decision as a Back-Bencher. She then said that Cross-Benchers could be forgiven for wondering what was going on. I will catch up with Hansard tomorrow and perhaps write to that Cross-Bencher as well about this, but perhaps I might inform the Committee what was going on.
I spent nearly three years as the Minister for Constitutional Reform in the previous Government. I spent a great deal of that time looking at all these issues in great depth—rather more time than the Ministers have collectively had available to them in government to look at them. I thought that it would help this House and its business of revising and scrutinising legislation if I put down an amendment summarising my experience as a Minister in looking at those complex issues. I thought that that would be of service to the House. I hope that the noble Baroness, when she looks in Hansard for my remarks, will agree that putting down such an amendment was helpful. I have no responsibility for the length of time that it took, but it was a long and complex debate because this is a difficult and complex issue. I sat throughout the three and a half hours of that debate and I heard no repetition from any of the noble Lords who took part. My only regret is that there was only one substantive contribution from the Benches opposite. The debate on the amendment could easily have taken longer and it would have been valuable if it had. The fact that it did not is a matter of regret to me.
Why did I not push that amendment to a vote? I am afraid that I am still fairly innocent in the ways of this House. Various views were being expressed to me, quite vigorously and from all sides, about whether to push it to a vote but I understood quite clearly that, if I put it to a vote and that was lost, there was no opportunity to return to this issue on Report. When I announced that I was not going to push it to a vote—and I hope that the noble Baroness from the Cross Benches, who is still anonymous to me, at least, will look at what I said—I quite clearly said why. I said that, to me, the case for my amendment was still so strong and so much in the Government’s own interest—their long-term strategic interest, not narrow, tactical or partisan manoeuvring—that I hoped that they would look again at it and that I would bring it forward again at Report, when I hoped to have a more constructive response from the Government. I still believe that and hope that that will happen.
I do not think that that was unreasonable. I hope that the noble Baroness will look at those remarks and understand then that what was going on was not, as I fear she was trying to insinuate, that I was plotting in some nefarious way to filibuster and to derail this legislation. I am not, because, as I have said, I am perhaps unusual in this House—on both sides of this Chamber—in supporting the Government’s broad objectives in both parts of the Bill. I have no wish to see the referendum on AV derailed. I know that many of my colleagues disagree but I want to support it and, again, have expressed before my broad support for it. I am afraid that I take exception to being accused of somehow trying to derail and filibuster this legislation.
My noble friend will know that I was one of those who were pressing him to have a vote. I have indeed changed my mind because he was, quite rightly, arguing privately that there was a need for the House to have the time to gestate and understand the implications of that amendment. Another reason for changing my mind was that there were a lot of Cross-Benchers in the House—more during that debate than on any other issue that we have discussed on the whole Bill. Some of us realised that it was important that we gathered their support over the following days, this being one of them. I am sorry that my noble friend was criticised as he was.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. All that I ask the Government to reflect on in approaching this is that these issues are profoundly important. They are difficult and complex and there will, inevitably, be valid points of view on all sides on all these issues. If they will not listen to me, I hope that they will take an example from the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maples. That was the sort of debate of which we could have had far more thus far from the other Benches. In whatever time is left for us to debate the Bill, I hope that we will see more contributions such as the noble Lord’s from his colleagues on those Benches.
Any responsible legislative process would have set out these and all the other relevant issues and then consulted on them and come to a decision on the optimum size of a constituency and so of the House of Commons. Allowing the British people themselves to have a say in this would have been desirable, but the Government have not done that. Instead, they have determined a figure, for which they have failed so far to produce any good reason, and then shaped everything else around it. This is not just a wasted opportunity but a lazy and irresponsible way in which to approach legislation of such importance. It is also damaging to our democratic process—all the more so, I have to say in passing, because of the way in which the Government seem intent on getting this legislation nodded through this Chamber.
Why have the Government failed to produce any coherent explanation for how they arrived at this figure of 600? It is curious, as other noble Lords have pointed out, that before the election both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats had decided on a figure lower than 600 and had arguments for doing so, which we have heard today from the noble Lord, Lord Maples. So why did they change their minds? There is a coherent case for keeping to the pledges that they made to the electorate before the election. That coherent case was made by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, today. Why did they not stick to it? They will not say.
In an attempt to elucidate this information, I put in a freedom of information request, as I have already told the House. The last time I mentioned this in the House, I mentioned that I had not yet had a response, but such is the power and influence of this House that the next day I got a response, for which I am delighted. The response that I received from the Cabinet Office, dated 11 January, confirmed that the modelling that I was looking for on the impact of a reduction to 600 and to lower figures exists but that some of that information is being withheld under Section 35(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act. I think that the Government have ignored the existence of Section 35(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which would remove their justification for exempting the information that I requested, so I have put in a request for an internal review of the Cabinet Office’s decision and I look forward with great interest to seeing the results of that review.
Leaving aside the legislative niceties of this, I believe that the public should know how and why the Government went back on the promises that they made to the electorate at the election and decided to increase the size of their reconstituted House of Commons to 600. The public want to know how the Government think this will affect their relationship as voters with their MPs. I think—and I say this in kindness to Ministers—that the public want to be reassured that, in reaching that figure of 600, the Government were not motivated in any way by the pursuit of partisan advantage. They will want to be reassured about that. The Government must realise that, as long as they fail to come up with any coherent argument for why that figure of 600 was arrived at, the suspicion must remain. They cannot avoid this. I know that it is unwelcome.
I see Ministers sitting on the Benches opposite and I know that they are without exception decent and honourable men and women. It is with some trepidation that I keep coming back to this point, but they must realise the cynicism that exists about all politicians at the moment. They must realise that the suspicion that they are motivated by nothing but partisan self-interest exists and they should be doing everything that they possibly can to dispel it, so I hope that when the Minister concludes the debate on this amendment he can provide some reassurance about that.
On Thursday last week, I wrote to the noble and learned Lord’s colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, asking whether he could release the information that I had requested. When you put in a freedom of information request, it refers only to work that has been done within the Executive by government, not to work that clearly feeds into the process of formulating legislation that is done by special advisers and Conservative and Liberal Democrat party officials. I have therefore also asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in the interests of openness and transparency and of reassuring the public about the Government’s motivation in alighting on this figure, whether he can confirm—it may be that the Minister can confirm this in his remarks at the end of this debate—whether any modelling has been done on the differential impacts of different sizes of the House of Commons on the party composition of the House of Commons, either within government or by the Liberal party, the Conservative Party or special advisers. He can confirm or deny it. I very much hope that he will take this opportunity to start clearing up this issue once and for all. It is an important issue and we need to move forward from it. We can do so only if he can provide us with the reassurance for which I am asking.
My Lords, I join my noble friend in trying to answer the question he raised about why the numbers have changed from the electoral commitments made by the two parties opposite to the grand round figure of 600. Perhaps the answer may be found in part in the adage of US politics that an election platform is something to run on, not to stand on. I join my noble friend in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Maples. If we are to have a debate, here is someone who has, as always, in a radical and rather wonderfully iconoclastic way made his own contribution to the debate. I hope that there will be a contagion and that Members alongside him will adopt what he said and at least join in the debate, not just on this magic number of 600 but on the way in which this Bill has been handled. I had the privilege of serving with the noble Lord, Lord Maples, for eight years, I think, on the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, and I can say with deep sincerity that I valued very much the independent, non-partisan contributions that he made. I think that for at least part of the time he was vice-chairman of his party, but he is very ready to join independently in debate. I disagree with one or two points that he made about the numbers, but at least it was an honest contribution.
When I approached the House this morning, I was reflecting on what I might say, having packed my toothbrush. I picked up, as I normally do, the Daily Telegraph, and came across page 23, which reminded me that today has been called “suicide Monday”. The headline is:
“How to get through Blue Monday”—
that is today—
“Lovebomb your partner, take up salsa or sing to the skies—these are just a few of the expert tips for beating the blues”.
Nothing was said about how to face a long, dark night and still be sufficiently alert to make what one hopes will be a coherent contribution.
I am certainly not wedded to any particular number—600, 650—but the onus, as always, is on those who wish to make a change to make the case not only for reducing the number below 650 but for why this magic number of 600 has been selected. It is not good enough to say, as I think the Leader of the House did, that it is a nice round number. No doubt there will be some advantages, but there will also be many disadvantages, and there is no way in which there has been a testing of the arguments for and against by any independent experts. There is an unseemly haste about the way in which the Government have moved.
I think a number of noble Lords will remember with affection Lord Weatherill, who was a very distinguished Speaker and the Convener of the Cross-Bench Peers. I see another distinguished Speaker close by. Lord Weatherill began in the family business with an apprenticeship as a tailor. He told me that on the first day he was there, he was apprenticed to an old Jewish tailor who was asked to make a suit from the cloth very speedily. The old, tried tailor said to his boss: “Do you want it quick or do you want it good?”. There is a certain lesson for us in legislation. Do we want it quick or do we want it good, particularly when there is no objective reason for speeding along on this? This is not a national emergency or something relating to an external threat or internal terrorism; this is something that the Government have chosen according to their own timetable in a fairly authoritarian way.
I go back long enough in politics to remember, again with affection, Lord Hailsham. I sat behind him on occasion when he was a very robust and amusing Queen’s Counsel. I also watched him in action in the House. At a certain stage, he defined a term—I think it was called elective dictatorship or the dictatorship of the majority. He was, as always, extraordinarily eloquent about elective dictatorship and carried us along quite far. However—surprise, surprise—when he and his party got into government, he forgot all about elective dictatorship. He was there for at least part of the time of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she abolished the old GLC because she did not like it, and when she took away many local government powers. Gone was the eloquence about elective dictatorship. He had a remarkable, almost Damascene, conversion. I hope I can spirit back Lord Hailsham, who I admit was a great parliamentarian and for whom I had great affection.
Does my noble friend know that Lord Hailsham’s qualities were hereditary? His son became very similar. When he was a Minister in the House of Commons he refused to answer any questions during Department of Trade and Industry Questions. I was constrained to call him an “arrogant little shit”. The then Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, said that I should withdraw. I asked which word he wanted me to withdraw and he told me that I knew. That is the kind of behaviour that we do not want to get into in this House. Is that not a good point to make?
I have known my noble friend for a long time. We were in a team together for much of the 1980s. I have never known him to be constrained by anything. I am glad to hear that he was at least constrained on that occasion.
I start with this preliminary point about the style of government. If the Government are serious about democracy and listening to the arguments for and against, they will not juggernaut the Bill through at odd hours of the night when, as my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, there will be a differential turnout in any vote, depending on who is more tired than anyone else. There will not be the sort of objective discussion that we would hope for. I was thinking of paraphrasing Bob Marley about how a hungry man is an angry man. A tired man is not a good legislator. I recall, on one occasion in the other place, having three all-nighters in succession on the Steel Bill. No one, anywhere in the House, can think that the Steel Bill was at that time a proper piece of legislation. However, sheep-like, we went through the Corridor. It was done mechanically, with no serious debate. I hope that, as in the spirit of this place, we will reject that sort of movement.
Turning to the numbers, the central question, which has not received an answer is: why 600? There is clearly an argument for a certain flexibility, as the noble Lord, Lord Maples, has said. Perhaps I can share some degree of experience on this. I had the privilege of representing two very different constituencies in the other place. One was the constituency of Monmouth, which at that time had not been won by my party previously and had been represented by a great parliamentarian, Lord Thorneycroft, although he was not called that then. It was a typical county seat with quite a sizeable electorate. I was able to manage it reasonably well because it was a highly educated constituency. The sort of problems that were brought to me were, as often as not, those of planning permission. I recall one village meeting when there was a question as to whether a local bus should be discontinued. The grandees in the village said, “No one takes the bus anyway. Why should we bother?”. Only afterwards did a couple of rather poor people detach themselves and think, “We use the bus”. They just did not, alas, have the self-confidence to make that point. That was one constituency, which was quite manageable. If the electorate had been not 75,000 or 78,000 but 100,000, I could still have managed the constituency effectively.
I then had the good fortune to move to the much safer seat—the electorate chose, not me—of Swansea East, which is a seat of multideprivation. In the schools there are many statemented pupils, and special needs are substantial. Often, folk did not have the self-confidence of those in the traditional county seat. I had been a diplomat or a civil servant for some time, so if nothing else I had learnt how to write a letter. Sometimes I felt that in trying to represent my own people—I was born in a working-class street and brought up in the city of Swansea—I had a role like that of the letter-writer in an Indian village. I was able, because of my privileged background, to write letters on behalf of these people. There has to be a personal touch.
One of my sons worked for an American Representative. He hardly met this Representative at all because the office was so large. The US Representative had an automatic signing machine. I very much hope that these have not reached Westminster. They have, have they? Certainly, they had not come when I left the other place in 2005, as far as I can recall. It meant that people in his constituency or district received letters that had had no personal attention at all from the Representative. As a matter of honour, I made sure that I was in my constituency on Saturday mornings, sometimes for six or seven hours. I made it a point of honour to walk, as often as I could, through the market in Swansea to meet people and learn about their problems. That local touch is so important. Clearly, as night follows day, the larger the constituencies are, the less there can be that local touch, which humanises government, makes people feel less alienated, and makes them feel that the Government—indeed, Westminster and the whole establishment—are on their side and doing their best to help them.
Therefore, drawing this odd figure of 78,000 out of the air and stretching it in this way—I think my noble friend mentioned a Procrustean bed—can have malign effects. I am certainly convinced not only of the arguments for democracy generally but of those for fitting an electorate according to the needs of particular people. I fear that this figure of 600—chosen from the air and for which no explanation has been given—will certainly not do that.
Wales will be hardest hit. I will not dwell on this because I know that other amendments will allow me to wax, I hope rather eloquently, on Wales and my own city. Wales, by any rule, is hit by far the hardest by this proposal. It is likely that the number of seats in Wales will be reduced from 40 to 30. Wales is a relatively disadvantaged part of the United Kingdom. I know that my noble friend Lord Touhig, if he is able to make a contribution and who has experience of the western valley of Monmouthshire, will make the same sort of point. We are relatively disadvantaged; therefore, there is a greater need for that human touch.
We all accept that, just as the number of seats in Scotland was reduced when primary legislation passed to the Scottish Parliament, the same must happen in Wales when it follows the Scottish precedent. However, there is no case for moving from 40 to 30 seats now. Wales has always been slightly privileged in this way for good reasons and that should continue. I will not develop the point, but my own city of Swansea has three seats at the moment, each one of roughly 60,000 people. If we were to go to an average mathematical formula of 76,000 or 78,000, there would be rather less than two and a half seats in my city. That means that it would have to scrabble around for areas that have no natural affinity with the city but which would satisfy some mathematical formula of 78,000 people. In my judgment, that again ignores the human aspect, but I hope to develop the question in relation to Welsh constituencies rather later.
In my judgment the Government are going ahead in a rather draconian way. If they want a Passchendaele, they will have a Passchendaele. Lip service is given to accountability but the timetable set for the Bill is not warranted by any objective criteria. Why is it so urgent to get the number of seats reduced from 650 to 600? Is there any objective urgency about that? Is there any reason why there should not be proper debate? Is there any reason why we should not—as the noble Lord, Lord Maples, has done—put across our own arguments and perhaps convince one another of the virtue of those arguments? Although an argument might be made in relation to the referendum on the alternative vote—that is a rather orphan concept because no party in this House wants the alternative vote—by no stretch of the imagination can an argument be made for urgency in respect of the reduction of seats, whether it is from 650 to 600 or, under the timetable set by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, from 650 to 600, 600 to 500, or 500 to 400. At least let us debate that. That could well be compensated for in democratic terms by building up the intermediary bodies, be they the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. Clearly, the English electorates have rejected regional assemblies, but that is another argument. Why not give more powers to local government and try to have more parish councils or urban parish councils? I had the privilege of serving on the first ever urban parish council and in my judgment that was almost as close as one could get to Rousseau’s forest clearing of democracy, whereby the people who know one another get together and make decisions related to their locality. Why not have this Bill accompanied by a massive devolution to local authorities—les corps intermédiaires, as the French would say? But no, there is none of that.
As regards the numerical range 650 to 600, there is a deep suspicion that 600 has been chosen for wholly partisan reasons. I interjected in the speech of my noble and learned friend to say that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This is not the way in which we in this country carry out constitutional change. The pendulum will swing. Over the years I have frequently lectured on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I have run groups for new Members of Parliament in a number of African countries such as Somaliland. Apart from urging the case for more female representation in those Parliaments, as I am sure noble Baronesses would accept, one of my themes has always been that the majority should not force through constitutional amendments and should not fix amendments which happen to suit their own interest. When I next have the privilege of lecturing to Commonwealth parliamentarians—it is fair to say that they still, for the most part, refer to our own legislative body as the mother of Parliaments—I will be rather reluctant to talk about the principle that the majority should not fix constitutions in their own interest. There should be proper debate and an independent, outside body to monitor this legislation. It should be done not in unseemly haste but properly. If that is not the case, almost certainly one of those Commonwealth parliamentarians will use this as an example of what should not be done.
My Lords, at Question Time this afternoon the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, asked a very pertinent Question of Her Majesty’s Government concerning what proposals there were to limit the amount of legislation that is churned out by government. As far as I am concerned, he was speaking of Governments of all colours. I did not take part in that debate because so many other distinguished Members had more to contribute, but I feel that one solution to the problem is that there should be a general presumption against legislation unless, on a balance of probabilities, that presumption can be overthrown by showing that it is better to have that piece of legislation than not to have it. That would be a not unreasonable test for legislation in the months and years ahead.
If one holds up this issue to that template, the case against this part of the Bill is very clearly made out. We are told that the number of constituencies shall be reduced from 650 to 600. It seems to me that the arguments that are put in favour of that are woefully inadequate and, indeed, very thin on any account. It is said that it would save £12 million per annum. That is a vast amount of money as far as individuals are concerned but it seems to me that you can never guarantee that £12 million would be saved, or even that there would be any net saving at all, because if you change the rules to that extent one never knows what the costs of the other system—the alternative system—would be unless those have been calculated to a very fine degree, which is not the case.
The other argument deployed is that many other European parliaments have fewer than 650 Members. Of course they have, because two-thirds of them have a population that is a half, a third, a quarter or even a 10th of our own, so what sort of argument is that? When one compares the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons with the comparable situation in Italy and France, one finds oneself very much on a par. Therefore, it seems to me that there is no real argument at all in favour of a reduction. That, I suggest, is the real issue here—not whether the reduction should be X or Y but whether there should be a reduction at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, whose speech greatly impressed me, as always, made it clear that a decision should have been taken on the basis of evidence. He and I have lived in a world where people have been determined on the basis of evidence, and on inferences that can be drawn from evidence. Where is the evidence here? You would not hang a dog on these arguments—the £12-million argument and the argument of comparability with other countries. It is perfectly clear that in the past 60 years the number of Members of Parliament has increased—not by much, by 4 per cent—and that during that period the population has increased by 25 per cent.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, advocates an independent examination by the great and the good. I would dearly welcome that. I made my next point last week and apologise for repeating it but that body might come to the conclusion that there should be a reduction. On the other hand, it might come to a conclusion that there should be more Members of Parliament. As we have heard from many noble Lords, Members of Parliament are far more get-attable in this modern, electronic age than they ever were. I was a Member of the other place 40 years ago, and I had a very literate and, if I may say so, literary constituency. I had to reply in my own impossible hieroglyphic hand to dozens of letters nearly every day. I shudder to think what the situation would be now with electronic communication.
One does not need any great imagination to ask the question: upon what real evidence is a diminution in the number of Members of Parliament based at all? Is it based on party considerations? I hope not. That would be very unworthy of any of the persons concerned. Is it based upon populism? It may well be. If this issue had been raised perhaps five or 10 years ago, before there was the general opprobrium in which, rightly or wrongly, so many Members of Parliament are held, would the attitude have been the same?
Some years ago, a distinguished Conservative Member of Parliament was giving evidence to the Boundary Commission. I do not have the exact wording, but I can guarantee that this essentially is what he said: “Some of my colleagues are in favour of reducing the number of Members of Parliament, but I am not”. That was Mr Cameron, the Member for Witney. What has changed in the past five or six years? Do the Government really believe that there is a genuine case—a case in reality and in integrity—for a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament? It is only the Government themselves who can answer that question; and it is a vital question.
I make no apology for having taken part in this debate. I wish to mention one matter before I take my seat. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Swynnerton and I were suspected last week of having taken part in a filibuster. We spoke very briefly. We made very different points. His were at least as good as mine, but they were pertinent to the issue. I do not think that it came within a thousand miles of a filibuster. To my mind, a filibuster is what happened in the House of Commons at the very end of the 19th century. A Member by the name of Tim Healy—an Irishman who was a brilliant Member and was the first Speaker of the Dáil in the 20th century—had spoken for two and a half years—
Two and a half hours. To the Speaker of the House of Commons, it may have seemed two and a half years. The Speaker got to his feet and said very politely to him, “Mr Healy, for quite some time now I have been trying to associate your argument with the matter before the House”. Healy said: “Mr Speaker, sir, I apologise profusely. In which case, I have no alternative but to repeat the whole of my remarks”. Nothing like that has happened in this place, and I certainly, apologia pro vita mea, et the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, plead that we did not come within a thousand miles of doing that.
What we have listened to for the past hour and a half is a simple question: what is the evidence? Where are the facts? Quite frankly, I am as puzzled now as I was then, because we have heard only one contribution from the whole of the Benches opposite. Perhaps on this side of the Chamber there are more contributions because this House and the other House always relish people who speak from their own experience. What we are discussing is the impact upon not only Parliament but Members of Parliament, if the change takes place.
We can all speak from our own experience. I became a Member of the Commons in 1974. It is now more than 35 years since then. All I can say is that the workload for a Member of Parliament has grown from the days, for instance, when MPs could say to their friends: “I have to go down to the constituency this month. It is the quarterly meeting of the constituency party and they will expect to see me”. There are some constituencies—I will not mention the political party—which relished the fact that their MP did not live in the constituency. Not any more. The demands of the constituency party on the Member of Parliament are such that he not only lives there, but when they want him, they expect to see him there.
I once sat down to a meal in my first year, in 1974, when I happened to be an official on one of the all-party committees. Our guest was Sir Roy Strong, who lived in my constituency, Edmonton. He said, “Ted, I often see your name doing things in the constituency. That is marvellous. How often do you come there?”. I said, “I live there”. He said, “How often do you meet your constituents?”. I said, “I meet them every day, because I come up from Bush Hill Park station to Seven Sisters and change. I speak to my constituents”. He said, “Yes, but what happens about their problems?”. I said, “Every Friday morning, I go to Edmonton Green market and they stop to tell me their problems. If they are complicated, I say, ‘Come down to my surgery’”. He said, “How often do you meet your constituents in the surgery?”. I said, “Once every fortnight, without fail; but I deal also with big postbags and small”. I said I remembered that I once, from one fortnight to the next, dealt with 100 cases. I listened to them; it was not a case worker or researcher who did that for me. I did it for myself. He said, “That is impressive”. He turned to my other colleague and asked, “Do you have something like Ted’s record in this?”. The other parliamentarian said, “Perhaps I do not go down as often, but I meet my constituents about 15 times a year”. I asked, “How does that happen?”. He said, “I have five towns in my constituency. Three times a year, the Saturday before Parliament meets, I have a surgery. It is advertised. I am there at 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock and 11 o’clock. I have five places where I meet my constituents and I am there three times a year each. That is 15 times”. I said, “Do you mean that you give up three Saturday mornings?”. He said, “Yes, but it is not too far to come to Westminster by train. They can come and see me”.
I reflected upon the different ways in which a constituency MP looks upon his job. Some look upon it as literally being a shepherd—someone who is there to lead the flock, but is always to be there. I listened, as we all did, to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, who obviously spoke on behalf of the whole Back Benches on the government side, because we have not heard another contribution to this debate from them. He made me think, because he said that among his ambitions would be to reduce the amount of money spent on staff for Members of Parliament, who do all sorts of things that other people could do. You cannot have it both ways. If a Member of Parliament needs the assistance that Members of all parties have enjoyed for the past 10 or 15 years and this cannot be sustained, that means that the Member of Parliament will take on a heavier workload. I wonder what the Government are intending to do here. Do they just want to save money? Are they reorganising matters so that they are less costly? What will be the impact and effect of that on the quality of democracy and service that we as parliamentarians give?
I am puzzled by the silence of the lambs; that was the title of a film that I saw. Noble Lords on the other side of the Chamber are keeping silent, first, because they have been told to. As good party Members, they support their Government. I do not blame them for that. However, at the end of the day they must ask themselves whether this is the way that we should conduct our business. When I was the opposition Chief Whip many years ago, I dealt with four Chief Whips. The noble Lord, Lord Denham—Bertie Denham, a marvellous man—was succeeded by Alexander Hesketh, by the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, and then by a man who was then much younger and more sprightly, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I say without a shadow of a doubt that I never had a problem with any of the four, and nor did they have a problem with me.
Whenever I was asked outside the House what the Chief Whip does, I would say that he is a last resort for avoiding trouble in the Chamber. I wrote a book called From Tyne to Thames Via the Usual Channels. People asked whether “the usual channels” was an allusion to Tyneside or the Thames. I explained that the job of the Chief Whips, when there was trouble in the Chamber, was to meet, and that I could not recall an occasion when the government Chief Whip of the day was unable to come back and say that the matter had been solved. There was parley: you gave and you took, and there was a settlement. What I cannot understand about the present position is the downgrading of the worth and the quality of the usual channels. I am satisfied that if the government Front Bench wished, they would be able to find a compromise, because at the end of the day that is what the government Chief Whip is for.
In the last great constitutional debate, in 1998, I spoke on the second night at 2.30 am. I was speaker 184 in a list of 192. That was all done by agreement. Forget the issues: agreement was reached and we were happy as a Government to collaborate in that situation. When I reflect on the Government's intentions, I find it very sad. The two parties have come together as a coalition and each laid down what they want to get out of their agreement. What suffers as a result is the standing and stature of this place and of the Commons. We should not stand for that here. I am a loyal supporter of my leader, of my Chief Whip and of my Front Bench, and I will do what I am asked to do in this situation. However, I cannot help feeling that this is a sad day and that this is a sad Bill. It is one of many and we should not see any more.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow such a distinguished parliamentarian as the noble Lord, Lord Graham at Edmonton. His remarks exposed the cynicism of the Bill. We are talking in essence about the relationship between the elected Member and their constituents. I am in a unique position as the only Member of the House who has ever taken action to reduce the size of the House of Commons. I was responsible for the legislation that reduced the number of Scottish Members of Parliament following devolution. One reason that I refer to that relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said about the usual channels. It was done as a result of consensus. The only lack of consensus that I found was from my own colleagues, because I was putting a number of them out of a job. However, the importance on a major constitutional issue of seeking consensus cannot be overstated. In this House, as distinct from the other place, we are appointed and not elected Members, so the quest for consensus should be even greater.
I was very disappointed to hear the Leader of the House criticise our debate the other night on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on account of the length of the discussion. He implied that there was a filibuster. Frankly, the amendment went to the root of the issues that we must address. It concerned the complete inability of the government Front Bench to answer the question: why 600? If I have asked once, I have asked half a dozen times: why not 500, which is the Liberal Democrat position; or 585, which is the last known position of the Conservative Party? When I probed this with the Leader of the House, he laughed and said that it was a nice round number. That is an affront to democracy, as is the failure to address some of the substantive points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about the need for scientific analysis of the job of a modern Member of Parliament. How much time is needed to conduct constituency work?
I return to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maples. He is not in his place, but I hope that he might read this tomorrow in Hansard. He referred to the change in the number of Scottish MPs after devolution, when we had 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. It is interesting that the workload of Westminster Members of Parliament did not markedly change. For a start, constituents are not meant to be experts in the constitution. They would come to whoever they wanted to talk to about issues such as education, social services, the local authority and housing. I worked closely with my Member of the Scottish Parliament. If somebody came to me with a problem, I would not tell them to go away because I was not a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I would take on the case and pass it to my colleague in the Scottish Parliament, and she in turn would do the same to me.
It was also interesting, following the reduction in the number of MPs, that all of us who remained had to get to know new parts of our constituencies and new people. The workload did not diminish, but changed in nature. I mentioned the other night, after an excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, about ethnic minorities, that I represented a seat that I had been born and brought up in, which was a white seat. I did not take on an immigration case probably until 2000. To some extent, that was because of demographic movement. People moved into the constituency and suddenly I found myself having to deal with immigration matters that I had never dealt with before. I had to deal with matters relating, for example, to forced marriage. The socio-economic structure of the constituency affects the nature of the work that a Member of Parliament does. I had two towns and 19 villages. Most of them were mining communities. In the areas of multiple deprivation, my workload was much greater than it was in the more middle-class areas of the constituency. This was, first, because the confidence levels of my constituents varied according to their socio-economic background. You cannot take a rule of thumb and say, “This is a constituency with lots of trees, so there will not be problems of multiple deprivation”. The nature of the workload of a Member of Parliament changes in relation to the socio-economic shape of that constituency.
One of the reasons why we had devolution in Scotland—I mention this point because it relates to what we will be going through tonight—was because Scotland had a smaller constituency electorate for its Members of Parliament prior to devolution. At the time of the Act of Union, separate legislation was enshrined in our constitution. At the time of devolution, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was the Secretary of State for Scotland and the then Scottish Office was the equivalent of 13 different government departments. Scottish Members of Parliament might finish an education Bill in the other place and vote at 10 o’clock at night, then start a Scottish education Bill at 11 o’clock that night. One of the criticisms made of the arrangements at the time was in asking how you could you get proper scrutiny of legislation in the middle of the night. Those who have been Scottish Members—I only had a short spell at that—learnt how to scrutinise legislation in the middle of the night. If we need to do it, we will do it.
I go back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Wills about the pressing need to have some scientific analysis of what should be the ideal size of the House of Commons. It is almost as if people are picking up the pin numbers on their mobile phones in dreaming up the number of MPs that there should be in the other place. There is a need to look at the constituency work of Members of Parliament; there is also a need to look at the parliamentary work of Members of Parliament, whether they serve on select committees or whether they are taking through specific legislation. That is an opportunity that has again been missed. There was an opportunity in this legislation to consider whether people genuinely felt that the time had come to look in detail at the relationship of a Member of Parliament to his or her constitutional and constituency roles. There should have been some proper, defined research on it across the House. It should not be something that has been dreamt up for what can only be defined as an extremely cynical reason.
This Bill is not about improving the constitution of the United Kingdom. It is about buying off two parts of a coalition. That is one of the real reasons why there is such cynicism about the Bill and one of the reasons why it is an aberration on our constitutional arrangements that we should be criticised for seeking to scrutinise the Bill in such detail. I will no doubt return to this matter again and again. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton put it into context. If we lose sight of the people whose interests we are here allegedly to look after—the constituents and citizens of this country—then we have done no service to this House and we certainly have done no service to parliamentary democracy.
My Lords, I rather differ from my noble friends on the Front Bench. I could not support this amendment were they to test the opinion of the House because I do not think that it is right for government to fix the size of the House of Commons, which would be the consequence of this amendment. However, I think that it is a valuable amendment if it has been tabled as a probing one, as we need to get at some principles on how the size of the House of Commons should be determined. Like my noble friends, I have sought in vain so far to understand the principle that is animating the Government’s policy in this Bill.
The Liberal Democrats, in opposition, took a principled position. They proposed that the size of the House of Commons should be reduced to 500 Members but that would be on the basis of their being elected on the single transferable vote system and of more extensive devolution and the creation of regional assemblies. On that basis it was entirely reasonable that they should argue for a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons. Before the election, the Conservative Party proposed that there should be 585 Members of the House of Commons, and it was more difficult to ascertain the principle underpinning that proposition. My noble friend Lady Liddell has already referred to the observation of the noble Lord the Leader of the House that a 10 per cent reduction was a nice round figure, just as he said that 600 in the House of Commons was a nice round figure. Both 585 and 600 are nice round figures, but we would all agree that that is an insufficiently convincing basis for introducing a very major constitutional change that would weaken the capacity of the House of Commons and would tilt the system of parliamentary representation by favouring the Conservative Party and disfavouring the Labour Party. We therefore need to find better reasons.
We have not yet heard any good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons. At least the noble Lord, Lord Maples, had a go at trying to persuade us that it would be a good idea. Conservative arguments, such as they are, have been that the House of Commons is expensive and that the British people are overrepresented in the House of Commons compared with representation in other legislatures. Those reasons simply do not stand up to scrutiny. The argument that you should take 50 Members out of the House of Commons to save £12 million is risible. It would be risible even if you would save £12 million, but as a number of my noble friends have already explained, we will not save £12 million because the costs for a reduced number of Members of Parliament serving larger numbers of constituents would be no less. Possibly, when the Minister winds up this debate a little later, he would be kind enough to remind us what proportion of the fiscal deficit is £12 million.
It is part of the constitutional function of the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation. We are a bicameral Parliament. We have two Houses of Parliament and a duty in that respect. Moreover, the noble Lord is, as I am, a citizen of this country and we are entitled to take an interest in the development of the constitutional structure of this country. It is legitimate for us to raise some of these issues.
Perhaps my noble friend could usefully redirect the noble Lord’s perceptive question to the government Front Bench. Perhaps the Government could tell us why there is a Part 2 to the Bill and why, therefore, we are discussing matters related to the elected part of these Houses of Parliament, instead of spending a short time additionally on the referendum and the alternative vote, and providing the Government with their legislation in good time for that referendum on 5 May.
The intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was very interesting, because that is the question that is being asked by many Members on that side of the House, but they never intervene during the course of debate. We would welcome an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Perhaps he would like to embroider his comments, because he would be speaking on behalf of all his colleagues on the Back Benches.
I think I could even be persuaded by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to sit down a little earlier than I otherwise would in anticipation of hearing him develop his thoughts at rather ampler length. I think that the whole House will look forward to that.
There are all sorts of possibilities. Happily, the Government’s business managers have ensured that we will not be excessively constrained for time as we debate these issues, so we can look forward to many noble Lords opposite helping us to understand, if they will, the case for what the Government are doing.
It is perplexing. Ministers have suggested that the size of the House of Commons has crept up—that phrase was used in previous debates. One hundred years ago, the House of Commons consisted of 670 Members of Parliament; it now consists of only 650, and a few years back, it was 659, as some of my noble friends have already mentioned. It is particularly interesting to see how the ratio of Members of Parliament to electors has deteriorated since 1950. There are now 25 more Members sitting in the House of Commons than in 1950, but in that period the size of the electorate has increased by no less than 10 million. The average electorate per constituency, which was 55,000 in 1950, is 70,000 now.
I do not know how Ministers can with a straight face tell the House of Commons and this House that the number of Members of Parliament has crept up and suggest that we are overrepresented. We are not democratically overrepresented in this country. Unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, we have no länder; unlike in United States of America, there are no states. Indeed, in all of our political lifetime, we have seen a weakening in local government in this country and a diminution in the number of local authorities. If, as the Liberal Democrats have proposed, there should be a large-scale redesign of patterns of representation at the different tiers of government in this country, you could make a serious case for reducing the size of the House of Commons. Unless and until that is done, you cannot.
The Government are setting about reducing the size of the House of Commons in a manner that will be to the party political interest of the dominant party in the coalition, the Conservatives, and, at the same time, increasing the size of the House of Lords in order to increase the majority on which they believe they can rely in this House, with no serious attempt to explain to us what the sound democratic principle can be in those processes. That is to let members of the Government open to the kind of criticism that we are more accustomed to hearing levelled at those who wield power in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda or even Zimbabwe. It will be very interesting as we begin to hear what international observers and professional and academic students of democracy in foundations and think tanks in this country and across the world have to say about the policies that we are experiencing at the hands of this Government.
It is absolutely right to ask two basic questions to try to establish a ground of principle on which to evaluate the Government’s propositions. We should ask: what are the requirements of a properly functioning House of Commons and how many people does it need serving in it to acquit itself of those responsibilities; and what are the properties of a Member of Parliament in his or her constituency? Until there has been a serious, rational and, as far as possible, objective analysis of both those issues, we should resist the suggestion that the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced. As we start to examine those issues, I think that we will find that, so far from there being a decent case for reducing the number of Members of Parliament, there is actually quite a strong case for increasing their number.
I do not want to speak for excessive length at this stage of the evening. We will have further opportunities to examine these matters as our discussion develops so, for the time being, I will not weary the House any longer.
I have listened to the debate on the amendment, and it is the amendment to which I wish to speak, not the Bill in its entirety, although I have expressed concern about some parts of the Bill. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Maples. We shared membership of the House of Commons around the same time. He mentioned finance, the cost of the running of the House of Commons. It might be worth mentioning that when he came into the House in 1983, Denis Healey, now the noble Lord, Lord Healey, was the deputy leader of the Labour Party. The funds available to him were such that he had to share one researcher with another member of the shadow Cabinet. Everyone agreed that that was unjust, and the Short money has now been increased to a fantastic amount.
That Short money goes on to the costs of the House of Commons. When I left, the Conservative Party in opposition benefited greatly from Short money—I think that the noble Lord would acknowledge that. That was so much so that when the coalition was created, there was deep concern among members of the Liberal party that they would not get a share of the Short money, because that would have a profound effect on how they got researchers for their Front-Benchers. I do not know how they got on with that argument. When noble Members talk about the cost of the House of Commons increasing, they cannot have it every way. You do not get democracy for nothing. Everybody praises the great Portcullis House.
Perhaps I may give an illustration of the poverty of the Opposition at that time. When my noble friend Lord Foulkes and I were in Denis Healey's team, I once travelled with my noble friend Lord Healey, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for Defence. We wanted to go to South Africa, which was highly in the news. My noble friend had to travel in economy class with Air Zambia. Those were the straits we were in at the time.
I agree with the noble Lord: it was ridiculous, and it has improved, especially for the Leader of the Opposition.
When we talk about finance, it should be remembered that in the other place, every honourable Member has the equivalent of two and a half members of staff. That does not come cheaply. Then there are premises. If we were to supply Members’ staff with premises here in Westminster, the most expensive square mile in the world, it would be far more costly than allowing them to go to their constituencies to get premises. They cannot get any old premises; there must be security because we have already had members of staff attacked. There has even been a fatality, as one noble Lord on the Liberal Benches will be able to testify. When we talk about the cost of computers and broadband, it should be remembered that it is not free.
I have spoken about the insecurity of Members of Parliament about the boundary reviews and about giving MPs at least some stability. When people make a career in Parliament, they at least should get the chance to serve for two Parliaments, unless the electorate decide that they should go, before a boundary commissioner becomes involved. I do not think that the reduction in the number of seats, which represents under 10 per cent, is unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable for a Government to make that decision, whether it is arbitrary or otherwise, and to say, “Look, we have come to this figure and we should make a reduction”. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, described so well the difficult task that she had in putting it to the House that there would be a reduction from 72 to 60 seats.
However, it was a government decision, a Cabinet decision. It was not a decision of the parliamentary Labour Party that the number would be reduced from 72 to 60. I remember well that just after Tony Blair won, there was the big campaign—“Things can only get better”. Things got better and there was a Labour majority. All Labour MPs, some of whom are now here, were called to Dover House. I had a great affection for and remember fondly Donald Dewar. Those who knew him talk of his jokes and his generosity. On the day he told us that we were going to lose 12 seats in Scotland—it was not a collective decision by any of us—I remember that there was a buffet of two sausage rolls and three sandwiches. I said that it was the most lavish redundancy party I had ever gone to. That was how the reduction of seats came about.
If the Government say, “We have this reduction of seats”, someone has to start somewhere. I do not want to see anyone lose their job or position and I hope that the reduction can be phased in, but there are no two ways about it. Down the Corridor, there is terrible pressure on Members of Parliament who want to articulate for their constituents on the Floor of the House of Commons even to be able to speak. I was the Speaker and could not speak for years, but here at least I can speak. It is not so easy to do that down there. There are long-winded Cabinet Ministers who want to hog the Dispatch Box. If they take a while, you can bet your boots that their opposite number wants to take a while. Back in the days before the special arrangement, the Liberals wanted to have their tuppence worth before a Back-Bench Member of Parliament could come in.
The pressure got so bad that I agreed that there should be a limit of 10 minutes for Back-Bench speeches in order to give people a chance. Even at that length, at the end of a night I would instruct the deputies, “Look, do not have people sitting on those green Benches for hours and hours and not have a say. Split the amount of time that is left and tell the winder-uppers”. Another thing about the Front Benches was that there was not only a Cabinet Minister but a winding-up Minister and their opposite numbers. They had long faces if you let a Back-Bencher in instead of them. Sometimes it got down to three minutes for a Member of Parliament to have his or her say.
Some noble Lords will recall that a good experiment was brought in: namely, the parallel Chamber. The Westminster Hall debates allowed Members of Parliament who were complaining bitterly that they could not speak at least to have the safety valve that they wanted. That idea was taken from the Australian Parliament—the old Parliament learnt from the young.
The limit on speeches was not popular with some of the old timers. My dear friend Tam Dalyell said, “Michael, I like to develop an argument”. I said, “But Tam, it takes you 60 minutes to develop an argument and that’s you just getting warmed up”. He laughed at that. All those pressures about Members of Parliament not being able to speak for long enough was and still is an indication that the drop in the number of MPs proposed in this amendment might help to ease things and to make more room for speakers.
Councillors, elected representatives and Scottish Members came to me with problems. Even when I was Speaker, I had a policy that every weekend, except for when I was at the Cenotaph, I would be in my constituency. I enjoyed constituency work and dealing people and their problems. I never turned them away. If they came to me with a problem that related to a devolved matter, I did not take up the matter except to write to the appropriate MSP and say, “This matter was raised at my constituency surgery”. As for housing, I would write to the housing director and say, “I have notified this lady that the matter is for her councillor, and she will see the councillor on her next visit”. That is how I handled that.
Members of Parliament make a rod for their own back when they reply individually to every name on petitions that they receive. When I was in the trade union movement, I signed petitions but I did not expect an individual reply. Issuing envelopes in the House of Commons got to the stage where some Members of Parliament were drawing in the region of £13,000 per annum in envelopes. That is not 13,000 envelopes, but envelopes worth £13,000. No elected Member should reply to individual names on a petition. I make that point because people should be represented responsibly. It should not be a publicity gimmick to get your name on every door at every opportunity.
I am reluctant to intervene on a former Speaker, but I can assure the noble Lord that when my majority was 495, I dealt with everything. I answered everything and I did not use any subcontractors whatever because that is what people expected. I still did that when my majority was 18,000 because that was how I worked. Every MP does the job in a different way. I do not think that rules can be laid down in the way in which the noble Lord is setting out. However, I agree that I am 10 years out of date now.
I agree with the noble Lord, but if a Member of a devolved Parliament was paid to deal with health, prisons and social work, while the noble Lord quite rightly would not turn a person away he would find a way of notifying his constituent that the democratic process meant that some matters were devolved to another elected Member. That is the point I wanted to make.
As a trade union officer I noted that no two officers worked in the same way, and it is the same with Members of Parliament. What I am trying to say is that there are ridiculous practices and that I have highlighted one of them. There is no point in honourable Members saying that they are overburdened when they create rods for their own backs.
I have to say to my noble friend that I am slightly disturbed by his comments about petitions. If I remember rightly, my noble friend’s constituency was an inner city seat in Glasgow, but what if he had been in a seat in rural Scotland and the village school was about to close and 500 constituents wrote to him about that closure? It would be a highly contested issue in that part of the constituency. Does my noble friend not feel that perhaps in those circumstances each of the 500 petitioners should receive a communication from their Member of Parliament? It makes them feel that they are participating in the debate and that their Member of Parliament is actually responding and not just taking them for granted.
All I can say to my noble friend, as he has called me, is that if three of the names on the petition were from the same household and they were sent three individual letters, something would be wrong. I say as well that something would be wrong if £13,000-worth of envelopes were being used. The point I wanted to make was that something was wrong with that.
Let me make another point about pressure. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the noble Lord, Lord Graham. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will remember, he was our Chief Whip between 1979 and 1981. I was sad to see him leave the House. He kept us until 10 o’clock on a Thursday night in the Commons. I know that to be the case because a whole load of us went up to Glasgow on the sleeper train. For years now, unless it has changed since the last election, debates on a Thursday are non-voting. That begs the question: is every Member of Parliament right there in the House of Commons, to which they were elected, on a Thursday, or are they elsewhere? I would hazard a guess that they are elsewhere. I am not criticising them because that is their business, but the case has been put that there are more pressures on this generation of Members of Parliament than there were on the old.
There was a fairly hefty pressure on Members of Parliament, if they were lucky, to leave on a Thursday. The Minister could not even take the sleeper train because of the distance to his constituency. He would not have been able to get back by the Friday. I was lucky enough to get to mine by the following morning. Also, constituency engagements were such that it was not pleasant to travel overnight. You would have surgeries and meetings with various organisations.
There are other amendments that I can comfortably support, and I know that this is a probing amendment, but there is no point in us being here if we do not express our views. I do not see that we need great academic bodies to do a study on whether we should have a reduction of 10 per cent.
My Lords, I am goaded to intervene in this debate because the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that no one had spoken from this side of the Committee today, or that very few had done so apart from my noble friend Lord Maples. I made it clear at Second Reading that I support this Bill largely because of Part 2. I have not been in the Chamber, but I have heard every speech made during this debate because I have been watching it on my computer. I have heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey, Lord Anderson and Lord Graham, who are not in their places, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who is in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, in the flesh. I can recommend to colleagues that watching the debate on one’s computer is a very good way of keeping up with the debate. I find that each speaker has a good first five minutes. There is no question about that; they put their arguments succinctly. But after that—I must choose my words carefully—there is what I would say is an elaboration of those first five minutes. Very little new is added, so you can switch to doing other things on your computer and return when the next speaker turns up. That way, you get the general thrust of the debate.
When it comes to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons, I have something approaching an impeccable pedigree in that even when I was a Member of the House, I felt that it was too large. In the 1990s, I made speeches and wrote articles about it, but they, like most of my speeches and articles, have disappeared into the mists of history. Some Members may recall that three years ago I introduced a Bill in this House that sought to reduce the number in the House of Commons by 10 per cent, which would have meant a reduction of 65 Members, not the 50 Members we are considering today. It went through this House with great ease. It got to the other place and was debated, but of course private Bills from Peers die in the House of Commons after a debate.
During the debate, people asked why there should be a reduction of 10 per cent. Here the noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked why there should be 500 rather than 65 and so forth. When I introduced my Bill, some Members of this House said that a 10 per cent reduction was not enough and that they want to see a 20 per cent reduction, which would have involved 130 MPs.
I believe that one of the reasons the House of Commons became too large was this. When I was first elected back in 1960, the Commons then comprised 623 or 624 Members. It then grew exponentially for only one reason: the Speaker’s Conference of 1917. The conference was held to discuss a reduction in the size of the House to 500. Unfortunately, I should say to the former Speaker that his predecessor at that time was not as particular as he could have been. No minutes were taken of the Speaker’s Conference so no one knows what actually occurred. The only thing that did emerge was that as society developed and the population expanded, it was thought to move to an average of about 70,000 constituents per seat. That was why, in my time, the number of seats grew from 623 to just over 650. So I believe that we are over-represented in the House of Commons.
My Lords, when the noble Lord talks about the need to reduce the number of constituencies, I suggest that he would have had a very different experience in his constituency of Mole Valley compared with that of a Member of Parliament with an inner city seat, like my noble friend Lord Martin of Springburn. The intense nature of representation of an inner seat is very different indeed from what the noble Lord would have experienced in Mole Valley. I am sure he served his constituents very well, but he should remember that when he is thinking of cutting seats.
I wish that the noble Lord had considered my political career with more care. If he had, he would have known that I represented two inner city London seats, both of which were quite small. I represented Acton, which was very much a working class seat, and St Marylebone, which was not. Both constituencies were quite small, with populations of around 40,000. I then went to Mole Valley which at one time had over 75,000 constituents. I have therefore had experience of representing both an inner city seat with considerable problems, which was the case in Acton, and a large county seat in Surrey.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made the point that MPs are now much more stretched than they were in the past. Both the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and I were Members of the House of Commons in the late 1960s, as I believe was my noble friend Lord Howell. We had no secretarial assistance, no research assistance, no desk and no telephone. We had to sit on the green Benches in the galleries opposite to conduct our affairs, and the only free telephone call we had was to our town clerk. We were also given 800 free sheets of parliamentary paper. After that we had to buy them, as we had to pay for all our post.
I ask noble Lords on the Labour Benches to wait. Let me develop this agony column for a while before I am interrupted. I do not believe that, in those days, Members acted in any way less significantly to their constituents. The noble Lord is nodding—of course they did not. Indeed, when I had a larger constituency—Mole Valley, about which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, reminded me—I had more than 75,000. I did not have a research assistant and I had only a part-time secretary. Were my constituents disappointed in what I gave them? Not at all; at every election, they returned me with a larger majority.
Wait a moment, please.
So I do not subscribe at all to the view that having an average seat in the United Kingdom—75,000 under the Bill; mine was slightly larger—would in any way impair the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents. What it comes down to is that it depends upon the personal activity of the Member of Parliament. Is he prepared to put himself out and deal with the problems of his constituents? Of course he can and today he has infinitely greater technological means than I ever had when I was sitting there without a secretary, a research assistant, a typewriter or a telephone.
I am coming to more interesting points. I have only just started on my reminiscences of my time as a Member of Parliament. Let me move on to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who said that we in the United Kingdom are not overrepresented. May I remind the House of the extent of overrepresentation in our lower Houses? We have a population of about 60 million people and 650 or so Members of Parliament. Germany, with a population of 82 million has 600. Japan, with a population of 127 million, twice ours, has only 470. Russia, with a population of 144 million, roughly three times ours, has 450. Can those who are familiar with all the parliamentary activities in these countries say that constituents are any less well served because they have large constituencies? I do not believe that the argument holds up at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, “Ah, but they have länder in Germany.” He should recall that in three parts of our country we have virtually independent Parliaments. We have, in Scotland, an independent Parliament. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly is a Parliament in all but name and the situation is virtually the same in Northern Ireland, where, in fact, all local matters are dealt with by the representative Members of those Assemblies, in a very similar way to that in the länder. So, international arguments are significant. Therefore, I believe strongly that this is a good measure. I have never put it forward from the view of saving money; I simply believe that the House of Commons can operate very effectively with a smaller number of MPs. I will give way to the noble Lord, because I heard his speech earlier on the computer.
I am grateful to the honourable gentleman—I am sorry, the noble Lord. I do beg his pardon. He was kind enough to refer to my speech, so, before he sits down, as I sense he is about to do, will he answer this question? He has made his case for it being wholly possible to reduce the size of the House of Commons without any adverse consequence for constituents—I accept that there is a strong case for that—but in deciding on the number to which the House of Commons should be reduced, does he think, first, that the new figure should be based on some broad principle, some broad understanding of the role of Member of Parliament? Secondly, does he think that the public should be consulted on what the size should be?
On the first question, if you look at the history of the development of the House of Commons, it has never been based on broad principles. I remind the noble Lord that in 1707 there were 513 Members of Parliament for England and Wales and that, as a result of the Act of Union, 45 were added—a figure plucked out of the air with a huge overrepresentation for Scotland in relation to its population in 1707. No principle, just practice. With Pitt’s Act of Union—disastrous, in my view, but I shall not debate that—which abolished Grattan’s Parliament in 1800, 100 Members were added; a huge overrepresentation for the population of Ireland at that time. That overrepresentation was never effectively reduced. In 1922, Northern Ireland received 12 Members, but they did not take away the 88 extra, but only 55.
So there is no principle; it is a matter of pragmatic sense. I agree entirely with what the former Speaker of the House of Commons said. It is a matter for decision, a political decision at the end of the day. My decision is for a smaller House. I respect the views of Members opposite, but I do not think that we would, in any way, impair the workings of democracy in our country by having a smaller House of Commons.
This is the ninth day of the debate and a pattern is developing. We have a Minister who will speak on behalf of the Government and usually, if we are lucky, one Back-Bencher who will speak on behalf of all the rest. Indeed, until the noble Lord, Lord Baker, decided to leave his computer and enhance our democracy by coming to the Chamber and taking part, we had only the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, who made a superb contribution. I may not have agreed with many things that he said, but it was certainly a contribution that was not only worthy of him, but worthy of the other side and worthy of the House. It is important that we engage in a proper discourse on this important matter.
I am overwhelmed by the noble Lord’s modesty and I shall try to reciprocate by keeping my remarks as brief as possible.
I will chide the noble Lord, Lord Maples, in one way—he displayed an extraordinary ignorance of post-devolution Wales in terms of the work of Members of Parliament. I am sure that he did a fantastic job as a Member of Parliament representing 90,000 people. I did not represent that number, but I can tell him that my workload was no less. Like many who sat in the House of Commons, I worked 70 or 80 hours a week and there was very often a huge amount of sudden extra work. When the miners were successful in winning their case for compensation for diseases acquired working underground, I had 500 constituency cases out of the blue that had built up over a period.
The work of a Member of Parliament is not being taken into account in terms of the way that the Bill has been constructed. We heard some discussions earlier today about pre-legislative scrutiny. If the Government had engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny, they might have had a better understanding of the workload of Members of Parliament. When I entered the other place in a by-election in 1995, I was told that there was one Member of Parliament who never replied to any letters from his constituents. It was perfectly logical—he said that only a minority wrote to him and it was grossly unfair to the majority, who never troubled him, to write back to those who did.
That might have been the case then, but it certainly is not the case at the present time. Members of Parliament have huge constituency workloads as well as a huge amount of work in the House as well. Because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, I fear that the Bill does not take account of that. I do not know whether any noble Lords on the Government Benches have done any pre-legislative scrutiny, but when I was Wales Minister I often came to your Lordships’ House with a draft Bill to discuss with your Lordships. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, from the Cross Benches, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, a former Welsh Secretary, always made important contributions to help us improve the quality of legislation. That is what pre-legislative scrutiny allowed us to do and it is sadly lacking in this legislation.
At the end of last week there was a brief debate on a Question from the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, about the conventions in this House. I think it is right, from time to time, to remind ourselves that there are proper ways to behave and to discuss and debate in this House and I have no complaints about the points that he raised. What greater convention can there be than the role of this House to defend and safeguard the constitution? That must, surely, be the most important of conventions and must be what we ought to do. I refer noble Lords to the Companion, where it says:
“The House of Lords is the second Chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament”.
That is a bit of news, perhaps, to one or two Members on the other side. The Companion continues:
“As a constituent part of Parliament, the House of Lords makes laws, holds government to account, and debates issues of public interest”.
That is why we are giving the Bill the kind of scrutiny that we are. This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; it is not Zimbabwe, and we do not need a Government who act like Robert Mugabe in pushing through legislation on which there has been no consultation and for which there was no widespread support across the country before it was put to Parliament.
The Bill will mean that almost boundary of every constituency in the United Kingdom will be withdrawn, and is a triumph of arithmetic over accountable democracy. Those who say that the only way to have a proper and fair electoral system is to have equal-sized constituencies are missing the point. Why is that the only argument? There are all sorts of others. We will go into the issues relating to Wales later, but the Government have already accepted that there should be exceptions to that with Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. I will make a case later on—I do not know at what hour—about consideration for Wales.
The fundamental point that has been missed but that is coming out from a number of speakers in this debate is that, because of a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, no proper account has been taken of the workload of Members of Parliament. I am not against reducing the number of Members of Parliament if that is appropriate. That is proper and fair. It is right that we should take stock and judge from time to time whether the numbers are right. Without any proper consultation and discussion, the figure of 600 is flawed—we have no scientific basis or proper research to show how it has been arrived at. That is a folly and a great disrespect to our democracy.
I can only echo the point made by my noble friend Lord Boateng when he spoke last week very powerfully about what we would say if one of the countries of the British Commonwealth had a newly elected Government that used their power in that country’s Parliament to reduce the number of seats in that Parliament and thereby harm that nation’s democracy. We would have plenty to say, and rightly so.
I want to contribute only very briefly. I echo what my noble friend Lord Baker said earlier about the experience that some of us had some years ago. I do not go back as far as he does in parliamentary experience, but when I was elected in 1974 there was very limited support for the Back-Bench Member. I remember that well.
What has been interesting about this debate is that a number of colleagues—from both sides of the House, as it happens—have contributed on the basis of their experience of the other place. With the exception, I think, of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, every one of the speakers has spoken with that experience and authority.
I am so apologetic. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness made this point earlier: we have all experienced the noble Lord’s considerable contribution so we have all assumed that he must have had such influence in the other place behind the scenes that he was, in effect, an ex officio Member.
My point is that over the past two hours and 46 minutes I have taken the opportunity to read the Third Reading debate in the other place. These are the real, live witnesses of the experiences of current Members of Parliament, and they have been able directly to influence the Bill, taking up the big issues, as they see them, on the basis of their practical experience. They did not spend two hours and 46 minutes discussing the reduction—
There was a guillotine.
No, they could have done so if they had wanted to. In the Third Reading debate there was one mention of the reduction from 650 Members to 600. They did not see this as a big issue. The spokesman from the Labour Party’s Front Bench did not mention the issue. Why is it that your Lordships are more conscious of the strain and stress on current MPs than are MPs themselves? I am mystified by this. The only possible rational explanation is, as was pointed out earlier, that this House is enjoying itself and extending debates quite unnecessarily. With that, I am sitting down and finishing.
My Lords, perhaps I may interject, although of course I have not been a Member of the other place either. This aspect of the situation strikes me as odd, and perhaps noble Lords can explain it. In every other branch of employment that I have been involved with—in education, running an embryology laboratory, running a research laboratory, running nurses within the National Health Service organisation, looking after doctors and appointing them to a particular service within the NHS—we have tried to ensure that we employ the number of people who are needed to fulfil the employment that is there. As I understand it, no one in the discussion on the Bill seems to have actually asked the important question that some of my noble friends are asking: what is a Member of the House of Commons required to do in terms of his duty in caring for his constituency and representing it? Unless we can answer that question, it seems impossible to arrive at a satisfactory number for him to represent in a constituency.
When I come to the next amendment, Amendment 59, I want to focus on how we decide the size of Parliament, which I think is a critical issue—more important than the numbers. One of the strands running through the debate is the question, “Why 600?”. The Government have not answered that, although they have a duty to do so.
I start from a position similar to that of my noble friend Lord Wills. I have argued before that there is a case for reducing the size of the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, expressed a similar view. Although I do not agree with all that the noble Lord said, there is a case for it. I seem to remember the noble Lord, Lord Baker, arguing the same thing when we were both in the House of Commons. No doubt he will correct me at some stage if I am wrong, as I may be on this, but I think that he argued at the time that the size ought to be agreed by all parties concerned. That is one of the important principles that we will come to.
The issue of the figure of 600 puzzled me, and I began to look at the background to this. The issue is not new; there has been a debate about the size of Parliament for years, as people have mentioned, but it became more intense in the early part of this century. One of the people who put it in perspective was the Conservative MP, Andrew Tyrie, who in 2004 wrote the Conservative Mainstream document called Pruning the Politicians. After the expenses scandal the phrase became “culling the politicians”, which says a lot about the strength of feeling on the issue. It bubbled away along the lines of the arguments in that document. In an article in the Independent in March 2008, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, argued that we should cut the figure by 150.
Andrew Tyrie’s document is well argued. I do not agree with a lot of the statistics in it, where I think he has left things out about the nature of how other countries represent people within their borders, but he makes a good case for reducing the size of Parliament. However, he does two things that are very important, and I hope we will cover them more fully in the following debate on my Amendment 59. First, while he does not say that there should be all-party agreement, he says that the changes should be agreed with the Labour Party; I would change that to “agreed with all parties”. Secondly, he says that if you reduce the size of Parliament, you must reduce the size of the payroll vote as well. That is very important but is not dealt with in the Bill.
My problem with the numbers issue is that, whatever number you choose, whether it is 600, 650, 550 or whatever, it is like pulling on a loose cord on a jumper—if you pull too hard, you suddenly find that you are wearing only the sleeves. The problem is that the number in your Parliament affects a whole range of other things in your constitution. That is why this issue is so important and is a constitutional matter, and it is why I would have liked the Government to have accepted the amendment of my noble friend Lord Wills, which was drawn up by someone who had the experience and knowledge of Government to do just that.
My objection to the present proposal is the evidence that the Government are relying on for the figure of 600; indeed, some people are suggesting a figure in excess of that. Should that not be tested by evidence? Is there not a clear case for an inquiry into this issue?
I think that my noble friend is anticipating the debate on the next amendment, which stands in my name. A lot of the debate within the Conservative Party arises from the document written by Andrew Tyrie. It is a good document and worth reading, but the interesting point for me is that he argued that the number of MPs should be reduced by 120—that is, by 20 per cent—and that that reduction should be carried out over 10 years in two five-year periods. That is where the figure of 60 comes from—it was going to be the amount of the reduction in the first five years. I forget which noble Lord intervened to question whether this was a matter for the House of Lords, but one reason why it is a matter for the Lords is that there is a clear statement in Mr Tyrie’s document that the redundant MPs, as I think they were described, could be sent to the House of Lords. Of course, when you reduce the number of MPs, you have a big fight over who inherits the constituency and what the constituency boundaries are. The suggestion was that those who did not succeed in retaining a seat should be considered for a peerage. Therefore, there is some background to this matter.
The interesting point is that that figure of 120 was quoted quite frequently. I do not know where Nick Clegg got 150 from—he seems to have plucked it out of the air. However, the thing that troubles me most, and the reason why the number is important, as well as the way in which we decide these things—a matter that we shall come to when we deal with the next amendment—is that the figure of 60, mentioned in this document and in subsequent speeches by David Cameron when he was the leader of the Opposition, relates to the advantage to the Conservative Party in terms of winning more seats. It was not put like that directly. It was said that there was unfair representation and that the Labour Party had too many seats. The other reason given was finance.
However, for the moment let us focus on the fact that Andrew Tyrie based his conclusion on the number of electors in an area. He argued that a vote in one area was not worth as much as a vote in, say, a Labour constituency because of the number of electors in the constituency. However, as has been pointed out in many previous debates on this matter, everything hinges on voter registration and the socioeconomic factor of turnout. Those things matter, but the problem is that Andrew Tyrie does not take them into account. The Committee may be pleased to know that I am not going to go into great detail about MPs’ constituency work but, as we know, there is a difference in a constituency where, regardless of who represents it, registration is much lower. In many cases, the MP will be representing people who are not on the register.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to my own experience of this matter. Very few research projects have been carried out on MPs’ constituencies. One such project was carried out on my constituency over a period of a year and it threw up two things that are relevant to this debate. One was that an awful lot of people would say, “I supported you”, but, when you looked at the electoral register, they were not on it. In other words, what they really meant was, “I supported Labour”, or, if it was a Conservative MP, they would have said that they supported the Conservatives. However, that did not necessarily mean that they voted, because often they were not on the register. At times, that situation applied to 50 per cent of the people who turned up at my advice surgeries.
Another thing troubled me, and this is why I think that there is a case for looking at how MPs do their job and the numbers involved. Whenever anyone came with a council problem—my noble friend Lord Martin referred to this—we asked why they had not gone to see to their elected councillor first. Almost invariably, the answer was, “I thought I’d go to the top”. In other words, people view political power as a sort of pyramid. They think, “The MP’s at the top, so I’ll go and see him”. I have always been troubled by this problem of undermining local authorities. It is one reason why I began to question whether there are too many MPs. If you take cases away from elected councillors, you are in effect saying to them, “You don’t have to do your job. I’ll do it for you”. That is undesirable. However, if you go down the road of saying that MPs should not take council cases or Scottish Assembly cases or whatever and you enhance devolved power—something that I greatly support—you then have to ask: who does the MP represent?
One reason why I have been tempted to go for a smaller number of MPs is that, particularly over the past 40-odd years, MPs have largely become councillors and social workers, and that is not desirable. At the same time, MPs have paid less attention than they might have done had they had more time to the national and international issues with which our Parliament is rightly concerned. Therefore, there is an imbalance.
That takes me back to the central issue, which is that I am passionately against the Bill as a constitutional Bill. If you are going to change the number of Members of Parliament, first you have to take account of certain important key factors and the process by which you make that change. As I said, I shall come to that when we debate the next amendment. Secondly, the number has to be decided on a rather better basis than that the Conservative Party will do rather well if 60 seats are knocked out.
Much earlier today, someone said to me, “Well, we changed the number of people in the Scottish Assembly”, or the other Assembly, “and we didn’t make such a song and dance about it”. To that I say that, if you change the size of a House of Parliament without the consent of all the parties, and some parties, rightly or wrongly, believe that that enhances the position of one party, then, if they are right, the chances of those other parties forming a Government are reduced. The crucial difference between Parliament and the Assemblies around the United Kingdom is that, if you win a parliamentary election in Britain, you can change all those other things. You can change an Assembly or even get rid of the Assembly in Scotland if you like. There would probably be a riot by my noble friends here if you did that, but you would have the power to do it. However, if a political party’s chances of winning as well as it would have done are taken away from it, something much more fundamental is being changed. It is on this sort of point that this Bill is different from a normal constitutional Bill. A constitutional Bill that, for example, removes the judges from Parliament and puts them in a Supreme Court can be reversed by a future Government, but future Governments have to be elected via a system in which people have confidence.
This is a matter for the next debate but I hope that I have gone some way towards explaining where this figure of 60 MPs has come from. It originated very much in Andrew Tyrie’s document. It is argued as being a first step, but I should like to know from the Government whether the second step is still under consideration. If the first step was to bring about a 10 per cent reduction in the first five years, instead of, as was originally suggested, 20 per cent in 10 years, will we have in the next Parliament, if the present Administration continue, another Bill like this one reducing the number by another 10 per cent?
That is what is so dangerous about the Bill—we do not really know what the agenda is. We know that the figure of 60 has been discussed within the Conservative Party over the past eight or nine years, or probably longer. We also know that 20 per cent was the initial figure and that it was then reduced to 10 per cent—that is, 60, give or take a few—over a five-year period, and the document talks about how the political parties should adjust their reselection processes to allow that to happen. As I indicated, MPs who lost their seats would then be considered for a peerage. However, this is a wholly different agenda and one that I find rather uncomfortable. I am willing to support this amendment because of the next amendment, which stands in my name. As I said, I think that the way in which we do these things is more important than the number, but if we are to have a number, this one would do very well.
My noble friend has done a great service to the Committee by bringing to our attention the pamphlet of Andrew Tyrie—I remember it coming out, but I think that it has since slipped the memory of many of us. As he said, Andrew Tyrie laid down as a condition of a reduction in the number of MPs a proportionate reduction in the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention as far as we know of reducing the size of the payroll vote but are going in the opposite direction? When I was in the Ministry of Defence, I thought that we could do better with one fewer Minister. Although the Government have come through with utterly irresponsible cuts in defence capability, they have increased the number of Ministers by one. That is quite extraordinary and shows that the Government are moving in totally the wrong direction.
Before my noble friend sits down, will he comment on the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who said that there had been no debate on the figure 600 at Third Reading in the House of Commons? I have with me Hansard from 20 October 2010. It shows that the debate started at 5.29 pm—
I do not have detailed knowledge of that matter, but I know that my noble friend pays great attention to these things. I also know, not least from letters that I and, I think, others have seen, that Conservative MPs complained that insufficient time had been allowed to discuss issues relating to the size of constituencies. I shall give way to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I just hope that I know enough about this issue to be able to give him an answer.
My Lords, I have the greatest respect for both noble Lords, with whom I have worked in the past, and I would hate either of them to mislead your Lordships’ House. I referred very specifically to the Third Reading debate, when any issue could be raised, and the fact is that nobody raised this matter for more than one minute. The spokesman on the opposition Front Bench did not refer to it at all. I simply said that I thought that MPs might be better witnesses on this issue than Members of your Lordships’ House, however distinguished.
I shall say only two things in response. First, far too little time was given in the House of Commons—I do not think that there is any dispute about that. Secondly, my predicament here reminds me of the film “The Go-Between”. The person who was the go-between suffered psychologically, and I am already feeling vulnerable.
My Lords, I was going to end this very brief speech by saying that I thought that it was now time, as we entered our fourth hour of debate, for the Minister to respond. If the House will bear with me for less than the five minutes that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would allow me, perhaps I could make a comment as someone for whom the other place probably means the General Synod of the Church of England rather than the House of Commons.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who is not in his place, that the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny and the speed with which the Bill is being put forward, with 5 May as a date to work towards, cast an unfortunate shadow over the whole discussion. However, the thought that, if there had been that scrutiny, all parties would reach agreement on such a contentious issue seems exceedingly fanciful. At the end of the day, a judgment has to be made. The fact that the Prime Minister made it quite clear that this would be among his proposals seems to undermine the criticism that it is profoundly undemocratic.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, is not in his place, because his speech was important, indicating that there is a tendency in our society towards mission creep in all sorts of areas, not least in the role played by Members of Parliament. Something that has not been mentioned in the debate so far but which is very important is the development of the internet. If we go back over a long period, as we have done in our debates, we see that the relationship between constituents and their Members of Parliament was totally different before modern communications developed. Any reflection on the ideal size of a constituency must take into account a completely new arrangement. It means in some ways that individual representation of an area is not so important, as an MP can communicate with people very much faster and multiply those communications to a large number of people.
I was going to coin a phrase and talk about a “preferential option for the poor”. Are not the most vulnerable less likely to have access to the internet than the more prosperous? If the right reverend Prelate wants in our democracy to relate to the less privileged, does he not agree that the old ways are probably the best?
In the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, I am sure that the old ways often are the best. My only point is that the arrival of the internet has changed much and that that should be the subject of reflection. However, the thought that an agreement would be reached by some scientific, objective process is fanciful. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, wisely said, there is a judgment to be made. My judgment is that, into the fourth hour of this debate, the law of diminishing returns suggests that the Minister should now speak.
My Lords, it is entirely in order for me to speak at this moment. This being a Committee of the House, no doubt the noble Lord can speak afterwards. I do not think that anyone would suggest that it is not in order for me, having heard three hours and 10 minutes of the debate, to try to respond to some of the points that have been made.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said that, being a theologian and a bishop, he was used to round numbers. I am only delighted that I do not have to argue a case for increasing the size of the House of Commons to 666.
The proposal of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is for a House of Commons of around 650 seats rather than the 600 set out in the Bill. His amendment would not, however, set a fixed size for the other place; he used the word “anchored”, which is different and relates to the fact, as one or two noble Lords have indicated—possibly even the noble and learned Lord himself and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey—that there has been, over a period of years, a ratcheting up in the number of Members as the present arrangements are applied. It is possible that that could continue under the system proposed in the amendment, although the number would start at 650.
We are entitled to draw attention to the executive summary of the report that the British Academy commissioned on the Bill, which indicates:
“This new set of rules that the Boundary Commissions must apply is clear and consistent, and will ensure that equality of electorates predominates in defining Parliamentary constituencies while the frequency of redistributions will ensure that general elections are not held in constituencies defined on electoral data as much as 18 years old.”
The Bill’s proposal that the number of seats should be fixed such that the number could not increase over time is one benefit that will flow from our proposal.
I got the sense from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that there is some anxiety that, somehow or other, our proposal is a deeply partisan measure that is based on secret modelling. Therefore, let me just answer the points that have been made about the fact that the Conservative Party’s manifesto suggested 585 constituencies and my party’s manifesto suggested that the number should be 500. As was clearly explained by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, the Liberal Democrat proposal for 500 constituencies was in the context of a single transferable vote and much greater devolution to the regions of England. That perhaps answers the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, as to why the two parties did not simply split the difference. We would not be comparing like with like.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, an indication to reduce the size of the House of Commons was fairly clearly set out by the Conservative Party in its manifesto. Although we took a different approach in wanting a different voting system, a theme of my party’s general election campaign was nevertheless that there should be a reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
As the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, indicated—I hope that I have noted him correctly—a reduction of less than 10 per cent is not unreasonable, nor is it unreasonable, as he said, for the Government to propose a number. He also noted that a previous Government decided to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament. I remember arguing for that in the Scottish Constitutional Convention when the proposal was resisted by the Labour Party, but, to the Labour Party’s credit, the change was proposed in the White Paper and subsequently enacted by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke.
It is a question of judgment as regards the figure of 600. We are mindful that Members in the other place must be able to serve their constituents and that the House must be of sufficient size to be able to carry out its functions effectively. My noble friend Lord Maples argued—and has tabled an amendment to this effect—that the number should be further reduced, ultimately to 500, in two stages. I think that I am right in saying that my noble friend previously proposed a Private Member’s Bill to that effect when he was a Member in the other place and has argued his case for some time. However, we believe that, in a House of 600, over a third of MPs will have constituencies within 5 per cent either side of a quota of 76,000. If there were only 500 seats, the constituencies would range in size from 86,000 to 95,000—only three Members have constituencies of that size at present. We believe that a House of 500 could lead to seats that would be of a less manageable size for Members and constituents alike. Moreover, to have two substantial reductions in two successive boundary reviews would, we believe, be unduly disruptive.
As I have indicated previously, there is nothing magical about the number 600. I have also sought to indicate that, given that both parties in this Government were committed to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons, 600 is a number that we believe, as a matter of judgment, will allow the Members to serve their constituents, will provide a sufficient size for the House of Commons to carry out its functions and will have a perhaps less disruptive effect than a larger cut might have, given that a third of constituencies are currently within the band of 76,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, sought reassurance that there was no political jiggery-pokery in our proposal. That view has also been reflected by a number of noble Lords. In an answer to a Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, my noble friend Lord McNally has said:
“No modelling of the effect on, or implications for, political parties of the reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons has been undertaken by Ministers, civil servants or special advisers. In framing the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, officials calculated the number of seats that might be apportioned to each of the four parts of the UK using the electoral register as of 1 December 2009. Consideration was also given in framing the Bill to the amount of time that parties might require to select candidates for election.”.—[Official Report, 23/11/10; col. WA 304.]
In other words, the Boundary Commission should be able to report by October 2013 to allow candidates and local parties to reorganise and select candidates for an election in May 2015. Those are all very practical, proportionate reasons and this has all been approached in a very reasonable way. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that the number was not changed because of some modelling that the Government did to try to improve the benefit. Indeed, a number of noble Lords in previous debates have indicated that, on their figures, the Bill would not actually benefit any of the parties particularly well. I hope that that puts into some kind of context the suspicions that have been voiced in this debate.
The noble and learned Lord is right that the Answer goes some partial way towards reassuring me, but I am afraid that it does not go all the way because he has not actually answered all the questions that I asked him. I also asked him about modelling that might have been done by the Conservative Party or within the Liberal Democrat Party. Can he confirm or deny that point? Equally, if he wants to have a look at the issue—I will accept his own reassurance on this, just as I accept the reassurance given by his colleague the noble Lord, Lord McNally—and make inquiries of those political parties and then come back to me, I would be perfectly happy with that. Can he address those particular questions now please?
I seem to recall that I started to get into this territory last week on the same circumstances. I was quickly told by a noble Lord opposite that I speak here for the Government rather than for an individual political party. I am unaware of any modelling that shows a political bias to the Labour Party or the Conservative Party and I am certainly unaware of what bias there might be to the Liberal Democrats. I have reflected on the point that both coalition parties were committed to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons and, although that pledge was qualified by the context in which it was made by the Liberal Democrats, I think that there is a general view that that should be the direction of travel.
Another issue that has generated considerable debate is the relative increase in the workload of Members of the other place. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, called for some scientific analysis of that, but my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking indicated that, in his experience from having been first returned as a Member of Parliament in the 1970s, I think, there is a considerable difference in the resources that were made available to Members of Parliament by the time that he left the other place. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester mentioned that there are now opportunities for Members of Parliament to communicate electronically with their constituents in a way that has never been possible before. It is a continually changing scene.
For me, the reason why a scientific analysis could never bear fruit—apart from the fact that it would produce 650 different responses—was evident in the exchange that took place between the former, esteemed Speaker of the other place, the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Campbell-Savours. The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, indicated that, as a Member of Parliament post devolution, if he received an issue that was properly the matter of the Scottish Parliament, he passed it on to the MSP or, if it was a council matter, to council officials. He also said that he did not answer everyone on a petition. Frankly, having been a Member of the other place—indeed, for a short time, I was the Member of Parliament for Shetland but not the MSP for Shetland—I would have done exactly the same in those circumstances. I do not think—although I may have done so once or twice—I generally made a habit of responding to everyone on a petition. However, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, immediately took issue with that point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. If two very senior former Members of the other place can take issue with the position of the former Speaker of the other place and both sides are being absolutely honest in their approach and about how they would do their work, how in the world is anyone going to quantify or evaluate what the workload of a Member of Parliament should be? There would be a wide divergence over what individual Members of Parliament think should be the case.
At the end of the day, the judge and jury in such matters are one’s constituents, when one seeks re-election. They know how well a Member of Parliament has represented their interests over the previous lifetime of a Parliament.
The noble and learned Lord has addressed the question that I was about to ask. Is it not the constituents who matter? Is not that one of the issues with which we are faced? Should we not try to assess this in a more rational way? I do not really think that the analysis needs to be scientific, but it should be based on evidence. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, cited Germany and one or two other places, where there is a completely haphazard and arbitrary method of representation. Perhaps if we were to have a really satisfactory Parliament, we would try to research what would be ideal to ensure that constituents are represented and looked after better.
In my experience, different Members of Parliament have different ways in which they think they should address their constituents’ problems and issues. It would be invidious to say that one was right and one was wrong, because different people can take a different approach. That may relate to the character and personality of the individual Member of Parliament, which may also determine what is right and what is wrong. At the end of the day, the constituents should decide.
Is not the different behaviour of the Members of Parliament determined by the size of their majority? When I had a majority of 503, I would have written to everyone whose name appeared on a petition. If you have a safe seat, you take a different view. Generally speaking, I think that all Members of Parliament work for their constituents, but it does not half concentrate the mind when you have a small majority.
My noble friend makes a good point. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that he honed his skills when answering every petition when he had a majority of about 400, although he said that he also did so when he had a majority of 18,000. That just shows that there are different approaches. I do not think that anyone has the answer for what is absolutely right and what is wrong, but a scientific inquiry would not find an answer either—other than possibly 650 different answers.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, if the issue is that in safer seats the whole process of representation is conducted in a different way, surely there should be an evaluation as to what extent there would be considerably more safer seats arising out of a reduction to 600. If it could be shown that there would be more safer seats, that may be a very strong argument against the change.
Even given a very short time to think about that point, I think that that is something of a non sequitur. There may be other ways in which we want to debate having safer seats.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked how the gender balance would be affected by the proposals. The equality impact assessment attached in an annexe to the Bill suggests that the effect would be neutral, but it is fair to say for the record—she asked about the commitments of the respective parties to diversity—that the Liberal Democrats have instituted a campaign for gender balance to provide encouragement and support, through a range of training, for women who are standing or considering standing for Parliament. The Conservative Party has a five-point positive action plan based on clear principles to guarantee that more women and ethnic minorities are selected for winnable seats. More pertinently, I recall from debating the Equality Bill in this Chamber before the election—now the Equality Act—that there are now specific duties on political parties.
Someone asked about the timing of the measure and suggested that it was not so urgent. However, if the Boundary Commission is to get on with its work of making proposals and recommendations in a report by 1 October by 2013 so that the 2015 general election can be fought on boundaries using an updated constituency electoral register, clearly there is a timing issue here as well.
I conclude with the words of my noble friend Lord Baker that these proposals to reduce the number of MPs to 600 would not impair the workings of democracy in the United Kingdom by having a smaller House of Commons. I commend that view to your Lordships' House and, on that basis, ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
The Minister, in his final sentence, dealt with the point that I wanted to make, which has not been made during the whole debate so far. I am not in favour at this stage of having a fixed figure at all, whether it be 600, 650 or even 500. We should give some flexibility to the Boundary Commission, particularly the Boundary Commission for England. With regard to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in the past figures have been allocated—a minimum figure for Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland—but not for England. The Boundary Commission has sensibly taken account of natural boundaries and community interests and come up with relatively sensible proposals. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative—even more so, given some of the other provisions in the Bill—that we give the Boundary Commission some flexibility, so that when it goes through these provisions it looks at natural boundaries and listens to community interests, although sadly it will not be able to do so at hearings now, and take some account of them. Later there is an amendment that says that the Boundary Commission is looking at these constituency boundaries and should start with the largest. I put down an amendment saying that it should start with the smallest. If you give the commission a straitjacket, it will be even more difficult, whether it starts with the greatest or the smallest or starts in the north, south, east or west. That kind of provision gives the commission a straitjacket. If it is only numbers that matter, particularly if it is plus or minus 5 per cent and not plus or minus 10 per cent, we will get ridiculous boundaries, cutting through towns and across natural boundaries, taking no account of these important matters. My noble friends on the Front Bench may not like this—I am not saying that there should be 650 seats—but there should be a clear figure and one that is specified by Parliament. I raised this when the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was speaking. For England anyway—and England is the important country in this regard—I do not think that a figure has ever been specified by Parliament before. We should give some degree of flexibility, taking account of the present boundaries.
That brings me on to another reason to have flexibility. A large number of Members of Parliament were recently elected, because there was a huge turnover in the House of Commons in the last election. They are just settling into their constituencies and getting to know their constituencies and to understand the boundaries. That is why the Boundary Commission should in my view start from existing boundaries. That may add a little bit to it, but it would give flexibility. If we specify so rigidly a figure, it will not be able to start from that. There is already going to be clear destabilisation of existing Members of Parliament. I have heard not just from Labour Members but from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members that they are already worried about the effects that these proposals will have on the selection and reselection arrangements. It will be doubly difficult if the Boundary Commission is unable to get some degree of flexibility. I hope that the Minister will have some opportunity to deal with that and to say whether some flexibility might be considered.
I endorse what my colleagues said earlier and want to add a couple of points, first on the workload of Members of Parliament. A number of Members have dealt with the matter of the change here very effectively. When I was elected first in South Ayrshire, there were no mobile phones and no e-mail, which have made a substantial difference. I raised the importance of direct access to the Member of Parliament when the noble Lord, Lord Maples, spoke on this subject, and said that MPs do not have to take a personal interest in individual cases that come to them. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that even when I had a majority of 21,000—which was bigger than his ever was—I communicated with and replied to everyone. When people sent petitions about schools closures, I also contacted them. As my noble friend Lady McDonagh, who is in front of me, said, that may be why I ended up with a majority of 21,000 and why her sister has a large majority. It is because we deal with them in that way.
However, I remember the late Donald Dewar, when he was Secretary of State for Scotland and when he was Chief Whip. When he was doing all those important jobs, he used to deal with every constituent person. I remember him on the train—when the rest of us may have been enjoying ourselves a little—dictating long, detailed letters in reply to constituents so that he could—
The noble Lord will know that the fact that the Minister has spoken does not mean that the debate finishes. Noble Lords are quite entitled to continue the debate after the Minister has spoken and other noble Lords have indicated their interest on this issue.
I was in the middle of a speech. I have sat through the whole of this debate. Noble Lords will confirm that I have never been out at any stage. I have listened to it. Then a Whip comes in and interrupts me right in the middle of the speech. If there are any traditions or conventions in this House, I must say that I find that kind of rudeness detestable. I was talking about my late friend Donald Dewar and I want to make a couple more points. They also relate to the fact—I am sure that the Minister will confirm this—that we have spoken about the work in Parliament and in the constituency. Those of us who represented Scottish constituencies also had to spend a huge time of travelling to and from our constituencies. It takes a substantial amount of time to travel backwards and forwards between the constituency and Westminster.
I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, would be here because he usually makes some very positive interventions in such debates. He made one recently in one of our debates about the setting up of Select Committees. He, of course, was the architect of the Select Committee. When I came into the other place in 1979, there were relatively few Select Committees. There were only a handful: the Public Accounts Committee and one or two others. Norman St. John-Stevas, as he was then, set up a whole range of new Select Committees, one for each department of state. It was a very positive advancement as far as the House of Commons was concerned but with extra work for Members of Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Martin will confirm. He came in with me at the same time and saw those Select Committees being set up.
I served on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for some time, which was very interesting, but we had to travel overseas with all of the work that that involved. I know that it was a great burden. Then my noble friend Lord Kinnock—I am looking at my good friend—when he was leader of the party, with great wisdom and sagacity, put me on the Front Bench along with my now noble friends Lord Anderson and Lord Robertson. We provided a great team, first under the noble Lord, Lord Healey—Mr Healey, as he was then—and under Sir Gerald Kaufman, as he is now. The responsibility and workload of an opposition spokesperson must not be underestimated. We did not have the resources that Ministers have, with huge departments behind us, but we had a huge amount of work to do. You had all that responsibility of looking after a constituency, sitting on Select Committees, being Front-Bench spokesmen and dealing with standing committees. It is a huge responsibility that has not been fully appreciated.
I do not think that there is enough understanding down in the other place of the importance of this place. That is something which we have to do. We have to educate them about the role and the importance of the House of Lords. However it would be useful, particularly for those people who have not experienced the other place, to meet new Members and to find out exactly what the workload is. While I endorse everything that my colleagues have said in relation to the workload and on all the other arguments about the numbers, I have raised this new point. It is a new point, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, may say. I usually see him at the airport on the way to Bergerac but it is nice to see him here. Thereby hangs another story, which I will not go into too much; he and I look very different on those occasions. I have genuinely raised another point on the degree of flexibility that we need to give the Boundary Commission. Can the Minister tell us whether the Boundary Commission for England has been consulted about this? I am sure that, if given the opportunity and asked, it would welcome that additional degree of flexibility.
Succinctly, if my noble friend pushes this amendment I do not think that I am minded to support it. I would rather see some degree of flexibility but I am waiting to hear all the other arguments. As I have said, I have already sat through all three-and-a-half hours of the debate and am prepared to sit through the rest of it. I will make up my mind at the end as, no doubt, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, also will.
I am not keeping to the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, as I do not want it thought that I can be intimidated by the Front Bench opposite. What I have to say will sound a lot better in the dog hours of 2 am to 4 am so I shall save most of it for later on. First, I support very much what the Minister said. He cannot answer for a political party at the Dispatch Box. I fully accept that but there cannot be a party manager anywhere in the country that is not working out the consequences of this. On my visit to the Conservative Party conference, I could not avoid seeing the glass-walled room where, hour after hour, the training sessions were going on for the boundary changes. I assume that it was happening at the other conferences as well, but you cannot answer for that at the Dispatch Box and no one would expect the Minister to do that.
I want to share something very brief. I went into the other place in 1974, when it had 635 members. Paradoxically, in 1983, when the boundary change took the other place up to 650, my constituency changed from 52,000 to 76,000. Not many had a 50 per cent increase in one go. It changed my working pattern enormously but it was absolutely manageable. There was no problem, once you got settled in and learnt which sides of the streets were odd and even and where the postcode boundaries were—that is the way I work; I got my hands on the detail—so it is manageable. To be honest, as I have already said, I take the view that there should be fewer than the 650. I would not put a figure on it. I would go much further.
The point from my noble friend Lord Soley was valuable. I was, in a way, responsible for doing the very thing that he said but you actually undermine local government. With my constituency at 76,000, I was once in Gloucester—with its inner-city, dockland and urban renewal problems—talking to councillors as a spokesman for the Opposition. I asked them, “How many councillors have you got?”. They said, “We’ve got 46”. I said, “Well, the size of your patch is about the same size as my constituency”. “Oh, well”, they said, “we’ve got 12 county councillors”. I said, “I’ve got 12 councillors”—and that was all there was for 76,000, because of the size of the wards in Birmingham being 18,000 to 20,000. I was not in a position of shoving on to my few councillors the council work that came my way, but in the end you have that ratchet effect of undermining local government because of that structure. That is the issue to be addressed. Frankly, there is an opportunity to address that.
Your Lordships can have a look at the numbers—it is not scientific and it would be preposterous to say so—and at what was said in our Select Committee report on the role and functions of Members of Parliament and then their numbers. It is the very thing that we should do in this place; the role and function, then the form of getting in here. It is not to say that MPs should be constrained in what they do. They have to be freely elected to speak freely but if they could concentrate on being the cockpit of the nation—the inquest, if you like—and turn their attention to more scrutiny of central government in a very targeted, forensic way, we would have a better democracy for it. That would come as a consequence, but it would be much better if we could take that along with the flow, by a degree of consensus, so that it is not seen to be—this is the perception—for party advantage and party-driven. The outcome may be something that we could all say is a big success. Why spoil it all in the method of getting there if, at the end of the day, we will get something that will be good for all of us? I have stuck to my five minutes.
My Lords, I will just deal with the central points. First, the suggestion has been made by some noble Lords that we should not be debating this at all because we are the Second Chamber. I utterly reject that contention. Our position has always been that we take a—I see that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is shaking his head at that suggestion. He is the one who suggested that it should be left to the elected Chamber. I disagree with that. He said that we did not care about it at Third Reading in the Commons. I shall just quote Mr Sadiq Khan, who said that,
“this Bill is a bad means of delivering both objectives. It is too inflexible and too hasty, and it will lead to great and ongoing political instability. This House has failed to improve the Bill because it has not been allowed to do so. To our shame, that task now falls to unelected peers in the other place, whom we must now rely on to inject some democratic principles into what, to date, has been an inglorious episode in recent parliamentary history”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/11/10; col. 870.]
I agree with all that my right honourable friend said.
The second contention is that if one looks at history, this House has a proud history of dealing with politically driven attempts to change the complexion of the House. Some Members will remember the attempt by a Labour Government in 1969 to introduce an Act of Parliament designed to jigger with the boundaries. It was this House that blocked that proposal, so the idea that we should not be giving this proper scrutiny is completely wrong.
The third contention is that the numbers in the House of Commons should be reduced. It is an important issue to debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who we have all come to respect in this House for the way that he has dealt with this Bill, put his case this strongly. He said that introducing a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament would “not impair” the working of democracy. That is not remotely a basis on which it could be said that the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that it is almost impossible, I would have thought, scientifically to work out what the approach of individual Members of Parliament will be to their constituents. It will change. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, that it will be for each individual Member of Parliament to determine how it is done. I completely agree with Mr Tony Wright who, before the previous Parliament came to an end, presided over the Public Administration Committee. He said that there should be an examination of what the right role and function of Members of Parliament should be.
The debate this afternoon reveals that there are differing views about it, not just in relation to what you do in relation to your constituents, but about what is the right number to have as an effective national legislature that also selects the Executive. Surely before one embarks upon something that one seeks to justify by saying that reducing the number would not impair the working of democracy, it would be sensible for there to be some independent examination of this issue—for example, the Speaker’s Conference in 1944—but there has been nothing at all. In those circumstances, when Members on this side and on the other side of the House ask for the reasons why we are reducing, the answer given by the Government is that it will not do damage.
There have been two particularly signal speeches; one by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, and one by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. They sought to grapple with the issues. The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was funny and witty and was made slightly unfortunate by the fact that he wanted to tell us all off after five minutes, but we will forgive him for that. He has a consistent history of supporting reducing the number quite significantly, and I gathered from his speech that his view is that the Commons would be a better place for dealing with policy issues if it was smaller. I also rather understand that the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was putting the same argument. They were both putting the argument quite effectively that as far as the size as their constituencies was concerned, geographically in relation to the Mole Valley in Surrey and in relation to numbers as far as the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was concerned, they could cope. That was their argument. They may be right. I do not know whether they are right, but they are two, if I may say so with respect to both of them, admirable mavericks who have had that view over a long period of time. It is not a view around which moss has gathered.
That is why, instead of it suddenly bouncing out of a clear blue sky that we should reduce from 650 to what is in effect an arbitrary number, the right course is that there is a proper examination so that people outside this place will have some confidence. The consequence of doing it in the way that the Government have done it, the consequence of there not being an intellectual argument to support it, the consequence of there not being any independent body that has concluded that this is the right thing to do, is that you could not say after this debate that even the House of Lords supports this with any degree of unanimity. It is an unstable proposal as far as our House of Commons is concerned, and it is a very unwise thing to be doing.
My amendment was a probing amendment. In parenthesis, if the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, were here, I would, with respect, answer her complaint that we did not vote last Monday. My experience in the Lords is that we vote in Committee from time to time but, generally, we try to avoid votes in Committee. That has been the practice in relation to the something like 60 groups of amendments that we have had so far in this Bill. I apologise to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that that was not adequately explained to her by us.
This was a probing amendment. Three points came out of it. First, I am sorely unimpressed by there not being any sense of consensus about what should happen to the number. Secondly, the danger of it being done by fiat from the other place is very high. Thirdly, I think we need to come back with another amendment that seeks to ensure—
Oh for God’s sake!
I hear a noble Lord say “Oh for God’s sake!”. The tradition in this House is that we have the debate in Committee and then we produce a further amendment on Report. If it is the intention of the House to change that procedure, I would be interested to hear whether we are dissatisfied with our current procedures. Fourthly, a process whereby an independent body determines the size of the House, as is the current arrangement, may be best. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 58A negatived.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.39 pm.