[Continuation of Official Report from col. 172, of Monday, 17 January 2011.]
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (9th Day)
Monday 17 January 2011
My Lords, we have heard a number of powerful speeches tonight, not least from the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. My noble friend Lady McDonagh has posed a real challenge for me. She is an old friend whom I greatly respect, but I am having great difficulty in accepting her amendment. As the debate has gone on, it has become clearer to me that there is no way that we should engage in this process that the Government have begun of dreaming up a number and then trying to put a case to justify it. It is not the job of parliamentarians or politicians of any ilk to get involved in the setting of boundaries.
I share the views of my noble friend Lord O’Neill. I think that this legislation will come back and haunt the coalition. One of the most powerful things that you learn as a Member of Parliament is the respect that people have for their individual Member of Parliament and the deep opposition that they have to any attempt to undermine the relationship between that Member of Parliament and their constituency.
I was amused when my noble friend Lady Billingham talked about Corby. I represented one of the steel towns in central Lanarkshire that provided a high proportion of the people who went to Corby. On a Friday night in my surgeries, I would have people coming off the bus from Corby to ask me to intercede with the council because they were coming up to retirement age and wanted to come back home. I did not particularly enjoy handling those cases, but I found that when I went to Australia as British high commissioner I had people coming down from Newcastle in New South Wales to make the same point. They had come from Corby and wanted to get back to the United Kingdom now that their working life was over, so I have a great deal of respect for what happens in Corby. The point that that makes is the strong pull that people’s origins exert on them and the sense of community that they feel. That point has been made on a number of occasions tonight.
I strongly agree with what my noble friend Lady McDonagh said about the equalisation of constituencies. When the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, was talking about the size of his constituency, I was forced to recall that, on a Thursday night, I would fly home from here, often with the Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, the late Ray Michie. We would usually get the last plane, which got in at about 10.30 at night. I would be in my bed before she would have her car defrosted, after which she would have a couple of hours’ drive to get to her home in Oban. Her constituency of Argyll and Bute was so huge that she could visit bits of it only once a year.
How can you pluck a number out of the air, regardless of how sophisticated the mathematics? I will have to show my husband Hansard tomorrow to prove that at 2 o’clock in the morning I was listening to a debate about prime numbers, because he will not believe me—he will be sending for the men in white coats to cart me away. How can you randomly choose a figure and try to make that fit the nature of the work in a constituency? An inner-city constituency is very different from a constituency such as that of the late Ray Michie. In that constituency, she had a substantial number of electors for whom English was not their first language; a number of elderly people would have no English. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, was the first Member of this House to take the oath in Gaelic. The scale and the nature of the involvement that she was required to have were very different from the scale and the nature of the involvement that I had to have. I used to think that I was hard done by when I had to travel for an hour across my constituency, but the scale of what she had to deal with was much greater.
We will be talking about Argyll and Bute later, because some sweetheart deals have been done about some constituencies in this legislation, not least in relation to Orkney and Shetland. I can see why a sweetheart deal has been done there and it is not to do with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. There is an argument for special treatment for a constituency that is composed of a number of islands and is surrounded by water. There is a similar case for the Western Isles, but why not for constituencies such as Argyll and Bute or the Isle of Wight? Why is there this aberration of putting Cornwall and Devon together?
That is one reason why my noble friend has put me in an awkward position. I believe that these issues have to be taken into account, but we are the wrong people to do it. I listened with great interest to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Morgan, on the previous amendment. They made powerful arguments. The view is inescapable that politicians should not be involved in setting parliamentary boundaries. Somebody said earlier that we are not Zimbabwe; we are not a country that mangles its constitution to fit political need. However, to go down the route of this legislation would put us into that camp.
I am undecided whether, if my noble friend presses her amendment to a vote, I can support her, although I think that she has made a powerful point. In normal circumstances, her amendment would be regarded as a probing amendment, but we have seen by the action of Members on the government Benches that the normal conventions of this House are now suspended. That means that it is difficult to go down the route of moving a probing amendment to get a detailed response. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, love him though I do, has never yet given us a straight answer on the criteria for the establishment of these constituencies other than plucking a number out of the air. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me if I feel that I cannot support her in the Lobbies tonight, but I think that she has done a very useful job in exposing this issue, as the noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Kennedy, are doing by also choosing numbers out of thin air, although the fact that Labour Members are choosing numbers out of thin air does not make it any more acceptable than coalition Members doing so.
Before my noble friend sits down, I ask her to reflect on the fact that, during this debate, I have had an illuminating thought that has instructed me on why the Government have adopted the figure of 600. I hope that, in his response to the debate, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, may be able to say yea or nay to this rationale. It appears to me that the charm, strength and, indeed, magic of the figure 600 is that it is not 585, which was the figure chosen by the Conservative Party to include in its manifesto at the last election. However, in the context of coalition, it would have been unacceptable to the other part of the coalition to adopt in legislation that manifesto proposal. Clearly, there was no possibility of the Conservative Party accepting the bundle of changes that were offered in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto undertakings of 500 plus PR plus devolution in England, as well as many other things.
We have consequently arrived at a figure of 600, which is a kind of orphan. It had no parentage in anyone’s manifesto and is entirely the illegitimate offspring of a shotgun wedding. For the sake of the House and the constitution and security of this country, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to demonstrate, if I am wrong, why I am wrong, or accept my reasoning. It will be the first time that we have had a rational explanation of the 600 figure.
I may be a new Member of this House, but I know that you do not get sequential interventions without a response. I am grateful to my noble friend for raising those powerful and valid points. I have long wondered why, if one party wanted 500 and the other wanted 585, we did not have 542 and half. So this is a random figure that has been plucked out of thin air. It ill behoves the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to keep avoiding the issue of why it is 600. Or is it exactly as the Leader of the House said, a nice, round number? If he thinks we believe that, he must think that we are demented.
My Lords, I support the amendment. I strongly believe that we need a larger House of Commons than 600. I recognise that, in advocating a House of Commons larger than 600, one exposes oneself to the criticism that one is not in favour of cutting the cost of politics. If that was the reason that the Government made this proposal, it is a poor one. We are trying to cut the cost of politics at the expense of better representation of remote and isolated communities and respect for the historic traditions which have always been taken into account by the Boundary Commission in setting boundaries hitherto.
I illustrate that point with reference to my home county of Cumberland, now Cumbria, in which I was born in 1947. Cumbria is an interesting case. On two separate occasions, the Boundary Commission has supported the retention of six Members of Parliament for the county, even though on a strict application of the present quota there would only be justification for five. It has done so on the basis precisely of its ability as a Boundary Commission to respect community ties and historic traditions.
I will expand on this point. I recognise, of course, that simply increasing the size of the House of Commons is itself insufficient to deal with this problem, but it is necessary. We must also secure amendments on the Boundary Commission’s degree of discretion in fixing constituency sizes and the criteria it should take into account.
The situation in Cumbria illustrates this point. It is no good the noble Lord, Lord McNally, sneering at this point, because it is the heart of the argument about representation. It is very important that the Government explain why they feel that they can sweep aside how the Boundary Commission has operated over decades, and why they can say that they have the wisdom to substitute some arbitrary system in place of the Boundary Commission that has worked with a great degree of consensus over time.
Cumberland used to have five Members of Parliament: the ancient borough of Carlisle, the industrial constituencies of Whitehaven and Workington on the west coast, and the agricultural and rural constituencies of Penrith and north Cumberland. The number of agricultural and rural constituencies was reduced to one in 1950 when the present constituency of Penrith and The Border was created which went on to be represented in a distinguished way by the late Viscount Whitelaw.
In 1973, there was a similar, top-down reorganisation of things. Top-down reorganisations are never a good idea, as I am glad to see the Leader of the Labour Party, Mr Ed Miliband, now recognises. The local government reorganisation led to the creation of the county of Cumbria, merging Cumberland and Westmoreland with the Furness and Lonsdale parts of Lancashire. In the 1983 boundary review, Penrith and The Border, which had been geographically entirely within the county of Cumberland, was extended to include north Westmoreland. The constituency of Westmoreland was extended to take in parts of what had been Lancashire.
That set the present pattern whereby Cumbria has six MPs. It is arguable that that represents distinct communities. There is Carlisle, Workington and Whitehaven on the west coat, the constituency of Westmoreland based on Kendal, Barrow and the Furness area in the south of the county and a big rural constituency of Penrith and The Border, based on the market towns of Appleby, Brampton, Penrith and Wigton, now represented by the able and interesting Rory Stewart.
When the Boundary Commission looked at the numbers last time, as was the case the previous time the quota only gave Cumbria an entitlement to fewer than 5.5 Members of Parliament; I think the figure was 5.48. Despite being entitled to only 5.48 Members of Parliament, they none the less agreed that Cumbria should continue to have six. If we were to have 600 MPs, we would definitely only have five seats in Cumbria and the Boundary Commission would have hardly any flexibility to take into account community considerations. As a result of reducing the number of Members of Parliament in my part of the country, representation on the basis of natural communities would be completely destroyed. The city of Carlisle would have to take in a vast and different rural area around it. Barrow would have to extend outside its natural area of Furness. Westmoreland would become enormous once again, as it would have to take back the bits of Westmoreland in Appleby and that area that had gone to Penrith and The Border.
The constituency of Penrith and The Border, instead of being one of the most rural and agricultural seats in England, would become a strange mish-mash of an old industrial area, probably Maryport, with some of the other market towns.
I am not raising this point because I care about the political future of Rory Stewart. Actually, I do care, because he is an interesting guy. But there is the wider point that this reorganisation, which would be made inevitable by the rigidity of government by numbers that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wants to impose on us, would completely ignore natural communities and be a great mistake.
I do not understand why the Liberal Democrats have gone along with this; or I do, because it is part of a deal on AV. What I find most extraordinary is that the Conservative Party should think that it supports this kind of arrangement. The Conservative Party is completely careless with local traditions on this issue. The Conservative Party claims to speak for the big society, and is completely careless with the notion of natural communities. The Prime Minister talks about how we are all in this together but is completely careless in trying to create consensus on a local basis about what is a decent basis of representation.
The Government should think again. These are serious issues, not just party political trivialities. The Government have as yet given us no credible explanation of why they think it necessary to make these changes.
My Lords, the Committee owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lady McDonagh for moving the amendment, to which she spoke so well, as have others. Her analysis of the role of constituencies and how important they are was worth listening to, and I hope it was taken on board on the government Benches, as it clearly was on our own. It was a genuine attempt to help the Government get this vexed issue right.
Before I come to the Front Benches’ response, I accept that my noble friend’s amendment is partly a probing amendment but also means what it says. It was great to hear from other noble Lords on this issue. How proud the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, must be of his son who is here watching these proceedings, but not half as proud as his son will be of him, not just for being here but, more seriously, for the important role he has played over the past years in making sure that Northern Ireland is a proper and sane country. We share that view.
I do not think she is in her place, but my noble friend Lady Billingham talked about her seven constituencies when she was an MEP. I mention her particularly because I was the chair of the Euro-constituency for that entire time, and what a magnificent MEP she was. I was a bit disappointed when my noble friend Lord Kinnock talked about the explanation of the 600 seats, because I had been totally convinced just half an hour before by my noble friend Lord Harris’s explanation. I do not know which to choose now. There must be an explanation, I am sure. I hope that we will hear about it from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, but I will not hold my breath.
As far as constituencies are concerned, there is an extraordinarily good quote from the late Lord Callaghan, who said in a House of Commons debate as long ago as 19 June 1969:
“Constituencies are not merely areas bounded by a line on a map; they are living communities with a unity, a history and a personality of their own”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/6/69; col. 742.]
We on this side say “Hear, hear!” to that, and I know that many on the other side really believe it to be true. Constituencies are much more than just a line on a map. The great danger of the approach that gives an exact number of constituencies that there must be is that the constituencies are in danger of becoming lines on maps.
All the amendments in this group and those that follow are clearly better than what the Bill offers in terms of quality of representation, disruption to constituencies and all the other arguments. However, they all fall into the trap that an exact number of seats proposed by the Government and passed by Parliament is a grievous fault. We heard at the start of the debate from my noble friend Lady Farrington that the last time that there was an exact number of seats decreed by Parliament was 1832. That may be some explanation of why the Deputy Prime Minister claims that these reforms are the greatest democratic reform since 1832; I cannot think of another explanation.
We and the Government have been forgetting that Boundary Commissions and Parliaments in the past have been very careful in the language that they have used in setting out the existing rules, as my noble friend Lady Nye mentioned. If the Committee will forgive me, I will remind it of the existing 1986 rules passed by a Conservative Government:
“1.- (1) The number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613.
(2) The number of constituencies in Scotland shall not be less than 71.
(3) The number of constituencies in Wales shall not be less than 35.
this is a bit of a mouthful—
“The number of constituencies in Northern Ireland shall not be greater than 18 or less than 16, and shall be 17 unless it appears to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland should for the time being be divided into 16 or (as the case may be) into 18 constituencies”.
That is not quite as clear, but the rest of it is beautifully and deliberately phrased so as not to set an absolutely exact number. There is great strength in a system that says that Parliament sets out a rough guide of how many Members of Parliament there should be, but the independent Boundary Commission has the job of actually deciding how many seats there are. It is a strong argument and it diminishes the danger the Government find themselves in of setting an exact number and then being accused of trying to fix the system. I hope that is not what the Government intend to do. There is a danger that that is what they will be perceived as doing if they do not move off this idea of a fixed number.
The noble Lord suggests that it would be “a grievous fault” for Parliament to fix a precise number of Members of Parliament. Would he not accept that in many countries, probably most democracies, there is a written constitution with a fixed number of MPs that is invariably approved by Parliament? These other countries do not consider it to be a grievous fault at all for Parliament to set a precise number of MPs.
Well, other countries, as the noble Lord knows, work under a written constitution, and to change the written constitution requires in each country certain statutory measures, majorities et cetera. That cannot be compared exactly with the United Kingdom. We are extremely proud of our unwritten constitution. Well, some of us are; and in particular about this aspect of it, where we are very careful that Governments through Parliament do not take upon themselves something so that they can be accused of fixing the system.
It is a really British way of doing it. I accept that that is what the noble Lord is saying, but it is the way that it has worked over many years, where the Boundary Commission has the final say as to the number, based on the rules that it has to work under—
Could he also add that the British system, as it has existed since 1949 in the establishment of the modern Boundary Commission, is the product of the experience of the long number of years between pre-democratic Britain and fully enfranchised Britain, in what can be recognised to be a modern democracy? There was a conscious decision in the late 1940s by the very large majority Labour Government to introduce the Boundary Commission to provide a safety measure against the possibility of the restoration of arbitrary decisions by Government majorities of a fixed number of seats which suited the purposes of those in power.
That analysis also must be correct. It is not something that any Government, of whatever political complexion, should muck around with easily. Sometimes during these debates, it has not been clear that the Government have really understood why it is that we are arguing from this side that this is a precious system and one that should be kept unless there are absolutely outstanding reasons why it should be changed. We do not think that there are such outstanding reasons.
The quotation I read from the existing rules, which suggested 613 seats for Great Britain, plus the 17-odd seats for Northern Ireland, comes to the 630 seats for the United Kingdom, which is what my noble friend Lady McDonagh is proposing in her amendment. Our view is—and we argued this in our amendment earlier today—that it is best not to set a complete amount. If it is wrong for the Government to set a fixed amount, it is also wrong for amendments to do so. But, as a probing amendment, it asks what the Government intend to do; we asked at Second Reading, and will continue to ask, why 600? This debate is one that gives the opportunity for the Minister to tell us, finally, why it is that 600 was reached and why they will not be more flexible in their attitude to this issue.
My Lords, hearing that the son of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is watching, I am reminded that the great and late Les Dawson used to occasionally during his performances turn and say, “And first a word to our viewer”. The word to our viewer, just so that he should fully understand it, is that the official Opposition is fighting line by line two interconnected reforms. These have been resisted by a party which, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said earlier today, less than a year ago introduced a constitutional reform Bill with 13 unrelated constitutional reforms. So let us have fewer crocodile tears.
We have heard a lot of assurances about the good intentions of the Opposition. The noble Baroness said in introducing that she was insisting on decoupling, but anybody looking at this list of amendments knows that that kind of decoupling works against any rational examination at Committee stage of a Bill like this, or indeed any other Bill. I merely put that on the record. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, suggested, the constitutional historians and experts will be looking at this matter. I ask them to look at the Hansard record of how the Bill has been dealt with and to draw their own conclusions.
Would the noble Lord not agree that we should place on record what happened to our legislation 12 months ago? At that time the Labour Government had a majority in the Commons. When this House dealt with these constitutional issues, on the occasions when the Lib Dems and the Conservatives chose to come together, they had a majority and defeated us frequently.
On those constitutional reforms, we very rarely went with the Conservatives. On the CRAG Bill, as those on the Front Bench know, we were willing to give them full support. They should not come to me with arguments about the previous Government’s position on constitutional reform.
It is repeatedly said that Labour seats and Conservative seats are different, and that that causes a distortion of the vote. To a certain extent, the noble Baroness might be right about that. There have been times in our past when the party that got the popular vote did not form the Government. That was the case in 1951, when the Labour Government got the greatest proportion of the popular vote. It was also true in 1974, when Ted Heath’s Government got the popular vote. However, I say to her—this is outside any party political view—that I do not think that either our system or the people would long tolerate what was hoving into view in how our elections were working out. If a party won by, say, a clear 5 per cent of the popular vote, but another party could have the most seats in Parliament, it was clear that that distortion had to be addressed. I hope that those in all parts of the House would recognise that.
There will be changes over the next 20 years, but I do not think it is very sensible to try to future-proof legislation. My experience is that we should not put trust in psephologists with regard to the impact of changes. I think that psephologists are like economists; they are trained to predict the past. My feeling is that very few of us would put money on a view of what the impact of the reforms will be at the next election. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, may well be right that the view of the electorate will sweep aside any advantage that the changes have, if indeed changes occur.
I was slightly surprised that Lord Bach quoted what Lord Callaghan said in 1969. As the House will be aware, I see it as part of my role to defend the memory of Lord Callaghan, who was a very distinguished man. In 1969, however, he delayed the Boundary Commission report of that year until after the 1970 election, in what many thought was a crude political manoeuvre—and much good it did us, because we lost the 1970 election.
It may well have been, but the fact is that Lord Callaghan acted as he did at the time, probably—I am not quite sure—with the full approval of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. The point that I am making is that a remark made by Lord Callaghan in the House at that time, when he was trying to intervene in respect of a boundary review, is not the most apt to pluck out now.
Does the noble Lord agree that what Lord Callaghan said was true, and that constituencies are not merely areas bounded by a line on a map but are living communities with a unity, history and personality of their own? It does not really matter when he said it; is it true? Does the noble Lord agree with it?
To a certain extent, but even the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, having made the same sort of point, then explained that Clackmannan was the only part of his constituency that survived integral during a whole parliamentary career. The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, saw boundary changes. My God, there are enough of them in the building. Everybody has seen boundary changes.
The changes in the boundaries in my constituency, as in others, were always subject to a clear set of guidelines. The Boundary Commission often followed them. Quite often, however, as a result of public hearings, the changes that were made resulted in something which was broadly accepted by my electors and by other people in the surrounding constituencies. None of those points is likely to be made given the character of the legislation we are considering.
I know; that is why I looked over. If 1832 was the last time, I am pleased to know that there is that precedent. In this House, a 180 year-old precedent is fairly recent.
We heard an extraordinary speech by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in which he quoted half a dozen numbers and, Perry Mason-like, tried to finger me to come up with an explanation. This is part of the circular nature of this debate. It seems years ago—it might have been only a few weeks ago—when I suggested that, in terms of the size of the electorate, setting an average constituency size of 76,000 produces a figure not unadjacent to 600.
I am quite happy to recast my argument not in terms of prime numbers and numbers of seats, but to come back to the question of why that number of electors should be chosen. What is the rationale? Why that figure, as opposed to 75,000, 72,000, 80,000, 85,000 or 90,000? That leads to a subject which I am sure we will come on to: the degree of tolerance around that figure.
We may well come on to it, but 76,000 and 600 are sensible numbers which achieve the objective of this Bill: of fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies. I forgot who it was who was suggesting the usual thing, because we have had this debate so many times over the last few weeks. There is no smoking gun. I have said before: I defy the psephologists to actually prove it. For somebody with the experience of elections that she has, she knows how positively daft it is to suggest that 600 is part of some figure that has come out of number-crunching by those in Central Office. Even now, with all the resources, why don’t they crunch their own numbers and try and prove that 600 seats on an average of 76,000 is going to bring this massive advantage to the Conservative party or anybody else? We really do not know. It is simply a way of setting this central objective of fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies and that is what niggles the Oppostion.
The Minister is answering a question which his noble friend the Leader of the House was unable to answer, by talking about the numbers. I am now puzzled. His right honourable friend Mr Clegg talked about going towards the future with the greatest reform Act since 1832. We now appear, given his reply tonight, to be going back to 1832, with Parliament and the Government setting the figure. Surely this cannot be what the Liberals mean by localism. This is centralism by the standards of anybody.
I hope people will read these interventions and make their own assessment of them. I do not read into this as the noble Baroness is doing. There is a modest saving of public expenditure as noble Baroness, Lady Nye acknowledged. However it is not the driving force of the Bill.
I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House if I seem to be labouring this point, but I do not understand what the magic significance is. Is he now telling us that the driver which produces 600 constituencies is not the magic figure 600, but it is 76,000? If it is 76,000, why 76,000? Why not 75,000, which has a certain magic, or 80,000? What is the most important factor? Is it the number of constituencies or the number of electors, and why were those numbers chosen?
They were chosen because they are sensible for achieving the objectives of the Bill. There is such a thing in theology as invincible ignorance. I think the real objection of the Opposition is that those two numbers will achieve what we want, which is fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies. That is the heart of the matter. That is what they do not like, and every time I tell them, they get madder and madder, but we are going to do it.
We now have a new explanation that has not been before the House so far. Like me, the noble Lord knows Lancashire well. Can he tell me how 76,000 benefits the sense of community in Lancashire? This 76,000 has suddenly appeared. What exactly does it do to Blackpool, Burnley and all the other areas that he and I know well? What does it do in south Wales? What does it do in the north-east? Is it based on the average size of a community or the average size of the greed of the coalition?
The Minister was answering a point that I made in my speech. I should like him to help me a little more. What I said was that once the Liberal Democrats’ figure was not there, you had the figure of 585, which the Conservative Party had gone to the election with. They must have done a calculation about how equal they wanted their votes to be. I can’t do the maths—it is too late for me to do that, if I ever could. The Minister has not answered my question. Why did they not stick to 585? We would all understand it if they had stuck to 585.
I do not know. I really do not know. You could then ask why we did not choose 584. We have put a number in the Bill to fulfil the objectives of the Bill. What we have coming next, which I think is an abuse of the procedures of the House, is an amendment going on about a figure of 640, and then there is another one on 650. Then you want to be treated seriously in terms of not abusing the processes of this House.
It is great to see the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in good form, it really is. It takes me back to our student debating days. Really, I can only go so far. I have explained and explained, and not for the first time at this Dispatch Box. Out of deference, I give way to the noble Lord.
We used to be against deference as well, didn’t we? On a very serious point, does the Minister recall that the original rationale for the figure of 585 was offered by the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, in the middle of the expenses scandal when, in order to demonstrate how radically different a Conservative Government would be, he said that there was a commitment to reduce the numbers in the House of Commons by 10 per cent, taking it down to 585, in order to save public money? That was the original rationale. So why now, at this point in the debate on changing the numbers in the House of Commons, are we not still presented with that figure, which at least had the legitimacy of being in one party’s manifesto? And why, if it is not 585, is it 600? May I underline, by repetition, the question that he has yet to answer? Why 600? If his calculation is based on rough equal numbers per constituency, why again has that number been chosen? There is no substantive rationale behind it.
I will try again. The two numbers are sensible numbers to achieve the objectives of the Bill. I was not going to delay the House. We have estimated that reducing the size of the other place will save £12.2 million annually, made up of reduced salary costs of £4.1 million and £8.1 million in reduced expenditure on MPs’ expenses. At a time when the whole public sector is being asked to do more with less, this is a relatively modest saving, but one worth making.
The value of the saving that the noble Lord is talking about is roughly equivalent to the bonus of one or two members of Goldman Sachs, or perhaps roughly equivalent to the value of a property in certain parts of Kensington. Basically, my point is that having heard the noble Lord’s explanation in respect of 600 or why one should have various figures, we remain somewhat confused, but at a higher level of confusion.
The noble Lord deserves the congratulations of the House, because he has tried to answer the various points that have been made in the debate. He has gone through them one after another. The way he has treated the House is in marked contrast to the way in which the Leader of the House has treated us. After the previous, rather long, debate, he tried to speak for two or three minutes. That was arrogant and is in marked contrast to what the noble Lord has done in this debate.
I have to confess that I go off at 3 o’clock. The reason I was talking is that I had not noticed that my noble friend from the morning shift had come on, otherwise I might have wrapped up long ago.
I have tried and I can only go back to respond to the noble Lords, Lord Kinnock and Lord Liddle. The Government’s rationale for this is fairer votes in more fairly drawn constituencies—nothing more, nothing less. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, at the appropriate time we will take our conduct and our approach to this matter to the country and we will let them make a judgment.
I thank the Minister for responding to the points raised in the debate and I thank everyone for their contribution. I intend to be very brief. I believe that the purpose of an amendment at this stage of the process is to probe the thinking of the Government and to raise points that the Government will consider before coming back on Third Reading. I always live in hope and I hope that they will do that.
I want to explain the points that I raised about a rising 70 million electorate over the next 20 years and the potential for the voting age to fall to 16. They do not happen when you get to the end of 20 years. The problem with the electorate is that it rises every year towards every general election. We will not get to 70 million; it will happen at each and every election. It therefore makes much more sense to have a constituency based on numbers of voters as opposed to an overall cap, when you know that that is going to happen. It seems to me more sensible to have a 72,000-rising constituency based on the May 2010 figures or 78,000 on the basis of all eligible voters.
The point I was making about psephologists is not whether I believe they are right in saying that the figure of 600 gives the Conservatives the most constituencies; the point is that that is what the Conservative Party believes. That is how we have ended up with this figure. I am really saddened at this point that the Government cannot explain why the figure of 600 is still in the Bill. That is why these probing amendments have been tabled, so that we can understand.
As I said at the very beginning, I hope that, over time, the Government will consider the points that I raised in moving this amendment and that we will see movement at Third Reading. Therefore, I will not be pressing this amendment to a vote.
Amendment 61 withdrawn.
I beg to move that the House do now resume. It was three hours and fifty minutes ago that I made the last application for the House to resume. Taking the starting point as the application to move into Committee, the House has now been talking about this Bill for twelve hours, less an hour, for the UQ. The House is now, according to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, sitting in shifts. I understand that he is going off at three. There will be substantial proportions of the House that will not hear half of these amendments.
We are debating these amendments in respect of a part of the Bill where there is no stated urgency to any part. We are doing it at the dead of night. It is sixteen minutes past three. I do not believe that this is an appropriate way for us to conduct business. This is another opportunity for those on the other Benches to consider whether or not this is the right way to seek proper scrutiny of the Bill. I said on the last occasion that I moved that the House resume that our unique feature—the thing that makes us a successful House—is that we scrutinise Bills well. It is inappropriate and wrong for us to be doing a really important constitutional Bill that has no degree of urgency—because there is no external urgency like there was in relation to, for example, the national security or Northern Rock legislation—in the middle of the night.
Would my noble and learned friend comment again briefly? There was an accusation in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about whether or not the procedures of the House were being obeyed in respect of a decoupling of amendments. It is worth reminding the House—not that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, should need reminding because his party quite frequently decoupled groups of amendments in the many years that he was in Opposition—that that followed a clear breach of the conventions of the House in calling for a closure on the previous group of amendments. In fact our Standing Orders make clear that that was a most exceptional set of circumstances. It would not have been so bad if the proposal had come from the Opposition Back Benches—which it did—and the Front Bench had chosen not to follow it but, quite deliberately, the Front Bench encouraged the Motion and went through the Lobbies in order to ensure that it was carried.
I will list the breaches to the conventions of this House in some detail. For now I will be brief. The clearest possible breach of the conventions of this House is, as my noble and learned friend has said, when there is absolutely no time imperative whatsoever for this and for the Government to have determined that we should be sitting at this time and, even more significantly, that we should be considering the Bill tomorrow and on Thursday. I have not kept count of the breaches in convention.
This House has made these decisions. It is not the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who decides what has been breached or not. This House came to a proper democratic decision. I know that they do not like that. I suggest that he puts forward his Motion and we will try again.
When I was Chief Whip, there was never an occasion when there was no time imperative when we tried to drive legislation through. When I was Government Whip, there was never a single occasion when debate on a group of amendments was blocked by means of—
The Minister says it was because we could not get agreement.
Everyone sitting there knows that every Government has negotiations between the usual channels. I know how much co-operation we have had. You would not have got a single Bill through under your stewardship if this behaviour had been normal, and that is the threat to this House. That is the threat to the credibility of this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, would not have got any business through either without—
I was a government Whip during the whole of the Labour Government, and on every single occasion, we were advised that we had to consult the Opposition about days when they were available to deal with legislation. This was the case during the times of the noble Lords, Lord Carter, Lord Grocott and Lord Bassam. That is my first point. My second point is that the degrouping of amendments that occurred during the Countryside and Rights of Way Act—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves will bear me out on this—dealt with the issues one by one. The one thing that strikes me tonight is that in all my time as a government Whip when we were in government, I never heard a Minister on our Front Bench dealing with a constitutional Bill of this magnitude referring to “shift work”.
I very well remember the access to the countryside Bill, because I was sitting where the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is now, doing the Front Bench job for the Opposition. I did not know enough about the House in those days to know how it worked, but we sat until we had breakfast at 6.30 in shifts; we then went on until 11.00 before we rose. I had some of the most hostile opponents—they were the Government—but I was facing the government party, and I do not get frightened or nervous easily, but when I stood up there and got the baying and the shouting and the real unpleasantness from the Government, frankly tonight is the first time I felt I was in the House of Commons.
I am not quite sure why the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, calls me in evidence. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which was over ten years ago, was the last time before tonight that the House of Lords sat overnight on ordinary legislation. We have had overnight events on ping pong—the overnight sittings on the Terrorism Bill, or whatever it was, was on ping pong—but the last time there was an ordinary overnight sitting, if there is such a thing, was on the CROW Bill. That was the first legislation that I had really been involved in; I was very new here. I do not recognise the exact description given about it either by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, or by my noble friend.
However, what was absolutely clear during the passage of that Bill was that there was a significant group of Members of this House who were intent on filibustering. In my belief, they were Conservative Back Benchers—the Front Bench was not involved at all—connected with landowning interests. They were assisted by certain Cross-Bench Members with similar interests, which are legitimate interests, but they were determined to try to delay the Bill as much as possible, because they were against it. As I have said to some of my colleagues, the last time I experienced animosity of the sort there is in the House about the Bill which we are discussing was on that previous Bill, but it was coming from a different part of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, may not agree, but that is my recollection of the history.
It is time that everyone in the House calmed down a bit. In particular, I inform noble Lords who think it reasonable to spend 12 hours today—or yesterday, or whichever day we happen to be in—on three amendments that I believe that that is an abuse of the procedures of this House. I believe passionately that the most important role of this House is to scrutinise legislation properly and thoroughly. If that takes time, it takes time. People ask me about the actions of my colleagues and me during consideration of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. Indeed, we had 17 sessions considering that Bill, but it was very important and complicated, and we did it properly. At no stage, however, except perhaps when the very first group of amendments was considered on the first day, did we ever spend more than an hour on a group. That was one of the targets that we set ourselves. We decided that we would limit ourselves to an hour’s debate as far as possible, as an absolute maximum on a single group of amendments. On many we spent far less time. I believe that taking four hours over one group of amendments, and then the same time over another group where all the same arguments are regurgitated, is an abuse of the House. Those noble Lords who are involved should not be surprised when they meet a great deal of anger and resistance. Some noble Lords have asked why the Liberal Democrats are not listening to what they are saying. The answer is the way in which those noble Lords are behaving.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that masterful intervention. Things got rather muddled because the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, intervened on me, then the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, intervened on the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. The previous time when the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I had a discussion about this Bill, which was about three and a half hours ago, I said that we did not think in the same way, and I apologised at the time. Now I am not so sure. In certain things—not everything—we have a similar outlook. With the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the thing on which I think we most agree is the importance of this House retaining its function as a scrutinising House. With respect and affection to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, it is for the House an ugly picture of the noble Lord wagging his finger at us and saying that we must do what he says. It is the same noble Lord, Lord McNally, who said of the conduct of the Labour Front-Bench spokesman in the other place that they were simply time-wasting in the guillotine debates there. That worried me, because it tended to indicate a contemptuous view of scrutiny of this Bill.
I am afraid that I remain of the view that we should have stopped many hours ago, so I beg to move that this House do now resume.
62: Clause 11, page 9, line 18, leave out “600” and insert “640”
My Lords, I am now faced with a rather impossible task. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is about to go and have a lie down—fortunately, I think, given the state of his temper—has already denounced me for time wasting before I have got to my feet. Things are a little difficult. I hope before he goes I will not have him banging on the Dispatch Box, so I will try to introduce some new arguments into this case. My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey will be relieved to know that this is very much a probing amendment and I tabled it in the hope that we could have a debate about the duties and responsibilities of a Member of Parliament and, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport amply demonstrated in the debate on the last amendment, how the role of a Member of Parliament has changed enormously over the years. I hope to be able to do so without provoking a phone call from Trimble junior about any waffling from this side of the House. I never went to university myself but to find students these days at 3.42 in the morning watching the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill indicates to me that a university education is not all that it is cracked up to be. Certainly I would find something better to do if I were in their position.
In 1974 I was elected to the other place for the then new constituency of West Bromwich East—a constituency created by the Boundary Commission, bearing in mind the social conditions in West Bromwich at that time because that is what Boundary Commissions did and do, which is why there has been so much concern on this side of your Lordships’ House about the future and particularly about the lack of local inquiries when new boundaries are produced, which is inherent in this Bill.
During my early years as a Member of the other place—coincidentally, although I see the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has left the Front Bench now—I shared the use of a secretary with a man called Andrew Bennett who represented Stockport North. In those days, it was sufficient for us to employ a part-time secretary who would come in on two evenings a week to jointly do our constituency work. When I left the other place in 2001, I employed two full-time staff and one part-timer. That was before the onset of the internet. I did not actually know how to plug a computer in when I was a Member of the House of Commons—I had somebody to do all that sort of thing for me. I found some difficulty in being transported to your Lordships’ House as I was expected to do all that sort of thing myself. I managed to achieve that much and I can cope just about with the internet but my successor in the other place can get 5,000 e-mails a week. Many of the people, if they e-mail him and do not get an instant response—within, say, 24 hours—will denounce him in the local paper for failing to take any notice of his constituents. It is a vastly different world from that I experienced 37 years ago when I was first elected. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is replying to this debate, will do so with regard to the seriousness with which I am putting these points. One of the reasons that I have tabled this amendment is that the position, duties and workload of a Member of Parliament are much greater now than in the days just referred to. Of course it could be argued—it probably will be argued from the government Front Bench—that secretarial facilities in the other place are much better than they were all those years ago, and if necessary those secretarial facilities could be increased to meet that burgeoning workload.
My noble friend Lord Howarth mentioned the number of immigration cases. It will not come as any surprise to him if I say, as someone who represented West Bromwich, that they provided a considerable proportion of my workload as a constituency Member of Parliament. Indeed, there is no reason to suppose that that situation has changed since I left the other place. Again, noble Lords will appreciate that immigration matters in particular are extraordinarily time consuming. It is not a question of a simple housing repair; there are plenty of those cases as well of course. Some of my colleagues in the other place, much braver than I, said “Well, if someone comes to you with a housing case why don’t you refer them to your local councillors?”. I had a majority of 288 at one stage, so I was not about to alienate any more people than was absolutely necessary. I dealt with them myself at that time. Immigration cases in particular were, and are, extraordinarily complicated, and it might easily be argued that we could increase secretarial allowances for Members of Parliament in order for them to meet that ever burgeoning workload.
The newspapers are reporting only this week on the salaries of Members of Parliament. It is easier perhaps for us at this end of the building to defend a proper salary for a Member of Parliament. Setting up a body to take the question of Members’ salaries out of the Chamber of the other place and place it in the hands of an independent body would, it was said at the time by Harriet Harman and by other people, make the award of an increase for Members of Parliament much easier to accept. “Oh, yes”, I said at the time, “I will believe that when I see it”.
I go back to Harold Wilson’s days. He gave me my first job as a junior Whip. He said. “At least you get a pay rise”. I think it was about £3,000 a year that we earned back in the 1970s. I had no doubts that, when this independent body was set up, the first time it awarded Members of Parliament a pay rise the Prime Minister of the day, regardless of his political view, would say, “It’s the wrong time”. Well, I have been around this building for nearly 40 years. I have never known the right time for Members of Parliament to get a pay rise. Certainly it will be argued—I expect it to be argued by the government Front Bench—that, given the current circumstances, it is an inappropriate time to award the £1,000 a year that this independent body has recommended. Does anyone seriously think on either side of the Chamber that it will be possible to give Members of Parliament adequate facilities to do the extra constituency workload that they have at present? Does anyone think that the Daily Mail would not say, “These people are costing us X thousands of pounds a year”? Being a Member of Parliament in the other place is the only job I have ever known where your secretary’s salary and her typewriter or computer is added to your salary as far as the newspapers are concerned. That is never going to change. I say in all seriousness to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is going to reply to this debate, that I hope that the Government will look at the numbers of Members of Parliament and they will move away from this belief that 600 is the optimum figure. We have never had an explanation, after all this time and after all this debate on the Bill, how that figure has been arrived at. I hope that the Minister will agree that to reduce the numbers of Members of the other place, despite the problems and workload in a modern society, is nonsense.
I do not want to repeat anything that was said previously on the debate as to whether this should be 600, 640 or 650. I just ask the Minister, when he responds, to bear in mind that it is not popular to defend Members of the other place, but regardless of political party the vast majority of them are, in my experience, hard working. To reduce their numbers at present, given the social problems facing this country, given the economic situation facing this country, and given the increased workload for all of them, regardless of what part of the country they represent, would be absolute folly.
I hope that the Minister will reply in the same spirit with which I have moved this amendment and accept that there are sincere concerns—I am sure on both sides of your Lordships’ House, but certainly on this side of the House—about the future. We believe that the present number—650—is about right and we ought to keep it at that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend’s comments, although I would not be happy even with a reduction to 640, as the amendment proposes. I shall speak briefly from personal experience. The only justification that I can think of—I really have been wrestling with this—for the Government deciding to reduce the number of MPs is that they must somehow or other think that it does not make any difference to the way in which MPs can serve their constituents.
It was my experience as the MP for The Wrekin that when the electorate went up to 90,892 at the 1992 election, it was like the cavalry coming over the hill when the Boundary Commission said that the constituency had to be reduced in size. It went down quite dramatically. I acknowledge that it ended up smaller than you would expect a constituency to be, but it includes a very rapidly expanding town. The electorate went down from 90,892 to 56,558. I have to say to the House that although, like the vast majority of MPs, I was very hard working and did my very best to represent the people who had sent me to Westminster, the level of service and the quality of job that you can do when you have 56,000 or 60,000 people to represent is dramatically better than the service that you can deliver when you represent 90,000 people.
At the simplest level, as far as I was concerned, it meant that instead of largely reacting to constituency problems, complaints and grievances—because that filled your time—and going to factories and schools, for example, when they invited you along, I was able in a reasonably coherent way to set out a programme of action within the much smaller electorate and geographical size of the constituency to do these things on a much more systematic basis.
I find it impossible to accept the argument that you should increase the size of constituencies. I would describe this section of the Bill not as the reduction in the number of MPs, but as the increase in the size of constituencies. Doing that weakens the link between the MP and his or her constituents. I find that pretty astonishing, particularly when it comes from members of parties that were very concerned about the breakdown of trust in Parliament—we were all concerned about that—up until the last general election, when it was said that MPs and Parliament generally must reconnect with the people. Now they are bringing forward a Bill that makes that unarguably more difficult.
I suggest to the Government that they would save themselves an awful lot of difficulty—I know they are not looking for suggestions—if they looked again at the proposal to reduce the number of MPs and concentrated instead on the mantra, which we have heard so frequently, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about fair votes in fair constituencies. I cannot remember it, but it is some mantra of that sort. They should concentrate rather more on equalising the size of constituencies, if that is their objective, and rather less on simultaneously trying to reduce the number of MPs and increasing the size of constituencies.
I was going to say, “If I was a betting man”, but I am a betting man. I would bet that if, in the privacy of their own party relationships, the Conservative leadership and the Liberal Democrat leadership went to their own Members of Parliament—who now know that they will be in conflict with neighbours as the constituencies are redrawn, will for the most part have bigger constituencies to represent and will have to face this upheaval every five years—they would not still be very keen to go ahead with the Bill in its present form.
I would imagine that if the Whips do what Whips have traditionally done, at their best, which is consult their Members, they would find widespread misgivings about what is being done. When you get over the flush of success when you are first returned and at subsequent returns—we know there has been a terrific turnover in membership of the other House—they will begin to realise that very substantial changes are coming their way, probably to their disadvantage, which their own Government are whipping through.
I have no problem whatever with this House spending time on a Bill that primarily concerns the House of Commons, because very quickly, large numbers of their Members will object not only to the constituency part of the Bill, but to the change in the electoral system. So we have the astonishing situation that on most bits of the Bill, I have no doubt that there is a majority in the House of Commons against. I am certain that that is the case with respect to changes in the electoral system and I suspect that by now, in private, it would also be the view of many Members of the House of Commons in respect of the constituency boundaries part of the Bill.
That is why the function of this House is so important. It is to do the job that the Commons could not do because of the guillotine, but I also believe it to be true, paradoxically, that those of us who are concerned about this Bill are more representative of opinion across the House of Commons than can in any way be described by the votes that took place.
Finally, I have seen Minister after Minister defending the Bill and finding it impossible to explain why they have picked 600 and why they have that size of electorate for the constituencies. They would not be in this difficulty if they had thought again about the wisdom or otherwise of simultaneously changing the basis on which constituency boundaries are drawn—we could have a serious argument about making them more equal—and taking a decision on reducing the size of the House of Commons. They would not be in the business of having to explain the optimum size of a constituency; they would simply be able to say that this was what the independent Boundary Commission had decided in the past. It may not sound like it, but if they could bring themselves to look again at the position they have adopted on some of these things, they would make life a great deal easier for themselves. I have to say that I would certainly oppose any reduction in the number of Members of Parliament.
I do not in any way wish to be political and I certainly do not want to be accused of filibuster, which is not my intention at all. I tried to raise this point earlier, but it has not been answered by anybody on either side of the House. When we employ people in most parts of the public sector, we make certain that that employment is tailored to the job that is required, taking account of the number of people who will be required to fill posts to do the work.
It seems to me that we have not yet in this debate fully explained exactly what we are requiring of our Members of the House of Commons. When I, for example, do an experiment in my laboratory, I make very serious mathematical calculations to try to predict what I will need mathematically in order to get a satisfactory experiment or a satisfactory result or to get something that is valuable. I use complex statistics. It seems to me—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, might be able to answer this, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Snape, might come back to it when he returns to his amendment in due course—that we are not doing anything other than pulling out of the air numbers which do not have any rationality.
This is a really important issue for the House. For example—maybe this has come up before, but I have not heard it—it seems to me pretty obvious that, given the nature of an inner-city constituency with the deprivation that is likely to be present, a sitting Member is going to have a much harder task in servicing those constituents than someone in a rural area with perhaps the same number of constituents. It happens, of course, that most inner-city areas would be more likely to be represented by a Labour MP, but that is not my point at all. My point is that it does not make sense to have a blanket rule across constituencies; the amount of work in constituencies will naturally vary considerably. I hope that while we are teasing out this issue of whether it is 650 or 640, we might actually address this, and that future speakers in this debate will do just that.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate, and I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Snape, would address some of the questions that I had from the previous debate. I hope he will be able to come back. It seems to me, after listening to the debate on this issue—and we also had it on Second Reading—that there are two things missing, both in the Government’s position and in the amendments that we debated earlier. The first is a justification for the number that has been given, be it 600, 630 or 640, and the other is a justification for the Government setting the number. I find myself in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, who spoke earlier in that I am reluctant to accept from my noble friends as well as from the Government why the Government should be the body that sets the number of Members of Parliament. If the Minister is able to address that in his response, I would be extremely grateful.
I know that the Government are exasperated with this debate on the number of Members of Parliament, but it would be very easy for them to end the debate and clear it up. It seems to me that, today and at Second Reading, the response has been inadequate. At Second Reading, the Leader of the House said that 600 was the figure because it was a “nice round number”. Tonight we have heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, explain that it is a “common sense figure”. When we are looking at the quality and level of representation for the elected House, I do not think it is adequate to talk about a nice round number or a number that makes sense. There has to be a proper analysis and rationale behind that. Some of the comments that have been made fail to understand why there is so much concern about plucking a number out of thin air. I would like to hear from my noble friend Lord Snape whether there is a rationale behind 640, or has it been proposed simply because it is not 600?
The Merits Committee also raised this particular issue with a lot of justification, and I think it would do the House no harm to take note of what it said:
“We conclude that the Government have not calculated the proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons on any basis of any considered amendment of the role and functions of MPs”.
That seems quite an indictment of the Government’s position and further emphasises how poor an answer it is simply to say “a nice round number”.
We have to look at the role and functions of Members of Parliament—what the public expect of them and what your Lordships’ House expects of them, and the relationship between the two Houses. Lines drawn on a map in order to create a constituency can significantly impact on a Member of Parliament’s workload. It is not just about numbers: it affects the lives of constituents. Prior to my election to the other place in 1997, the constituency boundaries in my constituency were redrawn. For the 2010 election, the constituency boundaries were redrawn again, which may explain why I am in your Lordships’ House and not in the other place.
Those lines had a real impact, particularly in 1997, because the seat that was known as Basildon then lost part of Basildon and took in part of Thurrock. Those members of the public who lived in Thurrock took great exception to being in a constituency where even the name did not recognise their existence. In terms of workload, as the Member of Parliament—unlike the previous Member of Parliament for that constituency—I did not go and see one police force or one local authority. To represent my constituents on issues that concerned them in meetings, I had to visit three local authorities, two police forces and two health authorities. Everything was doubled or tripled. The boundary lines are therefore very important, not only to the workload of constituency MPs but to how members of the public perceive their MP’s loyalty and commitment to that constituency.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, probably made this point better than I will, but the workload of a Member of Parliament varies enormously. It can depend on the type of constituency, which depends on levels of deprivation and, in some cases, the level of articulacy of members of that constituency. I recall speaking with a Conservative MP from a leafy suburb who stopped me when I was collecting my post in the Members’ post room. My postbag was significantly heavier than his. He said, “Do you have much post?”. I simply picked up the sack that I was carrying. He said, “I only get a couple of letters a day that I need to answer”. He then asked me, “Do you hold surgeries in your constituency?”. I said, “Of course I do”. He said, “Does anybody attend? I sit in the village hall and nobody is there”. Yet in my constituency, which geographically was considerably smaller than his, the workload was significantly greater. I mention that not to show how some MPs are hard-working and more precious than others, but because the quality of representation to a constituent is vitally important.
Constituency boundaries are also important in terms of the work of the House of Commons and scrutinising the Executive. In my time as a Member of Parliament—I was a Back-Bencher, a government Whip, PPS to the Prime Minister and a government Minister—I found my role as a constituency MP informed by my work as a Minister. Issues brought to the attention of Members of Parliament by constituents are important in looking at policy and looking at the impact of government policies. That link is vital. If constituencies are going to be made bigger at a time when MPs have fewer resources and less money—less money for staff, offices and communications with constituents, since the last election—and we increase the size of constituencies after we have reduced the resources, it becomes harder for those MPs to fulfil their duties to their constituents in the way that they want. They will not let that work slip. The relationship between MPs and their constituents is a precious one and is valued enormously. But that then has an impact on the work that they do in the other place in terms of scrutinising legislation and serving on Select Committees. I can count a number of cases where Members of Parliament said to me, “I will not be in for Questions today or the Statement because I have to finish my case work. I have calls to make to my constituents”. That has a huge impact on the operation of the other place. We should never think that one part of a Member of Parliament's work is more important than any other. It is of equal value to represent constituents in the other place.
There is also the impact on the Executive if there are fewer MPs. Professor Anthony King raised the issue in an article in the Observer last year. His concern was that if there were fewer MPs, Ministers would be selected from a smaller gene pool. However, there is another significant point that I do not think has been raised so far. If the number of MPs is reduced, the Executive will be proportionately larger and will have greater power than at present. That is not satisfactory. In these amendments and government proposals, if we are talking about reducing the number of MPs from the current level, we should also be talking about reducing the size of the Executive.
For a number of reasons, the Government’s proposals have huge implications and are flawed. I would like to hear from my noble friend Lord Snape why any reduction in the number of MPs is appropriate. How can we justify Parliament setting the number of Members of Parliament? Where did the figure of 640 come from? What is the rationale behind it?
My Lords, I would like to try to answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Winston, because it is a legitimate one. Although he did not put it this crudely, he seemed to say that, in theory and on paper, it is a good idea to write down the job description. But that cannot always be done. The one thing about the membership of the other place is that it is unique. Nobody else in the country is doing the things that they do. They are non-executive—they have no authority and cannot issue any orders except to their personal staff to answer questions. They are ombudsmen, champions, ambassadors, marriage counsellors and social workers. After my first 10 years I stopped saying that I had dealt with everything that you could think of, because the next week something completely different, which could never have been contemplated, came into my surgery or across my desk.
I went through two boundary changes along with my late friend Denis Howell, who was also a Member of this place. We had discussions about the size of the constituencies and the workload. Since then, I have taken more of an interest in matters outside the narrow urban areas, but Denis explained to me why the workload in the inner-cities was different. My seat was largely outer-city but also had a bit of inner-city. The workload is great in terms of the social side of things, such as the deprivation and the individual casework of people with individual problems, but you then have to balance that against the sparsity of population in other areas as well as what someone called the “intelligentsia”, although that is not the word that I would use. About once a month somebody would come to see me to talk about policy. It was a shock when someone would do so. I would think, “What is the problem? This is about policy?”. In other areas of the country, however, Members of Parliament are driven round the bend with questions about policy from their electorate. They have the time, the wherewithal, the knowledge, the expertise and the curiosity to put their Member of Parliament on the rack.
It is very difficult to write these things down and say that one is more important than another. I missed part of the debate but made a short intervention before the attempt to close the previous debate at about 7:30 am. However, I mentioned that my constituency numbers increased from 52,000 to 76,000 in the 1983 boundary changes. I had not realised that 76,000 was so important until I heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, winding up the last debate. That is it: pick 76,000. That is the way to do it. My constituency, at the best measure, was 16 square miles. Radnor was about 1,200 square miles at the time. I visited other constituencies. I was once in Rossendale and Darwin for some reason. I was the opposition spokesman and was with the Member of Parliament. It may have been Janet Anderson, I cannot remember, but we were driving down a road in a valley with fields adjoining. She said, “We still have another 20 miles to go”. I said, “I could put my whole constituency in this area that we are looking at now”. The time element of getting around and being available when you have sparsity of population is a factor that we underestimate at our peril.
I did not want to intervene earlier on the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, or anybody else, because I had not been in the debate. However, the issue about Cumbria is not an unimportant one. He did not mention it, so I will. The only way you could put five Members in Cumbria is to stick a mountain range in the middle of one of the constituencies. It is the only way you can do it, because on paper it has been looked at and dismissed. When we had the last boundary review in 1992-93, the one that came into force in 1997, at the boundary inquiry in Birmingham we were faced with a situation where Yardley, a Birmingham constituency, if we did it wrong, would be 52,000. We knew that it had been the smallest constituency on mainland England. You could not justify the smallest constituency in the middle of the country because we were comparing it at that time with Copeland, I think it was, on the west coast of Cumbria. That was the next smallest, I think, with something in the range of 49,000 to 51,000 constituents, quite a bit smaller than the average. The reason was the sea and the mountains. If you want to take the view that, “No, everybody has got to be together”, that means that you put a mountain range in the middle of a constituency. That is the reality. That is not a hypothetical example, but that is what will happen in the county of Cumbria. I do not think that anybody would think that that is a good idea.
The only other point I want to make is the one previously made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I think, about the unsettling situation for Members of the other place. When boundaries have gone through two changes, in the normal course of events—three elections, a boundary change, three elections, a boundary change—there needs to be a degree of stability. You always knew that at the next election there would be a boundary change. There was an unsettling period, even though you were not fighting colleagues and Birmingham was not losing seats. People retired, and there was not really a massive conflict situation. However, those things occurred in the rest of the country. This is going to be a big conflict in the other place now because they have just had a boundary change. This is not a point about taking the normal flow. It is true that a lot of people have just come in, but the others are there as a result of a boundary change. Now they are going to face another boundary change at the next election. If the Government think they can hold Members’ attention in the Lobby and on all the minutiae and the boring but necessary bits of legislation as we approach the next election, when people are off trying to find a constituency and challenging their colleagues—because that is the inevitable consequence of this—they’ve got another think coming. I think that will cause unsettling. That happens normally, and I have no problem about that. However, to have it happen with two elections running I think is going to cause major difficulties.
My final point is one that I would have made earlier, but it does go with the flow of the Bill. We have had constant complaining. When I left here last night, I actually watched the Leader of the House on Sky Television. He gave a very intemperate interview using quite extravagant language about the proceedings in this House, which I think he will come to regret in due course. No journalist ever questions the Government when they start to compare the Bill in the House of Commons with the Bill in this House. When the Commons started on this Bill, it was 153 pages. The Government put into the Bill in the Commons 286 amendments, causing it to leave the Commons at 300 pages. First of all, the Commons were under guillotine—and we know that government amendments take precedence when the knife comes down. It is actually far less time that MPs have had to debate the Bill and their amendments because of the time that the Government took putting their amendments into their Bill to double the size while it was in the Commons. I cannot understand why journalists never raise this issue.
The worst thing is that it is not possible to table Questions in this place to find out about amendments in the other place that were tabled but not debated, with no time spent on them, because there is no accountability on the Government to answer such a Question. One cannot table it because the Government cannot answer it. One can only ask about government amendments, which is how we know about the 286. They did not all come at once—there were more than 100 in Committee and more than 100 on Report. They were at it all the while. It is just as well that they cannot amend on Third Reading in the Commons, but they have come into this place to do this.
The Government might have lost on one technical issue that I raised on the date, which does not alter or prevent 5 May—I am not seeking to prevent that; they can still do it—but the Government have now taken the level of amendments to well over 300 on their own Bill, and then they complain when we scrutinise what we are presented with. The fortunate thing in this House is that we do not have the guillotine—we do not have the knife—so we will debate our amendments as well as the government amendments. In the Commons, MPs were forced to vote on and debate government amendments and were banned and prohibited from debating many of their own amendments.
In many of our debates ex-Members of the other place have shared their lifetime experiences. I fully accept that some of those experiences were from another world—I was one of the last to have a fax machine, let alone e-mail and computers. The fact that we can share those experiences is fine, but we need to make up for the fact that, in the other place, they did not have the opportunity to do so.
My Lords, I rise relatively briefly, certainly by the standard of some of the proceedings that have taken place. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Snape, would agree that his 640 was an absolutely precise figure based on a detailed application of science, but I think that we can take it as quite a useful thing. It is interesting to consider quite a small reduction instead of the largish ones that have been under consideration—to 600 or, as in the Conservative manifesto, I believe, beyond that. The arguments are rather different from the arguments for a large reduction.
I do not think, on the whole, that a small reduction is very desirable except in the circumstances that I shall come to in a minute. However, thinking about it does enable us to realise the virtues of an amendment that the House considered earlier and to which we will, I am sure, return on Report. Amendment 60, to which I am particularly wedded because it is in my name, proposes a Speaker’s Conference to consider these things. I do not think that a Speaker’s Conference would generally be very likely to think that 640 is the right answer. However, there is one circumstance that a Speaker’s Conference might want to consider—I do not say what conclusion it would reach—and it is something that has not come up in this debates.
A number of Members are present from my own country of Wales. In Wales there is to be a referendum in March about increasing the powers of the Welsh Assembly. I am not an expert on the matter, and I do not know if such increases in powers would make it considerably more comparable with the Scottish Parliament, or rather more, or not make an enormous difference.
It would be a substantial step in the direction of the Scottish Parliament, but almost certainly not enough to justify the same as happened in Scotland—a substantial reduction in seats— because the Scottish Parliament has a very wide range of primary legislative powers.
I am most grateful to my noble friend; that is extremely helpful. If there were a Speaker’s Conference, there would, first, be the question of the result. If the Welsh people turned down the increase of powers, there would be no reason from that to change the number of Welsh MPs. If they accepted the increase in powers, and the polls suggest that they will, there would be a case for looking at the number of Welsh seats.
You would then want to say: should such a decrease in the number of seats be felt to be justified, should this decrease be comparable to the scale of the decrease that took place in Scotland or at the Welsh Assembly? It would still have fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament. Should that be rather less, or does it really not justify changing the number of Welsh seats at all? I do not know. There are circumstances in which a small change in the number of seats could be justified. Otherwise there would be rather a lot of disruption for not a lot of gain. That is a circumstance which would best be considered by a Speaker’s Conference.
My Lords, I would like to bring to the House some experience of having had to go through a purely numerical exercise in redrawing a constituency, because the reduction of 13 in the number of Westminster seats for Scotland took place against a background of the Scottish Parliament. I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, will correct me on the timing of these things, as he was the first Deputy First Minister in Scotland. The original section of the Scotland Act said that if the Westminster seats were reduced, the number of Scottish Parliament seats would be reduced as well. However, come the time—I think that the noble and learned Lord was still Deputy First Minister—such a row was kicked up that the proposal for a reduction in Scottish seats was abandoned, but the reduction in the Westminster seats still went ahead. Then the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, fought for the retention of the status quo on seats—God forbid that they reduced the Scottish Parliament seats. Along with some in the Labour Party, it has to be said, the then Deputy First Minister was in the forefront on behalf of the Liberals fighting for the retention of every single Scottish Parliament seat, and the Westminster seats were reduced.
Now we have the situation where the same noble and learned Lord is fighting to reduce the seats. It does not affect him or his party as much as it affects the Labour Party. There is an element of, “Don’t do as I do; do as I tell you to do”. It rankles a bit when you have somebody behaving like that, because in Scotland we were told it was going to be a numbers exercise only, with 70-odd thousand constituents. This is a similar experience to what is going to happen to boundaries and constituencies throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if this proposal goes ahead. It has happened already in microcosm in Scotland. We were told it was only about numbers, that communities do not count and that there would be lines drawn on a map to count numbers, and that is what happened. The constituency that I happened to represent at the time—I had the core of Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway—was amalgamated with Blantyre and Burnbank. Then because of the numbers and drawing lines on a map exercise, to save the Scottish Parliament seats being reduced—to save the party of the then Deputy First Minister having its seats reduced—the town of Hamilton was halved, and Hamilton West came into the Rutherglen seat and became part of Rutherglen and Hamilton West. The other half of Hamilton town went in to join Clydesdale and became Lanark and Hamilton East. That is what happened, and I went at that time from 53,000 constituents to 74,000 or 75,000, and now that seat contains 77,000 electors.
There has been great discussion here about whether it makes any difference or not. I went through it and it does make a difference. I knew and know every single street in those three communities I have mentioned: Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway. I was the MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for just under five years and I am quite convinced there were some streets in those three extra areas—Blantyre, Burnbank and Hamilton West—that I had never been in, whereas I prided myself on having delivered leaflets in every street in the former boundaries of the constituency I represented. It may be an intellectual or esoteric thing but I thought that I lost something. I knew that part of my constituency much better. That was not just because I was born and brought up there. It was more compact. You could get around it easier and quicker. People knew you and the area. The extra 25,000 constituents plus those from the extended area—because it was not quite rural but it was certainly less urbanised than parts of the Rutherglen area—made a difference. It was only five years but I still believe that I did not get to know that area as well as I would have liked to.
This is what is coming to constituencies. “Warn” is a heavy word but I certainly advise that what MPs face is even worse than that because of what is facing their constituencies. The town of Hamilton has never been the same since it was split between two constituencies. I always felt guilty that half of Hamilton town was put into Rutherglen purely and simply to make up the numbers. If you talk to people in Hamilton, they are still annoyed and angry and they feel that their sense of belonging to Hamilton has been badly damaged. We are talking about a ruler across a map. The process was about numbers only and Hamilton was halved for the first time in its at least 170-year history as a Hamilton-based constituency.
Folk might say that it does not make any difference. I advise your Lordships’ House that I came through it. I saw, experienced and still watch it and it is absolutely wrong. The impact on communities throughout the country from this, as well as from the extra 25,000 or 26,000 constituents—which might be less in England; I know that there are wide variations—will be quite drastic. I like to think that people in Rutherglen, Cambuslang and Halfway could get to me any time they wanted. My phone number was in the book and is still in the book. Folk knew where I stayed and came to the door. It was just like being a councillor—and they all knew me when I was a councillor. That is the identification that MPs and former MPs know they have established with their constituencies.
I hope that I will not be accused of overstating the case but that is going to be, at the very least, severely damaged under these proposals because the constituency connection will be destroyed. If anybody has any doubts of that, they can come to the town of Hamilton. I will not need to set anybody up. Speak to anybody from Hamilton and they will immediately say, “This is terrible. The town does not feel the same. We haven’t got a united voice”. My parliamentary neighbour, Jimmy Hood, and I did our best to try to make sure that we co-operated to represent the town of Hamilton as a whole. However, it becomes disjointed through reality because you are going through different bits of the constituency at different times. It affects constituencies in the way that I have described.
I have a fondness for remembering the role that the Liberals played, especially the then Deputy First Minister. The Scotland Act was the settled will of the Scottish people—that was fine—but the Liberals fought tooth and nail to retain their Scottish Parliament seats. Again, it is “Don’t do as I do; do as I tell you to do”. All MPs—it does not matter whether they are Conservative, Labour or Liberal—will feel the effect on their constituents and there will be a backlash in years to come.
My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene in this debate because I have spent a lot of time over the last few days listening to people talk about this issue. However, I think that the points that have been raised by my noble friends, especially those with experience in another place, should be taken very seriously. I have been moved by the trip down memory lane from my noble friends Lord Snape, Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker to remember many of the times that we had when we first arrived in another place in 1974, when there were 630 Members of Parliament. A few of us were new and we had to learn the ropes. At that time we were perhaps the first of a new generation who actually understood what the role of MPs would be in the future. I remember, when I suggested that I would have an office in the constituency, that many of my more senior colleagues told me I was creating a rod for my own back and that this was not something that was done. I should go to Members’ Lobby and the post office, pick up my post and look through it, discard what I could and do a cursory note to the rest saying that their opinion or their problem had been noted. Things have changed very dramatically, as noble friends have explained.
Part of the problem is that we are starting this whole process from the wrong end. It is like looking down a telescope. We are talking about what voting systems should be. We are talking about the number of MPs and nobody is talking about the function of the House of Commons and the role that Members of Parliament have to, and ought to, play. When we come on to later debates, including the relationship between this House and another place, all those fundamental questions will have to be asked again. The Government are introducing a whole series of piecemeal changes which, put together, are totally rewriting the British constitution without anyone stepping back and looking at the overall impact. I think that is probably one of the most serious consequences and to discuss the number of MPs in isolation from all the other issues is just ridiculous. I am sure that the new Members who came into the House of Commons last year—something like 35 per cent of all Members were new at the last election—do not yet realise the full implications that this Bill will have on them, not least, as has been pointed out today, by the completely ridiculous suggestion that you should have boundary changes every five years.
My noble friend Lord McAvoy has just outlined the very dramatic consequences that can come from a boundary revision. I, likewise, have gone through boundary changes in both the constituencies I represented. In Bolton West, which was my home town—very much in the same way that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, was talking about the area he knew—identifying with your constituency was actually the key to providing the kind of service that was needed. Politics comes into this of course and unfortunately in 1983 I lost that seat, partly because there were new boundary changes. Then I represented Dewsbury, which is a former textile town. It is very compact and very close to the next-door town of Batley. There is a great rivalry but they are very close and have exactly the same kind of problems—a declining woollen industry, difficult housing issues and a lot of immigration and consequent issues. When it came to the boundary changes in 1992, the Boundary Commission decided that certain things should happen.
In supporting my noble friend Lord Snape in his probing amendment, I am not saying that the boundaries we have at the moment are absolutely perfect. We have all had discussions or disputes or appeared at boundary reviews trying to put our views as to why certain parts of a constituency should be here or there. What happens when you have a boundary review is that those of us who felt strongly about it could make the case. I could make the case as to why certain parts of Kirklees—because under local government reorganisation many years ago Dewsbury, along with Batley, had gone into Kirklees—should be in with Dewsbury or in with Huddersfield next door or even with Batley. Local knowledge, based on where people are working, where children go to school and where the bus routes are, is vital. What you should be creating is not a constituency with an arbitrary number of constituents but a constituency that has an identity—a community that can identify with the Member of Parliament who is going to represent them. I think that is the overriding consideration. My overriding concern is not whether the number is 650, 630 or—with due respect to my noble friend—640; it is whether anyone as an individual Member of Parliament can serve their constituency because of that very significant constituency link.
There will still be problems. There will still be issues because boundaries at the moment are not perfect. I have had the difficult experience—as I suggest many others have had—where boundaries sometimes lose a little enclave and people in that area think that you are their Member of Parliament. You have to tell them very carefully and often very cautiously, because they may be very upset, that actually you cannot represent them or take up their issue. However, if overall you can identify with that area then I think that it is likely that you will provide a better service for your constituency and your constituency will know who to go to and what to demand from you. I think that is key in terms of what we should be doing today.
I was very interested, however, in what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said and the question he posed about the statistics and how you work it out. This again is part of the problem. We do not have the essential building blocks and analysis in place to accept what the Government are suggesting or indeed to reject it. We are taking ideas that have come from nowhere, it seems, and we are being told that we should in fact have lines on maps. I agree with my noble friend Lady Smith that the Government should not be setting these arbitrary lines. In a sense it reminds me of days of empire when countries went round the world carving up Africa and saying that a line should be the boundary between two countries. Just think of some of the problems that led to later. I think we are storing up many problems in the future and think it is really very significant that many of the questions that have been asked cannot be answered.
As I mentioned earlier, Dewsbury is a small industrial town with its own character and issues. Part of the time I was the MP there—in one incarnation because the boundaries changed very dramatically—Dewsbury had attached to it two rural wards from another part of Kirklees, wards which actually had been in different constituencies over many boundary reviews. This was a very middle-class area, very rural, and when I held surgeries there few people came. Why? They all wrote letters. Basically, they wrote letters about planning issues, very often saying that they did not want things to be built in that area. However, when I had a surgery in Dewsbury it was there for hours and there would be lots of people there. Have a surgery on a similar day out of town in a rural area and somebody might wander in to talk about something and have a chat, but basically when people had a problem there they wrote and later they used the internet, and now it will all be the internet.
I think that this is a very ill advised Bill. It is going to store up many problems in the future. It is going to destabilise how Members of Parliament work in the future if they are going to be in a constant state of revolution and I hope that my noble friend gets some answers to his questions.
My Lords, I speak as someone who did not have experience in the other place. I have been struck throughout this debate by the number of contributors who sat in the other place and the informed experience that they were able to share with this House in talking about this issue. They have also demonstrated the great skills of those who have worked in the other House—their ability to bring persuasive arguments together in a concise, efficient and articulate manner. However, I did not sit in the other place; I joined your Lordships’ House in October 2008, at the peak of the banking crisis.
I would like to follow up something that was said by my noble friend Lord Rooker. He mentioned the somewhat intemperate interview that the Leader of the House gave to Sky Television. I was rather impressed by the Leader of the House when I arrived in this House; he was then the Leader of the Opposition. He was rather posh—the sort of person I expected to find in the Lords. He was courteous, considerate and knowledgeable of the etiquette and protocols of the House. I fear that some of those qualities left him during the early stages of today’s debate. I was struck at one point, for instance, when he said he had heard “nothing new” from Members in their contributions to the debate.
I have sat on the Front Bench occasionally, taking forward rather tedious but complex legislation, and the temptation to turn and natter to your colleagues alongside you or behind you is high. However, I always tried to resist this temptation, because to do so would have been a discourtesy to the House. Yet that was precisely what the Leader of the House was doing, so when he said “I’ve heard no new arguments”, it was probably because he was not listening to the arguments that were coming from the House. That strikes me as a great act of discourtesy to the House from the Leader. I hope that if he is of intemperate mood at the moment—and the Sky interview might suggest that—we can look upon this as a short aberration, and the great respect I had for this man because of his poshness will return in due course.
Of course I am addressing the amendment; it is good to see the noble Viscount in his place at this particular time of the debate. One of the things that I found difficult was getting into this debate, probably because I kept waiting for the other side to stand up and express a view. Of course they did not, and my own colleagues rose to speak.
Before my noble friend leaves the question relating to the Leader of the House, which is directly germane to this amendment and the way in which the body of amendments have been treated, and is therefore, even in the strictest terms, very much in order, I put it to him that a man who is innately courteous, considerate and convivial, as well as being Conservative—all the Cs—might not have changed in his nature. What has changed is the environment in which he is operating. Now in 2011, with contentious legislation before us, the Leader of the House has an automatic government majority for the first time since 1999 and the departure of the hereditary Peers. This can lead to a hubristic reaction to criticism and cross-questioning. It might be followed classically by Nemesis, or the Leader of the House might learn better.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kinnock for that perceptive observation. In some ways, some of the qualities that he has noted were equally evident this evening from those on the Liberal Benches, who are clearly very uncomfortable. They are not speaking to amendments but, goodness me, just look at the way the two of them at the moment, and at various times up to five or six, have sat there looking very exercised about the act in which they are presently involved.
Let me talk a little, when speaking to this amendment, as I am, about my experiences as a junior Minister, which I have shared with some junior Ministers who have recently been appointed to the Government. One of the things that struck me was that you spent the first half hour of every morning topping and tailing letters. I was doing over 200 letters a day that had been passed to Ministers from Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents. You got to know the Member of Parliament as a result of this process. You got to notice that some MPs were very assiduous. They followed up your reply. Others did not. I was struck by the difference between the performance of the best compared with the worst. The worst would send you a covering letter that was pre-printed, with a pre-printed scribble on the bottom. Others would already have read the letter, reviewed the issues and sought guidance, and would then follow up on the responses.
I have to say to my noble friend that, when I first came into government, I inherited nearly 3,000 unanswered letters. As I was the most junior Minister in the Treasury, these letters were pushed down the chain. Noble friends from the other place will realise how this game is played. As far as a junior Minister is concerned, those letters came to me. Whether they were addressed to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, they seemed to come to me, and I tried to move some of them on to someone else, but there was no one below me in the Treasury. If I did not read all the replies, it was not due to a lack of effort, although I was struck by the great difference between Members of Parliament who took this role seriously and those who did not. I see that in the context, as my noble friend Lady Taylor has said, of this legislation being carried through the Commons largely on the votes of people who are very new to Parliament.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for sitting down; I have the greatest respect for him as a fellow Cornishman. He was lecturing the House earlier about discourtesy. I wonder whether he recalls that it is the normal practice in this House to address the House rather than to keep his colleagues awake by turning to them.
I find it distasteful to criticise the Leader of the House while he is not in the Chamber, but I think the Front Bench said something that was very relevant to what the noble Lord was saying. I think the word that was used to describe our behaviour in the Chamber today was “irresponsible”. That is the issue. It is completely responsible, because surely we see a major constitutional issue here, and we feel that it is our duty to do what we can to oppose this. The trivial intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is quite inappropriate when we are actually trying to tease out what our responsibility is. I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him, but it does seem that we should make that point.
I note the observation and the support that my noble friend Lord Winston offers in that respect, but I am also sufficiently new here still to be content to be guided by all Members of the House in the appropriate courtesies of the House. I was speaking to the variable performance of Members of the other place as I saw it from a ministerial position, which led me to ask what the appropriate size of a constituency was.
Earlier in our debate this evening, we had an extremely interesting contribution from my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford, who talked about the principles that might determine the size of a constituency. I mostly come from Cornwall, as does the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I had always understood that one reason why constituencies in Cornwall were smaller than elsewhere was the geographical distance within the constituency and the time taken to travel to and from the constituency. Of course, my political views were formed in my teens when I was at school in Truro, when a journey from London to Truro would have taken 10 or 12 hours on the A30, and it seemed to make good sense to have smaller constituencies.
I find it very difficult to know where my decision will finally lie. I listened to the debate in the House on the size of the other place, but it seems to me that this decision requires care and attention to the colour, texture, features and particular needs of different constituencies.
I make one final observation from my experience as a junior Minister in the previous Government about the other place’s difficulty dealing with the detail of legislation. This is partially a reflection—I do not for one minute suggest that people in the other place are not diligent—of the additional burdens that are now placed on Members’ time in the other place. Members of Parliament are now increasingly looked to by their constituents to solve every issue relating to local communities and families, and will probably be even more so now that this Government are stripping resources out of local government. Is it not interesting that when government has abundant resources, it centralises, but when government cuts costs, it decentralises in order to push the burden of that cost cutting on to local authorities? The pressures on Members of Parliament in the other place will become even greater as a consequence of the changes in economic management.
When it came to legislation with which I was involved on the Front Bench, I thought at first that it would be helpful to read Hansard from the other place to guide me on what the issues were likely to be. I found that the only person who really challenged the detail of legislation on finance was the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who struck me in some cases as the only informed opponent of legislation in detail for which I was responsible. It certainly did not receive sufficient attention in the House of Commons.
I recognise that I bring a very limited perspective here, and there is much more that I will wish to say later in the debate about issues relating to Cornwall, where the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was a representative for many years in the other place, but from my perspective as a Minister and as a person who is proud to be a Member of this new House, I am deeply concerned that an arbitrary figure has been picked out of the air. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, putting his hand up and pulling that figure down on Second Reading. I thought that that summed up the amount of thought the Government had put into this matter. The people of this country should reasonably expect the number of constituencies to be determined carefully by an independent body, as in the past—a body whose decisions we can all support.
My Lords, I find myself energised by the contribution of my noble friend Lord Myners, at a time when I thought only a double espresso would do. His contribution has woken me up and got me thinking. We owe him a debt of gratitude for building on the contribution of my noble friend who moved this amendment. I hesitate to use the term “GOATs”, because it implies that the rest of us are sheep and separating the sheep from the goats, but from time to time a fresh look at these issues is useful from someone who is not as inured to and hardened against the political processes as those of us old sweats. We have had that this morning from my noble friend Lord Myners.
My noble friend got me thinking about the challenges that we face in considering this Bill, particularly this section of it, and in defining what exactly we want from constituencies and from individual Members of Parliament and their relationship with those constituencies. It would be sad if those observing these proceedings were to take the view that we were polarised across the political process on different sides of the House about the special relationship between constituencies and Members of Parliament, and about the value of proceeding not by arbitrary diktat but by considered inquiry based on the evidence.
I looked at what had been said by members of the party opposite in the other place, who helped us in more reflective and considered times to address the need for reform. There is a need for reform. It would be quite wrong to seek to divide this House on the basis that those on this side of it were against all reform, were complacent and self-satisfied as regards existing conditions, and that the energy and drive for progress and reform came only from the Benches opposite. What does energise us on this side of the House is the need for reflection, evidence and a capacity to be, as it were, almost above the fray in determining what the national interest is.
I found a useful contribution to the debate in a paper presented to the parliamentary affairs journal of Oxford University Press entitled, ‘Far Too Elaborate About So Little’: New Parliamentary Constituencies for England, by Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie, three academic, impartial observers of our system. They examined very carefully the views across our Houses about how one should go about identifying and defining constituencies and forming them around viable communities with a link with their elected representatives.
The article referred to a contribution from a Conservative Member of Parliament in a Wiltshire constituency on the removal of wards from the large Salisbury constituency. I think that I know who this particular Member of Parliament is but as his name is not cited in the document I do not want to embarrass him by naming him. He loves his constituency and his party but loves his country and the parliamentary system more than both those things. In his oral evidence to the inspector at the inquiry he said that he did not wish to lose a single elector from the constituency. That is something which all of us who have served in the other place understand. Whatever issues we may have with individuals who are perhaps persistent in their letter writing—some of them use green ink, which is always a sign—and appear on a regular basis at one’s constituency surgeries, one grows fond of them. They are part and parcel of the life of the constituency, they have a view and they care and you welcome them and do not want to lose such people through boundary changes.
So the local Member did not wish to lose a single elector from his constituency, but he accepted—and we have all had to do this from time to time—the absolute inevitability of the restructuring. He gave a long historical account of the constituency. Frankly, for those of us who served in the other place—and indeed noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Myners, have observed those who served—you actually become quite attached to your constituency and its history. It is important when someone comes in from outside the area to adjudicate on the nature of the constituency boundaries as to whether that person understands the history. One feels duty-bound to go on about it sometimes at length. However, having given this long historical account, he concluded:
“It is not in my nature to resist sensible reform”.
All Members on this side of the House can empathise with that. It is not in our nature to resist sensible reform, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues on the Benches opposite accept that fact, stated in good faith. He goes on to say:
“If it is a judgment of those charged with the care of our democracy”—
That relates exactly to a point that has raised its head time and time again in the course of our debates today. Care for democracy is not the business of Members of Parliament alone. There are advantages to having another source of influence and power outside these Houses of Parliament which has the final and determinate say.
We on this side of the House are not saying there is no role for Members of Parliament—far from it—in determining the number of seats. Sure, we have concerns, which my noble friend has sought to tease out in his amendment, about the arbitrary fixing of those numbers of seats, but we do not say that it is a matter for others apart from ourselves alone. However, we recognise that there is an advantage, as a Conservative Member says, of the judgment of those charged with the care of our democracy having a final and determinate say. He goes on to say:
“If it is the judgment of those charged with the care of our democracy that what is proposed is in the national interest, then, provided they will give due consideration to our requests, so be it”.
What is important is the proviso,
“provided they will give due consideration to our requests”.
What is so offensive about what is proposed by some Members opposite? I do not believe that all Members opposite actually believe in what they are putting before this House. I just do not believe it; because if they have had the experience, which I respect because I served alongside them for many years—experience which we have all had with our constituencies—they know that provided there is an opportunity to express local concerns to ensure that local conditions are taken into account, and that it is not arbitrary and not fixed, and provided there is a space to do that, at the end of the day they are prepared to take whatever it is that emerges from the process. What is not acceptable is this arbitrary figure arrived at we know not how.
Having quoted that Conservative Member of Parliament, I shall move on briefly. We do not want excessively to go down memory lane—
I am not going to rise to the temptation that the noble Lord, Lord Myners, casts in front of me. I do not want excessively to go down memory lane, although I want to go down it a bit, because it would demonstrate the point that I am seeking to make. These are not always partisan matters in which, in the course of a local inquiry, one party takes one view and another party takes another, and the MPs divide accordingly. I think of the last inquiry that I was involved in. It was seeking to determine where a particular council housing estate with a lot of problems, should finally fall in the revision of the boundaries in the London Borough of Brent. I put in my submission, which was that it should not come into my constituency. The then right honourable Member for Brent North, the very distinguished Conservative, Sir Rhodes Boyson, put in his submission, based on his having represented that part of the constituency in the past. The then member for Brent East, Ken Livingstone, put in his submission.
It was interesting that I, the Member of Parliament for Brent South, and the Member of Parliament for Brent North, took one view, and the Member of Parliament for Brent East took another. It was Conservative and Labour on the one hand and the Member of Parliament for Brent East on the other. He arrived at his representations to the inquiry without any reference to me, and I arrived at my conclusions without any reference to Sir Rhodes Boyson. However, the two of us took a particular view of the needs of that constituency in an area that we both knew very well, because at the time both of us had done a lot of work in that ward. The Member of Parliament for Brent East had not done as much work in that ward, but he was absolutely determined that the ward should not pass into his constituency.
That is the sort of representation that Members on all sides of this House will know and understand, because it reflects the business of local democracy, and meeting local needs and concerns. I wonder if noble Lords on the other side of the House—I talk not just of Conservative Members but also of Liberal Democrat Members in the coalition—believe in their hearts that losing that link is a price worth paying for such political gain as they may arrive at in the short term. I suspect that some of them do not. One of our functions in the course of our debate on these issues must be to tease out those Members on the other side, and the issues that relate to them, so that they can come clean about how they feel and there is no longer this omerta on their side, where they fear to speak out for whatever reason and are encouraged to be absent so we do not hear the other side.
Before resuming my place, I draw to the attention of noble Lords an issue that has come up today and that I hope might persuade Members opposite to pause and think a little. In today's Evening Standard, there appears the headline:
“London tops league table of cities open to foreigners”.
It goes on to point out what many of us who represents London seats know well:
“London is the world's most ‘open’ city because of its welcoming attitude to foreigners and liberal immigration policies, according to a new league table”.
The article continues:
“The capital beat New York, Los Angeles, Dusseldorf and Toronto in an assessment by the British Council of cities’ ability to attract and benefit from international populations. Among the 54 factors considered”—
in arriving at this league table—
“were ease of firms to hire foreign labour, entry into the relevant country, the rights given to migrants and their ability to bring in family members … Announcing its findings today, the British Council … insisted that London's current ‘open’ nature was of significant benefit to the capital”.
The article goes on to quote people—including the Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson—who express concern that anything should occur that would interfere in any way with this welcoming approach to migration. It quotes London First and university chiefs and then refers to someone else who is objective and independent; namely, Professor Mike Hardy, the head of partnerships at the British Council, who states:
“Openness is a real advantage for cities if they are pursuing plans to be internationally connected and play international roles”.
The article goes on to look at some factors that influence openness. This bears directly on the amendment that we are considering. While some factors influencing openness are beyond the direct control of cities, many are well within the control or immediate influence of city governments, and the city's identity and character. In the course of this debate, not just in relation to London but to a number of other cities in our country, we have heard reference to identity and character as forming an important part of the basis on which constituency boundaries might be drawn up. They include housing, culture and, importantly, the kind of local democracy it practises and the forms of participation that it encourages.
For those of us who are London Members, and those who are Members in large metropolitan cities, the reality is that a large proportion of the population are foreigners who have no eligibility to vote but who are a welcome part of our communities. Quite rightly at this time, they draw on the services of Members of Parliament and elected representatives. There will not be a single former Member of the other place in the Chamber this evening who does not know that in constituency surgeries, one is as likely to see somebody who is not eligible to vote—not just by virtue of appearance or otherwise on the electoral roll, but simply because they are not citizens or Commonwealth subjects—as somebody who is. However, quite rightly, those people find in a Member of Parliament in their constituency surgery someone who is welcoming, someone who has time for them and someone who deals with their specific problems. That contributes to making London the open city that it is, it contributes to making London top of this league table and it causes other great cities in our country to be magnets for bright, skilled, energetic people from all over the world who will, from time to time, have to call on the services of their local Member of Parliament.
In the course of our deliberations on the Bill, we will address this issue in a number of amendments. I have proposed one that states that we should look at the census rather than simply the electoral roll when we come to determine constituency sizes and boundaries. This is not by any means a view that has not in the past been given the care, reflection and consideration that is it due in circumstances that were not charged with the sort of arbitrary numerical approach that is now being adopted by the parties opposite. Most recently, a report to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, The Electoral Commission and the Redistribution of Seats, was submitted by David Butler and Iain McLean. What they do, usefully, is to look at the arguments—the pros and cons—for viewing the census as the basis for redistribution in the future. They make the point—rightly, Members of the Committee may think—that the census should in principle provide a most accurate count of the UK resident population. They go on to indicate where the move from electorate to population as the basis for drawing up constituency boundaries would be hotly controversial. The authors refer to the situation in Northern Ireland, where they believe there would be considerable controversy if we were to make that move. Nevertheless, they say that this is something that ought to be out there—that the census, with all its limitations, will potentially have a role to play.
The tragedy of the approach being taken by Members opposite is that we will not have the opportunity to have that debate. That cannot be right, and I ask, even at this late stage and late hour, that, in responding, the Minister goes beyond the negative and the narrow partisan and party-political point-scoring that I fear has, from time to time, characterised the response of some Members opposite. I ask that he goes to the merit of the arguments because, if you do that, you find that there is something to which we need to give serious consideration—maintaining this country’s position in the global democratic league tables. That is what we all seek to do on this side of the Committee and that is why I commend my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, with my background, noble Lords will understand if I gaze at the Clock and have in mind the working time directive. Despite the allegations of filibustering levelled at this side of the Chamber, I believe that the debate on the Bill has been healthy and good—good for the House itself. It has been healthy because it has explored some of the principles on which this House stands and completes its tasks. Therefore, the tension in the debate on the Bill comes about because the Opposition are doing their job. They are rigorously scrutinising the Bill and holding the Government to account, as they should.
In my relatively short time in your Lordships’ House, I have heard many debates on the role and function of the House of Lords. However, what we have not done with the same regularity is to look at how the House operates and delivers its remit. It is very clear that the long-established conventions are recognised and understood. It is also clear that something is missing in the way that the Bill is being handled—it is that element called the usual channels. As a relatively new Member, it took me some time to understand the importance of the usual channels. However, I now understand how they operate. The usual people meet in the usual place, they discuss the usual agenda and, as usual, they emerge with agreement—not the usual agreement but specific agreement.
I have no problem with the usual channels. Indeed, I built a failed career around the usual channels. One of the issues before the House is the size of constituencies. As you look back, you think, “I’ve heard this before; I’ve read this before”. I recall that, in the charter presented in another place in 1848 by Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist Member of Parliament for Nottingham, equity of constituency numbers was one of the key elements. Indeed, it was quite revolutionary. He advocated annual Parliaments, which is a step too far for me. If you look at the charter, MPs’ pay was an issue. We have been here before. What they did not have then, but we have today, is the advantage of the usual channels. Above all else, we cannot afford to lose that mechanism for resolving issues and maintaining the culture and traditions of your Lordships’ House. That is absolutely sacrosanct.
I hope, therefore, that we can learn lessons from our predecessors in many instances. It is right that this House and the Opposition should hold the Government to account. It is right that we should ask for justification of all decisions that are being made. However, in the end, I am sure that, as we move into another day and seek to look at today’s agenda, we will not stray too far. We will remember precisely what the issues are about. I, for one, hope that the usual channels will find their way to their rightful place and deliver what is expected from your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I can be fairly brief. I thank my noble friend Lord Snape and all the others who have spoken so well in this debate. I know the Minister came on shift just before this debate began; I do not know how much of the last debate he heard. I do not know if he heard my brief address before taking over. I will make just a couple of points. From the many important points that have been made in this debate, the real principle has been the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency, about which many—some with great experience of the other place and some without—have spoken.
There are two points that I want to ask the noble and learned Lord about. First, there is the issue, which arises again, about the fact that Parliament has not set an exact number of Members of Parliament since, we believe, 1832. Rules that have provided pretty adequately in earlier years—most latterly, in 1986—have been very carefully and sensibly worded. It is not as though Parliament does not give a clue as to the area in which the number of MPs should be, but it refuses to give an exact figure. On this side, we think that is an excellent thing and believe that the exact number should be a matter for the independent boundary review. It also acts as a sort of security key and means that the Government cannot be criticised for having got through Parliament an exact figure. Why is it that the Government want to change that well-established principle?
The second issue I want to raise is the one about lowering the number of Members of Parliament to 600. We believe that the policy of reducing the House of Commons to 600 seats has so far been proposed without, I am afraid, any coherent explanation, any coherent analysis, or indeed any proper consideration. Many voices across the political spectrum—in both Houses and outside—have criticised the Government’s failure up till now to explain why 600 seats is the appropriate level at which to fix membership of the other place. I repeat a quote that the Minister will have heard before from the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the other place, which concluded in October,
“There may be a case for reducing the number of Members of the House to 600, but the Government has not made it”.
The Government have not explained how this figure corresponds to the role of Members of Parliament, about which we have heard in this debate, or what that role itself should be. They have not explained how this figure will enable Members of Parliament to provide a better service to their constituents or a more effective performance as parliamentarians. I say to the Minister that it is time that the Government at last make the case for why the number is 600, and why there should be a lowering of the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600. One thing I am sure of is that the noble and learned Lord will, as he customarily does, answer in his reasoned and measured way, unlike—I am afraid—some others on the Front Bench.
My Lords, at one point in the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that he wondered if Ministers would bring themselves to look at it again. In responding to the debate for the second time in this area of discussion, I am obliged to look at it again. It may come as no surprise that I still believe that the 600 proposed in this Bill is what the Committee should support. The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, would reduce the number of current constituencies in the other place by 10 and result in 640 constituencies, which would reduce the number by 50. It was suggested—I am sure that it was just a slip of the tongue—that somehow or other the Government draw up the boundaries. That is clearly not the case. That will still be a matter for the independent boundary commission. Consideration of the workload of Members of Parliament has been a strong feature of the debate on this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, talked about trips down memory lane, and the noble Lord, Lord Myners, gave us a more recent trip down memory lane than some of those who have served in the other place did. I can understand why I might be tempted to follow that course, but I do not particularly want to go too far down memory lane. However, I think it is important that this debate has been informed by that experience. I identified with the first part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, about the different range of what MPs are expected to do and the different ways in which they go about doing it. It certainly struck a chord with me when he said, just as you think you have heard the last of what you might be asked to do, something comes along the following week that you could not have conceived of; I am sure that most Members in the other place have had that experience at some time or other.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, asked what we are requiring of Members of Parliament and talked about the importance of mathematical formulae in his work. However, I think it was made clear in a debate to which I contributed almost 12 hours ago that mathematical formulae do not actually work in situations like this. As the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said, there is variable performance. In some cases the variable performance will be because of different personalities of the Members of Parliament or different circumstances in their constituencies. If you represented a rural constituency, how could you ever factor in the possibility that there might be another outbreak of BSE or foot and mouth disease? It is simply impossible. At the end of the day, the people who make the judgments as to how well or how poorly an individual Member of Parliament discharges the many different responsibilities on him or her are the voters. There is no job description, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said. That is why any way of trying to boil it down to some mathematical formula simply will not work.
The noble Lord is not comparing like with like. I said it is impossible to work out a mathematical formula relating to what the workload of an individual Member of Parliament is. I think it is ultimately a matter of judgment as to what level MPs can best serve their constituents.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked why the Government wish to fix the number; previously, the Boundary Commission has rules but the number is not fixed. The present legislation states:
“The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable”.
It could be argued that is a more stringent target than the range we put forward under the Bill, which is plus or minus 5 per cent. However, this requirement is then balanced against other rules and factors. The result of the overall scheme is that the equality and fairness in the weight of a vote, which is enshrined as a principle in rule 5 as it stands at the moment, ends up as one consideration among many. Then, of course, when Boundary Commission recommendations are debated, political parties, which are usually the principal players in the consultation process, use any factor that they possibly can to advance electoral interests. It is also of interest that the British Academy report on the Bill notes,
“This new set of rules that the Boundary Commissions must apply is clear and consistent”,
“a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions (they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory)”.
We have discussed on more than one occasion the issue of the present arrangements whereby there has been continual creep—there has been one exception, since 1950, when the reduction of the Scottish Members brought the number down; in every other location it has gone up. I simply say to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that my recollection is that Hamilton was split in two long before that reduction happened following devolution, because I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was Member for Hamilton South, and he stood down and fought a by-election before there was any change in the Westminster boundaries. I also point out that, whereas the reduction proposed in this Bill, from 650 to 600, is a reduction of some 7 per cent, the reduction that occurred in Scotland following devolution, from 72 to 59, was a reduction of some 18 per cent, which is twice as great as is proposed under this Bill.
I said earlier that both parties in this Government made commitments in the election to reduce the number. I will not go over in detail again the context in which the Liberal Democrats made theirs because it has been explained. Nevertheless, the background involved seeking to reduce the numbers. We have said that to go too far may lead to even greater upheaval and disruption. On the other hand, as for the figure of 76,000, which I have mentioned before, about a third of existing seats are within 5 per cent of this figure—on either side—and this means it is within the existing range of experience of many Members of Parliament. I cannot accept what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said; that, somehow or other, the number of 76,000 weakens the link between Members of Parliament and their constituents. The fact is that a third of existing seats are within 5 per cent of 76,000, on either side, and no one has suggested that that particular figure means that that link does not currently exist. We have proposed a modest cut. As I said, it is a reduction that was proposed in the manifestos of both the coalition parties. I also note—and did not pick up before—that the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, indicated before that this House has in the past supported a Private Member’s Bill to reduce the number; but of course this particular clause, when it was in the other place, was substantially supported by Members in the other place.
That is not an excuse for it not being examined in your Lordships’ House in this Committee. Nevertheless, those who are most directly affected by this actually endorsed the proposal by a substantial majority. For completeness, I would also say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who raised the point about the increase in the size of the Bill, this was done by government amendments adding schedules to the Bill, made in the other place, rather than being included in the Bill at introduction. It was to allow time to discuss the details of them with devolved Administrations, electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission. In any event, I think it is fair to point out—and this may be the reason why the press have not latched onto it—that the vast majority of time taken so far to debate this Bill has been spent on the clauses and not the schedules, and the vast majority of amendments laid and debated have related to the clauses and not the schedules. I think that it is not comparing like with like to suggest that the doubling of the size of the Bill has led to the increased debates in the Committee of your Lordships’ House. I think that the addition of the schedules by government amendment in the other place did not add to the time needed to debate the Bill there in any significant way.
If I have repeated myself, it is because many of the arguments have been similar. I have not addressed the points made with regard to the relationship between the number of Members in the other House and the number of Ministers. I have indicated before that the Government do think that it is a matter of proper debate. There are other amendments which we can come to and we can have a fuller debate. Likewise, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, that the point about using the census he has indicated himself in his amendment, and I am sure that he will understand if I do not detain the House in Committee at this time when there will be an opportunity in a further amendment to debate that. With those words, I rather hope that the noble Lord, Lord Snape, will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have participated in this debate. Again, it is instructive about the quality of your Lordships’ House that, even at this unearthly hour of the day and on an amendment that followed a pretty similar one, we still had an exchange of views and some knowledgeable contributions, at least from this side of your Lordships’ House. I am grateful to the Minister. It is a fact, as someone commented a moment or two ago, that if we do not particularly get enlightenment from this Minister, we get a bit more courtesy than we get from either the Leader of the House, who has not been seen—his shift obviously does not include nights—or from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who sometimes gives the impression at the Dispatch Box of a grumpy version of Blackpool’s famous resident, Les Dawson. He sits there gurning, whingeing and banging about from time to time, and snapping nastily at anybody who has the temerity to ask him questions, to which he quite obviously either does not know the answer or cannot be bothered to find out. Therefore it is pleasure at least to listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of—I have forgotten his title so I will just call him Lord Wallace. The noble and learned Lord is perhaps a better way of doing it.
The nice Lord.
Yes, Mr Nice versus Mr Nasty at the Dispatch Box. Lord Nice, fine. We will agree to that.
One or two questions were put to me, as the mover of the amendment, to which I would like to reply. First, any Member of your Lordships’ House, and certainly any ex-Member of the other place, could handle a constituency of 90,000 people, as my noble friend Lord Grocott said. However, it illustrates that, even on five-year boundary reviews there is no guarantee that a constituency that starts off at 76,000 will not end up at somewhere like 90,000. The fact that my noble friend had that difficulty when he represented The Wrekin illustrates the problems that could be caused in future years. My noble friend Lord Winston, who is not in his place, put the question to me. He actually said that the blanket rule on the size of the constituency does not make sense; and, of course, he is right. No matter how well the nice Lord strings these replies together, the fact is that a constituency of 76,000, whether in an urban or a rural area, makes no real sense. As my noble friend Lord Winston said, some of the social problems in an urban area are enormous. Those of us who served in the other place know full well the variety of constituency problems that one deals with at a surgery. I do not pretend that it is any easier for predominantly Conservative Members of the other place who represent rural areas; it certainly will not be any easier with an electorate of 76,000. You need a tank full of fuel to get round the constituency on a Saturday morning.
Again, there is no real explanation from the Government as to how that figure has been arrived at and what is the common sense, if any, behind it. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon said, and I agree, that she disagreed with the other place, or any Government, setting numbers for constituencies. However, if we are to debate matters here, we have to table amendments like this. I am not wedded to the figure of 645; it just happened to be fairly close to the 650 proposed at present. My noble friend amply illustrated the difficulty, which will arise more and more often in bigger constituencies, of dealing with two local authorities, two health authorities and two different police forces. That makes the job far more difficult for a Member of the other place.
I do not want to repeat anything that I said in moving the amendment, but seeking from public funds the proper and adequate staffing to deal with that extra workload will not be an easy task. We can rely on the Daily Mail and its fellow newspapers to talk about how expensive democracy is becoming if and when adequate resources are provided for those who are to take on the extra workload.
My noble friend Lord Rooker pointed out quite correctly that there is no real definition of the job of a Member of Parliament. Knowing that I was going to participate in this debate, I was throwing out some papers from my house and found some details of a surgery I did on a Saturday morning 10 or 11 years ago before I left the other place. It was not particularly busy; it was one of five that I did that day; there were three housing cases, one about a hospital appointment, one case about bus services in the area, three immigration cases and someone seeking my assistance in getting a cherished number plate. That is a fairly wide set of skills that Members of Parliament are supposed to demonstrate on a Saturday morning.
No questions on policy. In my constituency, they were quite happy to leave that sort of nonsense to me. They regarded my job as solving their problems—quite rightly; in my view, that is what MPs' surgeries should do. On the very rare occasion that anyone came to discuss policy, they were usually from what my noble friend referred to as the green ink brigade, invariably from either the far left or the far right, and both of them got fairly short shrift in West Bromwich town hall.
Or on something, I think is the proper description. My noble friend Lady Taylor rightly talked about the role of the House of Commons and how individual constituents identify with their Member of Parliament. They will have enormous difficulty with these bigger constituencies. My noble friend Lord Rooker will remember that in the 1980s, either Central Television or ATV—I think it was Central Television at the time—conducted an opinion poll in the Birmingham and West Bromwich areas about MPs’ identities. A regular opinion poll was done in my constituency, which was highly marginal, and in a marginal constituency in the East Midlands. I was fortunate. My noble friend Lord Rooker and I scored the highest recognition, with about 70 per cent, in our respective constituencies. Seven out of 10 people approached knew the name of their Member of Parliament.
In his case, it was because he was an extremely diligent and hard-working local MP. In my case, it was just that I was appearing on television fairly regularly in a programme called “Central Weekend”.
We remember it well.
Indeed. My noble friends may scoff, but it did me no harm at successive general elections, so I will plead guilty to that. I am not getting involved in the spat between my noble friend Lord McAvoy and the nice Lord who responded; these Scottish matters are not for me. My noble friend made his point as elegantly as always.
We have another similar amendment to follow, and I am sure that lots of new points will be made. Having listened to the Minister, I am sure that we can rely on his good temper and equanimity to get us through until breakfast.
Amendment 62 withdrawn.
63: Clause 11, page 9, line 18, leave out “600” and insert “650”
The constitutional significance of the Bill cannot be overstated. It is very regrettable that there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill on such important matters. The Government are in a pickle over this, and that is due to their way of handling the situation. That is clear in the tactics that they are deploying to try to force it through. It has been rammed through the Commons. I referred to members of the coalition in the other place who are opposed to specific measures in the Bill in my contribution on Second Reading. It is most regrettable that, despite repeated offers from the Labour Front Bench, no one has come forward to negotiate to move things forward sensibly. We will come to issues such as that of the Isle of Wight and Cornwall later, where there is much unhappiness on the coalition side of the House.
The Government's whole approach to this has been wrong. I wonder what the advice of the Foreign Office would be to any Government abroad who had just been elected and said to us, “We are considering changing the number of Members of Parliament elected to our House. Do you think that that would be a good idea?”.
We have heard contributions from many noble Lords who have been Members in the other place about the work of Members of Parliament on Second Reading, and in debates on amendments moved in Committee. I have heard nothing from the government Front Bench to convince me that the work of Members of Parliament in the other place has not increased considerably. I was never a Member of the other House, but I recall, as a young Labour Party member and a constituent of Harriet Harman, helping her at her advice surgeries in the town halls in Camberwell and Walworth in the London Borough of Southwark on Friday nights nearly 28 years ago. They were packed with 60 or 70 people at a time with a whole variety of problems: housing, immigration and many other issues. That has only increased over time. That is only part of the important work that a Member of Parliament undertakes. I cannot see how any elector—any constituent—is better served by increasing the size of constituencies. The constituency of Peckham where I grew up is bounded by the constituencies of Southwark and Bermondsey, Dulwich and West Norwood, Lewisham and Deptford, and Vauxhall. All those constituencies have similar problems, and no voter living there could be served better by the proposals.
I very much agree with the comment made by my noble friend Lady McDonagh about the basis on which the Government have selected the figure of 600. It is because that number benefits the Conservative Party—or it believes that it does. My amendment will ensure that county and city boundaries can be respected by the Boundary Commission.
In the early 1990s, I was involved in the boundary inquiry in Coventry. I saw how the Boundary Commission got it wrong. The number of seats was being reduced from four to three, and it issued proposals putting together the Holbrooks ward of Coventry North West with the Longford ward of Coventry North East in the same constituency. It made no difference in outcome whether those two wards were in the same constituency or different constituencies. What the Boundary Commission had missed, looking at maps in London, was the Coventry to Nuneaton railway line, the A444 from junction 3 on the M6 leading into the city, and the two fields either side separating those two wards. The inquiry brought that out, the commission understood it, the proposals were changed and they remained in different constituencies. My amendment allows the commission to do that.
Have the Government sought the advice of IPSA on these matters? I understand that many MPs will not have a home, an office or staff in their constituency. If the boundaries keep changing every four or five years, there could be a considerable waste of public money with people moving around all the time to ensure that they are in their constituency.
I listened with great interest to the contribution of my noble friend Lady Billingham. She set out carefully the importance of community of interest. I recalled, as she spoke, the day that Donald Dewar came to support her in her election campaign in Corby. I met Donald at Kettering station and drove him to Corby. Donald was a great campaigner and we had a wonderful time. What made him chuckle was that he had travelled down from Scotland, had come to Corby and had met so many people from Glasgow and Lanarkshire. He knew some of the families and he got such a warm welcome. As my noble friend Lady Billingham said, younger people living there who had never been to Scotland in their lives spoke with what I can only describe as a Scottish accent. That was because of the nature and closeness of the community there. The proposals would ride roughshod over those communities.
I worked for many years in the East Midlands. It is a wonderful place, a wonderful part of the country, but I am very worried about the effect that the proposals will have on those communities. The East Midlands is a series of principal towns or cities and rural counties. The cities of Derby, Nottingham and Leicester are unitary authorities, and the MPs in Nottingham and Leicester are coterminous there. There are county towns, such as Chesterfield and the wonderful city of Lincoln. There are coalfield communities in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire and there is the unique county of Rutland. My noble friend Lady Billingham also mentioned Northamptonshire, with its boot and shoe history—Doctor Martens in Wellingborough—and Weetabix in Kettering. The Government’s proposals will do nothing for them.
In conclusion, my amendment would fix the number of seats at 650, which is a better number than that proposed by the Government. I thank my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Snape.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to make my first speech of the day. I was just thinking, as my noble friend Lord Kennedy was speaking, about some of the work that I have seen Members of Parliament do. I served for nearly four years on the Intelligence and Security Committee. A number of other Members here have done that. We met every Tuesday morning, and I used to see MPs turning up there regularly, Tuesday after Tuesday, as well as going in on a Monday to read the papers—we could not take them away because of their security level. That is inevitably some of the unseen work of Members of Parliament, yet vital work supervising the activities of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
I am not supposed to say much about the work of the intelligence agencies and the Intelligence and Security Committee, but I can say that we got a list of things that were defined by the United Nations as unacceptable and degrading behaviour and torture. Just above waterboarding came sleep deprivation. I know why now. After a while, you get disoriented, you get confused, you start repeating yourself and you are not sure what day of the week it is. I can see why it was used as a torture and still is, allegedly.
The last time I intervened, which was yesterday, I was thwarted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who everyone has been praising today, for reasons I cannot understand. He may have been nice today, but he was not so nice to me yesterday. Noble Lords may remember that, just as I got up to make a modest intervention, he got up to the Dispatch Box in a slightly atypically aggressive way to try to conclude the debate. I had to come in afterward, by which time I was flustered and not my usual self and did not make all the points that I wanted to make. That is why I am glad to be able to contribute to the debate on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, which I think is the best of the bunch, if I may say so.
The one thing that I did say yesterday was in relation to flexibility for the Boundary Commission, particularly for England. I would like to elaborate on that. I mentioned that Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were used to being given specific numbers, particularly minimum numbers, but in relation to England, if we say a rigid number, that will make it very difficult for the Boundary Commission to fulfil its task, particularly where it is constrained to plus or minus 5 per cent—we will come to that later.
It will be very difficult for the commission to get it exactly right, to go around the country trying to fit in, in an artificial way, a specific number of constituencies of a specific size and, at the same time, corresponding with natural boundaries wherever possible, so that we do not end up with constituencies which have one part on one side of the Tyne, or whatever river, and another part on the other. We saw it in Glasgow. Noble friends from Scotland will recall how the Boundary Commission for Scotland was concerned about constituencies which straddled the Clyde. I hope that we will give consideration at some point, not to specifying the exact number, whether 650, 640 or whatever, but to giving some flexibility to the Boundary Commission.
Notwithstanding all that, I think, with respect to the others, that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is the best of the bunch because maintaining the status quo will mean the least disruption for existing Members of Parliament. As I was saying earlier, these Members of Parliament have only recently been elected and I must say, having been in the other place for 26 years and out of it for only five, I think that some of those in the last intake are the best we have seen for generations. I am sure that noble Lords who have been in the other place will agree that it has been a super intake. Even the Conservative intake has been full of talented people; the Labour intake certainly has. I will leave the Liberal Democrats out of this.
As my noble friend says, everyone else does.
These Members of Parliament are just beginning to find their feet, to get to know their constituencies really well, they are beginning to settle in and they face a major disruption. They could face minor alterations, as we are all used to; we accept that from time to time. As my noble friend Lord Anderson said, after every three Parliaments you accepted that there would be a relatively minor review and that was all part of the job of being a Member of Parliament. However, to have just entered Parliament and to face a review which, because Parliament is being reduced to 600, will inevitably be extensive, is really quite destabilising.
I think it was my noble friend Lord Rooker who accidentally stumbled across Conservative MPs being briefed to prepare for this. He assumed that others would be doing the same and I am sure he is absolutely right to assume that Members of Parliament are preoccupied about this. It is not just that they will face competition from candidates from other parties—they first have to get selected for these new constituencies, and that is quite destabilising.
I want to speak about a boundary review that I went through. I was elected in 1979 for South Ayrshire, which extended to 700 square miles—a large, rural constituency. People think of Labour MPs as representing small urban constituencies. I represented this large, rural constituency which stretched from Muirkirk in the north to Ballantrae in the south. It would take me two hours to drive across the constituency and I did not drive all that slowly. I had a huge variety of areas to represent. Muirkirk is an old mining area and there is a little village outside Muirkirk, called Glenbuck, which was the home of Bill Shankly and Bob Shankly and which had a fantastic football team, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers, probably one of the best known football teams of its time.
Moving on a little, we find Auchinleck and Cumnock, both mining towns. I chose Cumnock as the territorial designation for my title. Cumnock is where James Keir Hardie lived for a while and is now buried—the cradle of the Labour movement. Mauchline was one of the places connected with Robert Burns—Poosie Nansie’s is there—and, ironically, also of the Leader of the House, who, sadly, is not with us today. I was hoping to be able to pay tribute to him and his home in Mauchline, where I used to represent him and look after his interests extremely well. He does not often return the compliment and look after my interests, but I certainly looked after his. I represented all these—the villages of Coylton and Dalrymple, of Patna and Dalmellington in the Doon Valley, of Maybole and Crosshill, between which two I now live. Maybole was the ancient capital of Carrick, a fantastic town, and there is also the seaside town of Girvan. Any Glaswegians here, or people from the central belt of Scotland will know that they used to go, “doon the water” to the lovely seaside resort of Girvan.
All of this was 700 square miles and then the Boundary Commission added another 100 square miles—I had to represent 800 square miles after the Boundary Commission. Annbank and Mossblown came in, two mining areas, as well as Kincaidston and Belmont, parts of the outskirts of Ayr. Why am I telling you this?
A maiden speech, yes. I am taking noble Lords on a tour and I hope that some noble Lords will join me on the tour because, in all these towns, I had to have surgeries. In poor areas, the bus services were not very good. My constituents could not come to me; I had to go to them. I once talked to constituents in Cumnock about Girvan and they had never been to Girvan. They had never in their lives visited another part of my constituency. It was astonishing. They had been to Mallorca, but that is another story. They had not travelled, because the bus services were not particularly good, so I had to go there.
Before the reorganisation in my constituency I had 20 surgeries every month. I took them in the morning on each Friday and Saturday and I moved from area to area. After the reorganisation they went up to 24 and going and sitting in a surgery is only part of the work—you then go back and write up all your notes, decide how to follow it through, acknowledge to the constituent that you taken it up. That was the revised constituency before my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke—it was not all her responsibility, but she was the Minister—brought in the second reorganisation of constituencies that I was involved in.
We managed to keep all the boundaries within Ayrshire. We had a big fight, by the way, to keep five constituencies in Ayrshire. My noble friend Lord Reid was very keen to move part of Ayrshire into Lanarkshire for the constituency boundaries.
Outrageous, as my noble friend rightly says. We managed to keep four constituencies in Ayrshire out of the original five, but that meant that of five Labour MPs, one had to go, because we were only going to fight four constituencies, and that is why I ended up here. I was the longest serving, the oldest and I thought, the time is now right for me to give up, after 26 years representing that area. I gave up and, thankfully from my point of view, if not from anyone else’s, I was asked to come here.
That, I hope, illustrates some of the workload of Member of Parliament. When I got down to Westminster as an MP, as I said earlier, we had no mobile phones, no e-mail and the burden grew over the years. I remember talking to Tom Oswald, MP for Central Edinburgh—he used to keep a book with all his letters. He wrote down who he got the letter from, when he received it, who he wrote back to and he wrote all his letters in longhand, put them in an envelope, put on a stamp that he paid for himself and sent off the letter. That was what a Member of Parliament did at the time.
Things have changed dramatically since then, but someone told me recently that one of the things we should take account of in the workload of a Member of Parliament is the increase in work due to government initiatives. It is certainly the case that Governments keep thinking of things which involve Members of Parliament in more work. They keep changing things. At the moment the NHS in England is being changed dramatically. I am sure that that will create huge additional burdens for English Members of Parliament. Governments, when they change constituencies, especially when they reduce the number and increase the size, ought to think of the workload that they are putting on to these Members of Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Kinnock, former leader of our party, is still with us. It is amazing that he is keeping awake and making such useful interventions all through the night. With his sagacity he put my noble friend Lord Anderson and me on the Front Bench. I mentioned earlier the importance of the work of Opposition Front-Benchers, doing this with very little support at the same time as being a constituency Member of Parliament and everything that that involves. A number of noble Lords have argued that the number of Ministers needs to be reduced if the size of Parliament is to be reduced, otherwise the power of the Executive becomes ever greater—and it has increased. We heard earlier not just about the number on the payroll but the number of Ministers who are not paid. Everyone seems to have a PPS. When we started, as my noble friend will remember, only Secretaries of State had PPSs; then Ministers of State got PPSs; now I understand that Under-Secretaries of State have PPSs.
Yes, we will have PPS squared.
On a more serious point, in one of the replies to an earlier debate, it was said that in future Ministers might come not just from the House of Commons, but more might come from the House of Lords, or elsewhere. The implication was that there could be Ministers who were in neither House of Parliament. Will the Minister clarify whether that is the Government’s policy? That would mean the start of a move towards the separation of powers and the movement of the Executive away from the legislature. That would be a very retrograde step, but it may be something that the Government are considering. The Conservatives or, even more keenly, the Liberal Democrats may have that in mind.
That separation of powers also raises a question. A number of Members have raised the question of the comparison of the number of elected Members in Britain with the USA or France. We have dealt with the federal aspect of how in the United States of America, every state has its own Senate, members of the House of Representatives, Governor and so on. My noble friend Lord Rooker gave us the exact figure for the number of elected representatives per head in the United States compared with the United Kingdom. However, the separation of powers is also important. In the United Kingdom, Ministers have to be MPs as well and they have the workload of Members of Parliament.
I should point out that I am the last person to have attended full Cabinet who was a Member of neither House. It was a disaster and during the period when the two parties opposite hatched their deal. I attended full Cabinet on the Monday while the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives were talking to each other about forming a coalition. It is not a course of action that I would recommend.
There are some historic precedents. I think of CFG Masterman who, in about 1915, as a Liberal at the time, was in the Cabinet but was not a Member of Parliament. I also believe that for a short time Patrick Gordon Walker was a member of the Cabinet but not in either House.
They are not only unhappy precedents; they are unusual. I do not want them to become the rule as that would be a retrograde step. I have spoken for longer than I intended. Fortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is here. He will probably be watching me on his computer and will have switched me off after five minutes. I am grateful to my noble friends for being here and for not switching me off.
My Lords, I strongly support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Kennedy proposing that the figure of 600 should be replaced by 650. I only wish that it had been possible for my noble friend, within the realms of order, to have added as a starting point the words, “for thinking through the changes proposed for the elections of Members of the House of Commons”. That is the force of the argument behind the previous two amendments, and certainly the force of argument behind this one—650, the current number, as a starting point.
That is not a defence of the status quo—not a small “c” conservative attitude—but a defence that is based on a plea to the Government still to reconsider their proposal in order to give this House, the other House and wider realms of interest a proper opportunity to think how we should determine the number of Members of Parliament, in conjunction with dispassionate independent bodies such as the Boundary Commission, so that we absolutely guarantee the independence of the conclusion and the opportunity for public intercession that has characterised the boundary formation of our parliamentary constituencies since 1949, updated with some sagacious rules that were established in, I think, 1986.
The guiding principle that I seek to recommend to the Government, if they were to take advantage of this amendment, would be the fairly fundamental management recommendation that structure should be a function of purpose. That maxim should apply to business and to organisations and administrations of every kind, because if those who are responsible for making decisions—especially about organisation, reorganisation, reform or equipping for the future—have to accept the discipline of making clear from the outset the purpose that they intend for an institution, a stratum of management, a department or a new system of local government or of representation anywhere, they are obliged to say why they are arriving at the recommendation that they put to the corporate, democratic or voluntary organisation, or, dare I say it, to some segment of the big society. If that principle is applied to Parliament, it requires only a very small change from structure being the function of purpose to Members being a function of purpose.
There is some difficulty in establishing what purpose is and should be fulfilled by Members of Parliament now and for recognisable years into the future. In this, we have some guidance from within this House. Your Lordships’ own Select Committee on the Constitution, comprising four Conservative, four Labour, two Liberal Democrat and two Cross-Bench Peers, reported towards the back end of last year on their deliberations on the Bill. This has been referred to before in the Committee, but I think it bears repetition for the sake of accuracy:
“The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee heard evidence from bodies such as the Hansard Society, Democratic Audit and Unlock Democracy”—
all organisations of unquestionable repute and detachment—
“who argued that the choice of 600 was arbitrary, lacking a rationale and, in any event, put the cart before the horse. It was argued that a more sensible approach would have been firstly to review the functions of the House of Commons and secondly to form a view as to the appropriate number of MPs required to perform those functions”.
The only addition that I would have made, had I enjoyed the honour of sitting on that committee, would have been, “taking into account the perpetual nature of change affecting the work of Members of Parliament”. That would simply have reflected, although I do not intend to dwell on this, my 25 years of experience as a Member of the other House, representing, at a time of radical and on occasions desperate industrial change, a constituency that had the characteristic of many former coalmining constituencies and far-flung communities inside that constituency—in short, combining the problems of the inner city and separated only by the hills in between.
The conclusion that was drawn by the Select Committee on the basis of these representations from the objective interest shown by the Hansard Society, Democratic Audit and Unlock Democracy was:
“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”.
Could there be a stronger condemnation from an all-party committee, which recently looked in a focused and explicit way at the legislation before the House? It was not a Back-Bench Labour committee or a trade union branch but, I repeat, a committee with a balance of Conservative and Labour Members of this House, two Liberal Democrats and two Cross-Benchers who arrived at that conclusion.
Confronted with the arguments, the Minister has given us courteous responses, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has been as opaque as he has been courteous. He has told us that the manifestos of the parties that now form the coalition had “a theme”. It is difficult to accept a community, a commonality or even a similarity of theme when one of the coalition partners wanted a radical volcano of reform in our electoral systems leading to a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons, one contingent upon the other, with PR and more devolution, especially in England.
With local government reform, the coalition could offer a justification for having just 500 Members of the House of Commons. I would probably have argued with that figure, but at least there was a cogent package of arguments to present in support of the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 500. In contrast, we had an announcement followed by a manifesto commitment from the then leader of the Conservative Party, now the Prime Minister, in the midst of the scandal and the justifiable outrage about the abuse of public support for MPs, that one way to combat this excess would be to cut the number of Members of the House of Commons by 10 per cent, taking the number down to 585.
For the life of me, I can see only the merest scintilla of a theme being pursued, and it is that two parties wanted, to entirely different extents, in entirely different contexts and on entirely different bases of argument—one party wanted profound constitutional change, the other an arbitrary and populist declaration in the middle of outrage about scandal—to reduce the number of Members in the House of Commons. I do not call that a theme; I call it barely a coincidence of convenience. It is a long way from being a theme.
In a later contribution, the Minister said that no one has a perfect answer for the size of the Commons. Of course, that is absolutely right—as he said to the committee, there is no “magic science” to any of it—but that should be the overture to a whole opera of consideration and consultation: trying to find someone or something that is nearer an objective measurement of what Members of Parliament now do and will do into the electronic future. Instead, we have had the arbitrary conclusion to plump for the figure of 600, despite the absence of any objective rationale, in the words of the Select Committee of this House.
We have had a response from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, which was courteously put but again repetitive, that it is a question of judgment. Because there is no perfect answer, it is a question of judgment. That, too, is absolutely right. So let us enter an objective consideration that has been put several times in this Committee but has still not received a cogent response. The consideration that I would put, among many others that we could cite, is that the number of Members of Parliament since 1950 has risen by 4 per cent, and the number of electors by 25 per cent.
In any other sphere, if you were to get an increase in what I shall call, in neglect of my sisters, manpower of 4 per cent—and those people had to deal with 25 per cent potential greater demand—you might commend them on their extra productivity and on the reduction in marginal unit costs. That might be acceptable, except that the marginal unit costs of having Members of Parliament have gone up and up. One reason is because there is this disparity between the rise in the number of Members of Parliament and the much greater rise not only in the numbers to which they must be accountable and for which they must be responsible, but, as others have relayed at length, in the huge increase in workload.
I am tempted to replicate some of my noble friends’ reports, but I shall not except to refer to one point made by my noble friend Lady Mallalieu. I knew her father, Curly Mallalieu—he was a dear comrade and friend of mine. He was a war hero and a man of great distinction, a brilliant sportsman and marvellous journalist and great company. He was also a very good Minister. I came into the House of Commons in 1970, together with my noble friend Lord Prescott, on the same day, and we served with Curly for four years. He was a fastidious constituency Member of Parliament who did surgeries once a month and answered all letters. He had a very high reputation.
However, that was at a time, as my noble friend Lord Prescott and others of our generation will testify, when total constituency engagement in the so-called welfare officer role was not only hardly undertaken by the generation before us but was regarded with contempt by the generation before us. I was upbraided by a dear friend for doing constituency work in the Library in a House of Commons in which having a desk was a rarity—a real mark of the Whip’s privilege. It was a long time before I got a desk, and when I did so it was in a room that I shared, to my experience’s huge advantage, with the now noble Lord, Lord Bannside, who now sits on these Benches. That was the state of affairs then.
What we encountered was unacceptable to our generation’s commitment to the service of the community. We were told that we were there to represent the constituency in Parliament, not Parliament in the constituency. Could there be any more categorical difference after the passage of 41 years? Of course not, which is why I reinforce the point about the increase in numbers in the electorate with a massive alteration in expectations of Members of Parliament of servants of constituents—I believe rightly.
That is quite apart from the wider dimensions of the contact with Members of Parliament that is now facilitated by electronic communication as well as by the fluency of the electorate, the higher levels of education and the greater willingness to engage in the increased demands put on Members of Parliament. That is without looking at any external dimension or the increased workload on Parliament, about which everyone in my view rightly complains, which arises from massive programmes of legislation that have emanated from Governments successively over the last quarter of a century and which show no sign of pausing, slowing or being diluted under the present Government.
The workload has gone up, in quantity and probably in expectation if not in quality, and the place has changed. However, without taking account of those realities, which are not mathematical exactitudes but nevertheless tangible changes of huge dimension, how can a Government arrive at the conclusion that the number of Members of Parliament should be cut from 650 to 600? There is no objective basis and no rationale other than perhaps the very feckless rationale that I suggested earlier: that 600 has the advantage of not being 585, which was the number that the Conservative Party first thought of and which would have been unacceptable in the course of coalition deliberations and negotiation of agreement. It appears that that is the last negotiation that anyone in this Government will enter into.
I make this final point in recommending that we stay with 650. We should start from where we are and have a process of consultation and deliberation so that it is possible for the Government and this Parliament to arrive at a figure that reflects the nature of the work of a dutiful Member of Parliament in 2011, 2015 and beyond. What will happen if a change is introduced that does not secure consent by negotiation in this House of negotiation, which is capable of operation only through usual channels and where the absence of a guillotine is a product of the absence of a guaranteed majority? That is the arrangement that has been sustained and is sustainable because of the nature of this House. The Government are contriving an unseen and unannounced but massive reform of the House of Lords in the most retrograde way possible.
This has been a House of negotiation and arduously won agreement—a House in which Governments have not used and not been able to use the final, conclusive, clumsy and heavy result of overwhelming majority to get their way. If on this very significant constitutional Bill, which determines how the citizens of this country are represented and governed, this Government are not willing to take account of objective realities and requests for rationales that have been submitted by detached, independent and respected bodies, let alone by Members from this side of the House, they really are a Government who have become tunnel visioned and who will pay the price, although perhaps not in this Bill.
During the passage of this Bill, loyalties have been relied on and understandings taken for granted, not on these but on the Government’s Benches. Tangible and in many cases terrible changes have been proposed on benefits, on the volcano in the English National Health Service and on the termination of the education maintenance allowance. On those and a legion of other changes, such as in housing benefit and council housing tenure, Members of this House on the Cross Benches and on the Government’s Back Benches who are exercised about the difficulties that will be inflicted on people who are virtually powerless to resist these changes will want some recompense for suspending their judgment and going through the Lobby with the Government on this Bill.
As this Parliament moves into the next 12 and 24 months, the Government will really earn the penalty that they deserve for breaking the valued and sustainable conventions of this House and not listening to arguments but for sticking to an arbitrary figure that is unsupported by cogent argument and for reducing the size of the House of Commons because of their dependence on welding two disparate parts of constitutional change together in a way that has been entirely unnecessary. They can have their referendum, as my noble friends on the Front Bench have made abundantly clear, and on the date on which they want to hold it, but they cannot justify ramming through this House that undertaking in the coalition agreement at the same time as undertaking a course of action that will earn them for ever the reputation of a gerrymandering Government.
It was good of the Leader of the House to pop in during our debate to see how things were moving, because, as we all know, it is not his shift. It was a very special favour to us that he came to see what was happening. I agree with my noble friend Lord Kinnock that the basis of what we are debating is the negotiation or lack of it on these proposals, and that the only negotiation that is relevant to this debate generally appears to have been that between the two parties of the coalition. As a result of that Faustian pact, or whatever else one calls it, the Government are unwilling to listen to argument, to unblock the usual channels or to make any concessions. They fear, Samson-like, that the pillars of the temple will crumble if they make the smallest concession.
I listened with great pleasure to my noble friend Lord Foulkes, as I always do. He gave us a rather joyful odyssey around his constituency. I confess that I was tempted to ask whether I might join him at some stage. I was listening to him describe all those wonderful places with strange-sounding names and wondering whether I could better him by taking him around my old city and around wonderful places such as Llansamlet, Craig-cefn-parc, Ynysforgan and Llangyfelach, and all these equally wonderful places with strange-sounding names but with a wonderful community. What impressed me during the time I had the pleasure to be there was that it was, indeed, a community. In the city of Swansea, we pride ourselves on being a series of villages held together by gossip—and the gossip is enormous. There is a real strength of feeling between the various parts of the village. It is something that I enjoyed. Of the trio who were on the Front Bench and appointed by my noble friend, I always thought of my noble friend Lord Foulkes as Mr Nice. There was the danger of having Amendments 61, 62 and 63 considered together, but they were quite properly severed.
I recall that my noble friend Lord Foulkes talked of his experience on the Intelligence and Security Committee and of what he learnt about sleep deprivation. When he said that, I was wondering whether I had last spoken yesterday or today and, indeed, whether I am in serious danger of repeating myself at this stage. It is what people do when they are subject to sleep deprivation. I will go on because I seem to recall that I spoke on Amendment 61 only to make the point that I did not think it appropriate to mention a particular number. I apologise to my noble friend Lady McDonagh but I did not think that 630 was an appropriate number. Equally, I did not speak in respect of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Snape because I had already made that point on the earlier one.
I feel emboldened, however, to speak in respect of the current amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Kennedy for this good reason: that the onus is surely on those who want to make change to make the case for that change. This change, which is having an electoral quotient of 75,000 and of having 600 seats, might, or might not, be justified. However, what the Government have clearly not done is made any serious attempt at all during the course of this debate or earlier to justify those particular figures. What puzzles, surprises and, indeed, saddens me is that the Conservative Party has departed from its normal principles and, at a time when it talks about the big society and, airily, about localism, it seems very ready to sacrifice community on the alter of a mathematical formula.
Some colleagues have already mentioned the carve-up of Africa at the Congress of Berlin and those straight lines that separated community. For example, the Ewe community is partly in Togo and partly in Ghana. I do not think that my noble friend Lord Boateng is here but I would invite him to go with me around the borders of Ghana or Uganda looking at the way in which tribes were separated. I think that it would not be appropriate for me to go seriatim around the borders of various African countries.
Certainly, the normal pattern of Conservative thought—which is very distinguished in our history—is to have any change broadened down from precedent to precedent and to ask for an explanation for each change.
I recall Lord Hailsham’s marvellous book. I already quoted him yesterday or today—I cannot remember which because of sleep deprivation. I recommend the book to every colleague. It was written in about 1948 and was called The Case for Conservatism. How well he put it in this book that, for Conservatives, politics was a second best activity. It prevents the nasties doing things and tries to keep the ship afloat—even if one did not have a particular destination. He had a wonderful sentence about the Conservatives:
“The simplest among them prefer fox-hunting—the wisest religion”.
Politics was a second-best activity, which is light years away from the ideological drive of the Conservatives today, followed tamely by the Liberal Democrats, who seem to be ready to sacrifice all their principles so long as they can follow up the legacy of Lloyd George and the unfinished business of the Liberals from before the First World War.
I am certainly ready to listen to all the arguments. I am far more ready to accept—as I have indicated—the amendment of my noble friend for the 650 because that is the status quo and because no serious attempt has been made to say why the status quo should be altered. Indeed, there is a serious argument, which I shall seek to deploy, for increasing the number of seats because of the increased workload of Members of Parliament. How do we define the job? This was the point made by my noble friend who has now left, the distinguished doctor. The job of a Member of Parliament has clearly altered very substantially over the years. Some colleagues have boasted about the fact that they entered the other place in 1964 or 1979. Wait for it: I entered the other place in 1966. I recall being asked at a selection conference what was my trade union. I said that it was FSBAA. Of course no one was prepared to admit ignorance as to what this particular trade union was. It was in fact the Foreign Service Branch A Association. Anyway, I was able to get over that hurdle as a result of my membership of a distinguished trade union in the foreign service.
At that time the world was very different indeed. One was able to have a career in addition to being a Member of Parliament. There were some very heavy and eminent lawyers in the House at that time. I was a member of the chambers of Elwyn-Jones, who became Lord Elwyn-Jones, and of Sam Silkin—Lord Silkin—whose PPS I became from 1974 to 1979. They were able to have serious legal practices at the same time as being Members of the House. There was a wonderful piece in Elwyn-Jones’s autobiography, at the time when he had prosecuted at Nuremberg, going to his seat of West Ham and being told by the good constituents of West Ham, “Oh, don’t bother to come for another year or so. You can just do that job in Nuremberg”. He feared that he might be going on in the caravanserai to the prosecution of Japanese war criminals and his good constituents of West Ham would have been very happy for him to spend a year or two there. I recall that my noble friend Lady Mallalieu almost followed him in that seat, when we were both in the same chambers.
At that time, there were eminent members of the Bar and eminent businessmen, who were able to carry on with their position in the House of Commons part time. That would not be possible nowadays. About that time, I recall that Duncan Sandys was alleged to have said to someone who wrote to him from his constituency in Streatham, “I am Streatham’s representative in Parliament and not Parliament’s representative in Streatham”. A story was going around about one of the Aitkens, who was a Member of Parliament, and who apparently replied to every constituent who wrote him a letter in the following terms: “Thank you very much for your letter. With people like you, England has nothing to fear”.
Alas, perhaps the world has changed. Members of Parliament do not have a pathway to Parliament through being eminent lawyers or having had a substantial career outside. Indeed, it is very difficult for parties to find an Attorney-General in the House of Commons because of the pressures of being in the House and the difficulty of finding a lawyer with sufficient standing in the legal community. I accept that, at the moment, the Conservative Party has a sufficiently heavy lawyer but it is becoming increasingly difficult because of the pressures of Parliament to find people to fill the post. Nowadays, the pathway to Parliament is normally through being a research officer for another MP. People come along without what Denis Healey would call a hinterland—someone who comes with a career from outside that they are able to use when in Parliament.
Nowadays one is expected to be a social worker. There is a deluge of e-mails. The expectations of the constituents have changed and woe betide any Member of Parliament who tries to adopt the Duncan Sandys, or Aitken, approach in replying to their constituents. Indeed, there is, in my judgment, a real danger of the House of Commons being somewhat parochial. This would be exacerbated if we have these regular boundary revisions. Members of Parliament are analogous to those 435 members of the House of Representatives, who are effectively in a state of perpetual electioneering. If there is to be this recasting, like with Lego bricks—where one is often putting things together in a fairly haphazard way and certainly not looking at the importance of community—different building blocks being put together every five years or so, it is surely only natural that every Member of Parliament would be looking over his shoulder at how he can cultivate that part that will come into his constituency.
It will make it very difficult indeed to find Members of Parliament who are prepared to travel, apart from coming to London. I have had the privilege of being on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and, at different times, the Inter-Parliamentary Union for over 30 years and, at times, boxing and coxing with my noble friend Lord Foulkes. It is more and more difficult to find Members of Parliament who are prepared to go abroad with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Why? MPs are in a state of perpetual electioneering, looking over their shoulders to ask, “Have I done well? Am I feeding the great beast? Am I giving the constituents that which they want?”. I think that it will be a sadder Parliament if there are people who do not have the experience of the outside world and instead only those who are always going back to their constituents, trying to be glorified social workers. Some will ask: what is the job description? How do we explain that a Member of Parliament should be prepared to be a member of a Select Committee, should be able to learn about foreign climes and do all these things? It will not happen. If there are these regular changes, the pressures on Members of Parliament will mean that they will be in a state of perpetual electioneering.
We have had the benefit of two distinguished and prominent Welshmen discussing, for 40 minutes, maintaining the status quo. I expect it from the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, because he led the opposition to devolution against his own party in 1979, when, alongside the noble and sleeping Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, I attempted to introduce devolution. I forget where the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was on that referendum. I suspect that he was with the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock. Therefore, we have heard from two noble Lords who fought against devolution for Wales—and we in Wales will never forget it—on the basis that the Welsh Assembly would be dominated by Welsh speakers.
I will never forget it. That was the basis of the noble Lord’s opposition to devolution. It took his own Government at a later time to introduce devolution to Wales. Here we are talking about maintaining the status quo with 650 seats without any reference to the effect on the workload of Members of Parliament in Wales or Scotland. Therefore, instead of talking all this rubbish—he knows that it is rubbish—perhaps the noble Lord would spend another 10 or 15 minutes assisting the people of Wales by addressing that issue.
I shall respond very readily but shall perhaps not take as long as the quarter of an hour that the noble Lord suggests I take. My opposition to Welsh devolution between 1974 and 1979 was on the same basis as my opposition to change now—that is, that the onus is on those who wish to bring about change to make the case for such change. It would probably detain this Committee unduly if I were to go on at length about the reasons why I and the so-called gang of six took the view that we did. However, as a former elapsed political scientist, I took the view that anyone who wished to have a quasi-federal system in a unitary state would need to think through very carefully questions such as what the natural stopping point would be. I think that the slippery slope—
Perhaps I may finish my argument and then the noble Lord can come back. I made the point, which I think is very valid, that with a quasi-federal state there would be no logical stopping point. Therefore, at that time I personally became closer to the Liberal policy of moving more closely towards federalism. I felt that popular pressures would lead us inexorably along that road and possibly to independence for Wales. I was convinced that the people of Wales did not want that and my view was vindicated in the 1979 referendum, when the people of Wales, by a majority of four to one, rejected what the noble Lord was putting forward. However, I changed my mind.
Perhaps I may also say in passing that I was never guilty of using the Welsh language argument. Although I am monoglot, I have immense pride in the Welsh language, so long as language is not used as a divisive matter, as it is in Belgium. Therefore, I tried to deploy serious and reasonable arguments at that time, and on balance I was convinced—Mrs Thatcher was my tutor in that—about the centralisation which came about in the 1980s during the years of Thatcherism. I thought it only proper that my country, Wales, should be safeguarded so far as possible, and therefore, although I did not become a strong advocate, in my judgment the balance had changed. I supported the argument and voted yes in the 1997 referendum.
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way but the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, mentioned the Welsh language and my noble friend has just referred to it. I find it rather strange that there is this attack on my noble friend and on my noble friend Lord Kinnock. I well remember going to a Welsh Labour Party conference in Llandudno at the height of the devolution debate, with my noble friend Lord Kinnock and I having to sit on either of my noble friend Lady Kinnock, because she was our interpreter. Given that experience, I would find it rather strange if my noble friend Lord Kinnock had some antipathy towards Welsh speakers.
Absolutely. I could write a book about our experiences at that time. I could speak not just for the quarter of an hour that the noble Lord has invited me to speak but at great length. Out of deference to the Committee, I shall not do that, but I would contend that the arguments that I deployed at that time, along with the so-called gang of six, were reasonable and rational. I changed my position in the 1980s for equally rational and reasonable reasons, and I certainly never used, and never have used, arguments of any antipathy towards the Welsh language, of which I am immensely proud, having chosen to go not to Oxbridge but to the University of Wales. I am proud to be an honorary fellow of the two universities in my city of Swansea. I am a Deputy Lieutenant of Swansea and a very proud Welshman. I would certainly defend that against any suggestion from the noble Lord opposite.
The noble Lord is as reactionary today on this issue as he was in 1979 in that a moment ago he accepted that he was wrong on that. While the rest of us were fighting for devolution, for Wales and for the Welsh language, he was on the other side.
I do not accept that I was wrong. I was right at the time, and I believe I was right because the position that I and my noble friend took was mightily endorsed by the people of Wales in the referendum by a majority of four to one. The facts speak for themselves. While the noble Lord and his cabal were speaking for just a small portion of the people of Wales, I and my noble friend Lord Kinnock represented real Welsh opinion at that time, just as we represented the movement of Welsh opinion in 1997. Therefore, I think that we were much better barometers and indicators of Welsh opinion than was the noble Lord at that time or, indeed, now. It is hardly irrational or unreasonable to suggest that those who wish to make a change should have the onus of adducing the evidence for that change, and evidence we have had none.
I am grateful to my noble friend but is he not encouraged that this is the ninth day of the debate and the noble Lord is the first Welsh Liberal Democrat to have said a single word about Wales? When we get to the amendments that seek to protect the number of Welsh seats and to ensure that Welsh speakers have representation as part of the United Kingdom, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will be in the Lobby with us.
I hate making a partisan point but when I see Welsh Liberal Democrats I am reminded of the saying, “Those who are about to die salute you”. I shall be brief, although I think that I have about seven minutes left of the quarter of an hour that I have been allowed by the noble Lord. I ask: why the change? It is clearly not for financial reasons, because the saving would be very small. Indeed, the argument for an increase can be made, but certainly the arguments for the changes which the Government have put forward have not been made at all. I believe that I and my noble friends Lord Kinnock and Lord Foulkes have remained consistent, and I am waiting for the arguments to be put for the status quo. I am not wedded to any particular number but it is surely hardly unreasonable to ask those who want to make a change to adduce evidence for it and to make the case. Therefore, if my noble friend takes this matter to a vote, I shall be ready to support him in the Lobby.
I rise to speak to this amendment not having spoken before in any of the debates about the number of Members of Parliament that there should be and what their role ought to be once they are elected. I speak now because I have listened to three Ministers over the past however many hours, each struggling to identify why they have come up with what they have in the Bill. In my view, none of them has been able to address the issue adequately.
I was extremely bewildered when I first heard the Leader of the House. He was quite belligerent and aggressive, and actually quite offensive to some of my colleagues. I could not understand it. Then I heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, sort of lose it a bit earlier, which I put down to lack of sleep and other things. I have also read in Hansard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said on previous occasions when I have not been in the Chamber. During all those debates, I worked out why they cannot tell us, and it is because they have come to this decision from very different perspectives. Because of that, they really cannot reveal to the Committee why and how they have done it.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, gave some of the game away when he said that he wanted fairer votes. We can argue about what fair votes are, and indeed we did so when considering the first part of the Bill. But I do not think that we will ever hear the Leader of the House say that the rationale is that he wants fairer votes so that people are able to feel that their votes are valued because of the changes that are taking place. That has absolutely not been a Conservative argument at all in any of these debates or, indeed, in the lead-up to their manifesto. Those of us who were in the other place when the current Prime Minister was making his arguments about reducing the number of people in the House of Commons know that he simply wanted to reduce costs and that that was a sufficient rationale to reduce the number of Members of Parliament. I find that a difficult argument, partly because of some of the arguments that my noble friend Lord Anderson has been making. He is right to say that, 40 or 50 years ago, people came to the other place knowing that they would not be able to manage on the inadequate salary and that therefore they would be doing another job.
I come to this place with a strange history. For 23 years, I was a Member of the other place for the constituency of North West Durham. It so happens that, before me, my father was also the Member for North West Durham for 23 years. Uniquely, I took the seat that my father had held, but it was not a matter of inheritance. It is important to say that in this House. But it means that I have 46 years of personal experience of representation of a single constituency. I think that this experience helps explain why there are differences and trouble on the Front Bench.
Before my father came here, he had been the head of a primary school, and he actually came to Westminster on a lower salary than he had been getting as a primary head teacher. There were no expenses and he lived in extremely grotty circumstances in a B&B in Victoria. My mum and I were never allowed to go there because he was too ashamed of it. Indeed, in those days he was one of a minority of Members of Parliament who returned home to their constituencies every weekend. Before that, it had been the norm for Members of Parliament not to return to their constituencies every weekend. I remember great stories about Barbara Castle going to her constituency once a month—doing meetings on the Friday, doing the party meeting on Friday night and then going to the market in Blackburn on Saturday morning before she got on the train to depart. She would do that once a month and it was seen as perfectly normal and absolutely what Members of Parliament did.
One of the reasons why my father gave up being an MP was that he knew his methods of doing things were outdated and had to go and that they needed a new broom. I was lucky enough to be selected and then elected in that constituency. One of the reasons why I decided it was time for me to go is that it was becoming clear that you had to start using things like Facebook and Twitter. I know that some of my noble friends are happy doing that but I was not. That was not what I was comfortable with and I was not going to be able to provide that service for my constituents. But it was the way that things were going, and it is the sort of thing that constituents now expect. They expect the full attention of their Member of Parliament.
I wonder if that is actually part of what is in the mind of the Prime Minister. I have listened with increasing dismay to the Prime Minister talking about the need for Members of Parliament to be cheaper. He has suggested that Members of Parliaments’ wages should come down and insisted that Ministers’ wages should do so. It is almost as if the only people who should be involved in public service are those who have private means. If you cannot obtain private means in any other way, you might find them by working in business or in other areas while you are a Member of Parliament. I want to be sure that no Minister thinks that that is the right way to proceed—or perhaps they do think that that is the right way to proceed. It may be that some of the Executive think that there should be a return to the time when Members of Parliament attended Parliament and saw their role in the legislature very differently from their responsibilities in the constituency.
My dad rarely held surgeries but he went to local football matches every week. They knew him very well there, and they always knew that they could see him if Stanley, Crook or Tow Law were playing. He would be there, and of course he would also preach in chapel twice every Sunday. He would go round all the chapels in the constituency. They always knew that he would be somewhere at the weekend where they could find him. They say to me now what a wonderful and accessible Member of Parliament he was. But the job as it was then is very different from the job as it is seen and experienced now. He used to handwrite all his letters, as someone has mentioned, and the stamps on the letters he posted were paid for out of his own salary. I still go to houses where they show me the envelope and letter than Dad had written to them. I went to see one lady and she actually had to get me to translate a letter. He had obviously been in a great hurry and this letter was not written in his usual careful hand.
The role of an MP has changed, but are we content that it is the right role now? There has been much written during and since the expenses scandal, with several leaders in newspapers saying that the MP’s role should be looked at again and there should be greater consideration of it. I think that it is time to do that. I think that it is time to do that and then to legislate. My concern and my real fear is that there is a hidden agenda because Ministers cannot be honest with us about why they want to reduce numbers. I believe the motivation of the Liberal Democrats is different. I intervened on a colleague earlier but I do not think that the Minister was here, so I will repeat what I was hinting at. If you support proportional representation you need to break the link of representation of a place and a community. While that link persists a form of voting for one person to be the representative has got to be there. Many Liberal Democrats want to move away from that, and I understand why they do. I do not want to move from the reality of having to represent a place because I think that it is a discipline which brings an accountability that simply does not exist in other countries.
I believe that the role of the MP should be to represent Parliament back to the constituency as well as to represent the constituency to Parliament. Going back week in, week out even when you are a Minister is absolutely invaluable. When I would go home to Crook they had seen the telly, they had seen what people said, they had seen Prime Minister’s Questions and they wanted to chat about it. I had the most wonderful constituents. They were never aggressive or over-demanding and they did not think that I was there every week. Although I would go back every weekend, when they saw me they would think that I was there because something was wrong. None the less, people knew what was going on, they wanted to talk about it and they wanted representation. I believe that is a strength of the British system and I want to be sure that we are not on the slippery slope to something else. That might be the consequence of the proposals—and if the Liberal Democrats had got their way on the 500, it certainly would have been the consequence. We would have been moving that way. That is why I believe there are different motivations on the Front Bench opposite. That means that we cannot have the sort of clarity—dare I say honesty?—that we need in this debate.
Does my noble friend realise that everything she is saying is borne out in the Liberal Democrat manifesto? The Liberal Democrat manifesto recommended lowering the number of MPs in another place to 500, but it did so on the basis of the introduction of the single transferrable vote electoral system. I believe that the case that my noble friend has made out is an unanswerable one and I very much look forward to how the Minister is going to address it.
I thank my noble friend for that. I believe that as politicians—I was concerned about how the Leader of the House addressed this earlier—we have a responsibility to be as clear as possible, not just about the absolute nature of the legislation but on our thinking, which has brought us to this point, and, more than that, on where it is going to lead to. What is going to be the effect of this? We have a responsibility to the public because that is what democracy means.
I am answering the question. I believe in collective responsibility. I supported that because I supported devolution. I supported the people who came through the convention in Scotland and asked for that. I personally did not agree with some of the outcomes, and I do not think that people understood some of the outcomes. Some of us raised that in Cabinet committees. However, because I believe in devolution and giving those who have responsibility for devolution the right to put forward the proposals that had come from their convention, yes, I supported it. The noble Lord shakes his head. I believe that that was the honest thing to do. If I had not done that, I would have broken the principle of agreeing with what the convention on devolution had come up with. In politics you have to take decisions where you do not get the perfect answer all the time. That is the problem for Liberals: they have worked in the past as though they can have all of their cake and eat all of it. They cannot.
I see this as an issue for democracy, which is under enormous threat in this country as well as others. We take our democracy for granted but we have to nurture it. That means that those of us who are responsible in places such as this have a responsibility to be honest, as I say, about why we have come to the positions that we have reached, and what we think they will lead to. I agree that I have painted some extreme end positions, but we cannot nurture democracy and give people in this country confidence in what we are doing unless we properly follow the intellectual arguments. I do not believe that this House has been allowed to do that because of the way that Ministers have responded—or not responded—to us about motivations. Therefore, we do not know where they want to get to in the long term.
I am speaking to this amendment because I do not believe that it is the role of the Government to set the number of seats. It is the role of the Government to say that they would like constituencies to be of about a particular size. It is the job of the Electoral Commission to get constituencies as near to that size as possible, taking into account distance, travel and so on. I will resist the temptation that other colleagues have taken to go around their constituencies. I used every weekend to travel about 200 to 250 miles in my constituency. I had one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country, which was largely a secret because most people never find out about the wonders of the Durham Dales. Some people who live in the Dales are very grateful for that because they want to keep the secret to themselves. I lived in one of the most beautiful constituencies but in the past weeks, while the snow has been there, I have felt very sorry for my successor. It has been impossible to get around. Every weekend, I would travel 200 or 250 miles, just in the normal course of constituency business.
You have to be honest with people about what you are doing and where you are trying to get to. I do not believe that we have had the level of clarity that we should have had from Ministers. I know that they have different positions, but they have a responsibility to be straight with this House and the electorate so that they are able to judge whether this will be in their interests or simply in the interests of the Government.
As my last point I would say that this is an issue that should be negotiated. There is no doubt about that. There is a difference between how this Government are approaching it and how the previous Government approached it. The only reason we are here at this hour is that the Government know that they do not need to negotiate. They can get their legislation because they have the numbers, so they do not need to negotiate. A very fair offer has been made by my Front Bench, which the usual channels would normally have taken up. It has not been taken up because, as I say, the Government know that they do not need to negotiate. That is a very bad position for them to be in when they are charged with nurturing our democracy.
I support my noble friend Lord Kennedy in his amendment, which is the crucial amendment. I am compelled to speak today because I have heard so many interesting contributions from former Members of the other place. However, I will not give the perspective of a former Member of Parliament. My life before I came to this House was not in politics but in business and the voluntary sector. I would like to speak from the perspective of a constituent. I have lived, and still live, in the constituency in which I was born. In those days it was called North Ayrshire, Arran and Bute. It adjoined the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, of which we heard much earlier. I now wonder if we ought to check the Register of Members’ Interests to see if he has some connection to Visit Scotland, such was his passion.
I must reveal to your Lordships’ House an important omission by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. He did not tell noble Lords that in his constituency was the last surviving cannibal in the United Kingdom—the family of Sawney Bean. Only in south Ayrshire could you celebrate the fact that the last cannibal in the United Kingdom lived there with a non-vegetarian restaurant. Such is the surreal humour of people in Ayrshire.
I am grateful to my noble friend for reminding me of that. The presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, also reminds me that I forgot to mention Maidens, to where he came some years ago when he was Lord Chancellor, to open Malin Court. I am now able to mention Maidens, Culzean and the whole area where Sawney Bean was reputed to ply his trade.
I thank the noble Lord for that. On a more serious point, I was born in that constituency. At that time the MP was the late, great Sir Fitzroy Maclean, a marvellous constituency MP. From listening to noble colleagues, he must have been the exception in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a man absolutely devoted to his constituency. I speak from personal experience of the help that he gave to members of my family. He was an absolute champion in those days of disabled children and children with special needs. He made it his life’s work to champion the needs of people in that constituency who could not speak up for themselves. He was a magnificent man. My noble friend Lord Anderson spoke about people with a hinterland. Sir Fitzroy Maclean, before he came into Parliament, was a member of the intelligence services and the Special Air Service, and was reputed to be the inspiration for the key figure in most of Alistair MacLean’s novels. He was a quite remarkable man and greatly loved across the political spectrum in that constituency.
My noble friend rightly pays tribute to Sir Fitzroy Maclean. He was a Conservative Member of Parliament and I got to know him in his latter years. He and I went to Russia—or the Soviet Union, as it was then—together for a Burns supper in the Kremlin. Not only was he much respected in Scotland, but I discovered that he was enormously respected in the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. He was a man of enormous courage.
The point about Sir Fitzroy Maclean was that wherever he went in the constituency, he was instantly recognised. I well remember him coming to our primary school on a number of occasions. I do not know how many surgeries he held in those days, if that was the fashion, but he was a man who was deeply embedded in his constituency. He was a champion for everyone who lived in that constituency. After a minor boundary change, he was followed by John Corrie, again a Conservative Member of Parliament—a very vigorous Back Bencher, most notably remembered, I think, for his attempts to row back the abortion legislation. He was an indefatigable champion for that constituency, and my God did he have a difficult job, because during the time he was representing that constituency in the late 1970s, industry was decimated with the closure of the ICI factory in Stevenston which had hitherto employed 10,000 people across three or four towns. It was the absolute bedrock, but it was swept away. The shipyards were closed. All of the industrial heartland of that part of the west of Scotland, which has still not recovered, was swept away, and he did his best to represent that constituency. Of course, it was no surprise when he lost his seat and was replaced by Brian Wilson in 1987.
What Sir Fitzroy Maclean, John Corrie and Brian Wilson, first in opposition and then as government Ministers, all had in common—and we have been so fortunate in that constituency over the years—was that they were dedicated champions of the people of that constituency. People felt that they could go to them irrespective of their politics and that they would get a hearing. More than that, something would be done about their plight. The current MP, Katy Clark, is following in that fine tradition.
If you ask people in Scotland to pick an adjective to describe the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, they will overwhelmingly say that he is a very decent man. So I would appeal to the Government’s sense of decency here. We simply cannot sweep away without any objective justification or rationale the important link that constituents have with their MP. I am looking at it from the constituent’s end of the telescope, not from the MP’s end of the telescope.
Why was it that Fitzroy Maclean, John Corrie, Brian Wilson and now Katy Clark could conduct themselves so effectively as great MPs for the area? I think it was because the area of the constituency is entirely manageable. They can get around to all the important people in the constituency—and by “important people” I do not mean VIPs, I mean ordinary people. They can get around all the clubs, the community groups and all of the things that are really important where people want to see their MP. They want to connect with their MP and put their case. They want to be there in surgeries. How on earth are they going to enable the really important constitutional and traditional link which we have in this country and which we take for granted at our peril? How are we possibly going to maintain that link if we have constituencies where MPs simply cannot do the job that historically and traditionally people have expected them to do? There is no point shaking your head about that. It is really important.
Sometimes when those of us who are involved in the middle of politics think about this, we think about it from our own perspective, but I want to talk about this from a constituent’s perspective. I want the very best service possible for constituents, and I urge the Government to think really hard. I plead with the noble and learned Lord to give us in his answer some sense of how we are to explain this to people. I find it impossible to explain to people why this arbitrary figure comes out. In his answer, will the noble and learned Lord please give us an objective, sensible rationale for sweeping away what I think is the most important link—the ability of constituents to access their representative and the ability of elected representatives to do the very best job possible for their constituents?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, caused me a most unhappy flashback when he referred to the campaign for Welsh devolution of 1979. I had the misfortune of being the president of the yes campaign, which ended in very great disaster. I do not know exactly what the noble Lord’s point was—no doubt it was done for utterly unmischievous reasons, to try to analyse what might be called the previous convictions of many other Members in relation to that matter. All I would say is this: whatever the situation was then, or even 18 years later, a line can now be drawn under all that. When the time comes, on 3 March of this year, we will all be standing in the same rank.
Many issues that had nothing at all to do with devolution did play a part. I can well remember people saying very innocently to me, “Do you know, Mr Morgan, I go to see my niece in Shrewsbury once a month? I do not want to have to produce a passport at the English border”. There were dozens of all sorts of evil tales that were told, and it may very well have been that the language was really one of them.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is altering his tune now. His allegation was not that the language issue played a part in the devolution campaign, but that my noble friend Lord Kinnock and I actually used that as a weapon. I said that was not true and I hope that he will withdraw it.
I refuse to withdraw it because I was part of that campaign, and I know perfectly well that that was an issue which those who were opposed to devolution used and used viciously against the people of north Wales, from where I come. Similarly, in north Wales, we had those who were opposed to devolution saying that we would be attacked by those dreadful people in south Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, knows that very well.
That issue was lost because Wales, in 1979, had no confidence in itself as a nation community. That situation no longer obtains. In 1979, that vote was lost in every one of the Welsh constituencies, with one notable exception, and that was Cardiganshire, where the vote was carried by a very slim majority. So it had very little to do with the issue of the Welsh language. In the end, it had everything to do with an absence of confidence and with an exploitation in a most ruthless and unprincipled way by those who were against devolution. Let us draw a line totally under that situation and revel in the fact that when Wales comes to that momentous decision on 3 March, we shall all—the noble Lords, Lord Thomas, Lord Kinnock and Lord Anderson, myself and the vast majority of the people of Wales—be standing shoulder to shoulder in favour of that proposition.
My other point is this: if ever there was a time when the confidence of the public in ordinary Members of Parliament was low, this is it. I hope that I will never live to see a period when confidence is at a lower ebb than it is at the moment. I suspect that that is a thought, a principle and an attitude that will be shared by every Member of this House.
The question in my mind is not essentially whether or not there is a case for reducing the numbers of Members of Parliament because people will have different views about that. The case that I have argued in the last few hours and over the past few weeks is that one should not make a stab in the dark. One should come to a decision in regard to this grave and weighty matter based upon evidence. That evidence should be collected by someone of high calibre who is utterly committed to giving a dispassionate picture of the situation so that Members of both Houses of Parliament and the public can come to a reasoned, logical, informed judgment in the matter. That has been my case and it remains exactly the same.
However, that is not the point that I wish to make at this stage. All of us would wish to see confidence in Members of Parliament raised from the abysmally low level at which it is at present. Do you think you can do that by giving the public the impression that in some way or another you will at random nominate 50 of them as hostages and say, “Off you go”? It is all but the same as you marching into the bar of any public house in the United Kingdom and asking, “What do you think of these rotten fellows?”. Many people might say, “Off with them. Get rid of them—50 of them in the next year”; and many people in the chorus behind would say, “Why not say 100?”. In other words, you would be sending a psychological message that reducing the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600 appeals to the ordinary British citizen. That is a very unfortunate message. As far as they are concerned, you are saying, “These people are pretty rotten fellows. Let us get rid of 50 of them”. I believe that would be devastating. Whatever advantages there might be from bringing about that adjustment—maybe there will be a saving of £12 million; maybe the saving will be much less than that; maybe there will be no saving at all for the reasons we have already heard; and there may or may not be a case for reduction—the psychological effect will be utterly disastrous along the lines that I have suggested.
My Lords, I speak for a second time on the question of opposing an arbitrary reduction in the size of the House of Commons, this time in support of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Kennedy. When I spoke previously on the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, I strongly made the case that an arbitrary reduction would work against the better representation of remote and isolated communities and against respect for historic traditions in the way that constituency boundaries are drawn up. In his response, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, essentially, “Too bad. This is all about making sure that we have equal electoral districts”.
The problem with the position of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is that the Government have in the Bill recognised the need to take account of remote and isolated communities, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, well knows from his former constituency in Orkney and from the Shetland and Western Isles. In seeking to find the logic of this arbitrary reduction, why is it okay to recognise the very special position of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland but to eliminate the possibility of the Boundary Commission taking local community factors into account by imposing this arbitrary reduction and then saying that it will have very little flexibility to deal with community considerations? I raise that again because the noble Lord, Lord McNally, gave me no satisfactory reply on the point. We need a House of Commons of sufficient size for the Boundary Commission to accommodate areas like Cumbria that have special problems of representation because of their geography and remoteness.
The only rationale that the Government have given for their arbitrary cut is the claim that it is a good idea that cuts the cost of politics. We are told that the cost that will be cut is £12.2 million. I thought about what this represents as a way of trying to keep awake in the hours of the night. One way of expressing £12.2 million is that it is the cost of one hour of every day of the National Health Service. It is a trivial amount of money and a trivial basis on which to muck about with our democracy. The Government must come up with a better argument to justify the reduction than that it saves £12.2 million.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, put it well. We all know why this reduction was put in place. It was a populist response to the anger about MPs’ expenses, but it reduces the standing of Members of Parliament in the country because it gives the impression that we can go around saying that we need fewer of these wastrels whom we have to subsidise. It is quite disgraceful that the Liberal Democrats should endorse the populist nonsense that the Conservative Party promotes and propagates.
If we had a serious debate about the size of the House of Commons, one would want to take into account all kinds of other factors, such as the international evidence. I am not an expert on the world, but I know a bit about Europe. When I look at the situation in the European Union, I do not see that we have too many politicians by comparison with our European partners. Germany has a very large Bundestag; it is a bigger country. It also has parliaments, governments and Ministers in each of the länder. In Italy, the Senate is a large chamber and there is also a Chamber of Deputies. We all crack jokes about Belgium, where there is a federal Parliament, three geographic parliaments and three language parliaments. The crack about Belgium is that there are more ministerial cars per head of population than in any other country in the European Union.
I would like to see a proper paper on this. In a proper process, there would have been an opportunity for experts to conduct a proper international comparison of whether we in Britain have too many elected politicians. If that had been done, it would not have made the case for what the Government arbitrarily have decided to do.
There are other arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons. One is that you were going to go in for genuine regionalism and localism. However, is that what this Government are doing? The only bits of regional government that we have—the regional development agencies, which were originally envisaged as coming under regional government—are being abolished. As for extending the powers of local authorities, we do have the Localism Bill—but are the Government really proposing a major review of local authority finance in order to make sure that local authorities have much more independence of action than they have had? No, of course not. And are the Government actually releasing local authorities from central controls? No, of course not. Eric Pickles goes round saying, “You have got to collect your bins every week”, and “You cannot pay your chief executive more than this”. What kind of local freedom does Mr Pickles believe in? There is no argument for reducing the size of the Commons on the basis that we are going in for regional devolution and much more independent local government with greater freedom of action.
I have made my views clear on all of those things since I have been on the Labour Benches. Indeed, I was just going on to say that there is a major argument about reform of the Lords, and whether that would, as part of a package, lead to a case for a reduction in the size of the Commons. This is, as we all know, an extremely complex subject. However, I am actually quite attracted to the idea of Britain adopting the kind of “balance of power” system that exists in the Federal Republic of Germany. However, I do not believe that there is much support in any of the political parties or that there are many people who actually agree with me.
That is a great comfort to me at this stage of the day. I am very attracted to an arrangement that would reduce the power of the Executive in Britain, which is overlarge. However, this measure—the arbitrary reduction of the size of the House of Commons—increases the power of the Executive, because it increases the proportion of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. What is the answer to that point? What are the Government proposing to do? What are the Liberal Democrat Members of the Government proposing to do to make sure that the power of the Executive in the House of Commons does not increase as a result of this legislation? I look forward to an answer. These are important points of principle—but where have the Government given any intellectual, proper, thought-through justification for what they are doing? I do not think they have at all, which is why I think many of us have been justified in staying up all night and arguing about this issue. These are major issues, not trivial issues, and we have had no satisfactory answers.
My Lords, I take a somewhat flexible view on the future size of the House of Commons, although I support this amendment pending an independent inquiry on what the optimum size of the House should be. I am going to produce some information which the Government should take quite seriously. While Members have been on their feet, I have been going through the Sessional Returns for the House of Commons Session 2009-10. The relevance of the House of Commons’s Sessional Returns is that we are dealing with effort and the ability of Members of Parliament to carry out their functions properly. I think that the vast majority of the wider public would be very interested in this document, if only it were to be made available, but, of course, they would not read it. So I will extract the information which I think should be made more widely available.
I shall start by referring to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Foulkes, although I was not here when he spoke because I was upstairs resting. My noble friend was a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee. The relevance of that committee is that, while it is not a committee of Parliament but of parliamentarians, it is an indicator of what happens in circumstances where a Member of Parliament is genuinely interested and is prepared to make the time available to ensure that they carry out their functions properly.
I was a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee between 1997 and 2001. What characterised the committee was the high level of attendance at the committee’s proceedings. In most of our proceedings everyone turned up. While I have not seen statistics recording the incidence of attendance, I would imagine that it must be 90 per cent to 95 per cent.
I should like to ask this House to consider the Sessional Returns of the House of Commons which deal with matters of attendance at its committees. One has to remember the distinction between the House of Commons and this House. In the House of Commons, Members are paid £65,000 in salary. They have substantial expenses, although IPSA is reducing them, particularly those for administrative allowances, because of the contribution that now has to be made to the pensions of employees. However, in this House, we volunteer our services. We are not remunerated or paid and we have expenses. I draw that distinction because in the House of Commons you would imagine that, because they are paid, they would therefore have the time to give to ensuring that they carry out their duties.
I shall divide the committees in the House of Commons into broadly two groups. The regional committees were established by the Labour Government following demands for greater regional discussion in the House. I want to go through the returns for each of the regional committees. First, Conservative Members refused to attend them. If you want to find out why they refused to attend the committees, all you have to do is go back to the debates that took place in the House of Commons when it was establishing the regional committees. Their case was, “We simply don’t have the time”.
In other words, a committee structure was established in the House of Commons where Members were arguing that they were unable to attend. The result was that membership of these regional committees was only Labour membership. MPs of other parties felt unable to attend them because of problems of time. The result was that in the East Midlands Committee the attendance rate, which was from only Labour Members because no other members attended, was 64 per cent. In the London Committee, the rate was 73.8 per cent. Let us remember that only Labour members were attending.
In the Yorkshire and Humber Committee, the rate was 86.7 per cent. In the North East Committee and the North West Committee, it was 80 per cent. In the South-East Committee, the rate was 65 per cent and in the South-West Committee it was 75 per cent. In the West Midlands Committee, it was 80 per cent. What that indicates—remember, only Labour Members were attending—is that there are conditions in which Members are committed to the work of that committee and they are prepared to commit their time to that procedural arrangement within the House of Commons.
When I was first elected to the Commons, the first committee that I was put on was the Public Accounts Committee. I remember those early days. The chairman was the noble Lord—
That was it. My noble friend Lord Barnett was the first chairman, and he was followed by my noble friend Lord Sheldon. During the period of my noble friend Lord Barnett’s chairmanship, the attendance was almost 100 per cent. It was a very well attended committee to which Members of the House were prepared to give much of their time. Yet when I looked at the Sessional Return for 2009-10, the attendance rate had dropped to 42.5 per cent—in other words, a substantial reduction in attendance over the 20 years following the period when I was first elected. Even in 1990 when I came off that committee, attendances were very high.
Take other committees. The Science and Technology Committee has 41.4 per cent attendance. What is happening? Why has there been a substantial reduction in the number of people available to attend House of Commons committees? Take the Justice Sub-Committee: attendance is just 23.8 per cent. Many members of the Justice Sub-Committee in the House of Commons failed completely to attend any sessions of the committee, I presume because they simply did not have the time available to them.
The Regulatory Reform Committee had attendance of only 33.3 per cent. I was under the impression that that committee in the House of Commons, chaired very competently by Andrew Miller, would attract the interest of Members, but only one-third of the meetings were attended.
I understand the point that the noble Lord is making about the demands on Members of the House of Commons, but I chaired the Treasury Committee in 2001-10, and if he looks at the Sessional Returns, which I looked at every year because, like him, I found them of interest, he will find that the committee meetings were twice a week. In addition to those two meetings a week, there was a sub-committee, chaired by the ranking so-called minority Member, and the attendance throughout was well over 90 per cent; indeed, right up to the end of the 2010 election, attendance was still well over 90 per cent. So it has been my experience in the House of Commons that Members take their duties seriously, notwithstanding the fact that there are now many aspects that put pressure on them.
My noble friend is correct. He is emphasising the fact that certain committees—I referred to the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Treasury Committee—attract Members, but when it comes to what some Members obviously regard as Cinderella committees, they simply cannot find the time because they do not have the time available to attend them.
From my experience, it is certainly true that the popular committees—the Treasury Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, probably the Home Affairs Committee—actually get a very good turnout. On the other side, there are therefore what my noble friend calls the Cinderella committees. Do his figures suggest on how many occasions these committees were not quorate?
I was going to come on to that. I have found references in the Sessional Returns to committees not being quorate; indeed, I have attended committees in the House of Commons that were not quorate. One of them, on one occasion, was the Commons Privileges Committee, which has always been regarded as an important committee. As I say, though, there are other committees that over the years have not been quorate. I can remember times when Clerks have actually had to appeal to members of a Select Committee not to leave for fear that the business might be lost because we had witnesses standing outside the door waiting to come in and give evidence. If that is the kind of pressure that is being exerted on Select Committees in the House of Commons, does it not suggest that we should be very wary about reducing the numbers of MPs without a full inquiry based on what I believe to be the principal amendment that we have discussed over the past couple of weeks—that is, the Wills amendment, which I hope the Government will seriously consider as we proceed with this legislation?
I come to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I was also a member for a period. I see that attendance at that committee has now dropped to 49.2 per cent—indeed, there were members of that committee who did not attend any committee meetings at all, which I find quite astonishing. When I was a member of that committee it was regularly attended. I keep asking myself, “Why is it that the attendance of these committees has dropped?”. That is an important part of this debate. If we cannot man committees in the House of Commons, we have to be very wary about what action we take on membership.
I see that the Communities and Local Government Committee is now down to 43.6 per cent attendance. The Children, Schools and Families Committee is down to 46.1 per cent. The Environmental Audit Committee—a substantial committee in the House of Commons, with an important remit to carry out audits on environmental matters—is down to 37.5 per cent turnout. The Science and Technology Committee is down to 42.3 per cent.
My noble friend may not be aware that we have had similar problems in the past in this House. About four years ago, the Conservative Party was unable to meet its requirements to take up all its places and fill them regularly on the European Union sub-committees. When I first came into this Chamber we had 12 members for the EU Standing Committee and its sub-committees, but that had to be reduced to 10 for a period because there were insufficient Peers from the Conservative side to take up their allocation. I presume, now that we have more people coming into the Chamber, that they will be able to fill the 12 places if we go back to that number. The point is that we did not have sufficient Peers to take up all the places available and do all the work that needed to be done. I presume that that applies to what my noble friend is drawing our attention to in the Commons.
Yes, but there is a distinction, which I drew attention to before, between the House of Commons and the House of Lords: we are not remunerated. We stand here unpaid. They are paid but they cannot manage to man all the committees that have been established in the other place.
I have done three Joint Committees dealing with draft legislation. What is interesting about those committees is that they are invariably attended by the Members of this House, but we have found a low level of attendance by Members of the other place. When you ask them why that is, it is often because they simply do not have the time to attend Joint Committees of the House, particularly when it comes to dealing with draft legislation. I make no criticism of that, because I know the pressure that MPs are under.
Let me take another committee, an interesting one to which people want to return: the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, where turnout is 79.2 per cent. That only emphasises the fact that if Members are particularly interested in an area they will find the time for it, at the cost of other work that they do. Meanwhile, other committees, which they obviously regard as Cinderella committees, simply do not secure a sufficient level of attendance. I could go through all of these, but I have already been on my feet for 15 minutes and have made my case.
I often visit MPs in their offices in the other place. They loathe doing Statutory Instrument Committees. The Government of the day—I understand that it happens on both sides—often desperately ring round asking Members of Parliament to attend Statutory Instrument Committees because they cannot find people to sit on them. When MPs get there, they are invariably told by their government Whips, “Please don’t speak. Don’t say anything”. If they speak they will delay the Minister who has to get back to his department to get on with his job, and other Members want to return to their offices to get on with the sensible work that they do as Members of the House of Commons.
I now move to a conversation that I had last night over dinner. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is laughing, as he is well aware of the dinners that we have in the House; they are always very constructive. The one last night was particularly constructive as my attention was drawn to the handling of this legislation in the Commons and the use of the guillotine on these amendments. I think that we were guillotined last night at about 1 o’clock in the morning when we had a guillotine Division.
Perhaps I should explain to noble Lords who have not been Members of the other House that in this House all amendments tabled can be debated; however, that is not the case in the House of Commons. One of the great joys of being a Member of this House is that we know that all amendments, when the House is working properly—which it is not at the moment because the Government are insisting on ramming through this legislation—can technically be debated.
I thought that the noble Lord was referring to the introduction or the greater use of the guillotine, which, if I had been a Member of the House of Commons at the time, I would have voted against. I strongly believe that you cannot proceed with legislation if you insist on guillotining it. The problem with this Bill is that it is highly political.
I return to what happens in the House of Commons where amendments are not automatically debated. They are selected in what is called Speaker’s selection, whereby probably the majority simply are not accepted as debatable on the Floor of the House. That is the first hurdle that you have to get through in the House of Commons when you table an amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, is probably thinking, “I wonder whether we can do that here”. If we were to do that in the House of Lords, it would completely transform this place. If you want to clear people out, that is probably the way to do it. The moment you start to interfere with the rights of this House of Members to debate issues freely in the way that historically we have been able to do over the years, you create the incentive for people to leave the House.
Nothing changes. I leave the Chamber and I have some sleep and it is like a bad recurring dream, except that it is the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, speaking. He speaks with his usual originality and eloquence. However, he is now arguing about the benefits of self-regulation, which seems to be straying from this amendment. Is he aware that the Companion suggests that, in most circumstances, speeches should not exceed 15 minutes and that he is now on 21 minutes? Is it not the case that the self-regulation that he extols—on which I agree with him entirely—requires a degree of self-discipline from all of us in adhering to the rules laid down in the Companion?
It is very easy interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, say that, because I can think of innumerable occasions when we have been in Committee in the Moses Room, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has been on his feet amendment after amendment, with his own people complaining that they cannot shut him up. Yes, that happens. He might not be aware of that, but we are very well aware of it.
The rule that I am referring to is that you do not speak for more than 15 minutes. That is a rule to which I attempt to adhere, and I do not believe that I have ever spoken for over 20 minutes on an issue in Committee. We have heard during the Committee stage of this Bill speech after speech going on for more than 20 minutes, and in some cases more than 30 minutes. This seems to me to be a breach of the rules in the Companion. As I say, in a self-regulating House it is surely up to all Members, even in Committee stage, which is fairly flexible, to adhere to the rules. Surely, however much Members opposite want to filibuster on this Bill, it does not require speaking for more than the Companion suggests.
He seems to have moved from the Companion to the rule book. I have always seen a distinction between the two. I always understood that we proceed by way of agreement; the usual channels talk, Members deal courteously with each other, the legislation is dealt with in a way that is constructive. Of course, the whole relationship only works in conditions where the Government of the day are being reasonable. I would argue that, on this particular Bill, the Government of the day are being most unreasonable.
At this stage, however, as I have a number of later contributions to make—I understand we might be going on—I will take my seat and hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might be tempted to join in our debates. He, like me, managed to grab a few hours in bed upstairs, I presume. He will have come to the House refreshed. We all await what he has to say.
My Lords, I have not had any hours of sleep during the night, I am sorry to say, but happily the Cross Benches are springing to life. I cannot match the floods of eloquence to which we have been treated through the watches of the night, but when, at after eight in the morning, we are still debating the fifth amendment, after what must be 15 or 16 hours of continuous debate, and with debates on amendments weighing in at two and a half hours each, and sometimes a good deal more, it occurs to me that it may be time for a view from the Cross-Benches. It will not be lost on the Opposition that they have been the subject of criticism for time-wasting and abusing the procedures of the House in a way that tries the patience of the House and brings it into disrepute. But it takes two to make a stand-off. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the Government to manage the House so as to get their business—to manage the House in such a way as to carry the House with them and not alienate the Opposition to the point where they withdraw co-operation.
In order to while away the time during the watches of the night, I turned up The Coalition: Our Programme for Government. Paragraph 24 is on political reform. It begins mildly enough by saying that,
“The Government believes that our political system is broken.”—
It goes on,
“We urgently need fundamental political reform, including a referendum on electoral reform,—
well, we all know about that, and it goes on,
“much greater co-operation across party lines,—
and then it goes on to
“changes to our political system to make it far more transparent and accountable”
and so on. Much greater co-operation across party lines? Whatever happened to that? It is perfectly clear to me that if the Government would only engage in the usual kind of discussion which takes place through the usual channels, they could get their Bill and we could all go home for a rest.
Of course, I am speaking only for myself—
Is the noble Lord, Lord Low, aware, that before this Bill entered the House, my noble friend Lord Shutt, the Deputy Chief Whip, tried to engage the Opposition Chief Whip in giving what is usually given to a Government when a Bill enters this House: a working timetable for dealing with the Bill. We have not succeeded at any time in getting into those kinds of negotiations. The usual channels have not worked because the Labour Party have been determined from the beginning that they would not work. If they want to have meetings in the lee of this Session, we are willing still to talk about how to timetable this Bill properly through the House using the normal procedures which allow all amendments to be grouped properly and debated thoroughly. That offer has always been there, so it is not fair to say that it has not, but it takes two to tango.
I assume that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, does not want to mislead your Lordships’ House intentionally, but I am under the impression that the Opposition have said that the Government can have both parts of this Bill as long as they come as two Bills. In trying to show how macho they are, the Government have behaved totally irrationally; they are behaving like spoilt brats, namely, “We will have both or we’ll have none”. Their mother ought to tell them that they are going to have none.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for clarifying the situation. When I have finished, I hope he will take the opportunity to clarify it still further. In what he has said so far, it sounded as if what he was offering the Opposition in the talks to which he referred was something like a guillotine. In any case, as I was saying, I am speaking only for myself, but I feel confident that I am reflecting the views of a lot of my Cross-Bench colleagues when I beg the parties to get into discussion with a view to putting an end to this stalemate, and sorting things out through the usual channels in the way that leadership is normally provided to the House. But in the last analysis, the responsibility for leadership lies with the Government.