Committee (14th Day) (Continued)
Amendments 89C to 90ZA not moved.
Amendment 90A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendments 90AA to 90AC not moved.
Amendment 90B had been retabled as Amendment 90ZA.
90C: Clause 11, page 12, line 42, at end insert—
“( ) When the average number of eligible voters per constituency exceeds 74,000, the Secretary of State shall introduce legislation to amend the electorate per constituency provisions of the 1986 Act.”
This amendment seeks to provide that when the average size of constituency reaches 74,000 voters, the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation to increase the number of constituencies. This is a probing amendment, as I want to hear the Minister’s views on this issue. I am not sure that the Government fully appreciate the enormity of what they are doing and the impact that this Bill will have on our democratic system.
I shall address a few of the arguments briefly. We have a representative, democratic electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is not proportional, nor is it meant to be. In 1979, for example, the Conservative Party gained 42 per cent of the popular vote and 61 per cent of the seats. Fast forward to 1997 and the position was reversed, with Labour gaining 43 per cent of the vote and 63 per cent of the seats. The first election in which I was active was that of 1979, when 58 per cent of the vote was cast for parties other than the Conservatives. Therefore, it was surely not intended that the Conservatives should win. However, it was very clear to me at the time that the electorate wanted the Labour Government out and the Conservative Party in power. By creating such large electoral constituencies with a ceiling of 600, when we know that the population will increase to 70 million over the next 20 years, and by doing away with community links at the same time, the Government will create PR through the back door. We should have a referendum on that in its own right.
In a previous debate on this issue I talked about differential turnout, and the Minister was good enough to say that I had a point, for which I thank him. I do not know whether it will show itself in any change to the legislation, but I mention one statistic to explain this point again, and that is the turnout in Labour and Conservative seats in the 2005 election. The average turnout in Labour seats was 57.5 per cent. In Conservative seats, it was 65.3 per cent. That situation will not change under the current legislation, but it represents tens of thousands of people as we go across the United Kingdom.
One issue that I did not mention causes a problem under the first past the post electoral system. I did not mention it for political reasons; I felt that the Conservative Party might feel that I was doing more than explain: that I was making a political point. I therefore start by using Labour as an example of what psephologists refer to as an inefficient distribution of votes. In my language it means that the first past the post system needs political parties, particularly the main parties, to be broad churches that are largely representative of the public. When parties become narrow in their views, extreme or unappealing, the electorate punishes us through our electoral system. That is what psephologists call an inefficient distribution of votes. If I give the example of 1983, I think the House will understand the point I am making.
In 1983 it took 33,000 votes, on average, to elect a Conservative MP, and 41,000 votes, on average, to elect a Labour one. I am sure the House would not expect me to say that Labour lost the 1983 election because of an unfair electoral system. Indeed, if I did, anyone who was medically qualified on my own Benches would escort me with a firm hand from the Chamber. We lost the 1983 election because we deserved to lose. We were unrepresentative of the population at large and, it pains me to say, of my own party.
Moving on to the Conservative example, the right honourable Theresa May, when she was chairperson of the Conservative Party, referred to the Conservatives, at the annual conference, as “the nasty party”. She did not put that view into the voters’ minds; it was how they felt at the time. To the public, the Conservative Party had become very narrow and, because of that, built up votes in small areas of the country and no longer had representation in Scotland, Wales or many northern towns. It could no longer command support across the United Kingdom and, because of that, deserved to lose.
Let me give one more recent statistic to show how that shows itself. In the 2005 election, in the south-east region, which is only 12 or 13 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom—just a small proportion of nine English regions and the nations of Scotland and Wales—the Conservative Party had 36 per cent of its vote: over a third. It is impossible to win enough constituencies to form a Government by piling up votes in your hinterland, and that is a product of your politics, not the electoral system.
Let us look at the average sizes of our current seats. To the nearest 500, in England and Scotland, Labour and the Lib Dems have an average of 70,000 voters for every seat. The Conservative Party has 73,000, so that is well within any quota. Obviously at either end there are some larger constituencies that are outwith the quota, and there are some smaller constituencies. We need to change that. I am happy with having a boundary redistribution before the next general election. I agree with the principle, as far as is practical within a reasonable quota, that we should have constituencies of the same size. Indeed, if the same sensitivity were granted in a bipartisan way to my colleagues from Wales as was granted to the two constituencies that we already have in the Bill, I am sure they would also be happy with those arrangements.
The constituencies are not largely different. Where they are very large, the largest is the Isle of Wight, of which we are making an exception—we certainly passed an amendment on it. I believe that the second largest is East Ham, which is a London constituency. In the top 10 largest constituencies, roughly half are Labour. We will find more or less the same at the other end. Indeed, in the 1980s, there was a larger disparity between Labour and Conservative. Labour had much smaller seats, yet for that whole decade the Conservatives remained in power.
I moved this amendment because I want to understand the Government’s thinking on the matter. I do not want to see such large constituencies in which, in a small number of years, we will have seats in excess of 100,000 voters. They would hold no community of interest and MPs would not be able to have a relationship with the areas that they represented. We might as well have introduced PR.
This is also a much bigger problem than we making of it at the moment. The manner in which the Government have introduced this, and their reasons for doing so, are associated with the sort of democracy that we do not want to be associated with. If a country such as Zimbabwe were doing this, we would deplore it.
In a previous debate, one of my noble friends said that we had to be very careful because we do not have a written constitution. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked what difference that would make. I have a huge regard for the noble Lord and all the work that he has done over the years, but having a written constitution would make a huge and significant difference. I have a few examples of how you would have to do this if you had a written constitution.
If you have a written constitution and the method by which you arrive at seats is within that constitution, you generally change it by referendum or you need two-thirds of your Parliament’s agreement. In some cases, you cannot change the constitution at all. When we look around at countries, and I have picked a few different ones, I have not yet come across any that could introduce this legislation in the way in which our Government are introducing it—with no debate, no pre-legislative scrutiny and a limited debate in the other place.
I shall go through a few examples. Holland’s Parliament cannot interfere with how seats are determined as that is set out in its constitution. To amend that constitution takes a two-thirds majority on First Reading. You then have to have a general election and at Second Reading there has to be a further two-thirds majority. The constitution of Ireland, one of our closest neighbours, sets out that if the Dáil were to change the size, there would have to be a referendum of the Irish people. Latvia’s seats are set out in its constitution and for its Parliament to change that it needs three sittings of a two-thirds vote. In addition, many constitutional amendments require a further referendum of the Latvian people.
Slovakia needs a referendum to reduce the size of its Parliament and a majority of the country’s vote. It had a referendum on that, and it was lost. Spain has two Chambers that are not allowed to change their own numbers of seats. Again, to amend Sweden’s constitution two identical decisions are needed, with a general election in between. Denmark also requires a constitutional amendment. The Cook Islands need non-binding referenda to alter the number of seats; then there has to be a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In Australia, the process is set out in the constitution and Parliament cannot change the principle. It is also not allowed to reject or vary a boundary commission report.
In this last part of my contribution, I really want the Committee to consider the enormity of what we are doing. It is not just that we are creating enormous constituencies that will have no community link. We are also denigrating the esteem in which our democracy is held all around the world. We are also showing as parliamentarians that we can no longer be trusted with an unwritten constitution, something which I personally support. I believe that if we pass this through in the way that we are doing, we will look back and see this as the starting point of when we lost the argument and when a written constitution became inevitable. The worst part of all is that if this all happens, it will not address the problem which the Government seek to address, which is that the Conservative Party believes that the reason for its electoral loss is to do with the differing size of constituencies. It has nothing to do with it. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Committee should be grateful to my noble friend for having raised, with her great experience, this important matter. She seeks a response from the Leader of the House to the points that she has made. From the Front Bench, we have pointed out a considerable number of dangers in the scheme that the Government propose, and we look forward to what the Leader of the House has to say in response to my noble friend.
My Lords, I, too, am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, spoke to her amendment because my officials were confused as to the intention behind it. Now we are much clearer that it was so as to have a good discussion about the purposes underlying the Bill, the case for a written constitution, more referendums, and so on and so forth, and to say in particular that this part of the Bill is somehow to do with this aching desire by the Conservative Party to fix the electoral system so as to make life more difficult for the Labour Party. The noble Baroness will not believe it but I can assure her it has nothing to do with that whatever.
The proposition under this part of the Bill is the simplest one could possibly imagine. First, it is to reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600—nothing hugely exceptional in that. It is a drop of 7 per cent which is, I believe, popular with people and should be done. Secondly, it is to make constituencies across the country more or less of equal size. One day noble Lords opposite are going to argue why they should be of unequal size in terms of numbers of voters and perhaps even bring forward legislation to that effect if they ever get back into Government. I look forward to that.
If you have a cap at 600 and the electorate rises in the way that my noble friend is saying, does that mean that the national quota for each constituency will then have to be changed and will also rise every five years? Is that really the Government’s position?
There is a remorseless logic to that fact. To return to the noble Baroness’s speech, I did not follow this thing about the written constitution. We have a constitution and we are not operating unconstitutionally. If we wrote down our constitution and it did not have a provision for this, it would not make any difference. It would only make a difference if it had the provision that you cannot change the number of seats unless you have a referendum. I could not work out whether the noble Baroness, with all her experience, was saying that there should be a written constitution and that if there were a written constitution, it would be unconstitutional to change the number of seats in the House of Commons without a referendum, but I think that is what she was saying. I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Bach, sat down so quickly because he might have told us if that was official Labour Party policy, which would be most interesting and intriguing.
I would not rely on Irish referendums, much as I have the highest possible respect for the people of Ireland. Whenever they have a referendum and they get the wrong answer, they are told to do it again. So I am not a great fan of that. Incidentally, the fact that the Labour Party, which now thinks we should have referendums on changing the constitution, promised one on Lisbon and then did not provide it must be for ever a reminder. So if that is what it is all about, I am not very keen on it. There was a nice anecdote about the 1980s. The historians will argue about 1983 and all that. What must also be true is that the Labour Party split. My noble friend sitting next to me, part of our coalition partnership, laid out all these figures about Labour and Conservative. How many MPs did it take to vote for a Liberal Democrat, or whatever they were then? I cannot remember. They were not Liberal Democrats then but SDP and Liberals. So that is a factor and I think it laid the seeds for the coalition today.
So we are not minded to accept the amendment. It is all very interesting but our minds are set on the provisions in the Bill. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 90C withdrawn.
Debate on whether Clause 11, as amended, should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I have two questions. First, in Clause 11, rule 7(1)(b) states that if the Boundary Commission,
“consider that having to apply rule 2”—
which I understand is the electoral quota—
“would unreasonably impair … their ability to take into account the factors set out in rule 5(1)”,
“special geographical considerations … local government boundaries … any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies”,
“the inconveniences attendant on such changes”,
it is entitled to apply those factors, and in effect downgrade rule 2. What is the thinking behind the Government treating Northern Ireland differently, particularly having regard to the principle, stated and restated, of the need for equality in constituencies? We have not referred to that either at Second Reading or in any other debate. I ask of course because I am interested in Northern Ireland, but also to probe the principle underlying the Bill.
The second question relates to the review date. During the debates about electors who are missing from the electoral register, it was said that the date on which the register would be taken was December 2010. I assume that this comes from rule 9(2), which states:
“For this purpose the relevant version of a register is the version that is required by virtue of subsection (1) of section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to be published no later than the review date”.
Rule 9(5) on page 12 states:
“The ‘review date’, in relation to a report under section 3(1) of this Act that a Boundary Commission is required … to submit before a particular date, is two years and ten months before that date”.
Is it because the Government assume that the Boundary Commission will submit a report in October 2013 that the relevant register is that of December 2010? If the commission submits a report before October 2013, will the relevant register be a month earlier; and, equally, if it is submits it after October 2013, will it be a month later? The significance of this is that I understood from answers given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that the relevant date of December 2010 was rigidly fixed, whereas I understand that the way that the Act will work is that the register of two years and 10 months before the date of the report will be taken. If I am right in that surmise, how will the Boundary Commission know when it submits its report what the relevant register is? Those are my only questions on Clause 11 stand part.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for raising his questions in the debate on Clause 11 stand part. It is worth reiterating that the clause reforms the arrangements for drawing constituency boundaries for the House of Commons. It provides that in future the Commons will be reduced to 600 seats, and that the rules for the distribution of seats will be recast so that seats will be more equal in size and allocated to each part of the UK in proportion to the electorate.
As the clause points out, two constituencies are specifically excepted from the parity rules. We know what they are and have discussed them at length.
The noble and learned Lord asked about the role of Northern Ireland. As he pointed out, the rules make special provision for additional flexibility to allow for constituencies outside of the parity range in Northern Ireland in the event that simple rounding effects make it difficult for the Boundary Commission in that part of the UK to recommend seats within the quota. That could arise if Northern Ireland only just missed out on being allocated an extra seat. I hope that that explains the thinking behind that.
It has also been suggested that the provision is flawed and that the Bill should provide for national electoral quotas. However, that approach would give rise to more variation between constituencies. A single UK electoral quota has the advantage of simplicity and clarity, and that provision will be triggered only in the event that rounding causes difficulty. It has also been suggested that the provision ignores a similar issue that may arise in Wales. However, as Wales has about twice the electorate and will therefore have about twice the number of seats, the problem is half of that in Northern Ireland. As such, there is no need to make similar provision.
As the noble and learned Lord pointed out, the boundary review will be based on the electoral register in force at the time of the review, and the first review will be based on the register in force on 1 December 2010. Previous boundary reviews have used the electoral register. The Bill's provision is no different. As we have discussed, the registration rate in the UK is between 91 and 92 per cent. Work is under way to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible—for example, freeing local authorities to identify people not on the register using existing public sector databases. The date of the register to be used is fixed because it is calculated by reference to the date on which the commissions are required to report, not the date on which they actually report, hence the difference.
In summary, these proposals make a modest reduction in the size of the Commons and will ensure that the principle of equality is given its proper weight in the commission's considerations, while ensuring that local factors can still be taken into account.
Clause 11, as amended, agreed.
91: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Variation in limit of number of holders of ministerial offices
(1) The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is amended as follows.
(2) For section 2(1) substitute—
“(1) The number of holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time, whether paid or unpaid, must not exceed 95 if the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is 650.”
(3) After section 2(1) insert—
“(1A) If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount.”
(4) In subsection (2), after “subsection (1)”, insert “or subsection (1A)”.”
The amendment would reduce the number of paid ministerial officeholders in proportion to the reduction in the size of the other place. The text of the amendment is identical to an amendment moved in another place by Mr Charles Walker, the Conservative Member for Broxbourne. Before I come to the substance of the amendment, perhaps I may set out the relevant background.
Prior to the general election, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, now the Prime Minister and his deputy, made much of their determination to empower Parliament and enhance scrutiny and accountability of the Executive. In a lecture which many noble Lords will recall, delivered to the Institute for Government on 26 January 2010, Mr Nicholas Clegg declared:
“The Liberal Democrats believe this election is an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government. … I want to be clear: I am talking about a major reorganisation of Whitehall … As a result of our restructure the number of Ministers and government whips would be reduced from 119 to 73”.
Less than a fortnight later, on 8 February 2010, Mr David Cameron gave a lecture entitled “Rebuilding Trust in Politics” in which he said:
“We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute … We’ve got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again—so they can look at it and say ‘yes: those MPs we elect—they’re holding the government to account on my behalf’”.
I do not want to pretend that Amendment 91 would necessarily deliver our full aim. It is arguable that it is too timid to bring about the radical rebalancing that Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had previously advocated. It does not reduce the size of the Executive; it merely stabilises the number of paid Ministers in proportion to the size of the House of Commons, from which the bulk of ministerial officeholders are drawn. It would do so by amending the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of paid Ministers allowed to sit and vote in the other place at 95. If the House of Commons were to remain at its present size of 650 seats, the limit of 95 Ministers would remain. However, if the Government persist in their objective of reducing the number of MPs to 600, the amendment would ensure a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers to 87.
As everybody knows, in our system the Executive are drawn from within the legislature, predominantly the House of Commons. That House therefore has an important dual function. On the one hand, it exists to sustain an Executive and supply the bulk of Ministers who hold office, and on the other, it exists to hold the Government and those Ministers to account. There is an inherent tension in that dual role, and frequent and increasing criticism is made that the system performs the former role—the drawing of the Executive—much more effectively than the latter. Indeed, the Speaker of the other place gave a lecture last week in which he said:
“The House of Commons needs to be an instrument of scrutiny by examination. It must be the informed critic and not the man or woman in the crowd. We have made progress in that regard, particularly in the past 18 months, but there is more that can still be done”.
Cutting the number of MPs without also enacting a proportionate cut in the number of statutory Ministers entitled would not shift power from government to the Commons. It would not enhance scrutiny and examination of the Executive. It would do the opposite, despite the proclaimed aims of Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. Our Amendment 91 would at least prevent the scales of power tilting yet further in the Executive’s favour. Indeed, some would argue that the Executive would not feel the impact sufficiently and that a much lower limit on the size of the Executive ought to be imposed, perhaps along the lines that Mr Nicholas Clegg himself proposed in his speech. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who I am glad to see in his place, has tabled an amendment to that effect. I have no doubt that he will highlight the report of the Public Administration Select Committee, which last year held an inquiry into the size of the Executive. It heard many distinguished figures argue for a substantial reduction in the number of Ministers. Your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate that proposition, and we will see whether that significant reduction finds favour.
As I have said, our amendment is a more moderate proposal. It ensures that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament does not lead to a proportionate increase in the size of the paid Executive by reference to the size of the House as a whole. Given the force of Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg’s previous commitments to new politics, it is surprising that a clause along these lines was not included in the Bill in the first place. It was astonishing that the coalition Government still refused to act once the omission had been pointed out. It is not as if the Government have not now had the time or the opportunity to reflect on this. As far back as last year’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, Mr Nicholas Clegg was asked whether he accepted that there should be a pro-rata reduction in the number of paid Ministers and aides in line with the reduction in the number of MPs. He refused to give any commitment.
Since then, the point has been raised in your Lordships' House and in the Commons at every stage of the Bill. On each occasion, the Government have issued the same basic response. It was repeated on 10 January by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who told your Lordships:
“The Government indicated in the other place that we agree that that is indeed an issue to be considered, but we do not believe that it is one that needs to be resolved in the context of the Bill. Reduction in the size of the House will not take effect until 2015, and we should therefore consider that issue in the light of decisions on, among other things, the size and composition of a reformed second Chamber”.—[Official Report, 10/1/11; col. 1224.]
I can do no better than respond to that line—let me emphasise that this is a political line, not a real position— by quoting from the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee which was wrestling with exactly the same obfustication from the Government last October. In its third report, the committee stated:
“It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House. That the Government claims that no progress can be made on this issue because no conclusion has yet been reached on the overall size and nature of government is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst, given the Government's readiness to reduce at haste the number of Members in one House without consideration of the number of Members there should be in the other”.
The constitutional committee was too kind to point out that 114 extra Members of House of Lords have already been introduced.
This is an obvious opportunity to make good the promise made by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, or at least to give a direction of travel as to their commitment to increase the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Government to account. Instead, they are doing precisely the reverse. Why is that? I beg to move.
Amendment 91A (to Amendment 91)
91A: After Clause 11, line 12, leave out from “650,” to end of line 14 and insert “the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must not exceed 80”
My Lords, the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as he just outlined, is premised on the belief that reducing the number of MPs creates a problem in that the proportion of Ministers in the other place then becomes greater than at present. My starting point is different. My contention is that there are already too many Ministers. Reducing the number of Ministers exacerbates rather than creates a problem.
The size of the so-called payroll vote in the House of Commons, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, has grown over the years. In 1950, it constituted 15 per cent of the House. It now constitutes 21 per cent. Expressed as a proportion of the number of MPs in the coalition parties, it is 38 per cent.
I accept the case for Ministers sitting in Parliament. However, Ministers are members of a body that is expected to subject the Government to critical scrutiny and to hold them to account. The capacity to fulfil that task, both in voice and vote, is limited if the votes at the disposal of the Whips increase. A consequence of the Bill is that the proportion of the House not able to call the Government to account becomes even larger.
I appreciate that there is an argument that the number of ministerial posts has increased in order to meet growing demands of government. However, as I said in evidence to the Public Administration Committee in the other place, I have seen no study to support that contention. There is an alternative explanation: that the growth has been for political reasons, providing a greater pool of patronage appointments available to the Prime Minister. In my evidence to the Public Administration Committee, I quoted Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, in his book, The New Machiavelli, where he wrote:
“If prime ministers had their way they would appoint all the MPs on their benches to ministerial office. The payroll vote is an essential parliamentary tool and the bigger it is, the better”.
The patronage explanation has found support from a range of sources. The claim that there are too many Ministers has been supported by, among others, former Prime Minister Sir John Major and my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell. My noble friend in his evidence in 2000 to the Conservative Party’s Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which I chaired, argued that the number of Ministers could be reduced without undermining the essential tasks of government. He said that,
“a decision by an incoming prime minister to abolish twenty ministerial posts at different levels would not only be popular but would be followed immediately by an adjustment of workload. The whips and those who enjoy exercising or receiving patronage would be dismayed, but the benefits would be great.”
A former Cabinet Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Turnbull, told the Public Administration Committee that some tasks could be carried out by officials. There is also the argument that some tasks are not necessary anyway. Ministerial work tends to expand to fill the time available—a point well made by a former Minister, Chris Mullin.
What is required is a greater emphasis on quality, rather than quantity. The emphasis has been on quantity for the sake of patronage, rather than on quality for the sake of good government. The growth of the payroll vote has strengthened the position of Government at the expense of the House of Commons. I contend that there is no need for so many Ministers. Ministers are largely amateurs in their roles as Ministers. Providing better training for them, and redistributing some tasks to Whips, as happens in this House, would ensure there was no reduction in efficiency. If anything I would contend the reverse.
The Commission to Strengthen Parliament agreed with my noble friend Lord Hurd and concluded:
“The case for reducing the number of ministers is compelling on its merits. It also has a number of beneficial consequences. Limiting the number of ministers increases the number of MPs who are not committed to government by the doctrine of collective responsibility. Narrowing the route to ministerial office may serve to make attractive the alternative careers in the House of Commons. We believe that these benefits should not be negated by extending patronage through other routes”.
We recommended that the number of Ministers in Cabinet should be kept at 20 and the number of other Ministers capped at 50. That is a little more than the number suggested by my noble friend Lord Hurd. Back in 1940-41, the Herbert Committee recommended an even lower figure, believing that government could be carried on by 60 Ministers. My right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the 1999-2000 Session to place an absolute limit on the number of Ministers at 82. In 2006, my honourable friend Jeremy Browne introduced a Bill to reduce the number of ministerial salaries payable from 83 to 60.
My amendment is a relatively modest one. It seeks to reduce the cap on the number of Ministers who can sit—paid or unpaid—in the House of Commons from 95 to 80. It is modest but essential.
I conclude by emphasising the constitutional significance of this amendment. When I raised the issue on Second Reading, my noble friend Lord McNally treated it somewhat dismissively, as an issue that could be discussed later, after the passage of the Bill. The constitutional import of the amendment is on a par with that of reducing the number of MPs. If the number of MPs is reduced, then the proportion of the other place that forms the Government increases, to the advantage of government and to the detriment of the House of Commons in being able to call to account that part of it which forms the Government.
My starting point is that there are already too many Ministers and reducing the number of MPs will exacerbate the problem. There has been, as I have indicated, a steady increase in the size of the payroll vote in the other place, and now is the time to reverse the process and to strengthen the House of Commons in its capacity to call the Government to account. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is an enormous privilege to speak immediately after the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who, with scholarship, erudition and experience has made an extraordinarily powerful case for a reduction in the number of Ministers. But there are two matters before your Lordships’ House on these two amendments. The first is whether to maintain, as the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton would do, the number of Ministers at least proportionate to the number of MPs. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, would go further.
I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend to the extent that that amendment at least ought to be accepted. The Government have come with great and, in many ways, worthy protestations of a desire to reform politics, in particular to reduce the power of the Executive—I look particularly at those on the Liberal Democrat part of the Government Benches. I do not understand how they can be content when that is not what will happen under this Bill. Indeed, it will be quite the opposite, as my noble and learned friend has said.
Lest there be any misunderstanding outside this Chamber as to the significance of the payroll vote, let me try to spell it out. First, if you are on the payroll vote, which means those who are paid or unpaid for these purposes, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries as well as full Ministers, you cannot vote against the Government without resigning. It is as simple as that. If a piece of legislation is put forward that a number of Ministers do not like, they cannot stay as Ministers and vote against it. That automatically means that the Government have a greater number of Members of Parliament able and willing to support what they want.
Secondly, as noble Lords have said, the Government cannot be held to account. When I was a Minister I could not ask questions of the Government through the mechanisms which exist in this House, let alone those in the other place. One can do what one can behind the scenes, but one cannot in an open way hold the Government to account.
On 17 January, I drew attention to the statement made by the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, that the unambiguous judgment on the part of the Government was,
“that reducing the power of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature, making the legislatures more accountable to people ... collectively introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater control over politicians”.
I will listen intently to what the Minister—if it be the Leader of the House—says as to how that statement can be reconciled with a position which does not accept that at the very least the number of Ministers must be reduced proportionately to the number of Back-Benchers. Otherwise, the power of the Executive will not be reduced. The power of the legislature will not be boosted. Quite the opposite will take place.
I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord will take his argument a step further. There is a powerful case here for looking at this issue. With his great experience as a very senior member of the previous Administration, but as a Member of this House, he will immediately acknowledge that this is also related to the issue of how many Ministers should sit in this House.
In the past, I have heard a powerful argument that, if and when this House is reformed, it may well be that there should be a proper separation of powers and that there should not be any Members of the Executive who are voting Members of this House. Will he acknowledge therefore that there is a good case for this issue to be addressed in the context of the future role of this House, which, as we know, this House and the other place will consider in a matter of weeks? Therefore, it may be premature for this issue to be addressed in this Bill when the relationship of the two Houses and, in particular, the relationship of this House to the Executive will be in front of this House in weeks.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention and for his kind remarks, because he makes my point. The problem is that the Government have chosen to introduce in this Bill not only the referendum, which they need as a matter of urgency because of their political deal, and with which I have no difficulty, as I have said before, but also the reduction in the number of MPs.
A part of this change is in this Bill. My concern is that this Bill does not deal with the whole of it. I do not find it acceptable for the Government, with respect to the noble Lord who will answer this point, to say, “Well, don’t worry, something will be looked at later”. I am going to ask the Minister three questions now and he can think about them. What are the Government going to do about this? I have already drawn attention to the fact that on the Constitution Committee, when we asked Mr Clegg and Mr Mark Harper, the Minister, about the risk of increasing the power of the Executive, Mr Clegg said:
“There is a strong argument that says that you must look at this and adapt the number of people who are on the government payroll so that you do not get a lopsided imbalance between those on the payroll and those holding them to account”.
If there is a strong argument—and I agree with him that there is—what is going to be done to deal with it?
Secondly, when is it going to be done? Vague statements about the boundary changes not coming into effect for some time and having been able to look at this by then are all very well—but when is this going to happen? Thirdly, will the Minister tonight in his reply commit to some method by which the reduction in the number of Members, if this House or Parliament adopts the proposals in the end, does not come into effect until there has been a satisfactory reduction in the number of Ministers, either as suggested in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, or by that of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth? I would prefer to see that being dealt with in this Bill. I do not think it should be put off, which is why I support the amendment. At the very least, the Government should ask themselves what they are going to do, if the new politics are to have any credibility, in their proposals for increasing the power of the legislature, reducing the power of the Executive and giving more power to the people. So long as they do not give a clear, unconditional commitment on this question, that statement will appear just a mirage and a charade. Having got into power, they are happy, as many Governments have been in the past, simply to retain the reins of power and the patronage and ability to get their legislation through by having as many of their people as possible on the government Benches. For those reasons, I support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer.
My Lords, the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election stated on page 63 said that,
“we plan to change Britain with a sweeping redistribution of power … from the government to Parliament”.
The power and size of the Executive vis-à-vis the House of Commons has grown over the years. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested that there might be some justification for that in terms of the growing demands of modern government. On the other hand, one might say that with the appropriation—if I can put it that way—of significant powers of government over this country by the European Union and the devolution of significant responsibilities for government to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is an argument that there is a need for fewer Ministers rather than more. The reality is, however, that numbers have grown and grown. One reason in recent times why the numbers of ministerial appointments and members of the payroll vote have grown yet again is because it has been found expedient in the formation of the coalition to provide more jobs for more of the boys and girls.
Mr Christopher Chope, an admirably robust and courageous Member of Parliament and someone who has never had any time for the excuses and the self-justification that big government makes for itself, said:
“This Government have a record number of Ministers—more than at any time since the 1975 legislation was passed. When I was first elected in 1983”—
that is the year in which I was also first elected to the other place—
“there were about 83 House of Commons Ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s Government. We now have 95, five more than we had at the height of the last Labour Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 103.]
He went on to observe that the number of government Whips is now at an all-time high.
The payroll has grown and grown, and as my noble and learned friend has just said, it is not paid ministerial positions alone that have grown; the number of parliamentary private secretaries has soared. I understand that in the 1950s only a very small number of extremely senior Cabinet Ministers had a PPS. Nowadays, every member of the Cabinet has at least one PPS, and some have two, while every Minister of State has a PPS. In this way, the House of Commons has been progressively debilitated. Not for nothing is the Chief Whip known as the “patronage secretary”. If this Bill is unamended, the patronage exercised by the government Chief Whip in the other place will become more significant still.
Professor Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham has noted that, contrary to the folklore, in recent years there have been increasing numbers of rebellions as more and more Back-Bench Members of the other place have found themselves rebelling from time to time. The Executive’s response has been to create more jobs and, through this Bill, to reduce the number of Back-Benchers in proportion to the size of the House of Commons. Not only the Government do this. The Opposition and other parties have to do it as well, or at least they persuade themselves that they, too, must stock their Front Benches with increasingly numerous appointments. We have reached the point where approaching half the membership of the House of Commons is on one Front Bench or another. What proportion of independent Back-Benchers does that leave? By the time you discount the ambitious who are not truly independent and the disappointed whose votes are not as independent as they might suppose, how many Back-Benchers enjoy in every sense of the term the freedom of the Back Benches? Not very many.
The Executive, via the legitimate day-to-day operations of the Whips—who have a proper job to do, and it is entirely appropriate for them to appeal to their party members for loyalty and support in the Division Lobbies—via the growth of patronage, via the exploitation of the ambitions of an increasingly professional political class, via pressures that can be exerted on Back-Bench Members through their local parties and via the fear, possibly, of deselection, one way or another continue to increase their dominance of the House of Commons.
I shall quote again from the Conservative Party manifesto for the last election, this time from page 67:
“Because we are serious about redistributing power, we will restore the balance between the government and Parliament by … allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively”.
Rarely in the history of manifesto betrayals can there have been such a quick retreat from the position taken in the manifesto to the practice adopted by the Government in their handling of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Commons. The coalition, in the metaphorical smoke-filled room—metaphorical because I do not suppose for a second that there was any real smoke in it—devised a scheme, which we see expressed in this Bill, to seize yet more power for the Executive over the House of Commons. Bogus justifications were produced. It was noted that Members of Parliament were unpopular as a consequence of the expenses scandal; it was noted that there was a deficit that needed to be corrected; so the justification was contrived for reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons.
One of the justifications offered was on the grounds of saving public expenditure. We are told that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 Members of Parliament, you will save £12 million. On that basis, if you reduce the size of the House of Commons by 100 Members of Parliament, you will save £24 million. A reduction of 200 Members will save £48 million. But what price an effective House of Commons, and what price a representative democracy that enables the people of this country, through their representatives, to hold their Government to account? I think that that is worth more than £12 million.
The result of this legislation, if we fail to amend it with one or other of these amendments or something on Report, will be an even smaller proportion of Back-Benchers who are even less capable, in an already enfeebled House of Commons, of holding the Executive to account. One of the consequences of the enfeeblement of the House of Commons is that Members of your Lordships’ House feel that they have an increased responsibility to step in where the House of Commons has emasculated itself and denied itself the capacity to do the job that those who elected it expected it to do.
However, if we start to scrutinise more vigorously the actions and legislative proposals of the Executive, we begin to be threatened with the introduction of a guillotine in your Lordships’ House. Indeed, the extreme threat is that your Lordships’ House will be abolished and replaced by an elected House in which the Whips will have far greater power than is exercised by our genial, moderate, pragmatic and sensible Whips at the moment. It is all an illusion anyway, because if we were to have an elected second Chamber, the Government of the day would almost certainly find that it would be far more recalcitrant and cause far more trouble than even we do in our own modest way.
It is bad for the House of Commons that the proportion of Back-Bench Members has been reduced and might yet be reduced further because the House of Commons needs to be able to populate its committees —its select committees, its legislative committees, the Speaker’s Panel and all the other committees and organisations in that House that enable it to do the job it has to do.
The powers of a British Prime Minister are already enormous within our political system. They are far greater than the powers of the President of the United States within the American political system. Thomas Jefferson noted the dangers of an “elective despotism”. The argument was developed and accepted in the convention by the founding fathers of the American constitution that there must be checks and balances and a separation of powers. When Lord Hailsham used the phrase “elective dictatorship”, borrowing, I assume—subconsciously, no doubt—from Thomas Jefferson’s wording a long time earlier, he rang a bell very loudly in the political consciousness of this country. That phrase seemed extraordinarily apt, and ever since he uttered it 20 or 30 years ago—I forget when it was; it was sometime in the 1970s, I believe—it has become part of the common currency of our political discussion. This Bill threatens to make the elective dictatorship yet worse, and makes what is already a disreputable feature of our House of Commons an even greater stain.
Ministers acknowledge the issue; they recognise that there is a problem that will be exacerbated by this legislation as it is. However, they are vague about the remedy, and I do not think we can rely on the weak assurances that we have so far been given. There is legislation to limit the number of paid Ministers; there also needs to be legislation to limit the number of unpaid members of the payroll vote. I support the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, and I am also tempted to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The House is always happy to sit at the feet of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and be instructed by him. In fact, we have gone into seminar mode since we had dinner, with the very significant and interesting amendment spoken to by my noble friend Lady McDonagh. It would be useful from time to time if we were to suspend our Committee proceedings and enjoy a seminar taught by my noble friend Lady McDonagh and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—because they both really understand what happens in elections and in Parliament—and by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I hope very much that one or the other of these amendments will find favour with the House.
I rise not only to support my noble friend with or without the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton—I think there is an interesting debate to be had there—but to say above all that I regard this as a very important proposed new clause, which I hope and expect the Government to indicate some degree of willingness to move on. The reality is that, like the figure of 600, this discussion takes us back quite a few years. That discussion, as I have said in previous debates, has been around at least since 2004, when Andrew Tyrie MP wrote about it in his pamphlet, but it goes further back than that. Some noble Lords may have heard the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on the Conservative side, and me saying that we had discussed the reduction in the size of the House of Commons in the 1980s or possibly the early 1990s. We always said—this was said on both sides of the House by people who took this view—that if you reduced the size of the House of Commons, two things had to be at the forefront of our minds. First, it should be by all-party agreement; and, secondly, there must be a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons.
There were two reasons for that predominantly. One has been well spelled out. I shall not dwell on it in great detail, but it is glaringly obvious that if you keep the same number of Ministers and the payroll vote is exactly the same, you reduce the number of MPs, give greater power and influence to the Executive, and reduce the power and influence of the legislature. That is why this is so important.
I had not thought of the other reason until I heard Professor King of Essex University explain it. He is right that if you reduce what he calls the gene pool from which Ministers are pulled—the Back-Benchers—the gene pool that is available for new Ministers will be reduced. That is important, too. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the importance of the quality of Ministers. If you do not reduce the number of Ministers but simply reduce the number of Back-Benchers, that will inevitably affect the quality as well as the quantity available to a Prime Minister from which to draw.
As I say, the argument goes back many years. I am frustrated and angry about our current position because we have been crying out for these reforms for some years, but they can be done only in a consensual and thoughtful manner. The Bill leaves bits out, rushes things and tries to do it without all-party agreement, which makes it difficult. Many on the Conservative Front Bench, when in opposition or in government, have said that they recognise the importance of dealing with the number of Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others have said, “We must wait for House of Lords reform”, but that is a very dangerous philosophy. Reform of the House of Lords will not be easy, not least because of strong feelings on the government Benches. Even if they think it will be easier than I do, the chances of getting this through at the same time will not necessarily be good. There will be that sort of battle all the time. This is so important that it ought to be linked in a Bill with the reduction in the size of the House of Commons. I do not know anyone either in the House of Commons in the past 20 years or in this House who has not recognised that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons, you ought to reduce the number of Ministers. I do not see how you can argue against that. If you are going to do it you should do it together, and in the same Bill.
I wonder whether my noble friend with his great experience in the other place can help the House. I have been puzzling about the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, since he made it. I do not understand how changes in this House will increase the ability of Back-Benchers in the other place to hold the Government to account. Can my noble friend tell us whether it has anything at all to do with holding the Government to account in the democratically elected House of Commons?
My noble and learned friend anticipates me to some extent. He is exactly right. I recognise the political reality that the two parties—the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives—have formed a coalition and have to agree to somehow stitch the Bill together. Of course, things get left out or it is difficult to change it. However, even the Liberal Democrats were arguing—and arguing strongly as I understand it—for a reduction in the number of Ministers, which makes it very hard to understand why it is not in this Bill now. It is not impossible. Instead, it is somehow being left to a change in the House of Lords; you get the feeling that one party or the other in the coalition is hoping that this will not happen or that will not happen and that then maybe they can get another part of the deal, and so on. If the coalition is that unstable, it is not going to last. My advice would be to try and get this in the Bill now or get a very strong commitment from the Government that it will be brought forward in another form before the House of Commons is reduced.
I want to go back to something that has already been said which is also very important. We tend to look at this simply in terms of the number of people on the government Front Bench. My noble friend Lord Howarth made the very important point that you have Front Benches in the other parties. All the other parties have Front-Bench speakers. All of them are thinking to their future to some extent. Inevitably, again, this reduces the power of the legislature to hold the Executive to account.
It will probably alarm some of my friends, but I considered at one stage that there was quite a strong case for having Ministers drawn from outside the House who could be brought into the House and cross-examined and questioned. That would really put the cat among the pigeons—an almost presidential system. You can make a number of interesting innovations with our constitution, although I certainly would not go too far down this road right now. I want to say and emphasise as strongly as I can that to reduce the size of the House of Commons without simultaneously reducing the size of the Government is an invitation to the Government to increase their power at the expense of the legislature. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, thinks, there is no guarantee that he will get what he spoke about at a later stage when the House of Lords is changed, as my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith indicated in his intervention.
We have to bite on this bullet. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, recognises the importance of this argument because, when I was talking about where the figure of 600 came from in the previous debates about this, he indicated that we would come to this under this proposed new clause. I am waiting with anticipation for him to say, “Yes, you’re all right, I’ll accept it”. There is no reason why ideally he could not accept the proposed new clause or redraft it in some way, maybe coming back to the House with some variation which we would all look at, and there is absolutely no reason why he should not stand up and say, “I guarantee that we will bring in a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons before the figure of 600 is imposed on the House of Commons”. That is what this House is waiting to hear. It is what, as other people have said, has been promised all along about reducing the power of the Executive and so on, and it will not be delivered without a very strong commitment that the number of Ministers will be reduced before the figure of 600 is brought into the House of Commons.
I have been saying for some time that the two reasons given by a number of people from the Conservative Party over the years for the reduction to 600 has been, first, saving money and, secondly, the belief that the Labour Party gets too many seats in Parliament and the Conservative Party would get more. This is in a number of speeches, press statements and booklets written by Conservative Members which I quoted the other week. Andrew Tyrie wrote a good document back in 2004 for the Conservative Party—although, as I say, I did not agree with his statistics—saying that the figure should be reduced to either 600 or 550 over a period of five to 10 years. He had the good grace—as did most of the Conservative commentators—to say that this should be done in co-operation with the Labour Party, although the phrase I would prefer to see used is “after all-party agreement”, probably in a Speaker’s Conference. However, Andrew Tyrie also made the point, as have other Members on the Conservative side as well as the Labour side, that any reduction in the size of the House of Commons had to be matched by a reduction in the size of the payroll vote. In our new-found spirit of co-operation, I hope that the Minister—we have not quite got round to the negotiations yet, but I know that he is thinking about it—will indicate very strongly that everybody wants this measure really. To put it off until some hopeful date when the House of Lords is reformed is, frankly, at best the triumph of hope over experience and at worst disruptive and will not achieve the aim that most of us want.
My Lords, I support the amendment proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and the direction of the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I look forward with great interest to the response of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I wish to make four observations based on my own experience as a Minister in this House and in a career largely followed in business.
First, I have no doubt that the briefing note of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, says “Resist”; there is an automatic response produced by officials which says “Resist”. From my own experience as a Minister, I am absolutely sure that that is what the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be advised to do. However, we know that he is a man of great wisdom and experience and I hope that he will not necessarily follow the advice, if I am correct in my supposition.
Secondly, in my 18-month experience as a Minister in the Treasury, I was surprised by the number of Ministers that we had. Indeed, the Permanent Secretary always had great difficulty remembering the name of one of the Ministers. He used to wave his hands and say, “The one down at the end of the corridor”. I thought that was a pretty telling admission that even officials in the Civil Service thought that we had too many Ministers. Therefore, in the context of what was said in the pre-election period by the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, I am very disappointed that there are the same number of Ministers in the Treasury now as there were when I was a Minister.
The consequence of there being too many Ministers is that they get in the way and take decisions which are, frankly, too small. I say this from the perspective of chairing Marks & Spencer and other large companies. Ministers take minute decisions compared with the decisions taken by the leaders of our major corporations. I could not believe some of the small matters that came to me as a Minister to authorise, and the time that one had to take reading the material through fear that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, would spot a lacuna and put down a Written or Oral Question which would catch me out. I found it quite extraordinary that the average junior Minister—at least this was the case when I was an average junior Minister—spent the first 45 minutes of a day topping and tailing letters. I used to top and tail 200 to 300 letters. Those letters were originally sent to the Prime Minister, or to even more powerful people such as the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson. They were passed on to the Prime Minister, who passed them on to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who passed them on to Mr Liam Byrne and Ms Yvette Cooper and various other people until they came to me. I looked desperately for somebody else to whom I could pass the letters but there was nobody so I had to sign them. This was the starting point of my ministerial day. I lived in constant fear that one evening I would appear in front of Paxman and he would say, “I ask you again, Lord Myners, is this your signature on the letter?”.
I now have the temerity to admit to the House that I did not always read those letters in great detail.
I said “in great detail”. I knew how to spot the tricky words. I tended to skip over the salutations at the beginning and the end but I read the meaty bit in the middle. However, to be more serious, the decisions that one took as a Minister were of a very modest order compared with the decisions that we would expect the leader of a large corporation to take. That seems to me to support the view that, regardless of this amendment or the Bill, we simply have too many Ministers and they create work; they get in the way.
My final observation relates to the role of this House. When I was first appointed, I was terrified—I really was—and I made a complete fool of myself at my first debate when I was given a speech by my officials which I should, in all honesty, have reviewed more carefully. It was clearly a cut-and-paste job from the other place; it had numerous references to “the honourable Member” and “the Speaker” and so it did not take long before the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, rose to his feet from the Benches to my left. I had no idea what I was meant to do; nobody had briefed me, but I had watched it on television so I thought I ought to sit down. I think I was intervened on about eight times in five minutes before the Chief Whip came to my protection.
In my preparation for the ordeal of the House, whenever there was a Statement, I tried to go to the other place in order to see how it was handled there and then scuttle back here. What I observed from that experience was that the challenge for Ministers in the other place was simply of a much lower order than in this place. I think that that is an observable and unchallengeable truth. The questions that I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who is not in his place, but who was an excellent spokesman on Treasury matters for the Liberal Democrat Party and, I believe, continues to perform that role, were of a different order. I look across now and I see the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. There are very few people in the other place who can ask a penetrating, focused, accurate and informed question with the degree of precision and understanding that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, can. There is a question of accountability. We have too many Ministers and they do not seem to be sufficiently accountable.
Finally—I said that I would cover four points and I believe that this is the fourth—I think that this is evident in the work of some Select Committees. The Treasury Select Committee, to which I had to report on numerous occasions, was mixed in its understanding of the issues. There were a number of good members—Mr Andrew Tyrie has already been mentioned; let me mention him again, an excellent chairman of that committee with a very good understanding of the issues—but I cannot say that about every member of the committee, nor can I say that they always showed evidence that they had thoroughly studied and understood the issues. Again, accountability is at the heart of this—it is an issue that stands apart from the Bill and needs to be addressed. There are too many Ministers making too much work, doing too many modest things and not subject to appropriate scrutiny, particularly by the other place.
I see the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about to spring to his feet. I seem to produce a Pavlovian reaction in the noble Lord, who is, no doubt, about to tell me that some ancestor of his, several generations ago, had some involvement which shows that he knows more about this than I ever will. That seems to be his normal response to me. I now give him the opportunity to see whether he can approach me in a courteous and constructive way. We have too many Ministers and, to my mind, they are not sufficiently accountable. I look forward, therefore, to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, telling us how the Tory-led coalition will deliver on the promises made before the election to reduce the number of Ministers, regardless of where we end up on the Bill.
I am extremely grateful to my fellow Cornishman. I was going to say that the past few minutes have given us a fascinating insight into the workings of government and have actually proved the point that we should have more Ministers in this House and fewer in the other.
It may interest your Lordships that, while I was listening to this extremely interesting exchange, I have done a little calculation on the back of the amendment list. The amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton would reduce the number of Ministers from 95 in the same proportions as the reduction of Members from 650 to 600. If that were to happen we would get 87, which is a lot more generous than what was proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, whose arguments were impeccable. I do not think there will be a choice of voting for one against the other but I would favour the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.
My Lords, I am delighted to have been encouraged to leap to my feet. I was so enjoying the noble Lord, Lord Myners, who was in danger of slipping into his anecdotage, but it was great fun and he made some good, serious points as well, which I enjoyed. Some of what he said about his time in government should be taken up as a specialist seminar in itself, which some noble Lords wanted to encourage. The noble Lord demonstrated his experience and knowledge of Government because of course my brief says “resist”. But noble Lords should not be too disappointed by that because I hope to demonstrate that although it says “resist” what it means is “resist but”, and I shall get to the “but” in a moment.
This issue was substantially debated in another place, but the noble and learned Lord who introduced the amendment here has given us an opportunity to have another fine debate in this House. Therein lies the point, because as some noble Lords have spotted, the Government have never objected to the spirit behind the amendment. As the noble and learned Lord said and others such as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, spotted, this Government are committed to passing power from the Executive to Parliament. That much was witnessed by the swift moves to implement the Wright committee’s recommendations for the other place to establish the Back-Bench Business Committee passing control of much more parliamentary time to Back-Bench Members of Parliament and the power to elect the chairs and members of Select Committees. That is not letting any grass grow under the feet of the Government—fast action straight away.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has also become the first Prime Minister in history to give up the power to call a general election at the time of his choosing, so noble Lords will know that this Government are not looking to extend their own influence. This Government believe on principle that power should be dispersed.
In this particular instance, we do not see the need to rush to legislate. There are four and a half years until the provisions of the Bill will take effect. If we want to have new boundaries based on smaller number of seats at the next general election, we have to legislate now to give the boundary commissions the time to carry out their reviews and the parties time to prepare for the election. If we want to have fewer Ministers after the next election, we do not have to legislate now. In fact, we do not necessarily have to legislate at all. In any case, the heart of the matter appears to be not the number of Ministers in the House of Commons but the size of the Government’s payroll vote in the House of Commons. That includes Parliamentary Private Secretaries who are not covered by the current legislation and would not be covered by the amendment that we are discussing. As my honourable friend the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons has said, it is only by “self-denying ordinance” that the number of PPSs is limited.
Clearly, the Government have been capable of self-restraint. That self-restraint will still be necessary should the amendment be adopted. So if the intention of the amendment is to try to limit that influence and bind future Governments, it would fail on that count alone. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, realised, the legislation would not cover the number of opposition Front-Benchers. Although they are of a different type of influence and a different type of patronage, it is also relevant if the concern is that there are too few independent voices from the Back-Benches. The Government's position is that it is not—
I am very interested in the noble Lord’s observation about the defect in my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer’s amendment. Can we look forward to a government amendment on Report which will correct that by making sure that it controls the number of PPSs as well as that of Ministers in the same proportionate manner?
I am going to come to that but the noble and learned Lord should not hold his breath for me making a commitment to return on Report, because we need to look at the ramifications of doing all of this. The Government’s position is that it is not desirable that the payroll vote should be expanded as a proportion of the House’s membership. We have said that we will look at how to address this, and we will do so. I wonder whether that was the ringing and unconditional commitment that the noble and learned Lord was looking for. I think that it probably was not—I think that he wanted a bit more than that—but it was pretty good.
I am glad to have got that right.
What about the ramifications of all of this? For example, it might seem an odd consequence if we were to reduce the number of Ministers in one House by increasing the number in the other, which is this House. That is the point that my noble friend Lord Tyler made and was right to make. He put it extremely well. In fact, there was an echo of what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, said about his experience in Government. Currently, of course, there are far fewer Ministers in the House of Lords than in the Commons but we ought to think carefully about how the distribution of Ministers might be affected by any changes to the size of the second Chamber or by the introduction of elected Members. That is something which the Government, in conjunction with the Opposition, are putting their mind to at the moment. There is also an argument about the separation of powers but I shall not make a case for that now.
It is possible that arguments might then be made for a smaller ministerial presence in the second Chamber, to allow for more Back-Bench voices. Equally, it is possible that arguments might be made for a greater ministerial presence to help the House to hold the Executive to account. Both arguments can be made—or neither—and we should wait for another opportunity before coming to a firm view on all of this. Ultimately, we want to be governed by the principle that the number of Ministers must be a function of need.
The Minister has set the alarm bells ringing in my mind with his earlier phrase that we might not need to legislate at all. He then started talking about other options. He must know, from all his long experience, that the longer a Government are in power, the more the Prime Minister and that Government rely on the payroll vote because there are more disaffected people on the Back Benches. If he leaves this, it will not happen; we all know that. We need either to legislate on this or to give a very firm commitment that it is going to happen before the 600 figure is reached.
My Lords, I would not necessarily compare all Governments with the standard of the previous one. My noble friend has made the case for a reduction in Ministers from the current number. It is most interesting but not one that we find entirely convincing. However, we do find it convincing to reduce the size of the Executive when we get to 600.
We should not forget the purpose of a ministerial presence in Parliament. We need sufficient Ministers to support the essential business of both Houses, to make Statements and answer Questions in both Houses, to introduce Bills and to contribute to debates. In fact, my noble friend Lord Norton made an interesting point when he said that no study has been made of whether there has been an increased workload for Ministers. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, spoke rather well about how unnecessary many of the things that Ministers do actually are. Perhaps there should be a study. I look to my noble friend Lord Norton for that. He will know the kind of people who ought to be able to make that study. I am sure the noble and learned Lord would not wish to rush to legislate until we had at least seen a little evidence from such a report.
There are some entertaining examples in all of this and it is amusing to look at the role of Ministers in each House. But there is a very serious underlying point and that is the fear that the proportion of the Executive will increase as the number of Members of Parliament falls. I understand that there is an impatience in this Committee to know how the Government will address that fact. I am trying to be as helpful as I can but there is a limit to the helpfulness. We have said that we will address this issue and we will, but there is plenty of time to legislate before 2015 if we need to. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform told the Constitution Committee, of which my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord are members, that we will bring forward proposals during this Parliament. That is in good time as the reduction in the size of the other place will not yet have taken effect. I hope that is a sufficient reassurance, repeated here, and that it will satisfy the noble and learned Lord enough to feel able to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, if the Leader of the House is prepared to study the behaviour of different Ministers during the past 10 years, can I commend to him the experience I had as a government Whip with my noble friend Lord Rooker who, on occasion, took his own decision rather than the decision on the paper before him that was prepared by the civil servants?
My Lords, I was tempted by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who suggested that we were in seminar mode. In that case I might feel the need to start allocating marks, and one or two people might not come out of it too well. I was initially encouraged by my noble friend’s “but”, although it was not as big a “but” as I would have liked. I hope between now and Report that he will go away and reflect on it so that if there are to be proposals, he can put a bit more flesh on the bone so that we know what they are going to be. I regard this to be as important as reducing the number of MPs. There is an extraordinarily important constitutional point about the relationship between the House of Commons and the part of it that forms the Government.
My noble friend made the legitimate point that the amendment cannot take into account the number of PPSs in the Commons. I understand that it cannot really be dealt with by statute. However, I hope that we might address it separately because there is an issue about PPSs, not just in quantity but in their role. Over time their latitude to vote against the Government has been constricted, and I am concerned now by how they are dealt with in the Ministerial Code, in which they are essentially members of the Government for the purpose of voting but Back-Benchers for the purpose of sitting on Select Committees. That is an issue to be pursued. The obvious point in the context of what my noble friend was saying is that if you reduce the number of Ministers, you reduce the number of people who require PPSs, so to some extent that addresses part of the problem but there is quite a long way still to go.
This is an extraordinarily important issue, so I hope my noble friend will reflect on what he has heard. I am grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the Chamber, not least from the noble Lord opposite. The only point that I will make is that my amendment has an advantage over that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in that it comes up with a whole number. If one reduces the number proportionately, one ends up with a reduction of something like seven and a half Ministers. An incredibly important issue is at stake here, and I hope that my noble friend will reflect very seriously on it. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 91A (to Amendment 91) withdrawn.
My Lords, I am grateful for all the support around the House for Amendment 91. It was an amusing and vintage speech from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. However, it is worth analysing two parts of it. First, he accepted the importance of the issue that the Bill proportionately increases the size of the Executive and decreases the number of those able to hold them to account. He said that we should not rush. No one is asking the Government to rush, because the reduction would occur precisely when the reduction in the number of MPs would occur.
Secondly, the noble Lord said that we could get round this by the PPS route. In the light of what the Government, and in particular Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, have said, I would have thought that they would not do this because they are committed to the measure. He said that there was a “but”, and we thought that there would be something bankable. My noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith asked what the Government were going to do about it. In this House, as in the other place, something is being looked for that would bring the thing forward. I have written down, “We will look at it”, and, “We will address the issue and do something”. It is very difficult to regard those assurances as having any reality.
As my noble friend Lord Rea said, our amendment would reduce the number of Ministers by eight. That is not many. It is hard to believe that it would affect the conduct of government—and my goodness, it would send a signal consistent with what has been said by Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron. It would be a very good thing for trust in politics if that could be done. I think that both the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I will return to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91 withdrawn.
91AA: Clause 12, page 13, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) of all written representations made to the Boundary Commission by publishing them online within 24 hours of receipt”
My Lords, I will not detain the House long. My amendment inserts a new paragraph into new Section 5(1) that requires the Boundary Commission to make public and in a timely manner all the representations that it has received.
I very much hope that the Government will accept the amendment. It is sensible, clear and concise, and it places an unambiguous duty on the commission to make public the representations that it has received in respect of its proposals.
The amendment states that the representations should be published online. This is modern and green. It saves trees, it is good for the environment and it quickly gets into the public domain for all to see what has been received.
All noble Lords who have been involved in boundary inquiries will be aware that representations are made available at the inquiries. The Government propose to take away those inquiries, so the amendment places a duty on the Boundary Commission to put what has been received into the public domain.
One of the most regrettable things about the Bill is the way in which it restricts—some would say strangles—public engagement on a crucial aspect of how they are represented. My amendment tries in a small way to offset that. If the amendment is not agreed, representations that are received could be kept secret. That cannot be right.
I feel strongly that this is another example of a bad Bill that has been handled in a very poor way by the Government. As I said before, there was no Green Paper, no White Paper and no draft Bill. It was railroaded through the Commons, leaving it to your Lordships' House to provide scrutiny, to make it better and to stand up for citizens and their rights, as it has done on so many occasions before.
I bring my remarks to a close by saying that I look forward to the debate and I hope for a very positive response from the Minister. I hope that he will not let me down.
I can be even briefer. My amendment, Amendment 91B, reflects a suggestion made in the British Academy study to which the Minister has referred with great favour on a number of occasions, which is that the Boundary Commission should be bound to publish not just representations but comments. It is a small point, but the leading experts in the academic world regard it as an improvement. I therefore hope that the Minister will accept it.
Amendments 91AA and 91B would change the process of consultation as set out in the Bill. The Government believe that it is important that there should be a good flow of information between the Boundary Commissions and the public so that people can be informed about the review and have their say. That is why we have extended the period for representations to 12 weeks from the four weeks currently provided for.
Amendment 91B, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, would, as he said, require the commissions to take into consideration any comments that they receive on representations made on their recommendations—that is, the ability of the public to make counter-representations to those of other individuals, if that is not too convoluted. He referred to the British Academy study, which made that recommendation.
I reassure the noble Lord that our thoughts are very similar to those during yesterday's debate on the issue of wards—yesterday or the day before; anyway, earlier this week—and their use in making recommendations for constituency boundaries. That is that we are open to considering improvements to the process of public consultation on recommendations for boundary changes that do not compromise the key principles of the Bill. Adding an opportunity for counter-representations would not compromise the key principles, particularly that of dealing with boundaries that are as up to date as possible. We will consider the details of how the process set out in the amendment might function and come forward with our amendments at Report.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, would require the Boundary Commissions to publish all written representations received as part of the consultation process online, in a very environmentally friendly way, within 24 hours of receipt. That is a helpful and useful suggestion which we will certainly want to consider carefully before Report. We question one element. The commissions made extensive use of the internet in the course of the previous general review and, although it is for them to decide, I am confident that they would do likewise this time.
The practical problem with the noble Lord’s amendment is the requirement to publish those representations within 24 hours of receipt. Our experience of consultations is that many people submit their representations very shortly before the deadline. If the commissions have received thousands of representations just before the end of the period, they might find themselves overwhelmed if they are then required to publish them online within 24 hours, especially if a number of representations were received in paper form that had to be turned into a version that was electronically presentable. The secretaries to the respective Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that they have sufficient resources. I do not doubt that the commissions will act to publish the representations in good time following the end of the consultation period, but I fear that there may be occasions when it would be impractical to do so within 24 hours.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Kennedy, for highlighting these issues by way of their amendments and reassure them that we will bring our proposals to the House at the next stage of the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 91AA withdrawn.
Amendments 91B and 92 not moved.
93: Clause 12, page 13, leave out lines 17 to 23 and insert—
“(2) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receive any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(3) However, a Boundary Commission shall not be obliged to hold an inquiry if they believe that any objection received under the terms of subsection (2)—
(a) raises no substantive issues that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals;(b) makes counter proposals which are prima facie out with the stipulations of the Rules for the distribution of seats contained in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act.(4) A local inquiry held under subsection (2) must be completed within six months of the close of the consultation period referred to in subsection (1) above.
(5) Where a local inquiry had been held under subsection (2), a Boundary Commission may, after considering the matters discussed at a local inquiry, the nature of the representations received under subsection (1) and any other relevant circumstances, decide that a further local inquiry is not justified.
(6) If a further local inquiry is held, it must be completed within nine months of the close of the original consultation period referred to in subsection (1) above.
(7) In subsection (2) above, “interested authority” and “elector” respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.””
My Lords, this is an important amendment about public inquiries. It is well known throughout this House and the other place what the Act does: it does not simply abolish the entitlement to a public inquiry; it prohibits a public inquiry, even though the Boundary Commission might consider that the most appropriate way in which to deal with issues that arise in relation to a proposed new setting of a boundary. Clause 12(1) inserts a new Section 5(2) into the 1986 Act which states that:
“A Boundary Commission may not cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act”,
and Clause 12(2) states that:
“Section 6 of the 1986 Act (local inquiries) is repealed”.
The old system of local inquiries is repealed, and a prohibition is imposed on the Boundary Commission concluding that it should have one.
We submit that this is damaging to the process and reduces its legitimacy in setting constituency boundaries. In our original amendment, we proposed to delete the subsection prohibiting public inquiries and to insert the wording relating to inquiries contained in the existing legislation. That would have put the Government at one end of the spectrum with their proposal to prohibit public inquiries and us at the other with a proposal to preserve completely the status quo. However, I believe your Lordships' House has expressed a very clear desire in recent days for both sides to work constructively for compromise on this Bill where there are differences of view. In that spirit of compromise and in an attempt to find common ground on this most important of issues, we withdrew our previous amendment and have tabled a revised version of our original amendment, which we believe addresses successfully the Government’s central concerns in relation to public inquiries. I am anxious to make it very clear at this point that we have genuinely sought to understand the Government’s reasons for abolishing and prohibiting inquiries, for it is only by seeking to understand their motivation that we can hope to come forward with a proposition capable of garnering broad support and encouraging the Government to accept public inquiries.
Mr David Heath, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, outlined the Government’s position during Committee stage in the other place last November. He stated:
“The Bill abolishes them for three major reasons. First, we simply must speed up reviews … The second reason why we are abolishing the public inquiries is that they do not achieve their purpose. They do not provide the boundary commissions with a good indication of local opinion to aid them in the process of drawing up constituencies ... The third reason for abolishing inquiries is that they rarely lead to significant changes in recommendations … The changes are frequently minor. For example, at the time of the fifth general review in England, only 2% of wards in counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/10; cols. 729-30.]
I shall deal with the three points in reverse order. I submit that the weakest argument in favour of abolishing public inquiries at this time is that they rarely lead to significant changes. If we look at the last review in England, it is true that alterations were made in only just over a quarter of all parliamentary constituencies, but the context is all important. In every case where the Boundary Commission was proposing an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry. In many cases, such as Derbyshire, Sheffield, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made, and many times the Boundary Commission commented in the report that the recommendations of the assistant commissioner—the judicial officer who presided over the public inquiry—were improvements on their own.
The same is true in Scotland. A review of Scottish Parliament—not national Parliament—constituencies in 2007 based on very similar rules to those being proposed in this Bill led to the Boundary Commission recommending substantial changes to the electoral map. Your Lordships will recall the quote that I gave on the previous occasion from Sheriff Principal Kerr, who referred to the 10 substantial public inquiries that had had a significant effect on the drawing of the map of the Scottish Parliament constituencies. Thousands of objections and a rash of local inquiries resulted in major alterations being made to the original recommendations. As your Lordships have already heard, if the next UK boundary review takes place on the basis of the proposed new rules, alongside a reduction of 50 constituencies there will inevitably be widespread disruption to the electoral map of the UK. That prospect prompted Robin Gray, who was the former chair of the Boundary Commission for England, to say to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:
“Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because these are going to be big changes”.
Those remarks were echoed by Professor Ron Johnston, who is generally sceptical about the value of public inquiries but who told the committee that the scale of the proposed changes,
“is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different … local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time”.
Likewise, Mr Lewis Baston of Democratic Audit has commented: “The banning”—he was right to use that word—
“of public inquiries is a severe and deplorable downgrading of public participation and transparency in the boundary process”.
There is then a powerful, principled argument for retaining public inquiries, especially in the context of a proposal fundamentally to alter the composition of the constituencies that make up the other place.
None the less, it is plain that we should recognise that there is an argument for controlling properly the extent to which public inquiries are used. We have therefore revised our previous amendment and now propose that the Boundary Commission should not be obliged to hold a public inquiry even where the threshold for triggering an inquiry has been met and that threshold is either a representation from an interested authority—essentially, a local authority—objecting to the proposed recommendation or electors numbering 100 or more. Even if the Boundary Commission received those objections which satisfied the condition for holding a public inquiry, if it judged that the issues raised were not substantive or constituted counter proposals which would infringe the general rules on the distribution of seats—that is, if it was plain that there was no real issue or if there was a strict rule that prevented any change—it could conclude that there should not be a public inquiry. The Boundary Commission would therefore have the power to say that it would grant an inquiry only when the representation was of real value and the condition was satisfied. That would go a long way towards dealing with the concern that inquiries would be used unnecessarily.
I shall address the second of Mr Heath’s criticisms, the charge that inquiries do not provide a good indication of local public opinion. The allegation here is that they engage only political parties. That charge loses a great deal of its weight in the context of the next review, which, as has been repeatedly mentioned, is so significant. We have already witnessed huge—I use “huge” advisedly—numbers of representations made; for example, in relation to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight. Strong public interest was aroused in both those areas, in part because it was already known that the new rules would have a particular effect either on the Isle of Wight—the island would be split into two and joined in part to the mainland—or on Cornwall, where there is very strong feeling about crossing a boundary.
Once the provisional recommendations for boundary changes are published, we are likely to see very considerable objection to them. I remind your Lordships what the four secretaries of the Boundary Commissions have warned,
“the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies”.
We do not deny that political parties have tended very often to be the major participants in inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions. It would be surprising if they were not, but the engagement of political parties is a positive thing, provided that they are not somehow abusing the process. Inquiries are chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, and there has never been any allegation that they are anything other than independent, unbiased and effective. They are regarded as vital to imbuing the process with legitimacy, both in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of the parties. The importance of that should not be underestimated. Political parties are not a malign force; they are vital to our system of representative parliamentary democracy and they need to be both involved and assured that the process for drawing the electoral map is open, inclusive and above board. Their acceptance of those facts is important to the legitimacy of our democracy. If that assurance is lacking, then the result—according to innumerable experts who gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, including those who I have already quoted—will be an increase in the use of judicial review, which is not something any of us would welcome. Were this to be the case, it is difficult to see how the timetable for completing the boundary review could be achieved.
This brings me to the first of the Government’s reasons for abolishing inquiries— and it may be the primary reason. The Government are worried that public inquiries would delay the process to such an extent as to prevent a boundary review being completed before the next general election, which is currently stated by the Government to be in 2015. Your Lordships are aware that we on this side of the House have grave concerns about a timetable for the review which will result in excluding many millions of eligible voters from the calculations. We recognise, however, the political reality that the Government will not agree to permit public inquiries to operate if they believe their operation would prevent a boundary review being completed before the next election, or in time for the next election. The relevant date set in the Bill in order for it to be okay for the next election is 31 October 2013.
We are entirely open to a compromise that retains public inquiries, chaired by an independent assistant commissioner, with the possibility of oral hearing and the ability to see and comment on other oral and written representations, but with a time limit on their duration. It should not be beyond the wit of man to identify what the appropriate time limit should be. It ought to be possible to achieve this without recourse to legislation, but I wait to hear what the Minister has to say about this.
For example, one of the reasons why the last review took so long was not due to public inquiries, but because the Boundary Commission had to wait for a national review of local ward boundaries to be completed. That will not be a problem this time, if the Boundary Commissions are able to plan ahead and schedule inquiries for immediately after the publication of provisional proposals, which we assume will be later this year, then completed by the end of the summer of 2012. However, the Government may want the extra assurance of a time limit on public inquiries set into the statute. We are prepared to compromise on that and wait to hear what the Minister says on that.
Our amendment therefore stipulates that any public inquiry must be completed within six months of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Furthermore, it also stipulates that if a second local inquiry is deemed necessary, it must be completed within nine months—that is, an additional three months only—of the close of the initial period of written consultation. Nine months would be the maximum period of delay that a public inquiry could cause. With extra resources and planning, that should pose no danger to the Government’s specified timetable of completing the review by the end of 2013.
I conclude by returning to the important democratic principle which I highlighted at the beginning of this debate—legitimacy. In its report on this Bill, the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place observed:
“The legitimacy of the next boundary review in the eyes of the public is likely to be strongly influenced by their ability to participate effectively”.
The abolition of public inquiries, come what may, will undermine the ability of the public to participate and in so doing will undermine the quality of the conclusions and the legitimacy of the boundary review process.
Our amendment is, I hope, regarded as a genuine attempt—that is what it is—to reach a proposal that the Government will find satisfactory. It does not undermine any of the principles of the Bill. At the same time, it guards against the unnecessary use of such inquiries and ensures that the Government are able to review constituency boundaries in time for the next election. I urge the Government to accept this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment on the grounds already put before the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in opening this debate. My main concern is the effects on the courts of the removal of inquiries and the consequences that that could have for the proper workings of the Boundary Commission. I should acknowledge that that point was drawn to my attention by the right honourable Mr Straw in the other place who, of course, has been recently the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. As I understand it, he shares the same concerns as I will advance.
Before I do that, I feel that I should advise the House, on the basis of my general experience and my responsibility at one stage of my career at the Bar, of when I appeared quite regularly for the Government in inquiries which were going wrong. The problem was that the public felt that those inquiries, although they were local inquiries, did not give them the opportunity to express the strength of feeling that they had on a governmental proposal. In considering this amendment, the Government would be wise to take that possible unforeseen consequence into account. I am pleased that the proposed amendment deals with some of the problems that could arise in regard to the ability for local inquiries to take place.
The first matter was delay. I hope that the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for dealing with that will be considered to be satisfactory. Certainly, it seemed to me to be a constructive proposal. However, the most important reason for preserving this power for the Boundary Commission to hold a local inquiry in the form that will exist in law if this amendment is accepted is the fact that the Boundary Commission is given the key to the door as to whether there should be a local inquiry. It would have a discretion and, although there are thresholds, those thresholds do not bite on the discretion. The only situation when there would be an inquiry is where the Boundary Commission thinks that it is necessary, which, surely, is an important point that is made in this amendment.
If there is no provision for an inquiry I anticipate that there will inevitably be an increase in applications for judicial review. Applications for judicial review are a plague so far as the Government of the day are concerned. They are also a problem for the courts, albeit that the courts take great pride in the way, over the past decade and more, they have developed the ability of the public to seek the aid of the courts where they think their rights are being infringed. If this amendment is not accepted, the issues that will be sought to be raised on applications for judicial reviews are ones which the courts will find peculiar difficulty in dealing with. It is a very important part of our constitution—unwritten though it be—that there should be a relationship between the courts and Parliament which avoids Parliament trespassing on the proper province of the courts and avoids the courts trespassing on the proper province of Parliament. Matters dealing with constituency boundaries, it seems to me, are the very sorts of matters which the courts should not be required to deal with if there is a way of avoiding it. The best way of giving the public the ability to express their views is by public inquiries being held whenever the Boundary Commission considers it is appropriate.
On the basis of those two points, I urgently encourage the Government to look with sympathy on this amendment, which has so carefully been drafted to meet possible objections but achieve a very valuable safeguard for the public. It is in accord with the Government’s policy, as I understand it, of allowing the public to have a say on matters of such importance.
My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said, we trust that the Government will be prepared to look on it with some sympathy.
I was very surprised indeed when I saw that, particularly from our Liberal Democratic friends, there was support for a change of this nature. I will say a few words about what I would class as being one of the most democratic exercises in which I have ever participated. I was on the Select Committee dealing with the hybrid Bill on Crossrail. We spent six months meeting four days a week with hundreds of businesses, taxpayers, ratepayers and individuals who had the opportunity of using the public process of petitioning against the way that the plans had been laid down for developing Crossrail. We listened to them all very carefully indeed and the noble and learned Lord the Minister will have considerably more experience than I do of petitions, with his experience in Scotland. To me it proved to be the most democratic public participative process that I have ever been involved with since I came into the House back in 1997. At the end of the day people went away. They did not necessarily get their way. In fact, the number of concessions granted was relatively small but the important point about the exercise to me was that people had had the chance to have their say, they felt they had been listened to carefully and we understood that many of them, even though they did not win their point, felt that democracy had not only been seen but had been seen to be at work and that they had had their chance.
I was surprised when we saw that, effectively, this major part of the process of our democracy is scheduled to be quite unilaterally guillotined. There has been no public consultation whatever, no Green Paper and no scrutiny across the two Houses, but we have a major change before us. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has bent over backwards in crafting the amendment to try to meet all the problems that were enumerated when this was debated in the other place. It is a pity that we do not have many people present in the Chamber, given that we have been told that we are filibustering and that we are not dealing sensibly and reasonably with the issues before us. If the Chamber had been full, I am sure that no one could have raised any criticisms about the way that this side of the House has endeavoured to try to meet the needs that have been expressed by the coalition Government. I hope that a very careful ear will be given to the arguments that have been advanced, and more particularly that, for the first time, there will be an indication of some movement in negotiations, which would go some way towards what we are looking for.
The other side of the coin is that if this is forced through so that public inquiries are abolished and prohibited, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, indicated, there is the distinct possibility that a very substantial number of calls for judicial review will be made in due course to try to counter the fact that people have not been given an opportunity to input their views into the way that the legislation has been developed. I should also like to hear, particularly from the Minister, a response to the point about judicial reviews: whether it is anticipated that they will arise if the Government go ahead, the scale of what may take place and how that in turn might interfere with the programme that has been set out. But I hope that the Minister will not have to address those points because he will, very sensibly indeed I trust, give a much more positive response to the amendment.
My Lords, I was going to support this amendment even before hearing the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, but his point, which I had not considered before, is one that the Minister really ought to consider. Speaking from experience of having to deal with inquiries and judicial review against government, the fact is that if you do not provide any form of outlet for local opinion and for people who are unhappy about decisions that are being taken, they will look for other ways. The legal profession is sufficiently innovative and able, as the noble and learned Lord knows, to find ways of doing it if we do not provide it. That is an enormously important point.
I would have supported the amendment in any event on the basis of the effect on the population and on localism. He and I have heard much about that in our debates, and rightly so. I look across to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. We come from the same city of Liverpool, where localism for his party might have been born. Certainly I saw it in operation there. It is therefore surprising to see that a critical part of that—the ability of local people to say what they think about this issue—is being removed entirely. Is it not plain, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, that the real reason the Government are doing this is not because they think it will give more power to the people, which is what their programme is about, but because they are worried about delay? However, my noble and learned friend’s amendment deals with that. If the Government think that they can tighten it a little more but accept the principle, no doubt they can say so.
The really important point is this, and I support the noble and learned Lord in saying it: do not remove all opportunity to have a form of local inquiry that enables people not only to say what they think, but often to provide information and advice that, when it is heard by those who are making the final decision about boundaries, makes a difference. Therefore, I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord will be positive about this amendment. If he tinkers with it and brings back slightly different time limits, those on the Front Bench on this side will no doubt consider those carefully. However, the principle is important.
I really must object to that comment from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who, as far as I can see, has been in the Chamber for only the past five minutes. I have been speaking for less than that. That really was an unhelpful comment. He should know better than that.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for introducing this amendment and for the very helpful and constructive spirit in which he proposed it. I also thank the other noble Lords who made important contributions to this relatively short but important debate.
The amendment seeks to introduce a public inquiry stage into the boundary review process, allowing the Boundary Commissions to hold a public inquiry where representations are received from any interested local authority or from 100 or more interested electors.
As we made clear in our response to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in the previous debate, and in our responses on local government ward boundaries and existing parliamentary constituencies, the Government's position has been that we are open to considering reasonable improvements to the process, provided that they do not compromise the fundamental principles of the Bill, and that still remains our position.
It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries. The decision to end the process of oral inquiries, which appears in this Bill, was in fact taken on the basis of the evidence before us, when we came to consider the most effective consultation process for boundary reviews, which is what we are all trying to achieve.
Among the many contributions that we have heard not just this evening but over a number of Committee sittings, the case has been made tonight that local inquiries are an important safety valve because they allow everyone, as we might put it, to have their day in court. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, made that very point. It allows people to have their say. My view is that this is perhaps the only objective of local inquiries: for which any credible argument can be mounted in their favour. Evidence and academic opinion indicate that local inquiries are perhaps far more effective in principle than in practice.
Local inquiries do not as a rule consist of the general public having their say on boundary proposals. Professor Ron Johnston—whose namechecks in these debates are now getting quite considerable; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer quoted him—and his colleagues have concluded that the public inquiry process is “dominated by political parties”, describing the process as,
“very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the Commission's recommendations—in which their sole goal is to promote their own electoral interests”.
Of course, he is perfectly right; political parties play a vital role in our democracy, and there is nothing wrong with parties contributing fully to the boundary review process. It is inevitable that they are going to do that, but if we are considering what would be gained by the noble and learned Lord’s amendment, which would restore oral inquiries in some form, we should not imagine that we would necessarily be giving the public a better chance to have their say. We would be looking to restore a potentially long process to which parties will send Queen's Counsel in their attempts to secure the most favourable outcome for their electoral prospects, certainly if history is anything to go by. It may be that the quasi-judicial nature of the local inquiry process could act as a disincentive to public participation by ordinary people who hope to have their say.
Our intention is that a written consultation process, with the existing period for representations extended from one month to three, will actually amount to a much more effective way to allow a level playing field for the general public who wish to have their say. Whatever the merits of the cases that are made for exceptions in this Bill—for example, for the Isle of Wight—I do not think that anyone could doubt that the people involved were very successful in making their voices heard through petitions, campaigns and websites.
There is little evidence, too, that local inquiries bring to light evidence that would not otherwise be considered. In an earlier debate in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, gave us an example of when a public inquiry had changed the boundary of the West Bromwich East constituency to reflect local geography, using a dual carriageway in place of a defunct railway line as a point of orientation. I am sure that that was a sensible change, and I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord that local knowledge is immensely important in these matters, but I do not see why that could not have been raised as part of an extended consultation period, as proposed by this Bill.
That is why changes that are made following local inquiries are often minor. At the fifth general review in England, for example, only 2 per cent of wards in English counties where inquiries were held were moved between constituencies as a result. Robin Gray, a former boundary commissioner already quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that Professor Ron Johnston was,
“absolutely right about the impact that public inquiries had on the Commission’s initial recommendations. In a lot of cases there was no change”.
The evidence given by the Boundary Commission for Wales to the Welsh Affairs Committee is also instructive on this point. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, the secretary of the Welsh commission said that,
“during the fifth general review, there were four issues that the Commission changed its mind on as a result of the consultation process. Perhaps I should say that, while these issues were raised in the local inquiries they were also raised beforehand in the written representations. In one sense, the Commission, before the local inquiries, had in its mind that modifications were required in the draft proposals”.
That brings me to the evidence of Ron Johnston before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Professor Johnston, as we have acknowledged, has been much quoted in these debates. I think that anyone reading his evidence and his previous work will reach the same conclusion that the committee reached in its report that the result of Professor Johnston’s extensive research into the topic, and oral inquiries in particular, led him to,
“generally welcome the abolition of public inquiries”.
I stress that, not because somehow Professor Johnston’s view is the only one that counts, but because it dispels the theory that only we on the government Benches somehow hold the view that oral inquiries are not necessarily the best way to achieve the objective that we all want, which is a robust consultation process at which everyone, including those who are not able to appoint legal counsel on their behalf, can have their say on a commission’s proposals.
However, in the same session, Robin Gray stated that he believed public inquiries added value because they provided assurance that the,
“issues have been looked at and debated”—
perhaps an echo of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.
One charge that cannot be laid against oral inquiries in the past is that they were anything less than thorough in this regard. This lengthy process, however, goes to the heart of one of the key principles in the Bill, which was identified by the noble and learned Lord when he moved his amendment. If no action is taken the boundaries in force at the next general election will be 15 years out of date, if we do not proceed to get a boundary review and report by October 2013, as set out in the Bill. We believe that it is simply not fair to electors—most notably all those who have come on to the register in the past 15 years. I believe that noble Lords opposite share our concern about this. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, made that very point. I readily acknowledge that the amendment attempts to address it by limiting the triggers for inquiries and placing a limit on their duration, and I very much welcome how that has been presented by the noble and learned Lord.
It is also important that we listen carefully and reflect on what was said by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf and Lord Goldsmith, not least on the question of judicial review—judicial review if you do not have oral inquiries and judicial review if you do have oral inquiries. There is an argument that the proposal in the amendment to give the Boundary Commission the decision on whether to hold an inquiry in each constituency where the requirements in the amendment are met would also lead to a risk of judicial reviews of the Boundary Commission’s decisions on that point.
Important issues have been raised. I have indicated not just in this debate but in others that the principle should be that reviews must be conducted more quickly so that the pattern of representation in the other place represents the reality of where electors live now, not of history. That goes to the heart of fairer and more equally weighted votes throughout the United Kingdom, which is a core objective of the Bill. We will obviously want to consider the noble and learned Lord’s concerns on the issue of judicial reviews—as I have said, if you have them or if you do not have them. Subject to meeting the key principle, which I have indicated, I am content to take the noble and learned Lord’s amendment and consider the thinking behind it to see whether it offers a way in which the advantage that I acknowledge an inquiry can provide—a sense of “a day in court”—can be retained. On that basis, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I am very grateful for a very positive response. I shall deal with a few points so that people can read them in Hansard.
First, the noble and learned Lord is right to say that Professor Johnston, who is an expert in this field, has expressed scepticism from time to time about the public inquiries in some contexts, but he has said that the scale of the proposed changes in the first boundary review is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map. Without being unfair, or selecting out of context, Professor Johnston is in favour in this context. He also referred to Robin Gray, the former chairman of a Boundary Commission, who has a rounded view of public inquiries and recognises problems with them. Robin Gray says:
“Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries”.
Therefore, the two witnesses that the noble and learned Lord cites both unequivocally favour public inquiries in this context.
Secondly, the way that this amendment is put is not as an alternative to written submissions, because it accepts that in the appropriate case written submissions would be sufficient. I draw attention to subsection (3) in the amendment, which says that the Boundary Commission can say no to a public inquiry if it raises no substantive issue that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals. So the Boundary Commission would have to decide that there is some specific benefit in an inquiry. In relation to the timing, we have dealt with that already.
It is, with respect to the noble and learned Lord, difficult to see—and I am not going to press this too hard—why an inquiry should not be in the armoury in the appropriate case. He mentioned the fact that it is often about political parties vying in their own political interest. I am sure that is true. One of the things that we have often discovered in our system is that hearing two competing parties often produces the right result more easily through oral representations than through any other process. It is the process—without in any way saying that this should be exactly the same as a court process—that many of our courts have found the most effective way to come to the right answer.
I very much hope that when the noble and learned Lord considers it, he will come back and either suggest how it might be improved or accept the amendment. On the basis of the helpful and constructive commitment to consider the amendment, I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 93 withdrawn.
House adjourned at 11.48 pm.