Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I start by apologising to the Cross Benches. In all my 11 years in this House, I have diligently avoided provocative party-political contributions, apart from on electoral registration and during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The latter was a blatantly political Bill, introduced for party advantage, with its proposed reduction in the number of parliamentary seats favouring the Conservatives.
This debate is a direct product of that legislation, which was introduced in the wake of the expenses scandal and led to the creation of IPSA and other measures that have so undermined the institution of Parliament. IPSA has so demeaned the role of MPs that they are reduced to scurrying around the Commons Tea Room gathering their receipts for food while they collect Starbucks-type points for refreshments. These are the people we elect to run the country and they are being humiliated. Weak politicians—no match for the great statesmen of the past—have swallowed a tabloid pill and, in many ways, stripped the Commons of the gravitas and dignity that has so characterised the past.
That is the background to this debate—a Parliament of 650, under tabloid pressure, to be reduced to 600. A dark shadow now stalks the lobbies, cafes, bars and corridors of Westminster. We have entered a world of dog-eat-dog as parliamentarians fight it out in what has been described as the largest and most profound redrawing of constituency boundaries in a century.
To those who think I am exaggerating, I say that they should step down the corridor and ask around. The anger is everywhere, with the result that the overwhelming response of MPs to news of this debate has been positive. As one MP put it to me: “Just say what we can’t say”. Young men and women who have been elected, and in some cases committed their careers to underremunerated public service, find themselves caught up in a debate so sensitive that open discussion is often quite impossible. It is not just the 50 seats involved, it is the fact that the whole country is being redrawn, causing deep anxiety. Despair and anxiety have become the hallmarks of many a political household in the land. While spouses fret, long-term political friendships have become clouded in suspicion. There is an overwhelming feeling of injustice among Britain’s MPs, many of whom have spent decades building up relationships with their constituents. At the stroke of a commissioner’s pen their lives, careers, family ties, political organisations and loyalties are to be disrupted, leading to widespread insecurity. It is all so unfair.
It is increasingly clear that the Liberal Democrats will ultimately be the main casualties. Many of them have had to struggle hard to win seats in Parliament, sometimes over decades, and a worried Mr Clegg is reported to have demanded that the commission reviews 69 seats in the south. I am afraid that he is a very late convert to the growing reality of political extinction. For example, Vince Cable must be finding his vital work as Business Secretary greatly disrupted by proposals to abolish his Twickenham constituency and force him into a run-off with Zac Goldsmith. Goldsmith’s bottomless pit of cash enabled him to displace the rising star MP Susan Kramer, who is now a Member of this House, in what can only be described as an outrageous campaign distorted by money over years. Mr Cable should beware.
Then we have Iain Duncan Smith, a man for whom I have much respect. Some of his policies may disturb us on these Benches, but nevertheless he is widely respected for his political courage. I understand that he is beside himself with anger over the carve-up of his seat. He has described the whole exercise as grossly unfair and in unrepeatable language in private. He now has to spend this Parliament worrying anxiously as he casts his eye over his shoulder in search of a seat while gazing blindly forward to the prospect of possible political oblivion in the Commons. His treatment is appalling.
What about Norman Baker, a Liberal Member of Parliament—a beacon of environmental enlightenment on the Liberal Democrat Benches? He has to fight in the most difficult of political circumstances to save himself from political extinction. He is surrounded by a sea of entrenched conservatism, so what will happen to him? How can he keep his eye on the ball as a progressive Transport Minister when he has to worry about the prospect of political survival?
Then we have George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose task is to steer the economy through a sea of international financial turbulence. Could it be that the distraction of a boundary review, which abolishes his seat, accounts for the somewhat erratic decision-taking under his watch as we move deeper and deeper into recession? What of his constituency neighbours? They must be worrying that he is to be given some unreasonable advantage under a Central Office-organised attempt at constituency seat allocation or fix, not because he is necessarily the best candidate—I do not know—but because he is the Chancellor. They might find themselves cast aside totally unfairly on a playing field of fix and manipulation.
What about the flamboyant Nadine Dorries—populist to the core? Some say she is the voice of hardcore Conservative Britain. She is an MP loved and loathed in equal measure—loved by an adoring Conservative public and loathed by many of her parliamentary colleagues who envy her willingness fiercely to spell out what she believes to be true. Her calculation is simple. Faced with extinction she has two options: to speak up, be heard and hope that some Conservative association decides that it wants her; or to keep her head down, be a good girl and sink without trace. She has chosen the former. What is interesting about her case is that her approach may be contagious.
It is not that the populist wing of the Liberal Democratic Party does not have its share of rumbling resentment. We have Mr Timothy Farron of Westmorland and Lonsdale who spends his time criticising the coalition in public in the media and then blithely votes for the coalition’s policy in the Division Lobbies of the House of Commons. He wants it both ways. Well, his constituency party is going both ways. It is the victim of one of the most ludicrous boundary changes in the country. The commission is taking out the lakeland town of Windermere and tacking it on to the constituency of Copeland on the west Cumberland coast, which is currently represented by the excellent MP Jamie Reid. To pass from Windermere to the body of the new constituency, you would have to drive over the highest mountain pass in Britain, the Hardknott, with its 1:3 gradient. When you drive over it—as I have done regularly—it is so steep that you cannot even see the roadway over the bonnet of your car. The proposal is utterly absurd and makes a laughing stock of the commission. I understand that, quite unusually, all the Cumbria parties are united in their desire for revisiting the Cumbria boundary proposals.
Then we have Mr Clegg himself. He is surrounded by a sea of Labour and Conservative MPs. Local Tories trumpet that he is out. He cannot, in some desperate attempt to survive, meddle in neighbouring seats to build a new constituency base. He has only the knackers yard to look forward to. I suppose he could seek election to an elected House of Lords or even move to an appointed one under the patronage arrangements he so strongly opposes, although, as the architect of current proposals for Lords reform—which I support—he may not find too warm a welcome. I suppose he could disappear to Europe as a Euroflunkey, an appointment which is likely to be opposed by a coalition of Conservative Eurosceptics and Labour MPs who resent his support for the austerity programme. However, is he being fairly treated? Or do we turn a blind eye and say that he has only himself to blame? Even Mr Clegg deserves fair play.
Then we have the appalling proposals for Delyn and the Vale of Clwyd in north Wales, where David Hanson, the decisive and highly respected Minister in the Blair-Brown years, is being set against one of Parliament’s most effective campaigners, Chris Ruane—two first-class performers forced into a duel, where the real casualties will be Parliament and the people of north Wales. As Mr Ben Wallace MP, who has to fight it out with neighbouring and fellow Lancashire MP Mr Eric Ollerenshaw, said, “My poor constituents are run ragged by these changes”.
However, ill conceived marriages in Lancashire are not unique. We have the Salford-Manchester marriage, the Rutland-Corby marriage, the Leigh and Makerfield-Westhoughton marriage, the Broxtowe-Rushcliffe marriage, the Chingford-Edmonton marriage, the New Mersey Banks seats, the City of Gloucester-Forest of Dean marriage, the Anglesey-Bangor proposals and the Devon Hall seat. The list is endless. Liberal Democrats in the Midlands have described their marriages as schizophrenic, unnecessary and haphazard. David Davis MP was reported to have claimed that,
“this process is highly corrosive of effective representation”.
A member of the shadow Cabinet wisely drew historic parallels, claiming:
“This is like the partition of India. Somebody has sat down in a room in London and drawn arbitrary lines through communities they know nothing about”.
What I really worry about are the implications for the quality of the membership of the House of Commons. The new regime, the humiliation of MPs, IPSA’s irrational decisions, the uncertainties over electoral registration, the use of the guillotine, the intimidatory approach of the press to MPs as exposed during the Leveson inquiry and the pay disincentive mean that men and women of real talent and potential public service contribution will refuse a role in our mother of parliaments. This is a shame. They notice one massive sense of insecurity that pervades our institution, realise that it is only further aggravated by ill conceived boundary review and refuse to join a system where the earning and retention of constituency loyalty can be destroyed on the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. They want security for their families. The result of all this is that we will lose many of the lawyers, trade union leaders, businessmen, doctors, strong leaders from local government and the exceptional that Parliament so desperately needs. All these changes are destroying the incentive to become a Member of Parliament. This whole project is wasteful of talent. We are playing a very dangerous game, and I say “Stop it now”.
My Lords, in putting down my name to speak, I took note of the title of the debate,
“That this House takes note of the implications for political representation and democracy of the current proposals of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission”.
I did so not realising the tenor which was going to be set by the mover of the Motion. However, I welcome the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as it provides an opportunity to revisit last year’s debates in what I thought was likely to be a calmer atmosphere than pertained during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
We have had a detailed description of the impact on individuals—and it must be very difficult—but I will not be dealing with any specific cases. I do not think that that is what this House should do. The role of this House is to scrutinise, not necessarily to engage in political developments in the other place. I am quite unprepared to take part but I will deliver the speech that I prepared and hope that it adds to the knowledge of, and interest in, the passage of the Bill.
As an aside, I was interested in the Bill passing through the House but could not face the endless, repetitive, emotional and pretty strident Sessions during the proceedings. I realised even then that there were some very strongly held views based on a lot of first-hand experience but I hope it is recognised that what is now the Act contains several improvements in the workings of the democratic process of the UK. I am sure that all of us are eager to see the recommendations of the boundary review when it is published in 2013.
I believe that the boundary review will be about equality and fairness. It is being conducted independently. The Boundary Commission published its initial proposals in September 2011. A 12-week process of consultation was undertaken and included public hearings. I am convinced that the democratic process will be improved by the reduction in the number of constituencies—I am not talking about the number of individual MPs—from 650 to 600 as it entails a much fairer distribution of the responsibility for each MP to represent a similar number of citizens. Every constituency will have an electorate that is no less than 95% and no more than 105% of the average UK electoral quota of 76,641 voters.
One surely cannot oppose an argument that proposes that all constituencies should be equal. This is fairer to the voters and also certainly fairer to the MP. Why should one MP have to deal with the concerns of 92,000 constituents and another with 55,000? The large variations are due mainly to population creep or population movements, but they are neither equal nor fair.
Noble Lords will remember the long drawn-out debates on the numbers. I particularly remember the debate about the Isle of Wight, where an exemption was made, the case for which was so ably put by my noble friend Lord Fowler, who unfortunately is not in his place. Similarly, an exemption was made for the Scottish islands of the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland.
The reduction of the number of constituencies not only resulted in equality and fairness but in a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600, as I have said. Let us not forget that at the current level of membership the House of Commons is the largest directly elected national chamber in Europe. This will bring us more in line with other democracies. The reduction was the result of agreement in Parliament that the size should be reduced from 650 to 600 Members.
An added benefit is that it is estimated that this change will deliver a saving of £13.6 million per annum. It is good to have legislation that will deliver a positive financial saving. This is a welcome development as we struggle in the constant battle of tackling deficit and debt. Therefore, in the words of the Motion, I believe that boundary review will improve both democracy and political representation.
However, we cannot just be smug and say, “Yes, good, we should be more democratic and we should reduce the cost of the House of Commons”, and leave it there without being seriously concerned about how to address voter apathy and disgraceful low turnouts at the general election. Even worse is the experience at both local elections and European Parliament elections. It seems almost unbelievable that, until our grandparents’ time, universal suffrage was but a dream. All but a tiny minority of the population were denied the right to have any say in who should govern us or what form that government should take. They also had no rights to influence laws affecting every aspect of their lives. I am reminded of this daily when—if it is not raining—I walk through Victoria Tower Gardens and pass the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst. That is a reminder of the sacrifices made by the suffragettes and many others—including, from my own background, Countess Markievicz—in order that we could enjoy what they did not: the right to vote, the right to have our voices heard and the right to be represented by Members elected by us to represent us.
The greatest sadness I have on this subject is that these rights are of little or no interest to so many young people. In participating in the Lord Speaker’s school outreach programme, I invariably talk about the right and duty to vote. So frequently I can see that this is not exactly the most interesting part of my presentation. Eyes glaze over and boredom is palpable; but I am ready for them. I ask why they are so apathetic. The usual comments are made: “My vote will not count”, “Politicians do not do anything for us”, “My parents say that all politicians are rubbish”, and, “What about the expenses scandal?”. We have all heard these comments and many more. We know, and must admit, that the reputation of politics and by extension politicians is going through a pretty rocky phase. We know that politicians are blamed for everything—even, I suspect, the weather. This apathy, particularly among the young, is worrying but worse it is dangerous.
Several times during the outreach programme, I have had evidence and also a sense that some young people are turned off by the political attitudes adopted by older people in their sphere of influence—parents, friends, friends of the family and neighbours. In addition, snappy headlines in the press catch the eyes of the more alert teenagers. The press in general does politics and politicians no favours. We really have to engage with the young and impress on them that the future is in their hands, with all the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities that that entails.
To that end, I firmly believe that individual rather than household registration for electoral purposes is likely to engage this cohort more effectively in the electoral process. Despite what we may think, the younger generation do take responsibility, do actually like taking responsibility and do know about taking responsibility in many areas. We just have to encourage them to extend that to taking responsibility to engage in the political arena. As a small example, on an outreach visit to a school in Hampshire, I was told that one of the young teenagers there had been asked by his local council to attend council meetings and suggest ideas how the youth in the area could be helped by decisions made in council. I asked him how it went and he said, “I don’t seem to have made much difference”. I said, “Have you made any difference? Can you point to anything that you achieved?”. “Oh,” he said, “we got three skate parks put in”. There was a little titter around the audience. I said, “Why are you decrying this? He has done something that none of the rest of you has done. Have any of you others actually put in, or been responsible for putting in, a skate park that you all use? You have got to remember that you must start small and grow big. Large oaks from little acorns grow”. That young man—I call him a young man, because he was responsible—could be seen almost growing in pride. Suddenly, the attitude of his support group changed. They like the idea that they can have involvement and I think it is up to us to encourage them to have that involvement.
Similarly, this House—we know how it is regarded outside—has the Youth Parliament every year. That has made a huge impact on the people who have taken part. All thanks are due to the House authorities, the Lord Speaker, the Members here and all parties who have supported it. We should concentrate on the positive.
The Government have funded the Electoral Commission to conduct research into the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers. The report was published in December 2011, with data pertinent to December 2010. The results show that the register was only 85% to 87% complete, which means, in effect, that six million people are missing from the register. In 2000, the comparable figure was 3.9 million. That is most worrying and all of us must surely accept that anything that can be done to improve this should be done. We all know the reasons why. However, the research shows that while 90% of those aged 55 to 64 were on the register, only 56% of those aged 19 to 24 were. Again, it is people living in rented accommodation, students, or young people not yet on the property ladder, who do not register. I believe that, if we treat individuals as individuals and if people registered as individuals to vote, that could stimulate an interest in politics and a mindset which would make people realise that the more they get involved in politics, local or national, the more they can get and the more they can influence the way this country is run. I totally agree, therefore, that we should take registration away from households and give it to individuals and I hope that this will happen.
My Lords, the longest debates in which I have taken part in the House since I have been a Member were over what was then called the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I do not intend this afternoon to go over again all the arguments made during those very lengthy debates. However, I recognise that in this short debate we are dealing with some very serious issues. Some of the processes used by the Boundary Commissions are based on the electoral register. It is that issue of the work of Boundary Commissions that I wish to address. Many issues about the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register will be relevant to future parliamentary boundary reviews. This is an opportune time to concentrate on these issues, in advance of our serious consideration of the legislation to implement individual electoral registration.
Looking back to those debates 18 months ago, it is significant that at the time, we were assured by Ministers that the electoral register was estimated to be about 92% complete. However, the recent research referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain—research conducted by the Electoral Commission and paid for by the Cabinet Office—suggests that it may only be 85% complete. That is an average figure, suggesting that there may be many parts of the country where the electoral register is significantly less than 85% complete.
We recently debated in Grand Committee another round of orders for data-matching pilots. During that debate, my noble friend Lord Wallace, who I am pleased to see in his place today, assured us that the aim of the implementation of individual electoral registration was at least as much the completeness of the electoral register as its accuracy. The success of those data-matching pilots will be crucial to the successful implementation of individual electoral registration, on which boundary reviews will be based in future. There has been successful progress on the implementation of individual electoral registration since the publication of the original White Paper.
In particular, it is now accepted that we must retain the principle that it is a legal requirement to comply with the electoral registration process. The legal requirement for the household registration form will be retained and compliance will remain, as now, subject to a fine of up to £1,000. In the debate on 12 January initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I outlined at col. 238 the wide variety of wording on existing electoral registration forms, but what they all had in common was wording about returning the form being a legal requirement. What was inconsistent in those forms and must, I believe, be made common to all forms in future is a statement that not complying with the process could make you liable to a fine of up to £1,000. That statement must be very clear on all such forms in future. Can the Minister confirm, during this debate if possible, that when the household registration forms are standardised in future and under the direction of the Electoral Commission, they will all clearly state that returning them is a legal requirement and that not complying with the process is subject to a fine of up to £1,000?
We simply cannot allow different local authorities to adopt a pick and mix approach to the fundamentals of electoral registration processes, as these provide the database for our national elections, not only for electing Members of the House of Commons—and, perhaps one day, Members of your Lordships’ House—but for the European Parliament elections, police and crime commissioner elections, the Scottish Parliament elections, the London Assembly elections, the Welsh Assembly elections, et cetera. The process is not just for elections to that particular council, so uniformly high standards must be applied to the process in each local authority area. We need above all to avoid the situation in the United States, where those who are deliberately campaigning to reduce the level of electoral registration are able to adopt different measures in different states, aimed at denying certain groups the opportunity to vote in order to manipulate the outcome unfairly. I would call that cheating in the electoral process.
The principle of consistent best practice must also apply to the new form for individual registration. There will in future be a civil penalty applicable for those who do not return the individual forms to complete the registration process, but the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the House of Commons was not right to suggest that this fixed penalty should be £500. For a fixed penalty that would apply irrespective of whether failure to respond is simply a matter of forgetfulness or one of deliberately trying to avoid being registered to vote, £500 is in my opinion too high a fixed penalty. Registering to vote, and in the same process registering for jury service, is a significant civic duty and I am glad that it will remain a legal obligation. However, the penalty should be more in line with the level of fixed penalties for parking offences. I know how much it annoys me when I occasionally get a parking ticket.
Repeated failures to register should also be subject to repeat penalties. It would not be right if the fixed penalty could be used as a sort of one-off fee to avoid registration. I hope that anyone subject to the fixed penalty would subsequently register and thereby avoid further penalties. Perhaps the Minister can explain how it is envisaged that this process will work. If someone pays a fixed penalty and still fails to register, I assume that they would be subject to further penalties, just as a car parked illegally may acquire further parking tickets. However, would someone be able to avoid further penalties or even receive a discount on the penalty if they subsequently registered?
We will soon be considering the details of electoral registration in this House. In our consideration, we must look carefully not only at how the process will improve the register’s accuracy but at the fundamental issue of completeness, which is so relevant to the Boundary Commission processes. In Northern Ireland, the introduction of individual electoral registration has, by and large, been deemed a success. It has required national insurance numbers but I remain to be convinced that a signature should not be acceptable if national insurance numbers cannot be found. There are of course a small number of eligible voters to whom national insurance numbers have not been issued, as well as the difficulty some people have in finding their national insurance number. I hope, therefore, that the Minister, in consideration with his colleagues, might consider the use of signatures as an alternative to national insurance numbers, as we are bound to return to this issue. We should all want to ensure that everyone entitled to be on the electoral register is included on it, while respecting the fact that only those people entitled to be on that register should be on it.
I have no doubt that, during this debate, other noble Lords will want to talk about particular recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, about the number of MPs in the context of whether or not your Lordships’ House is reformed, and about how the Boundary Commissions are conducting their work. However, on the general issue I understand the long-standing case—originally put forward by the Chartists—that MPs should represent constituencies of roughly equal size. I hope that noble Lords will, by and large, respect that, as an important principle, MPs should have roughly the same number of electors.
We need to see the final recommendations of the commissions before we can say with certainty that the margin of variation allowed is too small for the creation of sensible constituencies, but the evidence of the initial proposals is that that may well be the case. We do not yet know exactly what the final boundary shapes will be, but we can tell, from some psephological analysis, that Conservative hopes and Labour fears about the current review may have been greatly exaggerated. Some estimates suggest that the advantage to the Conservatives may be to the tune of only 10 or so seats, if they receive the same level of support as in 2010. It seems that, for the Conservatives, the boundary changes could deliver a relatively small haul for a big upheaval in the nature of our constituencies.
Those who are concerned about the number of MPs—in particular the balance between the number of Ministers and Back-Benchers—will remember that during those debates 18 months ago, we agreed, following an amendment, that there must be a review of the number of MPs after the next general election. That amendment, which became Section 14 of the Act, provides for a review of the reduction in the number of constituencies. That review must take place before November 2015. It will be an important review and all these issues, neglected in many previous parliamentary Sessions, should be kept under constant review.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for securing this debate. In the speeches so far, we have already heard just how important are the issues that he has given us the opportunity to discuss. When the Government brought forward their proposals for redefining the criteria for constituency boundaries, they justified them on the grounds of high constitutional principle. For example, during Second Reading in the other place of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“If we together cannot deliver these reforms, we will have to ask ourselves what we really meant when each of us promised our constituents that we would seek to reform and strengthen our politics. We promised a new politics. Today is the day we must begin to deliver on that promise. We must make the system fair”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 44.]
However, we now know what this new politics actually means. We know it thanks to the interview given to the Independent last week by the recently retired director of strategy for that same Deputy Prime Minister. In that interview the recently retired director of strategy promised that these reforms, which, I remind the House, the Deputy Prime Minister promised would help deliver “a new politics”, would be sabotaged if the Liberal Democrats did not get their way on reform of the House of Lords—a reform which, if passed, would incidentally virtually guarantee the Liberal Democrats an entrenched position of power in Parliament. So we see that the Deputy Prime Minister’s much vaunted new politics in fact turns out to be nothing more than an old-fashioned backroom bartering of partisan pieces of legislation.
Today, however, I do not want to excavate any further the motivations behind that legislation. I want to look at the toxic consequences for our democracy of the interaction between the boundary reviews launched by that Bill—now Act—and the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill which is shortly to come before your Lordships’ House. I do not oppose the objectives of these pieces of legislation. Reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons and equalising the size of the constituencies that remain must be a reasonable objective. As a Minister I brought in the legislation which introduced individual electoral registration and which is the subject of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. But the way that the Government have set about delivering these objectives has abandoned long-established constitutional proprieties in the pursuit of partisan self-interest. There has been no serious attempt to establish cross-party working on radical changes of the boundary review process or radical changes in the system of electoral registration. Perhaps the Minister could say what happened to that cross-party working group on the introduction of individual registration for which, in January, there was such cross-party support in your Lordships’ House.
The Government have explicitly abandoned the cross-party approach to the introduction of individual registration adopted by the previous Government. I was the Minister responsible in that Government. When we brought in our legislation to introduce individual electoral registration we went to great lengths to consult other political parties and we secured Front-Bench agreement from the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats to our approach, which linked individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register. After all this time and after so many questions, we still have not had an adequate explanation from the Government of why they have abandoned such a cross-party approach.
When we look at the detail we can perhaps see a clue as to the consequences of the Government’s change of approach. We have already heard—it is generally accepted—that for all its merits the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk and the great probability that significant numbers of people eligible to vote will not register and so be unable to vote. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that was the case in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system of registration. In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons last year, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, said that,
“it is possible … that the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness”.
As we have already heard, there is a serious problem with electoral registration in this country. The latest estimate from the Electoral Commission suggests that at least 6 million people eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The fact that so many are not on the register who should be, despite all the measures taken by this Government and the previous Government, shows how intractable this problem is. It damages our democracy when so many eligible citizens cannot vote because they are not on the register. That is all the more so when we see that they are disproportionately concentrated in particular groups: young people, students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally, those living in areas of high unemployment and ethnic minorities.
The introduction of individual electoral registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse. That is why the previous Government delayed its introduction until a comprehensive and accurate register was achieved. We brought in a timetable and allowed for a phased introduction of the system by 2015. There was no undue delay about this. We gave the Electoral Commission power to oversee the process and Parliament the opportunity to monitor regularly what was happening. No one could say we were dragging our feet. We were trying to deal with the real problems that the introduction of individual registration was likely to bring.
This is the approach that has been junked by this Government, who want to bring in individual registration whatever the consequences on the register. I know that the Minister is going to rehearse in his reply all the measures that the Government are taking to increase registration. They are all welcome and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is largely responsible for removing some of the worst features of the Government’s proposed changes and for restoring the situation to the status quo ante. He is to be congratulated on his hard work. The changes that he has brought about are welcome, but essentially the measures that the Government are bringing in to increase registration are the same ones that I brought in when I was the Minister responsible. I hoped that they would reverse the decline in registration. I looked at these issues for months, but I could not guarantee that we would be able to halt the decline in registration that individual registration is likely to lead to. That is why we took the approach that we did. I could see no justification in advancing towards one public policy objective at the expense of another when I thought that it was possible to advance towards both at the same time.
What will be the consequences of the fall-off in registration to which this Government are opening the door? Most agree that those eligible voters who will not be registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do so. The Liberal vote in the inner cities is similarly likely to suffer. The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration is only 90% complete in Labour seats and 94% complete in Conservative seats. When you look at the demographic make-up of these seats, the explanation is clear. That might be the reason why this coalition Government are junking the principle followed, for good reason, by successive Conservative and Labour Governments that fundamental constitutional change such as this should only proceed, wherever possible, on a cross-party consensual basis. That incidentally is the attitude that the Conservative Party is taking towards reform of your Lordships’ House.
The Government have taken some steps towards acknowledging this problem by allowing for a carryover from the household system of registration for the general election to be held in 2015. Significantly, they have not allowed for such a carryover for the constituency boundary reviews also due to take place in 2015. This means that those boundary reviews will be conducted on the basis of a profoundly flawed register.
What are the consequences of that likely to be? Labour constituencies are likely to see disproportionate declines in those on the register, because those less likely to register are disproportionately concentrated in such constituencies. Because of the tight numerical limits on constituency size and flexibility imposed by the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act, that is likely to mean fewer Labour seats. Because of the way in which Labour constituencies are often surrounded by strongly Conservative constituencies, that is likely to mean that more Labour safe seats will become more marginal and more marginal Labour seats will become marginal Conservative ones.
I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said about the likely psephological implications of the boundary reviews but, with respect, that has not properly factored in the interaction between the decline in registration and those boundary reviews. It is clear that this Government are hijacking our electoral arrangements in the interests of the Conservative Party’s. They are turning these electoral arrangements into a matter for partisan dispute for the first time in over a century. This is potentially toxic for our democracy.
I have asked your Lordships to consider the situation before and I ask your Lordships to consider it today. What is the impact on the health of our democracy if it turns out, as it may do in 2020, that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so and that this was the result of a government policy deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence?
We will return to these issues on 24 July when we debate the Second Reading of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. In the mean time, I conclude by asking the Minister two questions and should be grateful if he will reply directly and without equivocation. First, can he guarantee—I use the verb advisedly—that there will be no decline in electoral registration with the introduction of individual electoral registration? Secondly, why will the Government not allow for a carryover from household registration for the purposes of boundary reviews in 2015?
My Lords, the House is greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for bring this matter before it today. I shall talk about only some of it. That is to say, I am not going to talk about individual registration because my noble friend Lord Wills has said clearly everything that needs to be said about that. I am not going to talk about the still undealt with disaster whereby people who went to the polls in 2010 were not able to cast their vote because of failures in electoral law. I will instead confine myself to the matters included in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act which occupied your Lordships’ House for a few hours in 2010-11. Those few hours were criticised on some sides and they have been criticised again today. Now, as the car crash that legislation is presenting us with becomes clearer, my regret is that we did not spend longer and were not more successful in persuading the Government that what they planned was bad for Parliament, bad for democracy and bad for our country. We told you so, o Government, but you did not listen.
As Members of another place are slowly coming to realise, the Government’s Act and the boundary review it has set off are having consequences more serious than it is easy to imagine. They come about as a result of three features of the Government’s scheme, each in themselves damaging but, taken together, representing a perfect storm which undermines the very basis of our democracy. The three are: equal-sized constituencies within a very tight 5% margin either way; a reduction of 50 in the size of the House of Commons; and the decision that reviews of boundaries should take place every five years.
Each of these proposals, taken individually and pushed less far, can be defended. Yes, of course, we want more or less equal constituencies; yes, of course, if we can manage with fewer MPs, great; yes, of course, we do not want ossified constituencies, but those were not the reasons the Bill was introduced. It was introduced for one main purpose: to reduce the bias in the electoral system towards Labour. As it happens, although I am a Labour Peer, I applaud that purpose. I do not think electoral systems should be biased and I do not think my party should need bias in the electoral system to help it win elections, but the Bill was frightfully ill designed for the purpose. According to most psephologists, having constituencies all the same size deals with only a third or less of the bias. If you really want to deal with bias, you have to do something quite different.
Anyway, that is what was done, and the Boundary Commissions are now seeking to work to these new, absurd rules under the truncated consultation procedures also introduced by the Act. They have not helped themselves, in England at any rate, by the self-imposed constraint of respecting all ward boundaries. The results are, in many cases, absurd. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours dealt with individuals, and I will deal with some individual cases. Gloucester Cathedral is no longer part of that proud city but has been mysteriously relocated to the Forest of Dean. My God, not since Birnam Wood marched on Macbeth’s castle has there been such a takeover. Sheffield seats cease to be Sheffield seats—have you noticed, Mr Clegg?—as you get seats which are part Sheffield, part Rotherham and cross the Ml. I will not go on, although I could. If the House did not forbid visual aids—I am not sure whether they are forbidden on electronic aids—I could wave before Members present a sheaf of constituency maps. At least, I am assured that they are constituency maps, but they look more like the shapeless, pointless scribblings of a one year-old or a Rorschach ink blot test. The existing constituency map of our country is a map of recognisable communities; the new map represents no recognisable communities whatever.
Many more electors than usual after a boundary review will find themselves with a new constituency and a new MP. Without getting too techie, psephologists use an index of change to measure the extent of differences, based on what percentage of constituents after a review has changed and what has remained the same. According to the definitive paper by David Rossiter, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie in Parliamentary Affairs, after this review, 204 English—only English—constituencies will be changed by 50% of voters or more, compared with just 77 in the previous review in 2007. That is to say, there will be three times as many utter upheavals in constituencies and communities. This matters. What keeps our people attached to Parliament? When you ask people what they think of politicians in general, they say they are rubbish, but when they are asked about their MP, who has helped them with their problems and has worked for them day in, day out, they take a very different view. They respect their local Member although they deny respect to Parliament generally.
It gets worse. Originally, there was at least the hope that this would be a one-off. However, another review starts as soon as the next election is over. It will be based on the numbers on the new registers, which will be based, if the Government get their way, on individual registration, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, pointed out. The numbers are going to be different. We do not know how different, but they will pretty different from the present numbers. What you have to understand is that it takes only a very small shift in the numbers to require a very large upheaval in the constituency. Constituency A goes a little bit under quota because not many people have registered there, so it needs to pinch a ward from constituency B, which needs to pinch a ward from constituency C. In the end, the whole map is up in the air, there is chaos before the next general election and, thanks to this domino effect, new chaos after it.
A study by Mclean and Johnston for the British Academy concludes that in Britain until now, a majority of constituencies remained substantially unchanged, giving continuity of representation, that in future there will be much less of a sense of place with which a constituency’s MP can identify and that that will be disadvantageous—this is academic understatement—to MPs, parties, electoral administrators and the electorate. In other words, the grassroots of democracy are being destroyed by this coalition Government. That is loony.
Fortunately, there is ray of hope, an unconvenanted bonus of the omnishambles which is Lords election, whose end was, I trust, signalled with the Prime Minister’s address to the 1922 Committee last night. It is possible, just possible, that not only has Lords election been prevented but so, too, has this catastrophic boundary reform. It is a double whammy for the coalition, but a frabjous day for all those who care for Britain’s democracy.
Let me explain. For the boundary changes to happen, both Houses of Parliament have to pass the necessary orders. These have to be laid before those Houses. The Act states that the Boundary Commission must submit reports setting out its proposals before 1 October 2013 and that:
“As soon as may be after the submission of a report ... the Secretary of State shall lay the report before Parliament”.
It should be with us in November 2013. Now, as we have heard, we have had threats in the run up to the Commons Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill that the Lib Dems will refuse to vote for those orders, which would be very strongly in their interests. The previous local elections showed one crucial fact about Lib Dem performance, which will have been noted by every member of the party in another place: they did much better in areas where the local MP was a Lib Dem, and much worse where he was not. If the next election is fought on current boundaries and that phenomenon is repeated, Lib Dem MPs could hope to hold even seats that they look sure to lose on present polling. However, if it is fought on the new boundaries, more of those MPs will face voters who are not the same as those who backed them in the past—wipe-out looms. From my long experience in politics, I note that when self-interest beckons and, as in this case, it accords with sensible principles, the results are generally predictable.
We have, thank God, an emerging coalition in another place against the boundary changes. It includes Labour, of course for entirely principled reasons, the Lib Dems, because it will mean the likely decimation of their party, and many Tories who face the prospect of spending the next couple of years squabbling with colleagues over selection for new seats. A no vote to boundary changes now looks more likely than ever before.
Even in the unlikely event that David Cameron revives his dead parrot, the boundary change orders are not safe. I make no threats but this House must also approve the orders and it will by then be doomed. It might decide—no threats, as I say—as a last favour to our democracy to refuse to pass the orders when they are laid before it. Therefore, it is possible—I am a dreamer—that boundary reform will go down the pan. Aside from any connection to Lords reform, a very good thing that would be too.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is clearly still on very good form and on something of a high from having delivered an Exocet into the Government’s costings for House of Lords reform. His speech reminded me that 10 days ago I saw a great production of that wonderful play, “Close the Coalhouse Door”, in which the socialist alphabet is sung. I think it includes the line, “G is for gerrymandering, which the Tories all think of first”. I wondered whether my noble friend had also been to see it.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours on initiating this debate. I echo and reinforce what he said about the damage that has been done to our democracy by attacks on the integrity of Members of Parliament when we all know that the vast majority go into politics for the right reasons and stay in often at great sacrifice to themselves. They should not be pilloried as they have been. I am only sorry that party leaderships across the board have not done more to support the good membership that we have in all parties.
This is a very timely and important debate, many aspects of which have already been raised. My main concern is the importance of this issue for the nature of our democracy, especially when there are so many challenges and other unco-ordinated changes that individually—and especially when taken together—could have very significant unintended consequences. As has been mentioned, we see a reduction in the number of MPs, fixed-term Parliaments and individual voter registration. Who knows what will come of the separation referendum in Scotland, or what the outcome of deliberations on the future of this House will be? The combination of all those things, which have not been thought through in any integrated way whatever, could undermine the fundamentals of our democracy in a very serious way.
Turning to the boundaries themselves, I entirely acknowledge that boundary changes are never easy. They will never satisfy everyone and there will always be winners and losers. I speak as someone who has been on both sides of that while a Member of another place. Boundary Commission reviews always raise big issues that are important to everyone and small issues that can be very important to individual constituents who identify with a constituency and its Member. They can raise tempers and concerns very much.
I shall say a little about my experience of Boundary Commissions and my experience in another place. I have given evidence to boundary inquiries on several occasions. My old constituency of Bolton West was subject to significant change in the 1980s and my constituency of Dewsbury, which I represented from 1987, was redrawn in rather an unusual way. I have always given evidence to the effect that I believe that community and identity should be the main consideration and that, although numbers matter, they are secondary to having a community that you can represent and that can identify you as its Member of Parliament. It is important that people can identify in that way and that that relationship can be developed. No one likes losing an election, but it is one thing to lose an election because of the electorate, which is a risk that you take. If you lose an election because your constituency has been carved up by some arbitrary figure, it is far more difficult to take and no one understands it, including the electorate.
In Bolton, I had a straightforward third of the area—an easy, homogeneous group in which everyone could identify who their MP was and the areas that I represented. Later, in my Dewsbury constituency, there was a different situation. The town of Dewsbury was too small to have a Member of Parliament of its own. So was the next-door town of Batley. They had a lot of common interests because they were the heavy woollen industry district. Had they been put together, there would have been one community and one identity, but that never happened. Dewsbury’s three wards were put with Mirfield, which was just down the road on the ribbon development. There was some logic to that because there was some community of interest in work patterns, travel to work, shopping and so on.
However, the Dewsbury constituency also had two wards that are very familiar to my noble friend Lord Clark. He used to represent one of them, Denby Dale. I am sure he would agree that Denby Dale and Dewsbury did not have much in common. There were some rather large hills between them, very few people travelled from one to the other to work, there were no school links, direct bus routes or direct train routes, and people did not go from one to the other for shopping. There was no community of interest whatever. It was like having two parallel constituencies. I enjoyed representing that whole area, but people in Denby Dale and Kirkburton never understood why they were in the Dewsbury constituency when they had no connection to it. As a Member of Parliament, I would rather have had a larger constituency that had an identity than a smaller one that was chopped up and meant representing lots of different areas.
Those are my opinions and my experiences. However, today I want to mention the consequences of the recent proposals and an article in a journal that will be very familiar to the Minister, Parliamentary Affairs. It was published on 3 July and the article is “Representing People and Representing Places: Community, Continuity and the Current Redistribution of Parliamentary Constituencies in the UK” by David Rossiter and Ron Johnston from the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield and Charles Pattie from the School of Geographical Science at the University of Bristol. I am glad to see that the Minister has it and hope he will come to the same conclusions. It has no political axe to grind; the authors are geographers, not politicians. They give a very useful history of the geographical basis of constituencies. Before 1944 there was no set procedure for redrawing boundaries. They show that, from that time until these recent changes, community and identity always took precedence over numbers. Obviously there were guidelines, but community and identity were the most important things.
The Boundary Commission was also given a great deal of discretion and judgment about what was appropriate in different areas. The latest changes are probably the biggest ever. The article shows some of these changes and some of the difficulties. Mention was made of the national quota of plus or minus 5% that has now been established, because other factors can be taken into account only within that size constraint. It is not the same as in previous boundary distributions when people looked at communities and adjusted to try to meet guidelines, so I think that this will prove really difficult in the future. Many existing constituencies fell into that plus or minus 5% range, so many MPs, when this was going through, thought that there would be no change whatever to their individual constituencies. Unfortunately many have had to see very significant changes because of the knock-on effect from neighbouring seats, which my noble friend Lord Lipsey touched on.
In summary, this study says that these boundary changes,
“incorporated much less continuity in the pattern of constituencies”,
“most existing constituencies were dismembered and many new ones incorporated parts of two, if not three, local authorities”.
Many MPs know that dealing with many local authorities is really very difficult. The report goes on to say that,
“the fracturing of the country’s electoral map was much greater than many … MPs … expected”.
That is clearly true and it is clearly a significant difficulty for many people.
Following on the point that my noble friend made, I point out that this study also shows that,
“The greatest fracturing has been in England’s major urban areas”.
I suggest that those are exactly the areas where we need to engage people more in the political process, and I believe that all that has been said previously about individual voter registration by my noble friends Lord Wills and Lord Lipsey mean that we are going to see a very difficult situation. I fear that it might be appropriate to use the word “toxic”, which my noble friend used.
I will finish by quoting again from this report, which is, as I said, not political. It says:
“If the Commissions’ proposals are implemented—or some variant of them with very similar characteristics ... it will start a process whereby—because a numerical criterion is paramount and geographical criteria secondary—the MPs’ representative role will change. The long tradition that UK MPs represent places and communities will be rapidly eroded; many will just represent numerical aggregates”.
That is dangerous for democracy and why these boundary changes should be opposed.
My Lords, I am very pleased to participate in this debate, which is turning out to be a very thoughtful debate with a great many knowledgeable contributions. I, too, am indebted to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours for enabling us to have this debate and for launching it in a very fearless manner. It is ironic that we, in this House, are able to raise some concerns—indeed, many concerns— from another place. My noble friend described the concerns absolutely accurately and has done democracy a great service today by permitting this debate and by launching it as he has done.
Although one’s first thought is that this debate is about parliamentary boundaries, my noble friend mentioned electoral administration matters because he has recognised that we cannot examine boundaries in isolation. They are affected by many other factors that were raised so well by my noble friends previously. One thing on which we all agree is that the democracy in this country and in this mother of parliaments, so long seen as a paradigm of democracy, is in severe difficulties at this moment in time.
Only this week the report on a study by the Democratic Audit concluded that democracy in this country is in “long-term terminal decline”, that the British constitutional arrangements are “increasingly unstable”, and that the UK is below average among the wealthy democracies of the OECD. I am sure that those conclusions concern us all; they need to and they do. We all continually bemoan the fact that fewer and fewer people participate in voting, and more and more people say, “It does not matter what we do”. There have been attempts by both the previous Government and the present Government to address the problem. The conclusion must be that very few of these initiatives have actually worked. There have been certain suggestions this morning that are obvious and which in times past we perhaps followed as a norm. We ought to look at those again.
Much more effort ought to go into cross-party, consensual agreement. This is not to the advantage of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat party or whatever party. This is our democracy, and it is crucial that we work together to try to find a way out of the morass that we are in at the moment. I go along with colleagues who have made the point today that no party leader has been very helpful in the way in which they responded to the crisis in the other place a few years ago. Too many good, honest politicians were left to hang out to dry. We in Parliament are at a loss because of that. It is time to look again at the current state of our democracy.
I can understand that, in opposition, this Government decided that they had to have a new approach. I think that it was a bit simplistic in some ways. They talked about the big society and they wanted to progress localism, and no one can disagree with those ideas; they are very good ideas. In a democracy, no one can be against trying to be more inclusive and to bring more people into the running of the system. Informal arrangements on occasions can work better than a more formal structure, but I think that what we have seen is a substitution of one for the other. I rather deplore the way in which it has been quite commonplace to deplore and to demean the role of the state. The state has a critical role in the way in which society functions and the way in which the quality and the standards of life, and indeed our rights and liberties, are protected.
I cite an example from today. We see on the news the necessity of the state being brought in to ensure that there is security at the Olympics, because G4S, the private company, has failed. At the end of the day, we need the state. I use that as a very pragmatic example. It is not the best of examples, but it is a timely one.
I do not blame this Government, because I believe that generally their response to tackling some of the problems of democracy is well meaning. On occasions, too much stuff is done on the back of an envelope, and things are seen in isolation and not as a whole. I blame my own party in government for how it increased the amount of money spent in constituencies at election time. I used to boast that anyone could stand in Britain at a general election, because all you needed was a couple of thousand pounds. I used to boast in particular to my American colleagues, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to contest elections. Access to stand for elections is important.
Quite frankly, I was very shocked indeed when I looked at the constituency in which I live and from which I take my title “of Westmorland”. I was staggered to find that at the last general election the Liberal MP, Mr Tim Farron, who is a very good and active Member of Parliament, in the long election campaign period of six months spent not £2,000, £5,000 or £10,000 but £41,241 in getting elected. His Conservative opponent was not far behind, on £38,000, while the Labour candidate spent less than £3,000. That makes the point. I am not saying for one moment that people buy seats, but the competition and need for financial resources are clearly quite crippling—and I do not blame this Government for that. This is in addition to the normal parliamentary expenses, which rightly the sitting MP claims. That is an example of where we have rushed in to take decisions that have not been helpful.
I was going to say a few words about registration, but I shall refrain from doing so because my noble friend Lord Wills dealt with it very adequately. It cannot be right that we are sleepwalking into a system where millions of people will be removed from the electoral register. We need to be reassured on this balance of accuracy versus completeness, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us in his response today that we will get completeness as well as accuracy before the new system becomes completely incorporated at this point.
My noble friend Lady Taylor highlighted something that is absolutely critical. Our system of democracy in this country is representative. In the past we may have rejected or attacked alternative systems of democracy. We attacked the communist system of democracy, where the farm workers, trade unions and state industrialists had representatives. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union had representatives. We said, “Well, that’s not democracy, because we believe democracy to be representative”. We are now seeing with this boundary review, as my noble friend Lady Taylor said, that numbers are the key. If you start from Cornwall or from Cumbria, you come up with a different conclusion. Because of their nature, if you reduce numbers and stick to a quota with very little movement, the ramifications of where you start are great.
I believe that we have lost a great deal in the notion of representative democracy and the sense of place that is so important. In every country in the world, the identification with a locality is very important. That has been a strength of our democracy. I hope that when the Government look again at the boundaries and come back to us next year, something can be done to work out a system where a sense of place in a representative democracy becomes the centre of the constituency and not just sheer numbers.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this important debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, who has done us a great service in allowing us to do so. What we are discussing—the proposals of the parliamentary Boundary Commission—is based on what I can only describe as a Faustian pact entered into May 2010, in which in return for an alternative vote referendum the Liberal Democrats agreed that they would support proposals to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies in this country from 650 to 600. I have read in more than one place that that was based on naked party-political interest, in that there would be a guarantee of an extra 20 Conservative seats should those proposals be implemented.
The tragedy for the Liberal Democrats is that they will be the greatest casualty from all of this, because my experience after a lifetime of politics is that what has guaranteed many Liberal Democrats a seat in the House of Commons is what has been described as incumbency. They have indulged in what has been called “pavement politics”, whereby you are more concerned with dog mess than with China’s position in the United Nations. Actually, there is a lot to be said for that—but that is how they established themselves.
I worked 30 years ago as the regional organiser for the Labour Party in the south-west of England. I remember going to the Yeovil constituency Labour Party in 1981 when everyone was talking about the forthcoming election as if it was a dispute between it and the Conservative Party. I pointed out how misplaced that attitude was. I said, “Do you know there’s a chap called Paddy Ashdown who lives in Norton-sub-Hamdon, who has bought himself an offset litho duplicator, and he is going to snatch this constituency from under the noses of the Tories in doing so?”. And of course he did—I congratulate him. A few years ago I found some of the then Paddy Ashdown’s leaflets, which he distributed to the good people of the Yeovil constituency, which helped him to win the seat. I sent them to him and he was very grateful, because he did not have copies himself.
The success of Liberal Democrat MPs has been about what my noble friends have called a sense of place rather than electoral mathematics. However, I have been told on what I think is reasonable authority that, at an angry meeting of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament after the proposals of the Boundary Commission were published, Mr Clegg promised those Liberal Democrats currently sitting in the House of Commons that should they not be successful in being elected, they would be at the top of the party list for the new senate. We can probably work out what that is about.
I want to talk here about the implications in the proposals for democratic representation. In doing so, I want to focus on two proposed seats from the Commission. The first is the Forest of Dean, which is probably one of the most enclosed and identifiable communities in this country. It covers what Dennis Potter used to call the “blue remembered hills”. If noble Lords want to know whether the Forest of Dean is special, they should just speak to my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon, a proud Forester herself. I have a long association with that part of the world going back 30 years. The new seat is going to include the centre of the city of Gloucester. One of my noble friends recently referred to what would happen to Gloucester Cathedral, but I point out that the new seat will contain not just the cathedral but the Gloucester docks, the county cricket ground, the city’s ancient gate streets, the council headquarters, the police buildings and the law courts. Everything which is identifiable as what has been described locally as the “historical centre of their city” will not be represented by anybody who is sitting for Gloucester. It will tacked on to the Forest of Dean, and anybody representing the Forest of Dean who has any sense is not going to spend as much time in Gloucester as they do in the Forest of Dean, a seat currently held by Mr Mark Harper, the Minister taking some of this legislation through the House of Commons. Such is the anger in Gloucester about these proposals that not only were 400 of the 503 submissions to the commission implacably opposed, but there was a protest march through the city of Gloucester with banners saying, “Save our city centre”. Anybody who tells me people do not care about this is profoundly misguided.
I now want to talk about the new seat of Mersey Banks. Mersey Banks is, as the name suggests, two areas on opposite sides of the River Mersey. They do not cover the mouth of the estuary; you have to drive right round the estuary to get to the other bit of the seat. It includes three local authorities—two have comprehensive school systems and one has a selective system—two police authorities and two fire authorities. There are absolutely no historical links at all. Nor are there any road links, because you cannot get from one bit of the constituency to the other without leaving the constituency in three places.
I do not blame the commission for what it has come up with because it was given a poisoned chalice. If all you care about is numbers, you are going to have constituencies that make absolutely no sense. It is a bit rich to have Conservative MPs repeatedly criticise the Boundary Commission—as they have done—because it was given an impossible job to do. As many noble Lords have said, electoral representation is not about numbers: it is about a sense of place. I was proud to represent part of the city of Bristol. When the local government financial settlement was announced each year, I looked to see what happened to Bristol. I could get up in the Chamber and fight Bristol’s corner; I could write to Ministers on behalf of Bristol; I could speak in the Bristol media and in meetings in Bristol about the treatment of the city. Just suppose my constituency had covered areas of Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset and Kingswood. What would I have done when the local government financial settlement was published? I would have been a disinterested observer and I would have tried to hold the ring. If anybody from Bristol had complained, I would have said, “Oh well, Kingswood’s not doing very well either” and vice versa. The great thing about being a Member of Parliament is the way in which you identify with the people in that sense of place.
It might sound a bit fanciful, but when I left the other place for health reasons not of my choosing, giving up a constituency—and I am sure it is the same if you are defeated—was like giving up a child for adoption. Even now when I drive down the M32 I look left and remember that that was the place I used to represent. That is an aspect of being a Member of Parliament which is probably ridiculed in the media and not understood, but it enables you to be an effective member because of the possibility of that personal engagement.
Finally, I want to remind colleagues that electoral legislation is based on the Representation of the People Acts from 1949. That is what this is about. It is not about some notion of geographical parity, it is about the sense of representation. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, people do identify with their Member of Parliament. There is a great analogy with the NHS. If you ask people what they think of the NHS, they think it is not very good: if you ask them what they thought of the treatment they had a few weeks ago when they had a hernia operation, they say it was fabulous. Many times, people would say to me, “I don’t think much of MPs, Jean, but you’re okay”. There is a huge opportunity being missed here and huge damage being done to the fabric of our political life. All I fear is that there will be even more disengagement and even more trauma down at the other end of this place for people who do not deserve it.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Corston who served for some years, with great distinction, as chairman of our parliamentary Labour Party and is now doing sterling work in this Chamber. As she knows only too well, I have not—unlike our noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours—eschewed party political discussions and debate since I came in here. In fact I quite enjoy them: relish them even, perhaps. I hope that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours and others will forgive me if I stray a little into party politics.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and to anyone else from the other side, that I am getting a little fed up with people on the other side lecturing us and saying that we need boundary reviews to try and get an equal number of electors in each constituency. Of course we do. That has happened again and again under Labour Governments and Tory Governments. There have been little problems at the edges and arguments at Boundary Commissions where, incidentally, we were properly heard, with appeals procedures which have now gone. The problems were relatively mild compared with what is being proposed now because then the number of seats stayed roughly the same at about 650. The Boundary Commissions were also given flexibility. They were not given the straitjacket of being obliged to have exactly 600 seats. If they wanted 655 or 652 or more or less, they could use that degree of flexibility to try to take account of geographical communities and natural boundaries and so on.
What we have now is a totally arbitrary figure. What is magical about 600? If they want to save money—although I am not sure that the Liberal Democrats necessarily do—and if money is everything, why not 500, 400 or 300 or any other figure? Why 600 and why no flexibility as we had in the past?
I see the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, on the Benches opposite. He will know that, for many years, I represented a constituency in Ayrshire. I had a very good, co-operative relationship with the neighbouring Member of Parliament, George Younger, for whom I had the greatest respect. We had Boundary Commission reviews and we put our views to them. During the reviews I got a little bit of Ayr sometimes and Annbank and Mossblown moved backwards and forwards. There were two boundary reviews while I was Member of Parliament from 1979 to 2005 and I survived them. In fact, my majority went up from just over 1,000 to just over 22,000, so perhaps more than survived, although not as a result of the boundary changes.
I say to people opposite—although there are not many Tories here—that there is now no such thing as a safe Tory seat in Scotland. There used to be many of them—or at least they thought they were safe—but Labour took a large number of them and the SNP took others. That is a lesson to our colleagues in England. Do not assume that every Tory seat is safe. We can win it by fighting the right kind of fight. Do not assume that if there was, for example, a devolved English Parliament, it would always be dominated by the Conservatives, because that is not necessarily the case.
Returning to the boundary issues, why were those reviews less acrimonious? It was because we always knew that there were about 72 seats in Scotland. The number went up or down, but it was about 72. There was not the reduction that has created the problems here. However, in 2005, the number of seats in Scotland was reduced from 72 to 59. That created the problems. In Ayrshire, the number of seats was reduced from five to four. That is when I took the opportunity of retiring. It seemed right to do so because I was the longest-serving and oldest Member of Parliament in the county, and the other four MPs were younger and elected more recently. That process was therefore relatively painless, but in other parts of Scotland, as the Chairman of Committees and others know, there were acrimonious fights and divisions because of the reduction.
Now the number of seats in Scotland is being reduced to 52 and we will have even more acrimony and concern. That is nothing when compared with Wales, which is being really hard done by because there are effectively two reductions in the number of seats—first to take account of devolution, and now to take account of the arbitrary reduction to 600 in the number of seats at Westminster. Wales will suffer and it will be very difficult for Members of Parliament in Wales. I endorse what has been said by others on that.
I want to use Scotland to illustrate why the whole situation is a mess. The development of the electoral and boundary structure has created problems for us. Let us take our electoral systems, where there has been a piecemeal approach. Our Government, I am afraid, was to some extent responsible for a number of the problems. A piecemeal reorganisation and reconsideration of our constitution have taken place.
We have four completely different electoral systems. We have the list system for elections to the European Parliament. Earlier, we heard about lack of participation. When we had Members of the European Parliament representing constituencies, we had a relatively high turnout. Now that they are on a list, people do not know who they are, there is not the same kind of enthusiasm and the turnout reflects that.
For elections to Westminster, we still have first past the post, thank goodness. A number of us here have been fighting to ensure that, because we believe that democracy is not just about—as the Liberal Democrats think—a simple arithmetic relationship between the number of votes cast and the number of seats. It is also about accountability, which is an essential part of democracy. The great thing about the first past the post system is that the Members of Parliament are accountable. I knew that when I went back to the electorate I was the one who had to convince them to vote for me again, which, thankfully, I was able to do.
In the Scottish Parliament, we also have the additional member system, which has become discredited. As I have said to the House before, I was elected to the Scottish Parliament by mistake. It was an astonishing situation. I did not spend a penny on the election campaign. I did not seek people’s votes, but because I was top of the list and was campaigning for the constituency candidates—sadly, some of them did not get elected, not necessarily because I was campaigning for them—I was elected automatically. This absolutely crazy system must be reviewed.
For local government in Scotland we also have the single transferable vote, which was the result of a deal made when we had a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Sadly, the Labour Party conceded the single transferable vote for local government. As a result, we do not have councillors who are accountable to their wards and are well respected there. We have three or four councillors in much larger wards, which creates huge problems.
That is an illustration of the problems of the electoral systems but there has also been piecemeal constitutional reform. I supported devolution but it has thrown up the West Lothian question, and we now have Sir William McKay—I call him Bill McKay and get told off—looking into the issue of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs voting on English-only matters. We still await the results of that. We still await the referendum on Scottish independence. In England, we now have elected mayors and police commissioners. We have had a fixed-term Parliament forced upon us. We of course have Lords reform—in inverted commas. All of those are outstanding issues that have to be dealt with. At the same time, we have what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has put on the agenda today causing further problems.
The Clock has been very helpful to me for some unknown reason. I did not realise that time was on my side. I think I am using my noble friend Lady Corston’s extra time. I wanted to make three final points. In relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and others have said about the electoral register, I hope that the Minister and others will look at what was done in Glasgow about canvassing by sending people to knock on doors—“chap on doors”, as we say in Scotland—and getting the register filled in there and then on the doorstep. If people are not in, the canvassers go back to make sure that people are registering. There needs to be active participation by the Government to ensure that people register.
Returning to the mess that I was talking about, the minority report, or alternative report, that came out on Lords reform recommended setting up a constitutional convention. Day by day, issue by issue, it becomes more and more attractive, logical and sensible to look at our constitution in a coherent way that will pick up all these loose ends and do something about them.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister another question. I hope, by the way, he answers the questions he was asked today a bit better than he answered my Written Question, in which I asked what the ministerial responsibilities of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, were. Rather than answering the Question, the noble Lord sent me a document with a list of all ministerial responsibilities. However, I looked through the list and it is astonishing that she has no ministerial responsibilities. When I received a phone call the other day from Conservative Central Office inviting me to tea with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, I had to say, “I think you have got the wrong Peer. Will you try Lord Faulks? This is Lord Foulkes”. She is spending our money inviting Tory Peers to tea, and I know that only because I have a similar name.
I hope that the Minister will answer a question that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in his erudite and splendid contribution to the debate. The order for the boundary changes has to be approved by both Houses. Let us suppose that it was pushed through because of the coalition majority in the House of Commons but we were able here to persuade the Cross-Benchers and maybe some others of the unwisdom of the proposals in the order—that the boundary changes were wrong—and we voted it down. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the end of it? I hope that he will. That would show that even—I was going to say “in our dying days”, but I think we will be here a little longer than some people would like—in these next few months we have some power. Let us hope that we might seriously consider wielding it.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Foulkes, and I will make sure that I do not get his name wrong or mix him up with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
This has been a really interesting debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He has done the House a service by his contribution and by bringing this issue before it. Particularly given recent constitutional debates in the other place, and in the political media—although not, I suspect, in the pubs, the clubs and the school gates around the country—the Government’s legislation on constituency borders and electoral registration leads us into a wider debate about what we mean by democracy and political representation. What are the implications of those changes that have been, and are being, legislated for? There seems to be a lack of clarity about whether we will see all those changes, but it is right that we look fully at the implications.
It has been quite clear in the first debates in your Lordships’ House and the other place, that whatever the textbook definition of democracy, there are many different interpretations. I do not think we can see democracy as something we can pick and choose, or pick and mix, which was the phrase the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, used. We cannot choose the parts we like best. There are certain core elements that we have to sign up to. The first and most basic is accountability. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others pointed out that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was unprecedented legislation with regard to the changes of MPs and boundaries, which may or may not take place. At its core was the Government’s promise to reduce the size and cost of Parliament, and allow for a referendum on the voting system, to get rid of our current first past the post system and replace it with a system which would count the proportion of votes for each party. To the horror and surprise of some, and the delight of others, the public rejected the change in the voting system. I am sure that the reasons why could fill a debate in your Lordships’ House on their own, but I offer one thought: most significant constitutional change comes from the grass roots up. If we think of women’s suffrage and universal suffrage, we think of the campaigns that took place, the marches, and the demonstrations. Politicians of those times wrote and spoke about the lobbying that took place on those issues.
In knocking on doors during my 21 years as an elected representative—13 in Westminster and eight on a county council—I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the issue of PR or an alternative voting system was mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, hit the nail on the head as to why that is. The first past the post system is understood, it is straightforward, and it clearly gives a relationship of accountability between the elected representative and the elector. That can also apply to another debate that is taking place at the moment.
There is a real danger that the electorate feel enormous frustration and disengagement at the drive for such constitutional change coming from above, from the Westminster elite, rather than by public demand. Part of accountability is understanding and knowing those issues and the concerns that most affect our constituencies. I do not want to imply that there was some kind of golden age, when boundary changes were always easy, when no one was ever upset by them, and there were never any difficulties caused, because we know that that is not the case. However, the Government’s legislation creates a very different situation, and very substantial changes of a kind we have not seen before.
The most substantive point about the Bill and accountability is that for the first time ever Parliament decided how many constituencies there should be, what the approximate size should be, and imposed on the Boundary Commission—again, for the very first time—strict rules on the variation in size of seat: just 5%. All the other factors that were taken into account before—geography, history, natural boundaries and communities, and that sense of place that we have heard so much about today, of local wards and parishes—came second to playing the numbers game.
My noble friend Lord Wills spoke of the high constitutional principle that was at stake, as mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the necessity of boundary changes. However, we now know that those boundary changes are subject, not to high constitutional principle, but whether the Liberal Democrats get their Bill through to change or abolish the House of Lords and create a new body.
I recall the debate during the Second Reading and passage of the Bill. I am not wedded to a particular number or size of constituency. However, we have to have a justification for change. I recall asking the Minister, as did other noble Lords, what their reason was for the choice of 600 constituencies. What was the significance of the number? I was told, as were other noble Lords, that it was a nice round figure. That is not good enough for such a significant constitutional change.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, quoted the Chartists and the size of constituencies being similar. In the same way that he spoke about pick and mix earlier, perhaps we should not pick and mix when we talk about the Chartists. I notice that although the proposals for the elected House of Lords were for 15-year terms, and fixed terms of five years for the House of Commons, the Chartists argued for annual elections. There is greater credibility for annual elections than 15-year elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was the first today to talk about the relationship between MPs and constituencies. That is well rehearsed, and it is genuine, as my noble friend Lady Corston says. I represented a seat from 1997-2010; Members of Parliament identify very strongly with their constituencies and feel a great affinity with them.
We have also heard a considerable amount about the impact these changes have on the work of a Member of Parliament, and how towns feel about changes. I would like to say something about the impact on voters and constituents when constituencies change. My home town in Basildon is known as Pitsea. I represented Pitsea on the county council, although in 1997 when I was elected to Parliament it was taken out of the constituency of Basildon which I represented, and into another constituency, Billericay.
Until 1997 Pitsea was in Basildon. It was in the Basildon council area, the main shopping area was there, and Basildon was the focus for services. There was a distinct community of which it felt part, and it knew who its MP was. From 1997-2010 it went into Billericay. It did not feel as if there was much of a common link with Billericay, and there were difficulties, but it was part of the district of Basildon, and there was some logic to it. However, Basildon took in the East Thurrock area. The constituency name remained Basildon, which was totally unfair on the people of East Thurrock, who had no named identity and no connection for their constituency.
In 2010, Pitsea was back in Basildon. In 2015, Pitsea, under the proposed boundary changes, will go to Rayleigh. It has no common links with Rayleigh, no shared services, and no common councils, and it is really hard to understand what links these areas, other than the numbers game. In 2020 who knows what will happen, because under the new legislation the boundaries will be reviewed for every general election? This means that every time there has been or will be a boundary change, the voters of Pitsea have had, and will have, no opportunity to hold their Member of Parliament to account, because they are at the margins of the constituency and are the ones most likely to be moved for every single election. They did not have the opportunity in 2010 to hold their MP to account, and they will not have it in 2011.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, made a comment about disengaging people. I have already spoken to a number of people in that area who tell me, “Why should we bother to vote? We don’t know anything about Rayleigh. We are not connected with Rayleigh”. Instead of engaging people in the political system, we are disengaging them from the political process completely. The Government say that the changes are at the margins, but it is those margins that move from constituency to constituency each time. Rather than being more democratic, it reduces the accountability of MPs to their constituents.
I have great admiration for most MPs, and I believe that the majority of MPs will faithfully represent all of their constituents whenever there is an opportunity to do so. However, for some MPs, such as the lazy and the overworked—and they will be overworked because of the larger area they will represent—or those in the most marginal of seats, there will be an opportunity to prioritise the areas they know will be in their constituency at the next election, and whose votes they will need.
Accountability is also about the individuals’ and communities’ abilities to participate in the political process. I want to say something about wider participation, but part of that participation means being able to vote. We all know—politicians have been saying it for many years—that turnouts at both general and local elections are too low. Governments constantly say that they want to increase turnout, but I fail to understand how the accelerated process for individual voter registration does that.
We support individual electoral registration. We argued for it and legislated for it in 2009. However, I can do no better than refer the noble Lord to the speech of my noble friend Lord Wills, who spoke of the very different approach now being taken by the Government compared with the approach that we took when we were in government. It was a measured and cross-party approach and it allowed time for the changes to come in properly to ensure accuracy and fairness. I urge the Government to take note of the comments that have been made today. If they fail to act properly in this regard, not only will they deny thousands of their right to vote but they will be accused of blatant political manipulation, because there is no good reason for the process to be speeded up in this way.
I also want to say something about access to elected representatives. A mistake that politicians sometimes make is to believe that everybody is interested in politics and that they know who their MP is. I can tell the Minister that people in my area would regularly go to the local council or the local library saying that they lived in Basildon, and they were told that I was their MP, regardless of where they lived, because that was the sense of place that they had and understood.
I take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who said that it would be easier for MPs if constituencies were of the same size. I say to her that it would not be easier for MPs in the slightest. Better representation, both for the elected and the elector, comes from people knowing who their MP is, being able to contact them easily and sharing a sense of place and community. That is what makes the difference.
In my case, it would have been much easier. If I had had the whole of Basildon as my constituency, rather than part of Basildon and part of Thurrock, the constituency would have been bigger but I would have dealt with two local authorities and one police force. It is dealing with different agencies that complicates matters. I was very lucky in that I enjoyed both parts of my constituency, but to say that it was easier because it was smaller in terms of numbers would be completely incorrect, and I would be doing a disservice to my former constituents if I did not confess that it was harder dealing with two sets of agencies.
I think that I have a couple of seconds of injury time in which to finish. A democracy is more than just a cross in a box or a type of voting system, and it is more than ensuring that constituencies are the same size. Democracy has to be about political engagement, representation and accountability. That is how we get to the sense of place that we have heard about today. Unfortunately, the Government have ignored the latter—the political engagement, representation and accountability—in favour of the former.
My Lords, this has been a rumbustious debate. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as fearless. I felt that in many ways it was a tub-thumping speech. I feel the pain coming from past and present Labour MPs at the way they have been treated by IPSA and by the threat of boundary reviews. In terms of economy, I have to say that I feel moderate pain in the current Government. I go around saying to people that this is the leanest Government we have had for many years because we have cut the government car pool in half and we walk more. With regard to economy but not humiliation, perhaps I may share with noble Lords the occasion on which I went with an official to represent the Government at an international conference. At the end of the conference, the government car collected us, delivered us to the VIP lounge at the airport and, from there, the protocol officer took us to the front of the easyJet queue for us to fly back. That is an approach to economy that Members of the other place may need to share.
With regard to spending on elections and on politics between elections, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that over the past 25 years the amount provided to sitting MPs for assistance with casework and allowances for communications has given in-built advantages to sitting Members against challengers. That, again, is an issue that we may need to talk about in more detail.
With great respect to the Minister, I think that I should correct him on that. There were very clear rules in the other place. The expenses given to MPs were solely for discharging their duties as Members of Parliament. They were explicitly excluded from any kind of campaigning purpose whatever. I can speak for myself and for the great majority of my former colleagues when I say that we scrupulously observed those rules. I just wanted to correct the Minister on a point of fact.
I merely referred to the advantages of incumbency and strengthening the advantages of incumbency. I think we both know what we are talking about.
As this Question refers to democracy and political representation, I thought that as an academic I should go back to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and look up the definition of democracy. It says that democracy is a descriptive term synonymous with majority rule. It goes on to say that the plurality rule, as opposed to the majoritarian rule, which selects the candidate with the largest single number of votes, even if that number is less than half the votes cast, may select somebody whom the majority regard as the worst candidate. It says that, nevertheless, countries using this rule for national elections, such as Britain, the United States and India, are normally described as democratic.
The question of how we choose representatives and the place and size of the electorate is something that we have tried very hard to balance over the past 100 years and more. The issue at stake, after all, is the balance struck by the Boundary Commission between the sense of place and the number of electors. The position taken by the coalition Government is that too great an emphasis had been placed on ensuring a sense of place at the expense of ensuring fairness and equality in the size of constituencies. In terms of numbers, noble Lords may know that in 1922, when the Irish left, Parliament consisted of 615 Members and in 1950 of 625 Members, and it has grown slowly to the current number of 650. Of course, all these numbers are arbitrary.
Certainly, and I also acknowledge—this is very important—that there has been an enormous degree of centralisation in the way that British politics, and particularly English politics, has operated. Fifty or 100 years ago, certain casework was conducted by local councillors. However, as the central state has taken on what the local authority used to do, so people have come to their MPs more and more, and that has led to a tremendous growth in the amount of MPs’ casework.
I do not entirely recognise a golden age of constituencies in which every constituency represented a long-term and clear place. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, will know that the Colne Valley as a constituency has changed very radically over the years. The first constituency that I fought—Huddersfield West—disappeared very rapidly and is now part of Colne Valley, whereas Saddleworth has long since gone somewhere else. The constituency in which I live, Shipley, has a moor down the middle of it and part of Wharfedale, which is occasionally cut off by snow in winter, is part of the constituency. I found myself at my first election as a candidate there having to explain to people in Wharfedale that they were part of the Shipley constituency and not connected with Ilkley or Pudsey.
One could take many examples of this. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about some of the Kirklees constituencies. When I first started thinking about politics in that region, the Spen Valley was a constituency. We then had Batley, Brighouse and Spenborough, and Batley and Spen. In the 2005 general election I spent an afternoon standing in Huddersfield marketplace meeting people coming in from Heckmondwike, Gomersal, Cleckheaton and elsewhere who said, one after the other, “Can you help me? I’m not sure what constituency I’m in”. I realised how little I knew about the changing boundaries of those West Yorkshire constituencies. As we all know, MPs identify very strongly over time with their constituencies, but their constituents very often do not identify so closely with them in return.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is there not a slight contradiction in what he is saying? A minute ago, he was saying that the incumbency factor was very significant. Does that not mean that constituents must recognise their MPs?
Some do, some do not. However, we have a larger problem which we should also address. More and more constituents—including those who used to vote Labour, according to my experience in Bradford—do not identify with the constituency, any political party or politics as such and, indeed, do not wish to register. We will return to that wider issue in 10 days time, when we discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked me to guarantee that there would be no further decline in registrations in the move to individual electoral registration, but of course the Government cannot guarantee that. We know that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people not on the register is estimated to have doubled from 3 million to 6 million. I am sure the Labour Government that were in office at that point had no intention of allowing that to happen—it happened, as we know, for a range of reasons to do with political attitudes and social change. We will be doing everything we can to maximise the completeness of the individual register, but the accuracy and completeness of the household registration system has been going down, which is very much part of the reason for the change.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he recognise that there is a big difference between a Government who are, on the one hand, doing everything they can to improve the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the register and a Government who are doing their best on that but are none the less proceeding with legislation that is undoubtedly going to damage that register even further—and in the interests of one particular political party? That is the difference. Does the noble Lord accept that?
I do not accept that and I do not accept that we have not been consulting the Labour Party. The noble Lord and I have discussed this at great length, Mark Harper has discussed this with a number of people on the Labour Front Bench and we are continuing to discuss this as we go on. I have so far dealt with several statutory instruments about the data-matching exercise, which is part of the way in which we are testing the completeness of the register. We know that this will get a great deal more difficult and will be talking with others in the Department for Education and elsewhere about how far we can use school registers and student loan registers to get at some of the mobile young people who are among the most difficult to catch for the register. We will return to this area at some length at Second Reading and in Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. We will come back to that, and to the question of carrying over the registration from May 2015 to December 2015, in that context rather than in this one.
This will be my last intervention for today. The Minister has made a very important point and I want to be sure that I have understood it, because it will obviously inform the approach of many noble Lords to the Second Reading of that Bill. Is the noble Lord saying that the Government remain open to a carryover for the purposes of the boundary review in 2015? Are the Government now prepared to consider that?
I was not saying that, I was simply saying that we would need to discuss it further in that context, because we will be spending a good deal of time on the Bill. However, I was saying that a number of continuing experiments are under way with the government statistics authority and with the Electoral Commission about how best to ensure that, as we move to a new register, we maximise the number of people on it. He will know, as we have rehearsed it before, that the argument in respect of the December 2015 register is that maintaining a carryover from a register made over two years before risks carrying over a large number of additional names, particularly in the inner cities, of highly mobile people and those from multiple-occupation residences. There will be a post-May 2015 canvass of all of those who are in doubt on this. We think that the occurrence of a general election in May 2015 should produce the maximum registration available then, but that the question of accuracy and completeness is not best served by maintaining, even after the election, names that have not responded to several attempts personally to canvass them.
The joy and passion that members of the Opposition have for the single-Member constituency is striking. I remind them that the single-Member constituency and the electoral system that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, went for are not necessarily part of the ancient British constitution. The official with whom I travelled to a conference last weekend admitted to me that his grandfather had been one of the two Labour MPs for Blackburn between 1945 and 1950. That was one of the last two-Member constituencies. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is perhaps not quite old enough to remember the three-Member combined Scottish university seat, which was there until 1950. However, I am sure he remembers the electoral system used for that, which was of course the single transferable vote. We now regard the single-Member constituency as the only possible thing for Britain, but other things have been tried before and might be tried again in the future. This Government’s commitment to decentralisation and the revival of local democracy means that we see casework in future more often going to the local councillor, and not always, perhaps, all the way up to the MP.
There have been suggestions of gerrymandering. Looking through my preparatory notes on this, I see that in 1978-79, the then Labour Government postponed the introduction of boundary changes. There were accusations in the right-wing press that this was “jimmymandering” by the then Prime Minister, as a means of ensuring that Labour should not lose those relevant seats. I am conscious, as we all are, that the integrity, accuracy and completeness of the register, for the next election and beyond it, matters to all of us. We are also concerned that some of the underlying causes for the decline in the completeness of the register—political disillusionment and disengagement—need to be addressed, and on an all-party basis.
I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord and all those on the other side for their sympathy for the position of the Liberal Democrats. We are a coalition Government and bargain every single day on a whole host of things. I have no knowledge whether what Mr Richard Reeves said as he left for the United States—very unwisely, and without any authorisation or standing, I thought—relates to anything that is being discussed between the two parties.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked about the application form, which again we will return to when we discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. I understand that the application form that will be designed by the Electoral Commission must include a statement about the possibility of a fine and the size of that potential fine. We were discussing that in the debate in the Moses Room yesterday on the question of behaviour change and how one designs forms best so as to influence people to do the right thing.
One question that the Minister has not addressed was raised first by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, and to which I have often referred, about the order when it comes to both Houses and that if it is approved by one House but not the other, it will fall. Will the Minister confirm that that is the position?
I am trying to answer all the questions. It is not the first time that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has jumped up to ask why I have not answered a question just as I am about to come to it. It is, of course, the rule that statutory orders have to go through both Houses. What would happen if one House said yes and the other said no is a matter that would have to be negotiated between the two Houses. I know that some Members on the Labour Benches sometimes want to suggest that we are not part of the legislature, but for these purposes we are, and we will take part in that decision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about current changes threatening to undermine the very foundations of our democracy. I have to say that from many of the debates we have had in recent months, there are large questions about the future of our democracy and the characteristics of our representation. I was slightly shocked the other day to listen to the greatest parliamentarian among us, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, promoting the idea of referendums, which are not entirely compatible with the idea of parliamentary democracy. The balance between representative, deliberative democracy and direct democracy, as we slide towards more calls for more referendums, is one of the fundamental issues that we need to address.
I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark, when he calls for a wider debate on the crisis of British democracy, the role of the state and the balance between state, society and market. I would also add the balance between the central state and the local state where the coalition Government believe that we have slipped far too far towards overcentralisation. Our system of democracy is not working very well; our public are increasingly disengaged and disillusioned; and we need to think about a whole series of changes in how we behave towards and relate with the public and about the best way in which to engage them again in local and national politics. That goes far beyond the issues raised in discussing representation and democracy in this Motion.
My Lords, we have had an interesting, indeed excellent debate, unlike in the House of Commons where there has been almost no debate on these matters since the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and a debate that took place on the problems in Wales in Westminster Hall only last week.
I regret that more Conservative Members felt unable to participate in our debate, apart, of course, from the courageous noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who is known for her preparedness to stand up and say what she thinks. She argued valiantly in defence of an impossible case. Equally, the Liberal Democrats are hardly overrepresented. We have their electoral guru, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who has substantial knowledge on these matters, although it was noticeable that while he argued for equalisation of electorates, he did not oppose the reduction of seats from 650 to 600 for the next general election. He should impress on his prominent Liberal Democrat colleagues, and Mr Hughes in particular, who have been peddling the line, “No Lords reform, then no boundary change”, that they are not helping the case for Lords reform. They fail to realise that many Conservative MPs, as against the Conservative Party organisation, do not want boundary changes, so their mantra is an invitation to Conservative MPs to block Lords reform. It could all backfire.
I was, as ever, greatly amused by the comments of my larger-than-life noble friend Lord Foulkes, on my self-denying ordinance on the generality of legislation, but he need not worry. The excalibur is as sharp as ever. My noble friend Lord Wills referred to the failure of the Government to establish a cross-party group on electoral registration and the immense danger of underregistration. The latest Bill has just completed its passage in the Commons, so let us hope that by the time we get it in the Lords it will be suitably amended to deal with the looming and inevitable difficulties.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, drew attention to the startling proposal that the electorate of 204 constituencies be changed by 50% or more, tearing up identifiable communities. My noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton expressed her deep concerns over the lack of a detailed assessment of the combined effect of all the changes on the health or democracy. My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere was so right when he said that too many people were left out to dry and that party leaders should have been more supportive of Parliament when the institution was under attack.
My noble friend Lady Corston drew attention to the ludicrous proposals for Gloucester and the Forest of Dean, and the Mersey Banks constituencies. They are but two of hundreds of similar anomalous examples where local people are objecting. My noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon in winding up from the Front Bench stressed that local ties and the integrated nature of communities were cast aside in favour of a numbers game. How very true that is. As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I have to say that I was not altogether convinced by his arguments justifying the seat reduction or by his attempt to assure my noble friend Lord Wills that electoral registration will be successfully introduced.
I can only repeat my proposed concern over what all these changes are doing to Parliament, as set out in my earlier contribution. I only hope that some way to reverse this whole policy of constituency reduction can be found. I believe that all these proposed changes can bring nothing but harm, worry and disruption to the whole parliamentary arrangement. I am indebted to the House for the opportunity provided by this debate.