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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether it remains their policy to reduce the number of MPs to 600 in accordance with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

My Lords, we are committed to ensuring fair and equal representation for the voting public across the UK. The independent Boundary Commissions are proceeding with the boundary review in accordance with laws already passed by Parliament, which provide for the number of constituencies to be reduced to 600. The Boundary Commissions are required to submit their final proposals in autumn 2018.

My Lords, figures from the Cabinet Office itself suggest that about one in six voters are missing from the electoral registers, making it very hard for the Boundary Commissions to produce fair boundaries. Since they began work, millions of extra voters were added to the electoral roll during the course of the EU referendum and the recent general election. Will the Minister consider convening all-party talks aimed at producing a Bill to amend the 2011 legislation in order to allow the Boundary Commissions to include these voters in time for a general election in 2022, and to reconsider the appropriate number of MPs to be elected?

On the last point, I see from the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 manifesto that they committed themselves to cutting the number of MPs by 150, so I am not sure why the noble Lord is so squeamish about reducing the number by 50. There are a record 46.8 million people on the register, and what he has proposed is yet another Liberal Democrat delay to the Boundary Commission proposals. The dates for the current boundary review were approved by an amendment—to which the noble Lord put his name—to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill back in 2013. The amendment made it clear that the electoral register as at 1 December 2015 would be used in this review. That was an amendment to which the noble Lord put his name.

My Lords, I put my name to none of this. I simply say to the Minister, who is a very reasonable person, that if there are 46.8 million people on the register but a substantial number of them are not counted in the reconfiguration of boundaries, that would be unacceptable to any political party.

The date for the boundary review is inevitably a snapshot. During the period of all boundary reviews, people are added to the register. As I said, the date of 1 December 2015 was approved by this House when the relevant legislation went through, and any interference with the current review would mean that the next election would be fought on boundaries dating from the year 2000. That cannot be in the interests of democracy.

My Lords, some people would think that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was brazen; others that he was brave. Does my noble friend remember that it was the former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat party who scuppered all this in a fit of pique when he lost his Bill on reform of the House of Lords?

My noble friend uses language which I would not dream of using at the Dispatch Box, but it is indeed the case that the coalition agreement, which was ratified by Liberal Democrat MPs and the membership of the Liberal Democrat party, committed them to reducing the number of MPs by 50, and that that legislation was taken through the other place by the Deputy Prime Minister, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I cannot understand why the Liberal Democrats now seek to distance themselves from a measure which their former leader piloted through Parliament.

My Lords, we have four parliamentary Boundary Commissions, one for each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Can the Minister confirm that at the conclusion of the reviews, there will be brought before this House and the other place one Motion to approve all four reports, so there is no risk of, say, three reports being approved and one not, and it will be all or nothing, with no risk of cherry-picking the reports we like, as opposed to those we are not so keen on?

I am happy to confirm that the position is exactly as the noble Lord said. The legislation requires the Minister to produce a single order to introduce the reports of all four Boundary Commissions, so there can be no cherry-picking—which would never have occurred to our side, but might conceivably have occurred to others.

My Lords, assuming that Brexit actually happens—the Minister will have noted that Donald Tusk says that we do not have to do it—does the Minister not recognise that there will be a considerable increase in the workload of our House of Commons Members of Parliament, but, at the same time, a wonderful saving in costs when MEPs such as Mr Nigel Farage and his freeloading UKIP Members are abolished and removed from the European Parliament? Is this not a good opportunity to change the Government’s mind?

Yet again, we have a plea from the Liberal Democrat Benches to go back on an agreement which they were party to. When we passed the legislation in this House, the date of 2018 was endorsed by members of the noble Lord’s party. Basically, this is special pleading to revisit a measure that, if everyone was sensible, they would put their minds behind this and just get on with it.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when I stood for a marginal seat, despite the efforts of Mr Callaghan to postpone a review of the boundaries, nevertheless I won my seat? Later, there was another review and I lost my seat. Against that background, it is not vital for all of us who believe in democracy to try to hit the target of each voter’s vote being of equal weight?

My noble friend came into the other place on the same day as me. My majority that year was 808—I am not sure whether that was more or less than his—and my seat was also subsequently abolished. My noble friend has put far more eloquently than I did a few moments ago the imperative of getting on with legislation that has been through both places to ensure that the next election is fought on up-to-date boundaries, not on boundaries that date back to the year 2000.