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House of Commons

Tuesday 22 June 2010

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [ Lords]

Lords message (15 June) relating to the Bill considered.


Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [ Lords]

Lords message (15 June) relating to the Bill considered.


Oral Answers to Questions

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked-

Alternative Vote System

1. Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): When he expects to publish the timetable for a referendum on the alternative vote system for general elections. [3357]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): The Government have made clear their intention to introduce legislation providing for a national referendum on the alternative vote for future elections to the House of Commons. The appropriate timetable for that legislation and the subsequent referendum is currently being considered within Government. Further details will be announced to the House in due course.

Mr Cunningham: Given that answer, why has the Deputy Prime Minister prioritised boundary changes, as opposed to a date for a referendum on the electoral system? Can he answer that question, or has the Prime Minister leaned on him?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The coalition agreement is clear. We want to proceed with the preparations for a referendum, giving people the choice to choose a new electoral system-the alternative vote system-and, in parallel, to proceed with a review of boundaries. Reviewing boundaries in this country is not a new thing. If the hon. Gentleman would care to look back at the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which establishes the provisions for reviews of boundaries, he will see that the legislation imposes a requirement on us to keep the
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size of the House of Commons lower than it currently is, and to have greater equality between the sizes of constituencies. I do not think that anybody will quibble with the principle that people's votes should count equally, wherever they so happen to live.

Mr Speaker: Order. From now on we must have timely progress, with short questions and short answers.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that there will be no move to hold a referendum on voting reform on the same day as any other elections, after the ruling given by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, which said:

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I have said, we will shortly come forward-I hope to do so well before the summer recess-to set out our plans for a referendum to give people in this country the choice to choose, if they so wish, to change the electoral system to an alternative vote system.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position and give thanks to him for implementing a Labour party manifesto commitment that was not in the Conservative or Liberal Democrat manifestos? Will he reflect on the fact that in February the Liberal Democrats in this House proposed that an additional question-on the single transferable vote-should be asked in any referendum? If that was proposed again by his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, would he vote for or against it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: This from a party that back in 1997 had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on a change to the electoral system. The previous Government had 13 years to do that, and they did absolutely nothing. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, having sat on his hands for 13 years, is finally displaying some urgency about getting on with the political reforms that his Government failed to deliver. Our coalition agreement is absolutely clear: we are going to hold a referendum on whether people want to have a new electoral system-the alternative vote system.

Fixed-term Parliaments

2. Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): What steps he plans to take to establish fixed-term Parliaments. [3360]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have been working with colleagues across Government to develop our proposals, and we will announce them to the House shortly.

Julian Sturdy: I am grateful for that response, but does the Minister agree that it is vital to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible, if this new Parliament is indeed serious about restoring public trust and confidence in the House?

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Mr Harper: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wants to bring forward those proposals-he will be the first Prime Minister who has given away the power to seek a Dissolution of this House at his choosing-and to give that power to this House, which is a promise that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) made but never delivered on.

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

3. Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): What recent representations he has received from hon. Members on Government policy on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. [3361]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): A number of hon. Members have submitted a number of written questions, which I have answered, and I was also pleased to listen to their representations in the very full Westminster Hall debate last Wednesday.

Ian Lavery: Is the Minister aware that, as a result of the policy created by IPSA, many loyal and dedicated members of staff face the prospect of redundancy or, at the very least, of savage cuts in their wages, terms and conditions. Will the Minister tell us what plans he has to ensure that hon. Members' staff are protected and not unfairly punished as a result of the expenses scandal?

Mr Harper: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will know that Ministers have policy responsibility for IPSA, but are not responsible for its internal workings. He will also know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been making sure that, where the IPSA rules make it difficult for Members of Parliament to carry out their duties, information on those rules is made available. He will also know that, next week, the Speaker's Committee on IPSA will have its first meeting. A motion on today's Order Paper provides for the appointment of five Members to that Committee. At that meeting, they will consider how there can be accountability to this House.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Since last Wednesday's Westminster Hall debate, in which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) made it clear that IPSA was in breach of parliamentary privilege, what action has the Minister taken to ensure that IPSA is not in breach of parliamentary privilege?

Mr Harper: My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling asked me whether I would advise the Standards and Privileges Committee, but that is not a matter for members of the Government. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) himself will be appointed, if the House so desires it, to the Speaker's Committee on IPSA, and I know he will use his undoubted skills to make sure that IPSA is given correct advice so that Members of this House can do their jobs to the standards our constituents require.

Parliament (Dissolution)

4. Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): What criteria were used to decide on a 55% majority for a vote in the House to trigger a dissolution of Parliament. [3362]

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6. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What criteria were used to decide on a 55% majority for a vote in the House to trigger a dissolution of Parliament. [3364]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper) rose-[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I recognise the extreme disapproval on one side of the House, but we must conduct proceedings in an orderly manner.

Mr Harper: I am grateful, Mr Speaker. Labour Members clearly do not want to listen to answers to their questions. The answer is that we want to make sure that no single party in this House is able to seek a Dissolution for its own party political advantage. That is why the coalition agreement makes the provision that it does.

Chris Leslie: Is it not an outrage that the Deputy Prime Minister makes such a transparent attempt to rig the way in which this House of Commons holds the Government to account? What an outrage that he sold his soul to the Conservatives to ensure that he is in office, even when his own colleagues try to undo the mess.

Mr Harper: I was having trouble detecting a question in that rather intemperate rant, Mr Speaker. I have already made it clear that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who chose to walk in at exactly that moment, was the first Prime Minister to give away the power to seek a Dissolution of this House. He has given away his own power and given it back to this House. The hon. Gentleman should be grateful for that move forward.

Kevin Brennan: If this proposal passes with the support of fewer than 55% of Members, will the Minister still attempt to impose it?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman should know that our proposal is about improving the powers of this House; it does not change the rules for the confidence procedures-[Hon. Members: "Answer."] If Opposition Members listen, I will. This will be taken through on the Floor of the House and the hon. Gentleman, along with all his hon. Friends, will have the opportunity to debate it in detail then.

Parliamentary Constituencies

5. Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): What progress he has made on his proposals to create fewer and more equally-sized constituencies. [3363]

The Deputy Prime Minister: rose-

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is nice to get a welcome from time to time from the Opposition Benches.

The Government have announced that legislation will be introduced to provide for the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. Further details will be announced in due course, and Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the provisions in full.

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Mr Turner: In 1981, the Boundary Commission for Scotland said that amalgamating the Western Isles with Skye was "unworkable or intolerably difficult", and it repeated that in its more recent review of 2005. What is the Deputy Prime Minister's view now?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Clearly, in line with existing legislation dating back to 1986, it is right for us to continue to provide for more equal constituencies in this country. [Interruption.] Here in London, for instance, Hackney South and Shoreditch has an electorate of just 57,204, while a few miles down the road, on the other side of London, Croydon North has 22,615 more voters. Its electorate is more than a third larger. That cannot be right.

Mr Speaker: Order. I recognise that there are people who are angry, but before we continue, let me appeal to the House to have some regard to the way in which we are viewed by the public whose support we were so recently seeking.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): On 7 June, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he accepted the case for smaller island and heavily rural constituencies in the north of Scotland, which happened to be Liberal Democrat. Does he also accept that in urban areas there is a very heavy case load of constituents, that it is growing, and that in every urban area there are tens of thousands of citizens who are not on the electoral register and who ought to be taken into account in these calculations?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have a simple question. Why is the right hon. Gentleman so frightened of equal-sized seats? It is extraordinary. Why does he not go back to first principles? Why is it that all he wants to do is indulge in special pleading?

There are issues of principle at stake. It is right, as the 1986 Act sets out, that we should have more equal constituencies. It is right that we should bring the size of the House of Commons down. We have a more oversized lower Chamber than any other bicameral system in the developed world. It is right, of course, that the boundary review should be conducted independently, as it will be. I do not understand for the life of me what is wrong with that.

Mr Straw: Let me make it clear that on this side of the House there is no issue about ensuring that constituencies, as far as possible, are of equal size, and there never has been. The issue is about ensuring that that process is conducted in a fair way, and that full account is taken of the 3.5 million citizens who, according to what the Electoral Commission said in March, are not currently registered to vote. It is surely fair to ensure that those individuals are taken into account in the electoral calculations.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am as concerned as the right hon. Gentleman about the fact that there are 3.5 million people- [Interruption.] Well, what did you do about it for 13 years? You created the problem in the first place, and now, within a few weeks, you are complaining about it.

Let me repeat that I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I understand the strength of feeling. Of course the review should be conducted independently, and of
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course it should be conducted fairly. I think that it is fair to have constituencies in which people's votes are equal regardless of where they live in the country. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to work co-operatively- [Interruption.] I know that it is extremely unpopular for any Labour Member, as was recently shown in the case of the former Secretary of State for Defence, to reach out a hand to work in co-operation with this coalition Government. Lord Prescott gets his ermine in a twist, and says that it is collaboration. What kind of new politics is that?

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. We will now move on to topical questions, in which, I remind the House, we have always expected faster progress. That means short questions and short answers.

Topical Questions

T1. [3367] Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on his ministerial responsibilities.

The Deputy Prime Minister: As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister in the oversight of the full range of Government policy and initiatives. I have taken particular responsibilities for co-ordinating the Government's domestic policies through my chairmanship of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on home affairs. Within the Government, I am responsible for our ambitious programme of political and constitutional reform, supported in this House by my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

Alun Michael: In view of the Deputy Prime Minister's reference to a supporting role, may I quote him directly? He has said:


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