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(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.".'.- (Graham Stringer.)
'(5AA) The draft of an Order in Council laid under subsection (5A) above may only give effect to the recommendations contained in all four reports under subsection (1) above with modifications, where those modifications have been made with the agreement of the Boundary Commissions.'.
This amendment has been tabled in the names of members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is sadly unable to be in here this afternoon and so I have undertaken to move the amendment on behalf of his Committee.
The Select Committee, as the Committee well knows, carried out a necessarily brief and swift but in-depth consideration of the Bill. In order to try to be helpful to the House and the Minister, we tabled several amendments that we believed ought to be considered and that we hope will improve the Bill. The purpose of amendment 234 is to reflect paragraph 139 of the Select Committee's recently published report, which states that
"the power of the Executive to depart from the recommendations of an independent statutory body should have clear statutory limits to prevent abuse for partisan advantage."
I ask the Minister where the justification lies for the Government's retaining such a wide-ranging power to depart from the Boundary Commissions' recommendations. Although I would assert that I have every confidence-as does the Select Committee-that the current Government would always act in this matter in an honourable, straightforward and democratic way, may I nevertheless ask the Minister on behalf of the Select Committee what safeguards exist against any future Government's misusing such a power to their partisan advantage. It would be helpful if the Minister would consider those questions, and I am sure that the Committee will be eager to know the answers.
Chris Bryant: First, let me briefly comment on the fact that before you took the Chair, Mr Hoyle, we had a former miner in the Chair and two Tellers who were also former miners, so, as the MP for the Rhondda I felt quite at home. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the amendment, I am afraid.
"As soon as may be after the submission of all four reports under subsection (1) above that are required by subsection (2) above to be submitted before a particular date, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in them."
So the Boundary Commission will bring forth its report, there will be no public inquiry and the Minister will then bring forward the boundaries with or without modifications. It is the phrase "with or without modifications" that I have difficulty with, and clearly the Select Committee does too.
The hon. Lady mentioned that her Committee had to do its business very swiftly. Indeed, I think it had only five days in which to undertake a whole inquiry. That is
one reason why I believe the Bill is being taken through with undue haste. A substantial number of amendments have been tabled and will be considered on Monday, but we already know that some of them are inaccurate and will be modified when the Government bring forward territorial statutory instruments in relation to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I very much hope that the Minister will enlighten us as to whether those statutory instruments will be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure. [ Interruption. ] That is not what will happen on Monday because the measures are not going to be debated next Monday at all, contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the House has just said from a sedentary position.
Mr Syms: With previous boundary reviews, there have sometimes been attempts at judicial review of elements of what the Boundary Commission has done. Most of them have been rejected, but we have to consider that that is a possibility and that minor modification might be required-or does the hon. Gentleman think that will not happen?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the due process that needs to be gone through. I believe that we need a due process in relation to the Boundary Commission, because it might proceed incorrectly according to the rules that are laid down for it, it might proceed in a partisan manner or it might not consider all the factors that need to be considered. That is why we have heretofore always had a system of public inquiry, and not just written reports being sent in. That is essential for there to be utter confidence in the process that the commission goes through. He is absolutely right that there is also, sometimes, a process of judicial review. I suspect that if the Government push through the Bill in the partisan way that they are doing, without any provision for public inquiry, the likelihood of a judicial review being sought in many constituencies in the land will be very high indeed.
The hon. Gentleman might say that that is a good reason why the Minister needs even more power to draw constituency boundaries as he thinks fit. Unless the Government can be shifted from this view-whether that happens in this House or in the other House-we shall almost inexorably end up with no due process, other than the recourse that people might have to the courts.
The Minister will probably tell us that the Government need this power because apostrophes and commas are sometimes put in the wrong place and there are inadvertent errors. That is why the amendment, which was tabled by several members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, is perfect: it simply says that the Minister, if he or she wishes to make any modification, must return to the Boundary Commission and ask, "Are you okay with this amendment?" If Ministers were in a conciliatory, cross-party mood, they would accept the amendment.
I fully understand that the precise wording they propose is that of the current legislation. That is fine when due process can go on after the boundary commissions have
done their work-for example, public inquiries, where the public can have their say on the boundary commissions' proposals. Where that does not happen-that is the intention of the Bill, although it is something that we shall return to later-it is important that there is a bind on Ministers, so that they are not entirely free to dream up any kind of modification that they might want; otherwise, strictly speaking in law, I guess that Ministers would be perfectly at liberty, if they felt that the boundary commission had got something slightly wrong and representations were made to Ministers, to make such modifications as they thought fit.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I do not know whether my hon. Friend is familiar with the situation in the United States, where there is no boundary commission and state legislators draw up in a partisan, political way each state's congressional districts. Does he agree that we are starting down a slippery slope and that we will end up with a partisan political set of redistricting-to use the American phrase-if the boundary commission's authority is not protected?
Chris Bryant: That will happen not just if we do not have the boundary commission's public inquiry process, but if this element of the Bill remains without the amendment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the United States of America, because there is a redrawing each time, there are many instances where the incumbents effectively draw boundaries to protect themselves. Therefore, two Hispanic communities that might be thought to vote Democrat could be linked, because boundaries must be contiguous, by a single side of a road, thus creating bizarrely shaped constituencies. That is why, as I am sure hon. Members know, one of the congressional districts in Massachusetts that was drawn up by Governor Elbridge Gerry in the 19th century was shaped like a salamander-hence the term "gerrymander". In fact, it looked more like an eagle than a salamander.
This provision, as constructed in the Bill, will specifically allow Ministers to gerrymander. It is entirely partisan. It will allow Ministers-indeed, it encourages them-to be partisan. [ Interruption. ] The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), says from a sedentary position what I have already said. He says, "We aren't changing anything." He says, as I have said, that the provision is in the existing legislation-it is-but if he would just listen to the end of the paragraph, he would understand and learn that, in fact, the difference between the legislation that he is advancing and the existing legislation is that he will allow no due process. There will be no public inquiries. Consequently, I do not think that the electorate will have confidence in the way the commission draws up boundaries and, thereafter, in the way that Ministers are allowed by their legislation to make such modifications as they see fit.
The Minister may be able to satisfy my concerns by saying that there is legal provision to prevent a member of the Government from doing anything that the Boundary Commission disagrees with, but I do not think he will be able to, because I cannot see where the Bill or any Act makes such a provision. That is why we wholeheartedly support the amendment presented by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. We believe intrinsically that it is one of the most important amendments to the Bill, and I do not know whether she intends to press it to a Division, but if she does not we certainly shall.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am disappointed to find that a measure with cross-party support on the Committee-we all agreed to it-has not been accepted as a good piece of advice on amending a Bill which did not have the pre-legislative scrutiny that might have incorporated such a provision in the first place. Indeed, that is why we have such bodies as Select Committees. They exist to ensure, in an atmosphere that is not adversarial, a greater depth of debate than has been possible even in our debates on the Bill over the past couple of days and today. All Select Committee members felt that, as a safeguard, the amendment was a reasonable way to progress, and, if Ministers have no intention of making unreasonable modifications, they have nothing to lose from accepting such a provision.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said that she had no concerns about her Government using such powers. We might think differently, but equally she might think differently if there were a change of Government. From the perspective of our discussions in the Committee, the measure simply represented a safeguard that accounts for the fact that the whole procedure has changed. We know that the provision in the Bill is very similar, so we are not ignoring it, but the amendment was agreed to in the wider context of a debate about how we carry out such boundary changes, and the fact that public inquiries will not take place. We wanted to ensure that things could not be altered at the last minute in an unsatisfactory way that cut across whatever public consultation there had been throughout the process.
With many aspects of the Bill, we have forgotten the underlying reason for wanting to legislate on the constitution. I remember the Deputy Prime Minister, when he introduced this constitutional programme, saying that he wanted to overcome the distrust in politics and the fact that people appeared to have lost faith in politics and politicians, and that he felt that the constitutional changes would improve the situation. Having listened to some of last night's debate, I think it very important that we bear that test in mind when we consider the provision before us. We should ask ourselves, "Do these various detailed provisions improve that trust or detract from it?" The amendment would be a small and fairly technical provision that went some way to meeting that test. I commend it to the Minister and hope that it might be accepted.
The amendment would represent a very important reassurance, because the Minister would not be able to make highly arbitrary and subjective judgments on any modifications that were introduced. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we are being asked to consider a situation in which, in every Parliament, there will be a boundary review in respect of the next Parliament. That means that in each Parliament, and in each Government, the relevant Minister will in effect have his or her hands on a boundary review. That fundamentally changes the political nature of the operation, and it might be abused. I am thinking not only of one party against another; it could be abused within a party. It could become yet another of the Whips' weapons against recalcitrant Government Members-they could say, "Look, we can redistrict you." That is what has happened in the United States. We find many former
members of Congress who say that they were blatantly redistricted by their own parties because they did not fit or did not particularly toe the line. We have seen that happen in various states.
The arrangements provided in the Bill are pregnant with the possibility of abuse or accusations of abuse. The parliamentary process needs to be protected from that. The House has made a mistake in accepting boundary reviews every five years rather than every 10 years. That means that every Parliament will be affected and infected by the issue and the controversy around it. If Ministers want to be free from that, they should agree to the amendment.
Mr Heath: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for moving the amendment. I give my best wishes-and, I am sure, those of the whole Committee-to the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who would normally have been here to speak about its proposals.
We have had a short and helpful debate. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has told us about the derivation of the word "gerrymander" again; hopefully, we will hear that each day this Committee sits. It worries me when the hon. Gentleman talks about due process: the more he talks about it-and it is not the issue before us at this stage-the more I think he does not know what it means. We will come back to that later.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) assumed a position on the part of the Government without knowing what it was. I suggest to her that that is not a sensible way to go forward; that is meant to be helpful. We are grateful to her.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) got the tone exactly right. There is an issue, and we understand that. The amendment would allow the Order in Council laid before Parliament to give effect to the boundary commissions' recommendations with modifications only if the commissions were content with the changes made. As we have heard, the existing legislation does not have a restriction on modification such as that proposed by the amendment. The Bill simply preserves that power.
There is no record of that power ever having been used. There was an instance in which a Government urged Parliament to reject boundary commission proposals in toto rather than modify them, and some would suggest that that in itself was an abuse, but a Government have never urged Parliament to modify such proposals, so there is no history on the issue. However, I entirely understand the desire expressed by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to ensure the independence of the boundary commissions and see that their work is not modified for partisan reasons by any Government.
I say to the hon. Member for Epping Forest that the Government would like to consider the matter in more detail. There might be a situation in which, for the timely implementation of the boundary commission's recommendations, any unintended errors in the reports would need to be corrected in the Order in Council. We would want to consider carefully how any such restriction on the power to include modifications in the Order in Council might work.
There may be a technical defect in what the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has brought forward. That is not a criticism of its work. The amendment appears to require all four boundary commissions to
agree to any modification, rather than the relevant commission or commissions for the part or parts of the United Kingdom where the modification is being made. We may have to look at how the amendment is cast.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I did not jump into the trap that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) jumped into. However, I want to intervene to say that I would feel quite differently if the hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking that if he found some technical concern about the wording, he would bring back an amendment that made sure that no changes could be made to boundaries by a Minister without the consent of the boundary commission for the relevant region.
I am very sympathetic to the views expressed in the amendment, and we will have to look at it further. That is not an attempt to fob off the hon. Member for Epping Forest or the Select Committee. It raises an important issue. I do not want there to be any circumstances in which a Government can apply a partisan consideration to a modification for a boundary commission response. I give a clear undertaking that the Government will consider the matter in detail and come back with a response in due course. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment on the basis that we will look at the matter further and that we are grateful to the Committee for having brought it to our attention.
I appreciate the position taken by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), but the Select Committee has not suggested that the proposals in the Bill avoid due process. I would argue personally, not necessarily on behalf of the Committee, that the proposals in the Bill do involve due process, but that that is not a matter which hon. Members should worry about. That is not the problem before us right now-the problem is simply whether the Government could, at some point in the future, take action without the agreement of the boundary commissions. I am pleased that the Minister has accepted that that is an issue. Every member of the Select Committee will be very pleased that its work has, at least in this respect, been seen to be worth while and contributing to improving the Bill, which was our purpose in submitting the amendment. Having heard the general arguments put this afternoon, including by the shadow Minister, I believe that it may have to be tightened up somewhat in its wording and technicalities.
I am delighted that the Minister has indicated that the Government will look in more detail at the matter and undertaken to come back to the House with it. Given that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
'( ) In Article 3 of the Lord President of the Council Order 2010 (S.I. 2010/1837) (which makes certain functions of the Secretary of State exercisable concurrently with the Lord President) the reference in paragraph (1) to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 is to be read as a reference to that Act as amended by this section.'.
Mr Heath: These are minor amendments to clarify the position on ministerial responsibilities in relation to the constituencies provisions of the Bill. Responsibility for elections law, including parliamentary constituencies, is now exercisable by the Lord President and the Secretary of State, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, as Lord President of the Council, now has responsibility for political and constitutional reform. That was effected by the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, which provides that functions under various Acts, including the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, are exercisable concurrently by the Lord President and the Secretary of State. In the case of that Act, "the Secretary of State" includes the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who retain functions relating to boundary commissions in their parts of the United Kingdom.
The order states that references to the 1986 Act include references to it as amended by any enactment already made but not yet in force. It is arguable that that implies that such a reference does not include a reference to that Act as amended by a subsequent enactment. The amendment therefore provides that the reference to the 1986 Act in the order is to be read as a reference to the Act as amended by the Bill.
Amendments 163 to 167 are to clause 11 on the relationship between the changes to parliamentary constituencies and the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales. They make similar changes to those in the Lord President of the Council Order 2010, so that the clause refers to both the Secretary of State and the Lord President of the Council, and not just to the Secretary of State. That is done in the same way as in part 1 of the Bill, which provides that the Minister means the Lord President or the Secretary of State. I hope that that is perfectly clear to the Committee.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. The amendments selected in this group include some that are proposing special privileges-some might say gerrymandering-for certain constituencies, and these have been ruled to be in order, while others suggesting gerrymandering, such as my own, which suggests that the traditional rotten borough of Retford should be created, as it was in 1832, have been ruled out of order. [Hon. Members: "It is not this group. It is the next group."] Well, I am making my point now anyway. Why have some been ruled in and some ruled out, when they are all about gerrymandering the boundaries?
'gradually reduced to 600 in accordance with the terms of rule 1A.
1A (1) In each periodic report submitted by a Boundary Commission under section 3(2), the overall number of constituencies in each part of the United Kingdom shall be no more than in the previous report.
(2) The Boundary Commissions shall meet at the outset of each periodic review to determine the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom, and the number to be allocated to each of the four parts of the United Kingdom by each Commission, in accordance with rule 8.
(3) The Boundary Commissions shall ensure that the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is reduced in each succeeding periodic report to no more than 600 by 2029 in their fourth/fifth periodic reports.'.
'no fewer than 588 and no more than 612'.
'U/T where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6 and T is the overall number of constituencies in the United Kingdom determined by the Boundary Commissions under rule 1A above.'.
8A (8) A Boundary Commission shall have power to recommend that the number of constituencies in the relevant part of the United Kingdom should be greater or smaller than the number determined in accordance with the allocation method set out in rule 8.
"The UK Electoral Quota shall be defined as the total electorate of the United Kingdom on the designated enumeration day divided by 650."
I am sure that all hon. Members will note that 650 is the present number of Members of Parliament, as opposed to the 600 that the Bill proposes. I am opposed for a series of reasons to the Government's proposal to change
the number of seats and to fix it at 600. First, they are rigging the number of seats. The 600 seats figure did not appear in any party's manifesto. The Liberal Democrats mentioned 500 MPs in their manifesto, while the Conservatives had a manifesto commitment to reduce the number of seats by 10%, which would have taken the number down to 585. Neither of those figures is in front of us. Why might that possibly be? If those two parties were doing a deal, it would be reasonable to assume that we would end somewhere between the 500 seats mentioned in one manifesto and the 585 mentioned in the other. In fact, they have gone for a completely new figure, which seems to have been plucked out of the air.
That said, has it really been plucked out of the air? Having looked at the numbers, I suspect that bringing the number of seats down to 600 will disproportionately attack Labour seats, while going down to 585 would disproportionately attack Liberal Democrat seats. I therefore suspect that the number of 600 has been arrived at specifically for partisan purposes-to rig the Parliament of this country. That is why we will not support the clause.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept the possibility that the compromise arrived at might not have been one between us and the Liberals, but among us, the Liberals and the Labour minority that wanted 650 seats?
Chris Bryant: Well, I would have been absolutely delighted if any process of consultation with Labour Members had taken place on the issue of the size of Parliament. Such a process has always taken place in the past and if it had done so this time, I would have ardently supported the Bill. However, absolutely no consultation has taken place. The number has not been plucked out of the air-it is a partisan number, arrived at solely to rig the electorate so that the Government will win general elections in the future.
Tristram Hunt: Given that this is indeed a partisan figure plucked out of the air, which appeared in neither of the governing parties' manifestos, does my hon. Friend think that the Salisbury convention will apply in the other place? This provision has not been mandated by the people, so, under the Salisbury principle, it should not necessarily pass through the other place.
I hope that the House of Lords will look at this sort of measure. Historically, it has always looked at measures coming from the House of Commons, where the Government enjoy a majority by definition. Where the Lords have thought that legislation was calculated for partisan advantage, they have sought to look at it very closely. On many occasions in the past they have sought to change such legislation and make
the House of Commons think again. As to the Salisbury convention, one problem is that it is difficult for the Lords to work out what counts as having been in a manifesto, given that two of them are now relevant. However, the number of seats specified in the clause did not appear in either manifesto, so this does present a problem.
There is a further problem. In recent years, it has been unusual for the Government to enjoy a majority in both this House and the other place. By virtue of the fact that there are now two parties in government, there should ostensibly be a majority in the House of Lords. I am very confident, however, about their lordships' capacity for independence of mind, regardless of the whipping arrangements.
The other reason why I believe the system is being rigged, which is why I am opposed to the reduction from 650 to 600 seats, is on account of the double whammy that will apply to some parts of the United Kingdom. I am sorry if hon. Members feel I talk too much about Wales-I was about to say that I make no apology for saying that, but I have already apologised. My point is that Wales faces a double whammy. If the number of parliamentary seats had to be reduced, I would have thought that no single part of the country-particularly a constituent element of the Union-should be so disproportionately affected in one fell swoop. Reducing the number of parliamentary seats in Wales by 25%, while no other part of the United Kingdom is to suffer such an immediate cut, will be detrimental to the relationship between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom and will merely inflame the thoughts of nationalism that already exist in Wales.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the number of seats in Scotland was reduced as a result of lengthy consultation there, not just of political parties but of the whole of society. There was a long convention that lasted for several years before the 1997 general election, which led to the Scotland Act 1998, the referendum, the creation of the Scottish Parliament-of which we are very proud-and, in exchange for that, a reduction in the number of seats in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has just voted against a measure that would have prevented the Boundary Commission from reporting until after a referendum had been held in Wales on the powers that should be available to the Welsh Assembly. There is an inconsistency in what he is arguing.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks of inconsistency. Is it not ironic that he should use the word "disproportionate" to describe what would happen in Wales as a result of the Bill, given that what would actually happen is that proportionate weight would be given to Welsh votes, as to the votes of any other electors in United Kingdom?
As I tried to argue earlier and will argue again, that simply is not the way in which, historically, we have put together the Parliament of the United
Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I think that that is an important principle. If one is a Unionist-
I know that the constituency of the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) contains many people with Scottish ancestry, but I do not think that she is entirely versed in the dangers of nationalism that exist in Scotland and Wales. I merely say to her, in a gentle way, that if she really wants to maintain the strength of the Union, we ought to proceed differently.
Mr Mark Field: I agree with what the shadow Minister is trying to achieve, and, if the Committee divides on the amendment, I shall vote against the reduction. However, for two reasons, I am not sure that he is making a terribly good case.
We have discussed what happened in Scotland in 2005. There was not a great Unionist upsurge there when there was a 20% reduction in the number of seats specifically in Scotland and in no other part of the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that his is not a terribly strong argument?
The Welsh position has been maintained since we drew up the constituencies. There were 38 protected constituencies there until 1983, and 40 thereafter. The position of Wales has been protected, and it is massively over-represented. That is the reason for the move to equalise the size of electorates, which I also fully support.
Chris Bryant: This is what I meant by the double- whammy element. Wales is caught both by the equalisation of the number of seats-we are not debating that now, but we will when we deal with the next set of amendments-and by the reduction in the number of seats. The net effect for Wales is that the number of seats will be cut by a quarter.
That presents some specific problems for Wales. It has already proved impossible for the present Government to ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales represents a Welsh seat-although I admit that she is Welsh-and it will become increasingly difficult to do so in the future. Because Wales, unlike Scotland, has never had a separate legal system, the Welsh Affairs Committee has to do a large amount of work, and that will continue. I think that it will be difficult to meet those needs with only 30 seats.
I am not arguing for the status quo in the number of Welsh seats. I am merely trying to present an argument, and I am sorry that it does not appeal to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that further elements of my speech will appeal to him more.
No one is a more ardent Unionist than I am, and I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about Wales, but he must look at the arithmetic, which is inescapable. There will be a larger reduction in the number of seats in Wales than, proportionately, in the rest of the United Kingdom because, at present, the people of Wales are over-represented in the House, as well as having a devolved Assembly, or Parliament, of their own. The hon. Gentleman cannot argue that it is
right for the people of Wales to have smaller constituencies and more Members of Parliament in the House of Commons than the people of most of England and Scotland. That simply does not make sense.
Chris Bryant: As the hon. Lady knows, there are differences between Wales and Scotland: Scotland has a Parliament which also has powers over crime and justice, which Wales does not have; Scotland has a completely different legal system, which Wales does not have; and it raises taxes, which Wales cannot do. It is a very different system, therefore.
Let me reiterate yet again that I am not saying that we want to hold to the status quo, but I think there will be a danger for the Unionist argument in Wales if we move forward in one fell swoop from having 40 seats to there being only 29 or 30. That would create problems for the future. Let me also say that I hope that Welsh Members work sufficiently hard that they provide value for the House, even though the hon. Lady thinks there are too many of us.
Phil Wilson: The Deputy Prime Minister keeps going on about this being the greatest constitutional reform legislation since 1832. The 1832 Act went on to equalise the size of constituencies but left the number of constituencies at 658; it did not reduce them at all. I believe the current Government want to reduce the number of seats in order to gerrymander the whole electoral system so that we do not have a Labour Government in the future.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, except in one respect: the 1832 Act did not equalise the seats at all. In 1867, there was a discussion about equalising seats but that was decided against. The argument that was used then, and which has been used consistently in the past, is that it is more important for Members to represent communities than it is for there to be precisely numerically equal seats. Obviously that was, in part, because of the nature of the franchise at the time.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I am listening carefully to the case that the hon. Gentleman is making. He seems to be saying that he is quite prepared to see the number of seats reduced from 40. Will the hon. Gentleman give us some idea as to what figure he is prepared to see, therefore? It would be interesting to know exactly what figure the Opposition have in mind.
Chris Bryant: Several amendments in the next group refer to how one might make provision specifically for Wales, but there are other places we would like to make provision for, such as Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, rather than just the three areas the Bill covers. At present, however, I am specifically addressing the proposal to reduce the total number of seats from 650 to 600.
Given that the hon. Gentleman's concern is that this move would lead to an increase in Welsh nationalism, will he reflect on the fact that, prior to 1997, the rationale for having a Scottish Parliament was
that that would somehow snuff out Scottish nationalism? The idea was not that there should be an Administration run by Scottish nationalists within eight years of the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, the notion that not reducing the number of seats will be in the interests of those who do not want to see an increase in nationalism has not been borne out by the facts.
Chris Bryant: That was never my argument in favour of devolution in Scotland or Wales. My argument in favour of devolution was simply that it is better to devolve responsibility for issues that most directly affect people to the people who are most directly affected. That is why I thought it was right to establish the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I very much hope we will be snuffing out nationalism in Scotland come next May however, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on that.
There is one other reason why I think the diminution in the number of seats from 650 to 600 is a mistake, which is to do with the number of Ministers. At present, the law allows that there should be 95 Ministers, paid or unpaid, sitting in the House of Commons, and if there are any more, they are barred from sitting in the Commons. That is an important principle. The Executive, who-unusually compared with other such systems around the world-exclusively sit in Parliament, should be limited, as should the Prime Minister's patronage. If we reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600 and do not change the number of Ministers, the proportion of Parliament-the legislature-that represents the Executive will grow.
I hope that we will be moving in the opposite direction, although part of me is being somewhat hypocritical because I was an unpaid Minister for a while when I held the post that the Deputy Leader of the House now holds. The advent of so many unpaid Ministers is a shame and the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries has also increased dramatically in recent years. Prime Ministers have sought to find other ways of extending patronage by making people vice-chair of a committee or by all sorts of other means. That is wrong, because we should be limiting the power of patronage within the legislature, so that the legislature can do a better job-I argued that when Labour was in government and I am arguing it now. That is why reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 without reducing the number of Ministers is a mistake.
It is also a mistake to fix the number of seats, by which I do not mean rig that number-I have already dealt with that argument; it did not appeal to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), but we will see whether I get better. We have never fixed the number of seats in the British Parliament or in the UK Parliament. The 1832 Act determined how many seats there should be, because it created a certain number of seats and abolished some others, but it did not say that the number of seats should be fixed for ever. Indeed, several other seats were added in subsequent years, including in 1867. When further people were enfranchised in 1885 it was said that there was clearly a need for a further number of seats, and each time an element of the Celtic nations was added to the British Parliament, a number of seats were added. So it is inappropriate for us to be fixing the number of seats and then saying, "We divide it up."
John Mann: Have we not now reached the crucial, salient point, which is that even in recent times Parliament has set not an absolute number, but a target-I believe that the last one was 613-for the Boundary Commission, so that an independent boundary commission, taking into account other criteria, can then set the boundaries? Is not the fundamental difference that this rather irregular Bill attempts to create an arbitrary number without building in that flexibility for an independent body to set this coherently?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This approach runs against the grain of how we have always done things in this House; the proposition has always been that representation in the British Parliament should be based on the communities that exist. There has been a recognition, first, that the shires needed representation. Irrespective of whether they were large or small, the shires always had exactly the same number of seats-at first they had two, then four for a while, then two again and briefly three. It was then said that towns had to be represented and the row was then about which towns genuinely represented communities. The big change in the 1832 Act was that this House said that we could not have rotten boroughs where, to all intents and purposes, there were no electors and the seat was granted by the landlord to whomever he thought fit, and instead we had to ensure that where there were genuine communities, they should have representation, with large communities having two seats and smaller communities having one.
In addition, specifically at the moments of union, this House decided that the communities involved needed representation. So under the Act of Union in 1536, when Wales was brought in, 44 Members of Parliament were allowed for Wales-it took them six years to get here, but they were here by 1542. After the Union with England Act 1707, Scotland had 45 Members-that was increased to 53 by the 1832 Act. Following the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800, Ireland had 100 Members, a number that subsequently increased to 105, reduced to 103 and was reformed again in the 20th century with the creation of the Irish Free State.
It is also important that we do not fix the number at 600 because of the way in which the Government have crafted their Bill. It rightly allows a certain flexibility, because the electorate of any constituency may be between 95% and 105% of the aimed-at electorate across the country.
Now, let us leave aside the question of whether it is right or wrong to be precise in one's mathematics and whether a further provision should allow the Boundary Commission to say that where there is an overriding further concern, such as a geographical, cultural or political concern, further leniency or flexibility should be allowed. What happens if the Boundary Commission, when it starts its process in the south of England and works up through the country or, in the case of Wales, starts in the south and goes north-or starts in the north and goes south-decides that the first 20 constituencies are best representing 95% of the quota? Does it then have to start filling in some 105% of that quota? The danger is that it will end up having to start all over again. Every time there is a new Boundary Commission, it will have to start all over again, because there will be knock-on effects from one constituency to another.
That is why I think it is wrong to fix the number at 600. If hon. Members think there should be a precise equation between the electorate in constituencies, it would be better to say that every constituency should be roughly 75,000 electors, give or take 5% or 10%. The Boundary Commission could then conclude how many seats there should be as a result of that to meet the two requirements-first, getting close to the 75,000 and, secondly, any other overriding concerns.
Tristram Hunt: Does not the figure of 600 point to the fundamental problem with the Bill, which is that it is spatchcocked with the demand for the referendum on the one hand and the reduction in the number of seats on the other? That means that no thought has been given to the role and function of a Member of Parliament, what we want from Members of Parliament and how many should fulfil that function. Instead, this has all been pooled together and pulled out of the air and that is why the Government are going to have problems.
Chris Bryant: I very much agree. One subject that I want to mention is precisely what the job of a Member of Parliament is in the modern era. That has obviously changed in the past 50 years and I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats, because the kind of pavement politics that they advocated strongly-through which they won a number of seats in the '80s and '90s-is one thing that has changed the nature of an MP's job today. My hon. Friend is right, and I do not think that there has been any consideration of that matter at all.
Susan Elan Jones: I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the balance between the Executive and the legislature. Judging from some of the nodding of heads, other Members did too. However, does he agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, who said to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in July:
"I think we have executive dominance; we have one of the most executive-led forms of government anywhere in the western world"?
Chris Bryant: Yes, that is true because of the structure we have in this country. Sometimes Members talk of checks and balances, which is really an import from the American system where the constitution was expressly written so as to have checks and balances. Incidentally, one of those checks and balances in the American system was that each state should have two Senators regardless of the number of people living in it. For instance, Rhode Island is tiny compared with California, which is larger economically, politically and in every other sense than a large number of countries in the world, but the two states only get two Senators in the Senate. In the British system, we do not have quite the same checks and balances-particularly if the House of Lords is dominated by a coalition in which two parties manage effectively to have control of both Houses, of the Executive and of the legislature.
I do praise some of the things that the Government have done since they took office, such as setting up the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that the whole of business could be handed over to a business committee, because I think that the role of the legislature needs to be reinforced so that the Executive is held better to account.
Various arguments have been advanced for cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600, one of which makes international comparisons. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister use that argument several times but it is completely fallacious. It is wrong to compare the British Parliament with the Spanish Parliament, for example, because the vast majority of Spain's Ministers do not sit in the Spanish Parliament. The Executive are not created out of the Parliament. Similarly, in other countries-the United States being the most obvious example-the Executive do not spring from the legislature, so there are not 95 people who automatically have a second job as a Minister or a Parliamentary Private Secretary. That comparison is therefore inappropriate.
If we are to make any kind of comparison, we must bear in mind differences in the level of devolution or federalisation from one country to another. Comparing the United Kingdom with Germany, for example, is inappropriate because the Länder has far more significant powers than any local authority in England and more powers than the Welsh Assembly.
David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the checks is for the Government to allow ample time for all clauses in a Bill to be discussed? They have clearly done that on this occasion, but we will not get to relevant Welsh issues because he has spent the past half hour speaking.
Chris Bryant: Bearing in mind what the hon. Gentleman used to say when he was in opposition, I should have thought that he would support the scrutiny of legislation-and one has to talk to scrutinise legislation. No, we have not had enough time to scrutinise the Bill because there are four clauses and some schedules on which we have not had any debate at all. In addition, the Government have tabled 100 pages of amendments that we are going to debate on Monday, which means that we will not be able to debate issues such as the one that he is interested in-cutting the number of Ministers. I shall not take any lectures from him on how long one should speak in the House or on how much scrutiny there should be.
Chris Bryant: The Minister has clearly lost his marbles-it was because it did not give us enough time. The way in which the Government have behaved over this Bill has been an absolute shoddy mistake. They have consistently refused to provide enough time for us to debate the issues. [ Interruption. ] No, we did not vote against more time-we voted against the programme motion and we will continue to vote against such programme motions because we want to be able to do this job properly.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and the lack of cross-party consensus or discussions that are usual with this type of Bill, it is even more important to have the necessary debates and to spend
time on the Bill at this stage? I am sure that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) would be arguing for that if he were in opposition.
Chris Bryant: There has been absolutely no pre-legislative scrutiny. This has not been adumbrated in anybody's manifesto and it has not been available for anybody to consider in public. There has been no public consultation and no consultation between political parties. Of course, therefore, there should be provision for each clause to be considered for at least one day on the Floor of the House, as this is a major constitutional Bill. I am sorry if Government Members are arguing the exact opposite of what they used to, but my point remains-international comparisons are inappropriate.
The Deputy Prime Minister has also sought to suggest that we have far too many Members of Parliament because other countries have far fewer, but the local population per elected member at local authority level in other countries is very different: in France it is 118 and in Germany it is 350, whereas in the United Kingdom it is 2,603. We have to look at the whole set of elected officials if we are to have a real impression of whether we have too many or too few Members of Parliament. I suspect that most voters in this country quite like having a local Member of Parliament who sits in the House. Of course, if one asks the public, particularly if one does so via the Daily Express or the Daily Mail , "Are there too many Members of Parliament?" they will all answer, "Yes," but if one asks them, "Should your town not have a Member of Parliament?" or, "Should your town be combined with another town?" they would probably answer, "No, I would prefer to have a local constituency Member of Parliament whose name I know, who is accessible and whose constituency surgery I can get to."
Glyn Davies: As someone who is fairly new to the House and who is listening to the hon. Gentleman and trying to understand exactly what the Opposition want, I should like to ask him a question. He suggests that there should be a day's debate on every clause. The last clause simply deals with the short title. Is he suggesting that there should be a day's debate on the short title?
Chris Bryant: No. I think that that is a slightly facetious point, but we should have a day to debate a clause that will reduce the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600, and rejig the boundaries in a way completely different from anything in the past, without any public consultation, without the proposal appearing in any public manifesto, and without any consultation across the parties. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair point: some clauses do not need a whole day's debate.
David T. C. Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, although I do not want to extend the debate for too long. He must know perfectly well that two manifestos said that the number of MPs would be reduced and that the reduction now proposed is a much smaller one, which should be something that he could support.
No. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present at the beginning of my comments-he was doubtless opposing the Government's
measures on S4C-but as I now apparently have to rehearse the argument for him, I can tell him that I was making the point that the number has been arrived at for entirely partisan reasons. It is not the number that was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, nor the one that was in the Conservative manifesto.
Chris Bryant: Yes, it is higher than both those figures, because it manages to reach a level that hits the number of Labour seats but not the number of Liberal Democrat seats. That is why the number has been chosen, and that is why I oppose it.
Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I want to calm things down a bit, and take the hon. Gentleman back to the technical point that he made before. He asked what would happen if the Boundary Commission dealt with a whole pile of seats first, got to about 95% and was perfectly satisfied, and then found, because it had to stick to the number 600, that it got into real difficulty and did some very odd things later on. If that was an issue for the Boundary Commission, we might think that some advice would have been given on it. Has he asked the Boundary Commission what its advice is on that point?
Chris Bryant: The Boundary Commission will do what it is told to do. If the law of the land changes, the Boundary Commission's powers and duties are determined by that legislation and it will do what it is required to do.
Dr Pugh: Whatever the Boundary Commission is asked to do, it can say that some tasks are more technically difficult than others. The hon. Gentleman suggests that this is a technically difficult, almost insuperable task. If that is the case, it can say so, can it not?
Chris Bryant: No, I am not saying that the task is insuperable. Of course it would be possible to draw up the constituencies in the way proposed, but why should one constituency then end up with 95% of the average electorate and another with 105%? [ Interruption. ] The Deputy Leader of the House keeps on referring to the Rhondda. He obviously has some desire either to do down the people of the Rhondda or to visit the Rhondda, but I am not extending an invitation to him.
Mr Heath: I wonder why the hon. Gentleman believes that the difference between 95% and 105% is a gross intrusion, yet that the difference between my constituency with its 82,000 possible voters, and his constituency with its 52,000, is perfectly all right and needs to be preserved.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman should not misrepresent what I have said. He knows perfectly well that I have never said that there should be a divergence between his constituency with 82,000 possible voters, and mine with 51,000. I am wholeheartedly in favour of greater equalisation. I have argued that for a long time, and the Labour party and its predecessors, going way back to the Chartists in the 1840s, argued for greater equalisation of seat sizes. But if we are to move towards equalisation do we add, on top of that, the idea of a fixed number of seats? That is what I am querying.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's argument against 600 seats, but I do not think that I understand his argument for 650 seats, other than that it would give the Labour party an advantage. Is that a partisan argument?
I was about to argue that we should not cut the number of seats. I would prefer a situation in which we did not fix the total at any particular number: that is why we have framed our amendment as we have. In addition, it is important not to cut the number of Members.
Tristram Hunt: Is not the solution, as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has heard, to discuss what the nature of a Member is, to seek an optimum number of Members and then to introduce a rolling programme that moves towards that number, rather than an overnight slashing from 650 to 600 for nakedly partisan reasons?
Chris Bryant: That is wholly my view. That solution gets around the problems, to which I have referred, for the parts of the Union that are more dramatically affected than others, and it would be entirely in keeping with the tradition of this House, which is that we proceed by evolution rather than revolution.
I could understand the argument for reducing the number of seats from 650 to 600 if over the past 50 years the number of seats had dramatically increased in relation to the electorate. In actual fact, however, the number of seats has grown by 3% and the number of voters has increased by 25%, so if hon. Members were being honest they would say, "As we agree that the number of seats should go with the number of voters, we should argue for more seats, rather than fewer."
In addition, the job has completely and utterly changed over the past few years. In a previous debate, for which not all hon. Members were present, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) referred to casework, which is a concept in modern politics-
I have always believed that the job of a modern Member is very different from that of somebody 40 or even 30 years ago. For a start, the advent of 24-hour news, e-mails, which arrive at 3 o'clock in the morning, mobile telephony and all the rest of it has meant that the electorate expect us to be available far more and to return their phone calls, messages, e-mails and letters far more frequently.
The number of letters on a policy issue that a Member would have received in the 1960s in any one week would have been fewer than 10. Today, I guess that most Members receive in excess of 250 letters a week on policy issues or on an individual casework issue. If we want fewer Members, but our answer to that is to give them more members of staff, thereby increasing their expenses, we will actually deracinate Members from the communities that they serve. We will make them less accessible to voters, and that is why I believe it is wrong to cut the number of Members.
My intervention is on a different issue, however. My hon. Friend suggested accurately that the arbitrary number of 600 is an attempt to gerrymander the boundaries against Labour. That is clearly the attempt, but does he think that the Government have done their mathematics in a sufficiently competent way? If we do an analysis throughout the country and think of the rationale that the Boundary Commission might have chosen to adopt-had it been given any under the Bill-we find that there is obviously an issue in Wales and Northern Ireland, but that in Scotland the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists have the smaller average seats, not Labour. Throughout England, the area where it is easiest to blur boundaries-
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an intervention, not a speech, and I think that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has got the gist of the point.
The Second Deputy Chairman: I do not need to be picked up on that. I am not commenting at all on whether interventions are good or not; I simply point out that the convention of the House is that they should be relatively brief. That is all.
David T. C. Davies: On a point of order, Ms Primarolo. Many Welsh MPs here are desperate to discuss clause 11, which relates to the National Assembly for Wales. The Government have kindly given us enough time to discuss the clause, yet it seems quite possible that despite the Government's generosity we will not get to it. Will she advise me on how I, and other Welsh MPs who care about Wales, will be able to discuss it?
The Second Deputy Chairman: Frankly, that is not a point of order. The programme motion has been agreed by the House and Members are proceeding through the Bill, discussing what they consider to be important. As long as they remain in order, they can do so. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is grateful for having put his point on the record. Perhaps we can now return to amendment 364.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made a good point about how seats might be doled out in the different parts of the Union. It is interesting to analyse what might happen to Sheffield: it would be quite difficult to construct a Liberal Democrat seat for Sheffield, Hallam that would survive-so there is a silver lining somewhere in the legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw excoriated me for having only 250 pieces of communication. I meant 250 letters a week; the letter, of course, is almost something from the past these days. The vast majority of the correspondence from my constituency comes in the form of a telephone call, text message, Facebook message or through some other means.
Most members of the public expect a reply from the MP, not from some flunky or somebody working in the office for free. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) is picking me up on the word "flunky". There are no flunkies working in my office-nor, for that matter, do I ever use staff who have offered to work for free. It is one of the shames of this Parliament that so many MPs should have to survive on the free staffing provided by interns. We ought to be moving towards having paid staff.
Another argument that I would adduce in favour of not cutting the numbers from 650 to 600 is that over the past 50 years Parliament has become more and more the place where career politicians intend to come, stay and make their livelihood. Many people have a much more diverse history than just having worked as a special adviser or for a political party before coming here. The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) is a former GP; in fact, I think that she still serves as one. As we know, the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) is an author-and, of course, a former member of the Labour party. She has a diverse career behind her.
This Parliament has survived because of some of the mavericks and eccentrics, and the diversity of Members that it has managed to bring in here. If we reduce the numbers from 650 to 600, it will be the mavericks and the independents who will be disappearing and we will have more of the party political placepeople. That is a problem. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) is saying, rather unkindly, that I am such a placeman. [ Interruption. ] The Minister is trying to help by asking me what I think I am. I do not think that this clause is where we go into what I think I am: the meaning of life would be a bit too complicated, and it would go a little wide of the debate, Ms Primarolo.
That is true historically, too. Some of the great people who have come through this House have never been Ministers, and have never spoken from the Dispatch Box. Samuel Plimsoll, who was much excoriated by his party Whips and much hated, acted as an independent-but probably ended up saving more lives through the legislation that he drove through the House than many of us will ever be able to.
I will just say-although I hate to get a small cheer-one final thing. [Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] You see, they are like Pavlov's dogs-just give them the line and they
will slobber. I understand why the Prime Minister went into the general election saying that he wanted to make politics cheaper and that cutting the number of Members of Parliament would somehow restore British democracy. I understand the background against which that happened; all of us who were in the previous Parliament know the scars that this House bears because of the expenses scandal, which still rumbles on in its own way. However, it is wrong always to go down the populist line in matters of constitutional decorum, particularly the number of Members of Parliament. If we have a perfect mathematical equation for delineating the boundaries, we will end up making MPs less accessible to the public and less able to influence and be involved in decisions in their local communities. It will be more difficult for ordinary members of the public to understand who their MP is and have a relationship with them. Far from improving democracy in this country, that will undermine it further.
Roger Williams: If an electorate of 85,000 is reduced to 75,000, how does that make it more difficult for a constituent to contact his MP? Surely every MP should be equally available to their constituents.
Chris Bryant: That did not make it better, and it was larger in an era when the expectations of a Member of Parliament to be present and available were much reduced. There was a time when MPs, when they visited their constituencies-once a year-were greeted with a brass band. That is not true today. [ Interruption. ] It is certainly not true for me, and I can see that it is not true for anybody else either.
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): I have read the hon. Gentleman's book, and I think that he is referring to Stafford Cripps, who was greeted by a brass band when he arrived at Bristol Temple Meads. The Member who currently represents Bristol Temple Meads is certainly not greeted in that way.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right: I am referring to Stafford Cripps. The book is not one that is available in all good bookshops, but there is a copy in the Library should any hon. Member wish to read it.
"Constituencies are not merely areas bounded by a line on a map; they are living communities with a unity, a history and a personality of their own."-[ Official Report, 19 June 1969; Vol. 785, c. 742.]
That has always been how we have done things in this House and in this country, and I believe that it is how we should continue to do them in future. That is why I have moved this amendment, and why I hope that we will not reduce the number of seats from 650 to a fixed number of 600.
Mr Mark Field:
I must confess that I totally accept the need to equalise electorates, which is why I have tabled amendments in a later group, which I suspect we will not get to, suggesting that we leave out of the Bill
the gerrymandering-there is no other word to use-of three Scottish seats. That has occurred through a limit of 13,000 sq km being plucked out of the sky to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and probably also Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, to be seen as exceptional. If we equalise constituencies it could be regrettable for such communities, but we want electorates of a similar size.
In fairness to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I think that equal constituencies will mean that we divide the country up into 10 or 15 different areas, from which we can draw up the 600 seats, rather than suddenly realising when we get to the middle of Scotland that we are 10 or 15 seats short. I fully accept the need to equalise electorates, and it is greatly to be regretted that we are not doing that for all seats. It seems that a rather grubby little compromise has been put in place. In the modern, technological era, I disagree with the idea that the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, the two smallest seats in the UK, should be protected. Orkney and Shetland was part of the Wick Burghs constituency at one time during the last century, and the Western Isles were part of the Ross and Cromarty and Inverness-shire constituencies. It is a bogus argument that those constituencies somehow have great historical relevance.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman said that in his view there had been a grubby little compromise. That is quite a statement to make. Would he like to explain and elaborate on exactly what he means?
Mr Field: I believe that the compromise was perhaps made to keep the Scottish nationalists happy- [Interruption.] Well, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) represents virtually no constituents in this House. I respect that, but we are living in a technological age of e-mails and so on, and I do not agree with the notion that he should maintain the privileged position of representing just 23,000 constituents, when many of us have to represent not only our statutory 70,000 or so but a significant number of non-UK nationals. There is a perfectly good case to be made, but it should not override the idea of equalising communities.
Mr MacNeil: In one respect I would love to help the hon. Gentleman, of course, because I would be quite happy for there to be no MPs from Scotland in this House at all. In the meantime, while we have to have that situation, I remind him that my constituency is the length of Wales. He is very welcome to come with me to the Western Isles and explain his views to all my constituents whom he might meet on his visit.
Mark Tami: I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said about the three seats in Scotland. In Wales, there could be a seat in the middle of the country that, as I said earlier, could stretch from one side of Wales to the other with a very sparse population. Why is it okay for that to be taken into account of in the case of Scotland, but not Wales?
Neither can I see any justification for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. The somewhat bogus argument that it will save £12 million a year is certainly outweighed by the fact that the alternative vote referendum will cost some £80 million to £100 million. It is also argued that our House is one of the largest legislatures, but that argument is destroyed by the fact that this Government alone have already massively increased the size of the House of Lords, by some 56 Members since May. They are now looking to stuff a whole lot more unelected Lords in there, and the proposals to make the other House even larger are an absolute disgrace, at least before there is any reform. It is entirely regrettable that there is not to be reform of the House of Commons and the House of Lords as part of the same package.
I fear, given the comments that a number of colleagues have made, that we have not been able to scrutinise the Bill properly because we have run out of time under the programme motion. It will therefore be the House of Lords that takes up the important work of examining the constitutional impact of what is being suggested. The hon. Member for Rhondda is right that nowhere in any manifesto was there a commitment to 600 seats, and all three parties committed to move to a wholly or largely elected House of Lords at the earliest possible opportunity. That now seems a long way off. I particularly regret that because it has always been the Liberal Democrats' position to democratise, and to make the House of Lords accountable to the electorate. They now hold the novel constitutional principle that the House of Lords should somehow reflect the voting at the last election. That suggests that 200 or so peers will be added to the House of Lords-a significant number of whom will come from the Liberal Democrat party.
I hope that, in so far as more people are to be added to the House of Lords, close scrutiny will be paid to ensure that former Members of the Commons who were caught up in the expenses scandal are not rewarded with a life peerage. As we have seen from the difficulty with the three peers who have been suspended and the two Conservative peers who face the courts in the next few months, there is no mechanism for getting rid of people from the House of Lords. Yet, as part of the constitutional reform, we are introducing some concept of giving our constituents a recall mechanism to get rid of Members of the Commons. The position is incongruous. Until the House of Lords has been sorted out-and certainly for so long as we stuff yet more unelected peers into the other place, which we have already done since May and will continue to do-it would be wrong to reduce the size of the Commons.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab):
I rise to speak about amendments 259 and 260, which I tabled and hope to put to the vote at the end of the debate. Two features of the "General Gerrymander and Electoral Jiggery-Pokery" Bill are the most offensive. The first is the alternative vote, which is a Liberal benefit plan-Liberal Democrats hope that if we get the alternative vote, they will be everybody's second preference. Fortunately, the alternative vote is unlikely to be carried in the referendum-I shall certainly vote against it. It is rather sad that many people with whom I have worked over the years for
electoral reform seem to believe that AV is a form of electoral reform. It is not-it is the stupid person's electoral reform. The only effective electoral reform is proportional representation.
Austin Mitchell: The leader now sees the benefits of the alternative vote, but I do not. It is not a halfway house to a system of proportional representation. Only proportional representation will allow us to manage the emerging multi-party system in the confines of the electoral system. We cannot do it with the current system, but I do not want to be detoured from my main purpose.
"The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600."
It does not say "590", "620" or "650", but "600." It would be interesting to know how the Government reached that figure. Did they have a séance, as they did for the scale of the cuts that were announced this afternoon: "£240 billion, £120 billion; £600 billion"? Did they split the difference, or did they, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) suggested-I think rightly-arrive at a figure that will lose Labour more seats than the Liberal Democrats?
The Liberals had a smaller figure in their manifesto, but it was proposed in the light of a transfer to STV, which the Liberal party has always supported, with three, four or five-Member constituencies, in which the Liberals have a greater chance of getting somebody elected. The smaller figure was not proposed for first past the post or AV. The Government wanted to cut 10% of the seats. Why? Was it an economy measure? Was it to capitalise on the discontent that The Daily Telegraph's revelations about expenses produced, and to say, "We're getting rid of these greedy so-and-sos and reducing the number of people who sponge off the public purse"? Was it that sort of populism? Is that how they arrived at the figure? We need to know before we can make a judgment.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): My hon. Friend said that the Liberal Democrats had always supported the single transferable vote. Could I remind him that he tabled an amendment recently on STV that they voted against? In fact, they should clearly change their position and say that they now oppose STV.
The Liberals are in a determined rush to sign their own death warrant. I cannot judge them. I am trying to help them, because people should not sign their own death warrant while the balance of the mind is disturbed. I am trying to take power of attorney over them. The Liberal leader's constituency-Sheffield, Hallam-will be abolished under the Bill, so a winnable seat in Sheffield will go. He might have told his party, "At this stage in the coalition, chaps, we need
a futile gesture. I want you to agree to give up your seats for this Bill." It could be that that went on, although I do not know the internal processes of the Liberals. Some of my best friends are Liberals, but I will not speak for them. I am trying to help them by tabling amendments such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred and amendment 259, which would keep the number of MPs at 650.
Graham Stringer: Does my hon. Friend agree that the single biggest weakness of the British constitution is that elected Members of the House of Commons do not have enough power in relation to the Executive? Clause 9 will further diminish the power of elected representatives.
Austin Mitchell: That is absolutely right and I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The real problem with the British constitution is that we do not have one. The constitution in this country is what the Government can get away with. If they can get away with clause 9, which weakens democracy and the Commons and strengthens the Executive, they can get away with more or less anything, with the willing concurrence of the supine Liberals, who are supporting a measure that will weaken them-hopefully-for their own execution.
There is no mystique to how I arrived at the figure of 650 for amendment 259. I just put it in. That is the number of MPs now and the Commons will function efficiently with it. There used to be 700 MPs in the 19th century when the Irish were here. They had to fit in a Chamber the size of this one, which seats about 420-fortunately, most of them did not come-but 650 is a good working total, which is why I chose it.
The consequence of having 600 MPs, as proposed in clause 9, is that the redistribution will be more brutal and more massive. It will be a blitzkrieg of a redistribution, but there will be no democratic controls on it. The scale of the redistribution is determined by the size of the House.
Chris Bryant: I just wanted to correct a fact that my hon. Friend gave. He said that there were 700 Members in the 19th century owing to the Irish, but in fact, the only time that there were more than 700 Members was from 1918 to 1922. That redistribution was brought about by the Liberals.
Austin Mitchell: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I took history at university, but my thesis was on the Whig party in opposition from 1812 to 1830, which was very good preparation for being in the Labour party in the 1980s and 1990s. I did not get as far as the Irish settlement of 1922, and I always regret that. I shall go to him for some tutorials. He is obviously better informed than I am.
I arrived at the figure of 650 because that seems to work well, and I do not want a reduction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out, a reduction in the number of MPs and a smaller House will make the Executive proportionately stronger. I would like to see some proposals from the Government to reduce the number of Executive appointments. There are more than 100, which means that they have a huge bought vote in the House to
overrule the wishes of the Members. I want Members to be stronger and the Executive to be weaker, but this measure will have the opposite effect.
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Although I completely support the reduction in the number of Members, I have huge sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the Executive, because of the lack of voice. Members of the Executive do not speak on local constituency matters, and I would therefore welcome any attempts to reduce Executive numbers to increase the voice of Back Benchers proportionally.
Austin Mitchell: If the number of Members is reduced, the voice of the constituencies will be proportionally less in this House, and that is another argument for keeping the 650, as I propose. What will happen if the Executive are reduced in this House? Will we have more Executive appointments in the Lords? Will we appoint more of those grovelling chief executives and chairmen who wrote to The Daily Telegraph to support the Government's plans for cuts at the expense of their customers, saying in effect, "It doesn't matter how much damage you inflict on our customers and on demand for our businesses, we support the Government." That is clearly a plea for knighthoods or Government jobs. Will the Government respond to that by creating posts outside Parliament for these people? How will they reconstitute the Executive to make them less strong proportionally in a reduced House? We have heard nothing on that.
Secondly, the reduction would reduce the pool of talent from which to select Ministers and to make all the other contributions that MPs make. Heaven knows, the pool is not all that big now. We do not have all that much talent, and certainly not the level that we used to have- [ Interruption. ] Well, we have some, especially from Humberside. Our contribution is big, but it is not enough. I would like a bigger pool of talent in the House to pick Ministers from.
Most importantly, the change would reduce the service that we provide to our constituents. I have always found constituency work exciting and interesting, and a solace for my failure to be appointed to any ministerial job-or my ability to mess up any ministerial appointment that I have been offered, which has always been very short-lived because of the joys of constituency work. I find it very satisfactory-
Austin Mitchell: I was hoping that the SNP would appoint me Fisheries Minister for Scotland, but that post would have been a little difficult to handle from Grimsby. I never even achieved the rank of PPS to the Minister- [ Interruption. ] I apologise, Ms Primarolo. I was led astray.
There is a genuine issue about the service that we provide to our constituents. I know that we have changed over the years from senators to servants of our constituency, and I know that the amount of work has steadily increased. That is a necessary development, because our constituents want to be heard more. We no longer have the same sort of subservient, quiet and loyal
electorate that would vote for parties and did not want their voice to be heard. People want to be heard and they want us to listen to them. They want to communicate with us and they want us to raise the problems that they raise with us. That is the job, and we would be less able to do that if there were fewer of us here.
Mr Heath: I am bemused by this concept that the figure of 600 would prevent Members of Parliament from being able to represent their constituents adequately, because the electoral quota suggested-about 76,000-already applies to a third of the House, give or take 5%. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that a third of Members are incapable of representing their constituents properly?
Austin Mitchell: The bigger the size of the constituency and the electorate, the harder it is to represent them adequately. It may be that evening up constituencies leads to areas being more adequately represented, because those areas will have smaller constituencies, but in my case it will mean a bigger constituency, and many of us are struggling to do the job now.
For example, the amount of mail is increasing all the time. Not so long ago, I read the biography of Hugh Gaitskell by Philip Williams, which was about Gaitskell in the 1950s. It said that Gaitskell's papers showed that in 1958, when he was the MP for Leeds South East, he got 50 letters a month from his constituents. I get 50 letters every couple of days, and that is in addition to all the e-mails, surgery visits and stoppings in the street in Grimsby, with people asking whether I will ask this or do that, and so on, all of which I have to scribble down. That must mean that in a larger constituency it is more difficult to serve everyone in it. That is an obvious fact. Indeed, it is getting difficult to do the job adequately with 650 Members. We need more and more staff. Fortunately, we have been given more staff, but it is not enough, although it depends on the seriousness with which one does the job.
Mrs Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Nobody could do the job more seriously than he, but right at this moment he is representing his constituents in that other way. He is once again confusing his job-the job of us all-as a social worker, providing pastoral care and advice, with the job of representing our constituents as part of the democratic process. He cannot possibly argue that a man of his calibre, or the calibre of anyone sitting in the Chamber right now, cannot cope with a few thousand more constituents to represent.
Mr David: Does my hon. Friend agree that the important point is not just that we take up individual cases, but that having that direct contact with our constituents influences our work as parliamentarians?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Many of the ideas that I raised, the questions that I have asked and the things that I have debated in Westminster Hall come from constituents and constituency problems. That is the nature of democracy-that is how it has to
be. We have to face the fact that the state is interacting with people and imposing things on them more than ever before.
Let us look at the flood of problems that we have had with the Child Support Agency, and the fact that a special hotline has had to be created for MPs, so that they can get through to Belfast and have incomprehensible conversations. [ Interruption. ] I appreciate the difficulties that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) face doing that kind of job-if I could make it easier, I would-but it creates an enormous amount of extra work for us. The same is true of tax credits, which are extremely complex. There is all that interaction, and believe me, Ms Primarolo, there will be a lot more interaction as a result of the cuts announced today, as people come to us with problems to do with benefits, invalidity and cutting off job support. That is going to create a lot more work for us in our constituencies and a lot more work in our surgeries.
Mark Durkan: I just want to reinforce my hon. Friend's point. He has to ring Belfast about CSA cases, but he is not the only Member who has to ring people in remote parts who know nothing of the situations that we are dealing with. We in Northern Ireland experience that regularly when we deal with tax credits. In fairness, the conversations that we have with Frank in Preston are comprehensible; it is the other officials who are the problem.
A number of Members would like to see us as some kind of intellectual elite, or as the senators that we perhaps used to be in the 19th century. The fact that we are now the street cleaners and the sewage cleaners of the constitutions-the slaves in the galley of the ship of state, albeit somewhat differently whipped-offends their dignity, but that is the job as it is.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unreasonable to deride one-to-one pastoral care of constituents as social work, partly because it necessarily informs our work as MPs but also because the more ordinary constituents meet their MP, whether at church, in an advice session or in the supermarket, the more they will respect us?
Austin Mitchell: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been a lot of damaging criticism and abuse of MPs as a result of the revelations in The Daily Telegraph last year, and some of that was, frankly, scandalous. It has lowered us in the public's estimation, but people still turn to us. They need us for all the problems that they come up against. We are the defenders of last resort. We are the ombudsmen for our constituents.
Chris Bryant: But is it not also true that, especially for some of the most vulnerable people in some of the most vulnerable communities, we are the only advocates they can afford, whether we are advocating their cause here or, for example, at their bank? We represent them in all kinds of circumstances that no one would have conceived of as part of the job 50 years ago.
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