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Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD):
The right hon. Gentleman obviously has not quite understood that in a coalition, more than one party must be accommodated. The Labour party is not in the coalition. Can he be very clear whether Labour party policy is the same as it was at the election, which
is to support the alternative vote? I am referring not only to the Leader of the Opposition, but the shadow Cabinet, Labour Members and the party as a whole.
Sadiq Khan: The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats wants to start a new convention-have a manifesto, not win the election, get involved for five days in a shabby deal with the Conservative party, and reach an agreement for the sake of power rather than principle.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am always happy to come to the aid of the Liberal Democrats when they, once again, get their facts wrong. The policy of the Labour party at the last election was to have a referendum on the alternative vote and to allow the people of this country to have a say, with Labour MPs campaigning on both sides of the argument.
Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is what these arrogant Ministers have come to, after just five months, in this mother of all Parliaments. At a time when we are helping emerging democracies understand how democracy should work, we have a Bill that will change the voting system, reduce the number of MPs and change the way in which seats are distributed, all for the sake of political expediency and the coalition's calculations, rather than for principle.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Labour party supports the principle of more equal seats, but that objective could be met in a more balanced and practical way than proposed in the Bill. As things stand, the requirement for every seat to fit within 5% of a UK-wide electoral quota would see dramatic changes to long-established patterns of representation, but take no proper account of geography, history or community ties. The boundary commission secretaries said in evidence-I know that the Deputy Prime Minister does not like evidence, but I will give him some this evening-that
"the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies...and will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries."
We will see the creation of seats that cross the Mersey, a "Devonwall" constituency that straddles the Tamar is inevitable, and then there is the Isle of Wight-a problem that called for the wisdom of Solomon has received the attention of the absent Hitchcock in the last few weeks. Against everyone's wishes, the island will be split in two, with 35,000 electors merged with constituencies in Hampshire, producing a ripple effect that will distort the composition of neighbouring seats for miles around.
We have suggested that several areas, including Cornwall, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight, should be allocated whole constituencies, to avoid these perverse outcomes. The Government have not listened. We advocated the compromise of a 10% absolute limit on disparity, which would provide more equal-sized seats while enabling factors such as geography and community to be taken into account. The Government have not listened.
The indecent haste of the changes will also create problems. To complete a review by October 2013, the boundary commissions have been instructed to use the December 2010 electoral register, from which more than 3.5 million eligible voters are missing, as the foundation for the constituencies redesign. As the missing millions
are mostly younger, poorer people predominantly located in urban areas, the calculations are bound to produce a distorted electoral map.
To compound everything, the Bill abolishes the right to hold local inquiries into boundary commission recommendations. Even critics of the inquiry process have questioned that decision, asserting that if there was ever a boundary review for which inquiries will be needed, this is it. But the Government will not listen, because consulting the public would mean delaying their politically driven timetable, designed to damage Labour's electoral standing.
Combining the referendum with other polls next May is also clearly wrong. It increases the risk of administrative chaos and the potential for spoiled ballots. It will also cause problems with expenses, the media and the electoral rules, as other hon. Members have pointed out.
Geraint Davies: On the issue of corrupting the democracy of the Welsh Assembly and the evidence of the Select Committee, does my hon. Friend accept that Wales is a nation of 3 million people set alongside a nation 17 times its size? Wales is also exclusively reliant on a funding stream from England. The Select Committee essentially said that there will be profound constitutional consequences for the whole of the UK if this Bill is railroaded through and the democratic mandate from Wales is reduced by a quarter. We are here to be the voice of Wales, and this is a slap in the face for the Union and for Wales.
Sadiq Khan: If my hon. Friend thinks that the Deputy Prime Minister-the great reformer-has read the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am afraid that he is mistaken. The Deputy Prime Minister has not even read Ron Gould's report or been present in the Chamber since 6 September, so the idea that the Government will take into account any of the evidence is nonsense.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Gould report. The problems in the Scottish elections in 2007 were caused because the Labour Government decided to have a ballot paper on which people had to put two crosses in two separate columns. If he had read the Gould report, he would know that that was what caused the problem. In this case, there will be three ballot papers and people will have to put an X on each of them. That is far simpler. Clearly he has not read the Gould report.
The hon. Gentleman is making the same mistake that the Deputy Prime Minister made, which is not to have heard the comments made just an hour ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on the same point. What the hon. Gentleman has described is not the reason why we object to the referendum and the elections being held on the same day. He really must do a service to his constituents, bearing in mind that they will suffer huge consequences, by listening to the evidence and listening to the debate. The other problem with having a referendum on the same day as national elections and council elections outside London is the differential turnout. Irrespective of the result on 5 May 2011, and whichever way the vote goes, there will be questions about the legitimacy
of that vote because of differential turnouts. Who is to blame for this? The Deputy Prime Minister, the great reformer.
Labour supports a referendum on AV and agrees with the principle of creating more equal seats, but this Bill is a bad means of delivering both objectives. It is too inflexible and too hasty, and it will lead to great and ongoing political instability. This House has failed to improve the Bill because it has not been allowed to do so. To our shame, that task now falls to unelected peers in the other place, whom we must now rely on to inject some democratic principles into what, to date, has been an inglorious episode in recent parliamentary history.
Mrs Laing: We have had many, many hours of debate on this Bill- not enough, some would argue. Unfortunately, there are parts of the Bill that have not been reached and not been examined, for various reasons. The other day I found a quotation in one of those amusing books that said: "Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made."
Mrs Laing: I believe it probably was Bismarck. If ever that were true, it is true of this Bill. However, this is also a necessary Bill. I said at the beginning that I appreciated why we had to have it and that I would support it, and I will continue to do so.
The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform did its best, on a rushed timetable, to perform what legislative scrutiny of the Bill we could. On behalf of the Committee, let me say that I hope that our reports and investigations, and the evidence that we have made available to Members has been useful in informing some of the debates that have taken place. While mentioning the Committee, let me say that the Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), will be sad to have missed this part of the proceedings on the Bill, just as he has had to miss many of the Committee's sittings, because he has been unwell. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery, although he is not seriously ill, so I believe that he will be back soon-it is okay, I should tell Opposition Members that he will not be missed for too long. The Committee has done its best to help the House to consider this Bill properly.
The second part of the Bill is excellent-the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will not be surprised to hear me say that. It is correct that we should at last grasp the difficult nettle of the composition of the House of Commons. It is correct that we should reduce the number of Members of Parliament to the perfectly round and reasonable figure of 600. It is correct that this House and this Parliament should make that decision, as it is doing this evening. It is also correct and inarguable that every constituency in the United Kingdom, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, that sends a Member to this United Kingdom Parliament should be of equal size.
Mrs Laing: No, I certainly do not. The hon. Gentleman's point has no validity whatever. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom-of the whole United Kingdom-and every constituency in this United Kingdom should be of equal size and should have an equal number of voters. Every Member who is elected to this Parliament should come here with an equal weight of electorate behind them.
Mrs Laing: Mr Deputy Speaker might say that that point is not relevant to this Bill. It is not for me to argue the matter. I do not want prisoners to have the vote, but that is not the point at issue. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) gave perfectly good responses to that this afternoon.
Labour Members have produced all the little arguments they can possibly think of to try to preserve the current unfair imbalance in constituency structures that gives the Labour party an unfair electoral advantage. Every statistic shows that, and it cannot be argued against because it is a matter of simple arithmetic. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact - [ Interruption. ]
Mrs Laing: No. I think the point is incompetent. We debated it at great length last night, and the fact is that public inquiries are not necessary. It is necessary to have a certain amount of time for consultation, and that is provided in the Bill. We do not need long, drawn out public inquiries when political parties spend weeks and months arguing spuriously about old-fashioned boundaries and traditions, and about hills, mountains and rivers, when they are concerned only about the number of Labour voters or Conservative voters who are likely to be in a constituency. Labour Members should have the courage to face up to a fair democratic system, and that is what the Bill will introduce.
Mrs Laing: Yes, I am aware of that, but it does not change my argument one tiny bit. The fact is that the Bill provides for a much fairer and equal system with one vote, one value. Equality is all that matters.
Mrs Laing: I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the acts of the last-but-one Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who packed more members of the Labour party into the House of Lords than any previous Prime Minister had done. And no, I do not think it is fair, but that is not relevant. I am sure that his party will be pleased to hear his criticism of its hero, Mr Blair.
I have had more difficulty in supporting the first part of the Bill, although it is obvious that we have to have a referendum because it is part of the deal done between the two parties in order to form the coalition agreement. We need a coalition Government in order to give the country the stability that we require to deal with the horrific economic circumstances left behind by the last Labour Government.
Dr Julian Lewis: I am sorry to make an unhelpful intervention on my hon. Friend, whom I greatly admire, but my understanding of a deal for a coalition Government is that when a bargain is made, both sides stick to it. That is why I voted for this Bill on Second Reading, despite my objections to it. Subsequently, however, the part of the bargain that induced me to endorse the deal-namely, the fact that we were told that the Liberals would accept the renewal of the Trident strategic nuclear deterrent-was dishonoured. That is why I shall be voting against the Bill on Third Reading.
Mrs Laing: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, but it does not change my arguments about the Bill. I appreciate his point, but I still say that we should have a coalition in order to provide the stability that the country needs in the aftermath of Labour's economic disasters. It is therefore necessary to have this Bill and to have a referendum.
It is a great pity that the referendum is to be held on the same day as other elections. We have heard many very well put arguments, particularly from Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, about why the referendum should not take place on the same day as their national elections. Nor should a referendum go ahead without a threshold. That could result in a vote on a derisory turnout of some 15% changing our constitution. That is quite simply wrong, but I realise that the Government are not going to accept that argument because, once again, these provisions are in the coalition agreement, by which we are bound.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that the date of the referendum is not set in stone in the coalition agreement, and that it is simply a part of the Bill? Does she also agree that the Deputy Prime Minister's desire to maximise the chances of winning the referendum by holding it on that date could well backfire on him, because of the manner in which the Bill is demotivating many of us who are in favour of electoral reform but
who have consistently been appalled by the way in which it has been railroaded through, against the wishes of the devolved Administrations?
Mrs Laing: Yes, I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point. He is totally correct. The fact is that some of us have tried, in all good faith, to improve the Bill, but we have failed to do so. On those matters of principle, we now have a Bill in more or less the state that it was in when it first came to the House. I must not presume what might happen in another place, but let us assume that we will now have to go ahead with a referendum on the same day as the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and some local elections in England. The turnout for the referendum could be derisory, so it would not have much validity. However, I am now sure of one thing, and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) has just reinforced my point. As this argument has gone on in the country and the media over the last few months, it has become clear-and it will become even clearer-that the British people will not be duped into voting for a voting system that is representative neither of a fair first-past-the-post system, nor of the sort of proportional representation seen in some countries, which I do not like, although I agree it has some validity. The system we will be voting on will be neither one nor the other-and I do not believe that the British people with their good sense will vote for it.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Is the hon. Lady- [Interruption.] Wonderful? Yes, she is wonderful, but is she aware that there is no popular mandate for this referendum? It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto-the Liberal Democrats wanted to push this through without a popular referendum and to impose this on the British people-and it was not in the Conservative manifesto either. Does the hon. Lady think that the other place might well regard this commitment as having no validity in terms of a democratic mandate?
Mrs Laing: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct: there is no democratic mandate for this referendum-none whatever. If the proportion of votes cast for the Liberal Democrats in the UK as a whole during the general election in May this year were mirrored in the referendum, there would be no problem defeating the yes vote. The referendum would fail and we would be able to continue with our good, historic, solid, decent first-past-the-post system, which has served us so well for centuries.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
I will be brief, as other Members want to contribute. The speeches this evening and other speeches in Committee and on Report have shown that this is a highly politicised issue and a highly politicised debate. When we debate changes
to the voting system, major constitutional change and changes that affect the boundaries of constituencies, an attempt is usually made at least to reach some cross-party consensus. It is sometimes done through the procedure of a Speaker's convention, for example.
Given the rhetoric of the Government parties before the election, one would also have hoped for some pre-legislative scrutiny and the proper involvement of the parties representing all regions and areas of the United Kingdom. Instead, a Bill has been cobbled together, and elements of it have received no mandate-and no mandate has even been sought in respect of them. As a result, we are in this divisive situation, in which the Government are ramming the Bill through without agreement and without consensus. That is no way to deliberate and it provides no basis for making decisions on the future composition of this House-or indeed for deciding how people should vote for Members of this House in the future.
Despite what the Deputy Prime Minister has said and despite what other Ministers-they have struggled manfully to deal with these issues-have done, it is clear that a lot of the opposition to the Bill has come from Conservative Members behind the Government Front Bench, not just from Opposition Members. From a Northern Ireland perspective, I have to say that the respect agenda that has been much talked about has not been much in evidence on this issue. Eloquent words on Wales and Scotland have already been spoken, but as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the alteration of the Northern Ireland parliamentary boundaries has a direct impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly boundaries-they are one and the same. Those changes will happen every five years. The Deputy Prime Minister seemed to suggest that they will not happen, but given that there will be a boundary revision every five years, and given the changes in registration and the number of votes allocated to different countries and regions, it is inevitable that there will be changes in the boundaries. That will have a direct impact on the make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has multi-Member constituencies.
We have all gone through an long period during which we tried to reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Thankfully, we have made enormous progress. We have a reasonably, or relatively, stable political set-up, although of course challenges and difficulties remain. However, we risk upsetting that political equilibrium-that consensus-with this measure, which, as I have said, will have a direct impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly. Moreover, all this has happened without any prior consultation with the parties or the Executive in Northern Ireland. I believe, and any objective observer would believe, that that consultation should have taken place.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed boundary changes, and the continual changes that will follow, will lead to instability and uncertainty, and that that in itself does not augur well for the political process in Northern Ireland?
The Deputy Prime Minister said that, as well as the changes in the Bill, the Government would introduce reforms of the House of Lords. While I welcome the proposals for House of Lords reform, I am mystified by the fact that the Bill is being rushed through without our seeing any of the details of those proposals. If the Government wish to make changes to the political system and make democracy more accountable and transparent, why do they not introduce all their reforms at once? Why can we not see the details of what will happen to the other place, as well as what will happen to the voting system and membership of the House of Commons? We have been given no explanation, other than the obvious explanation that this is being done entirely for reasons of political expediency and-as suggested by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-to keep the coalition agreement alive.
It is outrageous that the Government have done away with the proposals for local public inquiries taking oral evidence. That would have allowed people to become involved in the process, to be interrogated on their evidence, and to be cross-examined. It would have enabled communities to have an input. We will experience the most sweeping changes in boundaries that we have experienced for decades, and Northern Ireland in particular will experience the impact of those changes. That is outrageous and wrong, it should be reviewed, and, at the very least, people should be allowed to have their say at local level.
Like other Members, I sincerely hope that if the Bill is railroaded through in the absence of cross-party consensus, another place will consider it extremely carefully, and will reach some wiser and more sensible decisions.
I could have just about brought myself to vote for the Bill, but for the fact that once again it plays into the hands of the Executive. Once again, we see the Executive seizing more powers at the expense of Parliament. The House will be reduced to 600 Members of Parliament, while the Executive will remain as large as it is now.
I really did think that we had learned our lesson in the last Parliament. I really thought that, after 100 years of giving powers away, we might do things differently in this Parliament. I now wonder what on earth is the point of being a Member of Parliament in this place. Only three hours ago, we were informed that prisoners would be given the vote. We would not have a say in it; it would be done over our heads.
Tonight, my constituents have every right to ask, "What is the point of Charles Walker? What is the point of having elected representatives?" This is an appalling state of affairs. Once again, we are increasing the powers of the Executive at the cost of Parliament, and we deserve absolutely no sympathy. Whatever befalls us over the next four years as Back Benchers, we will have brought it on ourselves. However, I say to new parliamentary colleagues in particular that it is very difficult to vote against this Bill, because their political virility will be
measured by whether or not they become a Minister, and if they do not become a Minister they do not get the extra money, the car or the red box, and when they leave this place as a humble Back Bencher there will not be people queuing up to offer them jobs because companies want only politicians who have had the red box to serve on their boards. I therefore say to any Back Bencher who votes against this Bill tonight, "You are extremely brave, and if you do vote against the Bill you, like me, won't have a career going forward, but you will have my undying admiration."
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The facts show that those who rebel against their own party are more likely to become junior Ministers than those who do not.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and many other Members both from England and the regions have spoken extensively in the debates in opposition to the Bill for various reasons.
Let me say at the outset that I commend the Minister. I say to the Deputy Prime Minister that he should be proud of a Minister who, under fire, has completely resisted any suggestions, alternative ideas or possibility that there might be any other logic to adopt for the way forward. The Minister has done very well in that respect.
There is a difficulty in that position, however, and it involves a fundamental point of principle. I agree that equalisation is a real issue, but I honestly thought that Liberals and Conservatives understood not only this Parliament and the Union, but also the slow evolution of the Union. Issues to do with the Union have been approached incrementally by and large. Successive Government of Wales settlements, and Northern Ireland and other settlements, have been very sensitively engineered and calibrated in order that the Union is strengthened.
I am a strong Unionist, and my fear in respect of this Bill is not as the Member for Ogmore, although I know that under the maps for these proposals my constituency disappears-and I am sure it is only a coincidence that it has the biggest absolute majority of any constituency in Wales. I can take that on the chin, however.
"In this Schedule the 'United Kingdom electoral quota' means-
As people in Cornwall and Devon have recognised, one of the defining characteristics of this whole debate is that there are areas where people strongly identify not only with their region, but the locality. There is a Welsh word that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), but not many other Members, will recognise. "Hiraeth" is difficult to translate, but it means longing and identity with a place, a people, a community. My constituents will be deliriously happy to know that that can be dissolved down to the formula
A Member on the Government Benches asked what was the point of his being here in Parliament and what was the point of his identifying with his area, and he is right to ask those questions. Why is one of the key figures decided on in the Bill 95% to 100% with no variation? Why do the Bill's provisions display a singular inability to recognise the diverse nature of the United Kingdom, except in two or three specific instances?
Disraeli has been mentioned in our debate. When Disraeli was in a heated discussion with Gladstone across that Dispatch Box and was being defeated by the incessant logic being deployed he told him not to desist in the fanatical application of his sterile logic. That is what we are confronted with here, and I genuinely hope that when this Bill goes to the other place they who have a respect for our constitution, our devolution settlement, and the role of this Parliament and of elected representatives will stop this in its tracks, because our electorate-the people we represent-deserve a lot more.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The Bill is a compromise brought about by the coalition agreement and it contains two different parts: the AV part, which I wholeheartedly support; and the part about reducing the number of MPs and imposing the 5% straitjacket. I am perfectly supportive of reducing the number of MPs, but I have difficulties with the 5% straitjacket.
Tristram Hunt: Will the hon. Gentleman explain the rationale behind the choice of 600 Members, given that the Liberal Democrat manifesto proposed 500 and the Tory manifesto proposed 585? What was the thinking process involved in getting to 600?
Mr Reid: The Liberal Democrat manifesto's proposal for 500 Members was based on the assumption that the single transferable vote system would be used-our proposal was combined with that. Coalition involves compromise, and I was not present at Chequers when the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister negotiated the fine points of this Bill. The coalition agreement said that there would be
"fewer and more equal sized constituencies."
This country is fortunate in having an independent Boundary Commission, which in the past has always acted truly independently and has never been subject to political influence. We should be grateful for that and we should give more powers for flexibility to our independent boundary commissions. In the Bill, the 5% straitjacket is not an absolute principle because, as has been pointed out, there are some exceptions. There is an exception for islands, and I support that. It is perfectly right that Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have their own constituencies. However, I also draw the Government's attention to the fact that other constituencies contain islands, for example, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey. My constituency contains 13 islands that can be accessed only by ferry or air, which compares with the three in the Western Isles. My constituency has four times as many islands as the Western Isles, twice the land area and three times the size of electorate, so I would hope that we could have some more flexibility.
Elsewhere, on the highland mainland, the Government have introduced the 13,000 square kilometre rule. It will not result in the creation of any constituency that is more than 5% under the quota. What it will do is create three strange constituencies, because in order to get both within the quota and under the 13,000 square kilometre rule the Boundary Commission will have to create three strange constituencies, each containing a part of Inverness. One will comprise one part of Inverness and will go all the way up to Cape Wrath. Another will contain a part of Inverness and will go all the way west to Skye. A third will contain a part of Inverness and will go south and east. Those will be three strange constituencies and there is little community interest for them. We are supposed to be representing communities, but there is very little community link between somebody on the north-west of Sutherland and somebody in Inverness. I hope that this part of the Bill will be re-examined in the House of Lords and the Government will be amenable to accepting amendments that will give the Boundary Commission a bit more discretion. We are fortunate in having an independent Boundary Commission, and we should give it more discretion.
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): It has been a long seven-and-a-half-hour wait and I did have a 10-minute speech, but I shall cut that down as much as possible. It is obvious to anybody of independent mind that this legislation is being pushed through with unseemly haste, although perhaps not so quickly that the manifold flaws, inconsistencies and illogicalities in part 2, with its utterly arbitrary "reduce and equalise" agenda, have not been suitably identified and exposed.
I would write it all off as incompetence, were it not for the Government's wilful refusal to make improved voter registration a priority and precondition for reform, their reluctance to make a commitment to an appropriate and proportionate reduction in Cabinet posts and their determination to leave common sense out of the boundary review process, which will reduce constituencies to little more than arithmetical units.
As always-I make no apologies for this-I am particularly concerned about the ramifications for Merseyside. The sub-region has coped well in the face of the recession, but analysts suggest that it is likely to be extremely and disproportionately hard hit by the Government's slash-and-burn policies. However, at a time when the people of Merseyside will increasingly be looking towards their MPs to fight their corner, the sub-region looks set to lose at least two parliamentary seats. That puts paid to the myth that lofty ideals, social conscience and progressive thinking underpin the Government's electoral reform agenda.
Let me, if I may, jump on the number-crunching bandwagon for a couple of minutes. Currently, my constituency-Liverpool, Walton-has one MP for 89,732 citizens or 62,612 registered voters. In the year- [ Interruption. ] Someone is questioning the figures, but I live there. In the year of the constituency's creation, 1885, the population of Liverpool stood at about 614,000 and the city was split into no fewer than nine parliamentary divisions. That equates to one MP for every 68,228 citizens, but-note-for far fewer registered voters, given that, among other things, women had not yet achieved suffrage. Had the registered electorate in Walton represented 69.8% of the constituency population, as it does now, John George Gibson MP, the first Member for Liverpool, Walton-a Tory, no less-would have represented only around 47,000 registered voters. In reality, the electorate minus women represents a smaller percentage of the Walton population, and thus the figure would have been considerably lower-perhaps 24,000.
This is not just about numbers. It is true that the composition of parliamentary seats back in the 19th century was arguably as arbitrary as it is now, so I am not for a minute suggesting we use any point in history as a blueprint, but let me tell the House why that example from our local history is important and matters. The Government intend every MP to represent an electorate of at least 72,000. Leaving aside the issue of non-registration, which further skews the figures, what equips a 21st-century MP, in these complex times, to represent three times as many individuals as his or her Victorian predecessor? What is progressive about a modern-day voter having approximately a third of the democratic clout of his or her ancestor?
Equally illogical and disingenuous is the so-called "equalise" agenda. I struggle to understand how numerically homogenising seats has anything to do with "fairness" or "equality"-those much vaunted and abused buzz words of the coalition Government. On the face of it, my constituency would appear to be pretty evenly matched with that of the Bill's chief flag bearer, the Deputy Prime Minister. Their populations are similar and their registered electorates both stand around the 60,000-plus mark, falling short of the 72,000 lower limit proposed by the Government, but that is where the similarity
ends. In my constituency fewer than 9% of the population are graduates, whereas in Sheffield, Hallam 35.6% of the populace have graduated from university. In my constituency, 32% of households have no central heating or private bathroom; in Sheffield, Hallam the figure is 4%. In my constituency, 45% of adults have no qualifications at all, whereas in Sheffield, Hallam only 17% of adults are disadvantaged in that way.
I have another major concern. In the most recent periodic boundary review there were absurd suggestions about Merseyside, including one for a constituency straddling the River Mersey. Fortunately, that did not come to pass, but an expert recently concluded that
"the spectre of a cross-Mersey seat would rise again"
under the proposed legislation. In July I asked the Deputy Prime Minister for assurances that the River Mersey would be recognised as a natural boundary, to which the Minister responsible for political and constitutional reform, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), gave a decidedly evasive reply. He passed the buck to the Boundary Commission but stressed that the "electoral quota" requirement would take precedence. That paves the way for all manner of insensitive, inappropriate and impractical boundary changes on Merseyside and elsewhere that will result in even greater political confusion and disaffection than already prevails.
Part 2 of the Bill is based on a version of reality that is quite at odds with the reality on the ground. It presumes a politically engaged electorate, and that the average voter is indignant that his or her vote might be statistically worth a fraction less than the vote of a counterpart elsewhere in the country. It implies that granting votes parity and thus achieving democratic equality will somehow render life in Britain more equitable and fair. But the "Animal Farm" argument that we are all equal, but some are more equal than others, will not wash. More than 3.5 million people in England and Wales alone are not even registered to vote, and most people do not fret about the statistical weighting of individual votes.
The reality is that millions of voters in many constituencies do not have the luxury of dwelling on their democratic parity with their peers elsewhere: they are too busy simply trying to stay afloat. They approach their MPs for practical support, guidance and intervention more than they do for high-minded ideological representation. There is nothing equal or fair about this reality, and the proposed constituency changes, which are unwarranted, ill-conceived, poorly evidenced and politically pernicious, will do nothing to address it.
The only question that has really worried me in the middle phase of my parliamentary career is the extent to which the constitution has changed in my time in this place. This Bill represents the old politics as we know them, and it is extraordinary for those whom we represent to hear the expression "new politics" while the same old methods, the same old tricks, the same old
imposition of will and the same number of guillotines pour out of the Executive. That is rich, because it happens each time the House changes. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has made the most important point of all in the old discourse: all this has no mandate. No one in the electorate has expressed a view on it, and no one even raised it with many of us during the course of the general election.
I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) for carrying this Bill. I have never been present during deliberations on a Bill when its protagonist or originator does not deign to attend the Commons-[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] No, let us get to the point: not only that, but he is incapable of making the argument for it. We have been left with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary having to refer to the coalition agreement-the image of gold. There will be some in the house who remember the story of Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They created an image of gold. And what is the image of gold? It is the coalition agreement. It did not serve them right, and it does not serve us right.
My question is, as always on constitutional matters: in what way does the Bill enhance the position of the electorate vis-à-vis representation in the Commons and the Executive? I do not find that the Bill enhances that in any way. In fact, it goes out of its way to ensure that that is not enhanced. It reduces the number of elected representatives, for a start. That, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), means that the influence of the Executive vis-à-vis the Commons as a whole is increased.
Behind that, as we know, there are more captured people than merely those who aspire to the Executive. There is the Opposition, with their regiment of Whips and those who are expected to follow their own parties into the Lobby. There are very few independent souls in the House, and we have heard them in the course of the discussion of the Bill. That is the one good thing about the Bill.
I do not recall a Minister who has so cavalierly dismissed his responsibilities to the House- [Interruption.] I do not want to over-emphasise that point, but the country should know that we have never had such a poor demonstration on a major constitutional Bill. Furthermore, this was as guillotined a Bill as we could arrive at. We had what we now politely call a timetable motion-No. 4, only yesterday. That is the way the passage of the Bill has been run.
Hundreds of amendments have been pushed in because the Bill was incomplete and not thought through. The consequences were not weighed. How could they be weighed? The Minister leading on the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister, is unaware of the arguments that take place here. The Bill will be sent down to the House of Lords, and there is an argument that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest-what business is it of the Lords, the electoral rules and regulations of the House of Commons?
Yet I am on my knees, and freethinkers in the House are on their knees, hoping that the Lords will have a view on whether there was propriety in the purposes behind the Bill. That is why I want to see-I hope to see-that House rise up and say, "This coalition image of gold is rubbish. The Bill does not reflect the settled
will of the House of Commons"-that is what it amounts to-"nor does it reflect the needs of our people to have their own distinctive form of representation."
These islands, these countries that form this Great Britain, have different traditions, different allegiances. My father said a long time ago that there are many Englands, just as there are many Scotlands, many Waleses, and so on. Each is particular. I represent the west midlands, which was the manufacturing heartland of the United Kingdom. For a brief moment this was the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth. Those are the same people whom we represent. Have we enhanced their rights, their power over the decisions of Government, their influence in the House? The Bill has not done that; in fact it diminishes those. I shall gladly vote against it, and I hope the House will join me in the No Lobby.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), who has demonstrated two things about his character and his political principles: first, he is a man of great independence; and secondly, he is a greatly passionate politician. He has made a great speech, and I am proud to follow it.
The Deputy Prime Minister, in opening this Third Reading debate, said that he thought that in the wake of the expenses scandals of the previous Parliament, it was important to bridge the gap between the remoteness of Members of Parliament and the electorate. I think that those were the words that he used. That is a laudable objective, and there cannot be any Member who would not agree with it, but, before we decide how we vote on Third Reading, we have to judge the extent to which the measures in the Bill make us less remote from the voters.
Let us take three important issues that have not been addressed satisfactorily, if at all. First, what does the Bill do about the 3.5 million people who are not even on the register, and even though we know that they qualify for it? [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members laugh, but it is a serious issue. How could one be more remote than not even being on the electoral register? Yet nothing in the Bill will bridge that gap.
Secondly, there is the issue of the alternative vote system or, as Government Members somewhat misleadingly refer to it, "making the voting system fairer". I listened with great care to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes).
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is a long-standing supporter of proportional representation, and I respect that but do not agree with him. Now, I do not intend to get into an argument about the merits of PR and first past the post, but I think that he said, "It's a coalition. There has to be give and take." The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) made the point slightly differently, saying that there has to be compromise. However, I ask the hon. Member for Bermondsey and
Old Southwark: who is giving and who is taking? It amazes me that he, as a supporter of proportional representation, feels able to support the Bill, because it does not include proportional representation, as he well knows. It does not even include the corrective of top-up seats, so we will end up with a system scarcely more proportional-and in some circumstances even less proportional-than our current system.
Finally, I ask the Deputy Prime Minister, how does taking away the right of people to appear at a public inquiry and argue the case for a different set of boundaries from those that have been proposed make this Parliament or any other less remote from the people? It does not at all. In fact, it makes Parliament even more remote. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that this Bill is a complete mess. I have to ask those on the Liberal Democrat Benches: how can you support this system? It is not a compromise; it is give and take: they are taking everything and you are giving everything. I say to the Liberal Democrats, you have sold yourselves very short on this legislation. This is a Bill that you will come to regret, and I hope that the House will vote it down tonight.
Simon Hughes: I will deal straight away with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). This is not a perfect Bill-I am not pretending that it is-but it is a good Bill, and the two things that it does needed to be done.
First, we needed to give the British people a chance to improve the electoral system. The alternative vote is not a proportional system-I have never claimed that it is-but it has two advantages that our current system does not have. I appeal to anybody who is a progressive politician in any party to come to the view that we should support a system that, yes, keeps single-Member representation, but sends us here with a majority of support from those of our electorate who vote-
Secondly, the system allows people to express preferences-it is positive, not negative, voting that allows them to say what they really want politically as opposed to being forced to say what they do not want politically. That is definitely progress.
There is another practical consideration, as the right hon. Member for Knowsley knows. This House does not have a majority in favour of a proportional system at the moment-I accept that. I want a proportional system. Personally, I prefer alternative vote plus, because it has the balance of a single-Member seat plus top-up. But there is not a majority for those things. This measure allows Parliament to come to a view, as put forward by the Labour party in the general election, that the British people should be given the option of moving to a better system. It is not the perfect system-there is no such
thing as a perfect system-and not the best system, but it is a better system. I hope that this House and the other place will allow the great British public to decide on this. Then, if the referendum comes up with a yes vote, as I hope it will, we will have a better political system and a better democracy.
I share one of the views of the right hon. Member for Knowsley and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram). It is a scandal and a shame that in this country, throughout the time of the Labour Government and now, 3 million or more people are not on the electoral register when they should be. I have made it clear to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and colleagues that there is a duty on our Government, just as there was a duty on the Labour Government that they did not discharge, to work across parties and outside parties to ensure that we get all those registered who should be registered.
I will go on arguing from these Benches that the Government need to do more to increase electoral registration. Yesterday, with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I urged our party members to do more, and I hope that the Labour party and the other parties will do more as well. I hope that the Government will assist in every way-this month, before the December register comes into force-to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the electoral register. There are all sorts of ways of doing that, and the sooner we can start sharing our wisdom, the better.
I want to make one more substantial point. There is an absolutely overwhelming argument for more equally sized constituencies. The disparity between the number of voters per constituency is scandalous. I speak as somebody with Welsh, Scottish and English roots. It is no longer justifiable for Wales or Scotland to be over-represented in this place when England does not have any devolved government at all and is therefore already relatively under-represented.
Nobody argues that there should not be exceptions in extreme cases, which is why two seats have been singled out. That has never been in dispute. There is an argument, which has been tested, as to whether there should be other exceptions, such as other island communities. That is an argument that will not go away in the debates up the corridor, and nor should it, because there are reasonable arguments for an extension down that road. However, I hope that we accept the principle that, wherever humanly possible, the number of electors should be similar, because that is the only way to ensure that this place can proportionately reflect the views of the electorate and that we can all be elected in a similar way.
Mr Winnick: What possible justification can there be for the boundary changes taking place without any public inquiry at all? Is that not a travesty of democracy? The hon. Gentleman should be ashamed of defending and justifying what is intended.
Simon Hughes: I will give the hon. Gentleman the answer, having appeared at inquiries in the past. The justification is that the job will be done by an independent set of boundary commissions, which are no more or less likely to treat people and arguments fairly by receiving representations in writing than in oral evidence. Often, the main argument at public inquiries has been not among real people about their communities, but among political parties' paid officers.
One argument that has been made is that we cannot reform one part of the constitution without reforming the others. I say gently to colleagues in the Labour party that unlike them, we will secure a predominantly elected House of Lords, which they did not do. Unlike them, we have on our agenda a reduction of the number of Ministers in future. [Hon. Members: "No you don't."] Yes, we do. We have it on the agenda- [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I have never known a situation in which the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is virtually shouted down. It is not only unprecedented, it is unacceptable. We must hear the hon. Gentleman, notwithstanding the strong feelings.
Simon Hughes: This is the first of a series of radical constitutional reforms that Labour never delivered, and that the coalition is willing to deliver. I hope that the House is radical enough to support it, and that the House of Lords does a proper job of ensuring that we have the best possible form for the two proposals that I have mentioned. It does Labour no good to argue against changes none of which it introduced in 13 years.
Ian Lucas: When Labour came to power in 1997, it began a major programme of constitutional reform. At its heart was devolution in Scotland and Wales. Labour's proposals in Scotland were based on the cross-party constitutional convention. In both Scotland and Wales, after referendums, it introduced voting systems that guaranteed representation for the Tories in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales at a time when they had no representation there in Parliament. The political system also ensured that the Liberal Democrats had representation.
We may contrast that with the approach that we have seen from the Tories and their Liberal Democrat lapdogs in this disgraceful Bill. It has no basis in manifestos, and there was no draft legislation, no consultation with Opposition parties and no discussion with the elected representatives of devolved institutions. It removes the right of constituents to make representations on the biggest ever change in the boundaries relating to their communities. That is an absolute disgrace and a catalogue of decisions that the coalition parties should be ashamed of. Fundamental constitutional change is being imposed for partisan political reasons, with a timetable devised to secure maximum political advantage for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.
The consideration of the Bill has been a cynical outrage. We have had Liberal Democrats voting against the single transferable vote and Tories voting in favour of taking away the right of local people to speak out in public inquiries when fundamental changes are made to their boundaries and communities. What does that say about Tories and Liberal Democrats empowering individuals
and communities? As an MP from Wales, albeit an English one, I have seen the contempt for Wales that drives Welsh people into the arms of nationalists.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and the Deputy Leader of the House have no understanding of the constitution of the United Kingdom. They ignore the asymmetric devolution that we have in the United Kingdom, and they take no account of the views of the peoples of the devolved nations who have voted in different referendums-in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales-to establish our constitution and they are now being ridden roughshod over without any electoral mandate.
What is even worse is that the supine Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, yet again, the Welsh Ministers do not care. Where are they? The reason they do not care is that Wales and Scotland are irrelevant to the Tories. The Tories do not care what Welsh MPs think. This Bill will be pressed through. It does not matter what MPs, Assembly Members or Members of the Scottish Parliament say.
This Bill is contemptuous. It is designed to secure partisan advantage for the Tories and their allies. It has been railroaded through on a timetable constructed to maximise political advantage, and to ensure that it gets through before the next general election, and that is all that the Government care about. It changes the constitution for short-term political gain, without the consent of the peoples of the UK. The coalition parties will rue the day that this Bill was ever passed. It is the antithesis of everything that good legislation should be about. It shows this Government for what they are-dissembling, self-serving and dictatorial. Those who support them should be ashamed of themselves.
Mr Cash: I have opposed this Bill from the beginning because I do not believe that it is based on any sensible constitutional principle whatever. It is in defiance of our own manifesto. It supports the process of a coalition, which, given how this Bill came to be part of the coalition agreement, is itself subject to questioning. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others as to the manner in which this Bill, or this proposal for this Bill through the coalition agreement, was devised. I do not need to rehearse all that. This is something that is a matter of grave concern to many of us. The question of principle and conviction, which ought to underlie any major constitutional issue, is wholly lacking in respect of this Bill.
I heard many of the arguments from the Labour party. I have to say that irrespective of what Labour Members do in the vote tonight, I cannot honestly say that I believe that they stand on any principle that is worth considering. They have not had any mandate for their vote as far as this Bill is concerned. The idea that a threshold should not be inserted as being the only protection for the people of this country, who are being taken to a referendum-a poll-largely because this Bill is being so heavily whipped, is in itself a matter of the gravest concern. This Bill violates constitutional principle. It violates the manner in which for 150 years we have conducted our parliamentary processes by first past the post. That is a principle that was upheld by people such
as Disraeli and Gladstone, and even Lloyd George until the Liberal party decided, under his leadership or his influence at the time, that it might not be so convenient because the votes would not follow what he had to say.
Julie Hilling: I wanted to make a number of points, but with the shortage of time, I will keep my comments brief. Like many other hon. Members, I have tried to make points before, but because of the conduct and timetabling of the Bill, I have been unable to speak on my deeply held beliefs.
Let me take just one element of the Bill and try to correct some of the errant nonsense on independent inquiries. In 2005, an inquiry was held into the boundaries in Greater Manchester, because it was decided that after the application of the electoral quota, there should be 27.25 MPs rather than 28. However, because nobody could have the spare quarter of an MP, the number went down to 27 MPs, and something similar may happen in the near future. There were 384 written submissions before the decision to hold an independent inquiry. Once the inquiry was called, there were more than 600 written submissions and 190 people spoke to the inquiry. Sixteen alternative proposals were made.
I do not know of 190 political parties in Greater Manchester, so I would conclude that those submissions were from ordinary citizens. As I said, the inquiry took three weeks, not the many months that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members would like us to believe inquiries take. Constituents individually or collectively put forward their views on how they wanted to be represented.
The Bill is deeply flawed on many levels. Not only does it reduce the number of MPs, potentially ignoring historical links, splitting wards and removing the right of people who are affected by changes to have their say, and not only is it gerrymandering of the worst kind, but it runs counter to all the Government's grand statements on the big society, local decision making and empowering local people. The Bill shows that those are simply words, and that the Government have no intention of localising power. The Bill may be cost saving, but at what cost? It should not pass.
Ms Bagshawe: As Opposition Members will know, I have sat through most of the debate, and I have been astonished at their cant and hypocrisy- [ Interruption. ] Have they forgotten that among the nations- [ Interruption. ]
Ms Bagshawe: Have Opposition Members forgotten so completely that among the nations of the United Kingdom is the nation of England, which has been badly served by the democratic deficit? Again and again we have heard from them arguments over geography.
I say this to my hon. Friends who are worried about the AV referendum: take heart. I believe that the referendum is something of a miscalculation by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party, but I am quite happy and content to trust the people. Let us lay it before the people and let them decide.
Opposition Members have become convinced of the doctrine that what is traditional is therefore right. I welcome their eleventh-hour conversion to that doctrine, but they cannot get away from the fact that the boundaries in this country are incredibly unfair. The votes of those in Corby and east Northamptonshire should be worth exactly the same as those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). No matter how they run and no matter how they hide, they cannot make the argument that equality is bad for democracy.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today I received two letters about transferring parliamentary questions. One was from the Solicitor-General's office telling me that my question on human trafficking had to go to the Home Office. The other was from the Home Office and said:
"The Home Secretary has asked me to let you know that he has arranged for the Question"
to be transferred. That is a different question, but it is about human trafficking and has been transferred away from the Home Office. Will you advise me, Mr Speaker, on who the new Home Secretary is, and what I can do about my questions being messed around with?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's point of order. On the first matter, his sense of humour never deserts him, and I do not think he requires any
advice on that matter. However, the Home Secretary may want to have a word with her officials about this important issue. She has some reason to feel aggrieved.
On the second point, the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would not be right for me to comment on the detail of the matter. Suffice it to say that he is an ingenious parliamentarian, and he has put his views on the record very clearly and forcefully. They will be heard by the people whom I know he adores-the Whips on the Treasury Bench. I hope that that is helpful.
That the draft International Tax Enforcement (Anguilla) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 July, be approved.
That the draft International Tax Enforcement (Bahamas) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 July, be approved.
That the draft International Tax Enforcement (Gibraltar) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 July, be approved.
That the draft International Tax Enforcement (Liechtenstein) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 July, be approved.
That the draft International Tax Enforcement (Turks and Caicos Islands) Order 2010, which was laid before this House on 15 July, be approved. -(Mr Vara.)
That the draft Immigration and Nationality (Fees) (No. 2) Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 11 October, be approved. -(Mr Vara.)
That the Motion in the name of Mr Peter Lilley relating to the House of Commons Members; Fund (Discretionary Payments) shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice of a motion has been given that the instrument be approved. -(Mr Vara.)
That Frank Dobson, Gemma Doyle and Mr Dave Watts be discharged from the Administration Committee and Mr Tom Harris, Mr Kevan Jones and Angela Smith be added. -(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , on behalf of the Committee of Selection. )
That Luciana Berger, Jack Dromey, Nicky Morgan, Chi Onwurah and Rachel Reeves be discharged from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee and Paul Blomfield, Katy Clark, Simon Kirby, Gregg McClymont and Ian Murray be added. -(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , on behalf of the Committee of Selection. )
That Toby Perkins and Chris Williamson be discharged from the Communities and Local Government Committee and Simon Danczuk and David Heyes be added. -( Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Mr David Hamilton, Mr Adam Holloway, Alison Seabeck and John Woodcock be discharged from the Defence Committee and Thomas Docherty, Mr Dai Havard, Penny Mordaunt and Sandra Osborne be added. -(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Conor Burns and Liz Kendall be discharged from the Education Committee and Neil Carmichael and Bill Esterson be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Gemma Doyle and Tom Greatrex be discharged from the Energy and Climate Change Committee and Barry Gardiner and Ian Lavery be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Nigel Adams be discharged from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and Richard Drax be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Emma Reynolds be discharged from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Mr Bob Ainsworth be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Fiona Mactaggart be discharged from the Health Committee and Yvonne Fovargue be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Mary Macleod be discharged from the Home Affairs Committee and Mr James Clappison be added.- (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Mr Andy Slaughter be discharged from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Mr Virendra Sharma be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Mr Russell Brown and Ann McKechin be discharged from the International Development Committee and Mr Michael McCann and Alison McGovern be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Stephen Pound be discharged from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Kate Hoey be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Eric Joyce be discharged from the Committee of Public Accounts and Stella Creasy be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Jon Trickett be discharged from the Select Committee on Public Administration and Lindsay Roy be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Angie Bray, Lilian Greenwood and Angela Smith be discharged from the Transport Committee and Steve Baker, Julie Hilling and Gavin Shuker be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Glyn Davies be discharged from the Welsh Affairs Committee and Stuart Andrew be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
That Ms Karen Buck, Margaret Curran and Shabana Mahmood be discharged from the Work and Pensions Committee and Alex Cunningham, Glenda Jackson and Teresa Pearce be added. - (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)
Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): Although the abortion figures for last year were slightly reduced by 3.2%, there were still 200,000 abortions carried out in the UK last year-572 per day. Abortion in this country is an industry from which a small number of organisations and individuals make vast amounts of money. No sensible person would condone this. In examining the legislative abortion procedures of European countries with far lower numbers than ours, it occurred to me that for those countries in which informed consent before an abortion takes place is enshrined in law-Germany, France, Belgium, Finland and others-the abortion rate was much lower. I have deliberately excluded countries with religious and cultural influences, such as Italy, Spain and Portugal from that analysis. It also appears to me that in those countries, the abortion procedure is a far kinder one, which takes much more account of the vulnerable position a woman might be in at the time of her request for an abortion and provides her with alternatives to consider and a cooling-down time in order to think, breathe and take stock of what is happening.
All those countries with good informed consent legislation had significantly lower than average daily abortion rates than the countries that do not have such informed consent legislation. Although a causal link is impossible to prove, these figures suggest that informed consent legislation might prove a good way of reducing Britain's abortion figures. I think that all Members of all parties are agreed that we want to see that happen.
In this country, if a woman requests a termination from her GP, no questions are asked. I have spoken to numerous GPs and posed this question to them: "When a woman sits in your surgery and asks for a termination, what do you say?" The answer I frequently receive is that the GP does not say anything, but writes a referral letter. That is the process at the GP stage. A referral is made to a hospital or clinic and the abortion is performed, for the woman's sake, as quickly as possible and without fuss.
Minimal counselling or no counselling is provided in some NHS hospitals and some clinics. Minimal counselling is provided by BPAS-the British Pregnancy Advisory Service-which carries out a large number of abortions on behalf of the NHS. However, BPAS carries out some counselling, but also carries out the abortion, so there is a clear conflict of interest there.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I understand that the counselling provided by abortion providers is Government funded only if the abortion goes ahead. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about that?
We all know that when it comes to abortion, the law is indeed an ass. It has no application whatever. We know that the law prohibits social termination-two doctors' signatures are required-but none of that is ever taken into account. Abortion clinics freely admit that consent forms pile up in their offices, waiting for the second signature, long after the event has taken place.
A woman has an assumed right to choose. However, she apparently has no right whatever to any information on which to make that choice. If any of us were referred to a hospital today for a minor procedure such as an operation for an in-growing toenail, the procedure would be explained to us in detail. We would be made aware of the level of pain we might experience; we would be told exactly what would happen while we were under the anaesthetic; we would be given follow-up appointments to check on the progress of our healing; we would have our dressings changed and have checks for infection. A woman who has an abortion has none of that.
At the end of the day, the woman is discharged out on to the street and left to come to terms with the rollercoaster emotional journey of which she will still be in the midst. Before the woman received the procedure, she might have felt coerced, pressurised or bullied into the abortion. To her, it might have been a life or the beginning of a life-depending on her perspective. She might have had a seed of doubt, but once she was on the conveyor belt to the clinic, she might have felt helpless and unable to step off.
Make no mistake: abortion is not a medical procedure. It is not an in-growing toenail. Abortion is about the ending of a life, or a potential life. It is about a death which is final, and from which there is no going back. The abortion of a baby does not abort the seed of doubt or misgivings that may have been present at the time; that still remains.
Many consultant psychiatrists from the Royal College of Psychiatrists are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of women who are presenting with mental health issues directly linked to previous abortions. A major longitudinal 30-year survey published in The British Journal of Psychiatry in 2008 showed clearly-after adjustment for confounding variables-that women who had had abortions had rates of mental disorder 30% higher than women who had not. The Royal College of Psychiatrists said that, following its position statement on abortion and mental health,
"healthcare professionals who assess or refer women who are requesting an abortion should assess for mental health disorder and for risk factors that may be associated with its subsequent development".
Given the disregard that we have for women seeking this procedure, I am surprised that that figure stands at only 30%. We push vulnerable women through a clinical procedure at great speed to end a life-or, as I said, a potential life-that is growing within them, and we wonder why only 30% have problems in later life. Those are the women who are diagnosed. They are the women who seek help, and whom we know about. We do not know about the others. Is it not time that we started to treat women a little better than this?
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of the rights of women in this context, but what about the fathers? I hope she agrees with me that the law needs to be examined to ensure that the rights of the potential father are taken into consideration.
Does not the way in which abortions are carried out in this country today almost amount to abuse? We need to take lessons from our European neighbours. In Germany, women are offered counselling and a cooling-off period. That gives them a chance to breathe and think. It gives them support. They are informed about the procedure, and of the possible consequences. They are provided with alternative routes other than the surgical removal of a life. They are given information about adoption-and yes, I know that people throw up their hands in horror when that is mentioned, but it is not our pregnancy, and it is not our baby.
We have no right to institutionalise and frame a decision-making process that is void of choice for the women who seek information. It is a woman's right to choose, and women should have the right to be given every shred of information that we have and every alternative option. If a woman wants to continue with her pregnancy and deliver her baby for adoption, she should have the right to choose to do so. If she does not, at least she can emerge from the abortion process feeling that she made an informed decision. She can emerge feeling that she went in empowered and not helpless, strong and not vulnerable, and believing that she did the best thing because she knew exactly what she was doing and had full knowledge of every available option. She will be able to draw strength from that in future.
Women are entitled to an option. They are entitled to give informed consent, which should be explicitly supported by pro-choice and pro-life campaigners. When it comes to a decision of such magnitude, it is vital for women to receive information that is absolutely accurate and is given calmly, without coercion or a principled bias and, in particular, without political ideology. Last month ComRes, the pollsters, revealed after an extensive survey that 89% of people agreed with that. They think that women should be entitled to have more information when requesting an abortion. Given that overwhelmingly high figure, it is time that this House paid some attention. I hope the Minister agrees that it is time that we took a little more care of women undergoing such a procedure. It is time that we introduced a statutory process of informed consent and a cooling-off period. The European evidence shows that that could provide us with a considerable reduction in the number of abortions, and everyone would surely welcome that.
I shall finish by mentioning a book which is to be launched this month. It is published by the charity Forsaken, which is neither pro-life nor pro-choice: it is pro-women. For two years, the charity has put together the stories of women suffering from post-abortion syndrome. Reading the book is so heart-wrenching that we just want to reach out and take their pain away, but we cannot. There is no going back. We cannot make it better; abortion is a procedure to end life-it is final.
The women interviewed for this book feel that talking about abortion is taboo. That forces them into silence, leaving them unable to express their suffering. Abortion really is a taboo subject. We will never see an abortion filmed on television; we will never see that screened. It is still the taboo subject that we do not talk about.
One woman in the book describes how even when she told the anaesthetist that she was changing her mind and was having doubts, he pushed her to go ahead. He did so because, if she changed her mind, he would not have been paid. There is the same process as for the counselling. If the woman does not go ahead with the abortion, the clinics are not paid for the counselling, and therefore they need to know that she is going ahead before she is given the counselling-and we can imagine the process that ensues.
"An uncle dropped me off at the clinic with a letter to give to them. I don't know what that letter was. At this point, I was holding onto the thought that they were only checking me. The staff at the clinic were very nice there, seemingly courteous and kind. It was not my usual surgery, I did not realise it was an abortion clinic until I was shown into a counsellor's room. When I went to the counsellor's room, I was asked: 'Why don't you want to keep this pregnancy?'
'I want it but my family don't want it,' I replied, and promptly burst into tears. 'They won't support me and I can't look after it myself.'
Nothing more was said that I remember...I was given a bed-there must have been 20 of us crowded into that ward. I was the first in line. As I waited, I scanned the corridors for some means of escape, but I was already wearing my hospital gown and no underwear. It wasn't long before a man brought a wheelchair to take me to the operating theatre. For a brief moment I wondered if I had the strength to run away, but instead I sat obediently into the chair."
It is time for the UK to catch up with the rest of Europe and introduce informed consent in an attempt to ensure that stories like this become a rare exception. It is time for this country to start looking after our young girls and women at the most vulnerable time in their lives and treat them with some respect.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing this debate on a subject in which I know she has had a long-standing interest. She rightly described it as a taboo subject, and the extract she read was moving, evocative and of concern to us all.
The debate comes at a welcome time for me, as I will be meeting representatives from the two biggest independent sector abortion providers later in the month to discuss how we might integrate contraception and wider sexual health provision into the services they provide. It will also be an opportunity for me to raise some of the issues my hon. Friend has highlighted tonight.
I also recently had a useful and productive conversation with a charity that supports young women and men in making informed sexual health decisions. For me and
for the Government, reducing the abortion rate is an absolute priority, and to do that we have to ensure that women and men are given information and support to make responsible sexual health choices.
We have seen significant advances in the quality of abortion provision since the Abortion Act 1967 came into force. Early access to abortions has improved and evidence shows that the risk of complications increases the later the gestation. Currently, 75% of NHS-funded abortions take place at under 10 weeks, compared with 51% in 1992. Early abortion means that women have more choice as to the abortion method. Medical abortion using two tablets now accounts for 40% of the total number of abortions, as opposed to only 12% in 2001. However, abortion comes at the end of a failure of many other services in the lives of young women.
Independent sector abortion providers and those organisations that refer women for an abortion are hugely experienced, but are subject to Secretary of State approval and monitoring by the Care Quality Commission. That is why some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises are of considerable concern. We need to ensure that continued emphasis is placed on giving women and men advice and contraception, because it is needed. In the same way, women should be given access to tailored, appropriate and impartial advice on their pregnancy options.
The Government will be responding to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology recommendation to update advice on the mental health consequences of induced abortion. The Government have commissioned a systematic review of the evidence, and the report will be published in spring 2011.
Interestingly, we have recently seen a substantial increase in the number of men attending family planning clinics-there was a 16% increase in the number of young men attending clinics in 2009-10, with 162,000 attendances. That is a massive 93% increase on the figure in 1999-2000, when only 84,000 men attended. I welcome the fact that young men are taking the issue of sexual health and pregnancy more seriously; I hope that they are taking it as seriously as young women are.
There are some examples of truly excellent, innovative sexual health services that have grown up at local level. However, as my hon. Friend said, the total number of abortions currently being carried out is just over 189,000 a year. Since 1992, the number of abortions has steadily increased, with the exception of the past two years when there was a fall in the number, albeit small. Just under half of teenage conceptions end in an abortion. However, the trend in both teenage conceptions and births is downward and the teenage pregnancy rate for 2008 was the lowest annual rate for more than 20 years. We should welcome that, although we should never be complacent because that figure of 189,000 is still way too high.
Repeat abortion is a continuing issue. Some 34%-one third-of women undergoing abortions had one or more abortions, a figure that has risen from 29% in 1998. Some 25% of repeat abortions were to women under 25. There are also significant and concerning variations between primary care trusts in repeat abortion rates, with rates in some areas as high as 45%. Abortions are traumatic and stressful, and they are not a form of contraception, but sadly they are clearly used as such in some instances. Women are offered a follow-up appointment
within two weeks of the abortion. That also provides an opportunity to have another conversation about contraception needs if the woman was unclear as to contraception requirements at the time of the abortion, but that is not always taken up.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Is the Minister as concerned as I am that it is common practice for independent abortion providers to have their commercial relationship with PCTs and with other trusts in the health service hidden by the caveat of "commercial in confidence"? Therefore, people are not in a position to understand those providers' commercial relationship with the NHS, and surely that offends against the principles of transparency in the NHS.
Anne Milton: Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The issues raised by conflicts of interest and hiding behind commercial sensitivity give rise to considerable concern. That is why I am pleased to be meeting some of the service providers in the next week or so to discuss those issues. It must be pointed out, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire, that although the stories she talked about involved bad practice, there are a lot of instances of very good practice. We should not miss that in the discussion about where things are not going as well as they should be.
Contraception has been free for everyone and is readily available in the community from GPs, family planning clinics and abortion providers, but there are clearly barriers. Why are so many young women and men not using it? A number of factors can lead to risk-taking behaviour, such as sexual violence, alcohol, lack of contraception awareness and self-esteem. We need to use simple, effective messages about safe sex, sexually transmitted infections, condom use and contraception. We need to ensure that young people receive high quality education on relationships and sex and we need to tackle those issues in a holistic and effective way. We need to ensure that young people are equipped to make the choices and the sometimes challenging decisions that they face in their lives. Those decisions are increasingly challenging in this day and age.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Those thoughts from the Minister are all excellent, but it is my understanding that before the general election the now Prime Minister promised Government time so that the House could have an opportunity to have a free vote on legislation to change, for example, the upper limit. Will the Minister tell the House tonight whether the Government are still committed to providing time and, if so, when?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Others in this House might know more about parliamentary procedure than I do, but I understand that abortion is a matter that is usually raised by Back Benchers. He may look bemused, but that is what I have been told. It is usually raised by Back Benchers and the
Government do not normally take a view on it. It is an ethical decision and there are usually free votes on it-I have witnessed them myself.
Young women and men need to think about contraception before having sex. People have busy lifestyles-and, in some instances, very chaotic lifestyles-and there are barriers to accessing contraception. However, with long-acting reversible contraceptives there are ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy for everyone, whatever their lifestyle. We need young women and men to be equipped with the information and knowledge to look after their physical, mental and sexual health so they are not put in this position in the first place.
Some £11.5 million has been invested this year and the sexual health charities Brook and the Family Planning Association, with funding from Government, have developed a new web-based contraception decision tool to help people to choose the best contraception for them. Launched on 14 July, the "My Contraception" tool asks users a range of questions about their health, lifestyle and contraceptive preferences and recommends a contraceptive method based on the results.
The Government's "Sex. Worth talking about" national campaign has been quite well received and early indications suggest that it has prompted positive action. Local areas will now be able to use the "Sex. Worth talking about" campaign resources to support their local work. That is a development that I am sure we will all welcome. There are also pages on the NHS Choices website with a huge amount of information and a helpline for confidential advice.
Some advances have been made to ensure that women are able to have safe, legal abortions, but we need to stop the tide of unwanted pregnancies. That is the position that we want to be in. That will take an effort on a number of fronts, and later this year we will publish our White Paper on public health, which will set out our approach in a great deal more detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire rightly points out that a woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy is extremely vulnerable. She also rightly points out that the consequences of abortion can be traumatic and far reaching. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) raised the issue of fathers, who are often forgotten in relation to this subject but who should not be forgotten in legislation and in the mechanisms we put in place to ensure that we not only prevent unwanted pregnancies but deal with their consequences.
I shall be very grateful for the continued support of my hon. Friends in making sure that we get the very best services available for women at this critical time. Anecdotal and individual Members' experiences are vital to ensuring that we get those services right. Having in place informed consent, appropriate counselling and the right support for women at this vulnerable time will ensure that we do not fail them for the future.