29 Jan 2013 : Column 799

Equality (Marriage) (Amendment)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

1.34 pm

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 to include a person’s conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage; and for connected purposes.

In my office, we call this the Adrian Smith Protection Bill, because it was his case that prompted me to table it. I will read an extract from the letter that Adrian Smith has written to Members of Parliament:

“I’m the housing manager who was demoted and had my salary cut by 40 per cent, all because I said on my personal Facebook page that gay weddings in churches would be ‘an equality too far’. I wrote those four words using my own computer, outside work time, on a page that was not visible to the general public. Yet my bosses at work still saw fit to punish me.

I tried reasoning with my bosses, but they dug their heels in. I was left with no option but to go to court to clear my name. It took the better part of two years, which was a living nightmare for my family and me. In November the High Court ruled in my favour. But they didn’t have the power to order my reinstatement so I was left in a demoted job which carried a lower salary. I have now found a job with a different employer. I shouldn’t have been treated like an outcast, and my family shouldn’t have had to suffer like they did.”

I am introducing this Bill to protect people like Adrian Smith. His case cost him and the charity that supported him £30,000. He got £98 in damages. He was told by the lawyers who advised him that he would be unlikely to win his case for unfair dismissal because of recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

One of those rulings went against Lillian Ladele. She was told by the European Court of Human Rights that she had no right to have her view on marriage respected at work. She was dismissed by Islington borough council, even though the relevant part of her work could easily have been given to other employees. That ruling means that an employee who is ordered to go against their conscience on the issue of marriage has few, if any, legal rights to protect them. That is why we need an amendment to the Equality Act 2010.

There is already a problem, but if the Government succeed in redefining marriage, the problem will get much worse. We are told that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is to be fast-tracked and that full scrutiny on the Floor of the House is not welcome. However, the Bill is not some obscure change in the law; it raises profound ethical, moral and, I would argue, constitutional matters that affect the Church of England. It also raises matters of conscience. We therefore need full scrutiny on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Opposition will press for that. I, for one, will support them if they do.

I have this opportunity, a week before the Second Reading of that Bill, to put on the record the deep concern that exists about freedom of conscience. I believe that that right is as important as the protection of church weddings. The Government’s Bill does nothing to protect ordinary people’s conscientious views. Adrian

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Smith and Lillian Ladele can therefore be mistreated at work. They should be protected, but the Bill offers them no protection.

Aidan O’Neill QC has produced a legal opinion that points out that NHS and Army chaplains may argue their case for traditional marriage in church on a Sunday, but could find themselves in trouble for articulating the same views in their workplace on Monday.

Marriage charities that were set up to promote traditional marriage at a time when nobody dreamed that there was an alternative could find themselves shut down. Only this week, the last Catholic adoption agency, St Margaret’s in Glasgow, was ordered by the Scottish charity regulator to drop its policy of requiring prospective adopters to have been married for two years.

According to a leak from the Department for Education, officials are worried that teachers will be in the firing line if marriage is redefined. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was pressed on that point by John Humphrys on the “Today” programme last week. She admitted that even in RE lessons in religious state schools, teachers would have to teach the subject in “a balanced way.” Many people in this country believe profoundly that traditional marriage is between a man and a woman, and they want the right to teach that in school.

The Education Act 1996 requires schools to teach about the nature of marriage, so if marriage is redefined they will be required to teach about the nature of same-sex marriage. Teachers who decline will find themselves in the firing line in the same way as Lillian Ladele. Why should we put thousands of teachers at risk of dismissal for believing that marriage is between a man and a woman? Labour and the teaching unions will find themselves in a firestorm if they do not protect their members. Indeed, extant counsel’s opinion tells us that the courts are unlikely to rule in favour of parents who want their children excused from classes teaching same-sex marriage.

This ten-minute rule Bill is not a blocking measure to stop same-sex marriage; it would simply insert in the Equality Act 2010 protection for a person’s conscientious views on the definition of marriage. It would protect those who hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman, just as it would protect those who hold a contrary view. People’s right to belief and conscientious right to freedom of expression must be protected. That does not mean that those conscientious views override all other considerations, but simply that conscientious beliefs about the definition of marriage are a protected characteristic that must be taken account of.

I believe we must protect the right of conscience. For over a century, atheist teachers have been allowed to express their opinions and no one can force them to teach religion. Pro-life doctors cannot be forced to participate in abortions. During the second world war when we were in a life and death situation, we allowed the existence of conscientious objections. In 21st-century Britain, however, woe betide anyone who refuses to declare full support for same-sex marriage in the workplace or the classroom.

In my time in Parliament I have battled for freedom of speech—we had a great victory on section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986—and this is not a fringe concern.

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We go around the world—we have just heard a statement on Mali—investing blood and treasure to extend freedom, but let us not forget the freedom on our own doorstep. Some Members who support redefining marriage might be utterly convinced about the rightness of their cause. I respect their views, but surely they must be generous towards those who disagree. They should ensure that the law respects and does not trample over people’s deeply held beliefs.

Millions of our fellow citizens believe passionately in marriage, and they believe their own marriage defines who they are. They do not want their marriages redefined over their heads by politicians. They believe that history, biology, ethics and religion all tell us that marriage is, uniquely, the coming together of one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all others. I believe that these people are entitled to protection not just in their churches but in their workplace, at home, on Facebook and when they teach in the classroom. They are entitled to talk about their beliefs on marriage—such beliefs are mainstream and sensible—and should do so without fear. If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we disagree passionately, I believe we have no passion for freedom of speech.

1.43 pm

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the chance to respond to this motion with the greatest courtesy and respect for the hon. Gentleman’s sincerely and deeply held beliefs, but I regret that they appear to have motivated him erroneously to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I rise to oppose the motion as a fellow Christian who was baptised in the Church in Wales, confirmed in a Welsh Presbyterian chapel, and who now worships again within the Church in Wales.

I have opposed over many years many of the things that the hon. Gentleman has said on theological and political matters, but I differ with him today through no ill will. In fact, I am conscious of the gifts and privileges that we are afforded to listen to views on either side of the debate in this House, and indeed outside the House when we listen to the views of our constituents and the many others who have written to me, and no doubt also to the hon. Gentleman.

I differ with the hon. Gentleman on three principal areas. First, as many hon. Members will recall, the Equality Act 2010 already takes great care to provide protections for persons of religion and belief, despite significant scaremongering at the time, such as claims that we were going to lose Christmas and other such things. Those protections were placed on a principled equal footing with other protected characteristics, including those of sex and sexuality. As the Government Equalities Office made clear in guidance when the Bill was introduced:

“In the case of Ministers of Religion and other jobs which exist to promote and represent religion, the Bill recognises that a church may need to impose requirements regarding sexual orientation, sex, marriage and civil partnership or gender reassignment if it is necessary to comply with its teachings or the strongly held beliefs of followers.”

I believe the Act already provides safeguards against the scenarios envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, and that it does not need further clarification by Parliament.

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Secondly, by opening up debate on such a carefully considered piece of legislation in what is effectively a piecemeal way, we could essentially be undoing the work of a great deal of parliamentary debate that took place when we considered where to set the boundaries on “protected characteristics”, and how to balance appropriately the rights of one protected group alongside or against those of another. As I have said, great care and respect were provided to people of religion and belief, as well as to those without belief, to ensure that they could not be discriminated against on that basis, and appropriate exceptions were provided in relation to other protected characteristics to prevent malicious prosecutions—for example, trying to force a church or other religious institution to appoint a minister or priest not of its faith. I have worked for a Christian organisation protected by such provisions, to ensure that where there is a genuine occupational requirement to employ a practising Christian, that requirement is protected and respected.

Thirdly, I fear that this motion is unfortunately a veiled attempt to prejudge and resolve a problem that, in my view, the Bill on equal marriage does not create. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, a motion such as this is not the best vehicle through which to pursue the views of this House on such important matters, given that next week we will have a clear opportunity to debate and discuss all implications of the proposed equal marriage legislation, not just one part in isolation which I am worried could merely distract the House.

The hon. Gentleman and those who support his position will be entirely at liberty to pursue their concerns and lines of inquiry as part of their contribution to the Second Reading debate, or to probe the point by tabling amendments subsequently. I have no doubt that Ministers will be able to assure him that the problem he appears to be outlining will not be created by the Bill on equal marriage, and therefore does not need to be resolved by an unnecessary measure.

The hon. Gentleman and I will no doubt find ourselves on fundamentally different sides of the debate next week. I for one do not believe that my faith, or any other, has a monopoly on the definition of marriage, and whatever it may have been historically, marriage is an institution that I believe now transcends belief, faith and religious conviction. As such, I hope marriage will be made open to all who wish to enter it, whether in the sight of their God, gods, or simply their closest friends and family.

My Church currently does not permit same-sex marriage and will not be forced to do so under the proposed legislation. I will argue from within for it to change its mind, but it is fundamentally a decision for that Church and its decision-making procedures. Until such a time—if, indeed, it arrives at all—the Bill on equal marriage will, I believe, protect those with different views to mine. The hon. Gentleman and those with similar views should have no fear: nothing in the proposed Bill constitutes an attack on them, their marriages, or those who cannot support same-sex marriage and would not enter into one owing to their own sincerely held beliefs. It is inaccurate to suggest that any religious denomination that does not want to celebrate such marriages might be forced to do so if a permissive, rather than mandatory, mechanism such as this Bill is introduced. The hon.

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Gentleman and others should rightly test and secure assurances on that if they so wish, but I believe there is no need for this motion.

Finally, in proposing a Bill at this stage, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is no chance of it progressing through the relevant stages in this House and the other place before Prorogation, and no chance of making it on to the statute book. I emphasise again to hon. Members and colleagues that next week the House will have a chance to make its views clear on the entire issue, not just on one small part disassociated from the others. On that basis, although my views differ from those of the hon. Gentleman, I will not push the House to divide on this motion, and I hope other hon. Members will take the view that we should not distract from the full and free debate and that we should vote on these issues next week. The House should now be allowed to move on to deal with the other important business before it today.

Question put (Standing Order No.23).

The House proceeded to a Division.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman cannot raise a point of order during the Division. He can toddle up to the Chair and have a chat if he so wishes, and I have a feeling he will avail himself of that prerogative.

The House having divided:

Ayes 86, Noes 31.

Division No. 145]


1.49 pm


Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benton, Mr Joe

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Brady, Mr Graham

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Campbell, Mr Gregory

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Philip

Davis, rh Mr David

de Bois, Nick

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dobbin, Jim

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Drax, Richard

Elphicke, Charlie

Field, Mark

Gale, Sir Roger

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Gray, Mr James

Halfon, Robert

Harris, Rebecca

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hermon, Lady

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Hughes, rh Simon

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kennedy, rh Mr Charles

Latham, Pauline

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Main, Mrs Anne

McCartney, Karl

McCrea, Dr William

McGovern, Jim

Mercer, Patrick

Mills, Nigel

Morris, Anne Marie

Mulholland, Greg

Murphy, rh Paul

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Paice, rh Sir James

Paisley, Ian

Pawsey, Mark

Phillips, Stephen

Pugh, John

Reckless, Mark

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Ruffley, Mr David

Shannon, Jim

Simpson, David

Smith, Henry

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stuart, Mr Graham

Tapsell, rh Sir Peter

Tredinnick, David

Turner, Mr Andrew

Vickers, Martin

Wheeler, Heather

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Tellers for the Ayes:

Fiona Bruce


Steve Baker


Bayley, Hugh

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Carmichael, Neil

Connarty, Michael

Crockart, Mike

Doran, Mr Frank

Duddridge, James

Ellison, Jane

Flynn, Paul

Freer, Mike

Hancock, Mr Mike

Herbert, rh Nick

Hopkins, Kelvin

Horwood, Martin

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Leech, Mr John

Lucas, Caroline

McCartney, Jason

McDonnell, John

Percy, Andrew

Rogerson, Dan

Russell, Sir Bob

Stunell, rh Andrew

Swales, Ian

Tomlinson, Justin

Ward, Mr David

Weatherley, Mike

Williams, Stephen

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Peter Bone


Mr Philip Hollobone

Question accordingly agreed to.

29 Jan 2013 : Column 804


That Mr Edward Leigh, Jim Dobbin, Sir Gerald Howarth, Fiona Bruce, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Julian Brazier, Mrs Mary Glindon, Mr David Davis, Jim Shannon, Mr Brian Binley, Mr Christopher Chope and Mr Andrew Turner present the Bill.

Mr Edward Leigh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March, and to be printed (Bill 128).

29 Jan 2013 : Column 805

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 23 May 2012 (Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

2. The proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

Lords AmendmentsTime for conclusions of proceedings

Nos. 5 and 23

Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments.

Nos. 7, 10, 11, 1 to 4, 6, 8, 9 and 12 to 22

Three hours after the commencement of those proceedings.

Subsequent stages

4. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

5. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

29 Jan 2013 : Column 806

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

Mr. Speaker: I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 5 and 23. If the House agrees to them, I will cause the appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.

After Clause 5

Amendment of Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986

2.3 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Andrew Lansley): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 5.

Mr Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment 23 and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Mr Lansley: Lords amendments 5 and 23 on the boundary review were inserted into the Bill in the Lords, despite being outside the scope of the Bill. This was clearly done with the intention of preventing the implementation of the boundary review, which was agreed by this Parliament in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

The effect of Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu would be to provide for the boundary review to proceed and for the Boundary Commission’s recommendations to come into force, taking effect at the next general election, without a requirement for any further vote in either House of Parliament.

I move this motion as Leader of the House in order to facilitate the debate. In the first instance, Members of this House will decide whether to disagree with the Lords in their amendment, the effect of which would be to put off the boundary review until 2018. If Members approve that motion, we would then go on to vote on whether instead the current boundary review should go ahead without further interference.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): May I say how disappointed I am that it is not the Deputy Prime Minister who is moving the motion? I will have to ask my right hon. Friend the question instead. Is he aware that in 2010 in this Chamber the Deputy Prime Minister made it very clear that the boundary review would be established on the simple principle of fairness, with all votes being of equal worth? Do the Lib Dems not do principle on the 29th of the month, or is it just on Tuesdays?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend makes his point very well. I will come on to the substance of the issue, but if he will forgive me and the House will bear with me, I wish first to make certain that hon. Members understand the structure of the debate and what the implications of each vote might be.

If the motion to disagree with the Lords in their amendment were agreed, we would go on to vote on the Government amendments in lieu, which would have the effect of proceeding with the boundary review without

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further votes in Parliament. If, however, hon. Members vote against the motion to disagree, the Lords amendments will be held to have been agreed with, and no further votes will take place on this group. There are therefore three potential outcomes: to agree with the Lords; to disagree and put the Bill back as it was when it left this House; or to settle the boundaries review issue now through the amendments in lieu.

I should make it clear to the House that while as Leader of the House I am enabling the debate, I will also set out my view and that of my party. In doing so, I will not be setting out formally the view of the Government, as there is not a settled coalition view. Accordingly, and as happened in the Lords, collective ministerial responsibility has been set aside for this debate.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I do not quite understand what the Leader of the House has said. On 6 September 2010, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill received its Second Reading, and the Deputy Prime Minister—Nick Clegg, as he is listed in Hansard—voted for it, and Mr Peter Bone voted against it. On Third Reading, on 20 November 2010, Mr Clegg again voted for it and Mr Bone voted against it. Surely it must be the settled view of the Government? It has gone through all its stages: how can it not be the settled view of the Government?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend will recall very well that that Bill was the Government’s view and the Government’s policy, and the House agreed with that Government Bill. The issue is these Lords amendments, and as I told the House, the ministerial code explicitly allows for ministerial responsibility to be set aside in particular circumstances, and it has been set aside in relation to the debate and votes on this particular point.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Does the ministerial code not also say that Ministers must abide by the coalition agreement in the same way as they must abide by international law?

Mr Lansley: No, I am afraid that my hon. Friend is not correct in that respect. The coalition agreement is clearly a relevant issue, but it is not encapsulated in the ministerial code. The code is very clear—he will no doubt be familiar with it—and makes clear the requirements for Ministers to accept the obligations of ministerial collective responsibility save when it is explicitly set aside. I am simply making it clear that collective ministerial responsibility has been set aside in relation to this debate and for these purposes.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My right hon. Friend has answered questions about ministerial responsibility in front of a Select Committee. Can he tell us who set aside collective responsibility and, if it was the Prime Minister, why he did so?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has responsibility for the ministerial code. Indeed, when ministerial collective responsibility is explicitly set aside, it is the Prime Minister who makes that decision. He is clearly doing it, as the House will understand, in the context of coalition government. As we know, that can give rise to occasions where there is not a collective view, and where by extension it is

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therefore not possible for a collective view to be the subject of collective ministerial responsibility. Let me turn to the substance of the issues.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Lansley: No; I will give way in a moment. Let me turn to the substance of the issues.

Parliament agreed less than two years ago to a boundary review, and it did so for good reasons. There are major disparities in the size of constituencies. In England, East Ham has 92,000 voters; Wirral West has just 55,000. The differences are even greater in respect of other nations: Arfon in Wales has an electorate of just 41,000. This means that some votes count much more than others, and the principle of greater equality in the value of each vote is at the heart of this new boundary review. Votes should carry much more equal weight across the country in electing Members to this House and in deciding a future Government. If the current review were not to happen, in England the next general election would be based on the register of February 2000, with all the consequent disparities and inequalities which have been exacerbated since then. It would be 15 years out of date.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he is being just a tad disingenuous in claiming—

Mr Speaker: Order. Although the list of proscribed words ceased to exist some time ago, I would say that the right hon. Gentleman is on somewhat dodgy ground in using that word. In view of his known dexterity in the use of language, I exhort him to deploy another term to make his point.

Mr Straw: I thought perhaps the word “tad” would ameliorate the effect. Would “dissembling”—

Mr Speaker: Order. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot accuse somebody of behaving disingenuously, it is small comfort for that person to be accused of behaving only a tad disingenuously.

Mr Straw: Is “dissembling” acceptable?

Hon. Members: No!

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will not be held back for long.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would you accept a motion that the right hon. Gentleman be no longer heard?

Mr Speaker: No.

Mr Straw: Would the Leader of the House accept that he has put only a part of his argument when he justifies the measure on the grounds of seeking equality of electorates? That principle is agreed across the Chamber. The objection to the 2011 Act was that it was a wholly partisan measure, breaking a clear convention that this

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kind of measure be agreed across the parties, to arbitrarily reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. That is the real reason.

Mr Lansley: Well, Mr Speaker, that was a long time to be sitting down. I think the right hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I am on occasions wrong, but I endeavour never to be disingenuous. On this occasion I am not wrong either. One could equally argue that it was a partisan effort on the part of the Opposition to frustrate the intention of the House to bring equality and fairness into the franchise when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was passed. None the less, my point is simply that Parliament voted on that legislation, which has been enacted. That was done on the principle of equality and fairness and the Boundary Commission has proceeded on that basis. Not now proceeding with the review would leave all the inequalities in constituencies, between constituencies and between voters that go all the way back to February 2000.

Mark Reckless: My right hon. Friend says that he is not wrong, but he stated that the ministerial code contains no reference to the coalition agreement. Paragraph 1.2 states:

“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the Coalition agreement”.

If that is the case, why is the Deputy Prime Minister being allowed to break it?

2.15 pm

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend has the advantage of me, but the ministerial code explicitly states the circumstances in which ministerial collective responsibility can be set aside. That is for the Prime Minister to decide, notwithstanding either the coalition agreement or the ministerial code.

Returning to the review, Members of this House must be aware that not only is the principle of equality and fairness relevant, but the review will have the effect of bringing down the number of Members here from 650 to 600, cutting the cost of politics by £13.5 million a year. As we are cutting back on administration and costs across the whole of the public services, it is only right that we apply the same principles to ourselves.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): On inequality, how equal is it to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and increase the number of Members of the House of Lords by an extra 125 since 2010? Where is the equity in that?

Mr Lansley: The hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members know perfectly well that if they had supported a programme motion on House of Lords reform, we would have been able to reform the House of Lords and reduce the number of Members in the Lords. But no, they did not do that.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr Lansley: I always regret it, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

29 Jan 2013 : Column 810

Chris Bryant: So charmingly done. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was going to cut the cost of politics, yet the average cost of a completely unelected new peer is £150,000 a year. How many extra peers will he be appointing before the next general election? We have already seen the fastest appointment of peers of any Government in history.

Mr Lansley: We always made it clear on the Government Benches that if the House of Lords remained unreformed it would be necessary to enable it to better reflect the character of the outcome of the preceding general election. I will not reiterate the point I made to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), but if the Opposition had supported House of Lords reform we would have been able to deal with that.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lansley: No, I am going to make more progress—this is only a two-hour debate.

I am asking the House to maintain the boundary review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) reminded us earlier, it was my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister who said, quite rightly, on Third Reading of the Bill that became the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011:

“Fairness demands constituencies that are basically equal in size…there can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 864.]

I have heard no argument that changes that, nor any justification from the Lords to seek to do so.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for giving way. He rightly emphasises that the coalition agreement is an important document, but could he also remind the House that manifestos are important, and will he inform us all of the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge on reducing the number of MPs?

Mr Lansley: Again, my hon. Friend has the advantage of me, as I do not have the Liberal Democrat manifesto to hand. I will say from the Dispatch Box that the coalition agreement is important and that it set out our shared objective to introduce a Bill that included provision for the introduction of the alternative vote in the event of a positive result in a referendum—there was not such a positive result—as well as the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 is therefore entirely part of the commitment made in the coalition agreement.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): When I entered the House, a colleague advised me to carry in my top pocket a couple of good jokes for speeches. I will read one from the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto, which sadly my right hon. Friend does not have to hand. It is quite clear:

“we will be able to reduce the number of MPs by 150”—

full stop, end of quote. Why then are they not doing it? This would have been a good first step.

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Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend makes an important point. If I may, I put it to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches that they might like to explain their reasoning to my hon. Friend later in this debate.

Mrs Laing: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I hope it may be helpful to him and the House to know that his colleague the Deputy Prime Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform on 19 April and 13 December last year, and I asked him the exact questions that Members have been asking in the last few minutes. He made it clear to the Committee that he still agreed with what he said at the Dispatch Box on Second Reading: that we have to put right what he called

“the broken scales of our democracy”—[Official Report, 6 December 2010; Vol. 515, c. 36.]

However, he also made it clear that although he considers the current system to be unfair, he is absolutely certain that that unfairness should continue until after the next general election. That is his position.

Mr Lansley: I am sure the House is grateful to my hon. Friend for informing it about the discussions in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. From my point of view, I know the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to constitutional reform. I think the boundaries review and the introduction of greater equality and fairness in constituencies and between voters is an important constitutional reform, and I hope he would want to see it put through before the next election.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Lansley: I will carry on for a moment, if I may.

Some argue that the boundaries review may spend further money this year and then not be approved—that argument was adduced in the Lords. One might equally say that several millions have been spent and the process should be completed. Either way, the amendments in lieu, if passed today, would settle that question. They would bring the review into effect without any further political interference, which, given the independent character of the review, has merit in any case.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr Lansley: I will, and then I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith).

Toby Perkins: I am grateful to the Leader of the House. It is undoubtedly true that the question could be settled one way or another today. However, given that the Liberal Democrats are clear that they will not support him, is not the most sensible thing for the House to finish this and not waste any more money on it, rather than continue with the process when it has already been made clear that what was a very political initial manoeuvre is now doomed to fail?

Mr Lansley: I am rather disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that my modest rhetoric might have no impact on my hon. Friends on the Liberal Democrat

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Benches. Surely that is the whole point of this debate and, in particular, of my colleagues and I tabling the amendments in lieu—precisely because it would be in the interests of this House to settle the matter today. It would be in the interests of this House, not least in its relationship with their lordships, to say, “We have settled it today. The boundaries review should be completed, as we legislated for it to happen, and there should be no more interference by either House, for any reason or any party.” There is an independent review; it should be completed. Before we come to the amendments in lieu, however, we first have to decide whether the Lords were right to amend the Bill as they did.

James Duddridge rose

Mr Lansley: Let me make this point, if I may. Let me put it plainly: I believe that what was done in the Lords was an abuse of the parliamentary process. We sent them a Bill concerning electoral registration; they inserted a provision outside the scope of the Bill. This is the first time that that has been done, and it was done contrary to the advice of their Clerks, who ruled that the amendment was not relevant to the Bill. It is also significant to note that the Cross Benchers in the Lords voted by two to one against inserting the boundaries amendment.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I am not in the least surprised that the forces of reaction still come from the other place, but does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that now the forces of reaction are the party opposite and the party below the Aisle, on the Liberal Democrat Benches?

Mr Lansley: Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I might say that the argument was put to the Members of the other House that in agreeing such an amendment, the Lords are seeking directly and dramatically to intervene in the structure of elections to this House. As my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde told peers in another place:

“How odd it would be if this unelected House…should have the temerity to tell the elected House how to proceed on its…election”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 568.]

How often did Opposition Members complain when they were in government if the unelected House sought to overrule the elected House? Let them contemplate this: how much stronger is that complaint, which I heard them make, when the view of this House is overruled in relation to the franchise to this House?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I remind the Leader of the House that those of us on the SNP Benches were never in government? He will have no comfort from the Scottish National party. We will be voting against the Government’s proposals, even though the new boundaries would be to our advantage. Can he explain why the Conservatives are selecting candidates on the current boundaries, not the new boundaries?

Mr Lansley: I am very disappointed in what the hon. Gentleman says, because I would hope that Members of this House would attach immense weight to the primacy of this House in determining the franchise for this

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House and reject a move by the unelected House to seek to interfere with the previously settled will of this House.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Although Members in the other House might not care what voters think, because they do not have to face them, surely other colleagues in this House must care that all their electors would like the cost of Parliament reduced and for all votes to count as much as each other.

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend makes a good point well. Anybody who votes to agree with the Lords or not to disagree with them on this amendment will, I fear, have to explain to their electorate why they are not reducing the cost of politics when we are asking the public services generally to do that.

In what is colloquially known as the Hart-Rennard amendment we have not only an abuse of parliamentary process, but a democratic travesty. The unelected House is seeking to frustrate the precisely expressed will of this Parliament—not a previous Parliament—to deny fairness and equality in the franchise and fundamentally to manipulate the basis on which this House is to be elected.

Mr Kevan Jones: Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why this Government have appointed 125 new peers since 2010? Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the average cost is £130,000 a year, which adds an extra £16,250,000 a year to the cost of politics, or £81,250,000 over five years.

Mr Lansley: Leaving aside the fact that some of the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes were from the resignation honours back in 2010, I would say that he heard what I said about House of Lords reform. If he and his colleagues had supported the programme motion, we would be in a completely different place in the House of Lords.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Lansley: There is limited time for this debate and I need to conclude my speech.

I urge Members to recognise that democrats in all parts of this House should reject the Lords amendment. Even those who object to the boundaries reviews, whether for party, personal or other reasons, should reject the way in which the Lords have amended the Bill. In doing so, they would still have the option of voting for or against the review, in the subsequent vote on the amendment in lieu or, if it is rejected, in October when the boundaries reports come before the House for approval.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con) rose

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con) rose

Mr Lansley: I will give way finally to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and then my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal).

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Jesse Norman: I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for giving way. I can only sympathise with his travails over the abuse of powers on this issue by the House of Lords. Can he imagine how much worse it would have been if the House of Lords had been elected?

Mr Lansley: My hon. Friend is inviting me to engage with a series of hypothetical situations. I will resist the temptation.

All four boundary commissions have completed their consultations and are finalising—

Mr Straw rose

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): Give way!

Mr Lansley: I will, but I have given way to the right hon. Gentleman before and it took about five minutes.

Mr Straw: Could the Leader of the House now answer the clear question put by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart): why is the Conservative party selecting candidates on the existing boundaries, not those in the new Act?

Mr Lansley: As Leader of the House, I am answering for my party and for the Government—[Interruption.] My party will live very happily with the outcome of the boundary commissions’ review, I can tell you that. The boundary commissions are finalising their recommendations. They are doing that because this Parliament voted for that measure. This concerns a fundamental feature of our democracy—namely, the basis on which we are elected to this House.

2.30 pm

Paul Uppal: On that point of principle about the democratic deficit, is there not an irony in the fact that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members are often inspired by the Chartists, who voted for equal-sized constituencies? There is a perverse relationship today, in that those Members are going to go through the Lobby and vote to retain the disconnect and the democratic deficit.

Mr Lansley: I was right to give way to my hon. Friend; he has made a good point. That votes should be of equal value is a fundamental principle that we should seek. We voted for that in legislation earlier in this Parliament, and it is now our task to see it through. This must be fair, equitable and democratic. It is wholly wrong that these measures should be overturned by an unprecedented device in the other House. I therefore ask Members across the House to disagree with the Lords. Having done that, we can go on to decide whether positively to settle the boundaries today by voting for the amendment in lieu or to let the proposal come back as planned on the basis of the boundary commissions’ reports later this year. In the interests of democracy and equality, I urge the House to disagree with the Lords in their amendment.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): May I first congratulate—

Michael Fabricant: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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Mr Speaker: I thought that the hon. Gentleman’s thirst might have been quenched, but the truth, as we all know, is that he is unquenchable.

Michael Fabricant: I shall take that as a compliment, Mr Speaker. You will know that I am very naive about what goes on on the Back Benches, as it has been a long time since I was last here—apart from the past two weeks, of course. I have been asking questions of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the views expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister, who, sadly, cannot be here today. Do you have the power to call the Deputy Prime Minister to the House to explain why it is suddenly no longer a point of principle for him to vote for a measure that he voted for only a couple of years ago? Perhaps you could explain that to me, Mr Speaker. I am curious.

Mr Speaker: No, I do not; no, I could not; and no, it would not be right for the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who is a decent fellow, to seek to embroil me in partisan politics. That would be unworthy of him, and I feel sure that he would not knowingly behave in an unworthy way.

Sadiq Khan: May I begin by congratulating the Leader of the House on the sheer audacity of his speech? His criticism of the House of Lords is breathtaking. Only six months ago, he and his party were saying that—I paraphrase—the House of Lords was so perfect that it did not need any reform, yet here he is today, arguing that it is so inept and incompetent that it cannot be trusted with this issue, despite all the Lords’ experience and the impartiality that the Conservatives claim comes from being unelected. You really could not make it up.

Mr Bone: I am not quite following the shadow Minister. Is he not aware that the biggest majority for any Government Bill in this Parliament was achieved on Second Reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill?

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Leader of the House is in charge of the timetabling of legislation in Parliament, and that it is for the Government to decide whether to proceed with a Bill. The Government chose to abandon that Bill, not the Opposition. The chairman of the Conservative party has now left the Chamber, but I have never known him to be a scholar of political and constitutional matters. We know why he was here. It is his job to ensure that the largest possible number of Conservative MPs are returned at the next general election. That is why he was here, taking an interest in this matter. It was not because he is interested in political and constitutional reform or because he is trying to reduce the cost of politics.

The House of Lords is a self-regulating Chamber. The Clerk’s advice on the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment is non-binding. By voting in favour of the amendment, the Lords have made clear their view that it is within the scope of the Bill. I am afraid it is hard luck if the Conservative part of this Government does not like that. When it comes to House of Lords reform during this Parliament, the ship has sailed.

Before us today are two groups of amendments made in the other place to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. I want to put on record our recognition

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of the work done by colleagues in the other place, from all parties and none, who spent four days debating, revising and improving the Bill.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Is not the relationship between the two Houses based on convention? Every so often, the House of Lords breaches a convention, one of which is that we should have primacy in our own affairs and should therefore decide how elections should be carried out and how boundaries should be determined. It was a breach of convention over the 1909 Budget that led to the Lords having their powers curbed before. This is a much more serious constitutional issue than the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting.

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman will be aware, because he sat through my superb speech during the debate on the House of Lords Reform Bill, that I made a point in that debate about the importance of function, of looking at the powers of the second Chamber and of convention. He will recall that, although the Second Reading was voted for by a huge majority, it was the Government who chose to drop the Bill from the legislative timetable. That was their decision, and it is the Government whom the hon. Gentleman should be lobbying.

Chris Bryant: Is it not a generally accepted principle that the House of Lords has a special relationship in that it is a guardian of the constitution in a way that those who are elected might sometimes not be?

Sadiq Khan: Absolutely. I have to say to those who have a grievance against conventions or against House of Lords reform that I am afraid the ship has sailed. They had their opportunity, but it passed them by.

The amendments have been made in addition to the improvements made here in the Commons during the progress of the Bill. We managed to secure a commitment that an annual canvass would still take place in 2014, that the option of a rolling opt-out was removed and that a civil penalty would be created for those who refused to respond when requested to register to vote. The Bill still left this House with serious problems, however, which is why we voted against it on Third Reading when it was last before us.

I would like to use this opportunity to place on record our appreciation of those who tabled the amendments in group 2: Lord Hart of Chilton, Lord Rennard, Lord Wigley and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. This amendment received support from across the other place, and a Labour peer, a Liberal Democrat peer, a Plaid Cymru peer and a Cross Bencher tabled it. It was passed by a majority of 69. We welcome the amendments made to the Bill in the other place. We shall not, therefore, be supporting the motion before us today to disagree with the Lords in their amendments.

The effect of the amendment we are debating will be to postpone the review of parliamentary boundaries by one electoral cycle.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Let us focus on the practical ramifications of the right hon. Gentleman’s vote today. Is he really prepared to tell his constituents in Tooting that it is appropriate, fair and equitable that, by the time of the general election after

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next, in May 2020, the enumeration data on which the electorates are based will be 20 years old? Some of the constituencies in my county of Cambridgeshire are the fastest growing in England, and they will have well over 100,000 electors by then, while some in Wales will have fewer than 40,000.

Sadiq Khan: It is a bit rich for a Conservative Member to lecture us on equality and fairness. I will come to those issues later in my speech.

The amendment will also similarly delay the reduction in the number of MPs by 50 to 600, as a result of which the next general election will take place on the current boundaries with the number of MPs at 650.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not about having fairer constituencies—that can be accomplished by a periodic redistribution—nor about saving money? It is a highly political Bill aimed at the Labour party and at the Liberal Democrats who were naive to support it in the first place.

Sadiq Khan: The House has heard what my hon. Friend has said.

Should the amendment be supported, it would mean having more time to address the deficiencies in the current electoral register, particularly against the backdrop of the move towards individual electoral registration. The reason why that is so important is that the electoral register is the very basis on which boundaries are drawn and redrawn. It is the raw material from which the Boundary Commission constructs parliamentary constituencies. If that raw material is of poor quality, the subsequent output from the Boundary Commission will also be of questionable quality.

It is not necessary to take just my word for it or that of the House of Lords. The Electoral Reform Society said last year:

“A depleted register has major implications for political boundaries. A substantial fall off in registered voters, weighted towards urban areas, would require the Boundary Commission to reduce the number of inner-city seats. This will create thousands of ‘invisible’ citizens who will not be accounted for or considered in many key decisions that affect their lives, yet will still look to MPs to serve them as local constituents.”

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need only look at what happened in Northern Ireland to see some of the dramatic effects and the drop in the number of those registered?

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the lessons we can learn from Northern Ireland. A recent report by the Electoral Commission recorded its concern about the record drop in the number of people on the register.

Chris Ruane: A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend said that thousands of people will be missing from the register. The true figure is that there are 6.5 million people missing from it—and these are often among the most marginalised people in the country.

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I believe that it is wrong to go ahead with the boundary review without having secured these missing millions back on the register.

Sadiq Khan: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

The Lords amendment has two main principles, the first of which concerns the shift to individual electoral registration. We need time to allow for the switch to the new system to bed down.

Several hon. Members rose

Sadiq Khan: I need to make some progress but will give way later.

We need to be sure that the completeness and accuracy of the register has not been damaged by the move. As has been said, the Electoral Commission estimates that about 6.5 million eligible voters are currently missing from the register—a truly startling figure. That is enough for almost 90 parliamentary constituencies. The current situation in which we find ourselves is bad enough; it should be imperative on us to do all we can to rectify it.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that if he is successful today, he will be re-creating rotten boroughs, which were got rid of in the 1830s?

Sadiq Khan: I think that the Electoral Commission, the Boundary Commission and electoral registration officers will be quite offended by the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I am sure that, on reflection, he will want to withdraw those remarks.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Bill has nothing to do with fairness, saving money or the cost of democracy, but is actually about pure party political advantage for the Conservative party? Is it not straight out of the Karl Rove book of how to rig elections to the advantage of a sitting party?

Sadiq Khan: We have seen that the general election co-ordinator for the Conservative party has left the Chamber. The fact that he was in his place earlier speaks volumes about the motives of the Conservative part of the Government.

The move to individual electoral registration risks even greater numbers falling off the register.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman will know that on the Northern Ireland Benches, we are concerned about the maximum representation for Northern Ireland in this House. As well as that, however, there is the issue of the impact, not mentioned so far, on elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, because reductions in seats for Northern Ireland here also impact on the representation in that Assembly. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is an important aspect, which has not so far been properly addressed?

2.45 pm

Sadiq Khan: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Northern Ireland not only loses 17% of MPs to the Westminster Parliament, but the consequences

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for the Northern Ireland Assembly are very serious, too. Supporting this amendment would give us the time— another electoral cycle—to get it right, which is why right hon. and hon. Members of all parties should support it.

Harriett Baldwin: I am really struggling to follow the right hon. Gentleman’s argument. He is arguing that he would forfeit at least £70 million-worth of savings to the taxpayer by delaying this matter for five years, while also arguing that it is right to fight the 2015 general election on constituencies that have not been looked at since 2000—15 years out of date.

Sadiq Khan: I can reassure the hon. Lady that I am just warming up. If, during the course of my speech, I have not addressed the points she raises, she can intervene again later, once I am in full flow.

Mr Lansley: The right hon. Gentleman is trying to make a link between the electoral register and the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill and the boundaries review—but that is a completely false connection. The 2015 election will be based on a register in its current form, not on individual electoral registration, either way—whether done through the boundaries review as planned or whether done without it. The Bill does not impact on that.

Sadiq Khan: The Leader of the House must be a fantastic poker player, as he said that with a straight face. I will give him a mini-lecture on why he is so wrong, on this issue as well, in a few moments. If he is still not persuaded, he can intervene and explain it to me again.

I have explained why we have sought to amend the Bill—both in this Chamber and in the other place—to include further mechanisms for maximising voter registration, particularly for the harder-to-reach sections of our communities. The importance of doing all in our power to avoid a sharp drop-off in registration levels was brought home by the experience of Northern Ireland, recently re-emphasised in the Electoral Commission report.

We know that those most likely to fall off the register are not sprinkled uniformly across the country. Each constituency does not have its equal share of missing voters. Instead, it is generally accepted that the missing eligible voters are likely to be from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, the more transient residents who live in rented accommodation such as students and young people, the elderly and the disabled and those in more deprived communities. The Leader of the House and his Back Benchers talked about equality and fairness, but the Electoral Commission has reported that

“under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”.

It also found that

“the highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”

These millions missing from the register would not count in the calculations for the setting of parliamentary

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boundaries. Any boundaries produced would be skewed and would be open to questions about their legitimacy. That should worry us all.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): Does the right hon. Gentleman think those people were on the register in 2000?

Sadiq Khan: Let us follow the logic of the hon. Lady’s argument: there are 6 million people missing from the register at the moment, but if we cannot ensure that we get them back on the register and stop further falls, we should be happy with the status quo. She is wrong: we should not be happy with the status quo; we should try to get these 6 million people on to the register and stop the cliff fall.

We should also bear it in mind that we are losing seven constituencies in Scotland, three in Northern Ireland and 10 in Wales. Although the latest census confirms that our population has risen, there will be fewer Members representing constituencies which will, as a result of inaccuracy, have fewer people on the electoral roll. That raises real concerns about whether the interests of all four of our nations will be properly protected by the Westminster Parliament.

Pete Wishart: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sadiq Khan: I will, but then I must make progress.

Pete Wishart: The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that Scotland will lose seven constituencies if the boundary review goes ahead. We will be supporting the amendment, not because we feel that its proponents have a great case but because it would end the prospect of further Conservative government in Scotland. However, given the current boundaries, will the Labour party not have a start of up to 30 seats at the next general election?

Sadiq Khan: I am always happy to discuss voting systems. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing for proportional representation rather than first past the post, that is a debate that we can have—although not, I hasten to add, during the short time that remains to us today.

Toby Perkins: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sadiq Khan: Yes, but then I must make progress.

Toby Perkins: My right hon. Friend’s point about the number of people who are not on the electoral register is one of the most fundamental in the debate. If Government Members had given us some sense that they were taking the position seriously—if they had paid attention to some of the reasoned amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—it would have been much easier for us to take them seriously today.

Sadiq Khan: The Government’s complacency on the subject of the missing 6.5 million is breathtaking, and we should see it in a wider context as well. At the same time as the size of the elected legislature is being reduced through the cutting of 50 MPs, the number of unelected peers is increasing by about 50 a year. Since 2010, 117 new peers have been created at a cost of £18 million a year. The amount that will be saved by the cutting of

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those 50 MPs is £13.6 million. We understand from No. 10 briefings—and the Leader of the House has confirmed today—that the creation of more peers will be announced shortly.

However, it is not just the cost that should worry us. The Government are becoming more powerful. We have more Government special advisers that at any time in our history. Moreover, these changes will reduce the size of the legislature while leaving the Executive untouched, thus making Governments more powerful at the expense of elected MPs representing their constituents. Accepting the Lords amendment would enable the reduction in the number of MPs to be delayed, which would have the added advantage of giving us time to consider the right balance between Executive and legislature.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con) rose—

Sadiq Khan: I will give way to the hon. Lady, who has been very patient and has risen several times.

Dr Wollaston: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned students. Does he think it reasonable that the MP who represents a student in, say, Bristol West represents more than 82,000 people, while just across the road in Bristol East the MP represents 13,000 fewer? It is not necessary to be a student of maths to realise that a vote there will carry far less weight. That cannot be right; it goes against all the basic Chartist principles that we would expect the right hon. Gentleman to support.

Sadiq Khan: I agree with the hon. Lady, as do the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission. She should join me in ensuring that those invisible citizens who should be on the register are put on the register. Let us not rush ahead with partisan boundary changes.

Mrs Laing: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sadiq Khan: I have been very generous, as the hon. Lady knows. I will make some progress, and if I have time after that, I will give way.

Labour legislated for individual electoral registration in 2009. The timetable and safeguards that we proposed at the time received cross-party support, but there was a general recognition that risks would be involved in the transition, which is why it was spread over a number of years. However, the Bill in its unamended form has watered down some of the safeguards that we introduced, thus failing to take account of risks that could mean the loss of millions of eligible voters from the register.

The complexities of the move are enormous. It involves the carry-over of existing registered voters for periods of the transition, the simultaneous piloting of data-matching schemes, a drive to show the public how to register, and changes in the way in which local authorities seek to register voters and how they should deal with a refusal to co-operate. As the Government themselves admit,

“Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is the biggest change to our system of electoral registration for almost a century and it is essential we get it right”.

Chris Ruane: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

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Sadiq Khan: I want to make some progress first.

I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. “Getting it right” means that we must allow sufficient time to check that the transition does not result in millions of eligible voters dropping off the register, and rectifying that if it does occur.

Chris Ruane: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sadiq Khan: I want to make some progress. I have only a short time left.

The second principal purpose of the amendments is to deal with the uncertainty about the boundaries on which the next election will be fought. That uncertainty has left the process of redrawing boundaries on the basis of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 in a state of limbo. The current boundary review is wasting public resources, and risks creating a degree of confusion in the minds of voters about which constituencies they live in and who their MPs are.

I will not rehearse the statements made by the Deputy Prime Minister last August about the proposals for boundary changes, but, needless to say, he has made it clear that his party will not now support the new boundaries, on which both Houses are due to vote in the autumn. Rather than our having to wait until the autumn, however, the amendment gives us an opportunity to bring an end to all remaining elements of uncertainty about this issue, as well as improving the move to individual electoral registration. We do not want voters not to know which constituencies they live in, or to be confused about whether those constituencies will change at the next election.

Chris Ruane: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sadiq Khan: I will, for the very last time.

Chris Ruane: Currently, 6.5 million people are missing from the register. According to the Electoral Commission, if the IER arrangements had gone ahead as originally proposed by the Government, the number of unregistered voters could have risen to 16 million—16 million of the poorest people. Is that the way to run a democracy?

Sadiq Khan: One would think that rather than heckling in a snide and partisan manner, Ministers would be expressing concern about the millions of invisible citizens who are missing from the register.

The next general election is nearer than the last. We want the public to have more certainty about the constituencies in which they live and about who will be the candidates in the election, but if the amendment is rejected, they will know neither of those things until 2014. If we are to reinforce the connections between MPs, candidates and their constituents, we need to know the facts sooner rather than later. We need an end to the impasse, and that is what voting for the amendment would provide. Ending the impasse would bring clarity and certainty. It would also halt the work of the Boundary Commission, which would save significant amounts of money that might otherwise be wasted on a review that will not be implemented.

Agreeing with the amendment would allow us to monitor, check and rectify any deficiencies that emerge from the transition to individual voter registration.

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In the event of a dramatic slump in the number of eligible voters on the register, it would allow time for that to be corrected without a severe undermining of the legitimacy of parliamentary boundaries redrawn on the basis of a depleted electoral register. It would allow the next general election to be fought on the current boundaries, and would allow us to engage and register the missing millions in the meantime. It would prevent the wasting of any further money by the Boundary Commission, and it would bring certainty. That is why we will not be supporting the motion to disagree with the Lords amendment, and I hope that Members in all parts of the House will join us.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I rise to ask the House to agree with their lordships in the amendment, and to disagree with the motion to disagree. Let me, however, begin on a note of agreement with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is important for us to deal with this matter, and to deal with it today. It is before us now, so let us deal with it.

I want to touch briefly on what I consider to be the three main questions that confront us: the admissibility of the amendment, the substantive issues surrounding it, and what I might euphemistically refer to as the wider issues for the coalition.

Let me start with the question of admissibility. The other place is self-regulating; it is completely different from this House in that regard. Because it is self-regulating, all matters of order reside with the House collectively, not with any individual. The Clerks give advice, and it is given on the understanding, and in the belief, that it will be accepted. That is the convention, but it is a convention, not a rule. The rule is that anything their lordships decide collectively is in order. As they have so decided, that settles the matter as far as order is concerned. If anyone wants to revisit the debate, however, may I suggest they look in particular at the remarks of two Cross Benchers, both of whom served this House well as Speaker? They made very plain their reasons for voting for this amendment.

Mr Bone: Can my hon. Friend tell us the last time the Lords did not take the advice of the Clerks?

John Thurso: I am sorry, but, as a matter of fact, I cannot. All sorts of things have happened in their lordships’ House, however, and I can tell Members the last time that the asperity of speech motion was moved. I was there when the late great Lord Conrad Russell moved it, and I do not think it had been moved for 300 years before that.

3 pm

James Duddridge: I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about procedure and the House of Lords. Will he add to his list of three things he is going to cover an explanation of why he and the Deputy Prime Minister have changed their view? On 1 November 2010 the hon. Gentleman said in respect of a Government Bill on equalisation that

“I have absolutely no problem with that general principle…the principle of equalisation is a very good one.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 672.]

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John Thurso: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, and I will address that point later. I reiterate that I stand by the words he quotes about my having no problem with the general principle. I have put on record on many occasions how that general principle should be dealt with, however, and I will cover that point later.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): I do not think any Member disagrees with the principle of having more equal seats, but several amendments were not accepted that would have made the rules governing this proposal sensible, many of them tabled by Government Members. If they had been accepted, we might not find ourselves in this position now.

John Thurso: My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Sir Peter Bottomley: In the 1950s Jo Grimond said in my hearing that one of the roles of the House of Lords was to stop the House of Commons abusing the electoral process. I think that to carry on having boundaries that are old and constituencies with unequal numbers of voters is just such an abuse. What would Jo Grimond say about what is happening now?

John Thurso: I had the great privilege of listening to Jo Grimond on many occasions. He met his wife in my grandparents’ house and proposed to her there—and, indeed, Laura was godmother to my sister. I regularly listened to him, therefore, and I feel certain that if he was in the circumstances we are in, he would without doubt support his Liberal colleagues. [Interruption.] One has some small advantages in life.

Their lordships’ amendment 5 delays the implementation of the boundary changes until the next Parliament. There are three good reasons why this should happen, two of which have been touched on and featured in the debate in their lordships’ House, and the third I shall add. The first point is in regard to the quality of the register. Since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was enacted, much work has been done on that register. At the time, the best evidence was that it contained the details of about 92% of those who should be on it. As a result of work carried out by the Electoral Commission, we now know the figure is much lower, however; it is, in fact, 82%. To my mind, that is a material difference that should be addressed. We should be asked to look at that again.

Paul Uppal: In a genuine effort to be non-partisan, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to give his opinion on the fact that the Cross Benchers in the House of Lords overwhelmingly voted against these amendments?

John Thurso: I disagree with that. I went through the Lords Hansard and underlined the names of all the Cross Benchers I could see in each of the voting lists. There were slightly more of them in one list than the other, but there were quite a number in support of this amendment. I remember that one of the great dictums of their lordships’ House is that all peers are equal, so I would look to the result, which was 300 on one side and 69 or so fewer—231—on the other side.

Mr Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian, so he will know that it has hitherto been the practice of the other place not to

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amend secondary legislation substantially—or, indeed, at all—even on some very contentious subjects and Bills over the past few Parliaments. Why, therefore, has this happened on this particular occasion?

John Thurso: I recall very well that, when I and others were given their P45s and left that place, one of the discussions that we had was about why on earth we in the other place should not register dissent on secondary legislation. Indeed, that has occasionally happened, which serves to demonstrate that there is a changing dynamic. Because of that changing dynamic, we need to look at the constitutional arrangements in the round, and that topic will form the substantive element of the last part of my argument.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): In the other place, by convention their lordships defer to what the Clerks say. Over the past 20 years, on the five occasions when amendments have been deemed inadmissible by the Clerks, they have deferred to the Clerks’ superior knowledge. In this House, such an amendment would be deemed to be outside the rules and we rightly follow the rules set out in “Erskine May”. Does my hon. Friend think we in this place should continue to follow those rules, or should we throw “Erskine May” in the bin?

John Thurso: My hon. Friend is asking me to ponder questions that go slightly above my pay grade, because one person alone can make those decisions in this House: Mr Speaker. It is entirely up to Mr Speaker to accept or reject the advice given. I therefore refer my hon. Friend to the remarks made by Baroness Boothroyd, a former Speaker of this House. She said there were occasions when she had gone against the advice given to her by the Clerks. We do not know when that happens, however, for the simple reason that that is the prerogative of the Speaker, and we accept it without question.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to my noble Friend for giving way. At the Committee stage of any Bill, it is up to this House to give an instruction to consider any amendments, whether or not they have been deemed by the Clerks to be in the scope of the Bill, so this House has much the same powers as the House of Lords in this respect.

John Thurso: I am always deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for helping me out on these occasions.

My first point is about the electoral register. The second point is about what has happened in regard to boundaries. We now have the benefit of the proposals that have been made. At the time of our original discussion, we did not; we were looking at the question in theory. A fascinating point arose from a discussion I had with a senior member of the Government on the other side of the coalition. I will not name the Member as it would be invidious to do so. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Absolutely not; my lips are sealed. He said that in a given area the proposal their experts had come up with was the one thing that had never been thought of. That is precisely what has happened in respect of my own seat. The proposed size of it gives me concern, as it would become the largest. However, in electoral terms—notionally, on the basis of the historical numbers—the change would

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increase my majority, although one would never boast about that in any highland seat. My constituency would go from being made up of two and a quarter counties to comprising two counties, 90% of another county and a little chunk of a fourth, none of which are linked together in any way, shape or form; none of this has any rationale of community. These areas have different local election arrangements; the seat goes through wards. The proposed seat goes all over the place, simply to squeeze in enough in respect of both the area and the numbers.

The general principle, I always agreed, has to be tailored to the other principles we have always used when setting out boundaries: the big regional variances. So I feel it is a good idea to look again at what has been proposed, now that we have seen that the actual proposals are quite different from those envisaged, in theory, at the time.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): But my hon. Friend must have thought about this when his own leader made a statement on political and constitutional reform in this House and said that the changes we are proposing will

“bring our oversized House of Commons into line with legislatures across the world.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 24.]

In other words, the changes will make the House of Commons smaller. Have legislatures around the world become bigger or has the Deputy Prime Minister, whom we both regard with affection, become a little smaller?

John Thurso: Let me deal with that precise point at the moment I arrive at it. First, I wish to deal with my third point of substance, which is the one that was not made in the debate. It is brief but it is important. A reduction in the size of this House increases the percentage of the payroll vote and thereby strengthens the grip of the Executive on Parliament, without there being an acceptable counterweight.

That leads me to my final point, which relates to the wider coalition issues. Let me make it absolutely clear that I supported the formation of this Government and I remain committed to them. As a Liberal Democrat, I entered this coalition because I believed in 2010 that the country needed a stable Government to deal with the financial crisis that was before us. As a member of the Treasury Committee in the previous Parliament, I had looked at many of the matters on the sovereign debt markets and was concerned, and I believe that the right decision was made.

However, when two very different parties come together to get agreement on an essential issue there has to be agreement on other areas. The red line issues—the ones we will not have at any cost or the ones we must have at any cost—are relatively straightforward to address, because we either agree them or we do not, and we are either there or we are not. All the other matters that are subject to negotiation, both individually, as policies, and, most importantly, collectively, as a slate, are much more difficult to deal with. The coalition agreement is not a pick-and-mix menu; it is an agreement. I agreed to the boundary changes—in many respects with a heavy heart—but I did so in the knowledge that the rest of that agreement acted as a counterweight. To my mind, that would occur mainly through Lords reform, which I judged would increase the check on the Executive and

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strengthen Parliament. For me, that was a fundamental point and I believe it is a fundamental point for all my colleagues.

Dr Wollaston: Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there are many other ways in which we could reduce the size of the payroll vote in this House? That would have been perfectly possible to do by, for example, reducing the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries or Ministers. His argument is therefore surely not an acceptable one.

3.15 pm

John Thurso: Many things are possible, but I have to deal with what is in the agreement and that is the key point.

Christopher Pincher: The hon. Gentleman said that this vote was linked to Lords reform. His leader does not think that, as he has said:

“There is no link; of course, there is no link.”

What has changed?

John Thurso: I am speaking for myself.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): On this point about coalition well-being, does my hon. Friend agree that—and is he sad about the fact that—my Lib Dem colleagues in Cornwall are misrepresenting their vote this evening by saying that a vote against the Bill is a vote against a “Devonwall” seat? He knows, as I do, that the Boundary Commission decides the boundaries and it is not due to bring them back to us until October. So this is hardly good coalition politics, is it?

John Thurso: I think I grasped the point being made, but I think we should deal with what is before us today and that we should think again. We should accept what the Lords have said to us.

3.15 pm

Jesse Norman: I thank my noble and hon. Friend for his comments. First, is he aware that there is a Bill at the moment that would reduce the size of the House of Lords without making it into an elected Chamber, which his own party is opposing? Secondly, on the question of whether the Lords are able to put up a decent fight against the Executive, is he aware that during the Labour Governments of Mr Blair and the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and the other—[Interruption.] I have forgotten his name, as he appears so rarely in this House. Is my hon. Friend aware that during that time the Lords defeated the Government 450-odd times and the Commons defeated them fewer than 10 times?

John Thurso: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that, as it is a perfect argument in favour of supporting their lordships on this occasion.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): May I, through my hon. Friend, seek to clarify something? In places such as Cornwall, cross-party agreement has been established on opposing a cross-border constituency. We therefore have an opportunity today to vote in such a way as to

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defer that until after the next general election and therefore put off the time when such an unacceptable boundary change would affect the people of Cornwall.

John Thurso: My hon. Friend is right. I just want to make it clear that when I entered this coalition, I made it clear to the leadership, when my party discussed whether we would accept this arrangement, that for me the agreement in toto was what counted and that Lords reform, as part of the constitutional arrangements, was vital. After the vote on Lords reform, I made it abundantly clear to my leadership that my position had changed and I could not, in all conscience, continue to support what we had done before. That is a fundamental point for myself and my colleagues.

I gently point out to my friends on the Government Benches, in the mildest manner possible, that they have got what they wanted: the great, the good, the wise, the academic, the apolitical, the ex-public servants and the generals, whom they strove so hard to protect, have come together in their wisdom and given us amendment 5. I beg the House to support it.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I hope that this is a point of order rather than a point of enormous wit—we shall discover.

Kevin Brennan: It is not for me to judge, Mr Speaker. During the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), he was intervened on a couple of times and was referred to as being the “noble” Member. Can you clarify whether or not there are any noble Members in this House? Or are we just all common?

Mr Speaker: All right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber are equal. That is perhaps not the answer that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but it is the answer that he is going to get, especially as his attempted point of order was just that—attempted. It was many things but it was not a point of order.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who made a striking and powerful speech. I, like other Members, particularly enjoyed his last point.

I am pleased to be able to speak in opposition to the Government motion and in support of Lords amendments 5 and 23, and I welcome the cross-party support for those amendments in the other place and in the Chamber today. The other place has done democracy a great service by highlighting the link between this Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, because, contrary to the point made by the Leader of the House, the impact of these two pieces of legislation together would have been unfairly to reduce the representation of our great cities and urban areas.

A number of Government Members have talked about the simple principle of fairness, and the Leader of the House talked about the disparities in the system. There are disparities, but they are not the ones that he talked about. If I were selected by my party members again,

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the proposed boundaries would benefit me electorally. Nevertheless, they are unfair and undermine our democracy because of the enormous mismatch between population and registered voters.

Kevin Brennan: Is that not the heart of the argument, in that the Government’s original proposals were based on a principle of no representation without registration?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Indeed, that is at the heart of my argument.

Chris Ruane rose

Paul Blomfield: I will give way to my hon. Friend, because he has done so much work on this issue and I have great respect for his views.

Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. Does he think that the fairest way to redraw the boundaries might be to use the census statistics, as they give a full and accurate figure of everybody who lives in the UK?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend has clearly done so much work on the issue that he anticipates one of the points that I was going to make. He is absolutely right.

I want first to illustrate the mismatch by comparing my constituency, Sheffield Central, with the neighbouring constituency, Sheffield, Hallam. I am glad that I shall be walking through the same Lobby later as my political neighbour, but the two constituencies are of a very different nature and they illustrate my argument.

Sheffield Central is inner city and multicultural; we have large council estates, houses in multiple occupation, two universities and very high levels of voter turnover. Already, 17% of households have nobody on the register. Sheffield, Hallam consists of our city’s leafy suburbs; it is largely monocultural with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation, and a very stable population. Only 4% of its households have nobody on the register. There is a huge disparity between the number of people represented by the MPs for those two constituencies.

I have made that point before, but I now have the advantage of supporting it with the latest information available, which is from the 2011 census. If the argument was reduced to a simple question of constituency size based on the number of registered voters, our two constituencies would appear to be pretty similar in size. However, if we compare the population according to the 2011 census with the number of voters registered on 2 January 2013 according to the council’s electoral registration officer, we can see that the picture is completely different. Sheffield Central has 76,596 registered voters whereas Sheffield, Hallam has 71,559—the difference is just 5,037, or 7%. According to the census, Sheffield Central has a population of 115,284 whereas Sheffield, Hallam has a population of 89,356, and so the difference is 25,928, or 20%.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I, too, am a representative of an inner-city seat. Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises, as I do, that one of the main reasons behind such differences is the number of

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non-UK nationals in a particular constituency who often live in households containing no UK nationals and therefore no UK voters. I know that puts a huge additional burden on him as a Member of Parliament, as it does on me—all these people require representation—but they are not UK nationals and therefore should not be voting in UK general elections.

Paul Blomfield: There is a bit of a difference between the two inner-city seats that the hon. Gentleman and I represent. Although there is some evidence to endorse his point, it does not explain the enormous disparity between the two seats in Sheffield.

Many of those who are excluded from the electoral register are precisely the people who form a huge proportion of my casework and I know that the situation will be the same for many Members who represent inner-city seats. More importantly, the combination of legislation means that their voice in Parliament will be reduced. If the Electoral Commission’s original concerns about the impact of the Bill came into being and were compounded by a process of redrawing boundaries based on the register as at December 2015, the gap would widen even more. If boundaries were redrawn based on an average electorate of 76,641, which was the basis for the Electoral Commission’s calculations, the actual population of Sheffield Central would be approaching 50% more than that of Sheffield, Hallam.

Some might argue that the Electoral Commission’s worst fears might no longer come true, particularly in the light of some of the concessions the Government have been forced to make. In the longer term that might be true, but crucially the next boundary review would be conducted at the low point of the registration cycle in December 2015. Let me make it clear that like those on my Front Bench I support the principle of equalisation. In so far as there is public interest in constitutional reform, that argument has enormous resonance with the public, but the people to whom I have spoken were shocked to learn that equalisation is based not on population but on the number of registered electors. The effect of the combined legislation will be not to reduce but to enhance inequity.

Dr Wollaston: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is simply not always the case? In Torbay, for example, those on one side of the road are represented by a Liberal Democrat colleague who represents 76,000 voters. On the other side of the road at the Brixham end of Torbay, which is in my constituency, there are just over 67,000 voters. One vote carries 11% more weight on the Brixham side of Torbay, and when we take the populations into account, the discrepancy is even higher. It does not always ring true that using population equalises matters because, in some cases, it would make things worse. It certainly would in my constituency, where the situation is already unfair.

Paul Blomfield: I do not think that Sheffield is any different from many of our other large urban centres, and I think that the effect I have described in relation to Sheffield would apply to the vast majority of urban areas in this country. There might be some exceptions in Devon.

To respond to an earlier comment, my view is that we should move towards a system of genuinely equal constituencies based on boundaries drawn by population

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size, not by registered voter numbers, but that is clearly a debate for another time. Whether or not we go down that route, we need now to pause, to ensure that individual electoral registration does not further enhance inequity and does not further disempower our cities. If we do not pause, we risk creating a US-style democracy, with notorious under-registration, that excludes the disadvantaged and the disengaged and that focuses political parties and elections on the needs of the more privileged and in that way poisons our politics.

Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once again. He mentions the American system, where registration has gone down. That was a deliberate political act by the Republican party to organise voter suppression. Does he think that there is an element of deliberate political voter suppression from the Conservative party?

Paul Blomfield: I do think indeed that the Conservative party had a plan.

Chris Ruane: It wasn’t very cunning.

Paul Blomfield: Indeed; the plan was pretty transparent, and it seems to be falling apart under the scrutiny of another place and with the support of other parties across the House. I am delighted about that because accepting Lords amendments 5 and 23 will provide the pause that we need to ensure that our democracy is not weakened. That would give us the time to get this right, and I look forward to the House supporting those amendments.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I hope I can cheer up my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) and the whole House by quoting Edmund Burke, who told the electors of Bristol:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment”.

We cannot be on autopilot in the House; we must do what we think is right, in the interests of our constituents and the country, which is why I did not join my Government in voting against the measures on payday loans proposed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), or Labour’s proposed extension to the national insurance contribution holiday to the south-east, and it is why I voted against my Government over the constitutional car crash that was the House of Lords Reform Bill.

3.30 pm

I will defend the right of any Member to vote against their Whips for what they believe is right, but let us not kid ourselves that that is what the Liberals are up to today. It is not a constituency or national interest that has informed the amendments to clause 5, but self-interest. Edmund Burke did not say that we as representatives owe our constituents our spite, pettiness and self-interest, yet those are the qualities that seem to have brought us to these amendments.

When we gave the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill its Second Reading in September 2010, 54 Liberal Democrats voted in favour, three abstained and none voted against. Indeed, the Conservative rebellion was greater—by my count, six of my colleagues voted against the Government.

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Greg Mulholland: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, but one thing that I think we probably can agree on—certainly, some of us who have different positions on this—is that it was simply wrong to include those two very separate items in the Bill. I wanted to oppose the boundary changes, others wanted to oppose the AV measures, but we could not do so because they were tied up in the same Bill.

Penny Mordaunt: Presumably, when the Division bell rang on that occasion, 54 Liberals did not take collective leave of their senses—whether they lost them some time ago I cannot say. But I am sure that they were present in a moment of brilliant acuity as the bell tolled, and they voted to improve our parliamentary democracy, which is what the hon. Gentleman did.

Greg Mulholland: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Penny Mordaunt: I will make some progress.

We can take it that the Liberals believed in equalising the size of constituencies and reducing the number of MPs. I say that with some confidence because we know that they believe it still; they just do not want it yet. Today, we are not asked to throw out the concepts altogether, which would be a bizarre but perhaps defensible position intellectually; we are simply asked to put them off till the next Parliament—a curious position of which some further explanation is required, and I hope that you agree, Mr Speaker.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): One of the words that has been overused in this Parliament is “fairness”. Fairness, fairness, fairness is all we have heard from some of our coalition colleagues, but a word that I would like to introduce is “honourability” and ask whether it is honourable for someone to take a position and then move, frankly, to a different one when they see what is before them.

Penny Mordaunt: I thank my hon. Friend, and to ensure that I do not offend Mr Speaker or anyone else in the House, I welcome the opportunity to put on record the fact that I think all Liberal Democrat Members are honourable ladies and gentlemen, but I hope during my speech to point out to them what they would need to do to remain so by tomorrow morning.

The answer to this puzzle is found not in the amendments but in the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has made it quite clear that Liberal support for the changes has been withdrawn because the House of Lords Bill could not be passed. I remind the House that that is the same Deputy Prime Minister who was quite categorical in his assurances that one had no influence over the other, while the battle for the constitution still raged. It has doubtless not helped the Liberals’ mood that the public so comprehensively rejected their plans for electoral reform. The Liberals have withdrawn their love because of a contrived slight.

The Deputy Prime Minister can repeat until he is blue in the face—although a fuller conversion to that colour might prove harder to achieve—that the programme for government promised Lords reform, but that will not make it true. There was never any obligation for

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Conservatives to support Lords reform, and I rebelled with a heavy heart but a clear conscience. Will the same be true for the Liberals in the wrong Lobby today?

Mark Field: I share much of my hon. Friend’s frustration, but does she agree that this row would not have happened if, instead of focusing on the rather fatuous arguments about saving a relatively small amount of money, we had set out to equalise the constituencies but to keep the number at 650 for this House?

Penny Mordaunt: Even if we set aside the vital matter of the absence of an obligation on Lords reform, to make the allegation that Conservatives broke a coalition promise requires considerable front. Thirty-six per cent. of the Liberal Democrats rebelled over tuition fees, by comparison with less than 30% of the Conservatives on Lords reform. It is only because the Liberals have fewer MPs than we do—that is, they received a smaller mandate from the people—that their rebellion did not matter.

John Thurso: May I put the record straight? The coalition agreement on tuition fees was that all Liberal Democrats had the right to abstain. What happened was that a certain number of colleagues chose to go against the measure. In order, therefore, to give the Government what they needed, the remainder of my colleagues voted in favour of it. That is what really happened.

Penny Mordaunt: I am trying to give the Liberal Democrats a chance to justify their behaviour. Even if we accept the Liberal code of conduct of an eye for a coalition eye, after their flawed portrayal of the Lords Bill the score is, at best, even.

Mr Spencer: What message does my hon. Friend think is conveyed to colleagues who lost their job when they voted against that legislation and who will now witness some of our Liberal Democrat colleagues walking through the Lobby against Government policy but keeping their jobs?

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend makes his point well. I am sure it is not lost on those in the Chamber and outside.

We are forced to conclude that industry and judgment have indeed ceded the stage to spite, pettiness and self-interest. The people have rejected the Liberal Democrats’ voting reforms and the Liberal Democrats cannot win the argument for Lords reform, so they will oppose boundary changes, which they want, in the hope of re-opening negotiations after the next election, while casting flirtatious glances across the Chamber. The Liberals have exchanged their legendary sandals for flip-flops in the hope that that will enable them to keep their options open, but they would be wrong to think that the real damage they will do today is to the prospects of the Conservative victory in 2015 or to the notion of a Conservative government.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): On the subject of Liberal Democrats, has not our hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter

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Ross (John Thurso) been strangely inconsistent today? Was not what he said on tuition fees exactly what happened on House of Lords reform? Some of us voted against House of Lords reform. In any case, is it not clear in the coalition agreement that the link was not to House of Lords reform but to AV? Is it not also clear that in the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto they advocated a reduction of 150 Members of Parliament?

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend is right. That is not lost on the House or on the general public. The only harm that the Liberals will do today is to themselves. They confirm what has long been suspected—that the national interest and the constituency interest come a poor second to Liberal Democrat interest.

Dr Wollaston: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Liberal Democrats have had to get off their high horse because they have sent it to be turned into horse burgers?

Penny Mordaunt: My hon. Friend makes a good and amusing point.

Paul Farrelly: Does the hon. Lady agree that, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—the hon. Member for three and a bit counties—explained, the Liberals are only following the very wise maxim, “When the facts change, I change my mind”? It is a maxim that her Chancellor might also follow.

Penny Mordaunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. This comes to the heart of the matter. When the Division bell goes today, the 54 Liberals who voted in favour last time must ask themselves why a boundary review is a less valid measure now than it was in 2010 or will be in 2018. They must have a care for their consciences, do what is right for the country and their constituents, and do the honourable thing.

Chris Ruane: I have been interested in this issue since 2001, when my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) informed me that there had been a massive drop in voter registration in 100 constituencies, 90 of which, I discovered when I looked at the figures, were Labour constituencies. Some might say that it was our fault for introducing the changes in 2000.

I have sought to get the facts and figures on this for the past 10 years. I have tabled over 400 parliamentary questions on registration, population size and boundary size, and I have spoken in every debate on the matter in this House. I have come to the conclusion that what is, or was, proposed is a political act to deliver, in the case of the boundaries review and legislation, the 2015 general election, and in the case of individual electoral registration, the three or four elections after that. I hope that we will find out very shortly that it has all come to naught.

The reasons why I say this are many. I wish to compare the attitude of this Government with the attitude of the previous Labour Government. I blame the previous Labour Government, and I do so to their face, for not getting what we thought were 3.5 million missing electors on to the register. It was our fault that we did not do that. However, no one can accuse the previous Labour Government of using our political

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majority, which was huge, for party political advantage on constitutional issues. One of the first things that Labour did was introduce proportional representation in the European elections. In Wales, we went from having four Labour MEPs to one Labour MEP. We had a majority of 180 back in 1997—such a huge majority that we could have delivered devolution to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and to Wales without PR, but in the interests of fair play and playing properly on the constitution, we introduced PR, which did down Labour’s vote.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): It is good that my hon. Friend has made that thoughtful mention of Wales. Does he agree that this Bill means that the people of Wales will see a reduction of 10 seats, from 40 down to 30? I would be interested if the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) wished to intervene to say whether he agrees with that, and, if not, how he would explain it to his dwindling electorate.

Chris Ruane: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to intervene.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con) indicated dissent.

Chris Ruane: He does not. I think that he has forgotten about the Act of 1536 which settled these issues.

Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman has a very selective memory on the actions of the previous Labour Government. The massive extension of postal voting and the resulting lack of trust that is now in the electoral system was brought about with the massive majority to which he referred. That has made an enormous difference to the running of our elections and has led to a huge amount of distrust, particularly in inner-city seats.

Chris Ruane: If the hon. Gentleman looks at one of the 400 questions that I have tabled on this issue, he will see that the number of people who have been prosecuted for electoral fraud each year is about one or two. That is bad; any electoral fraud is bad. If he looks at the other side of the scales of justice, he will see that there are not, as we thought, 3.5 million people missing off the register, but 6 million. If individual electoral registration had gone ahead as proposed by the Government, 16 million people would have been missing off the register.

Let us have a look at the pans of justice. With one or two cases a year of electoral fraud, all the resources are made available, but with 6.5 million people off the register, no resources are available. One of my questions, which was answered two weeks ago, asked for some numbers on this subject. If electors do not fill in the extra registration form, the electoral registration officer has to send a canvasser to their house at least twice—that is the law. Labour managed to implement that law, and in 2010 only eight local authorities disobeyed it; I think that they were all Tory authorities. In 2011, when the Tories had got their feet under the table, that figure massively increased, to 30 or 40. Of the 60 constituencies in England that do not send an electoral registration officer to knock on the doors of the non-registered, 55 are Conservative, one is Labour—Telford—and I think that the rest are Lib Dem. There is an element of politicisation in what the Conservative party is proposing.

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Three years ago I went to see Experian to discuss the issue of the unregistered. I told its representatives that 3.5 million people were not on the register, but they said that the actual figure was 6.5 million. I took that information to the Electoral Commission, which said, “That can’t be true. We’ll do our own research on the issue.” Lo and behold, 18 months later, the commission came back to me and said, “Mr Ruane, you and Experian are absolutely right, but the 6.5 million people who are off the register are a different 6.5 million people from those noted by Experian.” I therefore asked the Electoral Commission whether 13 million people could be missing from the register; I said it tongue in cheek, but millions of people are missing from the register and the resources have not been made available to get them on to it.

3.45 pm

The proposed boundary review changes should not go ahead while 6.5 million people are missing from the register. Moreover, the next boundary review is due to take place on 1 December 2013, after individual electoral registration, so we could end up with millions more missing after that. We will end up with a reputation as a banana republic if 6.5 million, 10.5 million or 16 million people are missing from the register. This is no way to run a democracy.

Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman and I have had various arguments on this issue across the Floor of the House for as many as nine years. Even if what he is saying is correct, he is completely missing the point about the amendment and the importance of the Bill. How can he say that it is fair that Arfon has 41,000 constituents while Somerton and Frome has double the number—82,000? How can he possibly say that that is fair?

Chris Ruane: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She should think about the figure that I have mentioned: 6.5 million people are missing from the register. The vast majority of them will be in Labour constituencies. The vast majority of the case load for Labour Members and those Members who serve poorer constituencies around the country comes from the unregistered, the people who should legally be on the register but are not. If those people were factored in, the inequality would not be as great.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think that, if the island of Anglesey is not to have a Member of Parliament, it is fair that the Isle of Wight is to have two under the Government’s proposals?

Chris Ruane: I concur with my hon. Friend’s point.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. To use the example of the county of Greater Manchester, in the previous Parliament we were entitled to have 28 Members of Parliament. As a result of the 2010 periodic review, that number was cut to 27, and the proposed boundary changes would lead to it being cut to 26, yet the 2011 census shows that the population of Greater Manchester is going up, not down.

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Chris Ruane: I agree with my hon. Friend and think that the census should be the basis for any future redrawing of boundaries.

In conclusion, the reason given by the Conservative party for wanting to introduce the boundary review changes is to decrease the number of MPs from 650 to 600. It says that it is a case of cost and that that is its primary reason, and yet when I tried to table a parliamentary question in the Table Office to find out the cost of an MP and the cost of a Lord, I was told that I was not allowed to do so. Fortunately a Lord in the other place tabled the question and received the response that it costs £130,000 per Lord and £590,000 per MP. The Government have created an extra 125 Lords since they came to power in 2010 and they propose to create another 50 over the next few weeks. Where is the logic in creating an extra 175 unelected Lords while reducing the House of Commons from 650 to 600 Members?

Miss Chloe Smith: I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon for interrupting him when he was about to conclude. Given that he is in favour of having such hard casework, is he proud of the fact that his electorate is about two thirds the size of mine?

Chris Ruane: My electorate was even smaller than that of the hon. Lady’s constituency 10 years ago. The voter population in my constituency went down to as low as 47,000. It was only when I started to put pressure on, and following the professionalisation of the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire county council, that the number went from 47,000 to 57,000. I believe that there are even more unregistered people in the constituency.

The vast majority of the 6.5 million missing voters are in Labour constituencies. This is therefore a political act, and one that has come unstuck.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): It has been said that

“political duty must be placed before private feeling.”

That was how James Rankin, the MP for Leominster, advised the House when the boundaries came up for review in 1884. He went on to say that the Prime Minister had

“appealed to the Members who sat for small boroughs not to be selfish”.—[Official Report, 28 April 1884; Vol. 287, c. 799.]

I agree with the then Prime Minister and my predecessor from long ago. Mr Rankin’s concern was for his constituency and the people whom he fought to represent. That is my concern now because, without wishing to get misty-eyed, after nearly 12 years, I am deeply fond of them.

Where we can all agree is on the principle of evening out the size of seats and ensuring that every vote carries equal value. In our last manifesto, we promised to champion a fairer system. It is only right that we try to make good that commitment. I do not think that everyone knows how grotesquely skewed the current state of affairs is. Some constituencies are almost double the size of others, meaning that their inhabitants are under-represented in elections and, subsequently, at Westminster. The overall balance is weighted heavily towards the Labour party. Labour Members know in their hearts that were it the other way around, they would be the first to call for realignment. Their opposition hardly befits a modern democracy.