|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow such a distinguished parliamentarian as the noble Lord, Lord Graham at Edmonton. His remarks exposed the cynicism of the Bill. We are talking in essence about the relationship between the elected Member and their constituents. I am in a
17 Jan 2011 : Column 49
I was very disappointed to hear the Leader of the House criticise our debate the other night on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on account of the length of the discussion. He implied that there was a filibuster. Frankly, the amendment went to the root of the issues that we must address. It concerned the complete inability of the government Front Bench to answer the question: why 600? If I have asked once, I have asked half a dozen times: why not 500, which is the Liberal Democrat position; or 585, which is the last known position of the Conservative Party? When I probed this with the Leader of the House, he laughed and said that it was a nice round number. That is an affront to democracy, as is the failure to address some of the substantive points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about the need for scientific analysis of the job of a modern Member of Parliament. How much time is needed to conduct constituency work?
I return to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maples. He is not in his place, but I hope that he might read this tomorrow in Hansard. He referred to the change in the number of Scottish MPs after devolution, when we had 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. It is interesting that the workload of Westminster Members of Parliament did not markedly change. For a start, constituents are not meant to be experts in the constitution. They would come to whoever they wanted to talk to about issues such as education, social services, the local authority and housing. I worked closely with my Member of the Scottish Parliament. If somebody came to me with a problem, I would not tell them to go away because I was not a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I would take on the case and pass it to my colleague in the Scottish Parliament, and she in turn would do the same to me.
It was also interesting, following the reduction in the number of MPs, that all of us who remained had to get to know new parts of our constituencies and new people. The workload did not diminish, but changed in nature. I mentioned the other night, after an excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, about ethnic minorities, that I represented a seat that I had been born and brought up in, which was a white seat. I did not take on an immigration case probably until 2000. To some extent, that was because of demographic movement. People moved into the constituency and suddenly I found myself having to deal with immigration matters that I had never dealt with before. I had to deal with matters relating, for example, to forced marriage. The socio-economic structure of the
17 Jan 2011 : Column 50
One of the reasons why we had devolution in Scotland-I mention this point because it relates to what we will be going through tonight-was because Scotland had a smaller constituency electorate for its Members of Parliament prior to devolution. At the time of the Act of Union, separate legislation was enshrined in our constitution. At the time of devolution, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, was the Secretary of State for Scotland and the then Scottish Office was the equivalent of 13 different government departments. Scottish Members of Parliament might finish an education Bill in the other place and vote at 10 o'clock at night, then start a Scottish education Bill at 11 o'clock that night. One of the criticisms made of the arrangements at the time was in asking how you could you get proper scrutiny of legislation in the middle of the night. Those who have been Scottish Members-I only had a short spell at that-learnt how to scrutinise legislation in the middle of the night. If we need to do it, we will do it.
I go back to the point made by my noble friend Lord Wills about the pressing need to have some scientific analysis of what should be the ideal size of the House of Commons. It is almost as if people are picking up the pin numbers on their mobile phones in dreaming up the number of MPs that there should be in the other place. There is a need to look at the constituency work of Members of Parliament; there is also a need to look at the parliamentary work of Members of Parliament, whether they serve on select committees or whether they are taking through specific legislation. That is an opportunity that has again been missed. There was an opportunity in this legislation to consider whether people genuinely felt that the time had come to look in detail at the relationship of a Member of Parliament to his or her constitutional and constituency roles. There should have been some proper, defined research on it across the House. It should not be something that has been dreamt up for what can only be defined as an extremely cynical reason.
This Bill is not about improving the constitution of the United Kingdom. It is about buying off two parts of a coalition. That is one of the real reasons why there is such cynicism about the Bill and one of the reasons why it is an aberration on our constitutional arrangements that we should be criticised for seeking to scrutinise the Bill in such detail. I will no doubt return to this matter again and again. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton put it into context. If we lose sight of the people whose interests we are here allegedly to look after-the constituents and citizens
17 Jan 2011 : Column 51
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I rather differ from my noble friends on the Front Bench. I could not support this amendment were they to test the opinion of the House because I do not think that it is right for government to fix the size of the House of Commons, which would be the consequence of this amendment. However, I think that it is a valuableamendment if it has been tabled as a probing one, as we need to get at some principles on how the size of the House of Commons should be determined. Like my noble friends, I have sought in vain so far to understand the principle that is animating the Government's policy in this Bill.
The Liberal Democrats, in opposition, took a principled position. They proposed that the size of the House of Commons should be reduced to 500 Members but that would be on the basis of their being elected on the single transferable vote system and of more extensive devolution and the creation of regional assemblies. On that basis it was entirely reasonable that they should argue for a reduction in the number of Members of the House of Commons. Before the election, the Conservative Party proposed that there should be 585 Members of the House of Commons, and it was more difficult to ascertain the principle underpinning that proposition. My noble friend Lady Liddell has already referred to the observation of the noble Lord the Leader of the House that a 10 per cent reduction was a nice round figure, just as he said that 600 in the House of Commons was a nice round figure. Both 585 and 600 are nice round figures, but we would all agree that that is an insufficiently convincing basis for introducing a very major constitutional change that would weaken the capacity of the House of Commons and would tilt the system of parliamentary representation by favouring the Conservative Party and disfavouring the Labour Party. We therefore need to find better reasons.
We have not yet heard any good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons. At least the noble Lord, Lord Maples, had a go at trying to persuade us that it would be a good idea. Conservative arguments, such as they are, have been that the House of Commons is expensive and that the British people are overrepresented in the House of Commons compared with representation in other legislatures. Those reasons simply do not stand up to scrutiny. The argument that you should take 50 Members out of the House of Commons to save £12 million is risible. It would be risible even if you would save £12 million, but as a number of my noble friends have already explained, we will not save £12 million because the costs for a reduced number of Members of Parliament serving larger numbers of constituents would be no less. Possibly, when the Minister winds up this debate a little later, he would be kind enough to remind us what proportion of the fiscal deficit is £12 million.
Lord Howarth of Newport: Let me finish my sentence and I will give way. When the Bill was introduced, if I remember rightly, the deficit was running at about £180 billion, so how significant is the saving of £12 million?
Lord Howarth of Newport: It is part of the constitutional function of the House of Lords to scrutinise legislation. We are a bicameral Parliament. We have two Houses of Parliament and a duty in that respect. Moreover, the noble Lord is, as I am, a citizen of this country and we are entitled to take an interest in the development of the constitutional structure of this country. It is legitimate for us to raise some of these issues.
Lord Kinnock: Perhaps my noble friend could usefully redirect the noble Lord's perceptive question to the government Front Bench. Perhaps the Government could tell us why there is a Part 2 to the Bill and why, therefore, we are discussing matters related to the elected part of these Houses of Parliament, instead of spending a short time additionally on the referendum and the alternative vote, and providing the Government with their legislation in good time for that referendum on 5 May.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My noble friend is, as always, very wise. It would have been greatly for the convenience of both Houses of Parliament had this legislation been segmented and introduced on the sensible basis suggested by my noble friend.
Lord Campbell-Savours: The intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was very interesting, because that is the question that is being asked by many Members on that side of the House, but they never intervene during the course of debate. We would welcome an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. Perhaps he would like to embroider his comments, because he would be speaking on behalf of all his colleagues on the Back Benches.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I think I could even be persuaded by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to sit down a little earlier than I otherwise would in anticipation of hearing him develop his thoughts at rather ampler length. I think that the whole House will look forward to that.
Lord McAvoy: Bearing in mind the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, I remind my noble friend of the point made by the Cross-Bench Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan: perhaps he should start his speech again.
Lord Howarth of Newport: There are all sorts of possibilities. Happily, the Government's business managers have ensured that we will not be excessively constrained for time as we debate these issues, so we
17 Jan 2011 : Column 53
It is perplexing. Ministers have suggested that the size of the House of Commons has crept up-that phrase was used in previous debates. One hundred years ago, the House of Commons consisted of 670 Members of Parliament; it now consists of only 650, and a few years back, it was 659, as some of my noble friends have already mentioned. It is particularly interesting to see how the ratio of Members of Parliament to electors has deteriorated since 1950. There are now 25 more Members sitting in the House of Commons than in 1950, but in that period the size of the electorate has increased by no less than 10 million. The average electorate per constituency, which was 55,000 in 1950, is 70,000 now.
I do not know how Ministers can with a straight face tell the House of Commons and this House that the number of Members of Parliament has crept up and suggest that we are overrepresented. We are not democratically overrepresented in this country. Unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, we have no länder; unlike in United States of America, there are no states. Indeed, in all of our political lifetime, we have seen a weakening in local government in this country and a diminution in the number of local authorities. If, as the Liberal Democrats have proposed, there should be a large-scale redesign of patterns of representation at the different tiers of government in this country, you could make a serious case for reducing the size of the House of Commons. Unless and until that is done, you cannot.
The Government are setting about reducing the size of the House of Commons in a manner that will be to the party political interest of the dominant party in the coalition, the Conservatives, and, at the same time, increasing the size of the House of Lords in order to increase the majority on which they believe they can rely in this House, with no serious attempt to explain to us what the sound democratic principle can be in those processes. That is to let members of the Government open to the kind of criticism that we are more accustomed to hearing levelled at those who wield power in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda or even Zimbabwe. It will be very interesting as we begin to hear what international observers and professional and academic students of democracy in foundations and think tanks in this country and across the world have to say about the policies that we are experiencing at the hands of this Government.
It is absolutely right to ask two basic questions to try to establish a ground of principle on which to evaluate the Government's propositions. We should ask: what are the requirements of a properly functioning House of Commons and how many people does it need serving in it to acquit itself of those responsibilities; and what are the properties of a Member of Parliament in his or her constituency? Until there has been a serious, rational and, as far as possible, objective analysis of both those issues, we should resist the suggestion that the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced. As we start to examine those issues, I think that we will find that, so far from there
17 Jan 2011 : Column 54
I do not want to speak for excessive length at this stage of the evening. We will have further opportunities to examine these matters as our discussion develops so, for the time being, I will not weary the House any longer.
Lord Martin of Springburn: I have listened to the debate on the amendment, and it is the amendment to which I wish to speak, not the Bill in its entirety, although I have expressed concern about some parts of the Bill. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Maples. We shared membership of the House of Commons around the same time. He mentioned finance, the cost of the running of the House of Commons. It might be worth mentioning that when he came into the House in 1983, Denis Healey, now the noble Lord, Lord Healey, was the deputy leader of the Labour Party. The funds available to him were such that he had to share one researcher with another member of the shadow Cabinet. Everyone agreed that that was unjust, and the Short money has now been increased to a fantastic amount.
That Short money goes on to the costs of the House of Commons. When I left, the Conservative Party in opposition benefited greatly from Short money-I think that the noble Lord would acknowledge that. That was so much so that when the coalition was created, there was deep concern among members of the Liberal party that they would not get a share of the Short money, because that would have a profound effect on how they got researchers for their Front-Benchers. I do not know how they got on with that argument. When noble Members talk about the cost of the House of Commons increasing, they cannot have it every way. You do not get democracy for nothing. Everybody praises the great Portcullis House.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Perhaps I may give an illustration of the poverty of the Opposition at that time. When my noble friend Lord Foulkes and I were in Denis Healey's team, I once travelled with my noble friend Lord Healey, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for Defence. We wanted to go to South Africa, which was highly in the news. My noble friend had to travel in economy class with Air Zambia. Those were the straits we were in at the time.
When we talk about finance, it should be remembered that in the other place, every honourable Member has the equivalent of two and a half members of staff. That does not come cheaply. Then there are premises. If we were to supply Members' staff with premises here in Westminster, the most expensive square mile in the world, it would be far more costly than allowing them to go to their constituencies to get premises. They cannot get any old premises; there must be security because we have already had members of staff attacked. There has even been a fatality, as one noble
17 Jan 2011 : Column 55
I have spoken about the insecurity of Members of Parliament about the boundary reviews and about giving MPs at least some stability. When people make a career in Parliament, they at least should get the chance to serve for two Parliaments, unless the electorate decide that they should go, before a boundary commissioner becomes involved. I do not think that the reduction in the number of seats, which represents under 10 per cent, is unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable for a Government to make that decision, whether it is arbitrary or otherwise, and to say, "Look, we have come to this figure and we should make a reduction". The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, described so well the difficult task that she had in putting it to the House that there would be a reduction from 72 to 60 seats.
However, it was a government decision, a Cabinet decision. It was not a decision of the parliamentary Labour Party that the number would be reduced from 72 to 60. I remember well that just after Tony Blair won, there was the big campaign-"Things can only get better". Things got better and there was a Labour majority. All Labour MPs, some of whom are now here, were called to Dover House. I had a great affection for and remember fondly Donald Dewar. Those who knew him talk of his jokes and his generosity. On the day he told us that we were going to lose 12 seats in Scotland-it was not a collective decision by any of us-I remember that there was a buffet of two sausage rolls and three sandwiches. I said that it was the most lavish redundancy party I had ever gone to. That was how the reduction of seats came about.
If the Government say, "We have this reduction of seats", someone has to start somewhere. I do not want to see anyone lose their job or position and I hope that the reduction can be phased in, but there are no two ways about it. Down the Corridor, there is terrible pressure on Members of Parliament who want to articulate for their constituents on the Floor of the House of Commons even to be able to speak. I was the Speaker and could not speak for years, but here at least I can speak. It is not so easy to do that down there. There are long-winded Cabinet Ministers who want to hog the Dispatch Box. If they take a while, you can bet your boots that their opposite number wants to take a while. Back in the days before the special arrangement, the Liberals wanted to have their tuppence worth before a Back-Bench Member of Parliament could come in.
The pressure got so bad that I agreed that there should be a limit of 10 minutes for Back-Bench speeches in order to give people a chance. Even at that length, at the end of a night I would instruct the deputies, "Look, do not have people sitting on those green Benches for hours and hours and not have a say. Split the amount of time that is left and tell the winder-uppers". Another thing about the Front Benches was that there was not only a Cabinet Minister but a winding-up Minister and their opposite numbers. They had long
17 Jan 2011 : Column 56
Some noble Lords will recall that a good experiment was brought in: namely, the parallel Chamber. The Westminster Hall debates allowed Members of Parliament who were complaining bitterly that they could not speak at least to have the safety valve that they wanted. That idea was taken from the Australian Parliament-the old Parliament learnt from the young.
The limit on speeches was not popular with some of the old timers. My dear friend Tam Dalyell said, "Michael, I like to develop an argument". I said, "But Tam, it takes you 60 minutes to develop an argument and that's you just getting warmed up". He laughed at that. All those pressures about Members of Parliament not being able to speak for long enough was and still is an indication that the drop in the number of MPs proposed in this amendment might help to ease things and to make more room for speakers.
Councillors, elected representatives and Scottish Members came to me with problems. Even when I was Speaker, I had a policy that every weekend, except for when I was at the Cenotaph, I would be in my constituency. I enjoyed constituency work and dealing people and their problems. I never turned them away. If they came to me with a problem that related to a devolved matter, I did not take up the matter except to write to the appropriate MSP and say, "This matter was raised at my constituency surgery". As for housing, I would write to the housing director and say, "I have notified this lady that the matter is for her councillor, and she will see the councillor on her next visit". That is how I handled that.
Members of Parliament make a rod for their own back when they reply individually to every name on petitions that they receive. When I was in the trade union movement, I signed petitions but I did not expect an individual reply. Issuing envelopes in the House of Commons got to the stage where some Members of Parliament were drawing in the region of £13,000 per annum in envelopes. That is not 13,000 envelopes, but envelopes worth £13,000. No elected Member should reply to individual names on a petition. I make that point because people should be represented responsibly. It should not be a publicity gimmick to get your name on every door at every opportunity.
Lord Rooker: I am reluctant to intervene on a former Speaker, but I can assure the noble Lord that when my majority was 495, I dealt with everything. I answered everything and I did not use any subcontractors whatever because that is what people expected. I still did that when my majority was 18,000 because that was how I worked. Every MP does the job in a different way. I do not think that rules can be laid down in the way in which the noble Lord is setting out. However, I agree that I am 10 years out of date now.
Lord Martin of Springburn: I agree with the noble Lord, but if a Member of a devolved Parliament was paid to deal with health, prisons and social work, while the noble Lord quite rightly would not turn a person away he would find a way of notifying his
17 Jan 2011 : Column 57
As a trade union officer I noted that no two officers worked in the same way, and it is the same with Members of Parliament. What I am trying to say is that there are ridiculous practices and that I have highlighted one of them. There is no point in honourable Members saying that they are overburdened when they create rods for their own backs.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I have to say to my noble friend that I am slightly disturbed by his comments about petitions. If I remember rightly, my noble friend's constituency was an inner city seat in Glasgow, but what if he had been in a seat in rural Scotland and the village school was about to close and 500 constituents wrote to him about that closure? It would be a highly contested issue in that part of the constituency. Does my noble friend not feel that perhaps in those circumstances each of the 500 petitioners should receive a communication from their Member of Parliament? It makes them feel that they are participating in the debate and that their Member of Parliament is actually responding and not just taking them for granted.
Lord Martin of Springburn: All I can say to my noble friend, as he has called me, is that if three of the names on the petition were from the same household and they were sent three individual letters, something would be wrong. I say as well that something would be wrong if £13,000-worth of envelopes were being used. The point I wanted to make was that something was wrong with that.
Let me make another point about pressure. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the noble Lord, Lord Graham. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will remember, he was our Chief Whip between 1979 and 1981. I was sad to see him leave the House. He kept us until 10 o'clock on a Thursday night in the Commons. I know that to be the case because a whole load of us went up to Glasgow on the sleeper train. For years now, unless it has changed since the last election, debates on a Thursday are non-voting. That begs the question: is every Member of Parliament right there in the House of Commons, to which they were elected, on a Thursday, or are they elsewhere? I would hazard a guess that they are elsewhere. I am not criticising them because that is their business, but the case has been put that there are more pressures on this generation of Members of Parliament than there were on the old.
There was a fairly hefty pressure on Members of Parliament, if they were lucky, to leave on a Thursday. The Minister could not even take the sleeper train because of the distance to his constituency. He would not have been able to get back by the Friday. I was lucky enough to get to mine by the following morning. Also, constituency engagements were such that it was not pleasant to travel overnight. You would have surgeries and meetings with various organisations.
There are other amendments that I can comfortably support, and I know that this is a probing amendment, but there is no point in us being here if we do not
17 Jan 2011 : Column 58
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I am goaded to intervene in this debate because the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that no one had spoken from this side of the Committee today, or that very few had done so apart from my noble friend Lord Maples. I made it clear at Second Reading that I support this Bill largely because of Part 2. I have not been in the Chamber, but I have heard every speech made during this debate because I have been watching it on my computer. I have heard the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey, Lord Anderson and Lord Graham, who are not in their places, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who is in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, in the flesh. I can recommend to colleagues that watching the debate on one's computer is a very good way of keeping up with the debate. I find that each speaker has a good first five minutes. There is no question about that; they put their arguments succinctly. But after that-I must choose my words carefully-there is what I would say is an elaboration of those first five minutes. Very little new is added, so you can switch to doing other things on your computer and return when the next speaker turns up. That way, you get the general thrust of the debate.
When it comes to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons, I have something approaching an impeccable pedigree in that even when I was a Member of the House, I felt that it was too large. In the 1990s, I made speeches and wrote articles about it, but they, like most of my speeches and articles, have disappeared into the mists of history. Some Members may recall that three years ago I introduced a Bill in this House that sought to reduce the number in the House of Commons by 10 per cent, which would have meant a reduction of 65 Members, not the 50 Members we are considering today. It went through this House with great ease. It got to the other place and was debated, but of course private Bills from Peers die in the House of Commons after a debate.
During the debate, people asked why there should be a reduction of 10 per cent. Here the noble Lord, Lord Wills, asked why there should be 500 rather than 65 and so forth. When I introduced my Bill, some Members of this House said that a 10 per cent reduction was not enough and that they want to see a 20 per cent reduction, which would have involved 130 MPs.
I believe that one of the reasons the House of Commons became too large was this. When I was first elected back in 1960, the Commons then comprised 623 or 624 Members. It then grew exponentially for only one reason: the Speaker's Conference of 1917. The conference was held to discuss a reduction in the size of the House to 500. Unfortunately, I should say to the former Speaker that his predecessor at that time was not as particular as he could have been. No minutes were taken of the Speaker's Conference so no one knows what actually occurred. The only thing that did emerge was that as society developed and the population expanded, it was thought to move to an
17 Jan 2011 : Column 59
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, when the noble Lord talks about the need to reduce the number of constituencies, I suggest that he would have had a very different experience in his constituency of Mole Valley compared with that of a Member of Parliament with an inner city seat, like my noble friend Lord Martin of Springburn. The intense nature of representation of an inner seat is very different indeed from what the noble Lord would have experienced in Mole Valley. I am sure he served his constituents very well, but he should remember that when he is thinking of cutting seats.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I wish that the noble Lord had considered my political career with more care. If he had, he would have known that I represented two inner city London seats, both of which were quite small. I represented Acton, which was very much a working class seat, and St Marylebone, which was not. Both constituencies were quite small, with populations of around 40,000. I then went to Mole Valley which at one time had over 75,000 constituents. I have therefore had experience of representing both an inner city seat with considerable problems, which was the case in Acton, and a large county seat in Surrey.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made the point that MPs are now much more stretched than they were in the past. Both the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and I were Members of the House of Commons in the late 1960s, as I believe was my noble friend Lord Howell. We had no secretarial assistance, no research assistance, no desk and no telephone. We had to sit on the green Benches in the galleries opposite to conduct our affairs, and the only free telephone call we had was to our town clerk. We were also given 800 free sheets of parliamentary paper. After that we had to buy them, as we had to pay for all our post.
I ask noble Lords on the Labour Benches to wait. Let me develop this agony column for a while before I am interrupted. I do not believe that, in those days, Members acted in any way less significantly to their constituents. The noble Lord is nodding-of course they did not. Indeed, when I had a larger constituency-Mole Valley, about which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, reminded me-I had more than 75,000. I did not have a research assistant and I had only a part-time secretary. Were my constituents disappointed in what I gave them? Not at all; at every election, they returned me with a larger majority.
So I do not subscribe at all to the view that having an average seat in the United Kingdom-75,000 under the Bill; mine was slightly larger-would in any way impair the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents. What it comes down to is that it depends upon the personal activity of the Member of
17 Jan 2011 : Column 60
Lord Baker of Dorking: I am coming to more interesting points. I have only just started on my reminiscences of my time as a Member of Parliament. Let me move on to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who said that we in the United Kingdom are not overrepresented. May I remind the House of the extent of overrepresentation in our lower Houses? We have a population of about 60 million people and 650 or so Members of Parliament. Germany, with a population of 82 million has 600. Japan, with a population of 127 million, twice ours, has only 470. Russia, with a population of 144 million, roughly three times ours, has 450. Can those who are familiar with all the parliamentary activities in these countries say that constituents are any less well served because they have large constituencies? I do not believe that the argument holds up at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, said, "Ah, but they have länder in Germany." He should recall that in three parts of our country we have virtually independent Parliaments. We have, in Scotland, an independent Parliament. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly is a Parliament in all but name and the situation is virtually the same in Northern Ireland, where, in fact, all local matters are dealt with by the representative Members of those Assemblies, in a very similar way to that in the länder. So, international arguments are significant. Therefore, I believe strongly that this is a good measure. I have never put it forward from the view of saving money; I simply believe that the House of Commons can operate very effectively with a smaller number of MPs. I will give way to the noble Lord, because I heard his speech earlier on the computer.
Lord Wills: I am grateful to the honourable gentleman-I am sorry, the noble Lord. I do beg his pardon. He was kind enough to refer to my speech, so, before he sits down, as I sense he is about to do, will he answer this question? He has made his case for it being wholly possible to reduce the size of the House of Commons without any adverse consequence for constituents-I accept that there is a strong case for that-but in deciding on the number to which the House of Commons should be reduced, does he think, first, that the new figure should be based on some broad principle, some broad understanding of the role of Member of Parliament? Secondly, does he think that the public should be consulted on what the size should be?
Lord Baker of Dorking: On the first question, if you look at the history of the development of the House of Commons, it has never been based on broad principles. I remind the noble Lord that in 1707 there were 513 Members of Parliament for England and Wales
17 Jan 2011 : Column 61
So there is no principle; it is a matter of pragmatic sense. I agree entirely with what the former Speaker of the House of Commons said. It is a matter for decision, a political decision at the end of the day. My decision is for a smaller House. I respect the views of Members opposite, but I do not think that we would, in any way, impair the workings of democracy in our country by having a smaller House of Commons.
Lord Touhig: This is the ninth day of the debate and a pattern is developing. We have a Minister who will speak on behalf of the Government and usually, if we are lucky, one Back-Bencher who will speak on behalf of all the rest. Indeed, until the noble Lord, Lord Baker, decided to leave his computer and enhance our democracy by coming to the Chamber and taking part, we had only the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, who made a superb contribution. I may not have agreed with many things that he said, but it was certainly a contribution that was not only worthy of him, but worthy of the other side and worthy of the House. It is important that we engage in a proper discourse on this important matter.
Lord Tyler: If the noble Lord does not take too long, I will, I hope, be able to make my usual very terse, succinct and very relevant contribution to this debate. Therefore I am relying on him not to be too lengthy.
I will chide the noble Lord, Lord Maples, in one way-he displayed an extraordinary ignorance of post-devolution Wales in terms of the work of Members of Parliament. I am sure that he did a fantastic job as a Member of Parliament representing 90,000 people. I did not represent that number, but I can tell him that my workload was no less. Like many who sat in the House of Commons, I worked 70 or 80 hours a week and there was very often a huge amount of sudden extra work. When the miners were successful in winning their case for compensation for diseases acquired working underground, I had 500 constituency cases out of the blue that had built up over a period.
The work of a Member of Parliament is not being taken into account in terms of the way that the Bill has been constructed. We heard some discussions earlier today about pre-legislative scrutiny. If the Government had engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny, they might have had a better understanding of the workload of Members of Parliament. When I entered the other place in a by-election in 1995, I was told that there was
17 Jan 2011 : Column 62
That might have been the case then, but it certainly is not the case at the present time. Members of Parliament have huge constituency workloads as well as a huge amount of work in the House as well. Because of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, I fear that the Bill does not take account of that. I do not know whether any noble Lords on the Government Benches have done any pre-legislative scrutiny, but when I was Wales Minister I often came to your Lordships' House with a draft Bill to discuss with your Lordships. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, from the Cross Benches, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, a former Welsh Secretary, always made important contributions to help us improve the quality of legislation. That is what pre-legislative scrutiny allowed us to do and it is sadly lacking in this legislation.
At the end of last week there was a brief debate on a Question from the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, about the conventions in this House. I think it is right, from time to time, to remind ourselves that there are proper ways to behave and to discuss and debate in this House and I have no complaints about the points that he raised. What greater convention can there be than the role of this House to defend and safeguard the constitution? That must, surely, be the most important of conventions and must be what we ought to do. I refer noble Lords to the Companion, where it says:
That is why we are giving the Bill the kind of scrutiny that we are. This is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; it is not Zimbabwe, and we do not need a Government who act like Robert Mugabe in pushing through legislation on which there has been no consultation and for which there was no widespread support across the country before it was put to Parliament.
The Bill will mean that almost boundary of every constituency in the United Kingdom will be withdrawn, and is a triumph of arithmetic over accountable democracy. Those who say that the only way to have a proper and fair electoral system is to have equal-sized constituencies are missing the point. Why is that the only argument? There are all sorts of others. We will go into the issues relating to Wales later, but the Government have already accepted that there should be exceptions to that with Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles. I will make a case later on-I do not know at what hour-about consideration for Wales.
The fundamental point that has been missed but that is coming out from a number of speakers in this debate is that, because of a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, no proper account has been taken of the
17 Jan 2011 : Column 63
I can only echo the point made by my noble friend Lord Boateng when he spoke last week very powerfully about what we would say if one of the countries of the British Commonwealth had a newly elected Government that used their power in that country's Parliament to reduce the number of seats in that Parliament and thereby harm that nation's democracy. We would have plenty to say, and rightly so.
Lord Tyler: I want to contribute only very briefly. I echo what my noble friend Lord Baker said earlier about the experience that some of us had some years ago. I do not go back as far as he does in parliamentary experience, but when I was elected in 1974 there was very limited support for the Back-Bench Member. I remember that well.
What has been interesting about this debate is that a number of colleagues-from both sides of the House, as it happens-have contributed on the basis of their experience of the other place. With the exception, I think, of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, every one of the speakers has spoken with that experience and authority.
Lord Tyler: I am so apologetic. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness made this point earlier: we have all experienced the noble Lord's considerable contribution so we have all assumed that he must have had such influence in the other place behind the scenes that he was, in effect, an ex officio Member.
My point is that over the past two hours and 46 minutes I have taken the opportunity to read the Third Reading debate in the other place. These are the real, live witnesses of the experiences of current Members of Parliament, and they have been able directly to influence the Bill, taking up the big issues, as they see them, on the basis of their practical experience. They did not spend two hours and 46 minutes discussing the reduction-
Lord Tyler: No, they could have done so if they had wanted to. In the Third Reading debate there was one mention of the reduction from 650 Members to 600. They did not see this as a big issue. The spokesman from the Labour Party's Front Bench did not mention the issue. Why is it that your Lordships are more conscious of the strain and stress on current MPs than are MPs themselves? I am mystified by this. The only possible rational explanation is, as was pointed out
17 Jan 2011 : Column 64
Lord Winston: My Lords, perhaps I may interject, although of course I have not been a Member of the other place either. This aspect of the situation strikes me as odd, and perhaps noble Lords can explain it. In every other branch of employment that I have been involved with-in education, running an embryology laboratory, running a research laboratory, running nurses within the National Health Service organisation, looking after doctors and appointing them to a particular service within the NHS-we have tried to ensure that we employ the number of people who are needed to fulfil the employment that is there. As I understand it, no one in the discussion on the Bill seems to have actually asked the important question that some of my noble friends are asking: what is a Member of the House of Commons required to do in terms of his duty in caring for his constituency and representing it? Unless we can answer that question, it seems impossible to arrive at a satisfactory number for him to represent in a constituency.
Lord Soley: When I come to the next amendment, Amendment 59, I want to focus on how we decide the size of Parliament, which I think is a critical issue-more important than the numbers. One of the strands running through the debate is the question, "Why 600?". The Government have not answered that, although they have a duty to do so.
I start from a position similar to that of my noble friend Lord Wills. I have argued before that there is a case for reducing the size of the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Maples, expressed a similar view. Although I do not agree with all that the noble Lord said, there is a case for it. I seem to remember the noble Lord, Lord Baker, arguing the same thing when we were both in the House of Commons. No doubt he will correct me at some stage if I am wrong, as I may be on this, but I think that he argued at the time that the size ought to be agreed by all parties concerned. That is one of the important principles that we will come to.
The issue of the figure of 600 puzzled me, and I began to look at the background to this. The issue is not new; there has been a debate about the size of Parliament for years, as people have mentioned, but it became more intense in the early part of this century. One of the people who put it in perspective was the Conservative MP, Andrew Tyrie, who in 2004 wrote the Conservative Mainstream document called Pruning the Politicians. After the expenses scandal the phrase became "culling the politicians", which says a lot about the strength of feeling on the issue. It bubbled away along the lines of the arguments in that document. In an article in the Independent in March 2008, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, argued that we should cut the figure by 150.
Andrew Tyrie's document is well argued. I do not agree with a lot of the statistics in it, where I think he has left things out about the nature of how other countries represent people within their borders, but he makes a good case for reducing the size of Parliament. However, he does two things that are very important, and I hope we will cover them more fully in the following debate on my Amendment 59. First, while he does not say that there should be all-party agreement, he says that the changes should be agreed with the Labour Party; I would change that to "agreed with all parties". Secondly, he says that if you reduce the size of Parliament, you must reduce the size of the payroll vote as well. That is very important but is not dealt with in the Bill.
My problem with the numbers issue is that, whatever number you choose, whether it is 600, 650, 550 or whatever, it is like pulling on a loose cord on a jumper-if you pull too hard, you suddenly find that you are wearing only the sleeves. The problem is that the number in your Parliament affects a whole range of other things in your constitution. That is why this issue is so important and is a constitutional matter, and it is why I would have liked the Government to have accepted the amendment of my noble friend Lord Wills, which was drawn up by someone who had the experience and knowledge of Government to do just that.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My objection to the present proposal is the evidence that the Government are relying on for the figure of 600; indeed, some people are suggesting a figure in excess of that. Should that not be tested by evidence? Is there not a clear case for an inquiry into this issue?
Lord Soley: I think that my noble friend is anticipating the debate on the next amendment, which stands in my name. A lot of the debate within the Conservative Party arises from the document written by Andrew Tyrie. It is a good document and worth reading, but the interesting point for me is that he argued that the number of MPs should be reduced by 120-that is, by 20 per cent-and that that reduction should be carried out over 10 years in two five-year periods. That is where the figure of 60 comes from-it was going to be the amount of the reduction in the first five years. I forget which noble Lord intervened to question whether this was a matter for the House of Lords, but one reason why it is a matter for the Lords is that there is a clear statement in Mr Tyrie's document that the redundant MPs, as I think they were described, could be sent to the House of Lords. Of course, when you reduce the number of MPs, you have a big fight over who inherits the constituency and what the constituency boundaries are. The suggestion was that those who did not succeed in retaining a seat should be considered for a peerage. Therefore, there is some background to this matter.
The interesting point is that that figure of 120 was quoted quite frequently. I do not know where Nick Clegg got 150 from-he seems to have plucked it out of the air. However, the thing that troubles me most, and the reason why the number is important, as well as the way in which we decide these things-a matter that we shall come to when we deal with the next
17 Jan 2011 : Column 66
However, for the moment let us focus on the fact that Andrew Tyrie based his conclusion on the number of electors in an area. He argued that a vote in one area was not worth as much as a vote in, say, a Labour constituency because of the number of electors in the constituency. However, as has been pointed out in many previous debates on this matter, everything hinges on voter registration and the socioeconomic factor of turnout. Those things matter, but the problem is that Andrew Tyrie does not take them into account. The Committee may be pleased to know that I am not going to go into great detail about MPs' constituency work but, as we know, there is a difference in a constituency where, regardless of who represents it, registration is much lower. In many cases, the MP will be representing people who are not on the register.
Perhaps I may refer briefly to my own experience of this matter. Very few research projects have been carried out on MPs' constituencies. One such project was carried out on my constituency over a period of a year and it threw up two things that are relevant to this debate. One was that an awful lot of people would say, "I supported you", but, when you looked at the electoral register, they were not on it. In other words, what they really meant was, "I supported Labour", or, if it was a Conservative MP, they would have said that they supported the Conservatives. However, that did not necessarily mean that they voted, because often they were not on the register. At times, that situation applied to 50 per cent of the people who turned up at my advice surgeries.
Another thing troubled me, and this is why I think that there is a case for looking at how MPs do their job and the numbers involved. Whenever anyone came with a council problem-my noble friend Lord Martin referred to this-we asked why they had not gone to see to their elected councillor first. Almost invariably, the answer was, "I thought I'd go to the top". In other words, people view political power as a sort of pyramid. They think, "The MP's at the top, so I'll go and see him". I have always been troubled by this problem of undermining local authorities. It is one reason why I began to question whether there are too many MPs. If you take cases away from elected councillors, you are in effect saying to them, "You don't have to do your job. I'll do it for you". That is undesirable. However, if you go down the road of saying that MPs should not take council cases or Scottish Assembly cases or whatever and you enhance devolved power-something that I greatly support-you then have to ask: who does the MP represent?
One reason why I have been tempted to go for a smaller number of MPs is that, particularly over the past 40-odd years, MPs have largely become councillors and social workers, and that is not desirable. At the same time, MPs have paid less attention than they
17 Jan 2011 : Column 67
That takes me back to the central issue, which is that I am passionately against the Bill as a constitutional Bill. If you are going to change the number of Members of Parliament, first you have to take account of certain important key factors and the process by which you make that change. As I said, I shall come to that when we debate the next amendment. Secondly, the number has to be decided on a rather better basis than that the Conservative Party will do rather well if 60 seats are knocked out.
Much earlier today, someone said to me, "Well, we changed the number of people in the Scottish Assembly", or the other Assembly, "and we didn't make such a song and dance about it". To that I say that, if you change the size of a House of Parliament without the consent of all the parties, and some parties, rightly or wrongly, believe that that enhances the position of one party, then, if they are right, the chances of those other parties forming a Government are reduced. The crucial difference between Parliament and the Assemblies around the United Kingdom is that, if you win a parliamentary election in Britain, you can change all those other things. You can change an Assembly or even get rid of the Assembly in Scotland if you like. There would probably be a riot by my noble friends here if you did that, but you would have the power to do it. However, if a political party's chances of winning as well as it would have done are taken away from it, something much more fundamental is being changed. It is on this sort of point that this Bill is different from a normal constitutional Bill. A constitutional Bill that, for example, removes the judges from Parliament and puts them in a Supreme Court can be reversed by a future Government, but future Governments have to be elected via a system in which people have confidence.
This is a matter for the next debate but I hope that I have gone some way towards explaining where this figure of 60 MPs has come from. It originated very much in Andrew Tyrie's document. It is argued as being a first step, but I should like to know from the Government whether the second step is still under consideration. If the first step was to bring about a 10 per cent reduction in the first five years, instead of, as was originally suggested, 20 per cent in 10 years, will we have in the next Parliament, if the present Administration continue, another Bill like this one reducing the number by another 10 per cent?
That is what is so dangerous about the Bill-we do not really know what the agenda is. We know that the figure of 60 has been discussed within the Conservative Party over the past eight or nine years, or probably longer. We also know that 20 per cent was the initial figure and that it was then reduced to 10 per cent-that is, 60, give or take a few-over a five-year period, and the document talks about how the political parties should adjust their reselection processes to allow that to happen. As I indicated, MPs who lost their seats would then be considered for a peerage. However, this
17 Jan 2011 : Column 68
Lord Davies of Stamford: My noble friend has done a great service to the Committee by bringing to our attention the pamphlet of Andrew Tyrie-I remember it coming out, but I think that it has since slipped the memory of many of us. As he said, Andrew Tyrie laid down as a condition of a reduction in the number of MPs a proportionate reduction in the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Is it not the case that the Government have no intention as far as we know of reducing the size of the payroll vote but are going in the opposite direction? When I was in the Ministry of Defence, I thought that we could do better with one fewer Minister. Although the Government have come through with utterly irresponsible cuts in defence capability, they have increased the number of Ministers by one. That is quite extraordinary and shows that the Government are moving in totally the wrong direction.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Before my noble friend sits down, will he comment on the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who said that there had been no debate on the figure 600 at Third Reading in the House of Commons? I have with me Hansard from 20 October 2010. It shows that the debate started at 5.29 pm-
Lord Campbell-Savours: I am intervening on my noble friend; I was asking him to comment on this matter. The debate started at 5.29 pm and ended at 9 pm. That was under a guillotined proceeding on the Bill.
Lord Soley: I do not have detailed knowledge of that matter, but I know that my noble friend pays great attention to these things. I also know, not least from letters that I and, I think, others have seen, that Conservative MPs complained that insufficient time had been allowed to discuss issues relating to the size of constituencies. I shall give way to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I just hope that I know enough about this issue to be able to give him an answer.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I have the greatest respect for both noble Lords, with whom I have worked in the past, and I would hate either of them to mislead your Lordships' House. I referred very specifically to the Third Reading debate, when any issue could be raised, and the fact is that nobody raised this matter for more than one minute. The spokesman on the opposition Front Bench did not refer to it at all. I simply said that I thought that MPs might be better witnesses on this issue than Members of your Lordships' House, however distinguished.
Lord Soley: I shall say only two things in response. First, far too little time was given in the House of Commons-I do not think that there is any dispute about that. Secondly, my predicament here reminds me of the film "The Go-Between". The person who was the go-between suffered psychologically, and I am already feeling vulnerable.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I was going to end this very brief speech by saying that I thought that it was now time, as we entered our fourth hour of debate, for the Minister to respond. If the House will bear with me for less than the five minutes that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would allow me, perhaps I could make a comment as someone for whom the other place probably means the General Synod of the Church of England rather than the House of Commons.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who is not in his place, that the absence of pre-legislative scrutiny and the speed with which the Bill is being put forward, with 5 May as a date to work towards, cast an unfortunate shadow over the whole discussion. However, the thought that, if there had been that scrutiny, all parties would reach agreement on such a contentious issue seems exceedingly fanciful. At the end of the day, a judgment has to be made. The fact that the Prime Minister made it quite clear that this would be among his proposals seems to undermine the criticism that it is profoundly undemocratic.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, is not in his place, because his speech was important, indicating that there is a tendency in our society towards mission creep in all sorts of areas, not least in the role played by Members of Parliament. Something that has not been mentioned in the debate so far but which is very important is the development of the internet. If we go back over a long period, as we have done in our debates, we see that the relationship between constituents and their Members of Parliament was totally different before modern communications developed. Any reflection on the ideal size of a constituency must take into account a completely new arrangement. It means in some ways that individual representation of an area is not so important, as an MP can communicate with people very much faster and multiply those communications to a large number of people.
Lord Wills: Does the right reverend Prelate recall that the Prime Minister's commitment during the election was not to a figure of 600 but to a lower figure? That is the source of so much unease, certainly on this side of the House.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: I think that it was to a 10 per cent reduction. I suppose that I am used to nice round figures from the Bible, but that is another matter altogether. If it was a radically different figure, the noble Lord's point would have greater power.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: I was going to coin a phrase and talk about a "preferential option for the poor". Are not the most vulnerable less likely to have access to the internet than the more prosperous? If the right reverend Prelate wants in our democracy to relate to the less privileged, does he not agree that the old ways are probably the best?
The Lord Bishop of Chester: In the year of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, I am sure that the old ways often are the best. My only point is that the arrival of the internet has changed much and that that should be the subject of reflection. However, the thought that an agreement would be reached by some scientific, objective process is fanciful. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, wisely said, there is a judgment to be made. My judgment is that, into the fourth hour of this debate, the law of diminishing returns suggests that the Minister should now speak.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is an iterative conversation. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has not made a contribution to this debate. It is entirely in order for him to speak at this particular moment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, it is entirely in order for me to speak at this moment. This being a Committee of the House, no doubt the noble Lord can speak afterwards. I do not think that anyone would suggest that it is not in order for me, having heard three hours and 10 minutes of the debate, to try to respond to some of the points that have been made.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said that, being a theologian and a bishop, he was used to round numbers. I am only delighted that I do not have to argue a case for increasing the size of the House of Commons to 666.
The proposal of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is for a House of Commons of around 650 seats rather than the 600 set out in the Bill. His amendment would not, however, set a fixed size for the other place; he used the word "anchored", which is different and relates to the fact, as one or two noble Lords have indicated-possibly even the noble and learned Lord himself and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey-that there has been, over a period of years, a ratcheting up in the number of Members as the present arrangements are applied. It is possible that that could continue under the system proposed in the amendment, although the number would start at 650.
"This new set of rules that the Boundary Commissions must apply is clear and consistent, and will ensure that equality of electorates predominates in defining Parliamentary constituencies while the frequency of redistributions will ensure that general elections are not held in constituencies defined on electoral data as much as 18 years old."
I got the sense from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that there is some anxiety that, somehow or other, our proposal is a deeply partisan measure that is based on secret modelling. Therefore, let me just answer the points that have been made about the fact that the Conservative Party's manifesto suggested 585 constituencies and my party's manifesto suggested that the number should be 500. As was clearly explained by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, the Liberal Democrat proposal for 500 constituencies was in the context of a single transferable vote and much greater devolution to the regions of England. That perhaps answers the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, as to why the two parties did not simply split the difference. We would not be comparing like with like.
As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester said, an indication to reduce the size of the House of Commons was fairly clearly set out by the Conservative Party in its manifesto. Although we took a different approach in wanting a different voting system, a theme of my party's general election campaign was nevertheless that there should be a reduction in the size of the House of Commons.
As the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, indicated-I hope that I have noted him correctly-a reduction of less than 10 per cent is not unreasonable, nor is it unreasonable, as he said, for the Government to propose a number. He also noted that a previous Government decided to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament. I remember arguing for that
17 Jan 2011 : Column 72
It is a question of judgment as regards the figure of 600. We are mindful that Members in the other place must be able to serve their constituents and that the House must be of sufficient size to be able to carry out its functions effectively. My noble friend Lord Maples argued-and has tabled an amendment to this effect-that the number should be further reduced, ultimately to 500, in two stages. I think that I am right in saying that my noble friend previously proposed a Private Member's Bill to that effect when he was a Member in the other place and has argued his case for some time. However, we believe that, in a House of 600, over a third of MPs will have constituencies within 5 per cent either side of a quota of 76,000. If there were only 500 seats, the constituencies would range in size from 86,000 to 95,000-only three Members have constituencies of that size at present. We believe that a House of 500 could lead to seats that would be of a less manageable size for Members and constituents alike. Moreover, to have two substantial reductions in two successive boundary reviews would, we believe, be unduly disruptive.
As I have indicated previously, there is nothing magical about the number 600. I have also sought to indicate that, given that both parties in this Government were committed to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons, 600 is a number that we believe, as a matter of judgment, will allow the Members to serve their constituents, will provide a sufficient size for the House of Commons to carry out its functions and will have a perhaps less disruptive effect than a larger cut might have, given that a third of constituencies are currently within the band of 76,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, sought reassurance that there was no political jiggery-pokery in our proposal. That view has also been reflected by a number of noble Lords. In an answer to a Parliamentary Question from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, my noble friend Lord McNally has said:
"No modelling of the effect on, or implications for, political parties of the reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons has been undertaken by Ministers, civil servants or special advisers. In framing the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, officials calculated the number of seats that might be apportioned to each of the four parts of the UK using the electoral register as of 1 December 2009. Consideration was also given in framing the Bill to the amount of time that parties might require to select candidates for election.".-[Official Report, 23/11/10; col. WA 304.]
In other words, the Boundary Commission should be able to report by October 2013 to allow candidates and local parties to reorganise and select candidates for an election in May 2015. Those are all very practical, proportionate reasons and this has all been approached in a very reasonable way. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that the number was not changed because of some modelling that the Government did to try to improve the benefit. Indeed, a number of noble Lords in previous debates have indicated that, on their figures, the Bill would not actually benefit any
17 Jan 2011 : Column 73
Lord Wills: The noble and learned Lord is right that the Answer goes some partial way towards reassuring me, but I am afraid that it does not go all the way because he has not actually answered all the questions that I asked him. I also asked him about modelling that might have been done by the Conservative Party or within the Liberal Democrat Party. Can he confirm or deny that point? Equally, if he wants to have a look at the issue-I will accept his own reassurance on this, just as I accept the reassurance given by his colleague the noble Lord, Lord McNally-and make inquiries of those political parties and then come back to me, I would be perfectly happy with that. Can he address those particular questions now please?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I seem to recall that I started to get into this territory last week on the same circumstances. I was quickly told by a noble Lord opposite that I speak here for the Government rather than for an individual political party. I am unaware of any modelling that shows a political bias to the Labour Party or the Conservative Party and I am certainly unaware of what bias there might be to the Liberal Democrats. I have reflected on the point that both coalition parties were committed to a reduction in the size of the House of Commons and, although that pledge was qualified by the context in which it was made by the Liberal Democrats, I think that there is a general view that that should be the direction of travel.
Another issue that has generated considerable debate is the relative increase in the workload of Members of the other place. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, called for some scientific analysis of that, but my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking indicated that, in his experience from having been first returned as a Member of Parliament in the 1970s, I think, there is a considerable difference in the resources that were made available to Members of Parliament by the time that he left the other place. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester mentioned that there are now opportunities for Members of Parliament to communicate electronically with their constituents in a way that has never been possible before. It is a continually changing scene.
For me, the reason why a scientific analysis could never bear fruit-apart from the fact that it would produce 650 different responses-was evident in the exchange that took place between the former, esteemed Speaker of the other place, the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, and the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Campbell-Savours. The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, indicated that, as a Member of Parliament post devolution, if he received an issue that was properly the matter of the Scottish Parliament, he passed it on to the MSP or, if it was a council matter, to council officials. He also said that he did not answer everyone on a petition. Frankly, having been a Member of the other place-indeed, for a short time, I was the Member of Parliament for Shetland but not the MSP for Shetland-I would have done exactly the same in those circumstances. I do not think-although I may have done so once or twice-I generally made a
17 Jan 2011 : Column 74
At the end of the day, the judge and jury in such matters are one's constituents, when one seeks re-election. They know how well a Member of Parliament has represented their interests over the previous lifetime of a Parliament.
Lord Winston: The noble and learned Lord has addressed the question that I was about to ask. Is it not the constituents who matter? Is not that one of the issues with which we are faced? Should we not try to assess this in a more rational way? I do not really think that the analysis needs to be scientific, but it should be based on evidence. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, cited Germany and one or two other places, where there is a completely haphazard and arbitrary method of representation. Perhaps if we were to have a really satisfactory Parliament, we would try to research what would be ideal to ensure that constituents are represented and looked after better.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: In my experience, different Members of Parliament have different ways in which they think they should address their constituents' problems and issues. It would be invidious to say that one was right and one was wrong, because different people can take a different approach. That may relate to the character and personality of the individual Member of Parliament, which may also determine what is right and what is wrong. At the end of the day, the constituents should decide.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Is not the different behaviour of the Members of Parliament determined by the size of their majority? When I had a majority of 503, I would have written to everyone whose name appeared on a petition. If you have a safe seat, you take a different view. Generally speaking, I think that all Members of Parliament work for their constituents, but it does not half concentrate the mind when you have a small majority.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My noble friend makes a good point. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that he honed his skills when answering every petition when he had a majority of about 400, although he said that he also did so when he had a majority of 18,000. That just shows that there are different approaches. I do not think that anyone has the answer for what is absolutely right and what is wrong, but a scientific inquiry would not find an answer either-other than possibly 650 different answers.
Lord Campbell-Savours: On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, if the issue is that in safer seats the whole process of representation is conducted
17 Jan 2011 : Column 75
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Even given a very short time to think about that point, I think that that is something of a non sequitur. There may be other ways in which we want to debate having safer seats.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked how the gender balance would be affected by the proposals. The equality impact assessment attached in an annexe to the Bill suggests that the effect would be neutral, but it is fair to say for the record-she asked about the commitments of the respective parties to diversity-that the Liberal Democrats have instituted a campaign for gender balance to provide encouragement and support, through a range of training, for women who are standing or considering standing for Parliament. The Conservative Party has a five-point positive action plan based on clear principles to guarantee that more women and ethnic minorities are selected for winnable seats. More pertinently, I recall from debating the Equality Bill in this Chamber before the election-now the Equality Act-that there are now specific duties on political parties.
Someone asked about the timing of the measure and suggested that it was not so urgent. However, if the Boundary Commission is to get on with its work of making proposals and recommendations in a report by 1 October by 2013 so that the 2015 general election can be fought on boundaries using an updated constituency electoral register, clearly there is a timing issue here as well.
I conclude with the words of my noble friend Lord Baker that these proposals to reduce the number of MPs to 600 would not impair the workings of democracy in the United Kingdom by having a smaller House of Commons. I commend that view to your Lordships' House and, on that basis, ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: The Minister, in his final sentence, dealt with the point that I wanted to make, which has not been made during the whole debate so far. I am not in favour at this stage of having a fixed figure at all, whether it be 600, 650 or even 500. We should give some flexibility to the Boundary Commission, particularly the Boundary Commission for England. With regard to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, in the past figures have been allocated-a minimum figure for Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland-but not for England. The Boundary Commission has sensibly taken account of natural boundaries and community interests and come up with relatively sensible proposals. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative-even more so, given some of the other provisions in the Bill-that we give the Boundary Commission some flexibility, so that when it goes through these provisions it looks at natural boundaries and listens to community interests, although sadly it will not be able to do so at hearings now, and take some account of them. Later there is an
17 Jan 2011 : Column 76
That brings me on to another reason to have flexibility. A large number of Members of Parliament were recently elected, because there was a huge turnover in the House of Commons in the last election. They are just settling into their constituencies and getting to know their constituencies and to understand the boundaries. That is why the Boundary Commission should in my view start from existing boundaries. That may add a little bit to it, but it would give flexibility. If we specify so rigidly a figure, it will not be able to start from that. There is already going to be clear destabilisation of existing Members of Parliament. I have heard not just from Labour Members but from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members that they are already worried about the effects that these proposals will have on the selection and reselection arrangements. It will be doubly difficult if the Boundary Commission is unable to get some degree of flexibility. I hope that the Minister will have some opportunity to deal with that and to say whether some flexibility might be considered.
I endorse what my colleagues said earlier and want to add a couple of points, first on the workload of Members of Parliament. A number of Members have dealt with the matter of the change here very effectively. When I was elected first in South Ayrshire, there were no mobile phones and no e-mail, which have made a substantial difference. I raised the importance of direct access to the Member of Parliament when the noble Lord, Lord Maples, spoke on this subject, and said that MPs do not have to take a personal interest in individual cases that come to them. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that even when I had a majority of 21,000-which was bigger than his ever was-I communicated with and replied to everyone. When people sent petitions about schools closures, I also contacted them. As my noble friend Lady McDonagh, who is in front of me, said, that may be why I ended up with a majority of 21,000 and why her sister has a large majority. It is because we deal with them in that way.
However, I remember the late Donald Dewar, when he was Secretary of State for Scotland and when he was Chief Whip. When he was doing all those important
17 Jan 2011 : Column 77
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The noble Lord has been addressing the House for quite some time. He has not come up with new arguments or new points. The Minister has already spoken and I believe that we should bring this debate to a conclusion.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord will know that the fact that the Minister has spoken does not mean that the debate finishes. Noble Lords are quite entitled to continue the debate after the Minister has spoken and other noble Lords have indicated their interest on this issue.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I was in the middle of a speech. I have sat through the whole of this debate. Noble Lords will confirm that I have never been out at any stage. I have listened to it. Then a Whip comes in and interrupts me right in the middle of the speech. If there are any traditions or conventions in this House, I must say that I find that kind of rudeness detestable. I was talking about my late friend Donald Dewar and I want to make a couple more points. They also relate to the fact-I am sure that the Minister will confirm this-that we have spoken about the work in Parliament and in the constituency. Those of us who represented Scottish constituencies also had to spend a huge time of travelling to and from our constituencies. It takes a substantial amount of time to travel backwards and forwards between the constituency and Westminster.
I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, would be here because he usually makes some very positive interventions in such debates. He made one recently in one of our debates about the setting up of Select Committees. He, of course, was the architect of the Select Committee. When I came into the other place in 1979, there were relatively few Select Committees. There were only a handful: the Public Accounts Committee and one or two others. Norman St. John-Stevas, as he was then, set up a whole range of new Select Committees, one for each department of state. It was a very positive advancement as far as the House of Commons was concerned but with extra work for Members of Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Martin will confirm. He came in with me at the same time and saw those Select Committees being set up.
I served on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for some time, which was very interesting, but we had to travel overseas with all of the work that that involved. I know that it was a great burden. Then my noble friend Lord Kinnock-I am looking at my good friend-when he was leader of the party, with great wisdom and sagacity, put me on the Front Bench along with
17 Jan 2011 : Column 78
I do not think that there is enough understanding down in the other place of the importance of this place. That is something which we have to do. We have to educate them about the role and the importance of the House of Lords. However it would be useful, particularly for those people who have not experienced the other place, to meet new Members and to find out exactly what the workload is. While I endorse everything that my colleagues have said in relation to the workload and on all the other arguments about the numbers, I have raised this new point. It is a new point, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, may say. I usually see him at the airport on the way to Bergerac but it is nice to see him here. Thereby hangs another story, which I will not go into too much; he and I look very different on those occasions. I have genuinely raised another point on the degree of flexibility that we need to give the Boundary Commission. Can the Minister tell us whether the Boundary Commission for England has been consulted about this? I am sure that, if given the opportunity and asked, it would welcome that additional degree of flexibility.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Succinctly, if my noble friend pushes this amendment I do not think that I am minded to support it. I would rather see some degree of flexibility but I am waiting to hear all the other arguments. As I have said, I have already sat through all three-and-a-half hours of the debate and am prepared to sit through the rest of it. I will make up my mind at the end as, no doubt, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, also will.
Lord Rooker: I am not keeping to the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, as I do not want it thought that I can be intimidated by the Front Bench opposite. What I have to say will sound a lot better in the dog hours of 2 am to 4 am so I shall save most of it for later on. First, I support very much what the Minister said. He cannot answer for a political party at the Dispatch Box. I fully accept that but there cannot be a party manager anywhere in the country that is not working out the consequences of this. On my visit to the Conservative Party conference, I could not avoid seeing the glass-walled room where, hour after hour, the training sessions were going on for the boundary changes. I assume that it was happening at the other conferences as well, but you cannot answer for that at the Dispatch Box and no one would expect the Minister to do that.
I want to share something very brief. I went into the other place in 1974, when it had 635 members. Paradoxically, in 1983, when the boundary change took the other place up to 650, my constituency changed from 52,000 to 76,000. Not many had a 50 per cent increase in one go. It changed my working pattern enormously but it was absolutely manageable. There was no problem, once you got settled in and learnt which sides of the streets were odd and even and where the postcode boundaries were-that is the way I work; I got my hands on the detail-so it is manageable. To be honest, as I have already said, I take the view that there should be fewer than the 650. I would not put a figure on it. I would go much further.
The point from my noble friend Lord Soley was valuable. I was, in a way, responsible for doing the very thing that he said but you actually undermine local government. With my constituency at 76,000, I was once in Gloucester-with its inner-city, dockland and urban renewal problems-talking to councillors as a spokesman for the Opposition. I asked them, "How many councillors have you got?". They said, "We've got 46". I said, "Well, the size of your patch is about the same size as my constituency". "Oh, well", they said, "we've got 12 county councillors". I said, "I've got 12 councillors"-and that was all there was for 76,000, because of the size of the wards in Birmingham being 18,000 to 20,000. I was not in a position of shoving on to my few councillors the council work that came my way, but in the end you have that ratchet effect of undermining local government because of that structure. That is the issue to be addressed. Frankly, there is an opportunity to address that.
Your Lordships can have a look at the numbers-it is not scientific and it would be preposterous to say so-and at what was said in our Select Committee report on the role and functions of Members of Parliament and then their numbers. It is the very thing that we should do in this place; the role and function, then the form of getting in here. It is not to say that MPs should be constrained in what they do. They have to be freely elected to speak freely but if they could concentrate on being the cockpit of the nation-the inquest, if you like-and turn their attention to more scrutiny of central government in a very targeted, forensic way, we would have a better democracy for it. That would come as a consequence, but it would be much better if we could take that along with the flow, by a degree of consensus, so that it is not seen to be-this is the perception-for party advantage and party-driven. The outcome may be something that we could all say is a big success. Why spoil it all in the method of getting there if, at the end of the day, we will get something that will be good for all of us? I have stuck to my five minutes.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I will just deal with the central points. First, the suggestion has been made by some noble Lords that we should not be debating this at all because we are the Second Chamber. I utterly reject that contention. Our position has always been that we take a-I see that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is shaking his head at that suggestion. He is the
17 Jan 2011 : Column 80
The second contention is that if one looks at history, this House has a proud history of dealing with politically driven attempts to change the complexion of the House. Some Members will remember the attempt by a Labour Government in 1969 to introduce an Act of Parliament designed to jigger with the boundaries. It was this House that blocked that proposal, so the idea that we should not be giving this proper scrutiny is completely wrong.
The third contention is that the numbers in the House of Commons should be reduced. It is an important issue to debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who we have all come to respect in this House for the way that he has dealt with this Bill, put his case this strongly. He said that introducing a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament would "not impair" the working of democracy. That is not remotely a basis on which it could be said that the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that it is almost impossible, I would have thought, scientifically to work out what the approach of individual Members of Parliament will be to their constituents. It will change. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, that it will be for each individual Member of Parliament to determine how it is done. I completely agree with Mr Tony Wright who, before the previous Parliament came to an end, presided over the Public Administration Committee. He said that there should be an examination of what the right role and function of Members of Parliament should be.
The debate this afternoon reveals that there are differing views about it, not just in relation to what you do in relation to your constituents, but about what is the right number to have as an effective national legislature that also selects the Executive. Surely before one embarks upon something that one seeks to justify by saying that reducing the number would not impair the working of democracy, it would be sensible for there to be some independent examination of this issue-for example, the Speaker's Conference in 1944-but there has been nothing at all. In those circumstances, when Members on this side and on the other side of the House ask for the reasons why we are reducing, the answer given by the Government is that it will not do damage.
There have been two particularly signal speeches; one by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, and one by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. They sought to grapple with the issues. The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was funny and witty and was made slightly unfortunate by the fact that he wanted to tell us all off after five
17 Jan 2011 : Column 81
That is why, instead of it suddenly bouncing out of a clear blue sky that we should reduce from 650 to what is in effect an arbitrary number, the right course is that there is a proper examination so that people outside this place will have some confidence. The consequence of doing it in the way that the Government have done it, the consequence of there not being an intellectual argument to support it, the consequence of there not being any independent body that has concluded that this is the right thing to do, is that you could not say after this debate that even the House of Lords supports this with any degree of unanimity. It is an unstable proposal as far as our House of Commons is concerned, and it is a very unwise thing to be doing.
My amendment was a probing amendment. In parenthesis, if the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, were here, I would, with respect, answer her complaint that we did not vote last Monday. My experience in the Lords is that we vote in Committee from time to time but, generally, we try to avoid votes in Committee. That has been the practice in relation to the something like 60 groups of amendments that we have had so far in this Bill. I apologise to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that that was not adequately explained to her by us.
This was a probing amendment. Three points came out of it. First, I am sorely unimpressed by there not being any sense of consensus about what should happen to the number. Secondly, the danger of it being done by fiat from the other place is very high. Thirdly, I think we need to come back with another amendment that seeks to ensure-
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I hear a noble Lord say "Oh for God's sake!". The tradition in this House is that we have the debate in Committee and then we produce a further amendment on Report. If it is the intention of the House to change that procedure, I would be interested to hear whether we are dissatisfied with our current procedures. Fourthly, a process whereby an independent body determines the size of the House, as is the current arrangement, may be best. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Urgent Question that was answered by the Minister for Europe in the other place this afternoon:
"Mr Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to update the House on recent events in Tunisia and what is being done to assist British nationals. The House will be aware that, following a month of protests over government corruption and the lack of political and economic reform, a state of emergency was declared and President Ben Ali left Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. I hope the House will join me in expressing our sympathy to those whose friends and relatives have been killed or injured in these disturbances.
The Speaker of the House of Deputies, Fouad Mebazaa, has been appointed interim President in line with the constitution. President Mebazaa has asked Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a Government of national unity. Talks continue with opposition parties and civil society to agree a way forward. An announcement on the new Government is expected today.
An estimated 5,000 British nationals were in Tunisia when the situation deteriorated, the majority being tourists on package holidays. We changed our travel advice to "all but essential travel" on 14 January, and since then more than 3,000 British nationals have left Tunisia. Many of these were able to leave on additional flights laid on by their tour operators, thanks to the swift response of these companies. We believe there are approximately 1,000 British nationals remaining in Tunisia. This number is largely made up of long-term residents, as well as dual nationals and some independent travellers. Many of those still in Tunisia do not wish to leave.
Despite exceptionally challenging conditions, the embassy is working to help resolve the crisis and provide support to British nationals in Tunisia. We have sent a six-person rapid deployment team and two members of staff from the region to reinforce embassy staff and provide constant consular assistance. We have a 24-hour hotline which people can ring for help and advice. British nationals in Tunisia can call 00 216 71 108 713. Those in the UK should ring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 020 7008 1500. We have staff at Tunis Airport to liaise with airlines and help British travellers with medical, passport and other consular issues.
Our embassy staff remain in regular contact with our network of wardens across Tunisia to better understand the evolving picture around the country and keep those British nationals that we are aware of informed of updates as the situation evolves. We are keeping those British nationals registered on LOCATE updated on developments through regular e-mails. We have been working very closely with tour operators and ABTA, which have been doing a great job. We
17 Jan 2011 : Column 83
We continue to advise against all non-essential travel to Tunisia. We advise anyone in the country who does not have a pressing need to be there to leave by commercial means. The airports are operating, and airlines are flying into and out of Tunisia. Those still in the country should respect advice or instructions given by the local security authorities and tour operators, and avoid rallies and demonstrations. There is no indication that British nationals are being targeted by looters or rioters. However, given the unpredictability of the situation, there is always the chance of being caught up in incidental violence. If British nationals are in any doubt about the safety of their location they should stay in their accommodation.
Politically, we are working with partners, including in the European Union, to promote political reform. As soon as possible we will be seeking to engage the Tunisian authorities to help this. This week we have spoken with the Tunisian ambassador to London, and our ambassador met the Foreign Minister on Thursday. Mr Alistair Burt was interviewed on Saturday morning by the "Today" programme and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has issued two statements on the issue. We encourage all involved to do all they can to restore law and order. We call for full inclusion of all legal parties in the formation of an interim Government.
The change in the past few days in Tunisia has been profound but it is not yet the political reform that many hope for. The authorities must not ignore the voice of the Tunisian people. We will be working with partners to try to ensure an orderly move towards free and fair elections, and an immediate expansion of political freedoms in Tunisia.
There were extended EU discussions on Friday. We have been calling for a speedy and substantial offer of EU support to underpin the move to free and fair elections, which will be critical in re-establishing calm and security in the country. The EU high representative, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has today issued a statement which states that the EU stands ready to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and lasting support to a genuine democratic transition. We will continue to provide the help and advice that British nationals need, and we will continue to engage with and support Tunisia as it works for peace and security".
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made today in the other place. I ask at the outset how it was that the FCO rapid deployment team was sent only yesterday. It seems that a certain amount of time elapsed during which people probably needed its support. After decades
17 Jan 2011 : Column 84
Has the Foreign Secretary spoken with the interim Prime Minister and is he in regular contact with the European Union high representative as the EU prepares to support efforts in Tunisia to bring democracy and good governance to that country? Has the Foreign Secretary also been following the Euro-Med discussions about the situation in Tunisia, if, indeed, these discussions are taking place? Does the Minister agree that the UK, as a member state of the European Union, must seize this moment to stand by the courageous human rights defenders in Tunisia and ask for accountable politicians in Tunisia and across the region to take a stand against what has been occurring in that country? There must be no tolerance by the EU of any efforts to undermine a nascent democracy in Tunisia. I speak about the possibility of that happening among states within the region.
There has to be accountability for those who are corrupt and who committed crimes under Ben Ali. There have been warning signals which point to the dangers of failing to act decisively when we see freedoms being abused in this way. There has to be an impartial and credible investigation into the killings and abuses to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account in courts of law. The departure of President Ben Ali does not exonerate agents of the security forces who committed such heinous crimes against demonstrators. I had hoped that some of these points would be made more strongly in the Statement. It is important that we stand firmly for respect for freedom of expression and information that belong to us all. The people of Tunisia longed for opportunity, political participation and stability. Incidentally, this view has been endorsed by the African Union Peace and Security Council. Now is the time at last to establish a basis for democracy in Tunisia.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that response. First, I shall deal with the rapid deployment team, which has, by all accounts, done an excellent job. The initiative of setting up the rapid deployment team was taken by the noble Baroness's own Government, perhaps by her and her immediate predecessor, and has worked extremely well. It is a very valuable initiative and I congratulate the previous Government on putting in place a team organisation of this kind which has helped in such dramatic situations as the tsunami a couple of years back, the Haiti horror and the effects of the volcanic ash.
The noble Baroness asked why the rapid deployment team did not move faster. In fact, it moved extremely fast but there was one snag which was outside its and indeed our power and control, which was that of air transport, getting it organised and getting the team into the country fast. However, it is now there and is
17 Jan 2011 : Column 85
The noble Baroness said that she had hoped for a stronger Statement. I understand that; we all feel very strongly indeed about our core principles as a nation and we should proclaim them at all times. However, the difficulty, particularly in these very early days, is understanding which way the trend of events is going so that we can be most assured that the number one step is achieved: namely, the restoration of order and calmness and the end of violence, killing and bloodshed so that a sensible pattern of government can evolve. Although parliamentary convention required my honourable friend to say that there was a prospect of a new Government, in between him making the Statement and me repeating it, such a Government have been set up, with opposition Members. If one dare say so, that is somewhat encouraging. As the noble Baroness rightly implied, this is the point when we urge that this new Government, who embrace opposition Members, put to the forefront the concern for human rights, realise that they have a duty to accountability and that there is much to be learnt from past events which have led to this very ugly and dangerous situation which may-who knows?-we hope calm down, but which may have all kinds of domino repercussions in a wider area, some of which could be very injurious to general global and regional stability and to the interests of this nation.
That is my broad answer to the noble Baroness's questions. She asked about regular contact with European Union high officials. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is in close contact through his office at all times. We are particularly in touch at official level with the French Foreign Minister and with the office of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. They are key actors in the situation and strengthen our overall European Union approach as well as anything we can contribute bilaterally. I hope that those are regarded as satisfactory answers to the noble Baroness's points, but I am very happy to elaborate on them in more detail in what is still a very fast moving situation.
Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I was about to question my noble friend on exactly that last point and ask whether he would welcome the announcement this afternoon of the formation of the interim Government. Under the Speaker, a new Prime Minister and members of the so-called opposition parties, plus civil society, there is at least a chance that order is being restored rather more quickly than we had expected. I am not surprised that he said in the Statement that a lot of members of the British community said they did not wish to return, because Hammamet, the main tourist area, has been largely peaceful. I was there recently, and should declare an interest as a member of the board of a company with interests there. Understandably, people want to complete their holidays. This may be tempting him too far, but does my noble friend agree that out of this tragedy there is a lesson to be learnt throughout the rest of the continent of Africa, and indeed the Middle East, that Governments who engage
17 Jan 2011 : Column 86
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble friend offers some very wise and comprehensive comments on the overall situation. This is a lesson. We live in a much more transparent and e-enabled age, with television programmes in their multiple dozens, such as Al-Jazeera and others, fantastic media influence, fantastic rapid communication through the internet, e-mails or the varieties of web operation that we are beginning to know so well, and of course the mobile telephone. All these influence the transmission of both truth and rumour into situations such as the one in Tunis, which can become very volatile very quickly. The lessons should not be lost on others who seek to rule by failing to be transparent and failing to transmit all the knowledge and accountability that they should to their citizens. My noble friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head on that matter. He was kind enough to recognise the problem that the new Government have been formed since my honourable friend spoke in the other place. Now that they have been formed, we are very anxious to see that they go forward in a really constructive and balanced way, and we will do everything, through our embassy, our contacts and our colleagues in the European Union, to encourage that process.
Viscount Waverley: My Lords, what if there is a repetition of a party such as Islamic Salvation Front winning the national elections, as happened in Algeria 1992? Will the Government promote an EU line to allow any obvious winner to let be? Is there any suggestion that Tunisia's neighbours, such as Libya, Algeria and Egypt, will intervene to keep a form of status quo?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord will understand that those are highly hypothetical questions. The Algerian situation of 19 years ago is one from which we should draw lessons, and so should the countries of the area. The neighbouring countries are, as we are, watching closely to see how this pattern will develop. However, these are very early days. One wants this newly formed Government to command confidence, get violence off the streets and ensure that non-democratic forces, and those that are inclined to violence, stay in and are kept under control. Then we will see what the broader implications are. I personally hope that the broader implications to the wider world are simply of the kind mentioned by my noble friend a moment ago, whereby democracy, transparency and responsibility to citizens are always wise if you want to stay in power.
Lord Boateng: My Lords, in welcoming the Minister's Statement, and particularly his warm words, which are well deserved for the consular section of the Foreign Office, I must ask whether recent events in Tunisia do not underscore the importance of Her Majesty's Government having an Africa strategy in which we are better able to co-ordinate the efforts of the FCO, DfID, the MoD and the whole machinery of government behind progressive change in Africa. That is because two things emerge very clearly from the Tunisian
17 Jan 2011 : Column 87
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord knows more than most about Africa strategies and speaks wise words. Perhaps he would also recognise that Africa is a concept, as it were, and a geographical continent, but that it contains a vast range of different societies, cultures and trends in political and social evolution, all of which must be calibrated to ensure that one gets right one's relations with different countries and shows the necessary respect to different countries, rather than lumping them all together into one general formula by which they should be treated. I think the noble Lord accepts that point, and I hope he will feel that I am adding to, rather than subtracting from, his wisdom on this matter.
Food prices and unemployment are the uneasy shadows of the age. There are tremendous volatilities in the availability of food. Some experts tell us that it is not the basic lack of supply of foodstuffs but problems of distribution, processing, handling and getting the right kind of food into the right kind of supply chains that create so many of the problems. Unemployment is similar. What does a world, and particularly a region, do, given that we are talking about the Maghreb and the Middle East, where almost the majority of people are young and are waiting for an opportunity to fulfil themselves and find useful employment? What do they do if no employment is available and the opportunity to contribute to their community is not there? What do they do if they have no country that they feel they should love and no confidence about getting a fair share of a country's prosperity? That is one of the angry themes that has come through in Tunis: the feeling that some people were doing extremely well-the fat cats-while the majority struggled and did not benefit from the relative prosperity. I say "relative" because the country is not as poor as some. It receives a great deal of aid from France. Did that help the men and women, the families and children, in their homes? Clearly not, and now we are seeing the results.
Lord Chidgey: My Lords, will the Minister tell us a little more about the assessment of the reaction among the countries in the region to the situation in Tunisia? My noble friend will be aware of reports that Colonel Gaddafi's people have been providing arms for the guerrillas on the streets of Tunisia who supported the outgoing President, and also that the security council of the Egyptian Government met hurriedly a day or so ago in response to the situation. There are great concerns
17 Jan 2011 : Column 88
Lord Howell of Guildford: It is hard to add to the expertise of my noble friend. All the neighbouring countries are assessing the situation, as we are tonight in London. The implications are being examined very carefully. Broad themes lead to suggestions of domino theories. Articles by expert commentators have appeared in the newspapers saying that this could be the beginning of a very big transformation in the region. One hopes that it will be orderly and stable rather than violent and disruptive. That would be an important aspect of our foreign policy and national interest, and we would need to follow it closely. On the other hand, it may be possible to contain what is happening entirely in a Tunisian context, so that broader lessons could be learnt more slowly and in an orderly way.
My noble friend is right that the Egyptians are looking closely at the matter. Algeria has its problems, along with the Maghreb and Morocco, which is prosperous and well ordered but still concerned. The dark al-Qaeda jihadist extremist element is not apparently present in the Tunis situation. It is reckoned that al-Qaeda is operating in the Maghreb to the south of the area in Tunis that we are looking at. One can never be sure, but that is the broad assessment at the moment.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: I congratulate my noble friend on the balance he struck in his comments on the Statement. I will make one point. We all hope that the new Government who are being formed, or their successor, will restore order quickly. However, that may not be so; this may drag on for some time. I remember in other cases how quickly the news disappeared from our newspapers, but how the strains on our own people handling the daily problems that my noble friend mentioned remained. Exhaustion sets in quickly. Is the Foreign Office looking further than the next few days to the weeks and even months ahead, which may include periods of considerable distress and disorder-although we hope that they will not-to make sure that we continue to be able to manage the problems of our own citizens in the way that we have up to now?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to my noble friend for his advice, which is invaluable in this kind of situation. I can answer firmly that that is what we want to do. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to think about the implications of this further piece in the jigsaw of the new international order, which is fluid and changing very fast. Further to the east of where we are looking at-the Maghreb-is the Middle East imbroglio. To the east of that there is the Gulf, and to the east of that is a conglomeration of GCC states that are now reorienting themselves in the direction of the rising Asian powers. This is an entirely new world. We have to watch very closely and prepare for big changes in our existing assumptions.
Lord Bannside: My Lords, I am sure that we are glad of the Statement that we heard from the Minister tonight. However, I will stress one matter. Why did this come as a terrible surprise to the people in this area? Were the Government not aware that the matter
17 Jan 2011 : Column 89
Lord Howell of Guildford:I am grateful to the noble Lord for that. Why does it appear suddenly to have caught certain people by surprise? The point when these things break through, into regrettable violence and protest in this case, is always a bit of a judgment. That there were forces at work that could lead to the situation is not such a surprise. I do not want to drag the rather overrated WikiLeaks into the situation, but leaks were flying around, which certain senior diplomats were observing some years ago, that the fundamental pattern of government in Tunis looked a bit unhealthy, and that the disease and infection of corruption and vast disparities between rich and poor were around and could lead to trouble. Senior diplomats saw that something was wrong some time ago, but it is always difficult to assess exactly when these things will explode.
Baroness Browning: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the All-Party Group on Tunisia. I was pleased to hear what my noble friend told the House tonight about the involvement of the EU and the opportunity to oversee democratic elections. Will he assure us that, as things settle down, the British Government will use their influence both unilaterally and within the EU to ensure that as soon as possible, when it is suitable to do so, there will be a concerted effort to take trade delegations to Tunisia? With a more highly educated population, Tunisia cannot exist on tourism and dates. There are opportunities in Tunisia for much more trade, but the initiative must come from this side. I hope my noble friend will take that on board and understand that one of the many frustrations among that population relate to appropriate levels of work and the appropriate amount of trade that the country needs, with which we could help a great deal.
Lord Howell of Guildford: This is a positive set of observations. Having visited Tunisia on more than one occasion, I wondered how the basis of its economy could be sustained by its very successful tourism and by what I am told are its 20 million date trees. How one can count them? I do not know. How can it be done? The answer is that it has been done, but clearly diversification and development are badly needed. I suspect that deep down inside the causes of this present disturbance is the fact that they have not been developed fast enough. We and the EU, bilaterally, certainly have a role to play, as do our French friends and neighbours.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Our key national interest appears to be the security of our own nationals, and to that extent the Foreign Office appears to have responded speedily and in an exemplary manner. I congratulate the Minister on what he said. Successive human development reports of the UNDP illustrate the lack of poor governance in the various Arab countries, and I wonder to what extent we were already alerted to the problem and the way in which it was building up, although the spirit in Tunisia appears to be far freer than in some of its neighbours in the Maghreb. Can the Minister say to what extent he believes lessons will
17 Jan 2011 : Column 90
Lord Howell of Guildford: I hope, as we must all hope, that the lessons will be learnt. They are fascinating lessons, and some very profound observations have been made. The emergence of the food shortage issue and its impact on political stability in certain societies is in itself a vast issue that relates to other aspects of crops for biological use, biofuel, and so on. That has all kinds of impacts on world food prices, which at the moment are rising very fast.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, with his considerable experience of foreign affairs in the other place and here, for his kind words of congratulation. The Foreign Office to which I, as noble Lords will know, am relatively new, has demonstrated that in a situation of this kind, precise timing is always difficult to anticipate. However, the Foreign Office has acted with extreme speed, along with great help from ABTA and the commercial operators, who have done remarkably well in evacuating 3,000 tourists from the country at such enormous speed.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: Does my noble friend agree that although the formation of a more inclusive Government is to be welcomed, it is very limited in its inclusion? The Islamist parties, for better or for worse, have been left out of it, as have the liberals. Does he agree that in order to have a pluralistic framework, which is what the people want now, all parties should be invited to come on board? Can he assure the House that the EU will monitor those elections?
Lord Howell of Guildford: It is early days to give a definite current on the last point, but that seems utterly sensible. As to the precise balance and formation of a new Government, the delicate, fragile gain for the moment is that a new Government are being formed and announced. Exactly what balance they should have and which parties should be included is a very difficult matter for those outside Tunisia to intervene on at the moment. All that we can do is offer our support and give them our good wishes and blessing as fast as we can, so that government rather than chaos emerges out of the present street violence and disorder.
Lord Soley: My noble friend Lord Lipsey will speak to Amendment 60. These amendments go together. Amendment 59 is one of the core amendments about the nature of what the Government are doing. As regards this Bill, I have been troubled for a long time about the importance of constitutional issues. Everyone, including the Government, accepts that this is a constitutional Bill. I get the feeling that the Government have not recognised just how important this issue is, particularly to the opposition party, because the Opposition have not been consulted on the size of Parliament. I regard that as particularly important.
I have been a member of the Labour Party for a long time. But it is not being a member of the Labour Party that drives me in politics; it is my strong belief in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. I have held that view for many years. It goes back to when I was about six years old and watched adults dancing around an effigy of Adolf Hitler burning in the street. I wondered what sort of planet I had ended up on that people should be behaving like that. Over the coming years, it made me understand better why parliamentary democracy was so important and, much later, made me understand why the rule of law was so critical to it.
This, for me, is not a party political issue in that sense, but it has become party-political precisely because the Government have chosen to determine the size of the House of Commons. This amendment points out that that is not right way to do these things. There ought to be an independent assessment of what the size of Parliament should be, and ideally-it is why the amendments are grouped together-that should be done through something like a Speaker's Conference or, better still, all-party agreement.
That is profoundly important because what matters in constitutional Bills of this type is that if it is perceived that a party in government is altering the size of the House of Commons to suit its own party purposes, that immediately makes the Bill deeply party political. That is what I do not think the Government have taken on board. In summing up, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said that there was some suggestion of secrecy about the numbers. There has never been any secrecy about the numbers. Actually, I quoted from Andrew Tyrie's paper which made it clear that the Conservatives would win more seats if they could reduce the size of the House of Commons by 60 seats, and originally they thought they would win even more if they reduced the size by 120 seats. That does not mean that he did not also have a view that the House ought to be smaller, because he did, as did other people who supported him. It also did not mean that he was wrong to say that it would save public money; it probably would. But what you do not do is just change the size of the House of Commons without all-party agreement.
To his credit, as I said in the last debate, Andrew Tyrie made that point. Indeed, he made two points, the first of which was that the Government of the day should seek all-party agreement. He referred to agreement with the Labour Party, but I would simply talk about
17 Jan 2011 : Column 92
I want to put it this way, particularly to Members opposite. They may recall that on the last amendment I referred briefly and in passing to when we decided, quite rightly in my view, to remove the judges from the House of Lords to a newly created Supreme Court. One of the many factors behind the change was that European countries coming out of communist regimes were saying, when they were told by the European Union that they had create judiciaries separate from their legislatures, "But Britain doesn't". We were trying to create a situation where we could separate the legislature from the judiciary, but what matters now is a question that I would like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to address, if he is going to respond to the debate. If anyone from this House is observing an election, not least in one of the eastern European countries, and they are told that the Government of the day have decided on the size of the Parliament without the permission or agreement of one of the major political parties, will they really say "Yes, that is all right. It is not a problem"? I ask this of all the Members sitting on the Benches opposite because it is very important.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde) : I cannot resist. Did the noble Lord think that it was outrageous that the Labour Government decided in 1997 to remove the hereditary Peers from the House of Lords without any consultation and agreement? Of course he did not.
Lord Soley: I answered that question before, but in a different way. I said, and I say again, that what matters is that, if you change the constitution in a way that reduces the chances of a political party winning an election, you cannot reverse what the Government have done. Removing hereditary Peers from here did not change the opportunity for a party to win an election. It is an important difference. That is why I make the case that one has to look at constitutional Bills differently. Of course, constitutional Bills about removing hereditary Peers or judges are very important, but when you change the composition of a House, which alters the ability of a major party to win an election, that party can no longer assume that it is in a position to reverse what the previous Government have done. That makes all the difference.
Lord Davies of Stamford: The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has thrown in our face the deal done in 1997 or 1998 over the future of hereditary Peers. I
17 Jan 2011 : Column 93
Lord Soley: My noble friend is quite right and he has reminded me of something. I remember being in the Corridor outside when the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, had had talks with the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, or with his office, and William Hague, the then leader of the Conservative Party, had got to hear about the deal that my noble friend refers to. I happened to bump into William Hague as he came back down the Corridor having seen the noble Lord. His face was as black as thunder. I only heard a bit of what he was saying, but it certainly was not complimentary about the deal that had been done. I diverge, but the point is right. There was a negotiation.
Lord Snape: Will my noble friend acknowledge the courage of the Leader of the House at that time? He fell on his sword as a result of those consultations and negotiations, which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, now denies ever took place at all.
Lord Soley: I must admit that I was always impressed that the noble Lord survived the experience, so I give him full marks for political survival. Let me get back to the central point, because it is critically important. When we observe elections in other countries-this was particularly true of the communist countries in eastern Europe, where a number of the communist parties had reformed themselves but still wanted to hold on to control-we see that, if you allow a Government to decide the size of a Parliament, you prevent another Government from having a chance to come in and alter it. You see it in Russia today; it is precisely what President Putin has been doing. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and David Cameron are not President Putin and the British Parliament is not the Duma or the Russian Parliament in general, but this is one of those principles that matter. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, said that principles do not matter in these things. I have to say that, on things like this, they do. They matter a lot. The feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that if one party loses out you undermine the credibility of your electoral system in a major way.
The other problem that the Government have got themselves into is that, presumably, the Liberal Democrats signed up to this 60-seat reduction on the basis of the discussions that had been going on in the Conservative Party over the previous seven or eight years, which I referred to in my earlier speech. However, there is absolutely no need to have a set number of seats. One of my noble friends made the point that you can instruct the Boundary Commission to create a number of seats within a certain range. That is much better, because it allows the commission to take into account everything from geographical to socioeconomic factors. You do not need to decide the number of seats in a precise format.
The reason why I put the range of 500 to 650 in my amendment is that I recognise that the Government have said over many years that they want to reduce the size of Parliament. I also recognise the importance of the deal politically between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party. For them it is crucial and it is one of the reasons why we are having this big fight right now. I say again to the noble Lord, though, that I would like to compromise to some extent. Personally, I would prefer these things to be decided by all-party agreement, and I toyed with putting that in. I do not think, however, that the Government could live with that in the present climate. What they could maybe live with and recognise is that it is vital that Governments do not decide the size of Parliament.
With the amendment, I have tried to give flexibility to the Government, not only in setting up the independent body but also in deciding its timescale. I do not pretend that it would be possible for that body to come up overnight with a definition of what MPs should and should not do, but there are different ways in which this can be addressed, one of which is to say, "If we're going to have a smaller number of MPs, what parameters should there be?". You could do that as a starter before addressing some of the other issues.
What are the other issues? One of the most crucial, which has been totally ignored in the Bill, is that if you reduce the size of the House of Commons but do not at the same time reduce the payroll vote-those people who depend on the Government for their jobs-you immediately increase the power of the Government and decrease the power of Back-Benchers. There are fewer Back-Benchers to hold the Government to account and more Members in the pay of the Government of the day. That is not desirable. Someone else referred earlier to the professor at Essex University whose name escapes me for the moment-
Lord Soley: Professor King made the point that, if you reduce the number of MPs from which Ministers are drawn, you also reduce the "gene pool" for Ministers, as he described it. He said that that was quite important. I do not want to get into a detailed argument about why I am sympathetic to the idea of reducing the size of Parliament; I just want to make a couple of points in relation to it.
Baroness Wall of New Barnet: Would my noble friend describe for us what he means by an "independent commission"? I cannot understand why the Government would resent that and be opposed to it. My noble friend is suggesting that they would establish it and it would be independent. Can he give us some reason why he thinks that they may not want it?
Lord Soley: I am afraid that the only answer-this is the core of the problem that is making us do things such as debate this late at night when we could be doing other things with our lives-is, quite simply, that there is a political agreement between two parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, to do this regardless of the consequences or of the Opposition. That is what they are doing.
I accept that the wording of my amendment is not perfect and that the Government would have to take it away and work on it, but there is no doubt in my mind that they could appoint an independent commission to look at this and come forward with some guidance on the basic issue of the numbers.
Lord Soley: It is very important and it would also allow the commission to look at what is, for me, a critical point: the principle of a Government deciding the size of Parliament without the agreement of the parties within it. That is what is so dangerous and undesirable about this proposal.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|