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"The House usually sits for public business on Mondays and Tuesdays at 2.30 p.m., on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and on Thursdays at 11 a.m. The House also sits on Fridays at 10 a.m. when pressure of business makes it necessary. It is a firm convention that the House normally rises by about 10 p.m. on Mondays to Wednesdays, by about 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and by about 3 p.m. on Fridays. The time of the meeting of the House can be varied to meet the convenience of the House".
It says that where there are to be changes there should be consultation through the usual channels. We have now had a very exceptional move by the House, as the Lord Speaker made clear in her warning to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, before he moved his Motion. So exceptional was it that the consequence was that the Front Bench on this side did not get an opportunity to respond to either Amendment 59 or Amendment 60. If that were to be repeated there would, in effect, be a guillotine on debate in this House. I am happy to see the former Chief Whip Lord Hesketh nodding. The consequence would be that what makes this House exceptional-namely that there can be indefinite debate, particularly on constitutional issues-would be lost. I respectfully suggest that the House should now adjourn. That is why I have moved this Motion to resume. It is far better that we, as a House, keep our reputation-
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Noble Lords might laugh but it is appropriate that we do things in the right and proper way. This House exists properly to scrutinise business. The prospect of there being proper scrutiny of legislation deep into the night, then again tomorrow, then again on Wednesday and then again on Monday, in my submission, significantly undermines the standing of the House. I therefore invite the House to resume. It would be the sensible thing to do and would avoid the sense that we are no longer concerned about the constitution but are properly concerned instead about the change in the circumstances in the House. Given that there is a Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition, unlike in my previous time in the House it is now possible to ram things through without proper debate. Indeed, the coalition has just done so. That would never have happened when there was not-
Lord Greaves: There is a certain amount of this that I can listen to, but after a while I find that I cannot listen to it any longer without intervening. The Committee started at three o'clock. It is now 11 minutes past midnight. That means that the Committee has spent the best part of eight hours considering two amendments. If the noble and learned Lord believes that that is ramming things through, his brain does not work in the same way that mine does.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I have always suspected that my brain does not work in the same way as that of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I have always regarded it as being to my credit that that is the position. We have debated two amendments over eight hours-four hours each. The first concerned whether we should reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. I regard that as an important constitutional issue. The second amendment that we debated before the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, brought the debate to an end was whether the size of the House of Commons should be fixed by an independent commission or a Speaker's Conference. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, whose brain does not work like mine, or, I suspect, like anyone else's in the House either, might not think that those are important things to debate but I do.
Lord Greaves: The point I am attempting to make is not that the time that has been used up on these two amendments is excessive, although many Members around the House believe that it constitutes an abuse of the conventions of this House. The point I am making is that this is not a case of ramming things through.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, thinks that the time involved is not excessive. I do not know how he voted just now. I assume that he voted on our side in that respect if he did not think that the time was excessive. It is time for the House to stop this, resume and go back to considering this measure in the normal way. That is what has made the House so successful over the past 13 years.
Baroness O'Cathain: I wish to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, whether he is prepared to offer an apology for the personal abuse that he levelled at the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We have listened to Members of the House and the problem is that the noble and learned Lord deliberately made fun of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Not only was it abusive to him and upsetting to us, it did nothing for the conduct and behaviour of this House. I trust that the noble and learned Lord will feel duly ashamed when he reads Hansard tomorrow.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Of course, I apologise immediately to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I did not mean to cause him any upset. I agree completely with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I was teasing and mocking him and I went too far. I unreservedly apologise.
Lord Greaves: I suppose that I ought to thank the noble and learned Lord for that apology. I can say to him and to the House that it takes a great deal to worry me. I see the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, having a good laugh. If noble Lords, in addition to the noble Baroness, and other former members of Lancashire County Council knew the abuse I got there, your Lordships cannot touch it.
Baroness McDonagh: I have asked for this amendment to stand alone in the group. I believe that it is right to get on with the business of looking at the number as it was adequately debated in the other place.
I believe that 630 will give the Government the ability to achieve all their aims: to reduce the number of constituencies, equalise the number of voters, and for our constituencies to represent a community of interest, which is important. This is a genuine attempt to be helpful, as was my Motion to split the Bill before the Second Reading began. I wanted the Government to be able to meet their deadline of having a referendum on 5 May and I hope that they understand that this amendment is in the same vein.
Before looking at the reasons behind having a House of 630, it is important to go through why I believe that the figure of 600 will not work. I am against setting a House of 600, because I believe that it will take away the power of the independent commissioners and put the power to draw boundaries in the hands of politicians. That is a bad thing. When you consider the number of 600 and begin to draw maps across the United Kingdom, you see that it will end up looking like the rush of the former colonial powers to carve up Africa. At the time, they thought that it was okay to carve up countries along straight lines-not to recognise a community of interest, natural borders and other interests. This will be a great mistake.
I have a previous experience of something like this happening to a constituency where I lived. My noble friend Lord Beecham referred to that example previously. In the mid-1980s I lived in a constituency called Tyne Bridge. That constituency was drawn from four local government wards in Newcastle and four in Gateshead. While I was living in that constituency, there was a parliamentary by-election. I had worked in some by-elections. I had worked in Peter Tatchell's by-election in Bermondsey and in a by-election in Mitcham and Morden during the Falklands War, so I am used to voters being forthright in their views on the doorstep. I have never had as much abuse on the doorstep as when a constituency was combined from wards from Newcastle and Gateshead, which had the River Tyne running through them. People know where they live. In that by-election, they voted with their feet. It was the first by-election for many decades when less than 40 per cent of voters turned out.
The figure of 600 will also create constituencies that are too large. There are 49 million voters in this country eligible to be registered. Therefore, the constituencies that we draw must allow for 49 million people to be in constituencies. None of us knows what the cut-off register will be at 31 December as it has not been published; and we do not know where the cut-off will be until the Bill is passed. So we need to start with the premise that constituencies will hold the number of people who are entitled to vote. With 600 constituencies, we have about 81,000 electors each. It would have been 75,000 based on the 2010 general election. That is 81,000 if all voters on the register last year are on the new register at the cut-off of 31 December.
A ceiling of 600 constituencies does not take account of any population move. I ask the Minister to answer on this point. Over the next 20 years, the population of the United Kingdom is, we are told, to exceed 70 million. That increase to the voting population will come through in any event. Over the next 20 years, it may also be added to by, for example, lowering the voting age to 16. I have only to look around in my local authority
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Lord Boswell of Aynho: Will the noble Baroness acknowledge that under the present arrangements, some of us, myself included, have had the privilege or the task of wrestling with an electorate approaching 90,000 already? Some of her concerns about these overlarge constituencies are less than well founded.
Baroness McDonagh: The difference in the situation proposed under the legislation from that which has formerly been is simply that the number of voters in a constituency is taken together with a whole series of other factors, one of which does not have primacy-so you do not split local government boundaries or county boundaries. You can take into account the geography in the Boundary Commission's book when you know that there is going to be an increase in population. You can take into account other physical barriers, such as motorways and so on. In large constituencies you tend to have an electorate with a community of interests which it is possible to represent. A good example of that would obviously be the Isle of Wight. With this, you will go across vast areas where people do not recognise the other parts of the geographical area in the same constituency.
I need to go back to this issue because I feel that I can answer it. How do we end up with the number 600? I will explain why it would be right to have a House of Commons comprising 630 MPs. How do you end up with 600 MPs when one part of the coalition is suggesting 500 and the other is suggesting 585. I do not suggest that either party is innumerate, but generally you would fix somewhere around the figure of 540. You would not come up with a figure that was larger than either of the two figures suggested if it was not based on something else.
I have seen the figure published on current affairs and news items, and I have read it in the newspapers. I cannot believe that I am the only person in your Lordships' House who reads newspapers and watches television. From examining them, I know that eminent psephologists of all political persuasions tell us that 600 is the figure that most benefits the Conservative Party. I knew that already because that is what my former counterparts at the Conservative Party head office had told me, so it was no surprise. The problem is that the figure is based on what I would describe as an obsession. There is a belief in the Conservative Party that it was robbed of the elections between 1997 and 2010, and that if only the electoral system had been different the Conservative Party would have won the election.
I have heard some noble Baronesses opposite even say that they were robbed of three constituencies through electoral fraud. The reality is this. At the last election, the electorate decided that it no longer wanted Labour to be in government. That is clear. However, it was not sure that the Conservative Party was ready to govern. That is why the Conservative Party did not get an overall majority.
That was from a publication by Andrew Tyrie MP in 2004, with a foreword by Damian Green MP, to which I think my noble friend Lord Soley has already referred. This has been going on for many years in the Conservative Party, but it is apocryphal. It is not true; it is a falsehood. Labour gets elected on fewer votes because in Labour constituencies, the voters are people who are less likely to vote because of their social and economic demographics. The reverse is true for the Conservative Party. It seems to have become a real obsession, and I believe that the Government now need to move past it.
When I was in the Labour Party during 18 years in opposition, I remember that I wanted to see my party put many Bills through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They were on matters such as introducing a minimum wage, education reform and reducing hospital waiting lists. My personal experience was that my mother had to wait 18 months in severe pain for a hip replacement operation. I wanted to see handguns removed because of the Dunblane massacre. It is telling that one of the first Bills that the Government wish to introduce would reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600.
Why the figure of 630? I believe that if we introduced 630 with an eligible electorate of 78,000, that would make for reasonably sized constituencies for Members to represent. I also believe that reducing the House by 20 seats would take away some of the worst excesses of large constituencies. Like all around the House, I want as far as possible to see constituencies of the same size, and this figure would allow for that. I say again that the average size of the constituencies of all three parties-Labour, Lib Dem and the Conservatives-does not differ by the quota set out in the Bill, but a figure of 630 will allow county boundaries and local government boundaries not to be crossed. That will make the exercise of the Boundary Commission much more efficient and much quicker. It will also allow a community of interest to prevail.
I would prefer that we concentrated on the number of voters in these constituencies. I think it is important that we represent the public from the grass roots up,
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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Although the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is no longer in his place, I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be aware that the answer to my question about when a Government last sought to control the absolute number of constituencies in the other place was 1832, which is a long time ago. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will accept that there could have been an element of gerrymandering then and now.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend has made a persuasive case that has drawn on her personal experience in a very effective way, but I am not, in fact, persuaded because I do not see what is the magic about the number 630 as against, say, 625 or 635. In my judgment, the exact number should be left to the work of the boundary commissioners, who should be given fairly strict criteria on which to work. That should be the way in which we reach a particular number.
Before going further along the approach that I would favour, I want to make one or two preliminary remarks. First, we are in some interesting and, indeed, unprecedented times. The political scientists among us-I think I saw the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, here, but he may not be in his seat-must be salivating at the way in which we are making precedents. The closure was moved and it may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and other noble Lords intend to move further closures. That is unprecedented, but it may well be that we are moving along the route of virtual guillotines, as they have in the other place. That would put a very different complexion on the spirit of debates in this House. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, will be rather like Max Boyce-whose name was mentioned by, I think, my noble friend Lord Kinnock-who used to go around great rugby games in Wales and say, "I was there". When he is lecturing to his students about this great new precedent, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, can say, "I was there". He has probably gone home by now, but at least he was there at the relevant time. When the closure was moved-which could, as I say, be analogous to a guillotine-and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, heard the Lord Speaker read out that that could happen only "in exceptional circumstances", I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland, where "words mean what I want them to mean". Clearly, in his vocabulary, "exceptional" is a very flexible word indeed. We are moving in this very interesting way.
Secondly, I just want to comment on the intervention made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Given that we had had a debate of about two hours and 45 minutes, it is normal and courteous at the end of such a lengthy debate for the speaker from the government Front Bench to give due weight to the contributions that have been made, but we had just a few minutes for
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Finally, I think that the reason that the magic figure of 600 has been raised is due to the inflexibility that has come about as a result of the coalition. A deal has been done in a smoke-filled room-although perhaps we no longer have smoke-filled rooms-and neither party to the coalition is prepared to move one iota away from that. Clearly, that inflexibility may change. Who knows what will happen to the Liberal Party over the next four or five years? Will there be a formal merger of the two parties? In the recent Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, there were hints that one party might make way for the other or at least tell its supporters to support, as best they can, the candidate who has the better chance. Indeed, we do not know in which party Mr Clegg will be by 2015. Things are moving along, anyway, and that may well be the reason for this inflexibility.
I personally am not convinced of the case for 630. I do not know what the right number is-I am prepared to leave that to the wisdom of the Boundary Commission-but I know that any number that is chosen will have party-political consequences. If there are party-political consequences to 600, there will also be party-political consequences to 630 and to 500. In deciding on the numbers, or indeed on the approach, a Government can move in one of two ways. They can make up their own mind and bring down some figure as if on a tablet of stone, like Moses from the mountain, and say, "That is the number that we insist upon". The problem with that is that the Government's decision will be tainted. If we accept-as I think everyone should-that any number will have party-political consequences, people will believe that the number that the Government have chosen is the number that the Government think is to their party advantage. However, being an innocent in politics, I am sure that the Government had before them a little notice saying, "The national interest", and that, in their judgment, the number 600 accords exactly with the national interest. However, the public and the chattering classes may be a little more sceptical than I am.
If one is serious about the numbers, surely one must adopt another device that, in so far as is practicable in the circumstances, enjoys the greatest amount of political support. Otherwise, what will happen is that, just as one Government can choose a number that-rightly or wrongly-the public believe is in the party interest of that Government, so another Government could come along and say, "We will alter the rules for our political advantage". Surely that is wrong. It is wrong that any number should be considered to be based on partisan grounds. The only way of ensuring that the figure is believed to be legitimate and of ensuring that it has staying power in the longer term is for the Government not to impose a number but to bring in some system whereby there is an independent assessment.
Therefore, however persuasive my noble friend has been-she made a very good and plausible case-I think that her magic figure of 630, although it would be more acceptable because it would provide greater flexibility and a greater opportunity for the boundary commissioners to take account of localism and time boundaries and all the other important matters, would still lead to inflexibility. My judgment is that the boundary commissioners, subject to strict rules, should be given as much flexibility as possible to take account of all relevant criteria.
Lord Winston: My noble friend Lord Anderson was so quick on his feet that I did not have a chance to ask my noble friend a point that is directly related and relevant to the amendment that she has moved. I should like to ask her now, if I may. Noble Lords opposite know that I never give long speeches and I always try to speak to the point of a debate when I join it. I should like my noble friend to clarify how she arrives at the figure of 630. I genuinely do not understand why it is not, for example, 625 or 635. It would be very helpful to have the mathematics behind what she is proposing. I do not have a view about how big the House of Commons should be. I am inclined to believe that the number probably should be reduced but I do not understand how she has arrived at the figure that she is proposing.
Baroness McDonagh: I thank my noble friend and I shall deal with all three interventions, as well as that of the noble Lord opposite. When my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea said that the number of constituencies has political consequences, the noble Lord shouted back, "Of course it does. We all know that". That is the first admission that we have had in this debate so far that there is a political reason for coming up with the figure of 600. I do not believe that that is a good reason to state what the number of seats in the other place should be.
Coming back to the three interventions, I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lady Farrington. I personally believe that it is wrong to set in law a cap for the number of seats in the other place. However, in answer to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea, because you cannot do everything that you need to do, sometimes you should do something to protect the interests of the public. I believe that setting the number of seats at 630 will allow that to happen and that we will not end up with a map of the UK on which the constituencies are marked out by straight lines.
I turn to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Winston. Under the current legislation, county boundaries are sacrosanct and constituencies are not allowed to cross them. Perhaps a small sample of us should go out and ask the public whether they believe that we should cross their county boundary. I do not know how many people here would like to come with me to Cornwall. I do not know it particularly well because it is not an area where we have had a lot of Labour constituencies. However, if we stopped people in the street and asked them whether they wanted their parliamentary constituencies to cross the county boundary to Devon, I think that we know what the answer would be.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I am awfully sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is not in the Chamber, because he could support me in the argument that it would be very dangerous to go to the dividing line between Lancashire and Yorkshire and start interfering with the boundary. As a former Lancashire county councillor like me, he is aware that there are parts of the dividing line between Lancashire and Yorkshire where people insist on having both the red and the white rose, because they still have not finished the War of the Roses.
Baroness McDonagh: I thank my noble friend for that intervention. I hope that noble Lords opposite will not see these points as being petty. These matters really mean something to people; people really know where they live. I have witnessed many noble Lords taking groups of people around the House. It does not take long-it is usually two minutes into the conversation-for them to tell the assembled group, whether it is an after-dinner group or a school party, about how they got their title. It is always the same conversation: "I said this to Garter; Garter said this to me". Great rigmarole is attached to the story, and that is because your Lordships believe in a community. In our hearts, we believe in a place that has a community of interest. It is what this democracy has always relied on.
My noble friend talked about Lancashire and Yorkshire. I do not know who would think of drawing a constituency that crossed that boundary-I would rather not have to explain it-but it will happen. We are talking about straight lines and not about communities of interest. If the Government wish to do that-
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: My noble friend is being overly generous to the Government. We are seeing the first part of PR put into the British consciousness. PR cannot work if it is linked to a community. You need to break that link of accountability between place and representative if you are going to have proportional representation; that is the very essence of the system. I believe-and I may be being paranoid-that that is the road down which the Government are taking the first step. I am not sure that every noble Lord understands that, but when one looks at the parts of the Bill together and the Government's determination not to split them, one sees that that is one of the purposes behind the Bill.
Baroness McDonagh: No, it is my point to answer, I believe. I shall be happy to give way to the noble Lord afterwards, if he will let me answer. I thank my noble friend Lady Armstrong for making that point, which she managed to put much more articulately than I could.
If the Government want to break with a community of interest, they should introduce a system like that which exists in Israel. It is a pure PR system, based on a list. I would have no problem with the Government putting that to the electorate. What I have a problem with is their coming in by the back door with a system of government on which nobody has been able to have a say and of which nobody has had any pre-legislative notice.
I turn finally to the question of how I came to the number 630. My starting point was not what would benefit the Labour Party but the assumption that county boundaries are sacrosanct. I used local government boundaries as building blocks, because most local government wards are communities. I also believe-I know that we will get into this later in the debate-that we will cause terrible harm if people have to seek different councillors and MPs within a small area such as a local government ward. By doing this, we will just turn people off our politics and our democratic system. I used those as building blocks. How then can you get constituencies that are roughly the same size? To do that you are forced up; you are forced to build up and you get to 630. It was not a top-down effort on my behalf. I did not approach the exercise in the same way.
Lord Glentoran: I thank the noble Baroness. I have two or three points to make. I did not talk to anybody to get my peerage-I happen to be a hereditary Peer. That is why I am here and why I have been here as long as I have. I am a Conservative through and through, although I of course support the coalition. I live in a country where we have single transferrable voting and a total nonsense at the moment of some form of Executive which seems unable to make decisions. I for one-I think there are many people in my party like me-am not looking to pave the way for a different form of voting, as the noble Baroness said.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I very much welcome the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. We have been looking forward to it for some hours since he trailed it a little earlier in the evening and it has been a sweet moment. It has also been a sweet moment listening to my noble friend Lady McDonagh as she moved her amendment. She spoke with a profound knowledge of elections and how they work, and, more importantly, of politics in this country much more broadly and of what makes people respond and behave as they do in politics. I have enormous respect for her judgment. I therefore have a natural disposition to be drawn to her proposal that the House of Commons instead of being reduced from 650 to 600 should be reduced only to 630. However, I have some difficulties with her amendment. One of the difficulties that I find in it I expressed in discussion of the amendments tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. I do not think that it is appropriate for the Government to determine the size of the House of Commons. My noble friend and I both agree that, for all sorts of reasons that we touched on in earlier parts of the debate, it should not be for politicians to fix the size of the elected House of Commons.
However, I do think the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady McDonagh is moving in the right direction. I shall probably be more inclined, when we come to them, to favour the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Snape and Lord Kennedy of Southwark. I am very much looking forward to those debates in due course. As I have already said to the House, I think there is a very strong case for a larger rather than a smaller House of Commons. I put some thoughts to the House earlier on why I think the pressures of business and demands on Members of Parliament within the House of Commons are very great and are difficult to be accommodated with the existing size of the House of 650. Equally, I think that when whichever body it is comes to consider the appropriate number of constituencies, it will also want to look very carefully at the volume of work that is expected of Members of Parliament in their constituencies-the expectations, indeed the requirements, of electors.
As a result of the defeat of the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Soley, we know that a generically independent commission will not determine this, but I live in hope that the solution put forward by my noble friend Lord Lipsey will in the end recommend itself to the House and that we can come back to that at Report. I mean his proposal that the Speaker's Conference should determine the matter. As the Speaker's Conference considers what the appropriate size of the House of Commons should be in future, I hope that it will take account of a number of factors that seem relevant. We all know that the age of deference is long gone, but the demands of constituents upon Members of Parliament will grow and grow-and will grow further should we see the introduction of a new constitutional arrangement proposed by the coalition, at the instance of the Liberal Democrats who have been keen, at least up until recently, to introduce a right of recall. I have been interested by the fact that, whereas all the rest of the agenda for constitutional reform, about which the Liberal Democrats have hitherto been so enthusiastic, has been pressed forward energetically and urgently, for some strange set of reasons we are not seeing them put the case with any comparable urgency for the introduction of a right of recall. I do not know whether my noble friends have any idea of why that might be, or whether it is anything that transpired in the politics of our country in recent weeks and months that could have caused them to have second thoughts and even, possibly, to lose their nerve over this.
Lord Kinnock: While the House reflects on the fascinating question that my noble friend raised about the evaporation of the passionate commitment to the right of recall, I take issue with him on his declaration that the age of deference has long past. I look across the House and see the age of dual but disproportionate deference actually in operation. I see the Liberal Democrats who fought the last election on a commitment to have 500 Members of Parliament in conditions of a single transferable vote, proportional representation, and devolution in England. I see a Conservative Party that fought the last election on an arbitrary and populist reduction of 10 per cent in the number of current Members of Parliament, taking us down to 585. It
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Lord Howarth of Newport: Indeed, as my noble friend suggests, they tug their forelocks quite obsessively. My noble friend makes the same very valid point as did my noble friend Lord Judd made so plangently in the previous debate. It is sad to see the Liberals defer to the Tories within this coalition in the way they do. None the less, the threat that the right of recall might have been be instituted has not entirely gone away because those cruel Tories might decide to bring it in, even if the Liberal Democrats have changed their mind about it for very understandable reasons. If there were to be a right of recall, that would enormously compound the uncertainty that already faces Members of Parliament in their own constituency, which would be yet further compounded by the increased uncertainty generated by the more frequent changes of boundary that the coalition proposes in this measure. Members of Parliament are naturally going to be watching their backs even more than has been the case in recent years. They will be worried that they might be recalled and worried in any case that their constituency will no longer exist, or will be so altered that they will have to spend a very great deal of time and energy salvaging their own political situation if they are to have a prospect of being returned again to the House of Commons. For those sorts of reasons, I fear that Members of Parliament in future are unlikely to give the same amount of attention and energy to their work in the House of Commons as they otherwise might have done. That seems to have a bearing on the question of how large the House ought to be.
We also know-the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester drew this consideration to the attention of the House some time earlier-that the new means of communication are placing enormous additional demands and pressures on Members of Parliament. I believe that a Member who was newly elected at the last general election testified to the Hansard Society in an inquiry that, as a Member of Parliament, she had received 20,000 e-mails between last May and September. We were talking earlier about the undesirability of importing the American practice of having automatic or electronic signatures-it is pretty well inevitable that you have electronic signatures if you are responding to e-mails-but that will not do. Constituents are not going to be satisfied if they have a sense that the Member of Parliament's staff are dealing with their representations and speaking on behalf of the Member of Parliament, to the extent that the Member is completely unaware of the representations and requests being put to the MP by his or her constituents.
That is an enormous and growing demand upon Members of Parliament in their constituencies, or at any rate in their offices within the Palace of Westminster or nearby, which again will distract them and draw them away from their duties in the Chamber and in the
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We can also expect, in the very fraught politics of the foreseeable period, that added demands will be made upon Members of Parliament in their constituencies. We are shortly to see expenditure cuts being brought in on an unprecedented scale in this country. Their consequences will be felt not just in the relatively near term but for years ahead, and in the period after any measures that are enacted in this legislation actually apply. In particular, what is to be done to social security provision in this country will produce enormous demands on Members of Parliament in their surgeries, as well as in other activities of their constituency life. Consider, for example, what will happen to housing benefit. People are going to be removed out of neighbourhoods by the force of the new, reduced housing benefit-certainly, out of affluent neighbourhoods. They are going to be bewildered, dismayed and desperate for help. They will turn to their local councillors, who will be powerless. They will turn to their Members of Parliament, naturally and properly, who will be very busy seeking to support them.
We are also about to see an assault on elective local government in this country. The so-called new localism is not a policy designed to rehabilitate and revive elective local government but one designed to marginalise and discredit it. Members of Parliament will have to work rather closely with their colleagues, who are elected members of local authorities within their constituencies, in order to sort out what the implications of that will be. Among those implications, for example, will be the drive in education policy towards the establishment of more free schools and academies. The creation of surplus places out of a budget for education which will be, if anything, contracting will lead to enormous stresses and some extremely vexed local proposals and decisions to be taken. Members of Parliament will also have to be deeply involved in those decisions.
We are to see major, gratuitous and unheralded reform of the National Health Service. Let us wait and see what the politics of that turns into once the British Medical Association gets to work, putting the frighteners on the constituents of Members of Parliament. There will be some very rough and unpleasant politics, and very real issues that Members of Parliament will be wrestling with in their constituencies as they seek to rescue or retrieve a worthwhile health service out of the upheaval that the Government have decided that it is appropriate to bring in.
There is going to be a new planning regime and, at the same time, there are going to be far fewer planning officers in local planning authorities. Planning issues are immensely contentious and sensitive within constituencies. While they are arguably not properly the responsibility of Members of Parliament as they are decisions that fall to be taken locally, all the same there are going to be questions that MPs will be invited to involve themselves with and any MP who cares about his constituency will certainly wish to be involved.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I am so sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, once again, but he is giving us a lecture about all the possibilities of the future and about all the things that MPs at the other end do. What I, and I am sure people on this side of the House, would like to hear from him is what the party opposite thinks and considers is a sensible number of MPs to be elected to the other House.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I cannot, of course, speak for the Front Bench of the Labour Party, but in my own view it should be not less than 650. I therefore disagree with the proposition from my noble friend Lady McDonagh, although she is shifting the debate in a direction I want to see it move in. I am making a case not only that she is proposing too few Members of Parliament-630-but that we ought to have an amendment down on the Order Paper, and probably will on Report, that will provide for an increase above 650. I do not want to detain the House unduly, but I think that some of these issues-
Lord Kinnock: Before my noble friend moves on to that point, in response to the interesting point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, which he answered with perfect rectitude and transparency, neither he, I, nor anyone in this House, or indeed in the other place, can anticipate what the finalised policy of the alternative Government-the Labour Party-will be on numbers in the House of Commons. However, does my noble friend not agree with me that it is a supreme irony that the only way for our parliamentary democracy to prove absolutely that the coalition Government are not engaging in gerrymandering is by seeking not to change the number after the next election, which will be won by the Labour Party, in order conclusively to demonstrate that while others may have sought to meet their political convenience by establishing a fixed number for election to the House of Commons, the Labour Party will not engage in the same nefarious practice?
Lord Howarth of Newport: I completely agree with my noble friend. I have said that I do not think it is appropriate for Governments or politicians to fix the size of the House of Commons. That should emerge from the deliberations of the Boundary Commissions, themselves informed by the criteria that a Speaker's Conference or some other independent body has formulated and proposed for discussion and debate in the country and upon which I hope we could reach consensus.
As I say, I am anxious to conclude my speech, but I just want to say something about immigration. I was mentioning that Mr Greg Hands, the Member of Parliament for Hammersmith and Fulham, stated in 2007 that he had between 700 and 800 unresolved immigration cases in his constituency case load. It is immense. We are now seeing a tighter cap on immigration brought in by the coalition Government, so that it can only be expected that this pot will boil even more
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Lord Anderson of Swansea:My noble friend has given some examples of the increased workload on Members of Parliament: for example, the fact that with increased boundary changes there will also be a degree of internecine strife between Members of Parliament who will fear that a neighbour, perhaps of the same party, will seek to oppose them in future boundary revisions. Is he also aware that it is increasingly difficult to find Members of Parliament to be members of Select Committees? We pride ourselves on our Select Committees, but even the Foreign Affairs Committee-which I had the honour to chair over two Parliaments and which was, along with the Treasury Committee, probably the most prestigious and sought-after committee-frequently did not have more than two-thirds of its members present. That problem is surely likely to increase.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea must not tempt me to repeat myself. We must not repeat ourselves in these debates because there are many substantive issues that we need to look at. However, I suggested in some observations in an earlier debate that there was a problem in finding all the people needed to be members of the important committees in another place.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I had the temerity to touch on that, too, but I did not have time-because I did not wish to detain the House-to talk about the importance of finding people to serve on the Council of Europe and the NATO General Assembly, and for all the other important responsibilities that Members of the House of Commons, between them, all carry.
My noble friend touched on the possibility of internecine strife developing between existing Members, who might find themselves in some contest for the nomination for a future constituency. I will give way in a second. I do not think that in the Labour Party people would be so uncomradely as to engage in that, but who can say what might happen among the Members of Parliament of the parties opposite?
Lord Winston: I do not want to delay the House very much, but my noble friend has talked about committees. Is it not also true-I do not think this has been raised before-that Members of Parliament often deal with a large number of very technical issues? For example, as a scientist presenting to them on embryology, it was extremely difficult to get proper comprehension of the science that we were discussing and the ethical issues that were involved. MPs were eager to learn about this but it took a lot of time.
One of the problems I found, both as a Member of this House and before I joined it, was that it was very difficult to find enough Members of Parliament to
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Lord Howarth of Newport: My noble friend makes an extremely important point. With the abolition of bodies such as the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which the Government seem to be contemplating, and a whole series of expert bodies that is adumbrated in the provisions of the Public Bodies Bill, we will face yet greater difficulty in ensuring that there is an informed body of knowledge among Members of Parliament to enable them to debate effectively these immensely important and sensitive issues. My noble friend Lord Winston has tempted me to explore that avenue but, in view of the time and the impatience of so many of my noble friends to make their own contributions to the debate, I ought to sit down.
Baroness Nye: I support my noble friend Lady McDonagh. I have worked with my noble friend over many years. On matters of organisation I always follow her lead because she has great expertise in this area. It has not always been the case on, perhaps, politics or personalities over that period, but this is not the place.
When I spoke at Second Reading, I started by saying that I thought there was a consensus among all the parties that we had a duty and responsibility to look at legislation to see whether it restores trust and confidence in our parliamentary democracy. I have listened to most of the debate in Committee and I am afraid that nothing I have heard has managed to change my mind. In the Second Reading debate I had the privilege of following the noble Lord, Lord Maples. Unfortunately, he is not present. I did not agree with him then and I do not agree with him now.
As has been said, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny or any kind of consultation on this constitutional reform. We heard this afternoon-it was actually yesterday afternoon-from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that the Government still strongly advocate pre-legislative scrutiny. If this Bill had had that scrutiny or consultation, more progress might have been made and we might not have found ourselves in such problematic areas.
I disagree with my noble friend Lord Kinnock-it does not happen very often and I apologise for it in advance-but I understand the position of the Liberal Democrats as before the election they wanted to introduce STV, and therefore saw no need for the other place to have any more than 500 elected representatives. They also wanted to have a thorough overhaul of the state and to introduce a form of federal government which would involve many decisions being devolved to the institutions. I will
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I take the point that my noble friend Lord Soley made that, whatever the figure is, if this Government set a figure it establishes a precedent for any future Government to set a different figure. Governments should stay out of deciding the number of seats. The amendments proposed by my noble friends for an independent body to look at this would have been a good way forward. Why am I therefore supporting my noble friend? One of the things that the Government could have done was to look at the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 and the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which both had targets of 613 seats. It was a target, not a specific number that we should have, but there was a feeling that we all agreed on 613. An independent boundary commission would then put that into place. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will say whether that figure was considered and whether the Government considered amending that legislation to make the 613 figure not a target but the limit.
I support my noble friend's amendment because I think that 630 is closer to that 613 figure and therefore would also get rid of some of the problems regarding Cornwall, Ynys Mon and certainly the Isle of Wight, as my noble friend has pointed out. Therefore, it is a way of addressing the issues. I take the point that both parties in the coalition have put forward a reduction in seats and therefore we must take that seriously. I would prefer not to go down this route but, if we are going down it, we need some leeway in what the figure is, and 630 to me would be the best way of achieving that. Therefore, I support my noble friend.
Before I came into this House, I had the great privilege of being a Member of the European Parliament. That gives me an insight into what it is like to represent a constituency because I represented not only one constituency-as most people here will have done or
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Perhaps I may remind noble Lords of those constituencies: Northampton North, Northampton South, Wellingborough, Kettering, Daventry, Corby and part of Leicestershire known as Blaby. I can assure noble Lords that, when I spoke in Northamptonshire, I always referred to my constituency as Northamptonshire and Blaby, but it will come as no surprise to anyone that, when I was speaking in Blaby, I called it Blaby and Northamptonshire. I learnt so much working with all those constituencies. Those were places that have developed over the years and over generations. They are not areas from which people move away, as people tend to stay in rural and middle-England areas such as Northamptonshire. Generation after generation can be traced back in those villages. I would urge enormous care to be taken on making too many radical changes in such constituencies.
Each of those constituencies had political divisions within them, but they also had things that united them. If there was ever a threat of a hospital closure, you can be assured that people would all be out on the streets together. In other ways, too, traditional industries were represented quite separately in those seven constituencies-one need only think of Northamptonshire's old boot and shoe industry. Within a decade, we lost 22,000 jobs. One of my roles in those constituencies was to try to get the European Parliament to provide further support, which we achieved very successfully.
Noble Lords will also remember that Corby was a steel town that had more than its share of misfortune. The whole of that industry was wiped out in the 1980s, but you will recall that the people who arrived in the 1930s to work in the steelworks came down from Ravenscraig in Scotland. I could take you tomorrow to primary schools in Corby where you would not believe that you were not still in Ravenscraig, because the accents are still so strong. The constituencies were unique and the boundaries really mattered.
Baroness Billingham: I most certainly am aware of that. On a Friday night, if you asked anyone in Corby, "What are you doing at the weekend?", they would say, "We are going home". I would say, "But you have lived here for the past 50 years". Coaches were lined up in the high street for the supporters-some to watch Celtic and some to watch Rangers. Traditions died hard in Corby.
What I am trying to say is that we should not upset the apple cart by making radical changes. The development
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Finally, let me say that I had a great opportunity in 2000 to look even more closely at the constituency, when I was asked to chair an urban regeneration company in Corby. For five years we rebuilt the town: we built a new city centre, new schools, new roads and 22,000 new homes. One would have thought that the surrounding constituencies would have been jealous, but not a bit of it. The villages worked together in the county council because people knew that the need in Corby was extremely great. They supported the planning applications and the funding, and the result is there for all to see.
We should look very carefully before we tear up historic and important places where people not only want to live and work but enjoy living and working, and where they want their children to live and work and to have some sense of history. We should be aware of what we have at our disposal and of the jewels that are already in our hands.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, for the way in which she moved her amendment, which I am strongly inclined to support. I come here-as I often do to debates in this Chamber-not having made up my mind in advance and wanting to listen to the debate. Further amendments have been tabled and I will listen intently to the expositions that will be made, but at the moment I am heartened.
It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is no longer in his place, because his intervention-like that of the noble Lord, Lord Winston-sought a response from the noble Baroness on how the figure of 630 was arrived at and what criteria were brought to bear. Having looked at the previous debates in which I did not intervene and having listened to the debate so far today, I think that for the first time we are starting to see some criteria laid down that could lead to a figure that rational people might see as appropriate.
So far, we have two parties that have come together on this issue in a coalition. They have both broken the promises that they made to their respective electorates about the number of MPs that they would put into place if they were elected. They then came up with a figure of 600. From listening to the Leader of the House, it seems that 600 was plucked from the air as a nice round figure. Now that at last the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, our expert on constitutional issues, is with us, I hope that we might be able to persuade him to give us the benefit of his experience and advice on what he would see as an appropriate set of criteria that should be brought to bear in an examination of the number of constituencies that we should have in the Commons. I am serious about this. We need a proper debate that is not based just on figures plucked out of the air because they are nice and round.
In conclusion, although I do not have any great expectation of getting a response on this, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who is smiling at me,
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Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, when I saw the amendment on the Marshalled List, I thought that we would have a very different debate from the one that has emerged. Until the speeches of my noble friends Lady Nye and Lord Brooke, I thought that we were not going to touch on what I understood was the essence of the amendment that my noble friend Lady McDonagh has moved.
I had assumed that the amendment represented not a real belief on the part of my noble friend that 630 should be the proper size of the House of Commons but what, in a traditional Committee stage of a Bill, we would regard as a probing amendment. The reality is that we have yet to have exposed to us any rationale for the size of the House of Commons that the Bill proposes. My noble friend Lord Brooke referred to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who talked about plucking a nice round number out of the air. I remember also the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, telling us with enormous earnestness-and, I assume, absolute honesty-that no political considerations were contained in the figure that emerged. So what were the reasons for choosing 600 as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585?
I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology about this. Noble Lords will be aware that 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squaredand 13; 630 is of course the product of four prime numbers: two, three squared, five and seven. I defy anyone to find a similar formulation or number that involves five prime numbers. Maybe my noble friend Lord Winston, or some such person could come up with something.
Lord Harris of Haringey: It is interesting that the noble Baroness suggests that. When I looked in more detail at the combinations of prime numbers, I was going to say that perhaps the figure of 600 was chosen because it was a round number and that it would be very different from choosing 666, which is the mark of the beast, which no doubt noble Lords opposite would not have wished to use.
However, 640 has the virtue of being the product of only two prime numbers: two to the power of seven and five, as I am sure the noble Lord is well aware. Actually, it is interesting that you could choose a number that is simply one prime number-I have not done the analysis of to which they will be-but there is a comparatively small number of options that we have considered that are the product of two prime numbers.
I do not believe that that was the motivating factor in the Government choosing that figure, but the people of this country have a right to know what were the determining factors for the choice. Essentially, we have two options. One is that it is a political fix, as a number of noble Lords have suggested, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has assured us that that is not the case. What is the answer? Has the number been entirely been plucked out of the air, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally perhaps suggested? If so, that is an extraordinary way of choosing the size of the elected House of Commons. It is bizarre. Are we being told that the only two possible reasons why 600 has emerged as the figure is either a crude political fix or a random number plucked out of the air?
I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would not be party to a crude political fix, nor do I believe that he would treat the country with such contempt as simply to allow a number to be plucked out of the air. There must be a rationale, so why is that not being shared with your Lordships in this House or with the country? What exactly are the arguments? In the absence of being given a convincing explanation that is not numerology or a number that seemed nice-a number that is less than 650 but a bit more than any number that we have previously mentioned in the run-up to the election, which may be the way that these things were done-I begin to believe that perhaps there was some political undercurrent in choosing the number 600.
I want to hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reaffirm that there have been no political calculations of that sort. I want him to say that none of the special advisers supporting Ministers involved in the decision have been exchanging e-mails on the subject of what will be the political consequence of choosing 600 as opposed to 585 or 650. Let the noble Lord make the assurance that there are no e-mails between special advisers, that there have been no conversations with Ministers and that work in the political parties has not been done-or, if it has been done, that it has not been shared with those who have been making the decisions.
It cuts no ice if we are being told that the number of 600 has been arrived at for no reason whatsoever. Frankly, we will believe that it was political chicanery. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will have to work very hard to convince us otherwise and that there are not smoking e-mails or smoking correspondence somewhere that demonstrate that that was the motivation driving the Government to the figure that has been chosen.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, I come to this debate remembering what my noble friend Lady McDonagh said at the beginning about the boundaries being redrawn here in a manner comparable with
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I remember that, not that many years ago, when the noble Lord, Lord Lang, was Secretary of State for Scotland, he had the very bright idea that he could change the political character of Scotland, particularly at local government level, by taking away an entire tier of local authorities-removing the regions. He was then going to re-establish the political map of Scotland by having a number of single-tier authorities. Much to everyone's surprise, he believed that in some instances, those single-tier authorities would be run by Conservative administrations. As it happened, the neighbouring authority to my constituency-in fact, part of my constituency was in it-was Stirling, which was to be the Tories' jewel in the crown. They did not win anything across Scotland.
The Scottish electorate turned on them with a ferocity that was even greater in 1997. They did that because they resented the cheap, quick fix of a bit of political gerrymandering. The irony was that not only were we, as a consequence of that victory, able to have the road to 1997 and a Labour Government, but it provided us with the elimination of one of the major obstacles to devolution: a two-tier system of local government in Scotland. There are innumerable examples of Governments-invariably Tory Governments-who have tried to be too clever by half when they have messed about with our constitutional and electoral arrangements.
Lord Snape: It is not just in Scotland, of course, where the Conservative Party has messed up local government. It did exactly the same thing in England under the Local Government Act 1972, which created metropolitan county councils that it thought it could win. The Act was created by the Heath Government in 1972 and abolished by the Thatcher Government a decade or so later because they could not win them. It was at enormous expense; yet here we are debating legislation that will supposedly save money by reducing the number of Members of Parliament. The whole thing reeks of hypocrisy.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My noble friend makes a very good point, but I will not go down that road. It is interesting that it is not only north of the River Tweed where there have been mistakes of this nature. It is endemic in the Conservative Party and, at the moment, in its running dogs, the junior members of the coalition. The point I want to make is that the boundaries in Scotland have been changed. The constituencies were changed as a consequence of devolution. We reduced the number of seats from 72 to 59. We did so because there was a precedent or a reason for it. As a consequence of the treaty of Union 1707, Scotland was to be overrepresented in the Westminster Parliament because Scotland gave up the three estates at that time.
As for some of the earlier discussions today about the reduction in the number of seats, such a reduction can have legitimacy if there is a reduction in the inequality of the legislatures. As a consequence of devolution, when Scotland began to get responsibility for a number of the powers that it had previously had in England, we in Scotland we could not disagree with a reduction in the number of seats.
My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke and I disagreed about what I thought was the consequence of that, which was to reduce the number of seats in the Scottish Parliament as a consequence of a reduction in the number of seats in the British Parliament represented from Scotland, but we do not need to go into those battles this evening. The point I want to make is that there were well laid out precedents for a reduction in the number of seats. They were on the basis of a broad constitutional settlement, which the Conservatives grudgingly accepted but now embrace because the proportional representation arrangements in the Scottish Parliament and in Scottish local government, which I deplore, to be perfectly frank, afford them a foothold in Scottish politics that they would otherwise not enjoy under any other system. However, that is not what they are offering here, although my noble friend Lady Armstrong suggested that this might be the precursor to some grander programme of electoral reform. Frankly, that is a bit premature at this stage.
It is clear that if we reduce the number of seats on the basis that we are talking about, the Labour Party might well lose 25 seats, the Liberals about seven and the Conservatives about 10 seats. I am not sure of the arithmetic, but it would be wrong to assume that it will necessarily be to the electoral advantage of the proposers of this scheme that there will be much advantage, because it is so blatantly unfair and unjust that the British public will probably turn on this wretched Government and its associates-running dogs if you want to call them that.
I happen to believe that in some respects the reduction in the number of seats will not present too many electoral problems for us, but it will leave a rotten taste in the mouth of the British electorate. Electors will see the manner in which this whole project is being pursued: the indecent haste, the lack of consultation and the inability of individual Members of Parliament and interested parties across the political spectrum to have a say in what is happening to areas in which they have worked for over the years. This is what sticks in the craw of so many people at this time.
We have an arbitrary figure that has been plucked out of the air but which seems to suit someone's convenience. Frankly, I think it will blow up in their faces and in the end will not be that significant. What is more important is the impact in the interim if this is carried. It will have an effect not only on the body politic in Britain but on the actual operation of politics in this country. People have said that a reduction in the number of seats and an increase in the number of electors will have an impact on the job and responsibilities of Members of Parliament.
We know that at the moment in the other place, every penny spent by a Member of Parliament is under the closest scrutiny, but if you increase the
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It has been made clear that if the economic difficulties that we are facing continue, the workload of Members of Parliament will rise. I represented a seat that for many years had in excess of 20 per cent long-term unemployment among the electors because of the decline in the textile industry, the closure of pits and the like. The point I want to make is that those people did not have just one problem; they had all the problems that poverty brings. It is assumed that somehow we can get out of this difficulty and that there are some bright and sunny uplands that the economy does not really worry about since there will only be 600 MPs and we are going to reduce public expenditure on political representation. That is nonsense. Frankly, I think that in playing with the political system, this Government are playing with fire.
I do not really worry about the impact of a reduction in the number of seats on the outcome of the next general election because I think that Labour will win it substantially. It will win it because of the daft notions of the people on the Benches opposite about matters such as this. What is equally worrying, however, is that as public representatives-we are appointed, not elected, but we are part of the system-we will see the political system in this country suffer as a consequence of the arbitrary and arrogant way in which this Government are approaching a fundamental proposition: the manner in which we are represented.
It is always difficult for Members of Parliament to adjust to and work out how to deal with particular areas when boundaries are changed. One reason why my title refers to Clackmannan is that for 26 years it was the one part of my constituency that I represented continuously over the period. Local government boundaries came and went, and constituency boundaries came and went, but I kept a hold on the county of Clackmannan. It is the smallest county in Scotland and the one that was never big enough to be represented on its own. It has a population of only about 55,000, with 36,000 to 38,000 electors, so it always has to be added to other bits, although the people of Clackmannan always say that other bits are added on to us.
It will be quite a traumatic experience for a number of people in the House of Commons, newly elected Members who have been nurturing the seat for the past four or five years, to be confronted at future general elections, earlier than they had anticipated, with selection conferences and the problems that they will cause within the party. There will have to be completely new strategies developed by these individual Members of Parliament-the people who, in most instances, are blameless of the excesses of their predecessors, but who, nevertheless are being treated
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The figure of 650 is one that we can live with at the moment. We can consult widely and effectively by means of a Speaker's Conference, or by means of other forms of consultation and we can change it if that is seen to be appropriate, but to pluck a figure out of the air and to drive it through in the arrogant manner that this Government are adopting is, frankly, totally unacceptable. They will face the same consequences that their predecessors faced when they tried to gerrymander and to fiddle with our electoral system and our constitution.
Lord Trimble: My Lords, I had thought of intervening during the speech of the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, but it occurred to me that the comments I was going to make would not be appropriate to address to him, as they relate to earlier speeches. I want to share with noble Lords the fact that a few moments ago I received a text message from my younger son, who is a university student. He told me that he is watching this on BBC Parliament and his comment is that Labour are consistently waffling.
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive that I was unable to speak on Second Reading on the Bill and that this is the first time that I have intervened in Committee. It is not intended to be in any way discourteous to the House. I shall try to avoid waffling and I shall try to be brief.
Surely, what all sides of the House want to achieve is a figure which will enable the House of Commons to carry out its work most effectively and at reasonable cost. What we have in the Bill-and I say it to my noble friends who have put down amendments with specific figures-is horse-trading, and that is no way to change the constitution of our country. The thought that it is only Members of this House or another place who should be making that decision, without assistance or consultation from outside, seems to me to be insulting to the electorate. It is the electorate who must decide what they want their Members of Parliament to do and how many of them are needed to do it. The failure to consult independently on the Bill in any proper or meaningful way seems to me to greatly diminish what the Government intend to do with the Bill as at present.
What cannot be decided, surely, is how many Members of Parliament are required until we are clear what we want our Members of Parliament to do. That is what my noble friend Lord Winston said earlier in relation to the medical profession and I think that we sometimes lose sight of it in politics.
We have heard conflicting evidence in the course of what I have found a fascinating evening. On the one hand there have been noble Lords like the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, who have said that there is no difficulty in representing a constituency of 96,000, I think he said, and the noble Lord, Lord Maples, who said that he could not understand what either the Scottish or the Welsh MPs were doing with their time because they had so little to do. On the other hand, I have listened to others-on this side, mainly-who have spoken of huge workloads, caused sometimes by complex legislation such as on immigration.
I have never had the good fortune to be in the other place-not for the want of trying a couple of times-but I have had second-hand an opportunity, over a considerable time, to see the way in which the job of an MP has changed and is continuing to change. That is why I feel that to set in stone a particular figure for the numbers is wholly wrong.
I was born in 1945, which, coincidentally, was the year that my father was elected as a Labour MP to another place. At that time there were 640 Members of Parliament and, I think, an electorate of some 33.5 million. That electorate has shot up many times since then, whereas the number of MPs has not. My father, as I understand it from those who knew him, was regarded as an excellent constituency MP.
Baroness Mallalieu: I am grateful to that person who knew him. In those days, a Member of Parliament was not required or indeed expected to be totally full-time. He was expected to have another job, and the hours of the House were designed with that in mind-indeed, frankly, people were paid with that in mind-and the burden on those people was very much less. My father was a good constituency MP because he went once a month to his seat in Huddersfield, which was his home town but where he did not live; he had surgeries there, and he reported back on what had happened in Westminster, where he considered his main job was. He dealt with constituency problems but he did them one afternoon a week, when his secretary, Mrs Whibley-how could I forget her name?-used to come to the house and sit down and deal with the whole of his parliamentary correspondence when he dictated the replies to her. As I understand it, when I was asked as a child, "What does your father do for a living?", my answer was, "He cuts the grass and sometimes he writes articles". I saw an awful lot of him because Members of Parliament were not required to be in the House at that time until later in the day, and my father followed his profession as a journalist.
What I have seen of my friends who are in another place, though, is that it is a wholly different world now. Some have spoken of the difficulties of Members of Parliament attending committees. When I first came to this place-which, I am reminded by my noble friend Lord Desai, who came at the same time, was nearly 20 years ago-I was mildly irritated, to say the least, by the fact that whenever one went to a meeting, particular all-party groups and so on, Members would
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To put it frankly, although I have heard from others in the House today that they have no problem in dealing with huge constituencies, the Members of Parliament who I know best seem the whole time to be pushed to achieve what is required of them. I do not know whether reducing the number would make that harder. I do not have the ability to make that decision; all I can do is listen to the conflicting accounts from both sides. It seems that there may be considerable constituency variations, some where it is possible for a Member of Parliament to deal with a much larger number of electors, and others where the workload is almost unbearable, even given the considerable support that MPs now have. If it is intended in this part of the Bill to reduce the costs of the electoral system for the general public, I just wonder whether the general public really appreciate that if the burden is great, they will not receive the service that they currently have unless there is also an increase in expenditure on staff.
I am coming to the end of what I want to say. Ultimately, whether the figure is arrived at by horse trading, as I suspect, or whether it is plucked from the air, that is wholly wrong, but even more wrong is setting the number in stone, as the Bill does. We need flexibility. We need independent people, such as boundary commissioners, looking at the whole process and deciding what is right and, above all, we need the public to be involved in the debate.
For the life of me, I cannot understand the Government's attitude in refusing to split the Bill. It seems to me that, if they were to do so, it would be perfectly possible in a relatively short time for us to have the debate and for the public also to have their say on what they want of their MPs and whether they want to see a reduction in the size of the Commons and, if so, to ensure that they understand the consequences. It may be that they will do that, and it may be that, having heard those arguments based on the evidence that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, called for-we have not seen any of it tonight-I will come to the same view. However, I cannot accept that the Government are seeking to make a major constitutional change without any proper consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny and without giving us any explanation of how they have determined that this vital change should be made.
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: My Lords, we have heard a number of powerful speeches tonight, not least from the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. My noble friend Lady McDonagh has posed a real challenge for me. She is an old friend whom I greatly respect, but I am having great difficulty in accepting her amendment. As the debate has gone on, it has become clearer to me that there is no way that we should engage in this process that the Government have begun of dreaming up a number and then trying to put a case to justify it. It is not the job of parliamentarians or politicians of any ilk to get involved in the setting of boundaries.
I share the views of my noble friend Lord O'Neill. I think that this legislation will come back and haunt the coalition. One of the most powerful things that you learn as a Member of Parliament is the respect that people have for their individual Member of Parliament and the deep opposition that they have to any attempt to undermine the relationship between that Member of Parliament and their constituency.
I was amused when my noble friend Lady Billingham talked about Corby. I represented one of the steel towns in central Lanarkshire that provided a high proportion of the people who went to Corby. On a Friday night in my surgeries, I would have people coming off the bus from Corby to ask me to intercede with the council because they were coming up to retirement age and wanted to come back home. I did not particularly enjoy handling those cases, but I found that when I went to Australia as British high commissioner I had people coming down from Newcastle in New South Wales to make the same point. They had come from Corby and wanted to get back to the United Kingdom now that their working life was over, so I have a great deal of respect for what happens in Corby. The point that that makes is the strong pull that people's origins exert on them and the sense of community that they feel. That point has been made on a number of occasions tonight.
I strongly agree with what my noble friend Lady McDonagh said about the equalisation of constituencies. When the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, was talking about the size of his constituency, I was forced to recall that, on a Thursday night, I would fly home from here, often with the Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, the late Ray Michie. We would usually get the last plane, which got in at about 10.30 at night. I would be in my bed before she would have her car defrosted, after which she would have a couple of hours' drive to get to her home in Oban. Her constituency of Argyll and Bute was so huge that she could visit bits of it only once a year.
How can you pluck a number out of the air, regardless of how sophisticated the mathematics? I will have to show my husband Hansard tomorrow to prove that at 2 o'clock in the morning I was listening to a debate about prime numbers, because he will not believe me-he will be sending for the men in white coats to cart me away. How can you randomly choose a figure and try to make that fit the nature of the work in a constituency? An inner-city constituency is very different from a constituency such as that of the late Ray Michie. In that constituency, she had a substantial number of electors for whom English was not their first language; a number of elderly people would have no English. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, was the first Member of this House to take the oath in Gaelic. The scale and the nature of the involvement that she was required to have were very different from the scale and the nature of the involvement that I had to have. I used to think that I was hard done by when I had to travel for an hour across my constituency, but the scale of what she had to deal with was much greater.
We will be talking about Argyll and Bute later, because some sweetheart deals have been done about some constituencies in this legislation, not least in relation to Orkney and Shetland. I can see why a sweetheart deal has been done there and it is not to do with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. There is an argument for special treatment for a constituency that is composed of a number of islands and is surrounded by water. There is a similar case for the Western Isles, but why not for constituencies such as Argyll and Bute or the Isle of Wight? Why is there this aberration of putting Cornwall and Devon together?
That is one reason why my noble friend has put me in an awkward position. I believe that these issues have to be taken into account, but we are the wrong people to do it. I listened with great interest to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Soley and Lord Morgan, on the previous amendment. They made powerful arguments. The view is inescapable that politicians should not be involved in setting parliamentary boundaries. Somebody said earlier that we are not Zimbabwe; we are not a country that mangles its constitution to fit political need. However, to go down the route of this legislation would put us into that camp.
I am undecided whether, if my noble friend presses her amendment to a vote, I can support her, although I think that she has made a powerful point. In normal circumstances, her amendment would be regarded as a probing amendment, but we have seen by the action of Members on the government Benches that the normal conventions of this House are now suspended. That means that it is difficult to go down the route of moving a probing amendment to get a detailed response. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, love him though I do, has never yet given us a straight answer on the criteria for the establishment of these constituencies other than plucking a number out of the air. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me if I feel that I cannot support her in the Lobbies tonight, but I think that she has done a very useful job in exposing this issue, as the noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Kennedy, are doing by also choosing numbers out of thin air, although
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Lord Kinnock: Before my noble friend sits down, I ask her to reflect on the fact that, during this debate, I have had an illuminating thought that has instructed me on why the Government have adopted the figure of 600. I hope that, in his response to the debate, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, may be able to say yea or nay to this rationale. It appears to me that the charm, strength and, indeed, magic of the figure 600 is that it is not 585, which was the figure chosen by the Conservative Party to include in its manifesto at the last election. However, in the context of coalition, it would have been unacceptable to the other part of the coalition to adopt in legislation that manifesto proposal. Clearly, there was no possibility of the Conservative Party accepting the bundle of changes that were offered in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto undertakings of 500 plus PR plus devolution in England, as well as many other things.
We have consequently arrived at a figure of 600, which is a kind of orphan. It had no parentage in anyone's manifesto and is entirely the illegitimate offspring of a shotgun wedding. For the sake of the House and the constitution and security of this country, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to demonstrate, if I am wrong, why I am wrong, or accept my reasoning. It will be the first time that we have had a rational explanation of the 600 figure.
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: I may be a new Member of this House, but I know that you do not get sequential interventions without a response. I am grateful to my noble friend for raising those powerful and valid points. I have long wondered why, if one party wanted 500 and the other wanted 585, we did not have 542 and half. So this is a random figure that has been plucked out of thin air. It ill behoves the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to keep avoiding the issue of why it is 600. Or is it exactly as the Leader of the House said, a nice, round number? If he thinks we believe that, he must think that we are demented.
Lord Liddle: My Lords, I support the amendment. I strongly believe that we need a larger House of Commons than 600. I recognise that, in advocating a House of Commons larger than 600, one exposes oneself to the criticism that one is not in favour of cutting the cost of politics. If that was the reason that the Government made this proposal, it is a poor one. We are trying to cut the cost of politics at the expense of better representation of remote and isolated communities and respect for the historic traditions which have always been taken into account by the Boundary Commission in setting boundaries hitherto.
I illustrate that point with reference to my home county of Cumberland, now Cumbria, in which I was born in 1947. Cumbria is an interesting case. On two
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I will expand on this point. I recognise, of course, that simply increasing the size of the House of Commons is itself insufficient to deal with this problem, but it is necessary. We must also secure amendments on the Boundary Commission's degree of discretion in fixing constituency sizes and the criteria it should take into account.
The situation in Cumbria illustrates this point. It is no good the noble Lord, Lord McNally, sneering at this point, because it is the heart of the argument about representation. It is very important that the Government explain why they feel that they can sweep aside how the Boundary Commission has operated over decades, and why they can say that they have the wisdom to substitute some arbitrary system in place of the Boundary Commission that has worked with a great degree of consensus over time.
Cumberland used to have five Members of Parliament: the ancient borough of Carlisle, the industrial constituencies of Whitehaven and Workington on the west coast, and the agricultural and rural constituencies of Penrith and north Cumberland. The number of agricultural and rural constituencies was reduced to one in 1950 when the present constituency of Penrith and The Border was created which went on to be represented in a distinguished way by the late Viscount Whitelaw.
In 1973, there was a similar, top-down reorganisation of things. Top-down reorganisations are never a good idea, as I am glad to see the Leader of the Labour Party, Mr Ed Miliband, now recognises. The local government reorganisation led to the creation of the county of Cumbria, merging Cumberland and Westmoreland with the Furness and Lonsdale parts of Lancashire. In the 1983 boundary review, Penrith and The Border, which had been geographically entirely within the county of Cumberland, was extended to include north Westmoreland. The constituency of Westmoreland was extended to take in parts of what had been Lancashire.
That set the present pattern whereby Cumbria has six MPs. It is arguable that that represents distinct communities. There is Carlisle, Workington and Whitehaven on the west coat, the constituency of Westmoreland based on Kendal, Barrow and the Furness area in the south of the county and a big rural constituency of Penrith and The Border, based on the market towns of Appleby, Brampton, Penrith and Wigton, now represented by the able and interesting Rory Stewart.
When the Boundary Commission looked at the numbers last time, as was the case the previous time the quota only gave Cumbria an entitlement to fewer than 5.5 Members of Parliament; I think the figure was 5.48. Despite being entitled to only 5.48 Members
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The constituency of Penrith and The Border, instead of being one of the most rural and agricultural seats in England, would become a strange mish-mash of an old industrial area, probably Maryport, with some of the other market towns.
I am not raising this point because I care about the political future of Rory Stewart. Actually, I do care, because he is an interesting guy. But there is the wider point that this reorganisation, which would be made inevitable by the rigidity of government by numbers that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wants to impose on us, would completely ignore natural communities and be a great mistake.
I do not understand why the Liberal Democrats have gone along with this; or I do, because it is part of a deal on AV. What I find most extraordinary is that the Conservative Party should think that it supports this kind of arrangement. The Conservative Party is completely careless with local traditions on this issue. The Conservative Party claims to speak for the big society, and is completely careless with the notion of natural communities. The Prime Minister talks about how we are all in this together but is completely careless in trying to create consensus on a local basis about what is a decent basis of representation.
The Government should think again. These are serious issues, not just party political trivialities. The Government have as yet given us no credible explanation of why they think it necessary to make these changes.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the Committee owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lady McDonagh for moving the amendment, to which she spoke so well, as have others. Her analysis of the role of constituencies and how important they are was worth listening to, and I hope it was taken on board on the government Benches, as it clearly was on our own. It was a genuine attempt to help the Government get this vexed issue right.
Before I come to the Front Benches' response, I accept that my noble friend's amendment is partly a probing amendment but also means what it says. It was great to hear from other noble Lords on this issue. How proud the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, must be of his son who is here watching these proceedings, but not half as proud as his son will be of him, not just for being here but, more seriously, for the important role he has played over the past years in making sure that Northern Ireland is a proper and sane country. We share that view.
I do not think she is in her place, but my noble friend Lady Billingham talked about her seven constituencies when she was an MEP. I mention her particularly because I was the chair of the Euro-constituency for that entire time, and what a magnificent MEP she was. I was a bit disappointed when my noble friend Lord Kinnock talked about the explanation of the 600 seats, because I had been totally convinced just half an hour before by my noble friend Lord Harris's explanation. I do not know which to choose now. There must be an explanation, I am sure. I hope that we will hear about it from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, but I will not hold my breath.
We on this side say "Hear, hear!" to that, and I know that many on the other side really believe it to be true. Constituencies are much more than just a line on a map. The great danger of the approach that gives an exact number of constituencies that there must be is that the constituencies are in danger of becoming lines on maps.
All the amendments in this group and those that follow are clearly better than what the Bill offers in terms of quality of representation, disruption to constituencies and all the other arguments. However, they all fall into the trap that an exact number of seats proposed by the Government and passed by Parliament is a grievous fault. We heard at the start of the debate from my noble friend Lady Farrington that the last time that there was an exact number of seats decreed by Parliament was 1832. That may be some explanation of why the Deputy Prime Minister claims that these reforms are the greatest democratic reform since 1832; I cannot think of another explanation.
We and the Government have been forgetting that Boundary Commissions and Parliaments in the past have been very careful in the language that they have used in setting out the existing rules, as my noble friend Lady Nye mentioned. If the Committee will forgive me, I will remind it of the existing 1986 rules passed by a Conservative Government:
That is not quite as clear, but the rest of it is beautifully and deliberately phrased so as not to set an absolutely exact number. There is great strength in a system that says that Parliament sets out a rough guide of how many Members of Parliament there should be, but the independent Boundary Commission has the job of actually deciding how many seats there are. It is a strong argument and it diminishes the danger the Government find themselves in of setting an exact number and then being accused of trying to fix the system. I hope that is not what the Government intend to do. There is a danger that that is what they will be perceived as doing if they do not move off this idea of a fixed number.
Lord Rennard: The noble Lord suggests that it would be "a grievous fault" for Parliament to fix a precise number of Members of Parliament. Would he not accept that in many countries, probably most democracies, there is a written constitution with a fixed number of MPs that is invariably approved by Parliament? These other countries do not consider it to be a grievous fault at all for Parliament to set a precise number of MPs.
Lord Bach: Well, other countries, as the noble Lord knows, work under a written constitution, and to change the written constitution requires in each country certain statutory measures, majorities et cetera. That cannot be compared exactly with the United Kingdom. We are extremely proud of our unwritten constitution. Well, some of us are; and in particular about this aspect of it, where we are very careful that Governments through Parliament do not take upon themselves something so that they can be accused of fixing the system.
It is a really British way of doing it. I accept that that is what the noble Lord is saying, but it is the way that it has worked over many years, where the Boundary Commission has the final say as to the number, based on the rules that it has to work under-
Lord Kinnock: Could he also add that the British system, as it has existed since 1949 in the establishment of the modern Boundary Commission, is the product of the experience of the long number of years between pre-democratic Britain and fully enfranchised Britain, in what can be recognised to be a modern democracy? There was a conscious decision in the late 1940s by the very large majority Labour Government to introduce the Boundary Commission to provide a safety measure against the possibility of the restoration of arbitrary decisions by Government majorities of a fixed number of seats which suited the purposes of those in power.
Lord Bach: That analysis also must be correct. It is not something that any Government, of whatever political complexion, should muck around with easily. Sometimes during these debates, it has not been clear that the Government have really understood why it is that we are arguing from this side that this is a precious system and one that should be kept unless there are
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The quotation I read from the existing rules, which suggested 613 seats for Great Britain, plus the 17-odd seats for Northern Ireland, comes to the 630 seats for the United Kingdom, which is what my noble friend Lady McDonagh is proposing in her amendment. Our view is-and we argued this in our amendment earlier today-that it is best not to set a complete amount. If it is wrong for the Government to set a fixed amount, it is also wrong for amendments to do so. But, as a probing amendment, it asks what the Government intend to do; we asked at Second Reading, and will continue to ask, why 600? This debate is one that gives the opportunity for the Minister to tell us, finally, why it is that 600 was reached and why they will not be more flexible in their attitude to this issue.
Lord McNally: My Lords, hearing that the son of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is watching, I am reminded that the great and late Les Dawson used to occasionally during his performances turn and say, "And first a word to our viewer". The word to our viewer, just so that he should fully understand it, is that the official Opposition is fighting line by line two interconnected reforms. These have been resisted by a party which, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said earlier today, less than a year ago introduced a constitutional reform Bill with 13 unrelated constitutional reforms. So let us have fewer crocodile tears.
We have heard a lot of assurances about the good intentions of the Opposition. The noble Baroness said in introducing that she was insisting on decoupling, but anybody looking at this list of amendments knows that that kind of decoupling works against any rational examination at Committee stage of a Bill like this, or indeed any other Bill. I merely put that on the record. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, suggested, the constitutional historians and experts will be looking at this matter. I ask them to look at the Hansard record of how the Bill has been dealt with and to draw their own conclusions.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: Would the noble Lord not agree that we should place on record what happened to our legislation 12 months ago? At that time the Labour Government had a majority in the Commons. When this House dealt with these constitutional issues, on the occasions when the Lib Dems and the Conservatives chose to come together, they had a majority and defeated us frequently.
Lord McNally: On those constitutional reforms, we very rarely went with the Conservatives. On the CRAG Bill, as those on the Front Bench know, we were willing to give them full support. They should not come to me with arguments about the previous Government's position on constitutional reform.
It is repeatedly said that Labour seats and Conservative seats are different, and that that causes a distortion of the vote. To a certain extent, the noble Baroness might be right about that. There have been times in our past when the party that got the popular vote did not form
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There will be changes over the next 20 years, but I do not think it is very sensible to try to future-proof legislation. My experience is that we should not put trust in psephologists with regard to the impact of changes. I think that psephologists are like economists; they are trained to predict the past. My feeling is that very few of us would put money on a view of what the impact of the reforms will be at the next election. The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, may well be right that the view of the electorate will sweep aside any advantage that the changes have, if indeed changes occur.
I was slightly surprised that Lord Bach quoted what Lord Callaghan said in 1969. As the House will be aware, I see it as part of my role to defend the memory of Lord Callaghan, who was a very distinguished man. In 1969, however, he delayed the Boundary Commission report of that year until after the 1970 election, in what many thought was a crude political manoeuvre-and much good it did us, because we lost the 1970 election.
Lord McNally: It may well have been, but the fact is that Lord Callaghan acted as he did at the time, probably-I am not quite sure-with the full approval of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. The point that I am making is that a remark made by Lord Callaghan in the House at that time, when he was trying to intervene in respect of a boundary review, is not the most apt to pluck out now.
Lord Bach: Does the noble Lord agree that what Lord Callaghan said was true, and that constituencies are not merely areas bounded by a line on a map but are living communities with a unity, history and personality of their own? It does not really matter when he said it; is it true? Does the noble Lord agree with it?
Lord McNally: To a certain extent, but even the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, having made the same sort of point, then explained that Clackmannan was the only part of his constituency that survived integral during a whole parliamentary career. The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, saw boundary changes. My God, there are enough of them in the building. Everybody has seen boundary changes.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: The changes in the boundaries in my constituency, as in others, were always subject to a clear set of guidelines. The Boundary Commission often followed them. Quite often, however, as a result of public hearings, the changes that were made resulted in something which was broadly accepted by my electors and by other people in the surrounding constituencies. None of those points is likely to be made given the character of the legislation we are considering.
We heard an extraordinary speech by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in which he quoted half a dozen numbers and, Perry Mason-like, tried to finger me to come up with an explanation. This is part of the circular nature of this debate. It seems years ago-it might have been only a few weeks ago-when I suggested that, in terms of the size of the electorate, setting an average constituency size of 76,000 produces a figure not unadjacent to 600.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I am quite happy to recast my argument not in terms of prime numbers and numbers of seats, but to come back to the question of why that number of electors should be chosen. What is the rationale? Why that figure, as opposed to 75,000, 72,000, 80,000, 85,000 or 90,000? That leads to a subject which I am sure we will come on to: the degree of tolerance around that figure.
Lord McNally: We may well come on to it, but 76,000 and 600 are sensible numbers which achieve the objective of this Bill: of fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies. I forgot who it was who was suggesting the usual thing, because we have had this debate so many times over the last few weeks. There is no smoking gun. I have said before: I defy the psephologists to actually prove it. For somebody with the experience of elections that she has, she knows how positively daft it is to suggest that 600 is part of some figure that has come out of number-crunching by those in Central Office. Even now, with all the resources, why don't they crunch their own numbers and try and prove that 600 seats on an average of 76,000 is going to bring this massive advantage to the Conservative party or anybody else? We really do not know. It is simply a way of setting this central objective of fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies and that is what niggles the Oppostion.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The Minister is answering a question which his noble friend the Leader of the House was unable to answer, by talking about the numbers. I am now puzzled. His right honourable friend Mr Clegg talked about going towards the future with the greatest reform Act since 1832. We now appear, given his reply tonight, to be going back to 1832, with Parliament and the Government setting the figure. Surely this cannot be what the Liberals mean by localism. This is centralism by the standards of anybody.
Lord McNally: I hope people will read these interventions and make their own assessment of them. I do not read into this as the noble Baroness is doing. There is a modest saving of public expenditure as noble Baroness, Lady Nye acknowledged. However it is not the driving force of the Bill.
Lord Harris of Haringey: I apologise to the noble Lord and to the House if I seem to be labouring this point, but I do not understand what the magic significance is. Is he now telling us that the driver which produces 600 constituencies is not the magic figure 600, but it is 76,000? If it is 76,000, why 76,000? Why not 75,000, which has a certain magic, or 80,000? What is the most important factor? Is it the number of constituencies or the number of electors, and why were those numbers chosen?
Lord McNally: They were chosen because they are sensible for achieving the objectives of the Bill. There is such a thing in theology as invincible ignorance. I think the real objection of the Opposition is that those two numbers will achieve what we want, which is fairer votes in fairer drawn constituencies. That is the heart of the matter. That is what they do not like, and every time I tell them, they get madder and madder, but we are going to do it.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We now have a new explanation that has not been before the House so far. Like me, the noble Lord knows Lancashire well. Can he tell me how 76,000 benefits the sense of community in Lancashire? This 76,000 has suddenly appeared. What exactly does it do to Blackpool, Burnley and all the other areas that he and I know well? What does it do in south Wales? What does it do in the north-east? Is it based on the average size of a community or the average size of the greed of the coalition?
Lord McNally: Wow, what a finish! It gives equal value to each vote-an objective that I would have thought the Opposition would be in favour of. We can carry on all night on this, or all morning, but-
Baroness Nye: The Minister was answering a point that I made in my speech. I should like him to help me a little more. What I said was that once the Liberal Democrats' figure was not there, you had the figure of 585, which the Conservative Party had gone to the election with. They must have done a calculation
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Lord McNally: I do not know. I really do not know. You could then ask why we did not choose 584. We have put a number in the Bill to fulfil the objectives of the Bill. What we have coming next, which I think is an abuse of the procedures of the House, is an amendment going on about a figure of 640, and then there is another one on 650. Then you want to be treated seriously in terms of not abusing the processes of this House.
It is great to see the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in good form, it really is. It takes me back to our student debating days. Really, I can only go so far. I have explained and explained, and not for the first time at this Dispatch Box. Out of deference, I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Kinnock: We used to be against deference as well, didn't we? On a very serious point, does the Minister recall that the original rationale for the figure of 585 was offered by the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, in the middle of the expenses scandal when, in order to demonstrate how radically different a Conservative Government would be, he said that there was a commitment to reduce the numbers in the House of Commons by 10 per cent, taking it down to 585, in order to save public money? That was the original rationale. So why now, at this point in the debate on changing the numbers in the House of Commons, are we not still presented with that figure, which at least had the legitimacy of being in one party's manifesto? And why, if it is not 585, is it 600? May I underline, by repetition, the question that he has yet to answer? Why 600? If his calculation is based on rough equal numbers per constituency, why again has that number been chosen? There is no substantive rationale behind it.
Lord McNally: I will try again. The two numbers are sensible numbers to achieve the objectives of the Bill. I was not going to delay the House. We have estimated that reducing the size of the other place will save £12.2 million annually, made up of reduced salary costs of £4.1 million and £8.1 million in reduced expenditure on MPs' expenses. At a time when the whole public sector is being asked to do more with less, this is a relatively modest saving, but one worth making.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: The value of the saving that the noble Lord is talking about is roughly equivalent to the bonus of one or two members of Goldman Sachs, or perhaps roughly equivalent to the value of a property in certain parts of Kensington. Basically, my point is that having heard the noble Lord's explanation in respect of 600 or why one should have various figures, we remain somewhat confused, but at a higher level of confusion.
The noble Lord deserves the congratulations of the House, because he has tried to answer the various points that have been made in the debate. He has gone through them one after another. The way he has treated the House is in marked contrast to the way in which the Leader of the House has treated us. After the previous, rather long, debate, he tried to speak for two or three minutes. That was arrogant and is in marked contrast to what the noble Lord has done in this debate.
Lord McNally: I have to confess that I go off at 3 o'clock. The reason I was talking is that I had not noticed that my noble friend from the morning shift had come on, otherwise I might have wrapped up long ago.
I have tried and I can only go back to respond to the noble Lords, Lord Kinnock and Lord Liddle. The Government's rationale for this is fairer votes in more fairly drawn constituencies-nothing more, nothing less. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill, at the appropriate time we will take our conduct and our approach to this matter to the country and we will let them make a judgment.
Baroness McDonagh: I thank the Minister for responding to the points raised in the debate and I thank everyone for their contribution. I intend to be very brief. I believe that the purpose of an amendment at this stage of the process is to probe the thinking of the Government and to raise points that the Government will consider before coming back on Third Reading. I always live in hope and I hope that they will do that.
I want to explain the points that I raised about a rising 70 million electorate over the next 20 years and the potential for the voting age to fall to 16. They do not happen when you get to the end of 20 years. The problem with the electorate is that it rises every year towards every general election. We will not get to 70 million; it will happen at each and every election. It therefore makes much more sense to have a constituency based on numbers of voters as opposed to an overall cap, when you know that that is going to happen. It seems to me more sensible to have a 72,000-rising constituency based on the May 2010 figures or 78,000 on the basis of all eligible voters.
The point I was making about psephologists is not whether I believe they are right in saying that the figure of 600 gives the Conservatives the most constituencies; the point is that that is what the Conservative Party believes. That is how we have ended up with this figure. I am really saddened at this point that the Government cannot explain why the figure of 600 is still in the Bill. That is why these probing amendments have been tabled, so that we can understand.
As I said at the very beginning, I hope that, over time, the Government will consider the points that I raised in moving this amendment and that we will see movement at Third Reading. Therefore, I will not be pressing this amendment to a vote.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I beg to move that the House do now resume. It was three hours and fifty minutes ago that I made the last application for the House to resume. Taking the starting point as the application to move into Committee, the House has now been talking about this Bill for twelve hours, less an hour, for the UQ. The House is now, according to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, sitting in shifts. I understand that he is going off at three. There will be substantial proportions of the House that will not hear half of these amendments.
We are debating these amendments in respect of a part of the Bill where there is no stated urgency to any part. We are doing it at the dead of night. It is sixteen minutes past three. I do not believe that this is an appropriate way for us to conduct business. This is another opportunity for those on the other Benches to consider whether or not this is the right way to seek proper scrutiny of the Bill. I said on the last occasion that I moved that the House resume that our unique feature-the thing that makes us a successful House-is that we scrutinise Bills well. It is inappropriate and wrong for us to be doing a really important constitutional Bill that has no degree of urgency-because there is no external urgency like there was in relation to, for example, the national security or Northern Rock legislation-in the middle of the night.
Lord Grocott: Would my noble and learned friend comment again briefly? There was an accusation in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about whether or not the procedures of the House were being obeyed in respect of a decoupling of amendments. It is worth reminding the House-not that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, should need reminding because his party quite frequently decoupled groups of amendments in the many years that he was in Opposition-that that followed a clear breach of the conventions of the House in calling for a closure on the previous group of amendments. In fact our Standing Orders make clear that that was a most exceptional set of circumstances. It would not have been so bad if the proposal had come from the Opposition Back Benches-which it did-and the Front Bench had chosen not to follow it but, quite deliberately, the Front Bench encouraged the Motion and went through the Lobbies in order to ensure that it was carried.
I will list the breaches to the conventions of this House in some detail. For now I will be brief. The clearest possible breach of the conventions of this House is, as my noble and learned friend has said, when there is absolutely no time imperative whatsoever for this and for the Government to have determined that we should be sitting at this time and, even more significantly, that we should be considering the Bill tomorrow and on Thursday. I have not kept count of the breaches in convention.
Lord McNally: This House has made these decisions. It is not the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who decides what has been breached or not. This House came to a proper democratic decision. I know that they do not like that. I suggest that he puts forward his Motion and we will try again.
Lord Grocott: When I was Chief Whip, there was never an occasion when there was no time imperative when we tried to drive legislation through. When I was Government Whip, there was never a single occasion when debate on a group of amendments was blocked by means of-
Lord McNally: Everyone sitting there knows that every Government has negotiations between the usual channels. I know how much co-operation we have had. You would not have got a single Bill through under your stewardship if this behaviour had been normal, and that is the threat to this House. That is the threat to the credibility of this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, would not have got any business through either without-
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I was a government Whip during the whole of the Labour Government, and on every single occasion, we were advised that we had to consult the Opposition about days when they were available to deal with legislation. This was the case during the times of the noble Lords, Lord Carter, Lord Grocott and Lord Bassam. That is my first point. My second point is that the degrouping of amendments that occurred during the Countryside and Rights of Way Act-the noble Lord, Lord Greaves will bear me out on this-dealt with the issues one by one. The one thing that strikes me tonight is that in all my time as a government Whip when we were in government, I never heard a Minister on our Front Bench dealing with a constitutional Bill of this magnitude referring to "shift work".
Lord McNally: You never heard a government Minister from your side when you were trying to get through 13 different constitutional changes in one Bill coming up with some of the arguments we have heard over the last couple of days.
Lord Glentoran: I very well remember the access to the countryside Bill, because I was sitting where the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is now, doing the Front Bench job for the Opposition. I did not know enough
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Lord Greaves: I am not quite sure why the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, calls me in evidence. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which was over ten years ago, was the last time before tonight that the House of Lords sat overnight on ordinary legislation. We have had overnight events on ping pong-the overnight sittings on the Terrorism Bill, or whatever it was, was on ping pong-but the last time there was an ordinary overnight sitting, if there is such a thing, was on the CROW Bill. That was the first legislation that I had really been involved in; I was very new here. I do not recognise the exact description given about it either by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, or by my noble friend.
However, what was absolutely clear during the passage of that Bill was that there was a significant group of Members of this House who were intent on filibustering. In my belief, they were Conservative Back Benchers-the Front Bench was not involved at all-connected with landowning interests. They were assisted by certain Cross-Bench Members with similar interests, which are legitimate interests, but they were determined to try to delay the Bill as much as possible, because they were against it. As I have said to some of my colleagues, the last time I experienced animosity of the sort there is in the House about the Bill which we are discussing was on that previous Bill, but it was coming from a different part of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, may not agree, but that is my recollection of the history.
It is time that everyone in the House calmed down a bit. In particular, I inform noble Lords who think it reasonable to spend 12 hours today-or yesterday, or whichever day we happen to be in-on three amendments that I believe that that is an abuse of the procedures of this House. I believe passionately that the most important role of this House is to scrutinise legislation properly and thoroughly. If that takes time, it takes time. People ask me about the actions of my colleagues and me during consideration of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. Indeed, we had 17 sessions considering that Bill, but it was very important and complicated, and we did it properly. At no stage, however, except perhaps when the very first group of amendments was considered on the first day, did we ever spend more than an hour on a group. That was one of the targets that we set ourselves. We decided that we would limit ourselves to an hour's debate as far as possible, as an absolute maximum on a single group of amendments. On many we spent far less time. I believe that taking four hours over one group of amendments, and then the same time over another group where all the same arguments are regurgitated, is an abuse of the House. Those noble Lords who are involved should not be surprised when
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I do not think that mutual recrimination is getting the Committee very far. The noble and learned Lord has proposed his Motion and I would like him to confirm that he would like the House to consider it.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that masterful intervention. Things got rather muddled because the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, intervened on me, then the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, intervened on the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. The previous time when the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I had a discussion about this Bill, which was about three and a half hours ago, I said that we did not think in the same way, and I apologised at the time. Now I am not so sure. In certain things-not everything-we have a similar outlook. With the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the thing on which I think we most agree is the importance of this House retaining its function as a scrutinising House. With respect and affection to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, it is for the House an ugly picture of the noble Lord wagging his finger at us and saying that we must do what he says. It is the same noble Lord, Lord McNally, who said of the conduct of the Labour Front-Bench spokesman in the other place that they were simply time-wasting in the guillotine debates there. That worried me, because it tended to indicate a contemptuous view of scrutiny of this Bill.
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