Rajinder Paul Loomba Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron Loomba, of Moor Park in the County of Hertfordshire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord McNally and Lord Dholakia, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Tariq Mahmood Ahmad Esquire, having been created Baron Ahmad of Wimbledon, of Wimbledon in the London Borough of Merton, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Warsi and Lord Howard of Lympne, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Howard Emerson Flight Esquire, having been created Baron Flight, of Worcester in the County of Worcestershire, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness O'Cathain and Lord Lamont of Lerwick, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I informed the House on 8 November of Michael Pownall's intention to retire from the Office of Clerk of the Parliaments with effect from Friday 15 April. A trawl for Michael Pownall's successor has now been held. There were four applicants, all of whom were interviewed by a board consisting of myself, the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers and the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, who is a former Civil Service Commissioner and Commissioner for Public Appointments. The unanimous recommendation of the board is that David Beamish should succeed Michael Pownall. I am sure your Lordships would wish to join me in congratulating David on his appointment. We will have an early opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Pownall's career in the House nearer to the date of his retirement.
The board also considered applications for the post of Clerk Assistant, which will fall vacant on David Beamish's appointment as Clerk of the Parliaments. The board unanimously recommended that Edward Ollard should succeed David Beamish as Clerk Assistant. The Lord Speaker will move a Motion to appoint him to the post at the appropriate time.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government are committed to simplifying and improving the quality of legislation. We will improve quality by publishing in draft for
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Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware that we legislate at between 200 and 400 per cent the rate of any comparable country in Europe? Is he aware that the cumulative effect of making legislation at the rate of between 11,000 and 13,000 pages a year over the past 15 years has been a state of indigestion in this country that some might call citizen constipation, which has parlous consequences? If I cannot ask him for a moratorium for a year on all legislation to allow us to catch up and see to implementation, will he at least consider introducing a provision, as in the Charities Act 2006, requiring a report to Parliament within four to five years of enactment of legislation in order that Parliament can consider its effectiveness and take necessary measures?
Lord McNally: My Lords, I think there is general agreement around the House about the necessity to legislate less, but the problem is-and I have heard this throughout my time around Whitehall and Westminster-that although Oppositions have the absolute determination to legislate less, when they get into government they find that every department has at least two or three, or perhaps even more, good ideas they want to legislate on. Indeed, every Secretary of State who followed my noble friend's advice would start reading in the gossip columns that he was for the chop, because he was a do-nothing Secretary of State. It is a dilemma, but my noble friend is pointing us in the right direction.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Did I overhear the noble Lord correctly, when he said that the Government were committed to improving the quality of legislation by pre-legislative scrutiny? Tired people make tired laws. How does he reconcile that with what the Government are doing today?
Lord McNally: Because sometimes, my Lords, the procedures of the House do not allow for non-tired Lords, but I cannot believe that a piece of legislation the total number of hours for which it has been scrutinised by this House will, at some time tonight, exceed the total time for which it was scrutinised in the other place has been subject to any abuse whatever on this side of the Chamber.
Lord McNally: I cannot give an instant response but, as so often with the noble and learned Lord's interventions, it is a good suggestion, not least because I understand that some of the pieces of terrorism legislation passed over the past decade were never actually put into practice.
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Would the Minister consider recommending to his colleagues that departments of government receive a budget for drafting future legislation at a stage before it is known whether it will form part of the Queen's Speech, so that the good ideas may be more adequately translated into prose?
Lord McNally: Again, I will take that sound suggestion back. From my limited experience, if I had my time over again, I would become a parliamentary draftsman, because it seems to be a well protected trade.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, when it comes to constitutional legislation, what lessons does my noble friend take from the fact that only 27 amendments to the United States constitution have been made in the past 200-plus years, two of those being prohibition and a reversal of prohibition? Will he take into account such lessons when bringing forward any legislation on House of Lords reform?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there are two parts to my question. First, the noble Lord talks passionately about the need for pre-legislative scrutiny, so why was the Bill before us today not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? The Minister also talks about the need for less complex Bills to come before us and for pre-legislative scrutiny, yet we are told that this week a Bill with 400 clauses will come before the House of Commons. It is a Bill on the National Health Service that was not proposed in the manifesto of either party; and it was specifically stated in the coalition agreement that there would be no major Bill to reorganise the NHS. What is the rationale for that Bill?
Lord McNally: I thought that the Prime Minister explained that excellently on the "Today" programme this morning. It was a most impressive performance. One of the problems about the commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny is what happens in the first year of a radical and reforming Government. That is one of the things that we run against. A Government who are determined to hit the ground running, with radical reforms, are bound to run into some problems on this. I have explained where we are going on legislation, and we will make efforts to make sure that both Houses are fully involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny and-the point made by my noble friend-that there is the opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to take a second look, in the form of post-legislative scrutiny, to see whether we have got certain legislation right.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, we have made it clear that we are committed to the long-term future of the Post Office. We will provide £1.34 billion of funding for the Post Office over the next four years. This will enable the modernisation of the nationwide network of around 11,500 branches and the development of new revenue streams, longer opening hours and reduced queues. We are clear that there will be no programme of post office closures under this Government.
Lord Naseby: I thank my noble friend for that extremely encouraging Answer. However, is she aware that in 2010 nearly 1,000 sub-post offices were up for sale because they are unviable, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses use these local post offices every day? In particular, 300,000 pensioners use the green giro. Can she make sure that this problem is addressed urgently and that within, I hope, the current Session, we will see some positive action in this area?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I am glad you have given me an opportunity to address the point about the closure of post offices. Most, as you know, are privately owned businesses and it is inevitable and normal that there will be some changes in ownership. It is a condition of the £1.34 billion we have provided that the Post Office will continue to provide a network of at least 11,500 branches.
The noble Lord's second question was about collecting pensions from post offices. This will continue. People will be able to use the Post Office card account to withdraw money from a basic or current account free of charge and, for a small proportion of them, by cheque.
The noble Lord's third point was about small businesses using post offices. It is clear that we should keep post offices alive and well close to the people who need to use them, particularly people such as me who live in rural areas and villages, and small businesses. They provide an enormously good service and we are very happy to support them.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, does the Minister agree that "viable" can be interpreted as a public service that is available to members of the public who use it? Is she aware of the great difficulty that many people in rural areas have experienced because of the closure of local post offices, particularly young mothers with children who have to be pushed in a pram, and pensioners? Will she concentrate on the difficulties that these areas are experiencing?
Baroness Wilcox: That is always a worry and a difficulty, particularly, as my noble friend has pointed out, for young families. The Post Office Ltd network
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The Countess of Mar: Does the noble Baroness appreciate that some sub-post offices in rural areas also act as sorting offices? Last Christmas, I had reason to complain about the activities of a postman. I found it impossible to do so. I phoned a national number and was referred to the internet. On the internet they have someone called, I think, Sarah who will answer your questions, but she did not respond to mine. How can one speak to a person in a post office to file a complaint?
Lord Myners: Will the Minister endorse the view that the Post Office should be able to obtain a banking licence in its own name, thereby allowing people to bank with an organisation that is universal in its coverage, that, unlike banks, is not closing branches, and, importantly, that is trusted?
Baroness Wilcox: The noble Lord knows this subject very well. I have a long note here on how complicated, expensive and difficult it is to set up one of these licences. We have looked at the idea of a state-backed post bank, but it would be simply unaffordable in the current financial climate.
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: Will Her Majesty's Government give assurances that where a post office is threatened with closure, perhaps because it is part of a small shop, pressure will be put on Post Office Ltd to make sure that it works with community groups to find an alternative location, as is suggested by the notion of the big society?
Baroness Wilcox: As the right reverend Prelate will know, a Bill on the privatisation of the Royal Mail will come to the House on 25 January. Postal services will be discussed then, and it would be a good time to bring up the question again.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: Is the noble Baroness content that many post offices are now applying for licences to sell alcohol and displaying it on a wide scale immediately alongside the areas in which giro payments are made? Are the Government prepared to do something about it?
Baroness Wilcox: That is a very interesting question. I have not come across it before and will look into it. I can see where the noble Lord is coming from. Youngsters come in to buy sweeties et cetera and see alcohol very close to them. As with the big society, we will look to see what is going on.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to support tourism throughout the regions of the United Kingdom, particularly in the run-up to the Olympics and other international sporting events.
Baroness Garden of Frognal: The Government are creating a new overseas marketing fund and a new tourism strategy in order to create a sustainable legacy for tourism from the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and from other major events such as Her Majesty's diamond jubilee. The overseas campaign aims to deliver 1 million additional overseas visitors in each of the next four years and £2 billion in extra visitor spend.
Lord Addington: I thank my noble friend for that response. What structure is in place to encourage people who are attending events that may last several weeks to travel, for example, outwith and between matches in the international rugby union world cup, and to see other cultural events and sites around the country during that experience?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: My noble friend raises a very important issue to do with tourism. Major events give communities the opportunity to promote their regions on the world stage. VisitEngland is working with the regions to highlight our heritage and culture, as well as the wonders of the towns and countryside, and it is hoped that the major sporting events will give a boost to particular areas. People will have every encouragement and publicity to venture further afield.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree-I think that she does, because I have asked her before-that the arts and cultural sectors of the UK are an extremely important draw for tourists? Is she aware that Arts Council England is engaged, as a result of cuts to its funding, in a major review of its entire portfolio, and has made it fairly clear that at least some organisations that provide important artistic events across the country will cease to be funded in the next two to three years? What impact will that have on tourism?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: The noble Baroness is quite right; I agree with her once again that culture and the arts are vital. She will also remember that when the coalition Government came into office, they did not inherit the most favourable economic situation,
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Lord Higgins: Does my noble friend agree that it is also very important to encourage tourism and sporting events after the Olympics? In that context, will she give an assurance that the Government will do all they can to ensure that an athletics track remains a permanent feature of the Olympic stadium, regardless of to whom it is sold?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: My noble friend will be aware that there are extensive plans to ensure that the legacy from the Olympics continues well into the future, and the facilities that have been set up specifically for the Olympics will be of great benefit as the years go by. The track will obviously be an important part of that.
Baroness Grey-Thompson: What consideration has the noble Baroness given to using the Games to ensure that disabled tourists have equal access to shops, attractions and hotel rooms, bearing in mind that disabled people have money to spend and that businesses not far away from here are blatantly ignoring current disability access legislation?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: I am concerned to hear the noble Baroness's last point. That is something that we would wish to investigate in great detail because, as she rightly says, all those attending the Olympic and Paralympic Games, particularly those who are disabled, will need additional resources and specific information about where appropriate accommodation is and what the events and venues are. Over the years, we have taken strides to ensure that our venues are fully accessible to those who suffer from a whole range of disabilities.
Baroness Billingham: The Question links sport with tourism. Does the Minister agree that both those activities would benefit enormously by having more light at the end of the day rather than at the beginning of the day? We return to that issue time and time again. She might also be well aware, because we have debated it here, that 82,000 new jobs would be provided in the tourism industry if that were enacted at a time when jobs are being lost from every sector of our country. How on earth can her Government refuse to consider this seriously at long last to enable those jobs to be provided-jobs that more than likely would go to young people and women, the very people who are more likely to lose their jobs in a recession?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: The noble Baroness will be aware that a Private Member's Bill on daylight saving is currently going through the other House. This issue comes up regularly and there seems to be growing enthusiasm for it. It is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and ultimately a matter that all parts of the United Kingdom need to subscribe to before we can change the system.
Lord Lee of Trafford: My Lords, the five destination management organisations in the north-west are at present significantly funded by the regional RDA. With the RDA being phased out and the development of the LEPs being patchy and embryonic, will my noble friend tell us what transitional plans the Government have to provide support for the DMOs during this period?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: I pay tribute to my noble friend's expertise in tourism and, indeed, to his commitment to the north-west. This region has a great many natural attractions. With a proactive strategy to encourage tourism, he will be aware that the DMOs are taking on tourism activities, and VisitEngland is actively helping to ensure continuity. The north-west might also consider applying to the regional growth fund, which is a fund of £1.4 billion and which will be open for tourism-related funding applications.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the Commonwealth Games are coming to Glasgow in 2014. Can she give an assurance on behalf of the Government that this forward-looking tourism strategy will take into account the importance of that event not just for Glasgow and Scotland but for the whole of the United Kingdom, and that the Government will work with the Scottish Government to ensure that it is a success for the economy as well as for sport?
Baroness Garden of Frognal: I would sincerely hope so. The tourism strategy is currently at a far stage of development. It has not yet been announced but will be shortly, and I am quite sure that the Commonwealth Games will feature very strongly.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, there are no plans for any British embassies to close as a result of the deployment of the European External Action Service. The European External Action Service is about supplementing and complementing, not replacing, national diplomatic services.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, accepting that part of our foreign policy is now governed by the Lisbon treaty, does my noble friend, with all his experience, really think that it is necessary and appropriate to have an EU diplomatic service with a budget starting at £400 million a year, rising to €3 billion a year, with 6,000 staff-114 of them are paid more than the Foreign Secretary-in 137 countries, including 49 in Burkina Faso, 46 in Barbados, 32 in the Dominican Republic and six in Vanuatu, which has a population
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Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is correct on that last point, but the global figure for personnel that I have is not 6,000 but 1,625, which is rather different from what he says. On the general question of the usefulness and worthwhile need for a combined diplomatic service, we take the view that this can help and, indeed, even save money in certain areas where combined efforts to deal with great international strategic issues are valuable. That is not every area. In some areas we want our own bilateral developments, but in some it is clearly more economic and effective to act together. We believe that this service will help, provided that it is carefully controlled, particularly on the cost side.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Will the Minister tell us what proportion of the figures rattled off by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, include Commission officials already in those posts who are busy trying to disburse the development programmes of the European Union? The noble Lord included some small developing countries, where I suspect that that is the case. Can the Minister give a little more specificity to his excellent point on the EAS being able to do certain things more effectively and economically than 27 member states each doing their own thing?
Lord Howell of Guildford: On the question of the global totals, it is a fact that a great deal of the personnel and cost diversion comes from existing activities being amalgamated under the new system. Of the 1,625 personnel whom I mentioned, 1,114 are existing personnel acting on external matters and will be brought together into one grouping, which we hope may save money. That is a sensible move, provided that costs are most carefully controlled. Will the noble Lord repeat his second question, as I have forgotten it?
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: I asked whether the Minister could follow up his excellent first answer, when he said that the EAS ought to be able to conduct certain forms of diplomatic activity collectively for the 27 member states more efficiently than the member states can do severally themselves and whether he had any suggestions. I suggested in a debate three months ago that things such as the analysis of the economy of the country where the post is could well be conducted in that way.
Lord Howell of Guildford: With respect to the noble Lord, the governing word is "ought". This is a new institution and it has to prove its worth. It will no doubt be subject to some elements of conducibility like any other new organisation. It will have to establish its worthwhileness. There are areas where, by combining with our neighbours and other European member states, we can do much more, but we have to move carefully. We cannot assume that it will be a positive in every area. In some areas we can clearly do things much better by ourselves.
Lord Hunt of Chesterton: My Lords, do the Government agree that the European external service may well provide a great opportunity for UK science and industry to have projects, many of the most advanced of which are done across the EU? We really need an EU presence and promotion of these projects, which I believe should be an important part of the external service.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I very much hope so, but of course that applies to other nations and other areas of the world as well. We want close scientific links with our American friends and with the rising powers of Asia, as well as with our European Union neighbours. Certainly, this may help as far as our immediate neighbourhood is concerned.
Lord Tugendhat: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Dar es Salaam, from which I have just returned, there is a Europe house, which contains the British high commission, the German embassy, the Dutch embassy, the European Commission office and the DfID office? Does he agree that that is an admirable example of effective co-operation and cost saving? Will he undertake to ensure that similar establishments are put into other similar capitals?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I hear what my noble friend says and hope that that will save money. As to the administration of diplomatic posts around the world and the role of the EAS posts, we must leave that to the Commission, but always within the strict framework that the budget is tight-in my view, it should be tighter still. If this is a worthwhile return and helps our national aims and diplomatic services, it is worth while pursuing.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, does the Minister welcome the fact, as I do, that, under the EAS, development policies become a shared competence between the European Commission and the member states of the European Union? Furthermore, does he agree that, under the Lisbon treaty, EU policies such as development should complement and reinforce one another?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The Lisbon treaty is a fact and these are the aims under it. However, I emphasise, and I know that the noble Baroness with her experience will agree, that these are early days. It is an advance into a new area, where we are trying both to save money and to combine our efforts with our European member state neighbours in certain areas, but not all. We welcome this as far as it goes. Clearly, we need to see how this develops from here.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally I beg to move that the House do again resolve itself into Committee on the Bill. In moving this Motion, it may be helpful to set out the Government's intention in relation to progress on the Bill; there has been a little recent comment in the press.
The Government announced as long ago as July last year that there would be a referendum on 5 May to decide the system to elect Members of the House of Commons at the next general election. The Government also made clear our desire to reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons at the same election. The Bill subsequently passed all its stages on the Floor of the House
In this House, we are now on day nine of Committee on the Bill. Although it is right that this House undertakes proper and detailed scrutiny of the Bill, it is also right that the House deals with legislation in reasonable time. The Bill was introduced to your Lordships' House on 3 November, and began Committee on 30 November. The Opposition's approach has been consistently and deliberately slow. This time last week, the House debated the Bill for six hours, dealing with just two amendments. That is not good scrutiny; there is no precedent for moving so slowly. I have had many representations from noble Lords on all sides of the House in recent weeks who are concerned about the slow progress on the Bill. The Opposition have dragged their heels; they have had their fun; it is now time for this House to behave responsibly.
For this House to stand in the way of a referendum on 5 May would be extremely serious. The Electoral Commission is clear that in order for the necessary provisions to be made to hold a referendum on 5 May, Royal Assent for this Bill should be granted by 16 February. In order to give proper time for Report and Third Reading, I believe that the House now expects us to make substantial progress towards completing Committee today. I beg to move.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to what the noble Lord the Leader of the House said. The Bill has two parts: Part 1 provides for the introduction of an alternative system for electing the House of Commons, subject to a yes vote in a national referendum; Part 2 provides for the reduction in the number of House of Commons constituencies from 650 to 600 and the adoption of new rules for determining constituency boundaries that are designed to introduce equality in the number of electors in each constituency.
As Members will know, the Bill has been described by Mr Nicholas Clegg as the most important constitutional reform since the Great Reform Act 1832. There is no dispute that the Bill is of far-reaching constitutional significance. The Bill passed through all its stages in the Commons, where it was the subject of a guillotine Motion, between September and 1 November 2010. As the noble Lord the Leader said, in your Lordships' House the Bill had a Second Reading over two days at the beginning of November and has so far spent eight days in
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The Electoral Commission announced that the Bill has to have Royal Assent by 16 February 2011 to allow the referendum to take place on 5 May 2011. Last Thursday, without consultation, the Government fixed a third day on Tuesday this week for consideration of the Bill in Committee, making three consecutive days for its consideration this week. They have also made arrangements with the House authorities consistent with there being an all-night sitting tonight. I read in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday that the Cholmondeley Room and the Attlee Room are being prepared to be dormitories for male and female Peers. Your Lordships will be concerned to know that the Sunday Telegraphdid not indicate which was for male and which was for female Peers.
Members of the Government have criticised the Opposition freely to the press for, they say, taking too long over Committee debates in this House. They have told the press that there has been time wasting and repetition. I believe that I have been present more than any other Member of this House in the debates, with the possible honourable exception of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. I do not accept the allegation that has been made. I note that in relation to the most relied-on example-indeed, the example relied on by the noble Lord the Leader today-the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, in the longest debate in this Chamber expressly disavowed with great grace any material allegation of filibuster.
The Government have refused to make the usual sorts of concession during Committee. Of 60 groups of amendments so far, they have given ground on only two. It is apparent to anyone who has been in the House during these debates that this Bill is attended by party politics, but this Bill contains major reform of our arrangements for determining the size of the House of Commons, the method by which constituency boundaries are fixed and the method of voting for MPs. It has been introduced without public consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny-matters of criticism unanimously across all parties in the constitutional Select Committees of both Houses-and it contains vast detail to give effect to its proposals. The Bill runs to more than 300 pages. It has been amended once in this House, and there have been a number of government amendments. It is unlikely in the extreme that, uniquely among Bills, it cannot be improved further by your Lordships' House.
Your Lordships' House has well-tested arrangements for ensuring that Bills get proper scrutiny, which include time during each stage and between stages. These arrangements will be departed from in times of economic emergency, where court orders expire and where the nation faces the threat of terrorism or war. I have never known your Lordships' House to resort to measures such as these when there is no external pressure.
The Bill cannot, consistent with proper scrutiny, complete its still substantial stages in this House, with both parts retained, in time to get Royal Assent on 16 February. The Government's unprecedented timetable,
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The Opposition have made it clear privately and publicly to the Government that we will co-operate in splitting the two parts of the Bill, thereby both allowing the referendum to be held on 5 May 2011, if the Government wish, and ensuring that the Bill-in particular, the crucial Part 2-is properly scrutinised by this House. We repeat that offer here and now, and we are happy at any time to discuss the substance of the Bill, so it is not right to say that the referendum depends on this House.
We on the opposition side have thought very carefully what to do. First, we urge the Government to think again about splitting the Bill. In any event, they should consult throughout your Lordships' House on process and on substance. My experience is that widespread consultation will produce a solution. We remain willing at any time to discuss and to co-operate to achieve that. If the Government insist on their timetabling arrangements, we have no option but to do all in our power to ensure that the Bill gets proper scrutiny, and therefore that it will not receive Royal Assent by 16 February if it still contains Part 1 and Part 2.
The BBC interviewed me on Friday. Before the interview, the reporter told me that he had been told by a Minister in the Lords-not, I hasten to add, the noble Lord the Leader, who has assured me that it was not him-that the Government's aim was to keep this going until we dropped. I am sure that your Lordships will agree that with a Bill that fundamentally changes our country's constitution, this is no way to proceed.
Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps I may say one or two words on this issue. However one looks at the position, the fact is that the Government have got into a terrible mess on this Bill. Given the history of the legislation, which my noble and learned friend has just given, it is hardly surprising. The Government should now perhaps heed the great advice of Denis Healey, which he gave to people in similar holes.
It is important that we understand what happened and perhaps analyse the reasons for it. The Government cannot expect to legislate at one and the same time on two entirely separate major constitutional issues without their being subject to detailed examination and scrutiny. Nor can they legitimately complain if that scrutiny is extensive and, indeed, extended, particularly given the size of the coalition votes in this House-a majority that seems to increase daily.
The fact is that they have chosen for their own purposes to join two Bills into one. They must have the first part, which deals with the referendum, in place by mid-February if they are to keep to their chosen date,
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Where it has gone wrong for the Government is in their assumption that they could tack major changes in parliamentary constituencies on to the referendum issue. They must have known that this part of the Bill would be of intense interest and that the political parties would be heavily involved. If they did not realise that, they should have consulted the large number of ex-Cabinet Ministers sitting on their side of the House. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, certainly would have realised this from previous experience.
So why did they do it? It seems to me that there is a fairly simple answer to a simple question. It was obviously a complete misreading of the situation, a political error, with which they now have to live. The remedy is quite simple, as suggested by my noble and learned friend-the Bill should be split.
Lord Richard: My Lords, if a Motion is put down on the Order Paper, it is debated and divided on in the usual way. That is not what I am talking about. I am talking to the Motion that the House should resolve itself into Committee. If the Bill were to be split, the Government would get their referendum and on the date on which they want it. Parliament could go on to consider in detail the proposals on the size of the House of Commons, the number of constituencies and the way in which they are constructed. We might even have pre-legislative scrutiny on that, which we should have had anyway and which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is so much in favour of, as he has told us this afternoon.
The Government thought that they could get away with it and it now becomes clearer that they cannot. They have not attempted to produce any evidence of a link between Part 1 and Part 2 that would necessitate their being considered together. So we have the present absurdities in the way in which this House is now being asked to consider these two issues. First, there will be three days this week in Committee, which is an unprecedented move as far as I can remember. Secondly, there could be an all-night sitting tonight, with perhaps more to come. My experience of all-night sittings is that most of the time they are self defeating. They do exactly what the Government do not wish to happen: namely, they encourage Oppositions to talk, not to keep quiet. We seem to be in for a bout of parliamentary attrition at the whim of the governing party opposite.
The Government in this instance have gone far too far. They made an initial mistake, which they are not now prepared to acknowledge: hence the ludicrous way in which this House is now being asked to consider the Bill. It is unprecedented. It is not in accordance with the understandings by which this House operates. The most likely result is that scrutiny of the Bill will continue to be intense and lengthy.
I considered whether there should be a vote on this Motion. If there were to be a vote, I would vote against a decision that we should resume Committee. The Government should think about this again carefully, and think about the implications not only for the Bill but for the proceedings in this House. If they do so, I do not think that they would find this side of the House unforthcoming.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I have listened carefully to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said. He is always a powerful advocate, but he must think that we are a bunch of idiots if he thinks that those of us who have been watching what has been happening are not aware that there has been a filibuster. The Cross-Benchers will probably be in the best position to judge that. As a result of Fenian tactics at the end of the last century, a filibuster is dealt with in the other place by a guillotine and closure procedures. In this Chamber, we are fortunate because we have never had to employ those procedures, but we have never had a filibuster. In the 16 years that I have been here, I have never seen conduct like this.
I am not concerned about this Bill but about the future procedures of this House, which transcend any concern as to whether there should be one Bill, two Bills or no Bill. What matters is that we should be able to conduct ourselves in this House in a reasonable way. I do not think that we have been conducting ourselves in a reasonable way. What, therefore, is the choice now-for those on these Benches simply to collapse and give way to in effect an ultimatum or to have to use, I am afraid, the time taken night after night, if necessary, to see Committee completed?
A great leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, once said that we must fight and fight again for the party we love. I believe that we have to do exactly the same in this House today to save it from the kind of things that have happened in the other place and which have recently been imported to this House by some recent additions, some Ministers, who should know better.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, uncharacteristically, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, cannot have checked on the progress of Bills under the previous Government. I have the figures in front of me. I am happy to present them in the Library, should that be necessary. I shall mention just one-the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which took 19 days to go through the House. In no way am I minimising the importance of that Bill, but I think that a constitutional Bill should involve at least as much time as that.
I recognise and understand the problems faced by the business managers on the Front Bench. It must be much more difficult in some respects when there is a
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On all those exceptional occasions, it was because there was the imperative of dates. Usually, the imperative is the Queen's Speech at the end of a Session. Of course, one cannot notify the Palace a fortnight before the Queen's Speech is due and say, "Sorry, because Report on a Bill is taking a long time, could you put the date back a week?". That date is imperative. Alternatively, as happened quite often under the previous Government, the imperatives for Northern Ireland legislation were unarguable. They were clear and demonstrable.
I concede totally to the Government that there is an imperative in this Bill, and we are conceding that publicly today. The imperative is not one I like, and the House knows my views on various forms of electoral systems, but the imperative for the Government is to get the Bill completed by 16 February so that there can be a referendum on 5 May. I acknowledge that imperative and it has been conceded.
However, I put it to the Government and to the House that there is absolutely no imperative whatsoever about Part 2 of the Bill. But before I move on from Part 1, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, as my noble friend has said, that if he thinks six days on the Committee stage of a Bill that potentially fulfils the Lib Dems' dreams of a change to the electoral system is filibustering, he does not know what a filibuster is.
I say to the Government with some envy that there is no imperative on Part 2 principally because they decided-I am not quite sure how it happened because it was like a rabbit out of a hat-that this should be a two-year Session of Parliament. I would have thought it was my birthday and Christmas rolled into one if, when I was responsible for government legislation, someone had said that we could have a two-year Session in which to put Bills through. The nightmare every year was finishing Bills in time for the Queen's Speech.
There is ample time for proper scrutiny of Part 2, so again I put it specifically to the Government that it is an accident of the timing of this debate that today, or most probably tonight, we will be discussing the not inconsiderable proposition that the number of Members of the other House should be culled by 50. We shall be doing that at two or three in the morning when many Members of your Lordships' House-sadly I do not think that they will include me-may well be asleep. I put it to noble Lords that if the situation was reversed so that the House of Commons was about to cull substantial numbers of this House and decided to do
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Finally, I want simply to make this point. We are in uncharted territory. The reason for that, which we are all learning, is that we have a coalition Government. I acknowledge that. We do not know quite what the rules of play are in a coalition Government but what I do know is that this House, under a coalition Government, has an advantage that Chief Whips may have dreamed about but never envisaged. They have 40 per cent of the votes in this House. I have included the Cross-Benchers in that calculation; I would not be presumptuous enough to suggest that they would ever vote as a block, as they never do. The actual majority the Government have over the Opposition, if it is reckoned simply in terms of people with party allegiances and subject to a party whip, is very substantial. It is perfectly within the power of this coalition Government, if they want to, to drive through legislation against the wishes of the minority in the House. They can do that. They can schedule constitutional business in the middle of the night if they want to do that.
I end with this observation. There are three constitutional Bills coming through this House of which this is the first, described by Nick Clegg as the most important since 1832. The third of three Bills is about the reform of this House. I simply put it to those Members of the House who may not be too concerned about this Bill but are very concerned indeed about the fundamental changes involved in a move from an appointed House to an elected House-which I am certainly very concerned about-that if the Government were now to set a precedent that a major constitutional Bill will be driven through in the middle of the night, and that anyone who criticises that is guilty of a filibuster, that is a very bad precedent indeed.
The offer is clear. It is not my offer because it is for the Front Benches opposite. The Government have a way out of this: take the referendum part of the Bill out and agree on a sensible schedule for considering Part 2. We do not like the House to get into the position it is in at the moment; I certainly do not like it. But that is an offer on the table which I think any reasonable person would accept.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to put forward, with some diffidence, a perception from a Cross-Bencher, because the Cross-Benchers have been referred to. I think it is known that the Cross-Benchers actually listen to the arguments and we vote according to what we believe are the better arguments. But when a debate on one amendment takes three and three-quarter hours and is not followed by asking the House to decide on it, that is the point at which the Cross-Benchers wonder-I personally wonder and I believe I am not alone-what is actually going on.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I wonder if I could ask a brief question: what is all the hurry about? Why do we have to have a referendum this May? Why can we not wait and have it in a year's time, or at any time? This is something that is too important to rush, as we are doing.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I have been somewhat pre-empted by the two previous speakers in asking a question of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, although it is probably inappropriate to ask him at this juncture, so perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would be the right person to address it. He and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, came forward with a perfectly reasonable offer that they would agree to splitting the Bill. However, is there not a difficulty in that, as the noble and learned Lord said, we are now close to the beginning of Part 2 of this Bill, so it would be impossible to do such a thing now? It is therefore necessary, is it not, to continue with Committee until it is finished? At that point, it would not be beyond the wit of the Government to accept the noble Lords' offer, but I do not think it is practicable at this moment.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I want to interject in support of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and say to my noble friend that it is not as simple as that. The House is not allowed to be asked to give its opinion a second time on any issue, and the House decided that this Bill should be given a Second Reading. What is being asked for is to have two new Bills, and that is not feasible.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I want to make a brief point. There are precedents for splitting Bills which have got into difficulties. I refer to the 1977 Scotland and Wales Bill which, after a lot of discussion, was in fact split in the House of Commons. That enabled the Scotland Bill to go forward in that Parliament, and the Wales Bill went forward a little later. It was unfortunate for Scotland, perhaps, that the people did not want devolution at the time. A way was found to split the Bill and there is no reason why a way should not be found to split this one.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: On the question of splitting the Bill, the advice I have received is that it is not open to this House to send back to the Commons a Bill that has been divided into two unless the Government give their consent to that. That position was made clear by my noble friend Lady McDonagh and that is why there was no vote on it. The Government did not give their consent. However, if the Government consent to it, it is possible for that course to be taken.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, asked an extremely good question a few minutes ago. She said, "Why the urgency?". Of course, the answer is that last July, when the Government announced their intention to bring this legislation forward and published the Bill, there was no urgency. There was no urgency when it was debated in another place. There was no urgency when it came here. The situation has become urgent because the Labour Party has decided to go on a marathon go-slow on the Bill ever since we started Committee.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: I hope that the Leader will allow me to point out to him that that was not the question that the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, put to him. The question was, "Why should the referendum date be the date that it is?"-not "Why
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my point still stands. The Government made an announcement soon after the general election that there would be a referendum on 5 May. I really wonder whether it is right for this House to stand up and suddenly say that should not be the case, when there was plenty of time for the Bill to be properly scrutinised.
I move on to reply to the other points that were made. The noble and learned Lord said that we are trying now to rush the Bill through and that there has not been enough consultation with the Opposition. Ever since the Bill arrived in the House, the usual channels-government and opposition-have been trying to come to an agreement, but there was an absolute refusal by the Labour Party, right from the start, to engage in trying to decide the number of days in Committee.
It is said that we have been planning an all-night sitting. I have no desire to have an all-night sitting, or a very late sitting. It is entirely in the hands of the Opposition how long we stay here this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, for whom, as a former distinguished Leader of this House, I have the utmost respect, said that the trouble with all-night sittings is that it encourages the Opposition-he did not quite say to behave even more badly, but it was sort of what he meant. We could not go any slower than we have done over the course of the past eight days.
Let us deal with the substantive point, the issue of splitting the Bill. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, was right in one part of her memory-we did debate splitting the Bill in a Motion put at the very start of the legislative process. That Motion was withdrawn after a debate, but I think that the noble Countess's point stands. Both the issues that we are dealing with in the Bill are about how MPs are elected to the House of Commons. The Bill will give voters, for the first time, a say in the way in which they elect their MPs and will mean that fairer boundaries and more equal constituencies can be put in place for the general election in 2013.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, may I just finish this important point? Noble Lords opposite have said that we should split the Bill and that we should not have included these two issues in one Bill. Yet the last Government's Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, introduced to this House last year, included provision on 13 different areas ranging from a referendum on the alternative vote to freedom of information, ratification of treaties and so on. It seems odd to me that, in opposition, noble Lords opposite have so quickly become concerned about these two reforms with a common theme comprising the same Bill. Even worse, we have the noble Lords, Lord Touhig, Lord McAvoy and Lord Browne of Ladyton, who voted entirely happily, without interruption, in proceedings in another place when an amendment was brought forward on Report and yet, as soon as the Bill comes here and they have
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Lord Hughes of Woodside: I thank the Leader of the House. He speaks about urgency in choosing 5 May of this year. That might have been reasonable in previous times, when an election could be called at any time by the Prime Minister. However, the Prime Minister has said that there will be no election for five years, so what is the urgency about having the referendum on 5 May of this year?
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, on the same subject, the Government do not govern on their own; they govern with the two Houses of Parliament and these decide whether it is going to be 5 May 2011 or 5 or 6 May 2012.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that is right. Like the noble and learned Lord, I have sat through many of the debates that have taken place over the past nine days and I have sympathy for the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and other Members-not just on the Cross Benches, but in all parts of the House-who wished to take part in this debate and feel that they have become excluded from it because it has taken so long. The truth is that the Labour Party has a political objective to break this key coalition Bill, stop the referendum and stop the reduction in the number of MPs.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, forgive me but, on a point of information for the House, I respectfully remind the House that the House as a whole adopted an amendment, moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, which would enable the referendum to take place on any date before 31 October. That was the will of this House.
Amendment 58A would replace the current proposal in Clause 11 to fix the House of Commons at 600 seats, with an alternative rule which would anchor the size of the other place at its current membership of 650.
That reality was exposed in the debate last Monday, when the Government again failed to provide any adequate explanation as to why 600 seats is the optimum size for the other place or, in particular, why a 600-seat Commons would serve the public more effectively than the current 650-seat Chamber.
Is that, I ask, rhetorically, the best that the Government can do in a situation where they are using their political majority in the other place in order to push through a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament? It is obviously a dangerous precedent that is being adopted, because it involves using your political power to fix the size of the legislative chamber in circumstances where people will allege, as we do on this side, that it is being done for political advantage.
It is worth saying that that approach to the question of the size of the legislative chamber has not been adopted in this country since the Second World War, when a Speaker's Conference agreed the arrangement that then became law in 1949 and, though there have been changes to the detail, it has never been disputed that the people who should decide the number of constituencies in the country should be the boundary commissions, which are believed-correctly, in my view-to be beyond party politics. We do not want to get into a position where, when you win an election, you then use your majority to fix the size of the House of Commons to suit your political advantage.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Is there not, as a result of this affront to our constitution in the way that this is being done, the danger that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander? There must be a considerable temptation for any incoming Government to do the same. I would hope that we would resist that temptation, but the pendulum will swing and the party or parties opposite will not be for ever in Government. The danger is that one hallowed principle of our constitution will be wilfully thrown away.
Lord Trimble: The noble Lord refers to this as a "hallowed principle of our constitution", but it was not applied to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace said, with regard to the Scottish Parliament, that there were some really arcane discussions, which he said he might reveal to us some time, that resulted in the rather unusual figure there. I know myself, and I will not weary the House, about the political considerations that drove the size
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I do not want to go into Northern Irish politics because I feel that if I did, I would make a number of mistakes. I can talk about Scottish politics, and I can say this: the effect of the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in Scotland was, in political terms, wholly to the detriment of the Labour Party. However, it was introduced by a Government with a substantial Labour majority. Yes, it was done by a Government, but it was plain that it was being done in a way that was to the detriment of the interest of that Government. So, in my view, it does not raise the issues that the noble Lord is raising.
Lord Trimble: I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord has misunderstood the point that I was making, which was with regard not to the number of Westminster Members from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but to the size of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a different matter.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: May a voice from Wales seek to assist my noble friend in respect of what happened regarding the Welsh Assembly? There was a consensus; it was agreed that there should be 60 seats, 40 of which would be exactly the same as the Westminster constituencies, while the other 20 would be based on regional representation and on a form of proportional representation. It was done not in a partisan way at all but on the basis of consensus, which manifestly has not been done in this case.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I think that that is fair, and it applies to the putting together of the Welsh Assembly, the putting together of the Scottish Parliament and the reduction in the number of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament. As I say, I defer in every single respect to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, in relation to what happened in Northern Ireland.
We believe that the case for a 650-seat Commons has not changed since the current Prime Minister spoke in its favour-indeed, in favour of a slightly larger elected Chamber-at the 2003 Oxfordshire boundary inquiry. Opposing proposals to alter his own constituency borders, he told that inquiry:
"Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs-I certainly hope that is not the case. This is all some way off".
Our amendment stems from a conviction that the current Commons of 650, which is broadly the figure that it has been since 1983, is the appropriate basis on which to stabilise the size of that Chamber. Although the membership of the House has been pretty stable over the past number of years, both rising and falling, concerns have been expressed about the potential for a ratchet effect resulting from the interplay of some of the existing rules for drawing parliamentary boundaries.
Our amendment therefore follows the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee, in its 1987 report on the rules for drawing constituency boundaries, which proposed that the UK electoral quota should be calculated using the "fixed divisor" method. The Committee recommended that the divisor should be fixed on the basis of a 650-seat House of Commons.
Put simply, under our proposed alternative rules, an initial UK electoral quota would be calculated by dividing the total UK electorate by the fixed number of 650-in other words, not altering the current size of the House of Commons. This mechanism, which should be read alongside our other amendments, would not necessarily fix the House at 650 seats for ever. It would stabilise the House at around that size but with the mathematical rounding up or down involved in the calculation of seats in the four parts of the UK, and once special allowance is made for seats like the Scottish islands, it could be possible to see very minor fluctuations in the size of the Commons-one or two seats either side of 650. We see that as a virtue of the fixed divisor method and an advantage that it holds over the Government's proposal for a fixed number of seats.
The latter approach-the fixed number of seats adopted by the Government-was criticised by the head of the English Boundary Commission when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry in 1987. He warned that stipulating an exact fixed number of seats for the Commons would require the boundary commissions to use a "Bed of Procrustes" for drawing constituencies, stretching the borders of those that were too small and lopping parts off others that were too big. He warned the committee away from that method and instead urged the use of a fixed divisor, which would result in a broadly stable Commons while allowing the boundary commissions a bit of practical leeway.
Now, of course, even if we could convince the Government of the practical benefits of our amendment, we would still need to persuade them on the issue of the most appropriate size of the Commons. Before we consider the relative merits and demerits of this amendment against the Government's proposal for a 600-seat House of Commons, though, it is worth reminding ourselves of what the two parties opposite were saying on this subject before the election.
The Liberal Democrat general election manifesto contained a commitment to creating a 500-seat House of Commons elected on the basis of the single transferable vote. The Conservative Party manifesto contained a commitment to the continuation of the first past the post system for elections to the Commons but pledged to cut the number of MPs, saying that it envisaged a 585-seat House. So why did the coalition agreement settle upon 600 seats as the perfect number, as opposed
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In particular, why did the two coalition partners agree on a figure that was higher than both their original proposals? Compromises usually involve a meeting in the middle-what happened here? Could the proposal for a 600-seat House have had anything whatever to do with the Conservative Party's fears that the mathematical reality of a reduction below 600 would require the loss of seats in shire counties? Or did that have no bearing on the decision?
Leaving aside the reasons why the Government are so fixated on a 600-seat House, there is a broader question about what is wrong with the size of the current Commons. The Government claim that it is, to use their words, a bloated Chamber and that the UK suffers from something that they describe as "overrepresentation". The facts show they are wrong on both counts. The claim that Britain is overrepresented in comparison with similar-sized countries is based on simple international comparisons of numbers of elected national representatives per head of population. In fact, the extent to which the UK has more elected representatives in the national legislature per head of population can be exaggerated. As a briefing note from the House of Commons Library makes clear, the United Kingdom has roughly the same ratio as France and Italy. However, the central point is that these calculations take account only of national legislatures and do not include any reference to levels of representation beneath that tier.
Lord Rooker: It is interesting that my noble and learned friend mentions France. In France, one in 100 adults is an elected official of some kind, whereas in this country the figure is about one in 1,600, if we take into account parish councils and urban districts. France is remarkably democratic and has less pressure at a national level because there is so much devolved democracy-16 times more so than here.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: That is an interesting point and, significantly, my noble friend Lord Rooker has prefaced the point that I was just about to make. As I said, the central issue is that the calculations of the numbers of national representatives per head of population take account only of national legislatures and do not include references to levels of representation beneath that tier. If we look below the national level, the United Kingdom has far fewer elected officeholders per head of population than almost all comparable countries. An academic study by Democratic Audit found that, at local government level, the population per elected member is around 2,600 in the United Kingdom, 250 in Germany and 116 in France. Therefore, when sub-national elected representatives are factored in, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has pointed out, it is apparent that the UK does not suffer from overrepresentation; if anything, it suffers from the opposite.
In any event, there is a fundamental problem in seeking to draw simple comparisons between the numbers of elected representatives in different national legislatures.
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A more sensible basis on which to decide what level of representation is right for the UK is to examine how the size of the House of Commons has changed over time. If the number of Members of Parliament were growing inexorably and out of all proportion to the size of the electorate, there would clearly be a problem. However, the evidence shows that that is not the case. The Commons has not grown disproportionately in size over recent years. The size of the Commons has increased by around 3 or 4 per cent, or by 25 Members, since 1950, but the electorate-and, therefore, the average size of constituencies-has increased by 25 per cent over that period.
There has also been a significant increase in the case load of Members of Parliament, which has grown out of proportion to the size of the population as a consequence of changing social norms, political developments and new forms of communication. According to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, in the 1950s and 1960s Members received on average 12 to 15 letters per week. Today, the average is 300 per week-I am still quoting figures from the Modernisation Committee-and then there are e-mails, faxes and telephone calls to take into account. There is no evidence that having fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services. Assuming that that remains the same, the pressure on the remaining Members and their staff will increase.
If the service that Members of Parliament provide to their constituents is not to deteriorate, and if MPs are to be able to take part in Select Committees and Public Bill Committees, which have become considerably more active in recent decades, Members of Parliament will need greater resources to employ people as caseworkers and secretaries. The savings made through a reduction of 50 Members of Parliament would inevitably be lost, which would undermine the argument that this is a worthy, cost-cutting measure.
The provision on the size of the House of Commons is one of the most important in the Bill. We are being asked to cut 50 seats from the primary political body in the United Kingdom and to fix its size in statute, in perpetuity, at 600, but we are not really being given any proper explanation as to why that is the most appropriate size for the House of Commons. Does anyone in this Chamber honestly think that this is the right way to enact such a fundamental constitutional change? What, I ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, is the justification for reducing the size of the House of Commons and increasing the size of this place?
In conclusion, one of the central arguments that can be made in support of an unelected House of Lords is that its Members are able to exercise a greater independence of thought than representatives who are
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The new era of coalition government is a challenge to your Lordships' House-a challenge as to whether it is willing and able to act as an independent-minded revising Chamber. The alternative is to become a rubber stamp for the Executive. This Bill, and this issue perhaps more than many others, will serve as an important litmus test on how your Lordships' House intends to respond to that challenge.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon): I must advise your Lordships that, if Amendment 58A is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 59 to 63ZA inclusive and Amendment 66B due to pre-emption.
Lord Maples: The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, asks why it should fall to Parliament to make this decision. It seems to me that it must, and that ultimately the will of the House of Commons should prevail but that obviously our views should be sought too. The nature of the rules that the Boundary Commission operates at present involves an inevitable escalation of the number of Members of Parliament at every Boundary Commission review.
I completely agree with the noble and learned Lord that there is no magic number. Those of us who sat in the House of Commons probably would not be able to agree what the optimum number should be. However, there are now 650 Members. I think that there were 625 when I first got in in 1983-or perhaps that was the figure in 1979-and there were 659 in 1997. Therefore, there has been quite a variety in the number of MPs. In the 20th century, the number rose from 615 to 659, but of course that does not take account of the fact that the number of Scottish seats fell by, I think, 13 at the time of devolution. If those are added as well, we are still talking about a number around the 660 mark.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Before the noble Lord moves on to that specific point, does he not agree that, on all those occasions, the figures arose from decisions made by the Boundary Commission and were never imposed by Parliament?
Lord Maples: That is not correct. The boundary commissions legislation states the number of seats in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the legislation says that there will be a minimum of 35 seats for Wales, whereas there are actually 40, and it also gives minimum numbers for Northern Ireland and Scotland. Therefore, I do not think that it is right to say that the matter has been left entirely to the boundary commissions.
I revert to my point that there has been an escalation in the Boundary Commission process. With 600 seats, there would be about 75,000 voters per Member of Parliament. I have tabled an amendment-Amendment 63ZA-that
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Lord Maples: I should like to progress. This is like making a speech in the House of Commons, where people intervene the whole time. The noble Lord can make his own speech in his own time about the number of seats in Wales. Following on from my Amendment 63ZA, I have tabled another-Amendment 66B-which would reduce the denominator and the fraction for deciding the electorate for each seat.
There are several reasons for making such a change. First, we are moving towards a general feeling that the Government should be smaller. I think that the number of Ministers has got too high. Certainly, if the size of the House of Commons were to be reduced, the number of Ministers in it would also have to decrease. Secondly, there is a wide perception-this is based only on anecdotal evidence-that there are too many politicians who cost too much money. I agree that the cost of the House of Commons will not necessarily fall a lot as a result of the proposed change, but the cost has doubled in the past 13 years. The cost doubled under Labour largely because we were all given an enormously increased number of staff. That has to come to an end. Members of the House of Commons are not the most popular people in the country. If people knew that MPs were costing more, they would not be happy about it.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that we should not be too swayed by international comparisons, and I rather agree that we should make up our own minds. He then said that one should take account of other countries' devolved layers of government-for example, Germany is a federal state and France, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, has elected representatives at all sorts of other levels. If that is so, that is an argument for the quota for Wales and Scotland being lower than for England because England does not have a devolved Assembly. To many of us, it seems that the numerical advantage was taken away from Scotland by the devolution Act. If that argument is to hold sway, it should result in fewer Members of Parliament at Westminster for Wales and Scotland on a quota basis than for England. However, politicians in other countries find themselves perfectly capable of dealing with constituencies that are much larger than 75,000 voters. I think that constituencies in Germany have about 140,000 voters and those in France about 100,000 voters, whereas here, even under my proposal for reducing the House of Commons to 500 Members, the figure would be 90,000.
Let us look at some of the changes that have taken place and the work that is required of Members of Parliament. The devolved Assemblies have, frankly, reduced the workload of the Members of Parliament for those areas for which there are devolved Assemblies, because the work is now split between more people. It may be that Parkinson's law is in operation and that demand is rising to meet supply, but, in objective terms, there are more elected representatives theoretically doing the same work.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to the increase in constituency work, which is undoubtedly true, but an awful lot of that can be, and is, dealt with by Members' staff. In most of the run-of-the-mill cases with which Members of Parliament have to deal-which they should not have to sort out, as the bureaucracy should be more responsive than it needing a letter from a Member of Parliament to break some bureaucratic impasse-all that they need to do is sign the letter. They do not have to involve themselves in the details of every case.
We have moved to a House of Commons in which the vast majority of its Members are now professional politicians-it is a full-time job for MPs, who do not do anything else-but the Chamber has become less relevant in holding the Government to account. I suppose that the Chamber is where politicians make their reputation, but, apart from that, the game is so heavily skewed in the Government's favour that the Chamber is not really where the Government are held to account; that is in Select Committees.
If the House of Commons is to develop, as I hope, in a way that makes it as constitutionally important in the future as it has been in the past, it will be through the work of Select Committees. We do not need a 600 or 650-Member House to staff those. It is my experience from the past 13 years that an enormous number of Members of Parliament, particularly those with marginal seats, have been encouraged to spend less time at Westminster and more in their constituencies. That is another area in which work has expanded to fill the time available in which to do it.
What do you need in the House of Commons? Well, you need a Government. At present, there are 95 Members of the House of Commons in the Government. If the House of Commons were reduced in size along the lines that I suggest, that number should be reduced. However, let us say that you would still need 85 Members in the Government. You would need a similar number in the Opposition to shadow them. You would need some alternatives in both the Opposition and the Government, so that when people either want to resign or have resignation forced upon them, there would be somebody else to take their place. There will be new people at each election. If you add all that up, you come to about 300 people.
Then you need Select Committees, of which there are 17 at the moment. I do not think that 12 or 14 Members are needed on a Select Committee; I have sat on committees of various sizes and would have thought that 10 is about right. Some of the people who sit on Select Committees would also be in one of the other categories in the House of Commons. Opposition spokesmen do not sit on Select Committees,
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I would have thought, therefore, that a House of Commons of 500 would be more than enough to satisfy those requirements. That is too big a reduction for one Parliament-it may be too big a reduction for three-but I would be grateful if my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench could respond. Particularly in light of how painful and time-consuming it has been to get this reduction through, perhaps it would be a good idea to build in future reductions as well.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I should like to bring to light some of the facts that should come to bear on this decision. I do not think that anybody on the government side has yet spelled out a very good reason for thinking that 600 is the magic number and that 650 is the wrong number. That is a subject on which a judgment can be reached only in the light of all the facts about what is going on and what is likely to happen if we do not do anything about it.
One of the underlying assumptions made by the Government in all their speeches on prior clauses of the Bill is that there has been a tendency for the number of Members of Parliament to increase. Let us look at the facts. Yes, it is true that if you choose as your base date 1950 there has been a small increase from 625 Members of the Commons then to 650 today. It is an increase. But why take 1950? You might, for example, take 1983, which is, after all, more than a quarter of a century ago. Since 1983, the number of Members of the House of Commons has not changed; it has remained at 650. Alternatively, and this is a historically-minded House, one might go back to 1918, when the number of Members of the House of Commons was 707. I readily accept that there are explanations both for the increases and decreases, to some of which I shall come shortly, but this is a case not of an upwards trend ad infinitum but of fluctuations based on various things. One of those things which has tended to force the number perhaps to be higher than might be essential is Welsh representation-we shall come to that later in the Bill; I think that the proposal to cut it from 40 to 30 is too draconian, but, equally, 40 may be rather too many and there might be a saving to be made there.
It has to be accepted that, in the previous rules of the Boundary Commission, which have to be put right, there has been a contradiction which has caused some small change in the rise in the number of Members of the House of Commons. As I understand it, rule 1 requires that the House of Commons does not grow in total size, and rule 5 requires indivisible units-for example, counties-to be allocated the number of seats which makes each constituency as near as possible to the desired quota. This, in technical language, requires rounding-off at the harmonic mean, which is always beyond the arithmetic mean. If anyone wants me to go into that in more detail, I can guarantee to take up all day and all night in doing so, but I very much doubt that it would greatly be for the elucidation of the
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I have said that the number of MPs has not increased much. What has indisputably and hugely increased is the number of electors each MP has to service. Let us take 1950, which is the basis for comparison that is most favourable to the Government's case. As my noble and learned friend said, the number of MPs is up 3 per cent and the electorate is up 25 per cent. If my schoolboy arithmetic is correct, electorate per MP is up 22 per cent. Let us again, because this is a historic House, take the longer perspective. In 1918, the average MP represented 30,000 electors. In 1950, the number was 55,000 electors. In 1983, it was 65,000 and, in 2005, it was 68,000. Under this Bill, that will go up to 75,000 electors. That is an increase two-and-a-half times over. It is possible that that is not right, but it seems a pretty big increase, the last bit of which is entirely due to the reduction brought about by this Bill.
That of course is electors per MP. However, the MP's workload-and there are many former Members of another place who will no doubt give the House the benefit of their own experience-does not just depend on the number of electors, it depends on how many people live in their constituency. There are some very large discrepancies between the number of people and the number of electors. I have not been able to find, given the truncated timetable we are working to, an actual figure of number of people per electorate since 1918, but I can absolutely guarantee, I think, that it will have grown faster than the number of electors per MP, with immigration and the lack of people registering as a result. It is population that is the generator of workload.
Then, workload per person in your electorate has increased. Last time I spoke on a related matter in this House I mentioned that when I started work for Tony Crosland back in 1972 we got 30 letters a week from his Grimsby constituents and they could all be happily dealt with by an excellent part-time secretary in consultation with the local party. The situation today is nothing like that. It is not just numbers-the 300 letters my noble friend cited-but it is the sheer complexity of the cases. The complexity of an immigration case is enormous, which is of course why the cost to the Commons has gone up. It is not that there are more MPs-that has been a trivial factor. In order to perform the services that the people of this country expect them to perform, MPs need far more caseworkers to help them with constituency cases.
There is another factor which is much less remarked on but I think is quite important. The psephological evidence, until reasonably recently, was unambiguous. It did not matter how hard an MP worked or how lazy he was; there was practically no incumbent effect on subsequent general elections. Whether you won or not depended nearly entirely on the popularity of your
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Then there is the question of workload other than constituency work. There are 240 places now to be filled on departmental Select Committees-they did not exist really when I started in business-and 227 other places in committees. There is the sheer volume of legislation, I admit often guillotined down the other end, but you have to read the thing if you are going to take any part. The size of Bills has increased exponentially, largely as a result of the demise of the typewriter and the growth of the word processor which means there is no incentive whatever for draftsmen to cut anything out and every incentive to put things in because nothing has to be retyped. There is the huge effort of looking after our demanding press. There is the huge effort of dealing with the new profession of public affairs consultants, all of whom have good reason to come and see you about matters of one kind of another. The average MP today works far, far harder than the average MP did in the past. That is not going to change and it is the reason why most MPs today have to be full-time Members of Parliament. It makes me wonder whether it is a good idea to cut their numbers when they are having to work very much harder.
Then there is the question, which was again raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, of the ratio of members of the Government to Back-Benchers. This measure would make that ratio worse at a stroke. At the moment, the number of Ministers and Whips in the lower House is roughly just over a third of the number of Back-Benchers. This legislation would change that to 40 per cent. Among the remaining Back-Benchers there are some who are essentially the equivalent of Ministers, in the sense that they will do whatever the Government ask, however awful, in the hope of getting promotion out of the Prime Minister. Therefore, the number of independent Back-Benchers in another place, on whom we rely so much to hold the Government to account, is going to diminish. We have heard airy words that perhaps Prime Ministers in future will appoint fewer Ministers. I have been hearing them for 25 years too and of course it never happens because by appointing somebody a Minister a Prime Minister can
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Finally, we come back to the last argument which is extant of those who say that there is an evident case for reducing the number of MPs-and that is money. They say they will save money by doing it. That is not obvious to me because if the work has still to be done, it has still to be paid for. You may have fewer MPs but you are going to have more constituency workers per MP. You must do in order for them to cope with the sheer volume of correspondence and so on. The only saving I can see is that there will be the saving of 50 MPs' salaries-that comes to a little over £3 million a year. Of that, £1 million will be lost in income tax so that is about £2 million. You could raise that by a decent tax on one banker's bonus. This makes me feel that the money argument is really just a populist argument, as indeed is the whole argument for reducing the number of MPs. It is not based on fact, it is not based on analysis, it was pulled out of a hat in an attempt to satisfy a popular anti-MP mood, and it is your Lordships' duty, and a duty in which we should take pleasure, to say hold on, let us look at the facts, let us see whether this decrease is really justified. If it is not, we are entitled to ask the House of Commons to think again.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: Is there not a danger that if the workload remains the same and the number of MPs is reduced there will be an increase in the number of Members' staff, which will in itself almost certainly lead to less of a direct contact between the Member and those he seeks to represent, which cannot be a good thing for democracy.
Lord Lipsey: My noble friend is absolutely right about that. It will also mean that the queue of people waiting to become MPs will be even longer since in my experience most of these MPs' staff are waiting only for the moment when they can jump into the shoes of the man whom they so loyally serve.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I have two questions for the Government about their proposal to reduce the number of seats. Do the coalition parties
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The Labour Party has not achieved what a number of us-and I sit by some of them here-have been committed to for a number of years, which is to move from 40 to 50 per cent of our party's representation in the other House being women. It is no secret that even when we came to all-women shortlists it was possible to move on that only when there was a vacancy, because no party was willing to kick out the male representatives to make room for a new shortlist that could be an all-women shortlist. In our experience-I do not think that I am giving away all our secrets, which were probably covered in the press anyway-because we did not have enough retirements, we could not make the progress that we wanted to make on all-women shortlists. There were no vacancies and therefore there were no shortlists, so we could not put women in.
Noble Lords will understand quickly the concern that women will have that, when we reduce the number of seats, as the Government want, there will be no retirements, only some forced retirements, given that there will be fewer seats. Labour Members may well fight other Labour Members for those seats and I imagine that Conservative Members will fight other Conservative Members for those seats. So there will be very few vacancies. New blood, either men or women, will be extremely hard to bring on.
My second question, having asked how the parties in the coalition are committed to increasing women's representation, is whether they have done any sort of impact assessment of reducing the number of seats and of what it would mean for the likelihood of bringing on a new generation-partly of young people but even more so of women, which is my particular interest-into the other House.
Lord Desai: My Lords, I always get excited when I see a mathematical formula in a Bill. The formula of U over 598 appears in the Bill. The idea, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said, is to have an arrangement whereby each vote counts equally towards electing an MP. That is a very worthy aim, with which I have no quarrel. It is like a programming problem, whereby you minimise the distance between the sizes of different constituencies, subject to various considerations. That is a perfectly good aim.
Where I fail to understand the Government's approach is why they are adding another completely artificial constraint by at the same time reducing the total number of seats by 50. You can achieve equalisation of votes and seats and achieve the aim of having each vote count equally with 650 seats. It would be absolutely no problem. It might even make it easier for the Government to achieve their aim if they did that. We already know that they have a problem in having to set aside two seats. There may be many more seats, as noble Lords have said, and other peculiar constituencies that would rather not be broken up or merged. There are lots of constraints that the Government are trying
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When most other countries redraw boundaries or do redistricting, as it is called in America, to make adjustments for population changes, as happened recently in India and as happens periodically in the United States, they do not change the total number of seats. They change only the drawing of boundaries between constituencies. With a system whereby you are trying to do several things at the same time, you end up with a very inadequate solution to the problem.
The Government may have a perfectly good, non-political reason for reducing the number of seats to 600, but that has not been stated. One problem that we are facing is in knowing whether the Government's main aim is to reduce the number of MPs, in which case why make the figure 600? Why not 550 or 500-why not half the House of Commons? We do not know. Are the Government trying to increase the load for MPs, which will clearly be a result of this measure? That surely cannot be the aim.
Are the Government trying to do their best to achieve justice whereby each vote has the same value? Yes. Since every other country that has tried to solve the problem has solved it without reducing the total number of seats, I fail to understand why the Government have added that additional constraint. We could go back to the Boundary Commission solution and adopt it and not put a constraint of 600 seats but try as best as possible to equalise the size of seats and electorates. Then we could see what the number would be. We could see whether we could reduce it slightly within certain limits. That may be possible. Right now we are trying to do something that is very worthy, but the way in which it is being done-hedged in by other constraints-will prove counterproductive.
Here in this Committee stage we are having a discussion of the various conflicting objectives that the Government are trying to achieve in a very narrow and constricted framework. If the framework had not been so narrow and constricted, the solution would have been much easier.
Lord Wills: I support the amendment, in the sense that I understand it to be a probing amendment about the Government's decision to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 Members. I do not have a problem about reducing the size of the House of Commons, but I have a problem when it is not done on the basis of principle and when the process by which the new figure is arrived at has been opaque. That is precisely what we have seen here. In this context, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maples, on a thoughtful and analytical attempt to pursue precisely that sort of argument on the basis of principle. I do not agree with everything that he said but, for the first time that I can recall from the government Benches, we had an analytical approach based on principles, which the noble Lord set out very persuasively in many cases. What I want
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I hope that I am not misrepresenting Ministers when I say that, in previous discussions on this issue, they have rather airily waved aside the question of the size of the House of Commons, as if it was a piffling matter. It needed to be reduced and whether it was reduced by a bit or a bit more did not matter very much. But it really does matter, because the size of the House of Commons shapes the size of each constituency, even more so when we are looking to equalise the size of these constituencies, as this Bill seeks to do, and with certain qualifications. Most Members of both Houses of Parliament would support that aim. The size of the constituency crucially determines the nature of the relationship between the Member of Parliament and their constituents. That lies at the very heart of our democratic arrangements. I have touched on this issue in previous debates and Ministers have more or less ignored what I have said, so I hope that they will forgive me if I spell it out in just a little bit more detail now in the hope that they will now engage with this issue, even if they do not particularly agree with the view that I take on it.
When I was the Member of Parliament for Swindon North, I used to deal with about 200 to 300 e-mails and letters every week. I was helped by outstanding staff, but I had to deal with those letters and e-mails, as they were on issues of such importance to my constituents that they were not delegated to staff. I was helped, but I dealt with each of them. Most of those letters-around three-quarters, on one estimate that I took about three years ago-came about because of the problems that my constituents had with Swindon Borough Council. Most of the rest were on problems that constituents had with various agencies of central government. Most MPs, including former Members of the other place in this House, will probably have had similar, if not identical, experiences. That casework is detailed and complex, which is why, in the end, I felt that I had to take responsibility and be directly engaged with it.
It follows logically from that that if any constituency were to be increased significantly in size it would be that much more difficult for any conscientious MP to deal with that casework in exactly the same way. It would be equally hard if further decentralisation of power to local authorities increased the workload of MPs trying to sort out constituents' problems with local authorities, such as Swindon Borough Council. Those facts may argue for even smaller constituencies and therefore more of them. On the other hand, it could be argued that, should decentralisation result in more powerful, effective and competent local authorities-and, indeed, local councillors-it would lighten the casework of Members of Parliament, leaving MPs freer to concentrate on work at Westminster. That might argue for fewer constituencies; I think that the noble Lord, Lord Maples, was arguing for that. These are important issues and he made the case for having a significant reduction in the number of constituencies perfectly well. I do not altogether agree
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The crucial point is that we have had no realistic, sensible discussion about how far the ability of an MP to manage their casework effectively and personally matters. This is an important issue for debate. We may come to different conclusions, but proper public debate on this is surely important. Even the Government could not deny it, yet they have denied the public and both Houses of Parliament any proper opportunity to debate it. Moreover, as I have said, there is no question but that the increasingly plural levels of government, with a complex and constantly evolving mix of local authorities, devolved Administrations and national and European institutions, are reshaping the nature of the MP's relationship with their constituents. That must have significant implications for the appropriate size of the constituency and so for the size of the House of Commons.
I discussed all those issues in the amendment that I put forward last week. I hope that the House will forgive me, but earlier in today's debate a noble Baroness from the Cross Benches-I am afraid that I did not catch who she was-made some comments about that amendment. I fear that she was in danger of misrepresenting my position, so I hope that I will be forgiven if I put on record what my exact position was. She concluded her remarks by asking why we had had that lengthy debate on my amendment, which was then not put to the vote. That was my decision as a Back-Bencher. She then said that Cross-Benchers could be forgiven for wondering what was going on. I will catch up with Hansard tomorrow and perhaps write to that Cross-Bencher as well about this, but perhaps I might inform the Committee what was going on.
I spent nearly three years as the Minister for Constitutional Reform in the previous Government. I spent a great deal of that time looking at all these issues in great depth-rather more time than the Ministers have collectively had available to them in government to look at them. I thought that it would help this House and its business of revising and scrutinising legislation if I put down an amendment summarising my experience as a Minister in looking at those complex issues. I thought that that would be of service to the House. I hope that the noble Baroness, when she looks in Hansard for my remarks, will agree that putting down such an amendment was helpful. I have no responsibility for the length of time that it took, but it was a long and complex debate because this is a difficult and complex issue. I sat throughout the three and a half hours of that debate and I heard no repetition from any of the noble Lords who took part. My only regret is that there was only one substantive contribution from the Benches opposite. The debate on the amendment could easily have taken longer and it would have been valuable if it had. The fact that it did not is a matter of regret to me.
Why did I not push that amendment to a vote? I am afraid that I am still fairly innocent in the ways of this House. Various views were being expressed to me, quite vigorously and from all sides, about whether to
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I do not think that that was unreasonable. I hope that the noble Baroness will look at those remarks and understand then that what was going on was not, as I fear she was trying to insinuate, that I was plotting in some nefarious way to filibuster and to derail this legislation. I am not, because, as I have said, I am perhaps unusual in this House-on both sides of this Chamber-in supporting the Government's broad objectives in both parts of the Bill. I have no wish to see the referendum on AV derailed. I know that many of my colleagues disagree but I want to support it and, again, have expressed before my broad support for it. I am afraid that I take exception to being accused of somehow trying to derail and filibuster this legislation.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My noble friend will know that I was one of those who were pressing him to have a vote. I have indeed changed my mind because he was, quite rightly, arguing privately that there was a need for the House to have the time to gestate and understand the implications of that amendment. Another reason for changing my mind was that there were a lot of Cross-Benchers in the House-more during that debate than on any other issue that we have discussed on the whole Bill. Some of us realised that it was important that we gathered their support over the following days, this being one of them. I am sorry that my noble friend was criticised as he was.
Lord Wills: I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. All that I ask the Government to reflect on in approaching this is that these issues are profoundly important. They are difficult and complex and there will, inevitably, be valid points of view on all sides on all these issues. If they will not listen to me, I hope that they will take an example from the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maples. That was the sort of debate of which we could have had far more thus far from the other Benches. In whatever time is left for us to debate the Bill, I hope that we will see more contributions such as the noble Lord's from his colleagues on those Benches.
Any responsible legislative process would have set out these and all the other relevant issues and then consulted on them and come to a decision on the optimum size of a constituency and so of the House of Commons. Allowing the British people themselves to have a say in this would have been desirable, but the
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Why have the Government failed to produce any coherent explanation for how they arrived at this figure of 600? It is curious, as other noble Lords have pointed out, that before the election both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats had decided on a figure lower than 600 and had arguments for doing so, which we have heard today from the noble Lord, Lord Maples. So why did they change their minds? There is a coherent case for keeping to the pledges that they made to the electorate before the election. That coherent case was made by the noble Lord, Lord Maples, today. Why did they not stick to it? They will not say.
In an attempt to elucidate this information, I put in a freedom of information request, as I have already told the House. The last time I mentioned this in the House, I mentioned that I had not yet had a response, but such is the power and influence of this House that the next day I got a response, for which I am delighted. The response that I received from the Cabinet Office, dated 11 January, confirmed that the modelling that I was looking for on the impact of a reduction to 600 and to lower figures exists but that some of that information is being withheld under Section 35(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act. I think that the Government have ignored the existence of Section 35(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which would remove their justification for exempting the information that I requested, so I have put in a request for an internal review of the Cabinet Office's decision and I look forward with great interest to seeing the results of that review.
Leaving aside the legislative niceties of this, I believe that the public should know how and why the Government went back on the promises that they made to the electorate at the election and decided to increase the size of their reconstituted House of Commons to 600. The public want to know how the Government think this will affect their relationship as voters with their MPs. I think-and I say this in kindness to Ministers-that the public want to be reassured that, in reaching that figure of 600, the Government were not motivated in any way by the pursuit of partisan advantage. They will want to be reassured about that. The Government must realise that, as long as they fail to come up with any coherent argument for why that figure of 600 was arrived at, the suspicion must remain. They cannot avoid this. I know that it is unwelcome.
I see Ministers sitting on the Benches opposite and I know that they are without exception decent and honourable men and women. It is with some trepidation that I keep coming back to this point, but they must realise the cynicism that exists about all politicians at the moment. They must realise that the suspicion that they are motivated by nothing but
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On Thursday last week, I wrote to the noble and learned Lord's colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, asking whether he could release the information that I had requested. When you put in a freedom of information request, it refers only to work that has been done within the Executive by government, not to work that clearly feeds into the process of formulating legislation that is done by special advisers and Conservative and Liberal Democrat party officials. I have therefore also asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in the interests of openness and transparency and of reassuring the public about the Government's motivation in alighting on this figure, whether he can confirm-it may be that the Minister can confirm this in his remarks at the end of this debate-whether any modelling has been done on the differential impacts of different sizes of the House of Commons on the party composition of the House of Commons, either within government or by the Liberal party, the Conservative Party or special advisers. He can confirm or deny it. I very much hope that he will take this opportunity to start clearing up this issue once and for all. It is an important issue and we need to move forward from it. We can do so only if he can provide us with the reassurance for which I am asking.
Lord Anderson of Swansea:My Lords, I join my noble friend in trying to answer the question he raised about why the numbers have changed from the electoral commitments made by the two parties opposite to the grand round figure of 600. Perhaps the answer may be found in part in the adage of US politics that an election platform is something to run on, not to stand on. I join my noble friend in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Maples. If we are to have a debate, here is someone who has, as always, in a radical and rather wonderfully iconoclastic way made his own contribution to the debate. I hope that there will be a contagion and that Members alongside him will adopt what he said and at least join in the debate, not just on this magic number of 600 but on the way in which this Bill has been handled. I had the privilege of serving with the noble Lord, Lord Maples, for eight years, I think, on the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, and I can say with deep sincerity that I valued very much the independent, non-partisan contributions that he made. I think that for at least part of the time he was vice-chairman of his party, but he is very ready to join independently in debate. I disagree with one or two points that he made about the numbers, but at least it was an honest contribution.
When I approached the House this morning, I was reflecting on what I might say, having packed my toothbrush. I picked up, as I normally do, the Daily Telegraph, and came across page 23, which reminded me that today has been called "suicide Monday". The headline is:
I am certainly not wedded to any particular number-600, 650-but the onus, as always, is on those who wish to make a change to make the case not only for reducing the number below 650 but for why this magic number of 600 has been selected. It is not good enough to say, as I think the Leader of the House did, that it is a nice round number. No doubt there will be some advantages, but there will also be many disadvantages, and there is no way in which there has been a testing of the arguments for and against by any independent experts. There is an unseemly haste about the way in which the Government have moved.
I think a number of noble Lords will remember with affection Lord Weatherill, who was a very distinguished Speaker and the Convener of the Cross-Bench Peers. I see another distinguished Speaker close by. Lord Weatherill began in the family business with an apprenticeship as a tailor. He told me that on the first day he was there, he was apprenticed to an old Jewish tailor who was asked to make a suit from the cloth very speedily. The old, tried tailor said to his boss: "Do you want it quick or do you want it good?". There is a certain lesson for us in legislation. Do we want it quick or do we want it good, particularly when there is no objective reason for speeding along on this? This is not a national emergency or something relating to an external threat or internal terrorism; this is something that the Government have chosen according to their own timetable in a fairly authoritarian way.
I go back long enough in politics to remember, again with affection, Lord Hailsham. I sat behind him on occasion when he was a very robust and amusing Queen's Counsel. I also watched him in action in the House. At a certain stage, he defined a term-I think it was called elective dictatorship or the dictatorship of the majority. He was, as always, extraordinarily eloquent about elective dictatorship and carried us along quite far. However-surprise, surprise-when he and his party got into government, he forgot all about elective dictatorship. He was there for at least part of the time of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, when she abolished the old GLC because she did not like it, and when she took away many local government powers. Gone was the eloquence about elective dictatorship. He had a remarkable, almost Damascene, conversion. I hope I can spirit back Lord Hailsham, who I admit was a great parliamentarian and for whom I had great affection.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Does my noble friend know that Lord Hailsham's qualities were hereditary? His son became very similar. When he was a Minister in the House of Commons he refused to answer any questions during Department of Trade and Industry Questions. I was constrained to call him an "arrogant little shit". The then Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, said that I should withdraw. I asked which word he wanted me to withdraw and he told me that I knew. That is the kind of behaviour that we do not want to get into in this House. Is that not a good point to make?
Lord Anderson of Swansea: I have known my noble friend for a long time. We were in a team together for much of the 1980s. I have never known him to be constrained by anything. I am glad to hear that he was at least constrained on that occasion.
I start with this preliminary point about the style of government. If the Government are serious about democracy and listening to the arguments for and against, they will not juggernaut the Bill through at odd hours of the night when, as my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, there will be a differential turnout in any vote, depending on who is more tired than anyone else. There will not be the sort of objective discussion that we would hope for. I was thinking of paraphrasing Bob Marley about how a hungry man is an angry man. A tired man is not a good legislator. I recall, on one occasion in the other place, having three all-nighters in succession on the Steel Bill. No one, anywhere in the House, can think that the Steel Bill was at that time a proper piece of legislation. However, sheep-like, we went through the Corridor. It was done mechanically, with no serious debate. I hope that, as in the spirit of this place, we will reject that sort of movement.
Turning to the numbers, the central question, which has not received an answer is: why 600? There is clearly an argument for a certain flexibility, as the noble Lord, Lord Maples, has said. Perhaps I can share some degree of experience on this. I had the privilege of representing two very different constituencies in the other place. One was the constituency of Monmouth, which at that time had not been won by my party previously and had been represented by a great parliamentarian, Lord Thorneycroft, although he was not called that then. It was a typical county seat with quite a sizeable electorate. I was able to manage it reasonably well because it was a highly educated constituency. The sort of problems that were brought to me were, as often as not, those of planning permission. I recall one village meeting when there was a question as to whether a local bus should be discontinued. The grandees in the village said, "No one takes the bus anyway. Why should we bother?". Only afterwards did a couple of rather poor people detach themselves and think, "We use the bus". They just did not, alas, have the self-confidence to make that point. That was one constituency, which was quite manageable. If the electorate had been not 75,000 or 78,000 but 100,000, I could still have managed the constituency effectively.
I then had the good fortune to move to the much safer seat-the electorate chose, not me-of Swansea East, which is a seat of multideprivation. In the schools there are many statemented pupils, and special needs are substantial. Often, folk did not have the self-confidence of those in the traditional county seat. I had been a diplomat or a civil servant for some time, so if nothing else I had learnt how to write a letter. Sometimes I felt that in trying to represent my own people-I was born in a working-class street and brought up in the city of Swansea-I had a role like that of the letter-writer in an Indian village. I was able, because of my privileged background, to write letters on behalf of these people. There has to be a personal touch.
One of my sons worked for an American Representative. He hardly met this Representative at
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Therefore, drawing this odd figure of 78,000 out of the air and stretching it in this way-I think my noble friend mentioned a Procrustean bed-can have malign effects. I am certainly convinced not only of the arguments for democracy generally but of those for fitting an electorate according to the needs of particular people. I fear that this figure of 600-chosen from the air and for which no explanation has been given-will certainly not do that.
Wales will be hardest hit. I will not dwell on this because I know that other amendments will allow me to wax, I hope rather eloquently, on Wales and my own city. Wales, by any rule, is hit by far the hardest by this proposal. It is likely that the number of seats in Wales will be reduced from 40 to 30. Wales is a relatively disadvantaged part of the United Kingdom. I know that my noble friend Lord Touhig, if he is able to make a contribution and who has experience of the western valley of Monmouthshire, will make the same sort of point. We are relatively disadvantaged; therefore, there is a greater need for that human touch.
We all accept that, just as the number of seats in Scotland was reduced when primary legislation passed to the Scottish Parliament, the same must happen in Wales when it follows the Scottish precedent. However, there is no case for moving from 40 to 30 seats now. Wales has always been slightly privileged in this way for good reasons and that should continue. I will not develop the point, but my own city of Swansea has three seats at the moment, each one of roughly 60,000 people. If we were to go to an average mathematical formula of 76,000 or 78,000, there would be rather less than two and a half seats in my city. That means that it would have to scrabble around for areas that have no natural affinity with the city but which would satisfy some mathematical formula of 78,000 people. In my judgment, that again ignores the human aspect, but I hope to develop the question in relation to Welsh constituencies rather later.
In my judgment the Government are going ahead in a rather draconian way. If they want a Passchendaele, they will have a Passchendaele. Lip service is given to accountability but the timetable set for the Bill is not warranted by any objective criteria. Why is it so urgent to get the number of seats reduced from 650 to 600? Is
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As regards the numerical range 650 to 600, there is a deep suspicion that 600 has been chosen for wholly partisan reasons. I interjected in the speech of my noble and learned friend to say that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. This is not the way in which we in this country carry out constitutional change. The pendulum will swing. Over the years I have frequently lectured on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I have run groups for new Members of Parliament in a number of African countries such as Somaliland. Apart from urging the case for more female representation in those Parliaments, as I am sure noble Baronesses would accept, one of my themes has always been that the majority should not force through constitutional amendments and should not fix amendments which happen to suit their own interest. When I next have the privilege of lecturing to Commonwealth parliamentarians-it is fair to say that they still, for the most part, refer to our own legislative body as the mother of Parliaments-I will be rather reluctant to talk about the principle that the majority should not fix constitutions in their own interest. There should be proper debate and an independent, outside body to monitor this legislation. It should be done not in unseemly haste but properly. If that is not the case, almost certainly one of those Commonwealth parliamentarians will use this as an example of what should not be done.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, at Question Time this afternoon the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, asked a very pertinent Question of Her Majesty's Government concerning what proposals there were to limit the amount of legislation that is churned out by government. As far as I am concerned, he was speaking of Governments of all colours. I did not take part in
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If one holds up this issue to that template, the case against this part of the Bill is very clearly made out. We are told that the number of constituencies shall be reduced from 650 to 600. It seems to me that the arguments that are put in favour of that are woefully inadequate and, indeed, very thin on any account. It is said that it would save £12 million per annum. That is a vast amount of money as far as individuals are concerned but it seems to me that you can never guarantee that £12 million would be saved, or even that there would be any net saving at all, because if you change the rules to that extent one never knows what the costs of the other system-the alternative system-would be unless those have been calculated to a very fine degree, which is not the case.
The other argument deployed is that many other European parliaments have fewer than 650 Members. Of course they have, because two-thirds of them have a population that is a half, a third, a quarter or even a 10th of our own, so what sort of argument is that? When one compares the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons with the comparable situation in Italy and France, one finds oneself very much on a par. Therefore, it seems to me that there is no real argument at all in favour of a reduction. That, I suggest, is the real issue here-not whether the reduction should be X or Y but whether there should be a reduction at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, whose speech greatly impressed me, as always, made it clear that a decision should have been taken on the basis of evidence. He and I have lived in a world where people have been determined on the basis of evidence, and on inferences that can be drawn from evidence. Where is the evidence here? You would not hang a dog on these arguments-the £12-million argument and the argument of comparability with other countries. It is perfectly clear that in the past 60 years the number of Members of Parliament has increased-not by much, by 4 per cent-and that during that period the population has increased by 25 per cent.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, advocates an independent examination by the great and the good. I would dearly welcome that. I made my next point last week and apologise for repeating it but that body might come to the conclusion that there should be a reduction. On the other hand, it might come to a conclusion that there should be more Members of Parliament. As we have heard from many noble Lords, Members of Parliament are far more get-attable in this modern, electronic age than they ever were. I was a Member of the other place 40 years ago, and I had a very literate and, if I may say so, literary constituency. I had to reply in my own impossible hieroglyphic hand to dozens of letters nearly every day. I shudder to think what the situation would be now with electronic communication.
One does not need any great imagination to ask the question: upon what real evidence is a diminution in the number of Members of Parliament based at all? Is it based on party considerations? I hope not. That would be very unworthy of any of the persons concerned. Is it based upon populism? It may well be. If this issue had been raised perhaps five or 10 years ago, before there was the general opprobrium in which, rightly or wrongly, so many Members of Parliament are held, would the attitude have been the same?
Some years ago, a distinguished Conservative Member of Parliament was giving evidence to the Boundary Commission. I do not have the exact wording, but I can guarantee that this essentially is what he said: "Some of my colleagues are in favour of reducing the number of Members of Parliament, but I am not". That was Mr Cameron, the Member for Witney. What has changed in the past five or six years? Do the Government really believe that there is a genuine case-a case in reality and in integrity-for a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament? It is only the Government themselves who can answer that question; and it is a vital question.
I make no apology for having taken part in this debate. I wish to mention one matter before I take my seat. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Swynnerton and I were suspected last week of having taken part in a filibuster. We spoke very briefly. We made very different points. His were at least as good as mine, but they were pertinent to the issue. I do not think that it came within a thousand miles of a filibuster. To my mind, a filibuster is what happened in the House of Commons at the very end of the 19th century. A Member by the name of Tim Healy-an Irishman who was a brilliant Member and was the first Speaker of the Dáil in the 20th century-had spoken for two and a half years-
Lord Elystan-Morgan: Two and a half hours. To the Speaker of the House of Commons, it may have seemed two and a half years. The Speaker got to his feet and said very politely to him, "Mr Healy, for quite some time now I have been trying to associate your argument with the matter before the House". Healy said: "Mr Speaker, sir, I apologise profusely. In which case, I have no alternative but to repeat the whole of my remarks". Nothing like that has happened in this place, and I certainly, apologia pro vita mea, et the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, plead that we did not come within a thousand miles of doing that.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: What we have listened to for the past hour and a half is a simple question: what is the evidence? Where are the facts? Quite frankly, I am as puzzled now as I was then, because we have heard only one contribution from the whole of the Benches opposite. Perhaps on this side of the Chamber there are more contributions because this House and the other House always relish people who speak from their own experience. What we are discussing is the impact upon not only Parliament but Members of Parliament, if the change takes place.
We can all speak from our own experience. I became a Member of the Commons in 1974. It is now more
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I once sat down to a meal in my first year, in 1974, when I happened to be an official on one of the all-party committees. Our guest was Sir Roy Strong, who lived in my constituency, Edmonton. He said, "Ted, I often see your name doing things in the constituency. That is marvellous. How often do you come there?". I said, "I live there". He said, "How often do you meet your constituents?". I said, "I meet them every day, because I come up from Bush Hill Park station to Seven Sisters and change. I speak to my constituents". He said, "Yes, but what happens about their problems?". I said, "Every Friday morning, I go to Edmonton Green market and they stop to tell me their problems. If they are complicated, I say, 'Come down to my surgery'". He said, "How often do you meet your constituents in the surgery?". I said, "Once every fortnight, without fail; but I deal also with big postbags and small". I said I remembered that I once, from one fortnight to the next, dealt with 100 cases. I listened to them; it was not a case worker or researcher who did that for me. I did it for myself. He said, "That is impressive". He turned to my other colleague and asked, "Do you have something like Ted's record in this?". The other parliamentarian said, "Perhaps I do not go down as often, but I meet my constituents about 15 times a year". I asked, "How does that happen?". He said, "I have five towns in my constituency. Three times a year, the Saturday before Parliament meets, I have a surgery. It is advertised. I am there at 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock and 11 o'clock. I have five places where I meet my constituents and I am there three times a year each. That is 15 times". I said, "Do you mean that you give up three Saturday mornings?". He said, "Yes, but it is not too far to come to Westminster by train. They can come and see me".
I reflected upon the different ways in which a constituency MP looks upon his job. Some look upon it as literally being a shepherd-someone who is there to lead the flock, but is always to be there. I listened, as we all did, to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Maples, who obviously spoke on behalf of the whole Back Benches on the government side, because we have not heard another contribution to this debate from them. He made me think, because he said that among his ambitions would be to reduce the amount of money spent on staff for Members of Parliament, who do all sorts of things that other people could do. You cannot have it both ways. If a Member of Parliament needs the assistance that Members of all parties have enjoyed for the past 10 or 15 years and this cannot be sustained, that means that the Member of Parliament will take on a heavier workload. I wonder what the
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I am puzzled by the silence of the lambs; that was the title of a film that I saw. Noble Lords on the other side of the Chamber are keeping silent, first, because they have been told to. As good party Members, they support their Government. I do not blame them for that. However, at the end of the day they must ask themselves whether this is the way that we should conduct our business. When I was the opposition Chief Whip many years ago, I dealt with four Chief Whips. The noble Lord, Lord Denham-Bertie Denham, a marvellous man-was succeeded by Alexander Hesketh, by the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, and then by a man who was then much younger and more sprightly, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I say without a shadow of a doubt that I never had a problem with any of the four, and nor did they have a problem with me.
Whenever I was asked outside the House what the Chief Whip does, I would say that he is a last resort for avoiding trouble in the Chamber. I wrote a book called From Tyne to Thames Via the Usual Channels. People asked whether "the usual channels" was an allusion to Tyneside or the Thames. I explained that the job of the Chief Whips, when there was trouble in the Chamber, was to meet, and that I could not recall an occasion when the government Chief Whip of the day was unable to come back and say that the matter had been solved. There was parley: you gave and you took, and there was a settlement. What I cannot understand about the present position is the downgrading of the worth and the quality of the usual channels. I am satisfied that if the government Front Bench wished, they would be able to find a compromise, because at the end of the day that is what the government Chief Whip is for.
In the last great constitutional debate, in 1998, I spoke on the second night at 2.30 am. I was speaker 184 in a list of 192. That was all done by agreement. Forget the issues: agreement was reached and we were happy as a Government to collaborate in that situation. When I reflect on the Government's intentions, I find it very sad. The two parties have come together as a coalition and each laid down what they want to get out of their agreement. What suffers as a result is the standing and stature of this place and of the Commons. We should not stand for that here. I am a loyal supporter of my leader, of my Chief Whip and of my Front Bench, and I will do what I am asked to do in this situation. However, I cannot help feeling that this is a sad day and that this is a sad Bill. It is one of many and we should not see any more.
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