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7 Jun 2010 : Column 29

Mr Straw: I will make a little more progress before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

For seven years after the 1999 change, the absence of any clear consensus blocked further reform. It will be recalled that in early 2003, this House voted against every single one of seven alternative propositions put before it, ranging from an all-appointed to an all-elected House of Lords. I took over responsibility for Lords reform, in that time-honoured passage from Foreign Secretary to Leader of the House, and duly established a cross-party group. Its key conclusions, which worked very well, were set out in a February 2007 Green Paper.

Thankfully, in March 2007 this House voted emphatically in favour of two consistent propositions-an 80% or 100% elected House of Lords-and against all other choices. That proposition for a wholly or mainly elected House has been the foundation for progress since. The cross-party group re-met for 15 months and did a great deal of detailed work on how an elected Lords might operate, and its conclusions were contained in the July 2008 White Paper.

At the most recent general election-for the first time-all three parties were clearly committed to action to secure an elected House of Lords. Further work to ensure that should be straightforward: a great deal has already been done, including, as the Deputy Prime Minister knows, the drafting of many of the key clauses to form the central part of any Bill. I pledge that my party will work constructively on that with him and his Administration, and with luck, we may be able to mark the centenary of the first Parliament Act with legislation finally to meet its long-term goal.

The proposal for a referendum on voting reform is another long-running issue in British politics. It took the expenses scandal for broad agreement to emerge that at the very least the British people should be given the opportunity to decide whether they wish to continue with the existing first-past-the-post system or to move to the alternative vote system. Legislation for an AV referendum was agreed earlier this year by the House by a very substantial majority of 365 to 187. That would have become law by the general election but for the refusal of the Conservative party to allow it to go through in the so-called wash-up. I am glad that the rather spurious objections that the Conservatives raised then have now dissolved. We shall, of course, support clauses on AV if they are put before the House in a similar form to last time.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in the course of the competitive negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as to which side was going to form a Government, his party offered the Liberal Democrats a deal whereby AV would be rammed through this House without a referendum?

Mr Straw: The answer is no. I would also say to the hon. Gentleman that a very significant proportion of Labour Members, including myself, would never have accepted such a proposition had it been put forward-let us be absolutely clear about that.

We support proposals for recall, which we proposed before the election, although the detail will have to be carefully thought through.

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Many of the other aspects set out in the coalition agreement are non-controversial. I am glad to see the Administration support the proposals of the Wright Committee, and I hope that we will see good progress made on them. I say parenthetically, on a subject that concerned me greatly when I was in government, that I continue to be concerned about how we conduct our Report and Committee stages on the Floor of the House.

There is another unsatisfactory matter, and I hope that the Leader of the House will consider it. Since there is likely to be some element of timetabling, or even if there is not, we need better order when the House is considering legislation clause by clause, not least by allowing the Chair a discretion to set time limits on speeches. One of the most important functions discharged by this House on the Floor of the House is the consideration of legislation. The old system before 1997 led to great frustration, as did the system post-1997. What we have not yet got right is adequate provision to ensure that Back Benchers especially can take part constructively in debates without those debates being undermined either by too hasty Government timetables or, frankly, by some Back Benchers hogging the whole of the time by filibustering.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): On the questions of Lords reform and the legislation for a referendum on voting reform, may we have a clarification from Labour that both will be the subject on the Labour Benches of three-line Whips here and in the House of Lords?

Mr Straw: The hon. Gentleman will have to allow me to say that I consult my colleagues about the whipping arrangements that would apply. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) is speculating about whether the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is worried about something. My advice is for him to worry about how he and his party are going to vote and we will worry about how we vote.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con) rose-

Mr Straw: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I want to make some progress.

Mr Jackson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I am glad that the sinner is repenting. Does he regret the use of the guillotine on so many important Bills during the last Parliament? In the Housing and Regeneration Bill, for instance, which I was involved in, more than 200 Government clauses were tabled between Second Reading and Report, so Members were not allowed proper analysis and oversight of that important legislation. [Interruption.]

Mr Straw: My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) says that there were no guillotines, as they were programme motions-but they come to the same thing.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) that I regret the use of guillotines full stop, but sometimes they are necessary. However, I sat in the House in opposition for 18 years, and the first
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Bill I sat on-the Housing Bill, in early 1980, 30 years ago-was the subject of the most ruthless guillotining, and that on a major measure. There are plenty of other measures of profound importance that were also the subject of guillotining.

My view, both in government and in opposition, has been that the House-certainly over the 30 years in which I have been in it-has not got right the way in which it should deal effectively with legislation on the Floor of the House, and I think that there is a better way. We need to provide for more time, but if we do that, the quid pro quo needs to be limits on speeches, so that people can constructively take part. We also need to look at something that I facilitated on at least one occasion, which is ensuring that when the business is subject to programming or guillotining, some Opposition and Back-Bench amendments can also be the subject of votes. I put those proposals before the House for consideration.

I have set out our view on many of the proposals that are, and will be, the subject of a broad consensus. As I have said, on every proposal that the Deputy Prime Minister brings forward, we shall seek constructively to work with the Government to achieve consensus. However, it seems that consensus was the last thing on the mind of the governing parties, when one turns to some of the elements of the coalition agreement. In his first speech as Deputy Prime Minister, outside the House, the right hon. Gentleman told the nation that he proposed to secure the biggest shake-up of our democracy since the Reform Act of 1832. He described the Reform Act of 1832 as a "landmark", from

we have heard that phrase before-

Well, not quite, Mr Speaker, for the truth is that even after the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, huge swathes of the population-92% of the population-remained without a vote, helpless in the face of vested interests. The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote, a limited franchise, to the property-owning class, of whom there were remarkably few, and deliberately ensured that nobody else had the vote-no women, no working men; just 16% of men, and no women whatever.

Let me also say to the right hon. Gentleman that had the Great Reform Act been the landmark in democracy that he suggested-I do not know where he got that from; certainly not even from Wikipedia-none of the agitation of the Chartist movement that followed would have been necessary. Those of us who know a little bit of history will remember that it was the wholly dashed expectations of 1832 that fired up the great Chartist movement. However, the comparison with 1832, if not appropriate, is certainly heavy with unintended irony, for, however limited the effect, the first Reform Act at least extended the franchise. The programme to which the right hon. Gentleman has signed up will reduce the franchise, as I will explain. Some reform!

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The former Minister is making an interesting speech about equality, but will he confirm that it was actually a Conservative
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Government, in 1927, who gave full equality to women and the right for them to vote, and that they did so after a Labour Government, under Ramsay MacDonald, had failed in their promise to do so?

Mr Straw: First, that was quite a long time after 1832. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman might recall, the vote was originally given to women over 30 in 1918, and then extended to those over 21 in 1928.

Let me come to the partisan heart of the Government's constitutional proposals: the plans to cut parliamentary seats, redraw boundaries and speed up individual registration. If those proposals were implemented, they would disfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens, predominantly the young and members of lower-income groups. Seats would be cut and boundaries fundamentally altered by rigid mathematical formulae devised on the basis of the current electoral register.

According to the Electoral Commission, however, some 3.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register, and that is just in England and Wales. Earlier this year, the commission reported

The commission's study established that in Glasgow 100,000 eligible voters might be missing from the register, quite sufficient to raise all Glasgow seats to the electoral average for Great Britain and to provide for one additional constituency.

Cutting seats and redrawing boundaries in that way, without taking account of the missing voters, will produce a profoundly distorted electoral map of Britain. The map will be even further distorted if this boundary review is undertaken, as the Government have proposed, in tandem with the premature roll-out of individual voter registration, because that process will knock many more eligible people off the register-hundreds of thousands of them.

We are in favour of individual registration. Indeed, it was I who, last year, presented proposals for a new law, which received all-party agreement. But as all the parties agreed just nine months ago, to be fair the process will take both time and money.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con) rose-

Mr Straw: I am glad to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) in the Chamber, because she played an important and constructive part in securing individual registration. She also went on record as saying, from the Conservative Front Bench, that any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process. She agreed that we must wait for the 2012 census. It is unclear whether the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing to do that. She also agreed that there must be ways of testing the accuracy of the system, as our legislation does with the requirement for a report from the Electoral Commission in 2014, and she said in terms that we must ensure that the system was utterly watertight. I hope that she still takes that view.

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Mrs Laing: I certainly do still take that view 100%, but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that, when we debated individual voter registration, it was established that the system was intended to increase, not decrease. the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. Lessons have been learnt from what happened in Northern Ireland. Under the new system, the register will be more accurate and more comprehensive, and it will be fair to have constituencies that are of equal size, so that every vote has equal value.

Mr Straw: That is the aspiration, and I do not for a second doubt the good faith of the hon. Lady. I am glad to hear her endorse those proposals-now, sadly, from the Back Benches. As she knows, however, because we had detailed and collaborative discussions on the issue, if the process for individual registration is rushed-and the phrase used in the coalition agreement is "speed this up"-the consequence will be not what she and we seek, but what happened in Northern Ireland. As the Electoral Commission spelt out, what happened in Northern Ireland in 2002 was that a sudden change in the system of electoral registration, although there was a centralised system, led to the immediate loss of nearly 120,000 names-nearly 10%-from the register. The commission said:

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest, but a lot of what he is saying is pure speculation. Does he think that the current system, with its vast discrepancies in constituency size, is fair? The Government in which he served did nothing to address that, yet it needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Mr Straw: Nobody argues that it is not important to secure electoral equality in England, Scotland and Wales-where different rules have applied, which is a separate issue-but that must also be subject to other rules involving geography and history, as I shall explain. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the data, he will see that nowadays Labour seats in Scotland and Wales are larger than the few Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats in those two nations. In England, our seats are 3% smaller than the electoral average, and those of the Conservatives are 3% larger. There are also some very large Labour seats these days, however, as well as large Conservative seats. We pursued the same rules as previous Administrations, and the reasons for the recent trends is that there has been more rapid depopulation in areas that are typically Labour, mainly inner cities, although that is now changing.

What is crucial is that these changes are done in a fair way, by agreement between the parties, not in a partisan way. Professor Iain McLean, a lecturer at Oxford university and an elections expert, warned last month that

and that it

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Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): On the question of city seats, is my right hon. Friend aware that the first casualty could be the Deputy Prime Minister in his Hallam seat in the city of Sheffield-unless, of course, they try to manoeuvre the boundaries so as to try to save his neck, which would test the coalition?

Mr Straw: There is no doubt that the biggest net losers under the current proposals in the so-called coalition agreement would be the Liberal Democrats, for reasons that I shall spell out.

On election night, when the Deputy Prime Minister heard that people had been locked out of the polling stations and prevented from casting their ballots, he said:

Yet he now proposes a programme that could have the effect of disfranchising not only some hundreds in his own constituency, but some hundreds of thousands across the United Kingdom. I urge him to think very carefully about what is being proposed.

As for the proposal to cut the number of seats, we need not speculate about the Conservative party's intentions because they are on the record. Just months before the general election, the Conservative Front-Bench team moved the most detailed amendments to cut the number of seats by 10% and to force the redrawing of the boundaries by rules requiring that arithmetical quotas trump all other considerations. I have a copy of one such amendment before me. It says that the electorate

only a 3% margin would be allowed-

The scheme, therefore, is that arithmetic will trump all, so that history, geography, mountains, rivers, and even communities and the sea, are to be subordinated to arithmetical rules.

The effects would be extraordinary, especially in Scotland. The Orkney and Shetland electorate is 33,000. Under these proposals-official Conservative proposals-Orkney and Shetland would have to be jammed in with Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which has an electorate of 47,000 in order to make a single seat exactly within the electoral average. The Western Isles, with an electorate of 22,000, is the smallest constituency in the United Kingdom. It would have to be jammed in with a vast swathe of the western highlands-of western Scotland, indeed. In England and Wales, too, long-established patterns of democracy would be destroyed in pursuit of the new Conservative formulae. How such changes, defying history and geography and people's own sense of place, could possibly be said to strengthen our democracy I do not know. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will be able to tell us whether he is comfortable with this scheme.

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