Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab):
Sometimes when we talk about geography, we do not appreciate the full extent of the situation. My constituency is about the size of Luxembourg and will not meet the 75,000 threshold. The constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter
Ross, whose Member is here today, is the size of Cyprus; and the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats is the size of the Bahamas. It is not just a matter of numbers but of geographical extent, which makes the proposal for a 75,000 threshold ludicrous.
Mr Straw: My right hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the truth is that under the amendment to which I referred-there is no need to speculate because this is what is proposed-all the considerations that she and the whole House are concerned about, along, I dare say, with voters across the highlands and islands of Scotland and in many other places as well, would be swept aside, "subordinate", as the amendment says, to a simple arithmetical rule.
I have said to the House that we favour a referendum on the alternative vote, but I make it clear that we will not allow that to be used as a Trojan horse for an omnibus Bill that will profoundly harm our democracy. The Liberal Democrats would do well to consider the damage to democracy that will arise from these proposals. If appealing to their sense of democracy is not enough, then I appeal to their sense of self-interest. [ Interruption. ] That is always best with Liberal Democrats. Why do they and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam think that the Conservatives are now pursuing this idea? It is not out of any principled concern about the size of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister argued passionately against a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament when he was defending the size of his own constituency before the 2003 inquiry into the boundaries in Oxfordshire. The Liberal Democrats have now apparently been pulled along in the wake of this undemocratic proposal to cut seats, yet the Liberal Democrats in Oxfordshire were not then arguing for the status quo of six seats in Oxfordshire--which, at least the Prime Minister was arguing for--but for seven seats, which would have led to a House of Commons of 700.
We need to understand that a 10% reduction in the number of seats and rigid mathematical formulae will change every single boundary in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) mentioned, that is where the Liberal Democrats are uniquely vulnerable. Their seats are isolated-tiny dots of orange in seas of red or blue-and they have proportionately twice as many marginal seats as either of the other parties. I hope the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam will accept that this proposal is dangerous-dangerous to his own party, for sure, but to the legitimacy of our democracy, as well. There is to be an argument about reducing the number of seats and the way we conduct boundary reviews, but the better way through, since so many reviews have already been set up, is to have an independent examination of how we conduct boundary reviews. That would be far better than the crude and undemocratic system that is being proposed.
Let me make this last point to the right hon. Gentleman. In the United States-this idea came from there-they have simple, rigid arithmetical rules. As the Electoral Reform Society-no great friend of mine and hard-wired into the Liberal Democrat party--has pointed out, the United States also has the worst gerrymandering in the world.
That brings me to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) raised: the proposal for a 55% threshold to secure the dissolution of Parliament. That 55% threshold appeared in no party manifesto. It is a partisan measure stitched up by the coalition partners to protect themselves from each other-nobody else-while retaining their ability to go for an early election if they believe it would be advantageous.
Where does the figure of 55% come from? That is an interesting question. [Interruption.] Well, I am going to give the answer. It comes from the fact that the Liberals and the Conservatives together have-guess what-57% of the seats in the current Parliament. They would, thus, have the power to dissolve this Parliament if the polls and the signs looked encouraging. The Conservatives, on their own, hold 47% of the seats and the rest of the parties hold 53%, so in the event of a Conservative minority Government it would be impossible to reach the 55% threshold required to force an election. If that is not a political fix, I do not know what is.
The Labour party agrees with fixed-term Parliaments, in principle, and our manifesto included a commitment to legislate. However, given that most Parliaments since the war have lasted four years or less, we favour a four-year term.
Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): Before entering this House, I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me why a 66% threshold was chosen in the Scotland Act 1998 when it went through this House? For what reason was that appropriate then, but not now?
Mr Straw: I can give the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) an answer, and it is not a bad one. He ought to read carefully both limbs of section 3 of the 1998 Act. If he had bothered to read it and if those negotiating this coalition agreement had done so-I have the Act before me for the sake of greater accuracy-they would know what it states. Under section 3(1)(a), the presiding officer has to require an "extraordinary general election"-an early general election-for the Scottish Parliament if two thirds of the Parliament vote for that. However, the provision contains an "or", not an "and", because section 3(1)(b) states that if there is
"any period during which the Parliament is required under section 46 to nominate one of its members for appointment as First Minister ends without such a nomination being made",
after 28 days there has to be a general election. That election is triggered by a simple majority, not by a two thirds one. Therefore, we should hear no more rubbish about there being a two thirds lock in the Scottish Parliament, because it is not true.
Angus Robertson: Please can we never again hear this comparison with the situation in the Scottish Parliament on this point, because it is totally spurious? The 66% threshold is required for the immediate dissolution of the Scottish Parliament, but 50% remains the threshold for a confidence vote, as it should remain in this House.
Mr Straw: I should also tell hon. Members that if they were to read section 3 of the 1998 Act, they would find that if, for example, the First Minister is voted out by a simple majority and after 28 days no new First Minister has been voted in, an election has to take place. That is done by a simple majority, so the only effect of this provision is to delay matters by requirements relating to a simple majority and 28 days. There is no parallel, whatsoever, in these arrangements, and the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North knows it.
Sir Alan Beith: Is the right hon. Gentleman's real view that the Prime Minister's unfettered power to call a general election at a time of his choosing should be retained and that we should not have fixed-term Parliaments, or is he proposing an alternative mechanism, be it the Scottish Parliament's combination of a 66% threshold and a one-month rule or some other mechanism?
Mr Straw: I do not understand. Either this has been done for partisan reasons-[Hon. Members: "Answer the question!"] Of course, I am going to answer the question-I always do-but I am allowed to answer the question in my own way. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and I have been debating this for long enough. I say to him that either this has been done for the most crude of partisan reasons, or the Government have simply misunderstood how they can establish fixed-term Parliaments and take away the right of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then. It is very straightforward. We can legislate for fixed-term Parliaments-our view is that we ought to go for four-year, not five-year, Parliaments-and we can also legislate to take away the power of the Prime Minister to recommend Dissolution before then, but what we should not do is legislate to take away the power of the House of Commons to remove a Government. I am afraid that they are doing that on some curious and spurious arithmetic.
"We are not taking away Parliament's right to throw out Government; we're taking away Government's right to throw out Parliament."
I remind the House of an excellent article in The Daily Telegraph, inserted by the right hon. Member for
Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in which he says that the 55%-majority plan will "taint" the "New Politics" and that to
"introduce such a measure in this way is simply wrong."
"The requirement for a 55 per cent majority to dissolve parliament, and thereby dismiss a government, dramatically reduces the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account. It is a major constitutional change, possibly one of the greatest since 1911."
He also draws attention to what would have happened in 1979, which some of us will recall, when the Government of the day lost their majority by one vote. The then Leader of the Labour party and the Government said that there would have to be an election-it followed like night follows day. People talk about having a period of looking at a coalition in such a situation, but what do they think was being done in the days leading up to that vote but searching for a coalition? It was precisely because one was not available that the Government ran out of numbers and the vote was lost. In that situation, when there had been a vote of no confidence in the Government, the Labour Government could have carried on-they might no doubt have wished to-until the following October, because the 55% threshold would not have been achieved. If that had happened, they would have been in the ludicrous and wholly undemocratic position-
Mr Straw: We are not wrong. It is interesting that whenever Ministers have sought to explain this, they have tied themselves in knots. In the very first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, on the day of the Queen's Speech, the poor benighted Deputy Leader of the House got tied in knots not only by Labour Members but by most of the Conservative Members. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to spell out how this is going to work and, above all, to withdraw this ludicrous and undemocratic proposal. I say to him, in the full hearing of a packed Front Bench, that the Deputy Leader of the House also put it on record that the Bill would not be guillotined, so that we could forget about programme motions, and that it would be dealt with on the Floor of the House, but it might never come out of the House, such is the controversy behind it.
Constitutional reform is fundamental for any democracy that wants to renew itself and make itself responsive to the needs of an ever-evolving electorate. The Opposition are in favour of reform that will strengthen Parliament and the democratic process, and we will work constructively to achieve measures with that objective in mind. As it stands, this package of proposals contains far too many partisan political fixes, and is not so much new politics as an old-fashioned stitch-up between the two oldest parties in the House. We oppose those changes and I commend my amendment to the House.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): I thank the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for opening today's debate, which he did at considerable length-so much so that I am increasingly attracted to the idea of time limits on speeches.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke with great knowledge and at times some generosity about our proposed programme. That is no wonder given what we are proposing: a referendum on the alternative vote-a Labour manifesto pledge; the power of recall-a Labour manifesto pledge; moves to reform party funding, fixed-term Parliaments and an elected Second Chamber-all Labour manifesto pledges. In fact, never before will a Government have delivered quite so many of Labour's election promises. Who would have thought it would be a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that finally got around to doing that?
I recognise of course that the right hon. Gentleman has great authority on those matters. His Government, in their early days, had a clear reformist streak-devolution, freedom of information and progress on Lords reform. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost, but after the right hon. Gentleman's speech today perhaps that zeal for political reform, which Labour lost in government, will now be rediscovered in opposition.
I have heard the right hon. Gentleman's concerns, particularly his lengthy concerns about the boundary review, which seem a little coloured by the almost unsettling suspicion that there is a political plot at every turn. I shall seek to address some of his concerns, although I shall leave debate about the merits or otherwise of the 1832 Act to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and other historians. I shall focus primarily on the constitutional reforms being pursued by the Government, for which I have direct responsibility, although I shall say a few words about some of the issues raised by the Opposition that will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She will pick up those issues later.
On the constitutional side, yes, of course we will need to work out the precise detail of the reforms we are proposing, but I sincerely hope that their underlying principles will bring both sides of the House together. Despite any differences, we all share a single ambition: to restore people's faith in their politics and their politicians. The Government's plans will do just that, because our programme turns a page on Governments who hoard power, on Parliaments that look inwards rather than outwards, and on widespread disengagement among people who feel locked out of decisions that affect their everyday lives. This is a moment when together we have a real opportunity to change our politics for good.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not think anyone in the House, and particularly outside it, would question the value of trying to reduce the cost of Parliament, by making a modest cut in the total numbers. I do not judge the quality of our democracy-nor should the hon. Gentleman-by the simple number of politicians in the House.
Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could clarify the issue I put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) earlier. Can the
right hon. Gentleman tell us with a straight face exactly how he alighted on the figure of 55% rather than 54%, 56% or even 66% in his proposals? What was the logic of 55%-straight-faced?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I shall come to that in greater detail in a minute. Quite simply, the logic is to stop any single party doing what happens at the moment, which is timing the occasion of a general election for pure party self-interest. That is what needs to be removed if we are to have proper fixed-term Parliaments. The hon. Gentleman, if he agrees with his Front-Bench colleagues, supports fixed-term Parliaments, yet he has absolutely no proposals on how to implement them in practice.
First, we need to relinquish Executive control. The Government are determined that no Government should be able to play politics with the dates of a general election. [ Interruption. ] I am addressing the point that was made. Parliamentary terms should be fixed for five years.
We need a new right for Parliament to request a Dissolution, taking away the Prime Minister's exclusive and traditional right to call an election when he or she wishes. The majority required for early Dissolution-set at 55% in the coalition agreement-has clearly sparked a lot of anguish among the Opposition. It should; it is an important decision that will, of course, be properly considered by the whole House, as the legislation progresses. But the Opposition in their amendment today are wilfully misrepresenting how that safeguard will function. Their amendment deliberately confuses that new right with traditional powers of no confidence, which will remain in place intact.
Let me assure the House that we are already conducting detailed work on the steps that are necessary to remove any theoretical possibility of a limbo in which a Government who could not command the confidence of the House would refuse to dissolve Parliament and give people their say. That would clearly be intolerable. Any new arrangements will need to build on existing conventions, so that a distinction is maintained between no confidence and early Dissolution.
Chris Bryant: The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to hoarding power. Will he explain the length of time that he is talking about-the five-year term-bearing in mind the fact that, since 1832, the average peacetime Parliament has lasted for considerably less than four years, at three years and eight months. Australia and New Zealand have three-year Parliaments. The countries with five-year Parliaments are Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and France. Which is he measuring against?