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7 Jun 2010 : Column 41

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman normally talks with some knowledge, but he appears to have forgotten that the Parliament Act 1911 instituted five-year parliamentary terms and that the Labour party has just had a five-year parliamentary term. It is difficult for him to see the coalition Government introduce all the changes that he used to talk about and failed to deliver. You had 13 years finally to do something and introduce political reform. We are finally going to go on and do it.

Kevin Brennan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister, but could you remind him not to ape the Prime Minister in every respect by referring to the Opposition as "you" in the House?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Hugh Bayley): I think that the Deputy Prime Minister knows the form of address for the House.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes; I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for, once again, really picking out the important things in the debate today.

We are also committed to strengthening Parliament by introducing the Wright Committee's proposals, starting with the proposed committee for the management of Back-Bench business before the subsequent introduction of a House business committee to consider Government business.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I should like to make a bit of progress if I may.

We also plan to strengthen the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, too, by implementing recommendations from the Calman commission's final report. Equally, Wales will get a referendum on further devolution-a decision that will be taken by the Welsh people.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman says that there will be a referendum in Wales on the All Wales Convention's proposals. Does he support a yes vote in that referendum, and do the Government support a yes vote in that referendum?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, the Government do support a yes vote in that referendum. As for the referendum's timing, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister are meeting today, with a view to identifying a date-most likely, in the first few months of next year-to hold that referendum.

Here in London, as we strengthen Parliament, we must of course ensure that we have cleaned it up, too. Radical steps have already been taken to put in place a new expenses regime. Although the way that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is working in its early days may be controversial to some hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that everyone agrees that public confidence in how MPs are paid is absolutely crucial. Our personal arrangements should never be so grossly out of step with those of our
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constituents, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is already talking to IPSA about how we can move away from the generous final salary pension scheme enjoyed by Members of the House.

Expenses were only ever the tip of the iceberg. The influence of big money runs much deeper. It is time to finish what was started three years ago in the cross-party talks on party funding. Every party has had its own problems, but we all now have an opportunity to draw a line under them, so we will seize that opportunity. We will pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding to remove big money from politics for good.

Equally, we all remember the outrage felt in all parts of the House at the lobbying scandals that unfolded just a few months ago, before the general election. Much lobbying activity is perfectly legitimate. Much of it serves an important function, allowing different organisations and charities to make representations to Parliament, but it is a process-I am sure everyone agrees on this-that must be made completely transparent. We are committed to ensuring that transparency and we will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists.

Finally, if, once all those reforms are in place, there are individual parliamentarians who still break the rules, we will also guarantee that the House of Commons is not a safe house. We will introduce legislation to ensure that, where it has been proven that a Member has been engaged in serious wrongdoing, their constituents will have the right to organise a petition to force a by-election.

When people have been let down by their MP in that way, they must not be made to wait until the next election to cast their judgment, but I also want to be clear: recall will not collapse into some tit-for-tat game between party political rivals, with parties seeking to oust each other through those petitions. When MPs are accused of doing something seriously wrong, they are entitled-everyone is entitled in the House-to expect a fair and due process to determine their innocence or guilt. That is why I certainly would not be content for a body composed only of MPs, as the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges was, to be the sole route by which we decide an MP's culpability. That is why we are looking into exactly what would be the fairest, most appropriate and most robust trigger. I shall outline those plans very soon.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): May I take the Deputy Prime Minister back from recall of MPs to the issue of recall of Governments? I am still not entirely sure that he answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I understand the point that the Deputy Prime Minister is making about there needing to be a 50 per cent. majority vote of no confidence. The issue under debate is how that would trigger a general election. Will he explain why the Government appear to have hit on a figure that bears a dramatic resemblance to their own figures and their own strength, rather than the general party balance in Parliament? Why that figure?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have already explained, and the hon. Gentleman must accept, that, clearly, there needs to be a different figure for the motion of no confidence, which stands, and the figure for dissolution-a new right for Parliament.

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I have also explained that, when we table the legislation, we will of course ensure that no Government can fall between those two things-a motion of no confidence and a vote of dissolution. We will, as is the case in many other parliamentary systems, set out how we can avoid a limbo in which a Government do not enjoy the confidence of the House yet a vote has not taken place, or cannot take place, to dissolve Government. That is what we will do. Instead of constantly seeking to see plots around every single corner, driven by a touch of party paranoia, I ask the hon. Gentleman to relax and wait until he has seen the legislation. Then we can have the debate.

Mr Straw: Frankly, if these proposals are formed already, the Deputy Prime Minister needs, if I may say so, better to spell out how they would operate. Will he please, for the benefit of the House, explain what would happen following a vote of no confidence? Let us take as an example what happened in '79-the vote of no confidence. Everybody knew that that would trigger a general election. If there had been a 55% threshold, there could not have been a general election; there would have been limbo. What is his proposal for filling that gap?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Government are three weeks old. The right hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that these are very important matters. We want to get them right. I have indicated today, quite clearly, that this is not just a matter of the vote of no confidence and a threshold for a vote for dissolution, and that we need to fill in the details of the legislation to prevent what I think he is rightly concerned about, which is a Government not enjoying the confidence of the House, yet a vote of dissolution-

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I should like to make progress. I have said as much as I can and wish to say at this stage on that issue.

The power of recall is just one of a range of reforms intended to shift power directly to the British people.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister knows that I approve of and support the power of recall, but I have talked to him about the scope for individual injustice in a scheme that is triggered by something that is not judicial. In his remarks about the power of recall, is he telling us that the triggering procedure, which would currently be the Privileges Committee, would become more quasi-judicial than it is now?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can confirm that I believe it would be wrong for a Committee that, as constituted previously, is composed only of other politicians, to act as judge and jury for something as important as the trigger that would lead to a by-election and a Member losing their seat. Exactly how we could provide a fairer form of due process so that MPs are not unfairly ensnared in the mechanism of recall is the subject of reflection now. If the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member has any ideas about how we should do this, I should be grateful to hear from them.

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Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I shall give way one more time, then I shall make progress.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is being very generous. I do not expect that he will be able to represent the whole of the Conservative party in terms of policy, but if the Conservative party is committed to fixed-term Parliaments, can he explain why, during the general election, the Prime Minister committed his party to holding a general election within six months if the Prime Minister was removed? That is hardly compatible with a commitment to a fixed term.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The coalition agreement, which binds the Government as a whole, is very clear that we want to see fixed-term Parliaments. We will table legislation for a fixed-term Parliament. We will table a motion before the legislation is introduced to make sure that the political commitment to a fixed-term Parliament is made completely clear. There is consensus across the whole House on the virtues of fixed-term Parliaments. This is another issue on which the hon. Gentleman and so many others on the Opposition Benches, having failed to introduce this change for the past 13 years, are coming up with a series of synthetic reasons why they should oppose something that they themselves used to propose.

We also want- [Interruption.] I shall make progress. We want people to be able to initiate debates here in the Commons through public petitions, we want a new public reading stage for Bills, we want people to be able to instigate local referendums on issues that matter to their neighbourhoods, and we want people to decide directly if they want to change the system by which they elect their MPs, which is why there will be a referendum on the alternative vote. I will announce the date of that referendum in due course.

Electoral reform should, the Government believe, also include-

Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way. He will have heard the answer that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) gave when I asked him whether it had been the case that the outgoing Labour Prime Minister had offered, during the coalition negotiations, to ram through the alternative vote without a referendum. I am not giving away any trade secrets when I say that Conservative MPs were told that that was the case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in a position to know. Were the Liberal Democrats offered by the Labour party the alternative vote without a referendum? Can he set the matter to rest?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The answer is no. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was right. That was not offered by the Labour party in those discussions. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is right-I should know whether it was offered or not.

Emily Thornberry: Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to address the issue of low voter registration? He may well know that on 23 February 2006 in Islington
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town hall there was an attempt to increase voter registration by the Labour group, which was voted down by the Liberals. After the proposal was voted down, the leader of the Liberal council shouted across the chamber, "That's how we win elections."

The Deputy Prime Minister: We believe, as did the previous Government, that we need to introduce individual voter registration. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn that that should be pursued, particularly if it is accelerated, with great care. It is a resource-intensive thing to do. We need to get it right.

The current legislation, which the right hon. Gentleman and others introduced, allows for voluntary individual voter registration to start now, with a view to moving towards a compulsory system by 2015, if I am correct. There is now an issue about whether we want to accelerate that process, but we can all agree that if we do so it must be properly resourced and organised.

I should now like to address the issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised at quite some length: the redrawing of Britain's unfair electoral boundaries. I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that must be done with care, but he must agree with me that the need for care is not a reason not to act at all. The most recent boundary review in England began in 2000 and took six years to report. By the time the new constituencies were used in the general election last month, the population of one in five constituencies in England was more than 10% above or below that review's target figure of 69,900. In the most extreme case, we have one constituency that is five times the size of another. That is simply not right. It is the ultimate postcode lottery, whereby the weight of one's vote depends on where one lives, so I ask the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to engage fully with the process as, over the coming months, Parliament has its say on an overall but modest reduction in the number of House of Commons seats.

Mr Straw: The right hon. Gentleman refers to the contrast between the Western Isles, with 22,000 people, and the Isle of Wight, with more than 100,000. I do not argue that the Isle of Wight be represented by only one Member, but does he suggest that the separate considerations that have been made for island communities, including separate seats for the Western Isles, for Orkney and for Shetland, be abandoned in favour of a strict electoral quota, as the Conservatives proposed before the election?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not saying that there will be a rigid, arithmetical formula which- [ Interruption. ] No, there will be- [ Interruption. ] Let me finish. There will be a consistent approach towards the equalisation of constituencies throughout the nation, but of course that approach will need to accommodate some of the specific characteristics and features of the nations and regions of this country. We are now working on how we do that, and of course we will come forward with proposals.

However, I again ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he seriously thinks it acceptable that one fifth of constituencies in England are now 10% above or below the target population figure that was set when those boundaries were last reviewed? Surely he must accept that that issue requires another look, and that it is not
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wrong to aspire to such a House of Commons, which, in terms of the total number of MPs, is already far, far larger than was originally envisaged.

Mr Straw rose-

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) rose-

The Deputy Prime Minister: I give way first to the right hon. Member for Blackburn.

Mr Straw: First, on the size of the House, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the number of MPs has gone down a little since 2005, and that, although the size of the House has increased by 3% in the past 50 years, the electorate for which we are responsible has increased by 25% and our work load has shot up dramatically. I regard as completely spurious his argument that there would be some net saving by reducing the total number of MPs, unless our constituents are to receive a far less good service than they receive at the moment.

Secondly, of course we will examine proposals for ensuring that the system can be speeded up, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if future reviews are to be sensible and fair- [ Interruption. ] If future reviews are to be sensible and fair, they must take account of not only registered electors, but the 3.5 million people who, the Electoral Commission says, are eligible to vote but not on the register.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a problem, and that is exactly why the acceleration of the individual voter registration system must be done in a way that successfully addresses that problem, rather than exacerbates it.

The right hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues basically have a choice about the issue of a referendum on the alternative vote and the linked issue of a boundary review. Either he tries to see the issue-slightly neurotically-through the prism of pure party interest, whereby all he wants to do is to adopt a defensive position to protect his own party's arithmetical standing in this House, or he and his colleagues should in my view be prepared to engage with the serious issue at hand, which is that constituencies are unequal, the weight of people's votes is unequal and that that is simply not an acceptable position at a time when we have this great opportunity to renew our democracy from top to toe. That is a choice that he should make.

On everything from this matter to the 55% threshold, I would say two things. First, it is a political choice for Labour Members as to whether they want to leap straight from government, having failed to move on all these things, to outright oppositionism driven by the slightly paranoid sense that everything is targeted at them and no one else, or engage seriously in what I believe is a promising moment in our political history to reform things, and reform things for good.

Alun Michael rose-

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will take one more intervention, and then make some progress.

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