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Austin Mitchell: I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely; he has made that point very well. That is another good title for MPs: the advocate of last resort-the people's advocate. Well, in my case, I would be their last resort because of the inarticulacy of my advocacy! But that is the nature of the job, and it is no use complaining or saying that it is beneath our dignity to tackle all these problems. It is no use doing as Enoch Powell used to do when anyone raised an issue-
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. I realise that the hon. Gentleman is making some broader points to support his amendment, which proposes 650 Members, and if he could return to that subject I would be enormously grateful.
Austin Mitchell: I am sorry, Ms Primarolo.
I should have said that it is much easier to do this job with 650 MPs, and that it will be much more difficult if the clause passes unamended and reduces the membership of the House to 600. That is the essence of my argument. We are straining to do the job as it is, and we have had to take on more staff. We shall need even more staff if the number of MPs is reduced. It is difficult to do our job, but it is well worth doing.
Mrs Main: I had a degree of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman when he was talking about the strength of the Executive, but if he has time to make TV programmes and do other things outside the House, I cannot believe that he does not have a spare moment, or that a reduction in the number of MPs would not be feasible.
Austin Mitchell: Some of us labour under the misfortune of being better looking than others- [ Laughter. ] We might appear more on television for that reason, although my days as a television hero are long gone. The essence of my argument is that this demand comes to us from the people. This is not about us putting ourselves forward to do the work; the demand comes from the people and they have to be served.
Phil Wilson: The people who support the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 say that it will save about £12 million, but even they are saying that we will need more resources to look after our constituents and that we will therefore need more staff. That £12 million will disappear overnight to pay for the extra resources that we are going to need.
Austin Mitchell: My hon. Friend is right. We cannot economise on democracy. We are a basic part of our democracy. We are the protectors of the people and we cannot economise on that because the demand comes from them, and they have to be served. That is our job. Some people argue that 650 MPs is too many and that this legislature is bigger than others. Yes, it is bigger than many other legislatures, but we have to bear in mind the fact that most other systems are federal. In other words, countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States have elected representatives at several levels of government. We do not. We are the only elected representatives who can act for the people in that way. That is why the figure of 650 appears in my amendment and why there should be no reduction. The proposed reduction in clause 9, which my amendment would stop, is based on a contempt for MPs and the work that they do. I want to reject that contempt.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I shall speak to my amendments 67 and 68. Amendment 67 would substitute the figure of 600 for 585. I tabled the amendment because at the last general election the Conservative party manifesto, on which I was privileged to be re-elected, referred to 585 seats. I have to say that I had some reservations about that part of our manifesto, because I felt that it introduced a degree of inflexibility where, as we have heard from the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Boundary Commission, it is desirable to leave the Boundary Commission with some flexibility in considering these important issues. From the outset of this Parliament, however, I have been trying to get a straight answer-either from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) or the Deputy Leader of the House-to the question why the figure of 600 was chosen.
I take very seriously the allegation made today by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that the figure of 600 was chosen for politically partisan reasons rather than for objective reasons pertaining to good government. I look forward to the Government responding in detail to the question of why 600, rather than 585, which was in our manifesto, was chosen. I note that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is not yet in his place to speak to his amendment 74. It is a corresponding amendment from the Liberal Democrats, calling for a reduction to 500, which was the exact figure that the Liberal Democrats included in their manifesto, on which the hon. Gentleman was re-elected to this House. This is a very serious issue.
The suggestion that the figure of 600 has been plucked out of the air has rather damaging connotations for the credibility of the coalition Government. Let us examine the difference between 600 and 585. With 600 seats, there would be roughly 75,000 to 76,000 electors per constituency. With 585-in other words, a reduction of 2.5% on the 600 figure-an average of 1,800 or so electors would be added to every constituency. Is anyone in government arguing that it is on account of that crucial increase of another 1,800 electors per constituency that we have opted for the 600 figure rather than 585-itself a conveniently round number in the sense that it was a 10% reduction on the present size of the House?
Mr Chope: I give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to intervene.
Mr Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but there is nothing magical about the figure of 600, just as there is nothing magical about 585. One was a 10% reduction; the other a round figure reduction of 50. The figure is not magical; it is simply an arbitrary figure that reduces the size of the House in a way that I believe is consistent with the public mood and the needs of this House.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is an arbitrary figure; I am pleased that he concedes that. He says that it is consistent with the public mood, so let us examine that proposition and let us hope that he will provide some evidence for it when he responds to this debate in due course. He also says that the figure is consistent with the needs of this House. Where is the evidence for that? Why should this House comprise
600 rather than 585 Members? If, by referring to the public mood, the hon. Gentleman means the public's concern about the costs of Parliament, why at the same time as reducing the size of this House are we merrily increasing the number of people in the other place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) asked? Indeed, as he told us, the number has already increased by more than the proposed reduction here.
The Government are proposing to reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 50, but they have already increased the number of Members in the other House by well over 50-getting on for 60-and there is a prospect of substantial further increases. Where is the case for that? How can increasing the size of the unelected House at considerable additional public expense, while at the same time reducing the size of the elected House, accord with the public mood?
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's argument about the House of Lords, but surely the fact that one House is currently moving in the wrong direction does not mean that we should not move in the right direction.
Mr Chope: My hon. Friend has made a perfectly fair point. Let us recall, however, that although the Government have consistently argued that the problem is that this elected House is the largest in the European Union and in most legislatures, they never point out that the other House is larger than this, and that in legislatures not just in the European Union but throughout the globe the revising or upper Chamber, or the senate, is almost invariably not larger but significantly smaller than the elected Chamber. Where is the justification for maintaining a much larger second Chamber? No international relative statistics support the case for very large second Chambers, which seems to be what the Government want to introduce.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made a pertinent point in referring to the size of second Chambers in many modern democracies around the world. The point that he has not made is that in most of those instances the second Chamber is elected, whereas our second Chamber-which is bigger than our elected Chamber-is unelected. I consider it a massive contradiction that the Government are proposing an expansion of the unelected second Chamber and a reduction in the size of the legitimate, elected Chamber.
Mr Chope: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. While he was making his intervention, I received a communication from a Whip to the effect that, apparently, the coalition Government are committed to reducing the size of the other House. My response was "When?" I supported an excellent ten-minute rule Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), which proposed doing away with Whips in this Chamber. I am grateful to the Whip for the help that he tried to give, but I should be even more grateful if he could ensure, perhaps through those on the Front Bench, that it is put on record when we will reach a point at which the second Chamber is smaller than this elected Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), but is there not a clear case for presenting the proposals relating to voting,
membership and size as a single reform package, given that there is bound to be a reduction at some time in the future? The fact that Whips are running around giving Members information illustrates our current problem.
Mr Chope: As so often, the right hon. Gentleman has made a fundamental point. Given that the Government have not been listening to what has been said on both sides of the Chamber throughout our debates, I hope that the other place will concentrate the Government's mind by taking control of these important issues and insisting that piecemeal constitutional legislation of the sort that we are discussing is not the answer to the country's problems, does not accord with the public mood, and is cynical in the extreme. I hope that the Bill, which has been subject to vicious timetabling and much of which will not be discussed in this Chamber, will be well and truly filleted when it reaches the other place.
Ian Lucas: The hon. Gentleman is making an important speech. Does he agree that what the public want is a straightforward approach from politicians of all parties, democratic accountability and an honest, considered discussion about amendments to the British constitution? Unfortunately, because we have discussed neither the Bill in draft nor issues relating to the House of Lords, we are not having that discussion now. My constituents are telling me that they believe that the Bill is designed for party political advantage, which diminishes this Chamber and all of us who sit in it.
Mr Chope: I take the hon. Gentleman's point very seriously, because the allegation that there is to be constitutional change in order to try to benefit one political party over another is a very serious one. We should not allow that allegation to be spread among the electorate unless there is a justification for it. I am looking for some assurance from my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that there is no political manoeuvring and that instead this is an objective, non-partisan measure. So far, however, I have not been convinced that that is so, and I do not think the arguments put from the Opposition Front Bench and by Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber have been properly addressed.
I have made the following point to the Deputy Prime Minister in many previous discussions in the House. There should not be a reduction in the size of the legislature without a pro rata reduction in the size of the Government. The response I have always received to that is, "Well, we don't see the need to do that as the two issues are not connected," but they are fundamentally connected. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and others have already made the point that the measures under discussion will give much more power to the Executive and less power to the legislature, and that is totally at odds with what the Prime Minister said when he was Leader of the Opposition that he was going to do. He said then that he wanted to increase the power of Members of Parliament and reduce the size and power of the Executive. He said that in the run-up to the general election, and it was even spelled out in terms in the Conservative party manifesto. I hope that at the end of this debate we will hear from the Front-Bench team how they think that these measures are consistent with undertakings given to the electorate both before and during the general election campaign.
What conceivable reason can there be for picking this arbitrary figure of 600? One rumour circulating among many of my colleagues is that the motivation behind the move is to provide another way for the Executive, through party managers and the party machine, to be able to put the frighteners on reluctant supporters of the coalition in both Government parties. Boundary Commission representatives said in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that as a result of these proposals every single constituency in the country will have to have significant boundary changes. The Whips have peddled a bit of misinformation, suggesting that if a Member's constituency already has about the right new number of constituents-76,000-then, "You'll be all right, Jack," but the Boundary Commission has made it clear that every single constituency boundary in the country will have to be significantly altered. What goes with that, of course, is the reselection of Members of Parliament, and what goes with that is more power for the Executive, through the party managers, to try to influence the reselection process.
Although we know that, in fact, the most independent MPs got the best results in the last general election, it does not prevent- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is right: she had an outstanding result in the general election, on which I congratulate her, and it had nothing whatever to do with her loyalty to her party when it was in government. What she achieved sends a very important message. I hope that many of my 147 new colleagues will take that message to heart and realise that even if this Bill goes through and a change is made to almost every constituency, those who have stood up fearlessly on behalf of their constituents will do better at the ballot box, and probably in the reselection process, than those who supinely followed whatever they were told to do by the Whips. That does not alter the fact that this can be done to put the frighteners on people, because nobody quite knows what the future will bring.
Phil Wilson: The hon. Gentleman is talking about the chaos that the boundary changes will create, but if this measure goes through, that will not just occur this time around; there will be uncertainty every term, not only for all Members in this place, but for our electors. We could end up breaking the link, which we all respect, between elected politicians and their voters.
Mr Chope: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A proposal that has not yet been tabled in an amendment or a new clause, but perhaps could be tabled on Report or in the other place, is for a sunset clause, in order to see how the new number works in practice, rather than allowing it to go on indefinitely. He may be interested in proposing such a sunset clause-
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Shall we concentrate on what is actually in the Bill-in particular, the issue of the number of MPs-and not on what might occur in the future?
Mr Chope: Absolutely, Ms Primarolo. I am sorry that I got slightly carried away, as a result of that intervention, in anticipating what might happen in the future.
I tabled my amendment for discussion because in the general election we promised that there would be 585 MPs, because we needed that number and it would reduce the costs of Parliament, but we are now proposing 600. That means that the costs will be reduced by less than they would have been had we opted for 585. Given what we have heard today, it appears that when the books were opened they were even worse than the worst fears of my right hon. Friends in the Government. Surely it is inconsistent with the spending decisions taken today to row back from a figure of 585 to one of 600. That gives credence to the charge made against the coalition Government that, although 600 is an arbitrary figure, it is not quite as arbitrary as we might be led to believe, because it is based on some private work that has been done suggesting that it might be to the advantage of the coalition partners, rather than the Labour party.
Mr David: The hon. Gentleman refers to "private work". Would he like to elaborate on who might have undertaken it, because he makes a fascinating point?
Mr Chope: Ms Primarolo, you have already criticised me for speculating, and I am certainly not going to speculate. All I am saying is that, before this House gives approval to a reduction in the number of MPs to a fixed number of 600, the case needs to be made and we need something more than an assertion that it is an arbitrary figure, that it accords with the public mood and that it meets the needs of this House. None of those things has been established. Apart from anything else, even if I agreed with such a move, I would not support it unless I could see evidence of a pro rata reduction in the number of Ministers and the size of the Executive, and thereby not a dilution of this House's ability to hold the Executive to account. That is my modest contribution, but I make it clear that I intend to seek re-election in the next Parliament, be there 600 or 585 constituencies, or the current number.
John Mann: I wish to address my remarks to amendments 364 and 227. I particularly wish to deal with the principle of having the number of Members of Parliament fixed at 600, because I find the fixed number particularly objectionable and dangerous. That contradicts the history of this country going back many centuries, because our system has evolved as a majority system. We have had first past the post-although the alternative vote is now being suggested-as a way of electing individual Members who represent individual constituencies. The moment that one moves towards a mathematical fixation determining the number of seats, the trip down the slippery slope towards proportional representation has begun. If the mindset is that there should be an equality of votes, however that is defined-of course there were important arguments yesterday about how to define the equality of voters and who defines the electorate-and that there should be a mathematical equation, the logical conclusion is that that can be taken further as things ebb and flow.
A further conclusion could be drawn from that, because if it is good enough for the House of Commons, it is good enough for other parts of the-I use this phrase lightly-British constitution. So the House of Lords should have a fixed number of seats and Members of that House should be aware of the likely logic that must follow, whatever that number might be. Some might
suggest-I think I once did-that if there was a fixed number, it should be as low as 100. It might be a shock to them to go so low. However, the moment one has a fixed number, one sets in place a principle that totally and absolutely contradicts every principle in establishing constituencies that this country has had before.
This is a critical principle, which seems to have been overlooked in the debate about the precise numbers. The moment we make that change, that principle will be enshrined for ever. The Deputy Prime Minister made comparisons to the Great Reform Act of 1832. I have studied that Act quite extensively, not least because the originator, John Cartwright, came up with the concept living in the house that I now occupy and would have been a constituent of mine. The original rotten borough was East Retford, with 150 voters choosing two Members of Parliament. Following the recent boundary changes, done on the basis of equalising constituencies across the county of Nottinghamshire, I now have the privilege of representing Retford, having lost the district of Warsop.
That was part of a boundary change under the current system to numerically equalise as much as possible the size of parliamentary seats. I have 20,000 new voters and I lost 10,000. I do not object to that principle. The 10,000 who went objected vehemently, because they seemed to feel that I was a good and representative Member of Parliament, but those whom I now represent were delighted to have the opportunity to vote for or against me. That was a major redistribution on the principle of equalising size, but this rotten Bill enshrines in perpetuity the concept of a mathematical arbitrary equation that each constituency will be of the same size, which has fundamental ramifications.
Mr Mark Field: I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but does he not recognise that we have already enshrined PR in our political system to quite a large extent, through the European Parliament since 1999, through the way we elect the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London assembly, and through the way in which local authorities are elected in Scotland? We are going down precisely that path, but it is a slippery slope that we started down quite some time ago.
John Mann: We have had this slippery slope with the European Parliament and with how we choose its Members. Of course, the Deputy Prime Minister, apparently, was once a representative in my area-no one seems to have realised that fact, because such Members are rather distant and remote, whether they do a good job or not, because of the size of the constituency.
The interrelationship between individual and electorate that has been the basis of democracy in this country-one that other countries have, too often, moved away from in their determination to have either proportionality or equality and to have mathematical solutions to how they build a legislature-is the foundation of participative democracy. We are not just a representative democracy in this Chamber: if we are effective, we are a participatory democracy as well. That principle would be somewhat undermined by an arbitrary mathematical solution to how many Members there should be.
Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): If the hon. Gentleman is going to give us a long history lesson, will he at least assure us that he realises that Members of the House were elected using a transferable voting system until 1945 in some cases?
John Mann: There has never been an arbitrary mathematical equation. I would be ruled out of order if I went through an historical analysis of the Great Reform Act, why Cartwright brought it forward and its relationship to the rotten boroughs, including East Retford, so I shall not, but the principle was one of expanding democracy. There was representation before it, but it was the wrong kind of representation. The principle was about participation; it was in the evolution of participatory democracy that this country led the world-not representative democracy, which we already had. The definition of democracy was changed by the Great Reform Act into one of participatory democracy and has changed over time into one in which all citizens over the age of 18 can participate.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is talking about mathematics, so here is some maths for him: 70% of MPs in Scotland are from the Labour party but they secured only 42% of the vote. I know that he is a fair man and I feel the pain of the citizens of Warsop, but does he agree that there is something wrong with that?
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. We are discussing the number of Members of Parliament in the House, not how they got here.
John Mann: Much though I would love to answer the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), I shall refrain from doing so. Perhaps we can continue a discussion of such matters in private.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman appears to be arguing that the Committee should not decide how many Members of Parliament there ought to be, but if it is not for Parliament to take that decision, who should have the power to do so?
John Mann: The hon. Lady asks an excellent question and I shall give her a precise answer: Parliament should do so on the same basis on which it has been done before. The principle previously and now, unless this rotten Bill, particularly this part of it, is made into law, is that the House sets an ideal target, but that the Boundary Commission independently determines the boundaries within which each Member will sit using a set of criteria that relate to the history of the country, the four nations, the history of England, locality and the nature of our democracy. But that principle will be thrown out by the Bill. With the Great Reform Act, there were riots in Nottingham and years of deliberation before the Act was passed and changed the principle to one of participatory democracy and the wider franchise. Are we to break that principle after a couple of days of truncated debate in the House? Are we to have a principle, which could stand in perpetuity, of having a fixed number of MPs? The idea that we would do that is a disgrace to the House and to the traditions of our democracy.
This principle is important and the consequences are great, so let me illustrate them. I have none of the fears that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) discussed about the precise boundaries in my area. The boundaries were changed in the last election and my
majority went up against all the predictions, so I have no fears about any such change or about who will come in and who will go out.
Of course, my constituents would strongly resist the notion that, having built a relationship with one Member of Parliament, good or bad, they should not have the opportunity to re-elect or dismiss that Member of Parliament. That principle is enshrined in our democracy, but it is endangered and partly thrown away by the arbitrary nature of setting a mathematical equation to determine the numbers. My constituency boundaries are a good example of how that would destroy the traditions of England and English democracy.
Ministers laugh at the fact that the county of Nottinghamshire, the seat of Bassetlaw and the electoral representation in Bassetlaw and Nottinghamshire have been set over the centuries, not in a few minutes or a few hours' debate, but by the very nature and history of this country. Do hon. Members know why the seat of Bassetlaw was created? Because it was a road through the forest and a route through the country. That is why Robin Hood was robbing in such places. The history and geography of this country, going back hundreds and thousands of years, have produced the shire counties.
Should my constituency's boundaries be changed arbitrarily? My situation is not unique, but it emphasises the nature of an arbitrary mathematical solution. My current boundaries and electorate are about the mean-it is not a small constituency-but a change to the south, which is precisely what has happened before, would be a change within Nottinghamshire. One bit goes in; one bit goes out. That is how the Boundary Commission has done its work over the decades. That is reasonable. It makes its decisions. I disagreed with the last one, but that is democracy: an independent body, not politicians, heard representations and made its decisions on the basis of trying to maximise equality between the seats in Nottinghamshire. That is why that change took place. Any change to the north would take us across a regional boundary-Ministers will not be bothered about regions-and a county boundary as well, into Yorkshire. I have nothing against the people of Yorkshire. That is where I come from. I am sure that I would be as popular there as I am in Nottinghamshire, so that is not the fear.
I deal with Nottinghamshire county council, Nottinghamshire police and Bassetlaw council in Nottinghamshire. The fear of the elected Member is that if we had to move over to an arbitrary base of different councils and authorities, however they are formulated by whichever Government are in power, we would be looking in different directions at once and the role of MPs in advocating for and representing their constituents would be significantly diminished.
It is not just the boundaries with Yorkshire that could be changed; there could be a change to the east, in which case we would go into Lincolnshire, perhaps into North Lincolnshire or West Lindsey council-again, entirely different local government, police and health set-ups. Of course, if the boundary was changed to the west, we would go into Derbyshire, yet another county and yet another set of police and fire authorities.
All that illustrates the point that if we do not attempt, in any system, to try to maintain as much as we can the integrity of the English counties and a direct relationship
with local government, however it is structured, the role of the MP and the credibility of Parliament are diminished. That is the weakness in arbitrary mathematical equations, and it is why we all know that the Boundary Commission is in reality horrified by the notion that it would need to use some kind of mathematical equation, because the criteria that it has used over the decades have been proven. They are transparent and challengeable in the courts if anyone wants to challenge them-people have occasionally tried to do so. They are tested in the courts and they are good and rational. Each party might occasionally object to the conclusions and MPs might feel that we have been badly done by, given the nature of the change, but the process is democratic. That fundamental principle is being changed.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion, but I am not sure what his speech has to do with the amendment. He objects to the plus or minus 5% rule, which could cause constituency boundaries to cross county boundaries, but there is nothing intrinsic whatsoever in a reduction from 650 to 600, the subject of the amendment, that would have the effect that he suggests.
John Mann: The hon. Gentleman is under the misapprehension that we have a statutory limit. At the moment, we have a Boundary Commission, and the setting of an absolute figure will tie its hands, which is precisely why there could be arbitrary boundaries in a constituency such as mine, crossing county boundaries and breaking up the integrity of the English counties. That will do nothing for our democracy.
Some in this House feel that a smaller number of Members will be good for democracy, and I share some of the concerns and think that we could go much further than down to just 600 Members, but the process should be done rationally and over a significant period. In other words, there should be full consultation and thought, and the Boundary Commission should be allowed to do its work in its normal way. Politicians, for whatever reason, should not attempt to fix the result. By fixing the result, the sting in the tail not only for Liberal Members, but some Conservatives is the notion that has been sold to some Back Benchers-that a change will be bad for Labour. But any mathematician can analyse the information and show that that may well not happen in the boundary review. Given the arbitrary nature of mathematics, the opposite may well occur. In fact, any change may well have a neutral effect overall.
Nevertheless, that is the principle, and that is why the Government are rushing the measure through. But to sacrifice the English counties and the basis of our democracy simply for short-term expediency-in order to rush a Bill through and not allow the independent Boundary Commission to do its job in any way-is an outrage to our democracy, and I suggest most humbly that any decent democrat should withdraw those proposals immediately.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con):
This is the first time that I have spoken to amendments in my name-amendments 227 and 228 are the two to which I refer-and it is unfortunate that on this first occasion I should do so against my Government, of whom I am an ardent
supporter. I appreciate that this might not be a career-enhancing move, but I feel particularly strongly about the issue.
It is irrelevant whether the number of MPs is 600, 620 or 585; it is foolish to put the Boundary Commission into a straitjacket and say, "There will be that number, with no variation." Many Members from all parts of the House will have been involved in boundary reviews, whether at constituency or ward level, and they will appreciate that the jigsaw never fits together. Equality is desirable, but it should not be the sole criterion.
I agree with the comments that have been made about community identity, but this is about more than just figures. The ancient county boundaries have been mentioned too, and they are particularly important, but my constituency completely surrounds the constituency of Great Grimsby. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) has left the Chamber, but it is always a pleasure to hear him speak, particularly as he is my Member of Parliament. He made a reasonable argument, but it is completely out of touch with the people whom he represents, because, in line with the manifesto on which I stood, I am actually in favour of reducing the size of the House. I see no objection to that whatever.
People from my part of the world went through the experience of significant local government changes and boundary changes in the 1970s, when the arbitrary county of Humberside was created. We in the local community still live in the shadow of Humberside, because it affects local politics. People hated the whole concept, but regrettably it lives on-not only in the arbitrary region of Yorkshire and the Humber, but in Humberside police and the Humberside fire and rescue service. It contaminates political debate in the area, because people are hostile to the whole concept.
The concept came about because of some grand scheme that did not relate to the local identities that people feel. It is vital to retain those identities, and not just with counties. As I said, Cleethorpes surrounds the constituency of Great Grimsby-and I know that I speak for my constituents when I say that they would be extremely hostile to the idea of Great Grimsby being extended into Cleethorpes; they already feel dominated by Grimsby because we are in the same local authority area. The usual arguments, which we have all come across, apply: more resources go into one part of the council area than the other, and so on. It is important to retain local identity.
On other remarks that have been made, I should say that some coterminosity between constituencies and local government areas is desirable-not only because it makes life easier for us Members in dealing with various agencies, but because it helps to reflect the identities of the area. I hope that as this legislation goes through the House, the Government will consider allowing the Boundary Commission some flexibility.
I do not wish to speak for too long, because we need to get on to the Government's plans for the immolation of the Duchy of Cornwall. However, I do want to speak in favour of amendments 364 and 259. I want to focus on the rationale for the move from 650 MPs to 600. Like many other Opposition Members, I am in favour of broader equality between the electorates in our constituencies, and as a result, I am potentially in
favour of a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. However, as we have clearly seen, if anyone could have come up with a way not to do it, it would be the Bill before us.
We have heard from the Deputy Leader of the House that the intellectual rationale behind the move from 650 to 600 was that it was an arbitrary number, but seemed to have some magic. I am no scientific rationalist, but it seems to me that that might not be the most sophisticated way in which to develop public policy-particularly on something with such dramatic consequences. I suggest that if we are to move from 650 to 600, we need a greater purpose than that.
If we wanted to begin the process with some degree of intellectual consideration, we might begin to think about the role and function of Members of Parliament-what we want them to achieve, and their roles in the community and in the House. We might think about demographic changes, the move from market towns to cities, migration or citizenship. We might think intelligently about the future, and what the role of the Member of Parliament should be in it. As a result of such consideration, the number of Members of Parliament might go up or down. Having worked out that fundamental principle, we might begin to think of a point to which we wanted to head, over the course of Parliaments-but we might not have pulled all that together in a shoddily constituted Bill, rammed through this place with no pre-legislative scrutiny, especially as it deals with what I would have thought was a rather important matter of public policy for this House, and as we respect our democratic traditions, which are admired right around the world.
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend's knowledge is second to none in this House. Can he tell me, as someone who is not as knowledgeable, whether he can think of an example from the past when there has been a review of the number of constituencies that has been as rushed or ill-thought-out as the one that we now face?
Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend asks a very good question. My lack of historical knowledge comes to the fore, because I can think of no other example. Perhaps the Rump Parliament would come to mind, or some other innovations during the 1650s. I think that we are seeing certain Cromwellian attributes appearing among those on the Government Benches. Like many others, I am new to this place, but I understand that we used to hear a great many lectures from Members who are now in government about the right to discuss public policy at length and not to have it rammed through.
The Conservative manifesto, about which the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) spoke so eloquently-unlike some of his colleagues, he actually still believes in what he stood for at the election-suggested reducing the number of Members of Parliament to 585, while the Liberal Democrat manifesto went for 500 seats. On the principle of compromise and the coalition agreement, one would have thought that they might bisect the two figures-that there might be a rationale for 542 or, if we are generous, 543, to allow the Isle of Wight to remain whole. But no, they have gone for the magical figure of 600, without any real rationale.
Some of the arguments this evening have been about making politics cheaper. Without making a cheap joke, I think that the coalition has made politics cheaper. It
has cheapened public debate by reneging on pretty much all its other manifesto commitments over the past few months. We are told that this is potentially going to save £12 million-but we have not been given the costings for the packing of the House of Lords, which is proceeding as we speak. We do not know the full costs of the referendum. It is particularly apposite, on a day when we have heard about so many cuts in other parts of the budget, that we are allocating money to that.
Mr MacNeil: Is there not a great danger, with the moves that are being made, that we will end up with a democracy that has, as a percentage, fewer elected Members and more appointed legislators than we had before?
Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. It is extraordinary to have begun this process without thinking about the interrelationship between this place and the other place. One does not have to be a Newtonian to think that for every force there is an equal and opposite counter-force. [ Interruption. ] I am hearing more and more sedentary comments from the Deputy Leader of the House; I do not know if that is the usual form from him.
One would have thought that all these things would be pulled together in an overarching Bill that had some degree of intellectual credibility in terms of the British constitution and the role of this place and the other place. Instead, we have an arbitrary figure of 600, and meanwhile many more people are being placed in the House of Lords. The international comparisons steadily fall away when we think about the federal structure of many other European nations, local rates of representation in many other European nations, the interrelationship between the two parts of bicameral Parliaments, both nationally and internationally, and the role of Members of Parliament today in terms of the volume of work that they do.
The move from 650 to 600 will be an extraordinarily speedy process. I have had the great pleasure of sitting with some other Members present in the Chamber on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and we have heard time and again from independent witnesses, scholars and constitutionalists that the speed of this process is unacceptable and will lead to mistakes. Lewis Baston, from Democratic Audit, said to the Welsh Affairs Committee:
"I am concerned about the speed with which this is being brought through. It seems to be an absolute priority to get the new boundaries in place for 2015, rather than to get them right and to consider some of the principles involved. I would much rather we did this properly."
Above all, the problem with the arbitrary collapse from 650 seats to 600, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) so eloquently and brilliantly enunciated, is the total absence of sentiment or feel for the nature of either the United Kingdom or the British constitution. The UK is not something to be placed under a slide rule and arbitrarily cut up on the basis of a figure of 76,000. There are interrelationships of complex formations between Wales, Scotland, England, the Isle of Wight, the Isles of Scilly and the historic Duchy of Scotland- [Interruption.] Or Cornwall, even.
It surprises me all the more that the move from 650 to 600 is being driven by the Conservative party, which I had always thought was interested in tradition, identity, locality and community rather than in utilitarian butchery of the historic constitution of this country. We have been here before; one would have thought that the Conservative party might have learned the lessons of Edward Heath, but it seems to be intent on repeating them. The grotesque local authority rationalisations of the mid-1970s were done on exactly the same principle of utilitarian Benthamite thinking, with no feel for locality or historic identity. People did not like them and rebelled against them. The Bill has blown apart the "big society", because there is no sense of locality, identity or tradition in it. Instead, it is rampant Cromwellian statism.
I believe that the reason for the arbitrary figure of 600 is simply that it is a big round number, and the Government thought it made sense. I suggest that this place deserves slightly more thought to be given to that matter. The arbitrary move to 600 was not in the manifesto of either of the governing parties, and it has no popular mandate. As a result, I am more and more convinced that the other place has no obligation to adhere to the Salisbury convention and pass the Bill. There is no popular mandate for the change, so we might lose temporarily in this House, but I hope the other place will help us win the war-even as the Government, shamefully and against the constitutional principles of this country, continue to pack it.
Mrs Laing: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is my colleague on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I disagreed with almost everything he said, but he almost had me persuaded when he talked of Benthamites and Cromwellian statism. I am not a Benthamite, and I am not a statist, but-[Hon. Members: "Come over here!"] No, there is more coming. His argument was the most powerful and coherent that we have heard this evening. However, one point was missing, which was the integrity that equalising seat sizes and constituencies will give this place.
Only two issues really matter in relation to this group of amendments, although we have heard much special pleading, not from the hon. Gentleman but from other Members who are clearly concerned about their own constituencies and positions and how their political future might develop if these changes are made to the constitution. That is not what we should be discussing. We should be discussing principle, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central just did.
There are only two principles here. First, somebody, somewhere has to choose the correct number of Members of this House. It was strange to hear the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) speak about the number 600 as if it had-or lacked-some mystical force.
Austin Mitchell: How about 666?
I cannot resist the hon. Gentleman's sedentary comment. I believe that there is something about 666, though I am not an adherent to that principle either-for me, it goes with Benthamism. I am therefore
glad that we are not discussing 666, but why not 600? It is a reasonable, round number. We have to choose a number for Members of Parliament. [Hon. Members: "No, we don't."] I am arguing that we have to choose a number; that it is correct for Parliament to do so. We have talked much about the Great Reform Act of 1832, but the subject of how many Members there should be has not been properly discussed for a long time.
Mrs Laing: Not for a very long time, and the hon. Gentleman should not shout.
The matter is being discussed properly now, and there is nothing wrong with the figure of 600. It is a perfectly reasonable, round number.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Lady speaks about principles. Should it not be a principle of the measure, since it proposes a change in our constitutional arrangements that is unprecedented in modern times, that at least some public consultation and cross-party discussions take place before anything comes before the House?
Mrs Laing: This is a cross-party discussion. We are all here in the Chamber having an open, cross-party discussion. There has not been very much time to consider the Bill, but there have been several months. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform has examined it, and we have all received e-mails, letters, papers and so on from people around the country who are concerned one way or the other. There has been consultation-that is why we are here. The debate that we are holding at this very moment is consultation. It is right that we have that discussion, and that the House makes a decision about numbers.
I put it to the Committee simply that 600 is a perfectly reasonable number. It is hard to argue against it unless one is doing special pleading on behalf of one's constituency or county. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central spoke eloquently about our country's development, traditions and communities. Communities and traditions develop once boundaries are drawn. My constituency has a part in the north and a part in the south that have little in common with one another, although they are not far apart. However, they join together as a constituency and a district. If another part comes in or goes out, that becomes the community. Communities evolve, and nothing in the Bill will destroy the traditional counties of England.
Thomas Docherty: I thank the hon. Lady for being as gracious as ever in taking interventions. Obviously, she and her new-found Liberal Democrat friends are passionate believers in localism. How does not holding public inquiries and arbitrarily forming constituencies sit comfortably with her idea of localism?
Mrs Laing: I did not say that I was particularly concerned about localism. I am concerned about the equalisation of the size of constituencies. Perhaps some of my colleagues are concerned about localism, but I am far more concerned about democracy.
I share the hon. Lady's concern about democracy. I am the only Labour Member of Parliament in Berkshire and I have substantially more
constituents than any other Berkshire Member, so I cannot be accused of special pleading. However, if the ambition is to get equal-sized constituencies-I share the hon. Lady's belief in that principle-would not it be better to do it in a way that respects local communities, and to do it slowly, over time, thereby producing the number? I suppose the Conservative party would normally describe that as "evolving." Would not that be preferable to-to borrow a phrase from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt)-the Cromwellian hatchet that cutting 50 seats constitutes?
Mrs Laing: I agree in principle with everything the hon. Lady says, but I would argue that three years is quite sufficient time for the Boundary Commission to undertake the task before it. The decision on the principle of the work going ahead can be taken in the Chamber over these few weeks of discussions on the Bill, and three years is quite long enough for the commission to do its work. The hon. Lady agrees with me on the principle of equalisation. Once a principle is established, it ought to be put into practice as soon as possible. Three years is plenty of time.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Lady says that 600 is a reasonable figure in the same way that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority asserts that the figures it comes up with are reasonable. The problem is the rigid application of that reasonable figure, which will give rise to all sorts of problems and contradictions for which this House will be blamed.
Mrs Laing: I have been insulted many times in this Chamber, but I have never, ever been compared with IPSA before. I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There is proper consultation. Opposition Members speak as if the Boundary Commission is not involved in the process, but it is, and it has three years to do its job. It is perfectly capable of doing that job. The resources are in place and there is no problem.
Thomas Docherty: I am fascinated by the hon. Lady's new-found passion for quangos, which is perhaps a good description of the Boundary Commission, because it is unelected. However, does she accept that crucially, the Government are removing the public inquiry and the right of local people to give their input when the Boundary Commission has produced a report? That is not liberal or democratic, and it is not in the finest traditions of the Conservative party.
Mrs Laing: I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but with respect, he is wrong. Very few local people made representations to boundary commissions in the last review and the previous one; most representations were made by political parties.
Chris Bryant: In that case, will the hon. Lady explain why somebody might have said this at the Oxfordshire boundary inquiry in 2003:
"Somebody might take the view that...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"?
That was the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron).
Mrs Laing: I am sure that my right hon. Friend meant what he said. I do not disagree with him-what he said is fine. The hon. Gentleman is forgetting that we are talking about an evolving political situation and an evolving world. As other hon. Members have said, the whole situation is evolving, which is why it is time for the House to look at itself, count its numbers and consider what is right.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) and I had an exchange yesterday on alphabetical preferences on ballot papers, which is relevant to the proposal for 600 MPs. I am no longer concerned about alphabetical preferences. Since yesterday, when he said that he could call himself A1 Austin and I could call myself Mrs Aardvark, I am pleased to tell him that I have received, by e-mail, a proposal of marriage from a Mr Aaron Aardvark. I had to decline that kind proposal because I could not possibly involve the poor gentleman in the expense of marrying me in order to improve my electoral prospects. That would be gerrymandering and manipulation of the system beyond the call of duty. However, it was a helpful discussion.
The real principle before us this evening is one vote, one value. That is what democracy is all about. Every Member who is elected to this House should be elected by an equal number of voters, at least potentially- [ Interruption. ] Of course we have a tolerance level of 5%.
Chris Bryant: And an equal turnout?
Mrs Laing: I should not respond to sedentary interventions, but we are not talking about turnout, as hon. Members know. We are rather more sophisticated than to go down to that level. Potentially, every Member should be elected by an equal number of voters.
Phil Wilson: Nobody really disagrees with the point about equal-sized constituencies. What we are looking forward to hearing from the hon. Lady is an argument about why we need to reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600, other than that she likes the number 600. That is the only reason that she has given us. I like the number 650, and I will make an argument for why it should stay at that. I need an argument from the hon. Lady as to why it should be reduced to 600.
Mrs Laing: Why should it be 650? Why should it not be 700 or 542? Pick a number out of the hat, or do the lottery. Six hundred is a perfectly reasonable number and as good as any other number- [ Interruption. ] It is a workable number, and it is also reasonable to reduce the size of the House in the interest of a more efficient democracy.
Mr Andrew Turner:
We have to be within a 95% to 105% range, and that may be reasonable, but some exceptions apply, including my constituency, the western
isles and Orkney and Shetland. Can my hon. Friend explain what it is that makes the latter two right and mine wrong?
Mrs Laing: I am glad to say to my hon. Friend that it is not for me to answer that question, but I will give him my opinion, which counts as nothing more than that. We should achieve real equality and I do not think that we should have exceptions for Orkney and Shetland and the western isles. If we are having a simple arithmetical equality, we should stick to it.
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?
Mrs Laing: No, I have spoken for long enough. It is important to stick to equality. Once that principle is accepted, it should be adhered to. Of course, we need to have a 5% tolerance for the sake of practicality and because the Boundary Commission must be able to apply the rules reasonably, but we should stick to equality. This House is about looking at the politics and the principle, not about special pleading for particular constituencies and particular Members and their convenience. I urge the Committee to accept that 600 is a perfectly reasonable number and that equalisation-one vote, one value-is the important democratic principle.
Mr Syms: Listening to this debate, one would think that something major and radical was happening to our parliamentary system. In fact, what is being proposed is an extremely modest change, which I welcome, because more radical change would be unwelcome to most Members of the House. We have heard a number of Members talk about boundary commissions and history, but the Boundary Commission is only a post-war invention. It is something that our country can be proud of, because it tries to draw boundaries in a neutral way, while taking into account local interest.
The only changes in the Bill are, first, the proposal to keep constituencies nearer to certain numbers, because there is currently a vast disparity in seats-and this after the first election on the new boundaries-which causes unfairness. Secondly, anyone who has been to a public inquiry held by the Boundary Commission will know that they tend to be attended by Labour, Liberal and Conservative agents and Members of Parliament, who all make representations. Sometimes local government is involved, but inquiries of that sort are not something that members of the public are necessarily aware of or want to go to. Therefore, 12 weeks in which to write in to make representations, which is also provided for in the Bill, is not unreasonable, and I am sure that the Boundary Commission, in its normal, impartial way, will take such representations into account. However, if Members are worried, they just have to ensure that lots of people write in, and I am sure that when personal interest comes into it, that will be the case.
The most radical part of the Bill is the reduction in the size of the House of Commons, but it is not very radical, because it essentially means that our electorates will increase on average by 5,000 or 6,000, which is not very dramatic. In fact, for many Members, their electorates will decrease by 5,000 or 6,000, because they are already
larger than the size that has been chosen. There is a pinch point and a difficulty, which we may talk about later if we get there, to do with crossing county boundaries, which will cause the Government endless headaches. Nevertheless, what we have is, broadly, a modest change.
I sat on the Opposition Benches for a number of years and saw the previous Government introduce various constitutional changes. They included the change in the boundaries for the European Parliament, which was done without consultation, without the Boundary Commission being involved and, I think, without even a manifesto commitment, so we saw the previous Government do all sorts of awful things. The reality is that we are making a modest change, in order to go for some kind of equalisation, which is the basis of fairness.
Phil Wilson: Can we not go for equalised numbers without reducing the number of seats? I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's love-in with the number 600, but essentially we need to hear an argument. Nobody is disagreeing that we perhaps need more equalised constituencies, but why reduce the number of seats, especially when the average number of constituencies since the war has been about 649 or 650? It has stayed at that level for 60 or 70 years. Why radically reduce it now?
Mr Syms: Most Parliaments set their own size-that is part of most constitutions-but two that do not are the UK Parliament and the Bundestag in Germany. The reason the Bundestag does not do so is that it has a list system to compensate the first-past-the-post Members, and when the German electoral commission looks at the arithmetic division of the proportional votes, to ensure that they are proportionate, it can adjust the size of the Bundestag, sometimes by up to a dozen seats. However, the history of this country is that, by and large, we have allowed the Boundary Commission to go out and draw up the boundaries, and then to come back with numbers. However, what happens is that there is creep. Every time we have a boundary commission, the numbers go up. [ Interruption. ] No, they do, with one exception, which is when the numbers for Scotland are reduced. On the whole, however, the numbers creep up. Therefore, with this Bill, we are being asked to give guidance to the Boundary Commission, so that it can go away and then come back with a report.
Chris Bryant: How can the hon. Gentleman explain, then, the fact that there were 659 MPs in the previous Parliament, while there are 650 in this Parliament? What he is saying is patently untrue.
Mr Syms: But that is principally because of the changes in Scotland, which, incidentally-
It is; it happened because of the Scottish reduction. The reality is that we need to build a slight reduction into the system, otherwise we will have a constant creep-up of the numbers. Is it very much more difficult to represent 76,000 electors than it is to represent 69,000? I do not think that it is terribly difficult-we have the staff and the commitment to do it. All that we are talking about is drawing up fair boundaries, with a
modest reduction in the House, which is not going to make a major difference to most people in this House, except in Wales.
The problem with Wales is over-representation. There have been changes in Northern Ireland, where the number of seats was increased because the constituencies were very large, as well as in Scotland and England; Wales is the one part of the Union that is out of line. I understand the pain and difficulty that the proposals will cause in Wales, because there will be quite a radical change there, but throughout most of the UK, it will be a very modest change indeed.
John Mann: The hon. Gentleman's argument would be more consistent if he were to tell us why he sees a problem arising if county boundaries in England are crossed. The moment those boundaries start to be crossed at random, we shall have an entirely different solution in England.
Mr Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. For historic reasons, it will depend on where any such changes might be made. This is one of the arguments that he will be able to put to the Boundary Commission when it brings forward its proposals- [ Interruption. ] Yes, he will; people will still have the capacity to make representations to the commission on the reports on the constituencies.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong. People will be able to make representations only in writing, and they will not know what representations other people have made. They will not be able to inform their arguments through debate. Consequently, we shall not have the fullness of the public inquiry process that we have at the moment. With such radical changes being proposed for the whole of the country, surely it would make sense to maintain public inquiries.
Mr Syms: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The system that is being brought in will provide for a 12-week period in which people will be allowed to make representations- [ Interruption. ] Twelve weeks is a long time. If there is real concern about crossing a county boundary, I am sure that parish councils, local authorities, MPs and councillors will be able to make full representations in that time, and that the Boundary Commission will be able to hear them and come to a decision.
Gavin Barwell: There has been hardly any discussion tonight about the existing rules. Will my hon. Friend put on record the fact that, under the rules under which the Boundary Commission currently works, county boundaries can be crossed?
Mr Syms: That is absolutely the case.
As I understand it, the next group of amendments deals with cases of boundaries impinging on existing county boundaries. A number of Members are anxious to move on to that debate; it certainly affects my constituents in Cornwall, and I can see others in the Chamber, including my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who will have an interest in the matter. Does my hon. Friend the
Member for Poole (Mr Syms) agree that that group of amendments will indeed deal with that matter? Perhaps we could move on to it.
Mr Syms: In the interests of coalition solidarity, I shall finish my speech.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Given that there will be two Front-Bench speeches in addition to other people speaking, and that two votes might be called on this issue, I fear that we might not reach the next group of amendments, although I know that people are anxious to debate those issues. I shall therefore keep my remarks brief.
There are two amendments in my name that are intended to probe the numbers issue. One would replace the figure of 600 with 500, and the purpose of that is to tease out the issue, although it has been reasonably well teased out already. We have debated the numbers and why we need to arrive at one hard and fast figure, rather than setting a number as a target or guide for the Boundary Commission to pursue.
Concern has understandably been expressed tonight about the rigidity of the drafting of the proposals, in that they offer no flexibility to take into account the whole range of factors that have been properly and articulately expressed so far. That straitjacket will result in antiseptic constituencies whose boundaries are perpetually mobile between each election, and I do not think that would be good for the House or for democracy. We want the Boundary Commission to have sufficient discretion to work towards a target while taking into account reasonable geographical, cultural and electoral issues.
We also want the Government to allow places collectively to make decisions for themselves, provided that they do not ask for any special favours. In other words, when it comes to numbers, those in Cornwall are not asking for favourable treatment, but for distinctive treatment. Having 600 Members might result in an MP representing Cornwall having to give up part of a seat in order to achieve proper respect for the boundary between Cornwall and Isles of Scilly. I specified the 500 figure in a private Member's Bill in October 2003-part of a long campaign in which I have sought to demonstrate to the public that we can achieve efficiencies ourselves and save money.
The impact of devolution and the need to save money and to make international comparisons are issues that have been articulated well so far. I hope, however, that we will have an opportunity to move on to the second string.
I, too, will try to be brief, as I know some colleagues want to speak on the second string. This clause has huge ramifications, some of which I agree with-notably the equalisation of boundaries. We have just had an enormous boundary change in Bristol. I lost 30,000 electors whom I used to represent in 2005, but gained 30,000 electors from another part of the city at this election. The number of my electorate is pretty much the same as it was five years ago. It is 82,728, with my neighbour the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) representing 69,448 electors. Within the same unitary authority, one MP has 13,280 more electors to represent than another. That is surely an
anomaly that has to be corrected. That is why I believe it important to have frequent boundary reviews, not 10-yearly or with even longer intervals as we have experienced before.
Phil Wilson: The hon. Gentleman says it is all about equalising constituencies, something people do not necessarily disagree with. Why, however, do we need to reduce the number of MPs to achieve that? We could simply divide the electorate by the number of MPs-irrespective of whether there are 650 or 600 MPs. We could equalise the constituencies on that basis.
Stephen Williams: I was just coming on to the reduction from 650 to 600, and I would like to offer some friendly scepticism to my colleagues on the Government Front Bench. The Deputy Leader of the House was candid enough to say that reducing the House of Commons by 50 Members was arbitrary, but I am even more concerned about this number being arrived at without full knowledge of the whole package of constitutional reforms that this coalition Government are going to introduce.
I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has an ambitious programme of constitutional reform for the future, but we do not yet know the detail. We do not know the composition of what I hope will be a wholly elected second Chamber. We do not know what its powers will be or whether it will reflect the four member nations and regions of the United Kingdom. That makes it difficult to deal with the issue raised several times by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)-that of giving more recognition within Parliament to Wales. I think that could be dealt with more properly in an elected second Chamber than here. We still do not know whether more powers are to be given to English city regions. Full devolution has been granted to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and to London, but English local government certainly needs radical reform and more powers.
We have heard about cost-I do not believe that it provides a good reason for reducing the size of the House of Commons-and about international comparisons. France, for instance, has 577 seats and Germany 622, but as we heard earlier, they have far greater devolved Administrations and Bristol's twinned cities of Bordeaux and Hanover have enormous powers in comparison with those of my colleagues who run the city of Bristol.
Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. Could it be summed up in the phrase, "Putting the cart before the horse"?
Stephen Williams: That is the hon. Gentleman's phrase and he has put it on the record.
The number of politicians to whom people in Bristol can turn is very small. I live in the Cabot ward of the city of Bristol-a ward I used to represent on Avon county council and Bristol city council. If any electors-any of my neighbours in Kingsdown-want to complain about an issue affecting them, they can approach me, their Member of Parliament, or Alex Woodman or Mark Wright, their two city councillors. That is just three politicians: those are the only people to whom electors can turn if they have concerns about Bristol matters, national matters or international matters.
As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, I was most disappointed not to be able to go to the Liberal Democrat party conference in Liverpool this year. I was on a cross-party visit to the United States with four Labour Members of Parliament-one, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), is with us this evening-and three Conservative Members. We spent time learning about the federal government of the United States, and in particular about the state of Michigan when we were in the state capital, Lansing.
The United States is to hold elections in the first week of November. I have a sample ballot paper-not an original-from the East Lansing area of the state of Michigan, which the electoral registration officer allowed us to take away. Let me run through all the politicians who are to be elected: the governor, the lieutenant-governor, the secretary of state, the attorney-general, the US congressman for the eighth district of Michigan, the state senator for the 23rd district, the state senator for the 69th district, two members of the Michigan board of state education, a regent of the University of Michigan-of which there are two-a trustee of Michigan State university-of which there are two-the governor of Wayne State university-of which there are two-
Stephen Williams: I have not finished yet, but I will give way.
Stephen Gilbert: I thank my hon. Friend. This brings me neatly to my intervention, which is made in the spirit of coalition politics. Given that I intervened earlier on the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), I now intervene on my hon. Friend to remind him of the time.
Stephen Williams: Then there is the state commissioner of the county of Ingham, and then there are all the judges to be elected: two judges for the Supreme Court, one for the court of appeals, and the incumbent and non-incumbent circuit judges for the 30th district. There are also a number of state propositions like the referendum that we are discussing.
There will not be elections for all the officers and elected representatives on 4 November this year. There will be no elections for Lansing or East Lansing local councillors, for a directly elected mayor or a directly elected sheriff, or for the two United States Senators who could represent the people from the state of Michigan; and, of course, there will no election for the President or Vice-President, or for all the appointed politicians who help to run Michigan and the United States.
It is clear that a person living in Michigan could potentially turn to a huge number of politicians, both elected and appointed, to resolve their problems. In my city of Bristol, however, there are only three to whom electors can turn. If we are honest with ourselves, instead of worrying about the cost of politics we should admit that we actually do politics rather cheaply in this country. Rather than electing school boards, as they do in the United States, we have school governors-people who give their time freely to serve their communities. Rather than electing judges, we have either appointed judges or numerous magistrates who give their time freely as well.
A reduction to save costs does not seem justified to me, and it is not yet justified in the context of a wider package of constitutional reform both of this Parliament and of the way in which we govern our localities. I look to the Deputy Leader of the House for assurances that we will be given a comprehensive package of political reform to put this reduction into a proper context.
Mark Durkan: Like other Members, I am keen for us to reach the next set of amendments, so I shall make only a couple of points.
Arguments are being presented about whether there should be 650 Members of Parliament or 600. The problem that I have with all the figures-including the 585 suggested by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and the 500 from the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George)-is that they result in just one sum: one magic, supreme and absolute number. That means that when we take away the holy trinity of the three protected constituencies, the boundary commissions must come up with figures that add up to 597.
That will have to be done in Parliament after Parliament, all the while taking account of changes in the numbers registering in different parts of the country, which will force boundary changes in every one of the four constituent boundary commissions. If there is a significant registration increase in part of England, Northern Ireland could lose a seat in the next Parliament. If there is a drop somewhere else, however, we might gain a seat. In each Parliament, therefore, we will be up a seat, perhaps, and then down a seat. In Northern Ireland, that will mean the boundary review will affect every single seat.
That will be one of the consequences of moving to this absolute figure of 600 and 600 only with no elasticity. To repeat a point I made earlier to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), I predict that we will end up questioning whether we decided on the change with too much urgency and as a result were left with a fixed, arbitrary limit and the tyranny of arithmetic-the insistence that one size has to fit all in spite of the reality and all other considerations. That will mean that we will end up with an IPSA-type situation for boundaries. In Parliament after Parliament, MPs will regret that they are dogged by all sorts of fairly arbitrary boundary changes that are driven purely by arithmetic and perhaps dictated by registration changes somewhere else. People in many constituencies will wonder why they are constantly having to go through such changes because of something that is happening somewhere else.
Should the Committee insist on going for diktats that will result in reviews having to be conducted every time and arithmetic for establishing a quota for seats, would there not be merit in amendment 228 tabled by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), which takes 600 as a target figure but allows a margin of accommodation to the boundary commissions so that there can be as few as 588 seats and no more than 612? That margin of consideration would at least allow the boundary commissions to take account of the issues and pressures facing them. Under clause 10, the number of seats allocated to them will be fixed under the Sainte-Laguë formula.
Already the Government recognise that the absolute figure of 600-and all the other aspects of the Bill-cannot be fully applied in respect of Northern Ireland, so they have had to say that in Northern Ireland the seats can
vary more widely than the 5% either side of the UK quota. Therefore, we can come in at lower than 5% or over 5%, so our constituencies can be more disparate. That proves that the hon. Member for Epping Forest is wrong in saying that there are no adverse consequences and that the rigid application will not be a problem. The Bill admits that the rigid application is a problem, and it means that Northern Ireland will not be getting equal constituencies. We will have much more disparate constituencies as compared with other parts of the UK. More importantly, we will have much more disparate constituencies in the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which there are six Members. Therefore, disparity of representation and of mandate will arise in, of all places, Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland only. That was not what was intended when this House, as well as everybody else, supported the Good Friday agreement and its provisions.
I therefore ask the Government to consider the very sensible recommendation in amendment 228. Its sister amendment 227 does not accommodate the situation in Northern Ireland, because it allows only a 2% margin of discretion. It should allow for at least 2% or at least one seat. If that could be inserted in the Bill, it would help.
Gavin Barwell: I want to start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) who, unfortunately, has left the Chamber. He made the point that there is an irony in the positions that the different parties are taking. The Conservative party is making the progressive argument for greater electoral equality, while Labour is arguing the case for greater adherence to traditional community boundaries. One thinks back to 1982 when Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour party, and the Labour Chief Whip took the Boundary Commission to the courts because it had not crossed community boundaries and had not, in Labour's view at that time, achieved sufficient electoral equality. For the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), I shall make four short points about the arguments advanced in favour of these amendments.
We have been asked, first, why we should reduce the number of seats. I can speak only for myself and describe why I shall be voting for such a reduction. I was a candidate during the MPs' expenses scandal and I carried out a survey of every elector in my constituency. I put to them proposals from all three political parties about things that could be done to improve our political system and found that the second most popular was that the number of MPs should be reduced. [Hon. Members: "To what?"] At the time, I proposed a 10% reduction; that was the figure in our manifesto and I would happily have supported it.
Gavin Barwell: I shall make some progress. I recognise that the coalition has proposed a slightly different figure, but it still represents a reduction and I am happy to support it.
The second argument that has been advanced relates to whether we should have a fixed number of seats. We have heard a great deal of enthusiasm for the current
rules, although I am not sure how many Members have read them. As I was saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), they allow the crossing of county boundaries. However, Members may not be aware that the Boundary Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life implored the previous Government to change those rules because they are contradictory, confused and muddled. Therefore, some of the enthusiasm that we have heard for the current rules is misplaced, and it is not unreasonable for Parliament to take a view on what the size of this House should be.
I am not a lawyer, but I can say that the amendment standing in the names of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), among others, is defective. It seeks to amend the first paragraph of proposed new schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 in a way that would wholly contradict proposed new paragraph 2(3) of that schedule, which would define the United Kingdom electoral quota in a completely different way.
The third point to deal with is the assumption expressed by Labour Members that a reduction in the number of constituencies and, thus, larger constituency sizes will lead to seats that less reflect community identity. That shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how this measure will work, because although that assumption will be true in some cases, in others the measure will lead to constituencies that better reflect community boundaries. Under these proposals, instead of having three MPs covering my London borough of Croydon, we would have three and a half, so the new seats would be likely less to reflect community identity in Croydon. However, the next-door London borough of Bromley covers three and half constituencies and that would reduce to three, which would doubtless better reflect community identity.
Thomas Docherty: I understand that the approach will be to start at the south coast of England and work north, so there will be no understanding at all; even within London, that is how it will work.
Gavin Barwell: The hon. Gentleman's understanding is incorrect. I understand that this will be looked at on a regional basis; the work will be done in the nine regions of England and then in the other nations of the United Kingdom. The work will not be done all across the country-I think that that would be technically impossible to carry out.
Gavin Barwell: I shall make some progress, because I promised to be brief.
The fourth argument advanced is that MPs will not be able to cope with the larger constituencies, and the Deputy Leader of the House has already rebutted that argument forcefully. Many Members in this House, including my two Croydon colleagues, already have significantly larger constituencies than those envisaged under this Bill and cope perfectly well with those arrangements. However, I hope that my Front-Bench team will have given some attention to two points that have been made by Labour Members. The first relates to the size of the Executive relative to the size of this House, and the Government definitely need to consider
it. The second point is that it would be perverse to decrease the size of this House while increasing that of the other place. I hope that the Government will soon introduce proposals to enact the coalition's proposal for an elected second Chamber.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD) rose-
Gavin Barwell: I shall give way once more and then I shall conclude.
John Thurso: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I could not agree more about an elected upper House. He was also making a point about difficulty, but that does not come from the number of constituents. I would have no problem in taking on a further 30,000 constituents, but I have a problem when I have to take them on 200 miles away.
Gavin Barwell: The Bill contains criteria about the maximum geographical size of constituencies. I observe, in passing, that one member of the Australian Parliament represents a constituency in western Australia that is about the size of France, and I believe that the Australian Government provide a light aircraft to enable that to be done.
In the interests of time, Mr Evans, I shall draw my remarks to a close. I merely say that the arguments put forward by those on the Opposition Benches against the reduction in the size of this House do not hold water. My constituents want to see a reduction and I shall be happy to support the proposal to do so.
Mr Heath: On the very last point that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) made, I think I recall that there is a Senator in the Italian Senate who represents Australia, Asia and Africa. That is a sizeable constituency and not one that I would suggest for this House.
This has been an interesting debate in many ways. First, I am glad that we have had the opportunity to have the debate on the clause at all. Had the attempt by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to vote down the programme motion yesterday been successful, we would not have had a debate at all. I am also pleased that we have had the extra hours this evening, because had the hon. Gentleman succeeded in voting the motion down, we would not have had them. Unfortunately, he then-again-filled the extra time with the 50 minutes of his speech.
I am also pleased because we have had a number of what I would consider to be doctrinal statements made. We had a doctrine laid out by the hon. Member for Rhondda for a new principle of consideration for constitutional Bills, in which we should allocate one day on the Floor of the House for each clause of a constitutional Bill. I recall the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, in which I was involved, as were many other hon. Members who were in the House at the time. It had 95 clauses and eight schedules and it had three days in Committee. That was what the Labour party did when they were in Government and it ill behoves them to suggest that the greatly longer time that we have given this Bill is insufficient.
We also had discussion about what the Salisbury-Addison convention might mean. I have a quotation from the former Lord High Chancellor-I do not know whether it is a ex cathedra statement, but it certainly approaches that-about how the House of Lords ought to apply its own judgment on the Salisbury-Addison convention in the context of a coalition. This is what the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) had to say in 2006:
"My own view is that if any coalition or arrangement as in 1977 gains the support of the democratically elected House and is endorsed by a motion of confidence then the programme for which they gain that endorsement should be respected by"
the House of Lords. That is an extremely helpful endorsement that may be noted.
The other place was mentioned several times in the debate on these amendments. It was mentioned first by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) and then by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is not in his place at the moment, who suggested that the Government were packing the House of Lords shamefully. For the record, let us say that 56 peers have been created since the election, of whom 29 have been Labour peers created on the proposition of the outgoing Prime Minister. If we are packing the other place, we are doing so remarkably ineffectively by inserting Labour peers.
The issue about the future of the House of Lords is an important one in the context of this Bill, as it is within the whole constitutional settlement. We are committed not only to an elected second Chamber but to a smaller second Chamber. It is precisely that work that is now being taken on in earnest for the first time in 100 years. The previous Liberal Government said very clearly in the preamble to the Parliament Act 1911 that they wished to see an elected House of Lords. That has been taken on by the Deputy Prime Minister with the all-party talks and we expect to introduce legislation early next year to bring that into effect.
Ian Lucas: If that is the case, why is the Deputy Leader of the House dealing with the House of Lords separately to the legislation on the House of Commons?
Mr Heath: Because this is a Bill about the House of Commons. The House of Lords will be dealt with in different legislation, which the hon. Gentleman will see in due course. His right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is involved in the discussions. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait. One of the lessons that we should have learned by now is that if we wait for every constitutional change to be made at once, nothing happens. That is what has prevailed for the last 100 years. We are going to change that.
The arguments that I hear about the future of the House of Lords have been strangely echoed in the arguments I heard this evening about this place. An argument that is regularly heard in the House of Lords is that any system that managed to appoint a peer as fine as the person who is speaking must be an exceedingly good system that does not require further change. We heard a bit of that this evening. We heard that any system that elected the current Members of the House must be an exceedingly good system and does not need to be changed. Various hon. Members explained how the numbers that precisely apply to their constituency are evidently the right numbers and should not be changed.
We have had the NIMPO-not in my period of office-argument, with Members saying, "Of course, we all want to see the House brought to a smaller size, but not while I'm still here. Wait until I've retired and then you can do it."
We have also had the impossibility argument, with Members saying, "It is quite impossible to reduce the House from 650 to 600 Members because the electoral quota that would be in place, with 76,000 electors, would make it quite impossible for Members to do their work", completely ignoring the fact that one third of current Members have constituencies of 76,000, or within a margin of 5% of that. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) said that it is impossible because there would not be enough time to do all the jobs that a Member of Parliament has to do. I would be more persuaded by that argument if I felt sure that every Member was a full-time Member of Parliament and did not find other employment-some excessively so. Such Members have contributed to the debate. Apparently, the shift from a constituency of 60,000 to 76,000 would make the job impossible.
We heard from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that the job is impossible to do if one represents a constituency that crosses a local authority boundary, but how many Members have constituencies that do that? Apparently, it would be impossible under the quota that we are suggesting.
Mr Love: The hon. Gentleman is criticising the arguments that have been used by the Opposition, so may I address the arguments that the coalition Government have used? I have read the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's report on the Bill. Having considered every argument that had been made, the Committee, which has an in-built coalition majority, concluded:
"There may be a case for reducing the number of Members of the House to 600, but the Government has not made it."
Can the hon. Gentleman make such a case tonight?
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until I get to that point in my remarks, because I have a few other comments to make on what others have said in the debate.
We have heard not only that it would be impossible for Members to accommodate extraordinary constituencies of 76,000, despite the fact that so many of us do it, but that it would be impossible for electors in such constituencies to know who their MP was. We have heard that it would be impossible to have a career structure because anyone who had experience outside the House could not be elected if we had constituencies of 76,000. What an extraordinary proposition that is.
The final proposition was that this is all a partisan move-[Hon. Members: "It is!"] The Opposition say that it is a partisan move to reduce the number of Labour MPs, but we have also heard from the same side in the same argument that it will not reduce the number of Labour MPs. So, we are gerrymanderers, but we are totally incompetent gerrymanderers because we are reducing our own seats and improving the position for the Opposition.
Again, I find it extraordinary that people whom I believed were reasonably intelligent and reasonably numerate can imagine that reducing the size of the House from 650 to 600 means that the 50 smallest seats are the only ones that disappear-they just go puff and disappear into the ether-and that all the rest carry on as they were. The suggestion is that the fact that most of the smaller seats are Labour seats shows that this is a partisan move against the Labour party. I am sorry; I just do not accept that. I do not think that it is a logical argument.
Phil Wilson: In a debate last night, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) proved to me that this is a partisan move, when she said that some hon. Members oppose it because they are
"trying to avoid being turkeys voting for Christmas."-[ Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 908.]
That is what the Conservative party is saying.
Mr Heath: I am addressing the arguments made in the Chamber tonight that suggested that the reduction from 650 to 600 was an unimaginably ambitious target for the House and would result in the loss of Labour seats and was therefore a partisan move, rather than being what it is: a modest reduction in the size of the House. We have discussed other sizes of the House. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos proposed a reduction in the size of the House of Commons. The Conservative manifesto suggested the figure of 585, and the Liberal Democrats suggested 500, but on the basis of the single transferable vote.
I have made it absolutely plain that this is a matter of judgment. Six hundred is not a magical figure. I have never pretended that it is. It is an arbitrary figure, but it is one that results in an electoral quota of about 76,000, which is an entirely possible figure, as we have demonstrated, on the basis of the 2009 electoral register.
Mr Heath: The hon. Lady will have to be a little bit patient and not just stand there, but ask and then wait until I give way.
The country would like to see a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in this House. We have tried to strike a balance between what is achievable and sensible in terms of the operation of Members of Parliament and what is desirable in finally turning the corner in terms of the ever-increasing size of the membership of the Chamber.
Susan Elan Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for finally giving way. He mentioned that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party proposed in their manifestos at the last election reductions in the number of seats. Various Conservative candidates in north Wales said, having cited Guy Fawkes among others, that people would probably think that the Guy Fawkes option was a good one, but we were then talking about a reduction of 10% of seats in Wales. When they were questioned, they said, "Yes, of course, it will be 10% of Welsh seats, because the new Conservative Government will be very rational in doing this." How does the Minister justify talking about a reduction of, I think, 7.7% across the whole United Kingdom but a reduction of 25% in one of the component nations?
Mr Heath: I justify that very easily by the fact that Welsh constituencies are much smaller than constituencies in the rest of the country, and the Bill will equalise representation, as I thought we had established. As I keep on reminding the House, the existing position is that the hon. Member for Rhondda-I choose his constituency only because he happens to be sitting on the Opposition Front Bench-has 51,000 electors, my constituency has 82,000 electors and there is a difference of almost 30,000 between the two. That cannot be justified.
Mr Mark Field: I very much agree with everything that the Minister says about the equalisation of constituencies. Can he therefore justify why any exceptions are being made?
Mr Heath: Yes, I can. I can justify why the islands of northern Scotland are in a rather different position from the Cities of London and Westminster. I can explain why constituencies where, as the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) says of his, the distance from one end to the other is greater than the whole of Wales might be justifiably treated as an exception. I do not find that a difficult case to make.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD) rose-
Mr Heath: Now I see that my hon. Friend is going to tell me about his constituency, which I accept is also a very difficult case.
Mr Reid: The Deputy Leader of the House has supported the Government line that a constituency with 22,000 electors and three islands is treated as an exception. Argyll and Bute has 13 islands with a public ferry service, and covers a land area of about 5,000 square kilometres, with an electorate of 67,000. If the benchmark is three islands and 22,000 electors, why is there not an exception for other constituencies with islands-13 islands?
Mr Heath: I understand my hon. Friend's point, because his constituency is indeed a very difficult case, and the argument that he will make to the Boundary Commission in order to maintain as much as possible of his current constituency boundary will be a very strong one. I am sure that he will make that argument, but we have not moved on to the group of amendments in which we can discuss that issue, and I have to keep in order.
May I return to the basic principle? I am amazed, because there is an element of the Bourbons about some Members: they remember nothing of what has happened over the past year or so. Do they not realise that the public are desperate for us to reduce the costs of this place? Do they not understand that there is no public clamour for more Members, which would be the effect of the amendment in the next group in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda? The public do not want more Members, they want fewer, and I believe that our proposal in this part of the Bill is entirely appropriate.
Mr Andrew Turner: I do not understand why it is necessary for the Minister, who wants to reduce the number of Members, to create more for my seat.
Mr Heath: It is difficult to maintain a process based on the equalisation of seats, and then to sustain the case that an island, which I accept has very particular characteristics of its own and is very large, but which, unlike Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar, is within near reach of mainland Britain, should be treated as an exception. However, the hon. Gentleman will continue to make that case, and I understand exactly why he wishes to do so. I know that he speaks for many of his constituents, although not all, and I am sure that he accepts that some of his constituents feel very strongly that the Isle of Wight has natural economic links with areas of mainland Hampshire, and that a parliamentary linkage could be of benefit. But of course, he represents 100,000 electors, and does so very well-
Mr Heath: I am addressing the Chair, and the Chair is seated at the Table, not on the Opposition Benches.
As I say, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) needs to continue to press his case. We shall listen to the arguments that he makes, but we shall also try to maintain the principle of a common-[ Interruption]
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. If hon. Members can be quieter, the entire Committee will be able to hear what Mr Heath is saying, so please calm down. We have only another 11 minutes left, as hon. Members know, before we need to move on.
Mr Heath: May I deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)? He has a great deal of expertise on this issue, and I am grateful to him for contributing to the debate. He proposed giving the boundary commissions flexibility to vary the number of seats assigned to each of the four nations by a small amount. The flexibility proposed in his amendment 228-a margin of 2% on either side of the proportionate entitlement-would not work for Wales or Northern Ireland, as was recognised by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). It would not allow the commissions there to increase or reduce those nations' allocations, as 2% of their national entitlement would not equal one whole seat.
However, there are more fundamental objections to the amendment. It would enable the Boundary Commissions for England and for Scotland to increase or decrease the total number of MPs in the House and the proportion of MPs who represent their part of the UK. Parliament should lay down clear rules for determining the number of constituencies, and they should be allocated to the four parts of the UK in proportion to their electorate. We are seeking equality between the nations as well as within them.
Finally, I want to deal with the amendments tabled-although not spoken to, obviously, because of his absence-by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. They would require the Boundary Commissions to decide between themselves the size of the House at each review, until the figure of 600 was reached in 19 years' time.
Mark Durkan: The Deputy Leader of the House told us that the figure of 600 was arbitrary. He has still not explained why an arbitrary figure has to be fixed in statute in perpetuity. If this is about creating equality between the component parts of the UK, why does the Bill say that constituencies in Northern Ireland can vary more widely, both among themselves and in comparison with constituencies elsewhere, than those anywhere else? That does not achieve what he says the Bill is supposed to achieve.
Mr Heath: We will have to differ on that specific point. I believe that what is proposed provides for a high level of equalisation across the whole United Kingdom. It is based on what is equitable for our constituents.
I return to the point about an incremental reduction, which was raised by one other hon. Member. I should like to make it clear that the issue was considered in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and the secretary of the Boundary Commission for England reported that there would be no particular advantage to making the change incrementally. The commission also said that it had both the resources to carry out the review and sufficient time, before the deadline for submitting reports on 1 October 2013, to draw up constituencies for a House of 600 at the review. The suggestion that that is impossible to achieve in the time scale that we propose is not substantiated.
The Government's proposals strike the right balance. They will end once and for all the fluctuation in the size of the House and the upward pressure on the number of MPs under the current legislation, and propose a modest reduction in overall numbers, which will cut the cost of politics, but do so in a way that will not result in constituencies that represent a departure from the type that we see in this Parliament. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will feel able to withdraw their amendments and support the Government's position.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Mr Evans, thank you so much for calling me. It has been enlightening, educational and a real honour to listen to this debate since we last divided the House some hours ago. I have listened to some fine speeches. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) put his case with such pith and moment that I was almost persuaded to vote against my own side. The spectre that arose before us was one so terrifying and so fearful that we quaked in our Tory boots; it was the spectre of clause 9 leading us to proportional representation. The fear that came upon me was that as a result of setting a number so precise and clear that it could not be questioned even by the great and good of the Boundary Commission, we could face proportional representation. I saw other right hon. and hon. Members struck with fear at the thought, and I saw them feeling that they would move towards supporting greater flexibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) offered us an amendment that would meet almost every objective of Her Majesty's Government but would still have flexibility-that great aspect of the British constitution, which has served us well since Alfred the Great, who was a Somerset man. I debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) whether Alfred is more my constituent or his; I think, in fairness, that he would belong more to
the Deputy Leader of the House. This constitutional flexibility is something that has been of great benefit to us. I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes got it right in saying that it is useful for there to be some degree to which one can go outside the boundaries, without being too prescriptive.
On the subject of today's speeches, what a fantastic history lesson we had from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). To think that this was supposedly the least discussed reform of Parliament since the Rump Parliament, when Cromwell decided to send in the troops-the only man to send troops into the predecessor building to this House to enforce debate and Divisions. Some of us may think that the Whips are tough, aggressive and forceful, but even in my experience they have not used force, or pikes, to make sure that I go in the right direction. Oliver Cromwell did indeed do that; he prevented people from voting in that forceful way. The shadow Minister returned us to these matters again and again, and spoke for at least 50 glorious minutes-minutes that felt to me like days, but days of such pleasure, joy and rejoicing in spirit that I hope we will have another 50 minutes from him in due course, or on another occasion, or perhaps tomorrow, if we should be so lucky.
Let us return to the specifics of numbers. Should it be 650, or perhaps 649? Should it be 648 or 647?
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Higher!
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend would like to have more-perhaps it is a "points mean prizes" occasion. However, I think that 600 is not too bad a number. One hon. Member suggested 666-the number of the beast. It is worth being careful about the number 666, because if we read our Bible carefully there is always a footnote saying that other ancient authorities refer to 616. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes set his limit at 612, clearly aware of the dangers of going as high as 616 and thereby finding that we inadvertently had in this House the number of seats that was the number of the beast. We know what that would mean: it would be deeply terrifying-almost as terrifying as the threat of proportional representation.
We had great discussions about the great and noble historical counties, and the wickedness of Humberside and suchlike. I would like to add that Avon was even worse than Humberside. Avon was an abomination-a foul creature disgusting in all respects, destroyed, I am glad to say, by the noble father of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer). In the numerical aspect, it is important to look at the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome in representing so many Somersetshire constituents. It seems important that the people of Somerset should have as much representation as the people of Rhondda-indeed, I think rather more, because we are from Somerset and they are from Wales. A few extra seats should be especially included, to give Somerset the representation that that wonderful county needs.
I will say just one final thing about seats, because time is getting on. In the Parliament of, I believe, 1392-let me just check that in my notes-no, the Parliament of 1362, one Member, a Mr John Wonard, represented two seats in Devonshire and two in Cornwall. It seems to me that the flexibility that the history of our nation allows ensures that the number will always come
out right in the end. A right and suitable number we shall have, a fine and good number, a lucky number, perhaps a number that the-
Debate interrupted (Programme Orders, 12 and 19 October).
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the amendment be made.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Amendment made: 327, in clause 9, page 10, leave out lines 8 and 9 and insert-
(a) in England, the boundaries of-
(i) each county for which there is a county council,
(ii) each district that is not in such a county, and
(iii) each London borough,'.- (Mr Heath.)
Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Clause 9, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Committee proceeded to a Division.
The First Deputy Chairman: I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
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