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Chris Bryant: Well, the hon. Gentleman did not make that point earlier, but if he now agrees with the Government that must be because a Whip has spoken to him-or somehow or other. Anyway, he agrees with the Government, and I am sure that the Minister will be absolutely delighted about that.
Chris Bryant: As my hon. Friend says, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) has obviously become the hon. Member for Damascus. There are quite a lot of them in the Liberal Democrat party as well, so I am sure he and his friends will feel very much at home.
We have also tabled some consequential amendments, such as amendment (h), and that brings us to amendment (i) to new schedule 2, which is entitled, "Combination of Polls: England". The amendment relates to who is able to attend the count. I accept that I have not consulted widely with returning officers on this matter, because my experience is that different returning officers- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) mouths at me, "What page?" Amendment (i) is on page 790 of the amendment paper, and it reads:
"Paragraph 40, at the end of sub-paragraph (3) insert 'or
The amendment would merely allow Members, as of right, to attend the count on the AV referendum. We have not been able to word the amendment, "the person is the Member of Parliament for that constituency", because thus far we have not won the argument with the Minister about making the count happen at a Westminster parliamentary constituency level, but the amendment would allow Members to attend the count.
Mr Tom Harris: I rise only to remind the Committee and particularly the hon. Member for Damascus about our argument in the previous Parliament which proved there is little point in consulting returning officers on some matters. Even though it was the will of the House that the general election count take place on the night of polling, primary legislation was required to force returning officers to agree to count the ballot papers.
Chris Bryant: I am not quite so negative as my hon. Friend about returning officers, but the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) had an excellent debate in Westminster Hall the other day- [ Interruption. ] She is not in her place at the moment, but I am sure she will be later.
My point is that returning officers often have not only the law breathing down their neck, but elected Members who, in particular at the moment, are understandably worried about the financial situation.
They will be wondering whether it is better to spend money on electoral registration, the proper running of election counts and buying more polling station equipment, or on keeping a swimming pool open. I understand the pressure on returning officers, who want clarity from Parliament, but sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) said, they are wrong.
There is remarkably little freedom in law to give out a ballot paper after 10 o'clock, as the Minister reminded us in a debate the other day- [ Interruption. ] Indeed, there is no leniency or flexibility. However, some returning officers in the general election did give out ballot papers after 10 o'clock, because there had been extensive queues, so there has to be a bit of give and take in the relationship between Parliament and returning officers. Nevertheless, on the matter before us, I have often found that returning officers, who in the Government's new schedule would be given a degree of flexibility about whom they allowed to attend the count, choose not to allow the Member, as of right, to attend. It is a relatively minor point, but Members should be allowed to attend.
Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend made a very good point about basing the referendum count on parliamentary constituency boundaries. One third of my constituency is in Stockport metropolitan borough and two thirds are in Tameside metropolitan borough, and, were the referendum to be counted on a local authority basis, I would have two counts taking place at the same time.
The point is that our amendment is so drafted because, otherwise, a Member might be able to attend half the count in relation to the referendum on the alternative vote, but not the other half in relation to his constituency. We have tabled the amendment so that any Member of Parliament would be able to attend a referendum count. I would hope that most returning officers would not feel troubled by that, but some have explicitly said that the Member of Parliament is not, as of right, allowed to attend.
Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): I may have missed this point earlier, but will the referendum votes be counted by ward and then by either local authority or constituency area, or by constituency area or local authority first? Will they be mixed together and counted, or will they be counted by local authority electoral ward first?
No, they will not be counted by local authority ward. The procedure is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland of course-just
to make it easier for everybody. We tabled an amendment saying that it should be done in the same way throughout the whole country. [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that his provisions would make the procedure easier, but I am not sure that they would. In Wales, the procedure will be based on Assembly constituency boundaries, which are the same as parliamentary boundaries. In England, it will be based on local authority boundaries. In Scotland, it will be based on Scottish parliamentary boundaries, which are not coterminous with Westminster parliamentary boundaries-
Chris Bryant: In Dudley, which is not a separate nation yet, the procedure will be based on local authority boundaries. I cannot remember the provision in relation to Northern Ireland, but I am sure that the Minister will enlighten us. [ Interruption. ] It will be based on the whole of Northern Ireland; that is right.
On the question of priority when counting votes, we believe, as I think the Minister does, that it is important to count first the ballots for elections in which somebody is standing for office, and the referendum afterwards. If the rules in the Government's proposed changes are agreed to, however, that will not be entirely possible, because the ballots will first require a degree of verification, and we will have to empty all the ballot boxes in order to do so. None the less, we believe that in order to ensure that counting officers give priority to the counting of ballots cast in the respective elections to the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations, and to local council elections in each part of the United Kingdom, amendment (j) would need to be added to new schedule 2 in relation to England.
I am sure that you will be aware, Ms Primarolo, that we have tabled similar amendments to new schedules 3, 4 and 5 in relation to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not intend to refer to those now, because this is not the last time that the Government will present amendments on this subject, having decided to go through the ludicrous process of having statutory instruments that will not have been considered in advance of next week's Report stage before they then table additional amendments. I think that that is inappropriate.
Let me refer to the report that was published today by the Welsh Affairs Committee, in which John Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, who, as the hon. Member for Damascus-the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen-will know, is head honcho among returning officers, said that
"drawing on the experience of Scotland in 2007, the AEA considered there was a high possibility for great confusion amongst voters...electoral events, if they are of a different nature, should not take place at the same time. As a matter of policy and principle, we subscribe to that. Therefore, we have concerns about the possible implications for voters in understanding, or being confused by, the different ballot papers they are presented with for different electoral events on the same day."
We would contend, particularly because of the haste with which the Bill has been brought forward and the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny, that it will be even more difficult for returning officers to be able to do their job in the elections and to provide greater clarity for local voters.
Mr Harris: Has my hon. Friend received any information from the Government about the decision by the Scottish Parliament to move the local authority elections in Scotland back by one year specifically to avoid the confusion encountered in 2007? As the Government now want to have a referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, does that mean that they believe that the Scottish Parliament was wrong to move the local elections back by one year?
Chris Bryant: I presume that they must, because that is why we are now going to have all three of these things on the same day in Northern Ireland, despite the experiences in Scotland, which were aggressively excoriated by the Liberal Democrats when they were on the Opposition Benches-although they seem to have forgotten all the speeches that they made then.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the difference is that the Scottish council elections are held under the single transferable vote, so the voter has to number the ballot paper with their first, second and third preferences. In this case, all ballot papers will be marked with a single cross, so the possibility of confusion does not arise as it would if we were having two elections on the same day under different electoral systems.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, and I am sure that he knows all about confusion, especially at the moment. I think that he is trying to quibble to end up with a position that he can proudly defend. In 2007, he would probably have been saying that the elections should not have been held at the same time, so he should be advancing the same argument now. However, I leave that for him and his conscience.
The Welsh Affairs Committee cited Lewis Baston, the senior research fellow with Democratic Audit, who argued that the coincidence in 2015-if the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill goes through in the way that the Government intend-of a general election with Assembly elections in Wales and parliamentary elections in Scotland is even more troubling because
"the elections for Westminster and the Assembly would be taking place on different systems"-
"on the same day and, more complicatedly, on two sets of boundaries which will hardly ever correlate with each other."
I am absolutely certain that because the hon. Gentleman is a very honourable gentleman who is always consistent with his arguments, he will therefore vote against provisions in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill whereby elections in Scotland and Wales are to be held on the same day as the general election. I can see from his smile that I already have his vote in relation to any such amendments.
I am sorry that I have been unable to deal with all the other amendments that we tabled on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but some of them merely repeat the other amendments to new schedule 2 as regards England. I hope that we will have an opportunity to vote on quite a number of these proposals.
First, I will pick up several issues raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other Members, and at the end of my remarks I will ask
the Committee to vote for my new clause and new schedules and to vote against all the amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman. For colleagues requiring a simple way of thinking about it, that is what I am asking them to do, and they can now choose whether they want to listen to the rest of my remarks.
Mr Dodds: The Minister says that he is going to recommend to his hon. Friends that they vote against all the amendments. Does that include the amendment about giving priority to the counting of votes for Assembly elections or local elections over the referendum, given that I seem to remember him saying that he would support such a provision?
Mr Harper: We had a debate on this earlier, but I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman was in his place at the time. If he can wait until I get to that section of my speech, I will discuss it then. However, we do not think that his amendment is necessary to achieve the outcome on which he and I agree.
Mr Tom Harris: When the Opposition expressed reservations about the rapidity with which the Government were pushing the Bill through, we were assured that a certain number of days on the Floor of the House would be given to the Committee stage to enable Members from all parties to express an opinion. The Minister is now saying that he is recommending opposition to every single amendment tabled by the official Opposition. Is this yet another example of openness and the new politics?
Mr Harper: I have said that I am going to explain why hon. Members should vote against the amendments; I think that there are very good reasons for that. I have listened carefully and at length to the hon. Gentleman, as I have on every day of these debates. I want to use this as a good opportunity to talk about these matters.
I am happy to admit that we may not have reached perfection, but when one considers how we have conducted ourselves on this Bill compared with what Labour did when in government, it is clear that we have made tremendous steps forward in allowing the House time to consider it. Last week the hon. Member for Rhondda referred to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which was a similar kind of Bill, and said we should have allowed a day for each clause of our Bill. If a whole day had been spent on each clause of the CRAG Bill, which had 95 clauses, we would have had 24 weeks of debate-and of course we did not. Entire new parts and several stand-alone clauses were added which bore no relation to any existing provisions in the Bill. Only six days in Committee were allowed for those 95 clauses, and only a single day to debate all the new clauses on the alternative vote. There were multiple knives in the programme motion to restrict debate, and only one day for Report. I am happy to accept that we may not be perfect, but we have made tremendous steps forward.
Is the Minister daring to come to this House and suggest that failing to put this Bill into a proper Committee, with week after week of scrutiny-I would have been happy to serve on it, and to stay
overnight as well if necessary-and railroading this gerrymandered Bill through Parliament is in some way democratic? How has he got the nerve to come up with such nonsense?
Mr Harper: By having a Committee of the Whole House, we have enabled every Member to be here. I have been here for all five days of debate, and enjoyed them tremendously. I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on this particular issue. If he wants to wait, however, he will find that, much to my surprise, I agree with several of his points about the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda.
John Mann: But Members such as myself have tabled amendments, and because there has not been enough time, they have not even been scheduled for debate. The gerrymandering being attempted is not even being debated in the Committee, because of the timetabling. This collapsing coalition has put together a democratic outrage.
Mr Harper: That argument might be credible if I did not remember all the programme motions that the hon. Gentleman voted for in the last Parliament. Indeed, Labour Members opposed both the second programme motion on this Bill, which added six hours of debate, and the original programme motion, which ensured that we had more debate last week than we otherwise would have done. When we gave the Committee more time-to take account of the statement on the strategic defence and security review and the, quite rightly, lengthy statement on the comprehensive spending review-Labour Members voted against extra compensatory time. Labour never gave such compensation when we debated important provisions.
John Mann: I thank the Minister for generously giving way again in the limited time available today. Does he not remember criminal justice Bills of the past, for example, when some of us sat in Committee every Tuesday and Thursday for three months going through them clause by clause, word by word? In the case of the Legal Services Act 2007, amendments were tabled by Members in all parts of the Committee week after week, to improve the Bill. The then Government were sensible enough to listen to their Back Benchers in detail in Committee.
John Mann: Why do the Minister and his mate from the Liberals-the Deputy Prime Minister, who cannot even turn up-not have the courage of their convictions and listen to arguments on amendments, including from their own side of the House, to improve their rotten Bill?
Mr Harper: I can see why my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was confused and tried to intervene on the hon. Gentleman. That was a very lengthy intervention, almost worthy of a speech.
We have made considerable provision for debate, and when the Government provide extra time, the Committee needs to debate a Bill sensibly. To be fair, most Members have done so, but I cannot help but observe that most of the extra time that we added for the past couple of days
was almost entirely used up by the hon. Member for Rhondda. Rather than comment, I will let Members judge for themselves whether he used that time well.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) dealt with that point very well in his intervention. As my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has said, if there was pre-legislative scrutiny of everything at the beginning of a new Parliament, with a new Government having been elected, there would be a huge gap in the programme. He has made it clear that taking the Government's programme as a whole, we will almost certainly end up allowing more scrutiny of draft Bills than any previous Government.
Angela Smith: With respect, is not a Bill relating to constitutional reform of such significance that the Government should have waited and gone through a pre-legislative scrutiny process before bringing it to the House?
Mr Harper: All that I can say is that we can examine the comparative records. In the last Session under the Labour Government only four Bills had pre-legislative scrutiny. We will end up with twice as many, so our overall record will bear comparison.
I am not sure whether he meant it, but the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) accused us of putting the horse before the cart and proceeding at a gallop. I represent a rural area, so I think I have got this right: putting the horse before the cart seems to be the right thing to do, as does proceeding at a gallop. I do not see any problem with that.
Mr Harper: I will not, but I will of course correctly assign the comment to the hon. Member for Rhondda. It perhaps demonstrates that he needs to learn a little more about horses and carts before he makes such allusions.
The hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned combined elections and said that the Government had chosen the date of other elections for the referendum. I cannot help but observe that in both 2001 and 2005 the previous Government specifically chose to have general elections on dates when county council elections were already planned. They knew that in advance, and the elections were combined. They ran perfectly well and passed off without incident. I do not have any complaint about that, but for the Opposition to complain about our choosing to have a referendum on a date when there are other elections seems a bit rich.
I think I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman has just said that the 2001 general election was held on the same day as the local elections.
It was not: it was held in June, which was when I was first elected. That is yet another reason for him to resign.
Mr Harper: No, not at all, because the local elections were also held in June, because of the foot and mouth outbreak. Both sets of elections were moved, and they were on the same day, so it is the hon. Gentleman who should resign. I remember that very well, because my constituency was badly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak and the shambolic way in which it was handled by the Labour Government. That was one good reason why I was elected in 2005, and re-elected this year.
Kevin Brennan: On pre-legislative scrutiny, if we are going back to 2001, I will mention that the first Bill that I served on in that Parliament, the Adoption and Children Bill, went through a Special Standing Committee procedure. We had some evidence sessions before the Bill was considered in Committee. It would have been perfectly possible for that to happen with this Bill. Would not the opportunity to take evidence for a few days before Committee stage started-rightly, on the Floor of the House-have made the Bill stronger, and its passage through Parliament better informed?
Mr Harper: I have said both today and on earlier days that notwithstanding the short time available to it, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee did a sterling job of taking evidence and producing a comprehensive report on the Bill. We have examined what it said with great care, even though we do not necessarily agree with it.
The other point that I would make on that subject is that at business questions last week, when some hon. Members were complaining about the amount of time available, an Opposition Member who speaks for her party from the Front Bench complained that we were allowing too much time. She said that it was not very helpful that the House was sitting late, and asked what we were going to do to make the hours of the House more "predictable and family-friendly". I can only observe that there is a balance to be struck. Some Members think we should sit all night, but when we allow more time, others criticise us for making the House less family-friendly. Opposition Front Benchers cannot have it both ways.
I wish to pick up some of the points that the hon. Member for Rhondda made. He alluded to what I said about combining elections in Northern Ireland, and said that there was not currently any provision to do so. There is provision to combine local elections in Northern Ireland with UK parliamentary elections, and that already takes place, but there is no power in existing legislation to combine Northern Ireland Assembly elections with Northern Ireland local elections. If we did not have such provision in the Bill, they could not be combined and would have to be run separately.
The hon. Gentleman's amendments seeking to remove the provision for combining elections would not prevent elections from happening on the same day. They would just make it impossible to combine them. They would have to be run completely separately, which would incur extra cost and more complexity. Returning officers and counting officers could not ensure that the arrangements for those elections were brought together to work more
sensibly. Those proposals would therefore not take us any further forward. We would still have the elections, but there would be more cost and complexity. He does us no favours by suggesting that.
I made a point about poll cards earlier, but I shall repeat it, because it came up in the contributions of the hon. Gentleman and a number of other hon. Members. Poll cards will confirm the voting arrangements that will apply to particular electors. When they get their cards, electors will know whether they have a postal vote in place, which of the elections they are entitled to vote in, and therefore whether they need to apply for a postal vote for any of the elections. The fact that poll cards will have that information on them will be very helpful.
The hon. Member for Rhondda also mentioned some of the other elections that we propose to combine. I want to correct a small error. I think that I said that five mayoral elections were planned for next year, but the figure is four. I shall list the places for the hon. Gentleman's benefit: Bedford, Middlesbrough, Mansfield and Torbay. It is possible that further mayoral elections or by-elections might take place next year, and our combination provisions would cover them.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned local government referendums. I understand that several petitions have been registered with local authorities about referendums for directly elected mayors. We think that at least some local referendums are likely to take place. If they are held on the same day, we and the administrators believe that it would be sensible to combine them.
I have already spoken about amendment (a) to new clause 20 to limit the combination of elections. The amendment would not stop the elections happening; it would simply mean that administrators could not take them together. That does not help. I understand the views of hon. Members who do not agree with combination, but we had a lengthy debate of around five and quarter hours about that on the first day of our Committee proceedings. We had the argument and the Committee made a decision. If we accept that the elections will take place on 5 May, the Government amendments intend to ensure that they work sensibly, instead of rerunning the debate about whether they should be held on the same day.
Chris Bryant: I understand the thrust of the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks, but I am not sure that he is right. New schedule 2 refers to England, and although we discussed other elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we did not have a debate about whether English local elections should be held on the same day as the referendum.
Mr Harper: No, but we had a debate about whether the referendum should take place next May. If it does, it will be on the same day as the local authority elections. The Committee made a decision about the day on which it wanted the elections to take place-5 May.
Amendment (c) to new schedule 2 deals with the colour of the ballot paper. The current wording of new schedule 2 matches the version that is used in existing combination legislation, which has worked well for several years. The first sub-paragraph of amendment (c) is unnecessary. We do not believe that it is appropriate
to give the chief counting officer first choice of colour for the ballot paper for the referendum, partly because of showing respect to the other polls on that day. I cannot remember who raised the point, but there may well be custom and practice about the colour of ballot papers for particular elections in different parts of the UK. We think it appropriate to allow returning officers to continue with their usual custom and practice and to choose a different colour for the ballot paper for the referendum to make it easy for voters to tell the papers apart.
Much to my surprise, amendment (d) is one of two topics on which I agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). The flexibility that we have allowed on combining poll cards would allow counting officers to make local decisions, which reflect conditions on the ground. There may be particular reasons for that. Returning officers have adduced logistical reasons why printers, distributors and sometimes other administrators cannot combine poll cards. It is not sensible to legislate for something that cannot be delivered on the ground. Our proposals are more sensible and leave the decisions in the hands of officials who can respond to local conditions.
On ballot boxes, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who is in his place, made the point well that we want to allow flexibility for administrators to do what makes sense. In some places, where there is only a small polling station, multiple ballot boxes might constitute overkill. Even if there are separate ballot boxes, one cannot guarantee that papers from the election or the referendum do not go into the other ballot box. One must therefore still take all the papers out, separate and verify them. Again, it is much more sensible to leave that decision to administrators, who can take account of local circumstances.
On amendment (g), which deals with the register, I again agree with the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. Our approach permits but does not require registers to be combined. Again, that is the standard practice for combined polls. Amendment (g) would add much extra complexity and force counting officers to maintain and mark several separate registers. Those decisions should be made locally. As has been said, local people have to run the elections, and they will make sensible decisions.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) spoke about counting, and amendment (j) deals with counting priority. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary. Government amendments on combination already provide that returning officers must count the votes for the elections as soon as practicable after receiving the separated ballot papers from the counting officer. The chief counting officer has a power of direction over the timing of the referendum count. We have made it clear, as has the chief counting officer-the chairman of the Electoral Commission-that the votes in the referendum on the voting system are expected to be counted after those in the elections.
Verification was mentioned, and it must conclude before any count is declared, but it is not necessary for it to conclude before the counts start. The election counts can therefore start straight away, but they cannot conclude until the verification of both the elections and the referendum is done to ensure that all ballot papers have been accounted for.
Amendment (i) deals with Members of Parliament attending counts. As drafted, the amendment is flawed because it would allow Members of Parliament to attend the counts for local authority, mayoral and parish council elections and the local government referendums, but it would not allow them to attend the count for the referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. I do not think that the amendment reflects the intention of the hon. Member for Rhondda.
I expect the count for the referendum on the voting system for the House not to take place until Monday 9 May, because of prioritising the elections and our respect for the fact that in Northern Ireland counts do not usually take place on Sundays. Of course, on Monday 9 May, Members of Parliament will not be able to attend counts because they will be in the House attending to their important parliamentary duties. If Members of Parliament do not have important parliamentary duties in the House, they could attend counts in the usual way, either by applying to the Electoral Commission to become accredited observers or by being appointed by a permitted participant-one of the political parties-as a referendum agent. Amendment (i) is therefore unnecessary.
Chris Bryant: I seek clarification from the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that the three territorial authorities had laid their statutory instruments, but there is nothing in the Vote Office yet. The Scottish statutory instrument is available online, but not in the Vote Office. I hope that he will check the facts for us later.
Kevin Brennan: Do I take it from the Parliamentary Secretary's comments about attending the count on a Monday that he expects no member of the Government to attend any of the counts for the AV referendum?
Mr Harper: I did not say that. I assume that most Members will have duties in the House and in other places. If they do not, of course they can attend the counts. However, I foresee that most Members of Parliament will have important matters to tackle here, instead of attending counts in local authority areas or in Scottish Parliament, Northern Ireland Assembly or Welsh Assembly constituencies.
Chris Bryant: The Minister may be right that somebody has given the statutory instruments to the Table Office, but they are not available in the Vote Office. It would be for the convenience of the Committee if the Government provided copies to the Vote Office today, so that hon. Members can read them before we finish the amendments.
I said that the Government would table the territorial orders today, because it is in relation to those orders-now that we have them and they are
available-that we will be able to table amendments after the Committee stage finishes, for discussion on Report. The new clause and the Government new schedules that we have been debating today, and on which I will ask hon. Members to vote, refer to the law as it currently is, prior to the tabling of the territorial orders. Those orders are not needed for Members to deliberate today; they are needed for Members to table amendments for debate on Report, and they will be available to Members in good time for those debates.
Chris Bryant: I am just asking a simple thing, which is that the Minister should help the Committee. He says that all the statutory instruments have been tabled, but although the Scottish one is available online, the Welsh and the Northern Ireland ones are not. Would it not be simpler if he provided a few copies to the Vote Office? What possible difficulty can that give him?
Mr Harper: As with his lengthy speech, the hon. Gentleman is just going around creating confusion where there is none. The territorial orders that we have laid today-and we have laid them today-will be available for Members in good time for the debate on Report. The debate that we are having today is about new clause 20 and the Government new schedules, which, as he well knows, relate to the law as it currently is, prior to the tabling of the territorial orders, so he is creating a problem where none exists.
Mark Durkan: The Minister referred to the fact that the provisions on postal votes in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Government's new schedules, are not the same as those provided for elsewhere. Given that he has spent a lot of time dealing with the various Opposition amendments, will he now address that issue? The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that there could be further amendments from the Government. Will the Minister also address that issue, and tell us whether we are awaiting further amendments from the Government on postal voting in Northern Ireland?
Mr Harper: This is not a secret: I set out what we were going to do in the letter that I sent to all hon. Members who took part in the debate on Second Reading, and to the Opposition and the leaders of each party represented in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. What we are going to do is complex, but simultaneously straightforward, which is to have tabled the combination amendments today-that is, the new clause and the Government new schedules, based on existing legislation, which we are debating. The territorial orders updating the legislation have been laid today in the Table Office. When the Committee concludes today, the Government will, as I said in my letter, table amendments that we can debate on Report-if they are selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means-that will be based on the new legislation. The territorial orders that have been laid today will be available in good time for Members to decide whether they want to table any amendments for discussion on Report, because they will be available for Members to see tomorrow. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
I have set out, at some length, our response to the amendments standing in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda. As I said at the beginning of this debate, I
would urge hon. Members to support our new clause and our new schedules, and to oppose the hon. Gentleman's amendments.
Chris Bryant: On a point of order, Mr Streeter. As there was some discussion before that last set of votes about the statutory instruments to be laid by the Welsh Office, the Northern Ireland Office and the Scotland Office-
These statutory instruments are now available in the Vote Office and I note that the Scottish one is 205 pages long. There are two Northern Ireland instruments, not just one as was stated earlier. One is 59 pages long and the other is somewhat shorter; the Welsh one is quite short too. Would it not be extraordinary if these were not to be debated properly before Report?
The Temporary Chair (Mr Gary Streeter): I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I am sure that his comments have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and the House is grateful to him for his assistance.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Streeter. I have participated in many of the debates on this Bill, but it has been drawn to my attention that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) suggested that I had earlier today requested that there be fewer hours spent scrutinising this Bill. What I specifically said was that there should be fewer hours after 10 pm spent scrutinising this Bill, and we would have been able to achieve that had he and his colleagues acceded to the Opposition request for an additional day to debate it.
"(1) The number of holders of offices specified in Schedule 2 to this Act (in this section referred to as Ministerial offices) entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time, whether paid or unpaid, must not exceed 95 if the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom is 650.".
"(1A) If the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom decreases below 650, the limit on the number of holders of Ministerial offices entitled to sit and vote in the House of Commons referred to in section 2(1) must be decreased by at least a proportionate amount.".
New clause 7 would amend the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which currently sets the maximum number of Ministers allowed in this place at 95. As you know, Mr Streeter, part of this Bill, if passed, will bring about a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. My new clause is very modest in its scope. All I am seeking to do is to amend the 1975 Act to ensure that the ceiling for the number of Ministers is pushed down from 95 to 87, which directly reflects the percentage reduction in the number of Members of Parliament.
My new clause is very moderate. Many colleagues urged me to go further and to make a real assault on the patronage of the Executive, but I thought that that would be unreasonable and unreasonably ambitious. There might be voices of self-interest, largely residing on the Front Bench, who argue that we have the right amount of Ministers. They might even argue that we need more Ministers. I hope that I do not hear those arguments tonight.
Rafts of leading academics and political commentators have recognised for a long time that there are far too many Ministers in this place. Sir John Major, the former Prime Minister, has argued that we could easily do as well with a reduction of 25% to 30%. Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, told the Select Committee on Public Administration earlier this year that the number of Ministers could be cut by 50%. Professor Anthony King has argued the same, as has Lord Norton of Louth.
Mr Walker: The Deputy Prime Minister is a man of great integrity. I recognise that this is his Bill, and once he has heard the force of my argument he will rush here and demand a rethink from his Front Benchers.
Speaking at the Institute for Government in January, the Deputy Prime Minister called for the House of Commons to be reduced to 500 and for the number of Ministers across both Houses to be cut to 73. The Government's demands are much more moderate. They are talking about reducing the size of the House to 600, but if we reduce it to 600, following the Deputy Prime Minister's logic, we should reduce the number of Ministers by 15. That would tally with his mathematics, but, as I said, my new clause is modest. I am not calling for a reduction in the number of Ministers by 15. I know that many Members are demanding that I do that, but I shall not hear it. I am simply demanding a reduction in the number of Ministers by eight.
Many people here have argued privately in the corridors that there is no link between the size of the House of Commons and the number of Ministers. That is total nonsense. We know that as far back as the Bill of Rights of 1689 this House expressed concerns about the Crown having a presence here in the form of Ministers. The 1701 Act of Settlement tried extremely hard to remove Ministers from this place, because the politicians of that time wondered how one could serve the Crown as well as one's constituents. Unfortunately, that never saw the light of day because the Executive got their way in 1706. As recently as 1926, if someone became a Minister of the Crown, he was required, in between general election periods, to resign his seat so that his constituents could decide whether their Member of Parliament could serve two masters-the interests of the constituents and the interests of the Crown.
That is where I am coming from. I am arguing for a modest reduction in the number of Ministers. We have had enormous ministerial inflation since 1983. Margaret Thatcher-we all remember her, that great lady-had 81 Ministers to run this country in 1983. We now require 95. Is the world so much more complex? I say to those who argue that it is that since 1983 we have privatised a large number of previously Government-owned industries and we have allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have their own devolved Assemblies. The number of Ministers has still risen inexorably.
I do not want to try your patience, Mr Streeter, by straying off new clause 7 and talking about inflation in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but we are now seeing 50 PPSs adding to an already burgeoning payroll. Although these people are not even paid, they are called the payroll vote. As far back as the 1960s, one could be a PPS and vote against the Government without danger of losing that role, but that is not the case today. The civil service code of conduct says that a PPS is required always to support their Government.
Those on the Front Bench might well argue that they have made progress in reducing the cost of the ministerial payroll. They will argue-it is a bit of a red herring-that on taking the seals of office, Ministers took a 5% pay cut. In reality, they did not take a pay cut, because they went from being in opposition to being in government and took a 25% to 50% pay rise. It just was not as large a pay rise as it could have been.
The savings to the ministerial payroll are about £500,000, not an insignificant sum. Lord Turnbull said to the Public Administration Committee that the average cost of maintaining a Minister, with private offices, cars and private secretaries, is £500,000 per Minister. By reducing the ministerial payroll by eight in 2015, we will save the taxpayer a further £4 million. While we are at it, we might like to consider the 10 unpaid Ministers we have across the two Houses, because if we got rid of them we could save another £5 million. However, that is an argument for another time and another place.
Mr Streeter, you know better than anyone that we live in an age of austerity. Things are changing. We are dismissing senior permanent secretaries from across the civil service. We are removing chief executives of councils and their directors. We are attacking senior and middle management across the country, yet there is one group of senior management that is completely immune to these cuts and that is the ministerial corps. Yes, we are all in it together, but not quite if one is a Minister. I do not think that any good argument could be presented from those on the Front Bench for not reducing the ministerial head count.
I am an enormous fan of the coalition and the Prime Minister, and I think that the coalition is what the country needs at this time. Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have talked about new politics, a new way of doing things and a new optimism. New clause 7 is the litmus test for new politics, because I do not understand how we can have new politics and oppose reducing the Government's patronage at the same time. I hope that Front Benchers can respond to that point.
To colleagues who are, perhaps, being leaned on by the Whips, I say that this is our chance to take ownership of new politics, which cannot be driven by Front Benchers and the Executive because the Executive are all about taking and retaining power and extending the tentacles of patronage even further. We as Back Benchers will take ownership of new politics tonight; we will do the heavy lifting for the Executive. By going into the Lobby and supporting new clause 7, we will be able to look our constituents in the eye when we go for reselection after the boundary review or the general election and say, "I was different." When they challenge us with that worn cliché, "You're just the same as the rest of them. You're only in it for yourself," we can say, "You are wrong. I was one of those Members of Parliament in 2010 who voted to reduce the number of Ministers."
I have spoken for too long. In conclusion, new clause 7 is the very essence of new politics. The House and my colleagues have the chance to do the right thing tonight and I hope that they take that chance, because they will be respected for it if they do.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): I wish to speak in support of new clause 7, which was so ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and to comment on the related issues of the number of MPs and the number of Ministers with which it deals. Paragraph 24 of the coalition programme for government, the contents of which we are, in part, debating today, starts with the words:
"The Government believes that our political system is broken. We urgently need fundamental political reform".
I totally dissociate myself from that shameful statement. If it were true, all the political leaders of recent years ought to resign their seats because they would be responsible. Our "political system is broken" it says. That was the slogan of Oswald Mosley and the British fascists when I was a boy. Mosley spent the war in prison and the political system he despised and described as broken triumphed at home and abroad. Our political system is not broken. We have had some nincompoop Front Benchers, some expense-fiddling Back Benchers and even some who managed to qualify under both categories, but our political system is basically sound and, in parliamentary terms, not very different from what it was in 1945, 1918 and 1815.
It is the duty of an incoming Government in a democratic country to work within the rules and conventions of its political system, not to change those rules and conventions to fit their temporary party political convenience-that is a privilege usually reserved for banana republics. That is why I am opposed to all the so-called constitutional changes proposed in the coalition programme. The Deputy Prime Minister said yesterday-appropriately on "Desert Island Discs"-that when he met the leader of the Conservative party after the election, they agreed together that in the general election both their parties had lost. We should try to reverse that decision of the electorate not by changing the rules of the game but by raising the standard of government. We do not have too many MPs: we have too many Ministers and too many placemen, to use Sir Robert Walpole's phrase to describe the proliferation of what Disraeli later described as the Tadpoles and Tapers of politics, who are now being proliferated to an astonishing degree.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman said that in 1900 the UK was the richest nation in the world. Today, in The Scotsman, I read that among the top 15 most prosperous nations, the UK finds itself in the unlucky 13th place, behind Norway at No. 1 and noticeably behind Ireland and Iceland, respectively at 11th and 12th. That is just a point of information.
Sir Peter Tapsell: It is very interesting-even if incomprehensible to me. I make the point in passing that Scotland has gained even more than Britain from the combination of our two countries since the Act of Union.
Although by 2000 the total number of MPs involved in Government had already gone up from 42 in 1900 to 129, the number of Cabinet Ministers has not greatly increased. It is the number of loyal, but little known
and easily sackable bag carriers that has ballooned. At the election, we in the Conservative party were pledged to make Government more answerable to Parliament. How is that to be achieved by maintaining the number of Ministers and increasing the number of PPSs, yet at the same time reducing the number of MPs? At this rate, genuine Government Back Benchers will become a threatened species. There will be no more Pitts attacking Walpole, no more Disraelis attacking Peel and no young Macmillans attacking Chamberlain, yet that is part of the lifeblood of our parliamentary story.
On what grounds is it claimed, historically, statistically or in terms of accommodation, that we have too many MPs? Germany, Australia and the United States, with their federal structures, have far more elected representatives, at various levels of their constitution, than we have. Over the past two centuries, our population has increased from about 16 million in 1800 to about 62 million today. We now have 650 MPs. The proposal is to reduce the number to 600. In 1801, shortly before Trafalgar, there were 658 MPs. In 1885, in the heyday of Liberalism, there were 670 MPs. In the 1918 general election, 707 MPs were elected to the House, before the southern Irish were hived off in 1922-the year in which the Back Benchers of the Tory party reasserted themselves and got rid of Lloyd George.
Universal suffrage was not fully achieved until 1929, but in the two previous centuries the voteless masses were never out of the minds of wise MPs and Ministers. In 1801, the number of people, as distinct from voters, in each constituency averaged 24,000-although it varied a good deal from constituency to constituency. Today, the number is 95,000 and the majority are electors. If we reduce the number of MPs to 600, as is proposed, that average population figure will become 103,000, quadrupled from the 25,000 of 1800 when they had more MPs than we have today. Also, the demands of a constituency on its Member of Parliament have enormously increased in recent years. In my first Parliament, I shared one secretary with two other young and active MPs; now I have three secretaries working for me alone.
Coalition Ministers, in their programme document, claim to hold our political system in contempt, but the strange fact is that the part of the system that undoubtedly works best is that in which the Government are least involved. The best aspect of modern politics is the close personal relationship between MPs and their constituents. Its closeness and extent is unique. Even in Switzerland, the cantonal MP is not seen as being so close and available as most MPs of all parties are seen to be by their constituents in Britain.
While the media and many members of the public often express contempt for our leading political figures-but not, of course, for the Leader of the House-at grass-roots level, whatever the politics of their MP, people are more likely to say, "My own MP does a good job in the constituency, and when I am in trouble, I know that he will do his best to help me." That is the strongest of all the present bulwarks of our democratic parliamentary system.
At a time of economic failure, disgruntled police, fearful public servants, a neglected army and hostile trade unions, which in many countries would be regarded as a dangerous quintet, why tamper with that bulwark? When there are so many more pressing issues to be solved, why set many MPs, even of the same party-or
particularly of the same party-at the political throats of their neighbours, as rumours of boundary changes begin to abound? My local press has already speculatively redrawn the six Lincolnshire constituencies and abolished one of them, to general dismay and the discouragement of activists of all parties. Why muddy the political waters with the inevitable charges of gerrymandering, which are certain to be thrown about?
Very wisely, in the United States, changes to the actual constitution occur only very rarely, after years of discussion, and they require a two-thirds majority of both Houses of Congress and the approval of the Supreme Court. In this debate on new clause 7, I have spoken about only two aspects of the so-called constitutional reforms, but in my view, the wide range of constitutional and electoral changes proposed by the coalition Government, taken as a whole, and introduced so early in the life of a Parliament full of new Members, constitute an attempt at a peaceful, political coup d'état, with the sole object of securing the position of Ministers. They have no mandate for the Bill from the country. I therefore urge this Committee to accept new clause 7, and urge the House in due course to reject the whole Bill on Third Reading.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I had not intended to speak in the debate, although I support the proposal in the new clause. I am quite certain that our most important role in this place is that of representing our constituents, and I agree with the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) that that relationship between the Member and our electors is the most special thing about my job. That is what most Members of Parliament think.
The problem is that that relationship is not sufficiently rewarded by the structures of this place, and in some ways the new clause goes to that issue. It challenges a reward system which says that success is achieved only by being a Minister. I have history here, because I am one of the very few people who, when they were a Minister, asked the Prime Minister to stop making me a Minister because I had had enough. I wanted to jump off that gravy train, for a number of reasons. One of them was that I believed that my responsibilities as a Minister interfered with the relationship that I had with the people of Slough whom I have the privilege to represent.
I have been complaining about late-night debates on the Bill and I did not plan to intervene until the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle spoke. We need to listen carefully to what he said, because his speech was not just about the new clause. It was not just about the number of Ministers. It was an analysis that showed that the Bill is looking down the wrong end of the telescope. The Bill protects the interests of those in government-in power-at the expense of those who put us there. It is not sufficiently focused on the electorate of Britain, on the masses whom we have the privilege to represent, and it is too focused on those who have scooped up the power in what he calls a coup d'état.
In a way, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I do not quibble with the fact that the result of the election required a coalition to be created. I am also of the view that the coalition had to be created between the largest party and a partner. But I quibble with the kind of
constitutional change that the Bill seeks to bring about, not prefigured properly in any party's manifesto, being rammed through the House of Commons without proper consideration.
That speaks to us about the consequences of not having a written constitution. There are some merits in not having a written constitution. It can create some flexibility and some opportunities to be imaginative and to solve problems as they arise, but it has risks, and today we are in the middle of one of the biggest risks. Without a written constitution, people can take liberties with the constitution. That is happening right now. Liberties are being taken, and those taking the liberties are those in government, who see the reward of elections-the highest thing that they can achieve-as Government office, not representing the masses.
Those of us who think that representing the people of Britain is our highest achievement should say that we will support the new clause and that we will not accept a situation in which a third of those on the Government Benches are on the payroll. That is not acceptable. It is not satisfactory and it creates huge cynicism among the electorate of Britain. I cannot blame them for thinking that politicians are rogues. Most of us in this place know that most are not, but when the system means that people cannot say what hon. Members and I know they think because they are on the Government Benches and they have to just suck it up, that makes people think that politics has no authenticity and that it is dishonest. That is damaging to democracy.
We have had excellent contributions. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said that he lacked ambition. That is clear, I suppose. That has been underlined with three lines from the Whips, but I praise the motion that he tabled. It puts into a new clause the question that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister some few months ago: if the Government plan to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons and do not plan to cut the number of Ministers, surely that will increase the influence of the Government-the Executive-over Parliament. I wholeheartedly support the argument that the hon. Member for Broxbourne made this evening.
Mr MacNeil: May I charitably suggest that although the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) might lack personal ambition, he certainly does not lack ambition for the House and its wider membership, which will have been noted on both sides of the House?
Chris Bryant: Of course; I did not mean to be ungenerous to the hon. Member for Broxbourne, as I think he well knows. I was praising his ambition, which need not be for the greasy pole-it might be for other things in life.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle made some extremely good points, and I hope that many Members will reject the Bill on Third Reading for precisely the reasons he advanced. One of the arguments I have tried to make throughout is that I fully understand why many hon. Members feel that, following the expenses saga in particular, we need to be very humble about the authority of the House and individual Members. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should be proud of our representative democracy and the system we have. It does not work perfectly. There are things that have to be improved. As in the church, there will always be things that are semper reformanda. However, we should not in the process suddenly start to say that the whole of the political system is corrupt, wrong and rotten, and that therefore we have to start all over again.
Chris Bryant: Well, my point remains. Neither in 1815 nor in 1850 were miners able to vote, because they did not qualify under the franchise. In 1885, they were allowed to, but women were not. One can make significant changes to the system, although I think the hon. Gentleman holds a different view from me about reform of the House of Lords. That is where I agree more with the Government Front-Bench team. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had any particular tadpoles or nincompoops in mind-I can see some images flitting across his mind now, which suggests he had some specific people in mind.
The hon. Member for Broxbourne referred directly to the argument that the Deputy Prime Minister made in January in favour of cutting the House of Commons to 500 Members and the number of Ministers to 73, but of course that is not at all the proposal before us. The right hon. Gentleman has adopted neither measure. It might be that having picked one tune on "Desert Island Discs" on Sunday, he changes his tune entirely when it is replayed on Thursday. That is clearly the situation we have at the moment.
Our system has changed over the generations because it has not been considered right and proper that Ministers thought of their salary or pension as just a tiny part of their remuneration for being in hock to the Crown and that all the other monopolies and benefits accruing by virtue of how they operated their ministerial office brought in far more money. It was Edmund Burke who, in 1782, first introduced changes that meant that Ministers of the Crown had to rely on the properly arrived at financial provisions, rather than on the previous system which was completely and utterly corrupt. As Macaulay said of the 18th century:
"From the noblemen who held the white staff and the great seal, down to the humblest tidewaiter and gauger, what would now be called gross corruption was practiced without disguise and without reproach."
Many in previous generations exercised their ministerial functions solely on the basis of financial corruption. Ministers accumulated enormous fortunes by virtue of being Ministers. It is right and proper that we do not have that system today, and if anybody in the British political system does accumulate, by virtue of their political office, an enormous fortune, there is something going wrong-IPSA must have allocated everything that we have all claimed to just one individual Member.
There was substantial change in 1831 through the Select Committee on the Reduction of Salaries. It suggested a completely different structure, which ended up with William Pitt the Younger, when he was First Lord of the Treasury, earning just £5,000 by virtue of that post, although he had other posts that earned him some £4,300. Today, that would be a considerable amount of money for ministerial office, but at the time MPs were not paid at all.
Today's system relies on two pieces of legislation from 1975, the Ministerial and other Salaries Act, and the House of Commons Disqualification Act, to which the new clause in the name of the hon. Member for Broxbourne refers. Both specify that the number of Ministers shall be 95. The Ministerial and other Salaries Act also lays out how many Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State, Whips and so on there can be, and it is my simple contention that if one wants to limit the number of Members and ensure that the proper legislative scrutiny function of this House is performed, one has to cut the number of Ministers.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): When the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) spoke to his new clause, he made the very good point that, at a time when we are talking about reducing not the number of councillors throughout the UK, but the administrative costs, the chief executives, the directors and so on, it is incumbent on us to talk about changing the Executive and reducing the Executive's power.
Chris Bryant: That is right. If we really are to have new politics-that rather amorphous term to which the coalition agreement alludes-it must accept something that we the Opposition were too reluctant to accept when we sat on the Government Benches: that Parliament, when it is free to do its job, does its job better than when it is constrained.
The constraints are multiplying. The number of parliamentary secretaries is not quite growing daily, as the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle suggested. He made it sound as if they were breeding and reproducing. The number is not growing daily. However, it is certainly true-
Ah! Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Indeed, I was going to come to the point about PPSs, because the hon. Member for Broxbourne was absolutely right to say that they are included in the ministerial code of conduct. It is a bit odd that a list of PPSs is still not available to the public. If one goes to the Cabinet Office website, one finds that the most recent list refers to July 2009. There is a list on conservativehome.com, which is a website that Government Members might consult sometimes, detailing 22 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, but as I understand it there are considerably
more than that. The Government should be straight with the House and tell us precisely how many people are really on the payroll. By payroll, I do not mean that PPSs are in receipt of moneys.
"Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to support the Government in important Divisions in the House. No Parliamentary Private Secretary who votes against the Government can retain his or her position."
I say again that this House does its job as a reviewing, revising and legislative body when it is freest from the shackles of patronage, but with the numbers of Ministers and PPSs having grown, there is already an unnecessary constraint on the real power of this House to do its job.
We have talked about what happens on the Government Benches, but what also happens is that the Opposition feel that they have to match the ministerial team-and of course, the PPS team-man for man and woman for woman, so we end up not with 95 Ministers but 190. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is saying from a sedentary position that Labour did the same-yes, and I have already said that we were too slow to accept these points. However, there is a big difference. He is supporting a Bill to remove 50 Members of Parliament while keeping the number of the Ministers the same, which means that Ministers will form a larger percentage of the House.
When one includes Ministers and PPSs on the Government side and their shadows on the Opposition side, one ends up with a large number of people who are not entirely free to speak their mind because they are bound by collective responsibility. There are many things to be said in favour of collective responsibility: nobody wants to be run by a shower who are completely and utterly unable to organise themselves and exercise some discipline. However, we also need a significant number of people on the Back Benches who are able to deliver their verdict on legislation and to vote at all times entirely with their conscience.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. He is arguing that people who are not members of the Government are a bulwark against an oppressive Executive, and I accept that. At the same time, he admits that his own Government-the previous Administration-got it wrong, and I agree. However, this is not necessarily just a numerical issue. We should cast our minds back to the Iraq war debates, when a huge Back-Bench cohort failed to hold the Executive to account on one of the most important issues of foreign policy in our country's history since the war.
I think I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the previous Government we were not always as alive as we might have been to the fact that this House does its job best when it is most free to be able to do so. However, the difference that he has to face is that unless he intends to agree with the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, he is supporting a Bill that wants to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. That will, in effect,
cut the number of Back Benchers, because it does not cut the number of Ministers. My argument is that if we are going to cut one group, we should cut the other. That is entirely in line with the new clause.
Mr Mark Field: Everybody accepts that collective responsibility is an important function, particularly in this media-savvy world in which we live, where it is important to ensure that any Government do not look like a shambles. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that there is a distinction between collective responsibility for much of the legislation that goes through this House and this sort of Bill-a constitutional Bill that should not be subject to quite the same shackles to which he has referred?
Chris Bryant: I agree. That is why I have been trying to argue that Members such as the hon. Gentleman who have taken a long-standing interest in constitutional issues should feel free not necessarily to vote with their Front Benchers. I know that he has already exercised that right on several occasions.
Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman says that having a large group of PPSs will make it more difficult to hold the Government to account, but some might argue that when Mr Blair was Prime Minister it was the rebellion among PPSs threatening to resign that finally forced him to go.
Chris Bryant: Right, but he is not yet listed on any publicly available list of PPSs. [ Interruption. ] Well, I am sure that the country is grateful and that people will welcome the hon. Gentleman with acclaim and instantly start putting up red and white bunting in honour of his historical associations with Poland.
My point is that the payroll vote has increased. It has increased because of the dramatic increase in the number of PPSs, which partly happened under our rule but I think is happening again at the moment. The increased payroll vote is not just because of that, though. It is also because of unpaid Ministers. I was an unpaid Minister for a while and sympathise with the Deputy Leader of the House, who is one now. We now also have a particularly interesting concept, which is a Liberal Democrat Whip who is not even an unpaid Minister but an organiser of the Liberal Democrats, but who is sort of on the payroll as part of the ministerial team. Clearly, because their job has the word "Whip" in it, they are expected to vote with the Government at all times.
In addition, a vast extent of patronage is still available to Prime Ministers. They can make Members chair an ad hoc committee or ask them to be a delegate to some conference here or there. The whole business of patronage can be profoundly dangerous to how we do our business. I have already referred to how that applies to Opposition parties.
I will be warm towards the Government briefly and say that they have made some moves to remove one element of that patronage, which we had suggested before and for which I remember fighting when Robin Cook was Leader of the House. They have done that
through the election of Select Committee Chairs. That has been entirely beneficial and I support it fully. I can see at least one Committee Chair in his place, and he is a splendid chap. He might not have become Chair of that Committee if it had been a matter of patronage, or if he had become Chair by virtue of patronage, he might not have felt so free to use his voice in these debates over the past few days. He has pointed in the direction of the new politics, but we can still go much further.
Of course we must consider the financial costs of ministerial office that can be saved, although I do not want to go too far down the populist route attached to that. Sometimes it is valuable to have Ministers who are properly supported and can do their job well. When I was in the Foreign Office it had only three Ministers in the House of Commons, which made it very difficult for foreign delegations to be met by a Minister from the Foreign Office. I do not know whether that did the United Kingdom any favours. I do not wish to adopt every populist measure that is thrown in front of us, or to kick it in the net, but I do want to ensure that the House has sufficient Members with Back-Bench independence to be able to hold the Executive to account.
Many of those who have made the most significant contributions to the House over the centuries have not only never sought ministerial office but actively declined it, from Andrew Marvell, who turned down office on five or six occasions, to Plimsoll, Bradlaugh and a series of others. They made dramatic changes to the lives of many ordinary people in this country, and they did not need ministerial office to do it. They were able to do it from the Back Benches.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I wish to speak very briefly in favour of the new clause. There is a long history in this House of Members challenging the ever-increasing power of the Executive. We heard recently from the Leader of the House, who is not in his place:
"The terms of the trade between Government and Parliament have shifted too far in the executive's favour. That is not good for Parliament; but neither does it lead to better government."
"We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute."
"an opportunity to turn the page on decades of relentless centralisation within government."
"The rules of the game at Westminster are stacked in favour of the ruling party; parliament is rendered largely impotent to hold ministers to account."
We have heard over the past few days and weeks very strong arguments for equalising the size of constituencies and reducing the number of MPs, but to do that without also reducing the number of Ministers would profoundly undermine the authority of Parliament. The proposal is not radical, or even a solution to the problem that so many hon. Members have identified. It would neither minimise the power of the Executive nor increase that
of the legislature. It merely calls for a reduction in the size of Government in line with the planned cuts to the number of Members of Parliament. In effect, it will do no more than prevent trends from getting worse.
When considering the new clause, the Committee should bear in mind not only the experiences of the parties that form the Government and occupy the Government Benches, but those of the rest of us who come to the Chamber and the Committees of the House and are confronted with the realities of the Government Whip system and Parliamentary Private Secretaries-part of the peculiar ecosystem here-who can represent their constituents but are at times bound not to represent their consciences. The idea that someone can represent their constituents but never their conscience is a peculiar political creation, from which the House should try to get away. It brings politics into some disrepute if we appear effectively to neuter ourselves. The straits into which PPSs are cast are unnecessary; they should be allowed more freedom than they generally exercise or are encouraged or permitted to exercise.
New clause 7 led me to that issue by way of making a general observation about the dominance of the Executive in the House. In recent years there have been attempts to reduce the Executive's absolute control of the agenda and the timetable, and changes have been made from appointing Chairs of Select Committees to electing them. That is all to the good, but new clause 7 is the reality check. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, it is the genuine test of whether the new politics means anything.
I have no argument with reducing the number of Members of Parliament. I did not vote for 650 the other night; I am happy if there is a reduction. However, alongside that, we need a reduction in the size and voting dominance of the Executive in the Chamber.
Of course the answer to the problem of the over-supply of Ministers in this House is not to over-supply them in another place. In the previous Parliament not only many Ministers, but Cabinet Ministers-Secretaries of State-sat in another place. I joined others in criticising that lack of accountability. For me, the answer was not to bring Ministers from the Lords into this House-the last thing I wanted was to bring Peter Mandelson back anywhere, not least to the Dispatch Box, given our experiences of the man. On that famous occasion in Hartlepool, he said that he was not a quitter but a fighter. I always believed that his theme tune should have been the Simon and Garfunkel song "The Boxer"-not for the lyrics of the verses but for the chorus, which is simply "Lie la lie" throughout.
The answer was not to bring Lords Ministers into this place; the question was: why were there so many Cabinet Ministers in the Lords? The hon. Gentleman
referred to the fact that there are limits in statute on the number of Cabinet Ministers, but we saw how the previous Government got round that. They went to the limit for Cabinet Ministers and then had a series of ministerial high chairs put around the Cabinet table, so that lots of other Ministers had rights of attendance at Cabinet, simply to ensure that more Members of the House of Commons were in the Cabinet room than would have been there otherwise. That is the sort of lazy, sloppy, self-serving thinking that seizes parties in government. They use and abuse, and bend and flex rules and limits in ways that suit themselves, which does nothing to enhance the reputation of politics in general or this House in particular.
We have a choice this evening with new clause 7. If the Government are being straight and sincere, they should accept the spirit of the new clause. I know that we will need other provisions to ensure that one way round this is not suddenly to increase the number of Ministers in another place or whatever-but the full spirit of new clause 7 should be embraced. The Government tell us a lot about the big society. They are against big government out there, but they are all for big Government in here. New clause 7 really is the test for the Government. In particular, it is the test of whether they will allow their own Back Benchers to vote according to their conscience on how they want this House truly to operate under the banner of the new politics.
Mr Jenkin: I rise briefly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on the spirited and coherent way in which he moved his new clause. I should also like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who also made a coherent and spirited defence of the new clause.
It is not my intention to speak for very long. In fact, it had not been my intention to speak at all in this debate, partly because I am losing my voice, so this speech might not continue for long. In fact, it might be cut down in its prime. However, I have been watching the Deputy Leader of the House nodding at some interesting moments during this debate, when he seemed to be endorsing the past statements of his party's leader. I am waiting with bated breath to see how he melds the previous position of his party's leader with the present position of the Government.
While he is preparing his remarks, I hope that he will reflect on the fact that the very office of Deputy Leader of the House is, in itself, rather a modern invention. I think that it was invented during the previous Labour Government. I do not know whether it ever existed before-I look to my hon. Friend the Father of the House-because it had never been deemed necessary for there to be a deputy to the Leader- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was the embodiment of the invention. The post reflected the desire of the Executive to create more jobs for the boys-if I may put it that way-than existed before.
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