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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 11 January 2011

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Prisoners (Voting Rights)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Philip Dunne.)

9.30 am

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I wish you a very happy new year, Mr Benton, and offer my grateful thanks to Mr Speaker for giving me permission to lead today's debate?

May I also wish the Minister and his shadow a very happy new year? The Minister is a personal friend, and I have always had high regard for him, both before he was elected to this place and since he took up his present position in the Government. I know, therefore, that we will not fall out on a personal level over this issue, but it is my job as a humble Back Bencher to stand up and to speak up for my constituents, whose view is that this country should not give prisoners the right to vote, and is my job to hold the Government to account on that.

Here is a question for hon. Members. Who said

He also said:

The answer is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I could not agree more with him. The vast majority of people in this country would also back him in those sentiments. One difference between the Prime Minister and myself, however, is that he is actually in a position to do something about this issue. We need some backbone-we need a hardened spine-if we are to take on the European Court of Human Rights and resist its judgment.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): In making that statement about public attitudes, is the hon. Gentleman aware that research carried out for the previous Government in 2009 showed that only a quarter of respondents favoured a total ban on prisoners having the right to vote?

Mr Hollobone: The previous Government's two consultations, which they did, by the way, to avoid having to make a decision-they kicked the issue into the long grass for five years-involved a pathetically small number of respondents. Given that there were fewer than 100 respondents, the statistical relevance of those consultations is almost meaningless. If I asked my constituents whether prisoners should be given the right to vote, the vast majority would say that they should not. I strongly suspect that if the hon. Lady spoke to her constituents, she would get a very similar reaction.

I also want to pray in aid the words of the now Attorney-General when he was in opposition:

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I absolutely, 100%, agree, and I hope that this morning's limited debate will be a warm-up act for a proper debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I apologise for sitting on the opposite side of the Chamber to my hon. Friend, but there are 20 coalition Members in here, and there is just not enough room. My hon. Friend's one-and-a-half-hour debate is very important, but the issue surely deserves much greater coverage elsewhere in the House.

Mr Hollobone: As on so many issues, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are lots of Select Committee sittings on Tuesday mornings, and many hon. Friends and Opposition Members who would like to be here to voice their views are unable to do so.

We are talking about this issue because the European Court of Human Rights has decided once again to interfere in Britain's domestic affairs.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Before my hon. Friend gets to the European Court of Human Rights, which was based on something written by David Maxwell Fyfe, will he please tell us when prisoners lost the right to vote and for what offence?

Mr Hollobone: Before I respond to that intervention, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent knighthood, which is extremely well deserved. His many years' experience in this place make him far more qualified to talk about these issues than I, but my understanding is that the British Parliament discussed these issues when it passed the Forfeiture Act 1870. Now, 1870 was 80 years before the European Court of Human Rights was established in the 1950s. British parliamentarians decided that it was appropriate for prisoners not to be given the vote way before the concept of a European court was even thought about.

By the way, there would be no human rights in any part of Europe today were it not for the brave actions that this country took on its own in 1940, and some of the European Court's judges should remember that. We are the mother of Parliaments and we have a long and proud history of democratic thought processes, debate and decision. Frankly, the British people are sick and tired of being lectured to on human rights issues by unelected judges in this pseudo-European court.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions unelected judges, but is he also aware that two people in the previous Parliament were keen to pursue this issue? One was my predecessor, who lost against me in the general election, and the other was the former Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon, who also lost his seat. Does that not show hon. Members and others that members of the British public have been very unhappy with the European Court of Human
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Rights and with the Human Rights Act 1998 and those who pursue it and that they have showed their displeasure through the ballot box?

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes a telling intervention, and he has done the country a national service by winning his seat in the general election. He ably represents his constituents on these and other matters. He is right. The manifesto on which he and I stood clearly states:

I am sure that my hon. Friend was asked about human rights issues during the general election campaign-I certainly was in Kettering. Whenever such issues were raised, constituents were adamant that it was time for us to take sensible action on the Human Rights Act, which the previous Government introduced. The coalition agreement has kicked the replacement of the Human Rights Act by a Bill Of Rights into the long grass; it may happen, but there is no timetable, which is a great shame. Nevertheless, there is huge public demand for us to take action on these human rights issues. We would be doing our constituents a disservice if we did not raise their concerns in this place. My hon. Friend's majority in Hendon, my majority in Kettering and the majorities of many of our hon. Friends in Westminster Hall this morning demonstrate that human rights are an important issue for our constituents.

Mr John Hirst, who is serving a life sentence for an axe killing, brought his case and subsequent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. He celebrated with glee on the television when the appeal judgment was announced-how wonderful it was that the European Court was going to force Britain to give prisoners the right to vote. Many of our constituents will have seen that and have been disgusted by Mr Hirst's joyous celebration of the Court's decision.

The Court decision is interesting in several respects, because its main gripe is that there is a blanket ban on prisoners being given the right to vote. There are ways to tackle that issue, other than just caving in and getting rid of the blanket ban. It may interest hon. Members to know that 13 other countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights also have blanket bans. Why is this country being singled out for the treatment it is getting from the European Court, when blanket bans continue in other countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Moldova and Slovakia, among others? Our constituents will be outraged that the UK is being singled out for special treatment.

One of the issues that the European Court raised was that there has not been proper parliamentary debate about the issue. The judgment states that

I am sorry, but those matters were discussed in this Parliament in 1870, 80 years before the European Court was even established. The judgment goes on to say that
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perhaps courts could be given the discretion to award disenfranchisement to convicted prisoners on an individual basis. It says:

It also states that

There is therefore a way to address the Court's concerns by making sure that judges can award disenfranchisement specifically in individual cases and encouraging them to do so.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. For the avoidance of doubt, if the Government do not change their policy enunciated in the statement of 20 December, I shall not vote with them, but in the Opposition Lobby. My hon. Friend touches on some interesting points. Is not it true that the recent case of Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom specifically allows the Government to proceed with a range of policy options, which, like the consultation in 2009, could be put out for public discussion? Instead the Government have gone for an arbitrary four-year limit, without any further debate or discussion in the House or with the public.

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an interesting and brave point, and I commend his courage on the issue. He will be joined in the Lobby by many of our colleagues. The Government should be left in no doubt this morning that they have made the wrong decision on the issue and that they will not get the proposals through Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right: the Government can tackle the issue in far more imaginative ways. It was wrong for my hon. Friend the Minister to say in his statement of 20 December, which was sneaked out just before the Christmas recess, that

The Government have gone further than that by saying that the limit should apply to those sentenced to four years or less in prison, because there are many countries that are signatories to the European convention that apply the ban to prisoners serving far less time in prison. For example, Austria, Malta and San Marino ban all prisoners serving a sentence of more than one year. In France only prisoners convicted of certain crimes lose their right to vote.

I should therefore like to know why the Government have settled on the apparently arbitrary figure of four years. They say that it is the difference between serious and non-serious offences, but frankly I do not accept that definition. There are other ways to cut the cake. For example, the ban could be applied to those who have their sentence issued by the Crown court, rather than the magistrates court.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): On the point about limits, does my hon. Friend agree that the crimes of rape, for which a three-and-a-half year sentence
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was awarded in November, in a case in Warwick, and armed robbery with a knife, which has also been given a sentence of less than four years, are serious crimes, and that it is shocking that the Government even contemplate that such things should be covered?

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Her constituents and mine will be sickened if rapists are given the right to vote. It is shocking how many prisoners would be entitled to vote if the Government's proposals were to go through. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm the present number of people serving time in prison. Statistics that, again, were sneaked out just before the recess, show that there are 28,770 prisoners serving sentences of less than four years, of whom 5,991 have been convicted of violence against the person, 1,753 of sexual offences, 2,486 of robbery, 4,188 of burglary and 4,370 of drug offences. If the Government were, for example, to restrict the limit to sentences of one year or less, the number of prisoners who would be enfranchised would go down from 28,770 to 8,096.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Those figures are startling, but does my hon. Friend agree that all the people represented in the numbers he quoted have not had the vote taken from them-they have removed it from themselves by committing the crimes that led to their ending up in prison? If voting is so important to them, there is presumably an easy way out: they should not commit the crimes that get them sentenced to prison.

Mr Hollobone: As always, my hon. Friend speaks not only for his constituents but for Britain. Lots of people would agree with him. As his local police commander will have said-and as mine has said-"Philip, everyone we catch and convict is a volunteer." No one is forced to go to prison for committing offences. Indeed, it is difficult to go to prison nowadays, under the liberal criminal justice regime that the coalition Government are starting to pursue.

There are therefore a number of ways in which the Government can respond to the European Court ruling, other than just caving in with the four-year rule. Primarily we need a proper parliamentary debate on the issue, so that colleagues can debate the pros and cons and be given the opportunity to vote to maintain the status quo. That would satisfy the European Court's judgment that Parliament has not debated the issue. I hope that the Government will think hard about putting that before the House.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that what the Government put forward as a justification for the measure-namely that if they did not implement it there would be a substantial cost to the taxpayer, in millions of pounds in damages-was a specious and unjustified argument? Just before Christmas I spoke to an official of the European Court of Human Rights, who confirmed that the talk about millions of pounds of compensation being payable if we did not comply was a load of nonsense.

Mr Hollobone: As a Member of the Council of Europe my hon. Friend is closer to many of the issues than I am. I share his scepticism about the figure of £160 million, which we were given as the possible amount of
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compensation. I invite the Minister to justify where that figure has come from. It would be extremely irresponsible for the Government to bandy around those figures when they have no realistic basis in fact. I understand that there are 2,500 outstanding court cases, pending a resolution of this issue with the European Court. I would like to know how the Government established the basis of compensation for each of those 2,500 cases, because I strongly suspect that the Government may be guilty of making up those numbers and in danger of misleading Parliament.

This is very serious issue. The British public do not want prisoners to be given the right to vote. Many other countries in Europe successfully operate blanket bans and have not been challenged in the European Court. My constituents and many other people up and down the land are furious that once again the Government seem to be bending over to the human rights lobby to introduce a measure, which is frankly inappropriate to the balance of crime and justice in this country.

Once again, we seem to be going soft on criminal justice issues. The British people will not put up with that for much longer. Here is a golden opportunity for the new coalition Government to say, "We are going to put Britain first." If we have to pull out of the European convention on human rights, let us consider that and possibly do so. That would certainly have a lot of support in the country. However, if we are going to respond to the appeal judgment from the European Court there are many ways of doing it other than simply applying the four-year rule, which will not address my constituents' concerns. I say to the Government with confidence that if they continue to press this issue in the House, they will be defeated.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, as a number of people have indicated they wish to speak, I propose to commence the wind-ups no later than 10.40 am.

9.51 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for bringing this matter to debate. I agree with him and other hon. Members that it is right to have a proper debate.

I suspect I will not be the most popular speaker this morning, but I want to place on the record that I am in favour of giving prisoners the right to vote. I am in favour of it in this situation, first, because we are required to comply with a Court order, and it is impossible for us to run a criminal justice system around the basis of the rule of law if we then decide which laws and legal obligations we as a country will choose to follow and which we will not.

Secondly, I am in favour of it because I believe it is morally right that prisoners should have the opportunity to vote.

Mr Offord: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: I will in a moment. I want to expand the three bases of my argument and then I will be happy to take the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

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I believe it is morally right that prisoners should have the right to vote. I do not accept that they lose all aspects of citizenship in losing their liberty as a result of a custodial sentence. I fundamentally disagree with those who feel that prisoners' fundamental human rights should be weakened. In a decent and civilised society it is right that we treat all, including prisoners, with respect.

My third argument is that there is potential to see the right to vote in the context of a process of rehabilitation. Cleverly managed, it could contribute to the reintegration of prisoners in our society. Therefore, there may be some efficacy grounds for accepting a right to vote.

I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman's intervention now.

Mr Offord: The hon. Lady says she feels it is wrong for the United Kingdom to decide which laws it will implement as a result of the European judgment. However, only last night at the Oldham by-election, the Labour candidate decided that she did not wish to debate with one of the other candidates, whom she had removed by the police from a public meeting. The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. If we as a country should accept all the laws, the hon. Lady and her potential colleagues should do the same.

Kate Green: I am not aware of the breach of law by the Labour parliamentary candidate in the Oldham by-election. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me later.

The hon. Member for Kettering said-I suspect rightly-that many in my constituency would be disconcerted to hear me making the arguments I do today. That is why I strongly support his call and that of others for a full and informed discussion to take place in this House, because we have not properly considered the evidence or, indeed, the purpose of our criminal justice system and the role that the right to vote or withdrawal of it plays. I hope that this debate will make some contribution to that analysis and information, but I consider that we need a far fuller understanding in the country as a whole.

I have taken an interest in this subject because I served as a magistrate for 16 years. I have sentenced people to custody and have never done it lightly. I am mindful that it entails not just a loss of liberty but puts at risk people's jobs, homes and family life. Hence, magistrates follow a rigorous decision-making process in selecting an appropriate sentence. With 16 years' experience on the bench, I cannot think of a single sentencing objective that removing the right to vote from prisoners sentenced to custody would have helped to achieve.

Dr Coffey: What are the hon. Lady's thoughts on the Government's proposal to offer judges and magistrates the opportunity to remove the vote as part of the sentence?

Kate Green: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue, which I want to explore in my remarks. The hon. Member for Kettering was right to say that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I am not suggesting that a blanket rule that applies before or after a four-year
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custodial sentence is the most appropriate way to go, but it is a step in the right direction and one on which I would like to see us build.

I would like to say a little more about how we might see restoration of the right to vote as a positive by enabling prisoners to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens, and how that might in a small way-I see scepticism on faces opposite me-contribute to reducing reoffending, which is surely the prime purpose of the criminal justice system. If we fail to give prisoners any stake in our society, it is difficult to see why they should wish to reintegrate into that society-why they should feel any sense of obligation to mutual rights, dignity and respect when we do not afford that to them. I see an opportunity alongside this new legislation to improve education and rehabilitation in our prisons.

When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State at Justice Question Time before Christmas, he expressed scepticism as to whether prisoners would take advantage of the right to vote. However, before last year's general election the Prison Reform Trust participated in a debate with prisoners in a local prison. It reported that prisoners were intensely engaged in debating the political matters of the day: not just criminal justice but a wide range of issues that would affect them, their families, communities and society as a whole-a society, of which, like it or not, they remain a part.

Prisoners are rightly recognised as being among the most disadvantaged in terms of social inclusion prior to receiving custodial sentence. We should be looking to take steps to improve their social inclusion. What happens to them while they are in prison undoubtedly has a role to play.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: No; I am just coming to my conclusion.

I conclude with two questions which I hope the Minister will address. First, what plans does he have for a programme of prisoner education and engagement that takes advantage of the reintroduction of the right to vote, within the context of prison education-educating prisoners in their civic responsibilities-and how that will support their planned reintegration into the community? Secondly, I would like to follow the points raised by the hon. Member for Kettering in questioning the rationale for introducing a cut-off point at four years. That seems to suggest degrees of citizenship. One is more or less of a citizen, depending on the nature of one's sentence. I would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's view on whether discretion for judges might be applied more realistically if a blanket right to vote were put in place that gave judges the opportunity in certain cases to say that such a right was not appropriate and should be removed.

I am pleased that, after many years, we are seeing some modest steps to reintroduce a right to vote for prisoners. I support the direction of travel the Government are taking. As other Members have said, I very much hope we will move to an informed and rational debate about the effect of the measures now being brought forward.

10 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. It has generated more interest in
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Westminster Hall than other debates that I have attended. I congratulate also the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She said that she felt rather vulnerable taking part in the debate, but at least she positioned herself strategically with no one sitting behind her.

Some Members will acknowledge that an announcement was unavoidable because the Minister had been put in a position in which he had no alternative. Others, however, will argue that he could have disregarded the ruling. I should be interested to know whether a majority of Members present think that we should abide by the law and the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which clearly stated that the Government had to address the question.

The Government have known about the problem for a long time. Since 2004, we knew that the Government-any Government-would have to deal with it sooner or later. The previous Government found some imaginative ways to postpone taking a decision or responding to something that they knew was coming down the track, given the consultations that they launched and their unwillingness to take action.

During his speech, the hon. Member for Kettering was asked to confirm when the blanket ban came into place. As he said, it came about under the Forfeiture Act 1870. He deployed the argument that the Government and Members of Parliament clearly debated the matter in 1870. I do not know whether he thinks that once in every 140 years is appropriate, or whether those 140 years have brought about a change in the way in which Parliament and society should operate.

Philip Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in those 140 years, there has been ample opportunity for Governments to change the status quo? The fact that change has not been debated is a fair indication that the will of the House-and of the public-in those intervening years was not to change it. It has been within Parliament's gift to change over for the past 140 years if it had so wished, but it did not so wish.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why I support the call for Parliament to debate the matter, and we are starting that process today.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Our hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), has been very helpful. Parliament debated the matter in 1967, and gave prisoners the right to vote in 1967.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He may or may not be referring to something that I was about to say, which is that what the Government propose is not necessarily a radical departure. I understand that remand prisoners, people in prison for contempt of court and fine defaulters held in prison are eligible to vote. The principle is already established that some prisoners are entitled to vote.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend makes his usual powerful speech, although I disagree with him on the principle. If prisoners are already given the right to vote, why are we being asked to extend it?

Tom Brake: Those exceptions notwithstanding, the view of the European Court of Human Rights is that
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the blanket ban that applies to all other categories of prisoner is so great that it requires the Government to take action.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): On a point of principle, does the hon. Gentleman think that the judges of the European Court should ultimately determine what happens-or should it be the Members of this House, who are elected by their constituents?

Tom Brake: The fact is that we abide by the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, and it has ruled that the Government should take action. I believe, as does the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, that it is appropriate for the Government to do so. The hon. Gentleman may disagree, as may others, but they take the debate slightly away from the right of prisoners to vote to the subject of the European Union, on which there will be a longer debate-[Interruption.] I mean aspects of the European Court and human rights that will be the subject of another debate in the main Chamber.

It is right that the Minister should clarify why four years was chosen. In the briefings that I have seen, the justification is that four years is the cut-off point between a short-term prison sentence and a long-term one. I have seen no other argument for why that threshold should have been chosen. The Minister should respond to that point.

The Minister should also respond to the hon. Member for Kettering and others, who said that concern had been expressed that compensation might have to be paid. If a total of 85,000 prisoners claimed £750 compensation, it could amount to tens of millions of pounds. The Minister will have heard that some accuse the Government of making up the figures. I hope that he will tell us where the information about these potential compensation claims came from and say whether he stands by the contention that the Government might be liable for a large number of claims if no action is taken.

I hope that the Minister will also explain why the voting rights that he proposes are to apply to Westminster and European elections only, and not to other polls. If the Government were to allow prisoners to vote in local elections exclusively, it could be argued that prisoners would be less able to influence the Government's prison agenda than if they could vote only in local council elections. I would be interested to hear why those two elections were chosen.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Brake: In a moment. The Minister has rightly made it clear that if the proposals go through, prisoners will be allowed to vote only in the constituencies that they came from or with which they have a connection and not in the constituency in which the prison is placed. The risk of large numbers of prisoners swinging an election result will therefore be greatly reduced.

Mr Gray: The hon. Gentleman has partly answered my question. Does he accept that if prisoners are allowed to vote in local elections in places such as Wandsworth or Wormwood Scrubs, they would have a decisive number of votes in tight elections?

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Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman has helpfully answered my question, so the Minister does not need to respond to it. I presume that that is why the Government have not gone down the route of allowing prisoners to vote in local elections. However, they could exercise their local votes as electors on the register in the constituencies from which they originally came; it would not necessarily have to be in the locality of the prison.

What this argument is clearly about, and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston expressed it very well, is whether voting is an intrinsic right-a basic human right-or whether it is a right that should be forfeited when people lose their liberty. Of course prisoners lose their liberty; no one disputes that that is the appropriate response to a crime. However, to what extent do they lose other liberties that are associated with being a citizen? There are certain responsibilities that they retain. For example, prisoners pay capital gains tax on any capital gains transactions that they might be involved in and they pay tax on their savings. They are, therefore, making contributions that other citizens make, so to what extent do we inflict civic death on them and include withdrawing their right to vote as well as other aspects of their liberty?

Mr Offord: The picture that the hon. Gentleman paints is of prisoners being like the fictional characters of Andy Dufresne or Norman Fletcher-I am talking about paying capital gains tax and other tax. However, if we look at someone like John Hirst, who was originally convicted and sentenced to 15 years, we will find that he served another 10 years for his behaviour in prison. That shows that not only was he not a model prisoner when he was in prison, but he was not a contributor to society when he was out of it. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that some prisoners deserve to lose the kind of rights that we have been talking about?

Tom Brake: Of course. The hon. Gentleman has quite rightly illustrated that there are certain prisoners for whom there should be no such thing as a right to vote. They have forfeited their right, and that is appropriate. However, this debate is not black and white, but shades of grey. For some prisoners at one end of the spectrum, a one-year cut-off might be more appropriate. Equally, there are other prisoners, at the other end of the spectrum, who have forfeited any right to vote in future elections.

It is also worth considering the arguments that could be deployed against allowing some prisoners the right to vote. For example, is there any evidence that disfranchisement helps to prevent crime? I am not aware that there is any evidence that suggests that withdrawing the right to vote from prisoners helps to prevent crime. Are there any concerns about the difficulties of implementation? Certainly, the Prison Governors Association and the National Offender Management Service have no concerns about the logistical difficulties of providing votes to certain categories of prisoners. As I stated earlier, is such a change a great departure? In other words, are we moving to a system in which prisoners are, for the first time, given the right to vote? The answer is no, because remand prisoners and people in prison for contempt of court and for defaulting on fines are already eligible to vote.

To conclude, it is very clear that this is an issue in which the coalition Government are between a rock and a hard place. The European Court ruling is clear. The
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Government, who are potentially at risk from compensation claims, have to take action within the framework of the law. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on some of these issues of detail and on how the Government arrived at the particular threshold that they have chosen.

10.13 am

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this extremely important debate. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak because I believe that it is fundamentally wrong for prisoners to be able to vote. If someone has decided to step outside the law to the point where they have to be incarcerated, they should have no say on how the law is made. Part of the deprivation of liberty that comes with imprisonment is a loss of entitlements, and that should include the right to vote.

My hon. Friend quoted the Prime Minister as saying that even contemplating giving the vote to those incarcerated as convicted prisoners makes him feel physically ill, and he said that in response to a question that I asked him. It is nauseating to think of some of the worst offenders having a say over how this place, or any town hall or parish council, is run. What aggravates us is that this issue was ignored by the previous Government and kicked into the long grass. It is yet another mess that we have inherited and have been left to deal with.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Mindful of the comments of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is it not hypocritical of the Labour party to take a similar view, given that in 13 years, it made very little impact on rehabilitation in the penal estate in terms of putting prisoners to work and improving literacy and numeracy? To now say that preventing prisoners from having the vote is somehow attacking their human and civil rights is hypocritical and gets the priorities completely wrong.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. During the 13 years of the previous Government, I worked in the criminal justice system and I saw their lamentable record. We are still waiting to hear what the Opposition would do about the issue of prisoner votes. We have heard the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston give her opinion, but we have yet to hear the official position of her Majesty's Opposition. We also want to know why nothing was implemented in the last four or five years since this particular judgment was passed by the European Court of Human Rights.

We all want to see prisoners obey the law. That is why they have been put into prison in the first place. We all have to obey the law. The United Kingdom is a member of the European Court of Human Rights and is, therefore, subject to its decisions. As members, we cannot pick and choose the decisions we want to comply with. We have two options: either we accept this judgment, hook, line and sinker, or we pull out of the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps we need to review our membership, because it should be for Britain and not the European Court to decide whether or not British prisoners vote.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): My hon. Friend was making a powerful argument, but he rather simplified the last point. It is not an issue of the ECHR versus Britain. A previous Home Secretary,
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now in opposition, said that he distinguished in his mind-I think he was right-between the ECHR overseeing the role of Governments and whether they properly obeyed the law, and the ECHR overruling the actions of Parliaments, which are not the same thing. One of the interesting points here is that what is being taken as a ruling to a Government is, in fact, a ruling to a Parliament, and we should challenge that point.

Gareth Johnson: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I will come on to the issues relating to the judgment. I am concerned that it appears that through international law, which is always a bit of a hazy subject, we are being told that the United Kingdom has to comply with the direction given by that Court, or else we must pay compensation. My objection is that it should be wholeheartedly for the United Kingdom Government to make a decision on this issue, and there should be no kind of sanction against us if we say, "No, we feel that all convicted prisoners should lose the right to vote." I accept that there are advantages and disadvantages in the United Kingdom's membership of the ECHR, but this debate highlights one of the most significant disadvantages. It is therefore now up to us to weigh up whether we wish to continue being a member of that Court.

It is true that no criminal thinks that they will not commit a crime in case they lose their right to vote. I spent more than 20 years working in the criminal justice system, and I never met a defendant who took the attitude that they would not commit a particular crime because they were fearful of losing their right to vote. Nevertheless, I believe that giving back the right to vote on release can be part of a prisoner's rehabilitation, and there is a distinction there.

For me, however, the issue here is not crime prevention but the principle that it is wrong for incarcerated criminals to help decide how government should operate. It is laughable to suggest that convicted prisoners should decide how the criminal justice system is operated or what priorities should be given, for example, in the policing budget.

The Government have responded to the case of Hirst, which we have heard mention of in the ECHR; it is the reason we are having this debate today. The Government have said that votes will be allowed if prisoners are sentenced to less than four years' imprisonment, and that that change in the law would comply with the ECHR judgment.

I have a copy of that judgment. If we are simply trying to comply with it, I believe the Government can be far stricter than they are currently being. The judgment says the following in being critical of the UK Government's position so far:

the UK Government's position-

My interpretation of the judgment is that if we place a bar on those prisoners serving a particular length of sentence and on the categories of offence, that would still comply with the judgment. Therefore, the Government can be far tougher and still remain within the ECHR judgment if they wish to do so.

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For example, the Government could not only bar from voting those sentenced to at least four years, but those convicted of, say, sexual offences, which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who was here earlier, mentioned, or any other category of offence. It is the blanket ban that the ECHR has rejected.

Imprisonment for committing a crime should bring with it a deprivation of liberty beyond a mere bar on the freedom of movement. That deprivation should include the deprivation of the right to vote.

10.22 am

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): First, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on bringing this issue to Parliament and I hope that there will be a debate on it in the main Chamber too. I agree with him that we are the people who should make decisions. Secondly, I want to thank him for his kind words about my new year honour; in thirty years' time, I hope to be here to congratulate him on achieving the same thing. [Laughter.]

If I may, I do not plan to give way because there are two quotations that I want to give before developing one or two arguments of my own. The first quotation is from a Home Secretary:

That Home Secretary was Winston Churchill, speaking in the Commons in 1910.

The second quotation comes from an American judge, so some of the expressions that he uses and some of the experiences that he refers to may not be identical to those in this country. He is Judge Dennis Challeen, and he is quoted in a document called "Making It Right" that was published in 1986, talking about prisoners:

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I hope that the future debates that we have in this House will not be about the effect of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and I do not actually want them to be about the European convention on human rights. The issue is not whether we join the Court; it is whether we think that the points put in the European convention on human rights by people in this country are points to which we want to adhere.

To my mind, the dominant issue is how we got into this pickle in the first place. The Forfeiture Act 1870 lifted a lot of the problems of people who are convicted; it stopped all their land and property being taken away, and it stopped their wives and children from becoming dependent on the state. It happened to include, under the heading of "treason" in section 2:

should be disqualified from

Incidentally, this measure did not apply to Scotland so the idea that there is United Kingdom symmetry on this issue is not right.

When I was allowed to intervene on one of my hon. Friends-my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)-I referred to the part of the Act that came from the modification in the 1960s. Following a criminal law review process, from 1967 prisoners were able to vote.

Philip Davies: Not these ones.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Prisoners were able to vote.

Philip Davies: Not these ones.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I said that I was not planning to take any interventions; that applies whether they are made from a sedentary position and repeated, or made by a Member who is standing up and said for the first time. [Laughter.]

As it happened, in the mid-1960s, unless someone had established a proxy beforehand, I do not think that there were provisions for establishing proxies or for voting by post, so that is a change. Nevertheless, that modification takes away one of the difficulties of how voting by prisoners could be arranged now.

I want to put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister; if he does not know the answer now, I will be very happy to receive it in a letter later on. Is there a duty at present to register prisoners to vote, until we change the registration laws to enable individual registration, and even then does that duty apply? Indeed, one question is about whether people can vote; the second question is whether they appear on the register, whether they are qualified or disqualified. I would be very grateful to
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know from the lawyers in the Minister's Department, or through him from the lawyers, whether there is presently a requirement on a prison governor to register a prisoner on the electoral register and, if so, whether that prisoner is registered as being disqualified from voting in the prison or disqualified from voting from what would have been their normal address, as it were, if they were, say, an overseas elector.

The second question is about voting itself. I hope that the future debates that we have on this subject are about why it is an extra punishment or provision that someone who is convicted and then, as part of their sentence, has their liberty taken away, has their right to vote taken away as well. I am not terribly interested in the moment about the boundary problem of whether there should be a bar for those sentenced to more than four years or for those convicted of certain offences; I think that that is a subsidiary set of issues. I believe that the key point is whether we can actually say to people who are convicted, "We want to take away your liberty, but we want you to be a member of society". That is the essential issue. That is why we try to teach people in prison to read, to work and to be interested in things around them, and why we want them to have some sympathy and empathy for the feelings of others, whether victims or otherwise.

I end by asking a question that most people do not ask themselves. Each week, how many people in this country commit a serious criminal offence for the first time, one for which if they are caught and convicted they could be sent to jail for six months or more? I will give way just once to anybody who can give me the answer.

One would have thought that, dealing with crime and punishment, we would all be interested in knowing the answer to that question. The figure is about 1,800 people a week, who are mostly male and under the age of 30, who for the first time are convicted of an offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. So the figure is presumably above 1,800 a week. A third of all men under the age of 30 have been convicted of an offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. I think that the fact that most of the dispositions are not to send those men to jail is a good thing, although some of my hon. Friends and others in other parties might disagree. I think that we are talking about something that is rather common, and the provisions for allowing prisoners to vote are entirely separate from the issue of how we reduce the number of criminals.

Having said that I would end, I will say it again. When I was Minister with responsibility for painting white lines in the middle of roads, which is quite a dangerous position, rather like my position in this debate, it was estimated that young men drove cars after having consumed more than the legal limit for alcohol-which was a socially acceptable, body-bending, illegal habit- 2 million times a week. Within 2.5 years, that figure appeared to have decreased to 600,000. We cut that crime, which killed 1,200 people a year, by two thirds in 2.5 years with no change in law, sentencing or enforcement.

If we are seriously interested in reducing the number of victims, which is why we are interested in reducing crime, and in having fewer criminals, the way to do it is not by having long arguments about whether to give prisoners the vote; I would vote to do so straight away. I would also try to spend more time on effective reduction of the amount of crime in this country. I hope that this debate will be one of the first steps to doing so.

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10.30 am

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) in this debate. I congratulate him on his knighthood. Perhaps one reason why he got it is that he is an independent Member of Parliament who has always been willing to go against the popular tide. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on introducing this important debate. I must say that I am on his side on this issue.

I am aware that the winding-up speeches will start in nine minutes' time, so I will be extremely brief. Three members of the Backbench Business Committee are in the Chamber today, as are 24 coalition Members and a number of Members from Her Majesty's Opposition. It is wholly inappropriate that this issue should be left to a Westminster Hall debate, as Members speaking on all sides of the argument have said, so I will not discuss the issue itself, as it should be debated in the main Chamber under a substantive motion. I urge hon. Members to go along to the public sitting of the Backbench Business Committee next Tuesday and argue the case for having this debate in the main Chamber on a substantive motion.

The only thing that I will say on the issue is this. We have discussed the coalition Government's four-year rule. It is a classic case of the Government saying something and then caving in later-by reducing it to a year, for example-and saying, "There we are; we've listened to Back-Bench Members of Parliament, and we're complying." To me, the issue is straightforward: either no prisoners should have the vote, or all prisoners should. The arguments are clear. It either is or is not a good thing for society that prisoners should have the vote. If it is a bad thing, then no prisoners should have the vote; I take that view. The other, crucial matter is parliamentary sovereignty and who decides the laws of this country. That issue must be developed in much greater depth during a longer debate.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend says that the Government have gone too far in order to be seen to be scaling back. Is not the other alternative that they have gone so far as a sop to our coalition partners? Does my hon. Friend agree that if that is the case, the Government have forgotten once again that they are in coalition with the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Democrats? It is rather ungrateful of the Liberal Democrats that only one has bothered to appear to support the Government's sop to them.

Mr Bone: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There may well be some truth behind it. I will conclude so that other Members can speak. Again, I hope that hon. Members will go along on Tuesday and urge the Backbench Business Committee to hold a debate on this subject in the main Chamber.

10.34 am

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. It is important because it asks a fundamental question: who is in charge of our criminal justice system and our democracy?

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In the time available, I will focus on the latter. The right to vote, hon. Members will recall, is not included in the European convention itself but in a protocol to that convention, for good reason. The French proposed including the right to vote in the convention, using language referring to universal suffrage. The British objected; the travaux préparatoires to the convention, which are publicly available, say explicitly that we did so because we wanted to retain restrictions on the franchise, including for prisoners. The proposal for the protocol returned two years later with the offending language removed. By the way, that was under Churchill.

I make that point because it is absolutely clear that Britain did not sign up to that idea. It is important as a matter of interpretation of international law under the Vienna convention. The Strasbourg judges should have heeded it; it is a basic canon of the interpretation of treaty law, and it is obviously critical as a matter of basic democratic accountability. We did not sign up to the idea.

It is one example among many of the rampant judicial legislation that has come from Strasbourg since the 1970s. The law of negligence as it affects the police was rewritten in the Osman judgment. Not just right-wingers or tabloids got upset about that; Lord Hoffmann, until recently the second most senior Law Lord, has complained bitterly about it judicially and extra-judicially. Deportation has been increasingly fettered, and Strasbourg has intruded into parents' right to determine how to discipline their children, overruling not only the prerogatives of elected lawmakers in this country but a jury. Now we face a demand to give prisoners the vote.

Strasbourg does not deny such judicial legislation. It embraces it, referring to the doctrine of the living instrument, according to which the convention is a living instrument which it is the courts' duty to update from time to time. Where did the mandate to engage in judicial legislation come from? Not from the convention or the protocol. It is not expressly or implicitly given anywhere. It was conjured up from thin air. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made the point that Strasbourg is not only checking Governments but rewriting laws written by elected lawmakers. Why is that happening? Clearly, it is because Strasbourg is not really a judicial institution at all. I reviewed the CVs of all the judges in 2007. More than half had no prior judicial experience before going to the Strasbourg bench.

In the time available, I will make one point. The question is what to do now. There is one silver lining-the backstop written into the Strasbourg enforcement machinery. Strasbourg cannot enforce its own judgments, so if the UK refuses to adhere to this judgment, as I think it must, it cannot be enforced. Of course, we could face other awards against us in Strasbourg, including compensatory awards, or be referred to the Committee of Ministers, but the judgment is not enforceable in UK law. No sanctions will apply, and there is no serious prospect of our being kicked out of the Council of Europe. We can say no, given the political will.

My question to the Minister is this. If the Government are not willing to rebuff Strasbourg in this case, arbitrary as it is, at what point, if any, will they refuse to accept a ruling? How bad must things be before Ministers stand up for the prerogatives of elected UK lawmakers? If we
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do not draw a line in the sand now and send back a clear message, we are inviting even more perverse judgments in future. It is time to draw that line.

10.38 am

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) was so excellent that I would happily have given up the two minutes remaining to me to hear even more from him. This is the situation in which we find ourselves: a democratic Parliament in a democratic country is being told that we are not allowed to decide primarily moral issues, by unelected judges in a court set up to deal with the trashing of human rights by dictators and by countries very different from ours. Winston Churchill was quoted earlier. He was a great war leader, but he was not famed for consistency in domestic politics. His twice crossing the Floor of the House is evidence enough of that. Were he here today, and had we a vote on the matter, I venture to suggest that he would not vote to give convicted prisoners the vote.

People do not go to prison for light offences these days, but because they have done something seriously wrong. The real problem that we face is that judges all too often assert rights that really ought to be qualified rights as absolute rights. Even the right to life is not absolute, because it is infringed when countries legitimately go to war. Where the line is drawn should be a matter for democratic politicians, not unelected judges.

To conclude my remarks in the all too brief time that those of us who are against giving prisoners the right to vote have been allowed by those who spoke earlier and who are in favour of giving prisoners that right, I ask the Minister this: when the time comes, if the Government feel that they cannot draw the line in the sand, which I would love them to do, will they at least do the absolute bare minimum to comply with the judgment, because that is certainly not what they are proposing to do at the moment?

10.41 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, wish you, Mr Benton, and all Members present a happy new year. I also wish myself a happy birthday, although I note that no one offered that unto me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. It is right that we should have the debate here and, as several Members have said, that there should be a proper debate in the Chamber so that many of the issues can be elaborated at greater length, so I hope that that will happen.

I do not wish to disturb the equilibrium between myself and the Minister, but I must excoriate him slightly, because thus far there have been only written ministerial statements on the matter. The policy should have been announced in the Chamber, not by written ministerial statement, and I say that because the Minister said on 2 November 2010:

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That is not what happened. A written ministerial statement was snuck out-I never know what the past tense of sneak is-or sneaked out.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): Put out?

Chris Bryant: Put out is less pejorative, and I want to be pejorative on this point. The statement was snuck out the day before Parliament adjourned for the Christmas recess. That is an inappropriate way to deal with Parliament, let alone with the politics of making a significant constitutional change in this country.

I am afraid that on this occasion I agree with neither my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), nor our new knight, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), whom I congratulate on his knighthood. I believe that the tradition that prisoners should be unable to vote is older than the Forfeiture Act 1870, because prior to that, the property qualification was so significant that, in practice, prisoners would have been unable to vote anyway. Merely referring to the 1870 Act, although that was the point at which the idea was qualified in statute, is irrelevant. It is an old tradition and a fine one. I think that when one forfeits the right to liberty, one should forfeit the right to vote.

However, I disagree with those who have said that we should leave the European Court of Human Rights. I think that David Maxwell Fyfe was a pretty odious Home Secretary, but I agree with those who argue that he did a good job at Nuremberg in trying to ensure that human rights were protected across Europe. It is difficult for us to argue with Russia that it should comply with the European Court of Human Rights in cases such as that of Sergei Magnitsky if we do not comply ourselves.

I also believe that the Government have been entirely wrong to gold-plate the provisions that are being brought forward. If the cut-off comes at four years, that will mean that people who have committed many very serious crimes, including violent crimes and crimes of a sexual nature, and electoral crimes for that matter, will be able to vote, which I think is inappropriate. That will mean that close to 30,000 people in prison will be able to vote. Notwithstanding the comments that other Members have already made, I think that there will be logistical problems in various areas in the country, which I will move on to in a moment.

The proposals are far more generous that the arrangements in other countries. The hon. Member for Kettering referred to several countries but not to Belgium, where the line is drawn at four months. I wonder whether the Government simply got the words "months" and "years" wrong, because opting for four months would allow them to comply with the Court. In Austria the requirement is one year. In France there is an element of judicial decision-making on who gets the franchise-I think that the Government intend to introduce that here-as the court decides whether someone should be deprived of the right to vote as part of the sentencing. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) commented earlier on how the French approached the creation of the Court in the first place and that their system arose because the Napoleonic code had always stipulated that. Of course, 13 countries still have complete bans, although it must be said that they are not countries that we would hold up as exemplars of liberal and civilised societies that comply with human rights.

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I have 10 questions for the Minister, although I realise that he may be unable to answer all of them. I hope that he will write to me on any that he is unable to answer today, as the deputy Prime Minister has not responded to any of the letters that we have written to him on the subject-it has been quite some time now and I am looking forward to those replies. First, the current prohibition on votes for prisoners was introduced through primary legislation in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and amended by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Can the Minister confirm that the amendments to statutes to enable prisoner voting will be done though primary legislation, rather than secondary legislation, so that it can be amended on the Floor of the House? Secondly, were we to proceed with a one-year ban, rather than a four-year ban, can he confirm that that would meet the requirements of the Court and that, therefore, the four-year ban is entirely of the Government's choosing?

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that more than 28,000 prisoners will be given the vote under the proposals, including around 6,000 who have committed violent crimes and 1,800 who have committed crimes of a sexual nature? Fourthly, the written ministerial statement states that prisoners will be able to vote in an area where they have a local connection. That seems, contrary to the remarks made earlier by several Members, to be a rather loose way of determining where they vote. What will happen if a prisoner wants to be registered in their prison, rather than in their home, or if they are registered in the place where they last lived but someone else is now living there? Frankly, they might not want someone who is serving time in prison to be registered to their home address. What provision have the Government made to ensure that that will not affect householders in their credit rating and in other ways? Will prisoners be entitled to anonymous registration, or will they be included in the electoral register, including details of their last known address, and what provisions will be made for candidates to be able to canvass prisoners?

As I understand it, the Government intend to allow judges to make specific recommendations on depriving people of the vote. On what grounds will a judge be entitled to remove the vote? Following the comments made by other Members, are there particular crimes that, while they might be subject to relatively short sentences of less than four years, should in all cases still see the perpetrator banned from voting? In particular, will the Government ensure that judges receive guidelines on when it will be expected that the vote be removed, and will those guidelines be made available when a Bill comes before the House? Will mentally disordered offenders or prisoners detained in mental health hospitals awaiting sentencing be entitled to vote under the Government's proposals? I hope that the Minister can answer many of those questions. Many Members are understandably angry about out inaction in the past, but I must say that I prefer our inaction on the matter to the Government's action thus far.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate, particularly on getting it as a kind of reserve option,
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and thank him for his generous remarks at the beginning of his contribution. As ever, of course, he and I will not fall out, even if we end up disagreeing. I would like to take the opportunity, as everyone else has, to wish all hon. Members a happy new year, although that does seem rather a long time ago.

I shall set out what the Government have announced and then try to deal with as many of the questions as I can. I will respond to questions which I believe are of interest to as many people as possible, and write to hon. Members about those that remain which I can answer at this point. I will place a copy of the letter in the Library so that Members can see the Government's responses.

It is worth starting with a bit of background because hon. Members have mentioned it-I will get through this quickly. We have already mentioned that some prisoners-those on remand, for example-have been able to vote for some time. The bar on prisoners who are serving a sentence dates back to 1870, and successive Governments have maintained the position that those who have broken their contract with society by committing an offence and are imprisoned should lose their right to vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering opened the debate in a perfectly helpful way by quoting my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who made it clear that he does not want to make this change. To be frank, it is not something that I want to do, and I believe that many Government Members would rather not do it, but we do not have a choice. We have a legal obligation. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the proposals are not a sop to anyone. The European Court of Human Rights made a ruling in the Hirst case, and we are legally obliged to comply with it.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the Court actually said in the Hirst case. It said that the existing bar on convicted prisoners-the blanket ban-was contrary to article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European convention on human rights. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) referred to Mr Hirst. Although the ruling was given in his case, under the proposals that we will put before the House, he would not have been entitled to vote when he was in prison because he committed a serious crime and was sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment.

We in this country seem blessed-that is not really the right word. The most odious criminals appear to be the ones who run off to the European Court of Human Rights. Another odious criminal who took the Government to court-the judgment was announced before Christmas-also had been convicted of serious crimes.

The Government are following three principles in their approach. The first goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). We have to meet our legal obligations, but we want to go no further than that. Secondly, we want to ensure that the most serious offenders are not given the right to vote. That is why we did not say that there would be no line, that the limit would be entirely up to judges. We want to ensure that there is a line, so that anyone above that length of sentence would not be able to vote. We recognise that the most serious offenders should not be able to vote.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Harper: Let me make a little more progress. I am conscious that Members have raised many questions, and I want to try to deal with some of them rather than stack up new ones.

The third principle is to prevent the taxpayer from having to pay successful claims for compensation. One of the problems we have is that even if the compensation in an individual case is not significant, we in this country are blessed-again, that is probably not the right word-with lawyers who are assiduous, if there is money on the table, in running around and getting lots of people to sign up for cases under no win, no fee rules. Various Members have mentioned that there are already 2,500 cases pending. One can be certain that if there were a successful case for compensation, lawyers would quickly go around prisons to sign up prisoners for legal actions on the basis that there might be £1,000 compensation on the table. The Government would be faced with thousands and thousands of cases. We estimate that compensation in an individual case might be around £750 to £1,000, but multiply that by the thousands and thousands of prisoners who would bring cases if there were money on the table, and we would be looking at significant sums for the taxpayer. The one thing that would be worse than making these changes in the law would be giving hard-earned taxpayers' money to some of those criminals. I shall take my hon. Friend's question.

Mr Jackson: I thank the Minister for that explanation, but his argument would carry much more weight if Frodl v. Austria had been the last substantive case in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. The ruling was very prescriptive and said, in effect, that the majority of prisoners had to have the vote. However, it was not the last case. As I made clear earlier, the last case was Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom, and paragraphs 112 to 114 of its ruling specifically made it clear that the Government had a range of options on which they could consult. It is not a question of the Government having to comply with the arbitrary limit of four years; that simply is not true.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a helpful point by referring to the Greens and M.T. judgment. This comes down to what several Members have said about whether we have the option of doing what the previous Government did, which was nothing. I am afraid that we do not. In that judgment, the Court gave the UK Government six months from the date that the judgment becomes final to introduce proposals. I can say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that there are various ways of dealing with it, but the Government will introduce primary legislation in the House. That should deal with questions raised by several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who is a member of the Backbench Business Committee. Proposals for primary legislation will be put before the House, and Members will have an opportunity to debate them fully. We will not try to think of a different way to implement the judgment, but we want to ensure that we have a debate in the House.

Mr Bone: When?

Mr Harper: In terms of the timetable, we have to introduce proposals, not pass them. The Government's responsibility is to introduce the proposals before
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23 August this year; in other words, before the House rises for the summer recess. The Court has suspended the 2,500 or so cases of people claiming damages on the basis that we will introduce proposals within the time limit. If we fail to do so, the cases will be revived and there will then be a serious risk that the Government will be faced with paying damages.

Let me deal with some other questions. To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering-this is his debate-the problem would not be fixed by somehow getting rid of the Human Rights Act 1998. Even if we were to sweep it away tomorrow, we would still be a party to the European convention on human rights and the ruling would stand. The debate on the Act is important, but it is not relevant to this matter.

My hon. Friend asked whether the UK was being singled out. We have to act because British prisoners took cases to the Court, on which it has ruled. Some of the other countries that still have a blanket ban have not been put in that position. If no prisoners had brought a case against the UK Government, we would not be acting. We are acting only because of the legal judgment. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that it had been his Government's preference to do nothing. It is our preference to do nothing, but we face a legal obligation.

Sir Peter Bottomley: That does not make it right.

Mr Harper: I, too, congratulate my newly knighted hon. Friend. He put his case in a measured and thoughtful way, as did the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). Apart from what she said at the beginning of her remarks-that this is, indeed, a legal judgment and that we are obliged to implement it-I did not agree with her arguments, and I am afraid that the Government and I do not agree with what my hon. Friend said either.

Let me try to answer some of the questions that were raised by several Members, including the hon. Member for Rhondda. He accused the Government of gold-plating the provisions. We absolutely have not done that. We set a limit which we believe is the minimum required to comply with our obligations. Moreover, in contrast with the previous Government, who were proposing to enfranchise prisoners for all elections, we have said that we will make a change only for those elections where we are legally obliged to do so: the Westminster and European elections. We will not do it for local elections or referendums. Importantly, we will not do it for elections for police and crime commissioners, or for mayors. We will do what is legally necessary and no more. That was not what the previous Government were going to do. They proposed enfranchising prisoners for all elections. That would have perhaps had some of the consequences for local elections that Members have mentioned.

Also, we will ensure that prisoners cannot register to vote at the prison. It would clearly be inappropriate to have significant number of voters at prisons able to influence the results of elections. It is also worth saying, as my final point-

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. That concludes the debate. We must move on to the next one.

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Parliamentary Representation

11 am

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. Given that we are debating an issue that will have a big impact on all the Members who are currently leaving the Chamber, I am sorry that there is such an exodus from it. I am delighted to have secured the debate, which will explore many of the issues that we did not have an opportunity to explore during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-in spite of the large number of amendments that I and many others tabled. That was not due to the Government's programming of the Bill, which I do not necessarily criticise-I am sure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will when he gets the opportunity in a moment-but because of how we as a House managed the available time and engaged in a tremendous amount of repetition. We failed to get to grips properly with the issues that needed to be debated to improve the Bill before it transferred to another place.

This morning, I intend to explore Government policy on parliamentary representation in relation to the number of parliamentary seats, the drawing up of constituency boundaries, voter registration and the role of the House of Lords in revising what the Commons produces. The House of Lords is revising the Bill, which we passed to it after its Commons stages last year.

There are currently 650 constituencies. As I indicated to the Minister during the debate on the Bill, my concern is that the Government's approach has been far too timid, although I understand that perhaps there has to be compromise over the figures that were bandied about in advance of the general election. A figure of some 600 seats should not necessarily be hard and fast, but should be an indication of the size of the House of Commons. The current figure of 650 is an indication, and there could be more seats or fewer.

In his background reading, I am sure the Minister will have noted that seven years ago, on 15 October 2003, at columns 117 to 119 of Hansard, I brought forward a ten-minute rule Bill. The Representation of the People (Consequences of Devolution) Bill proposed a significant cut in the number of parliamentary constituencies, to about 500 in a first phase, because following devolution, and considering comparisons between the number of MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament and the number in Parliaments of similar sized countries in Europe and other western democracies, we were significantly over-represented.

There are countries in Europe in which the number of parliamentarians per 100,000 is higher than it is in the UK, but they all have significantly lower populations. All the countries with populations of about the same or more than the UK's have significantly different representation and fewer Members of Parliament. I strongly recommend that the Government revisit the figure and take a more flexible approach. Part of the reason why I wish to emphasise that point is that the figure of 600 could have been plucked out of thin air; it need not necessarily be interpreted in the hard-and-fast manner in which the Government are approaching the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

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I know that the Minister is well aware of the primary issue of contention because I and my parliamentary colleagues from Cornwall have raised it. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is here today. My hon. Friends the Members for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) are unable to be here today but support the principle I will espouse, which is that we did not get a proper opportunity to debate constituency equality during the Bill's passage.

The Bill proposes that all constituencies have an electoral quota of approximately 76,000 with a margin of only 5% either way. It would carve up the country in a manner that would create bizarre constituencies and ignore important cultural, historic and geographic boundaries. We would end up with bits of islands, such as the Isle of Wight, attached to mainland constituencies, and place their MPs in an invidious position when two very different places they represent fail to see eye to eye on a matter of vital local importance. We do not want antiseptic constituencies with perpetually mobile boundaries. The five-yearly boundary review that would happen between each Parliament would mean an MP's attachment to their constituency being perpetually reviewed, so the sense of settlement with the communities they represent would be continually undermined.

The amendments to the Bill which I and other hon. Members tabled were unsuccessful, in that they were not selected or therefore debated. They sought to find circumstances in which the Boundary Commission was given sufficient discretion to work towards the target figure, taking into account reasonable geographic, cultural and electoral issues. We want the Government to allow places to make decisions for themselves collectively, provided that they do not request more favourable treatment, such as over-representation. I hope the Minister takes note of that. It is not about more favourable treatment but simply recognising the distinctiveness of places, which the Bill does not take into account.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that in addition to the need to reflect distinct cultural and geographical differences in various parts of the country, to which he rightly referred, there are practical considerations? Cornwall, as in Devon, has more than enough people to enable it to remain whole. However, one in 20 properties is a second home and, rightly, people who are not normally resident in the county cannot register to vote. The Electoral Commission should have flexibility to consider such specific local factors when establishing boundaries.

Andrew George: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, and I will come to electoral registration and its inevitable impact on drawing up boundaries. The established rules follow case law to some extent, and the Electoral Commission is certainly clear about the interpretation of the relevant Acts. I agree that there is an issue that deserves further scrutiny and that will have a significant impact when drawing up boundaries.

Having said that, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) and other hon. Members representing constituencies in Scotland, Wales and other
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areas have made the point that many of the justifications for distinctive treatment of areas such as Na h-Eileanan an Iar, and Orkney and Shetland-they are identified in clause 11(6) of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, although their distinctiveness is not elaborated on-could easily apply to other constituencies. The Government have a range of approaches for honouring and respecting the distinctiveness of many parts of the country. They could identify further specific exceptions beyond the two identified in the Bill, or they could establish a set of principles that underlie the reason for identifying those two constituencies and allow the Boundary Commission to determine where those principles might be applied.

In Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, we believe that there is a self-evident case based on Cornwall's historical, geographic and constitutional significance, and that the boundary between Cornwall and Devon-many people in Cornwall consider it to be between Cornwall and England-should be respected not only with regard to parliamentary constituencies, but in all other matters. Indeed, the Government did so when drawing up local enterprise partnerships. One strong reason for that, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth will concur, is that the distinctiveness of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly was identified, but such distinctiveness seemed, at least to the Government, not to apply in Devon and Somerset. I am not making a judgment about Devon and Somerset, and perish the thought that I would ever stray into their politics. The Government recognise this important issue in Cornwall, but do not provide an opportunity for the distinctiveness of that important historical and constitutional boundary to be respected.

There is a presumption in clause 11(6) of the Bill that Orkney and Shetland, and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should be preserved constituencies. Na h-Eileanan an Iar has a population of 26,500, an area of 3,070 sq km, and geographically is apparently as long as Wales. It is a long, spread-out constituency. Orkney and Shetland has a population of 42,000 and an area of 2,450 sq km. If the decision were based purely on area, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), whose constituency has a land area of 12,780 sq km, would have a case for distinctive treatment.

I often compare my travel time with that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who is entitled under the rules of the highly respected Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to travel by plane, but I am not. His travel time is significantly quicker than travelling by train from the far west of Cornwall to London, so clearly travel time is not the basis.

On the difficulty of getting around constituencies, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute will recount his experience of travelling between the many islands in his constituency. As well as the 82,000 constituents on the mainland of my constituency-there were well over 100,000 before the boundary changes for the 2010 election-I have six inhabited islands, five of which are 30 miles off the west coast. It is impossible to get around my constituency in a day. It takes two days to do so by surface transport, and it is difficult.

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I am not asking for special treatment, or for my constituency to be added to the list of preserved constituencies, because there is a strong case for equalisation, and the Government are right to work towards the principle as far as possible. I also want to make it clear to the Minister that I am not seeking to undermine my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland, who is not present, and would no doubt provide a range of other arguments for why his constituency should be given special treatment. No doubt the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) would come up with another range of arguments for his constituency being given special treatment when others are not preserved in the same way. I am simply making the point that I have spoken to them-I gave them notice that I would mention their constituencies in this debate.

I have been trying to fathom the reasons why those constituencies have been given preserved constituency status. I respect and want that because there are distinctive geographic, historic and cultural reasons for them being given special status, but if those principles apply to those constituencies, why do they not also apply to others, so that the special geographic and constitutional circumstances in which they exist are also respected?

For example, if we are looking at the whole area of a constituency, there is a significant sea area around mine, just as there is around the two I have just mentioned. My constituency is a maritime one, and a large proportion of its inhabitants exist not just on the land but in their trades at sea; those who go deep-sea fishing often go out for seven to ten days, to the continental shelf and sometimes beyond. If we were to take the whole working area of my constituency in the same way as we might take that of places where there are sheep on mountains-here there are fish in the sea-its total area would be 195,500 sq km. I have visited some of my constituents when they have been more than 100 miles out at sea and I have boarded their fishing vessels, but I reassure the Minister that I do not seek to do that weekly.

My point is simply that there are a variety of ways in which to engage with one's constituents, particularly in this modern telecommunications age when people tweet each other across the world. It is not impossible these days to communicate with people in far-flung parts of one's constituency without regularly meeting face to face. I am not saying that that should be denied, simply that I would like to get a better understanding of what lies behind the notion of preserved constituencies and, if there is a principle there, of why it cannot be equally applied to other areas.

I am aware that some people might point to unavoidable disagreements and old rivalries between places. The Government are right to continue the practice of preserving and respecting the boundaries of nation states; there is no cross-border constituency between Scotland and England. Strangely, though, the old boundaries of the regions-the Government zones as I describe them-will be respected as well; I understand that there will not be cross-border constituencies between the south-west and the west midlands, for example. However, as there are unavoidable disagreements and old rivalries there is little point in creating new ones.

For example, a point that would be emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall were she present, is that the relationship between Plymouth and South East Cornwall is both harmonious and mutually productive, largely because both distinct communities
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are assured of the security of existing within their own boundaries. They are ultimately responsible for their own destiny, but can, and indeed do, effectively co-operate, because they can enjoy both that mutual respect and their own security. Destroying that relationship by disrespecting the border would heighten the potential for conflict and mistrust, and would be counter-productive. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will consider that issue.

Briefly on voter registration, during the passage of the Bill we debated to a certain extent the fact that if the Government applied this regimented rule of equalised constituencies, it could be justified if one believed that the numerical basis on which the rule was applied regimentally was sound. The Government's own Electoral Commission report in March 2010 identified a wide range of variations in voter registration levels. The report, "The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain," states in its key findings:

The justification for believing that we are achieving equalised constituencies is therefore rather suspect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth has mentioned, it is not just the issue of under-representation but the risk of over-representation, at least of those who choose to register and have an entitlement, to a certain extent, to register in more than one constituency because they own a second home.

In my constituency there are nearly 3,500 second homes according to the latest available figures on the 10% council tax discount for people with second homes. A large number of properties, however, have been taken off the council tax register because the owners, although they use the properties and might register to vote from them, have chosen to pay a business rate because they are also letting them. A large number of owners chose to do that for reasons of tax efficiency and the financial efficiency of their businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall has nearly 4,000 such properties in his constituency.

In a letter to me on 26 July 2010, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, stated:

She goes on to cite case law, and the fact that illegal registration carries a potential fine of £5,000.

Thankfully, in time for this debate, the Minister has very kindly responded to a letter I sent to him on 7 December 2010 on this issue. He notes the issues that have been raised by the electoral returning officer for Cornwall council, and the suggestion that people who are registered in more than one local authority should be required to nominate a main residence, which would
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then be designated as the area in which they were eligible to vote. The Minister says that he will give the matter further consideration, stating:

That is helpful for today's debate. We know about the parallel issues regarding student registration. The issue needs to be addressed, and I hope that the Minister will do so.

The primary theme of the debate-I will bring my remarks to a close in a moment-is the Government's justification for applying this rigid approach to equality of constituency. The Minister is aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is being debated in another place. On this occasion, as perhaps on other occasions when such constitutional issues have arisen, Members of Parliament have an interest in the legislation as it primarily affects them. In such cases, I argue that the Lords should have a greater say rather than a lesser say about the outcome, and I hope that the Government will take that on board.

House of Lords reform will be considered in due course, and we will no doubt pass comment on such reform. I fear that in the coalition agreement-something I have not entirely seen eye to eye with my party over-the Government have tended to get the issue the wrong way round and they seem to have engaged in a fashionable and populist view. Of course, superficially I can see that a directly elected second Chamber sounds attractive in many ways. However, the Government are considering how people get into the Chamber before they have considered what that Chamber is for. On Lords reform, I agree with the Government that the hereditary principle should not apply and that patronage is unacceptable. However, I hope that before we get too entangled in debates about how people might arrive in the second Chamber-if indeed we have a second Chamber, and I believe that we should-we will first have the opportunity to consider what the second Chamber is for. That might inform the debate about the best and most appropriate means by which people arrive in the House of Lords.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am delighted that he has moved on to the subject of the House of Lords and its potential reform because I feel that the issue of the House of Commons has, to a certain extent, been debated and dealt with in the Chamber. We talk a lot about individual Members and the community involvement of a representative of a particular constituency. Can it be argued that while the House of Commons represents the population and should be proportionate to that, there is potential for House of Lords reform to be based around communities or regions? For example, Cumbria or Cornwall could be represented in the House of Lords. That would be regionally based and therefore different from representation in the House of Commons.

Andrew George: That helps me with the point I am making. First, we must consider what we need a revising Chamber for. I hope that it is for revision and sober second thought, but not to trump or usurp the primary Chamber. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about how to ensure that all nations and regions of the UK are properly and fairly represented within the second Chamber. That is the second stage of the debate, but first we must understand what that place is for.

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The hon. Gentleman emphasises that we have debated this issue and the Bill-I have been looking back over debates on the Bill that we have had in the Commons. However, if the hon. Gentleman studies such debates, he may agree with me that we have not had adequate opportunity to explore fully the aspects of the Bill that I have highlighted today, and I hope that the Minister has taken note of that. I suspect that another place will revise some aspects of the legislation that I have just described, and I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on those amendments when they come before the Commons.

11.36 am

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. I agree that when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was on the Floor of the House, we did not have an opportunity to explore the issues as fully as we would have liked. I am glad to have the opportunity to do that today.

The role and purpose of Members of Parliament can be divided into two separate functions. First, we effectively form an electoral college for electing a Prime Minister, and secondly, we represent communities. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, for example, there is no formal vote in the House of Commons to elect a Prime Minister. As a Government can exist only if they have the confidence of the House of Commons, Members of Parliament effectively form an electoral college for electing a Prime Minister. It is clear that for the fair election of a Prime Minister, Members of Parliament ought to represent constituencies that have the same number-or as near as possible to the same number-of constituents.

The other role of Members of Parliament is to represent communities. It is obvious that not every community in the country is exactly the same size, and it is fair to have slight discrepancies in the number of people in each constituency, particularly when taking into account that representational role. When the representational role was originally introduced, for many centuries Members of Parliament represented whole boroughs or counties, some of which had more than one representative. In the early days, the representational role was considered more important and boundaries were drawn to that effect. Obviously, as the years went on and people moved, it became more important to have, as far as possible, the same number of electors represented by each Member of Parliament. However, we still have those two roles. Clearly, the role of an electoral college would support having exact numbers in each constituency, while the role of representation would need a bit of flexibility. We must reconcile those two different roles.

Until this Bill, the reconciliation of those two functions was left exclusively to the Boundary Commission. It has always had the flexibility to take community boundaries into account, rather than just seek the same number of electors in each constituency.

John Stevenson: Could that difference not be dealt with by the ways in which Members of the House of Commons and Members of the House of Lords are elected? That is a way those two issues could be reconciled.

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Mr Reid: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I would like the electoral system for the House of Lords to represent larger communities-say, Scotland or the English regions. I think that the role of the House of Lords should be to represent those larger areas, rather than the smaller areas that Members of Parliament represent. I still think there is an important role for Members of Parliament in representing smaller communities.

As I was saying, the Boundary Commission has had flexibility in the past. Analysis of where the Boundary Commission has used that flexibility shows that the political effects of different constituency sizes have tended to cancel one another out. I am referring to the political effects of the Boundary Commission's decision to have flexibility, not regulations that we have had in the past about the minimum number of MPs that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must have. Obviously, having a certain minimum number of MPs for Scotland and Wales in the past has tended to help the Labour party more than any other party, but with the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, the last boundary review had the same quota for Scotland as for England, and I think it would be fair for that also to happen for Wales. However, in relation to individual constituencies, analysis shows that the political effects of different constituency sizes tend to cancel one another out.

Analysis of recent elections has shown that it takes more electors to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour MP, but that is almost entirely down to turnout. The turnout is much higher in constituencies won by the Conservatives than in those won by Labour. That is the main effect. The secondary effect has tended to be that people move from Labour-held constituencies into Conservative-held constituencies. Clearly, if there is a long time between boundary reviews, that has an effect, so I fully agree with the Government that we should be speeding up the process of boundary reviews. It would not be fair to have an election in 2020 based on electoral data from 2000, which is what we would have under the present system.

Although I agree with the Government on the issues that I have mentioned, I do not think it necessary to have the 5% straitjacket or to have exactly 600 MPs. We should allow the Boundary Commission some flexibility. The number of MPs should be, say, 600 plus or minus five. It is important to put a cap such as that on the number, because in the past, when boundary commissions have used their discretion, the number of MPs has tended to drift upwards. The number has come down only when there have been constitutional changes such as independence for the Irish Republic or the abolition of the rule that meant that Scotland had on average more MPs than England, to which I referred. When it has been left up to the Boundary Commission, the number has tended to creep up gradually over the years. Therefore, having a cap is correct, but there should be a bit of flexibility-say, 600 MPs plus or minus five.

As a country, we are fortunate in having a politically independent Boundary Commission. Many other countries have boundary commissions in which there is political interference: the United States is an obvious example. We should allow the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility than would be allowed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as it stands.

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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the independence of the Boundary Commission, or the boundary commissions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is vital, but they quite often get it wrong. In fact, invariably over the past few years, their first version has, as they themselves have readily admitted, not fitted the bill. That is why we think it very important to keep hold of public inquiries, whereby people can test in public the arguments about the shaping of constituencies. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr Reid: I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's argument in that regard. One of the things I have always found problematic with the present system is the fact that there are only 28 days for people or organisations to put in objections or suggestions. Many organisations-for example, community councils in Scotland-meet on a monthly cycle, and it was often just pure luck as to whether the community council was meeting at a time that would allow it to put in objections. Therefore, the Government's proposals in the Bill for a period of three months are very important. That will allow plenty of time for local debate. Twenty-eight days does not allow proper time for local debate, because by the time that a local newspaper has carried the detail of the proposal, a week of the 28 days will often be gone, and by the time that people get together and hold meetings, the whole of the 28 days will often be gone. The Government's proposal for three months but without a public inquiry will be an improvement, because it will allow local debate. Although there might not be face-to-face debates at a public inquiry, there will be local debates through the local press over a three-month period. That will allow many more people to participate than would be the case at a public inquiry. Ordinary people will not take several days off work to turn up to public inquiries, whereas they can engage in debate at local public meetings in the evening or in the columns of a local newspaper.

The 5% straitjacket that the Bill imposes is not an absolute principle, because there are exceptions for certain island groups and there is also a 13,000 sq km area cap. I fully support the clause in the Bill that says that Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have their own constituencies. Since 1918, independent boundary commissions have always allowed individual constituencies for those island groups. It was only at the last boundary review that Orkney and Shetland was written into legislation as having its own constituency, but the Boundary Commission still decided that Na h-Eileanan an Iar should have its own constituency despite its not being written into the legislation. I am fully behind the Government on that.

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, however, we would like the Government to elaborate on the principles behind where the exceptions should be. We were not able to tease out from them during the debate on the Floor of the House why the two island constituencies I have mentioned were to be exceptions, but there were not to be exceptions for other islands. As my hon. Friend pointed out, part of the Isle of Wight will share a constituency with the mainland. There is also the island of Anglesey. Under the new rules, the constituency that it would be in would include part of the mainland of Wales.

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While we are talking about islands, I want to draw the Minister's attention to my constituency, which contains many islands. In fact, it contains 25 inhabited islands. Thirteen of those have a public air service or a public ferry service, or both. I visit all those islands as part of my constituency tour. I sent the Minister a copy of the itinerary for my constituency tour, pointing out to him that it takes several weeks to get round the constituency.

That factor is important. Constituents are entitled to have the opportunity to meet their Member of Parliament face to face. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives pointed out, there are electronic means of communication these days, but that is no substitute for the Member of Parliament going to individual communities in their constituency and seeing the facts on the ground-or, as my hon. Friend pointed out, at sea. It is also important that constituents be able to meet their Member of Parliament face to face in their own community. I would therefore like the Minister to elaborate on the reasons why the two island groups I have mentioned were chosen as exceptions, and not other islands.

Let me give hon. Members some statistics. As I said, my constituency contains 13 islands that can be reached only by an air or ferry service. That compares with only three in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, because of all the causeways that have been built there. That means that every island in the island group is connected to Lewis and Harris, the Uists or Barra by a fixed link. Therefore, Na h-Eileanan an Iar is in effect three islands, whereas my constituency contains 13 islands that can be reached only by air or sea. If we compare Argyll and Bute with Na h-Eileanan an Iar, we also find that Argyll and Bute has twice the land area and three times the electorate. The Boundary Commission could therefore perhaps be allowed some flexibility to take into account islands and large areas where few people live.

Elsewhere on the highland mainland, the Government have introduced the 13,000 sq km rule. It is important to note that that rule will not result in the creation of new constituencies that are more than 5% under the quota, but it will create three constituencies that are a strange shape. To get within 5% of the quota and to meet the 13,000 sq km rule, the Boundary Commission will have to create three strange constituencies, each containing part of the Greater Inverness area and a large part of the rural highlands and islands. One constituency will comprise part of Inverness, going north and west all the way to Cape Wrath. Another will contain part of Inverness and go all the way west to include the Isle of Skye. The third will contain part of Inverness and go south and east. Those three constituencies will look very strange, and there will be little shared community interest between the different communities in them. As I said, we are supposed to represent communities, but someone in a remote, rural part of north-west Sutherland and somebody in the city of Inverness have little shared community interest.

That leads me to suggest that the Government are being too formulaic in simply writing in a 13,000 sq km cap without taking into account a constituency's size and shape. Let me give the example of my constituency. Loch Fyne, which is a long sea loch, cuts the mainland part of my constituency almost exactly in two. If some miracle happened and Loch Fyne were suddenly filled in, my constituency's land area would increase, which would take it closer to the Government's 13,000 sq km
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cap. However, it would also make the constituency easier to drive around, because I would no longer have to drive all the way up to the top of Loch Fyne and all the way back down the other side when I went from Dunoon, where I live, to the western part of my constituency.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is not advocating filling the loch in, is he?

Mr Reid: Loch Fyne is a beautiful loch with beautiful scenery, and I am certainly not advocating filling it in; I am just giving an example of how the land area would increase if the geography were different. That would take us closer to the Government's cap, but it would also make it easier to drive across the constituency. The point I am trying to make is that land area by itself makes for too crude a formula, and the rules should take into account the constituency's shape and the difficulties of travelling around the constituency. It is difficult to write such things into a formula, which is why we need to give the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility than the Government propose in the Bill. Islands, peninsulas, sea lochs and so forth must also be taken into account. The House of Lords will shortly re-examine the Bill, and I hope that the Government will be amenable to accepting amendments to give the Boundary Commission a bit more flexibility.

To sum up, I am fully in favour of capping the House of Commons, but, again, there should be a bit of flexibility. I am also fully in favour of speeding up Boundary Commission proceedings. Furthermore, although it is important that constituencies have close to the same number of people in each, it is also important to have flexibility to deal with the small number of constituencies with unique geographic circumstances-rural constituencies in the highlands and islands, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey, and constituencies in Cornwall. Members from those places have come to the House to speak to Ministers and argue for a bit of flexibility. The constituencies where the Boundary Commission would exercise flexibility would be a tiny proportion of the whole. Making provision for such flexibility would improve the Bill and mean that we represented much more cohesive communities than we would under the Bill as it stands. I hope the Government will listen. We are fortunate in having a politically independent Boundary Commission, and we should trust it with a bit more discretion over constituency and community boundaries.

Chris Bryant rose-

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): I call Chris Bryant.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con) rose-

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): I am sorry. Martin Vickers.

11.55 am

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part for the first time in a debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), if for no other reason than that the debate gives me an opportunity to repeat the arguments
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that I made on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on Second Reading. As I said then, there should be some flexibility in the 600-seat straitjacket, to borrow a phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid).

Those of us who have been involved in politics for many years will have had opportunities to redraw boundaries at various stages and to make submissions to the Boundary Commission. Whether we are dealing with constituency or ward boundaries, the fact is that the jigsaw never fits together. It is a big mistake to put the commission in a straitjacket and to limit it to 600.

It is important that constituents identify to some extent with the unit of administration in which they live. That applies nationally, and I am a great believer in the idea that the nation state is the ideal unit of government. It also applies at local level. My constituency had the misfortune to be moved into the county of Humberside in the 1970s, and the legacy of that lives on. People deeply resent being moved around in that way.

I served as a constituency agent for 15 years before my move to the House. I served in the Gainsborough constituency, a large rural Lincolnshire constituency neighbouring mine, and it made me appreciate that identities vary considerably over geographically relatively short distances of 30 or 40 miles. To be perfectly honest, people in Gainsborough had no interest in what happened 30 miles down the road. Incidentally, that constituency, with the exception of one ward, had the benefit of being within one district council area.

Continually changing boundaries will impact on the vitality and sustainability of local political parties. The democratic process needs viable local parties and associations, but constant boundary changes inevitably impact on their viability. Taking one ward out of a constituency can render the local party virtually bankrupt if the ward's financial make-up means that it contributes greatly to the party. We need to think seriously about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute spoke about the step-by-step increase in the number of Members over the years. Although it is true that there has been an increase, the population itself has grown significantly. I sat in the upper House during its debate yesterday, and I was reminded that there were 33 million electors in 1945. The number of eligible voters has now risen to 45 million. So, although I have no instinctive intrinsic objection to rounding off a reduction in the number, I think that it is extremely foolish to limit it to 600.

As to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) made about reform of the House of Lords, I favour a predominantly elected upper House, and there is an opportunity, as he suggested in his intervention, to consider framing that House so that it clearly identifies with communities, particularly if we go along with what I regard as the misguided course of having 600 seats in the House of Commons.

12 noon

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I had not realised, Mrs Riordan, that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), would sit down quite so suddenly, even though you gave me a warning just before he began his speech that I would soon be called.

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I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George). I think he blames me for his not having been able in previous debates to make some of the arguments he has made today. I note from the giggling at the far end of the Chamber that that is probably the tenor of his argument. However, he has been able to discuss some of the issues today. He is right that some of them are being debated in the House of Lords at the moment. As I understand it, they have another 70 or 80 sets of amendments to deal with, and of course the process there is rather different from that in the House of Commons. Rather more time is being devoted to the Bill in the Lords, and some issues are being talked through in rather more depth. I hope that in what is sometimes a less partisan environment, some of the changes that the hon. Gentleman has advocated today will come about.

I note that the hon. Members who have spoken so far have constituencies that are called "something and something"; or rather, Cleethorpes is not really like that-the constituency is just called Cleethorpes-but I note that its Member of Parliament refers to it on his website as "Cleethorpes, Immingham, Barton and the Wold Parishes". That just makes the point that in the historic past, when there were either county or borough Members of Parliament, everyone pretty much knew who represented them. If someone was described as the Member of Parliament for Manchester, someone who lived in Manchester knew that that was their Member of Parliament. However, through the passage of universal suffrage, the enfranchisement of women, and the steady process of changing the franchise and drawing up constituencies in the 20th century, we ended up with many constituencies that are incomprehensible to voters. One of my concerns is that the Bill now in the House of Lords will lead to a greater sense of uncertainty for voters about who is their Member of Parliament.

It is relatively easy in the Rhondda. Those who live in the Rhondda know they do, and the physical boundary is relatively well known, so people can work out quite easily that the person referred to as Member of Parliament for the Rhondda is their MP. In cities it tends to be more complicated. I suspect that things are fairly straightforward in Forest of Dean. My anxiety is that some of the provisions in the Bill will make it more difficult for voters to see such matters with clarity.

John Stevenson: I am fortunate, in that I represent the city of Carlisle, which is easy to identify, but interestingly enough, in the seat of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), there are three district councils; one of the divisions of the county council is split between the two of us. In our experience, there does not seem to be that much of a problem in identifying which of us represents the people of the area. I question whether it is as big a problem as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) thinks it is.

Chris Bryant: I do not question the hon. Gentleman's experience, although it is relatively new. However, things are certainly very difficult in many constituencies. I get more people thinking that they are in the Rhondda who are not than the other way round. People who live in Tonyrefail, who might one day-who knows?-be in the constituency of Greater Rhondda, but are presently
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in the constituency of Pontypridd, believe they live in the Rhondda. There is confusion, and my anxiety is that we should not make greater confusion for voters. Most of the time most voters do not worry about such matters. It is not the most important issue in their lives.

Andrew George: I entirely support the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Indeed, the boundary of my constituency changed at the 2010 election and those constituents who used to live in my old constituency still contact me. Given the arrangements in the Bill, that sort of thing would happen at every election, so there would be confusion. The point really is that while the hon. Gentleman is content about representing a constituency that is wholly the Rhondda-as is the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) about representing one that is wholly Carlisle-under the Bill, at some point a line could be drawn right through the middle of either of those constituencies.

Chris Bryant: Yes. For some strange reason I seem to have been up in Oldham recently. Oldham East and Saddleworth feels as it if it has been slammed together with no consideration of what constitutes a community.

I do not want to focus too much on that issue; I really want to talk about equalisation of seats. I cannot remember which hon. Member said it, but it is absolutely right that the apparent party political advantage to the Labour party from the fact that it takes more voters to elect a Conservative MP than a Labour one is far more to do with turnout than anything else. The equalisation of seats will make barely any difference, according to calculations done by virtually every academic so far, to the partisan advantage of one political party or another. For that matter, a 5 or 10% leeway would not make a great difference, on a partisan basis, to one or other party. In Labour constituencies there have tended to be smaller majorities, but still safe seats, whereas a Conservative safe seat tends to have a very large majority, because there is a much higher turnout.

I support equalisation to an extent, and certainly as things stand the situation is not right; it is not acceptable and there should be greater equalisation. However, I worry about the Government trying to get 99% of all seats within a very tight band. That is a much tighter band than in any other country, and it is being done on the basis of registered electors, whereas most other countries use population. The hon. Member for St Ives was right when he said it would be a mistake if, because of the Bill, we ended up with-I think these were his words-"antiseptic constituencies" with permanently mobile boundaries. That would not be good for representation of views in Parliament or for ensuring that a full cross-section of British society is here. Nor would it make it easier for people to understand who represents them, and to maintain that continuity.

To give one tiny instance, if a constituent comes to a Member with a case and the Member takes it up, it might take many years, as did many of the miners' compensation cases that I took up. Someone whose Member stops representing them because of the boundary change must start all over again, from the beginning, because the data protection people have said that MPs cannot hand the file over to another MP. [Interruption.] The Minister is saying something. I do not know whether he wants to intervene; perhaps he will respond later.

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On a point of information, international comparisons are often cited regarding the need for greater equalisation. In fact, in the United States of America, if the same equation is made concerning how many voters it takes to get someone elected, Wyoming has nearly 10.5 times the representation, for population, of California. They base their arrangements not on registered or eligible voters, but on population. Sometimes it is good to equalise-but only to an extent.

It is important to recognise the distinctness of various parts of the country when we are drawing up boundaries. Some have already been mentioned. The Isle of Wight was referred to in some of the debates we had in the House of Commons. We believe that the distinctness of the Isle of Wight should be recognised in the statute, and hold a similar belief regarding Cornwall. I note that yesterday was the anniversary of the crossing of the Rubicon. I do not know whether the crossing of the Tamar is still an ambition of the Government. In one sense, Cornwall is only administratively in England. It has a distinctness that should be recognised. If there were a referendum in Cornwall on whether Cornwall should have Cornwall-only seats, there would be an overwhelming majority in favour. I hope the Government will think again on that matter.

Many of the same issues apply to Anglesey, though in that case it goes the other way in being too small, as opposed to the Isle of Wight being too large. The point was made about Argyll and Bute, and, although it did not sound like special pleading, of course it was. However, the point was well made: it is in many ways a sparser constituency than the highland seats. There is a strong argument for the distinctiveness of Argyll and Bute.

Although I understand the issues about Wales-in particular north-west Wales, where there is a high concentration of people with Welsh as their first language-a drive towards equalisation may, and in some academics' views will, lead to no parliamentary seat having a Welsh-speaking majority. That would be a mistake in terms of how the British Parliament is viewed in Wales, and would incense a greater sense of nationalism. The Government should recognise that.

My final point on specifics that should be recognised concerns estuaries. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) referred to sea lochs, but it is important that wide estuaries such as those on the Mersey, the Humber, the Clyde, the Forth and the Thames should not be crossed when creating parliamentary constituencies. Some argue that that should apply to Welsh valleys, because of their peculiarities. It would seem odd if a small part of the top of a valley-even if there was no connecting road-was bunged into another constituency. However, I think most issues in the Welsh valleys can be addressed; there is no specific reason why not.

A 10% rather than a 5% leeway would mean there was no need to cross ward boundaries in the creation of seats. In some of the big city conurbations, that is important. There would be no need to cross county boundaries-all geographical and physical necessities that the land, or God or whoever has given us could be met, and there would be no dramatic harm to the representativeness that the Government seek to achieve in aiming for equalisation. I hope that, in striving towards their measures, the Government will look again at whether 10% might not be a better leeway than 5%.

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I want briefly to say a couple of words about the number of seats in Parliament. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that the number has always crept up, except when the Irish Free State was created and we cut the numbers. However, the measure we should think about first is the nature of the job of a Member of Parliament. International comparisons were made by the hon. Member for St Ives. However, to compare the UK with Spain, France or Germany-where Governments are not constituted in the same way-is to compare apples with pears and is therefore mistaken. Similarly, the powers held by parliamentarians in those countries are very different. In France, much more is devolved and done by councillors. We have far fewer councillors-one for every 3,000 voters, whereas in France it is one for every 110. Those comparisons do not bear examination.

As MPs, we create the Government; we are the electoral college, as it were, for the Prime Minister and the whole of the Government. All Ministers have to come out of Parliament, because the amendment in the 1689 Bill of Rights was lost. Dramatic cuts in the number of MPs would be a mistake. The number of constituents has grown and grown over the years, as has the amount of casework we are expected to do.

I have two final points. I wonder how the AV Bill-I cannot remember what it is called-

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.

Chris Bryant: From a sedentary position, the Minister has helped me out. I wonder how the Bill is doing in the House of Lords. As I understand it, the Bill has to be out of the House of Lords in February in order to have the referendum in May. With another 70, 80, 90 sets of amendments, I wonder whether it is now possible for the Bill to have the two weeks between Committee and Report stages in the House of Lords, and come back to the House of Commons. I urge the Minister-indeed, I make him an offer: if he splits the two elements of the Bill, as we urged in the beginning, we could help him get his AV referendum in time for May.

House of Lords reform has been briefly mentioned by several Members. When are we going to have that Bill? It was originally going to be before Christmas, then at the beginning of the year, then in January. We hear rumours of March, April and May. When will we get the Bill?

12.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), it is the first time I have done so.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) for securing the debate, and giving me and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) the chance to spend the entire morning in Westminster Hall, debating a fascinating range of topics.

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