The Coalition Government's programme of political and constitutional reform - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Letter from the Deputy Prime Minister to the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

  I am writing in response to your letter of 21 July,[1] in which you posed a number of questions which members of the Political and Constitutional Reform committee had been unable to ask on 15 July. I hope the information below will be of use to the committee as it carries out its functions.

Q1.   Other than a move to fixed-term parliaments, what are you doing through your programme of political and constitutional reform to redistribute power away from Ministers and Whitehall?

  A.  We are promoting a significant number of initiatives which will give people a greater say in the way that they are governed. These are not limited to the political and constitutional reform programme, but permeate every area of our policies. Building the free, fair and responsible society we want to see can come about only if we disperse power more widely, and improve transparency so that information is shared and power can be decentralised.

  For example, we are proposing to develop options to give neighbourhoods and local authorities the powers and freedoms to work with businesses and others to lead economic growth and regeneration (including through the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships) as a part of the Spending Review. We are also proposing to publish all local authority performance data held by central government, which will give local people a better idea of how their local authority is performing. We intend to design and implement a new approach to reporting by local government to central government which will impose fewer reporting burdens on the local authorities while at the same time providing greater transparency for local people.

  We are committed to implementing the recommendations of the Calman Commission, which will increase the powers of the Scottish Parliament, including giving them increased responsibility for raising their own resources through taxation. We are also committed to facilitating the referendum on whether the Welsh Assembly should have greater legislative powers.

  Our proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber will give the people a direct say in the make-up of both Houses of our Parliament, removing the power of the party hierarchies to nominate members to Parliament.

  Implementing in full the recommendations of the Wright Committee on reform of the way the House of Commons works will increase the power of the backbenches and redistribute power within the House away from the Government.

  Our proposal that any petition which secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament, and even provide the means for the public to introduce a Bill, will give the people an opportunity to ensure that the things which matter to them are considered at the heart of government. Our proposals for a "public reading stage" for all legislation will allow the public a direct say in the legislative process.

  We are also committed to extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency. If people know more about what government is doing, their understanding will be increased and they will be better able to hold the government, at whatever level, to account.

  The Coalition Agreement sets out our commitments to review local government finance and to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies so that decision-making on powers on housing and planning are returned to local councils. We have also promised to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system.

  We have already announced the ending of the Regional Development Agencies and the Government Offices in the regions. Our view is that the Government offices had become a representation of Whitehall in the regions, rather than a voice for the regions in Whitehall.

  We are committed to increase transparency by opening up government data in re-usable formats so that the public can better hold government to account. We have already released the last five years' data from the Treasury COINS database and details of most senior civil servants with salaries over £150,000, and during the next few months we will release more details of central government spending, staffing, senior staff salaries, organisations, tenders and contracts. All this will enable the public better to hold the government to account.

  Our proposals on regulating lobbying and even on the recall of MPs will devolve power to ordinary people to hold the central institutions of government to account.

Q2.   The government is proposing that people should have the right to call local referendums on local issues. Will you be proposing a similar right for people to call national referendums on national issues, and if not, why not?

  A.  The Government believes that referendums can be a valuable means of giving people a say over important issues, at both the national and local level. Giving residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue will help empower residents to make localism and the Big Society part of everyday life. The Government does not propose a similar power to instigate referendums at the national level, where different considerations apply. The Coalition Programme for Government sets out the areas where national referendums are proposed, including the introduction of a "referendum lock" so that any proposed future treaty that transfers areas of power, or competences, to the EU would be subject to a referendum.

  The Coalition Programme for the Government sets out other steps we will take to give people great say in their national policies:

    — We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.

    — We will introduce a new "public reading stage" for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online, and a dedicated "public reading day" within a bill's committee stage where those comments will be debated by the committee scrutinising the bill.

Q3.   What plans do you have to circumscribe or to set on a statutory basis powers that the government currently exercises without statutory authority (the executive prerogative powers), in particular war-making powers, the power to make treaties, and the power to issue, refuse, impound and revoke passports?

  A.  The remaining executive prerogative powers have been extensively reviewed and although exercised without statutory authority, as the Public Administration Select Committee said in their Report "Taming the Prerogative", "Parliament is not helpless in the face of prerogative". Ministers are accountable to Parliament for all their actions, including those taken under the prerogative, and Parliamentary approval is required where the use of the prerogative involves the incurring of expenditure. In addition, Parliament has the power to legislate to modify, abolish or simply put on a statutory footing any particular prerogative power.

  Following the events leading up to the Iraq War, it is apparent that a convention exists that Parliament will be given the opportunity to debate the decision to commit troops to armed conflict.

  The power to ratify treaties was placed on a statutory footing as part of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

  There are no current plans to introduce legislation on passports.

Q4.   What consideration are you giving to regulating lobbying in government—among Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, in other public bodies and in local government—as opposed to lobbying in Parliament?

  A.  The Government has committed to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. Our intention is to consult with those organisations that have an appropriate interest in this area before introducing a statutory register of lobbyists. That includes the industry, business and charities, as well as those groups who work towards greater transparency in lobbying activities and politics in general.

  We will invite submissions on what should form part of the register, but it is not our intention to place burdensome requirements on businesses, charities and other organisations who need to make their voice heard. The Government believes that a statutory register will increase transparency and openness in the activity of lobbyists.

Q5.   What is the purpose of the government's proposal to reduce the size of the House of Commons? What are the benefits that you see coming from the proposed reduction, and what evidence is there that these benefits will be realised?

Q6.   Why is 600 seats the optimum size for the House of Commons? Why is 600 seats a better size for the House of Commons than 500 or 585, or than its current size of around 650 seats?

  A.  The purpose of these reforms is to ensure greater fairness in elections, in particular that one vote has broadly the same weight, wherever an elector lives. The changes are necessary to ensure that the boundaries for UK Parliamentary elections reflect this simple but important principle of fairness of electors and Members. In addition, a slightly smaller House will mean that savings can be made without, in the Government's view, diluting the capacity of individual Members or the chamber as a whole to perform their functions. The size of the Commons is larger than the chambers in comparable democracies.

  Any figure involves a degree of subjective judgement: in the Government's view, a figure of 600 reflects a modest cut which would still allow the vital role of MP to continue to be performed effectively. Under our proposals , the 1 December 2009 register suggest the electoral quota for the UK would be around 76,000. 218 of the existing Parliamentary constituencies are already within five percent either side of 76,000, so the impact of our proposals will see constituencies of a size well within existing norms. The present size of the Commons makes it the largest directly elected chamber in the EU. 600 would still be relatively high, but would be fewer than comparable countries, for example the Bundestag in Germany (Which at present has 622 Members) and the Italian Chamber of Deputies (630 Members).

Q7.   What consideration has been given to amending section 2 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 to reduce the number of Government Ministers allowed to sit and/or vote in the House of Commons, alongside the proposed reduction in the overall number of seats in the House?

  A.  The Committee will have seen the appointments made by the Coalition Government. The number of Ministers should be dictated by need. The Government has carefully considered all the appointments that it has made. Because of the nature of Coalition Government and the challenge of delivering the Programme for Government, the Prime Minister did not think that it was possible to reduce significantly the number of Ministers at this time.

  Any decisions about reducing the number of Ministers in line with a reduction in the size of the House of Commons are for later in this Parliament, as a smaller House would not take effect until the next Parliament in 2015.

Q8.   What is the logical case for maintaining much smaller constituency electorates in Orkney and Shetland, and Western Isles, given that you intend to equalise constituency electorates elsewhere in the country? Why should a vote in these two constituencies count for more than a vote anywhere else in the country?

  A.  These preserved constituencies have small populations and dispersed geography. They have already been recognised either in legislation or in practice in previous boundary reviews as justifying particular treatment. We have conclude therefore that exceptions for these areas are justified by their particular geography. Moving away from the principle of equality has to be for sound reasons, and that is why the number of such exceptions is so small—two from 600 seats.

Q9.   Can you confirm that the Boundary Commission for Scotland will be at liberty to alter the boundaries of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency?

  A.  Yes. The Bill includes a Rule which will impose a geographical size limit for constituencies of 13,000 square kilometres. This upper limit has been set at just larger than the current largest constituency. But this does not mean that Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which is the current largest constituency, will not change—that is a matter for the independent Boundary Commission.

Q10.   Do you expect the upper constituency geographic limit of 13,000 square kilometres to need to be used in practice? If yes, in how many cases?

  A.  This is a matter for the Boundary Commissions.

Q11.   Have you considered measures to offset the disproportionately high level of representation at the House of Commons that electors from parts of northern Scotland will have under your proposals?

  A.  The Government has accepted the case for a small number of tightly drawn exceptions to the parity rule on the basis of the particular geographical circumstances of two groups of islands. The number of exceptions has been kept to a very limited number.

Q12.   Will the exemptions quoted above lead to other constituencies in Scotland having a larger target electorate, or to there being fewer constituencies elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

  A.  Clause 9 of the Bill makes provision to remove the electorates of the two preserved constituencies prior to calculating the electoral quota. Each part of the United Kingdom will then have the number of constituencies to which it is proportionately entitled under that calculation.

Q13.   Further to Mark Harper's written answer of 20 July (Hansard, c 249W), what steps will the government be taking to ensure that electoral registration officers appointed by district or borough councils in two tier local authority areas have access to records held by county councils, including data held by social services and education departments, so that they can ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible? What steps will the government be taking to provide electoral registration officers in Great Britain with access to central government databases for the same purpose?

  A.  Legislation currently provides that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) are entitled to inspect records held by the local authority that appointed them. EROs appointed by district or borough councils in two tier local authority areas may therefore not have access to records held by county Councils, including data held by social services and education departments.

  The Government has announced its intention to speed up the implementation of Individual Electoral Registration in Great Britain and is currently considering its approach. As part of this consideration, we are also considering how we might tackle the issue of EROs' access to records in two tier local authority areas. We are also considering testing a series of data matching schemes which would provide EROs with access to specific public databases, including central Government databases, with the aim of assisting EROs to maintain and improve the completeness and accuracy of their electoral registers. We will be announcing our approach to this in due course.

Q14.   What additional funding or other resources are being made available to local authorities or to other public bodies to enable them to ensure that the December 2010 register of electors is as complete and accurate as possible?

  A.  Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) are under a statutory duty to compile and maintain electoral registers which include all those who appear to the ERO to be entitled to be registered. It is for the Local Authorities which appoint them to ensure they have sufficient funds and resources to do so.

  It should be noted that in its report, The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain, published on 3 March 2010, the Electoral Commission estimated the completeness of the electoral register (ie the percentage of the eligible population registered to vote) at 91-93%, comparable to the level achieved in other established democracies.2 The report also found that the register is at its most complete and accurate following the conclusion of the canvass period on 1 December in any given year.

Q15.   Will the Boundary Commissions be allowed to take into account sources of demographic and household data other than the December 2010 electoral register, such as population projections, when determining constituency boundaries? If not, why not?

  A.  The forthcoming reviews will be conducted on the basis of the electoral register just as boundary reviews have been in the past, including those conducted over the past 10 years. The most important principle here has to be to make sure that one person means one vote. For this to be the case, there has to be broad equality in the number of registered electors in each constituency. In the Government's view, it makes sense to use the register of electors from a named date.

  The PVSC Bill also makes provision for further reviews every five years, ensuring that boundaries remain up to date and fair. It is also important that constituencies do not become out of date and unequal, as is the consequence of the eight to 12 years between reviews at present. We consider that continuing to use the definitive registered electorate, and holding reviews more often, is a more effective way of keeping constituencies up to date than relying on estimated data and attempts to predict what might change in the future.

Q16.   What dialogue has there been and do you intend to hold with the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly and the respective devolved governments over the proposals for a referendum on AV, constituency boundary reform and fixed-term parliaments?

  A.  The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), which includes Ministerial representation from the devolved administrations, met in plenary format on 8 June. The first item was the Government's coalition agreement, including reserved policy likely to be of interest to the devolved administrations. One of those aspects which was highlighted and discussed was constitutional reform. The issue of the Government's constitutional reform agenda was discussed on 1 July at the inter-administration senior officials' group which supports the JMC.

Q17.   How will you be taking account of the views of returning officers and other electoral administrators to ensure the effective implementation of the proposals for a referendum on AV, constituency boundary reform and fixed-term parliaments?

  A.  It was important that Parliament was the first to know about the proposed date of the referendum, which I announced to the House on 5 July. We are also keen to work with all of the devolved administrations to decide how best to deal with combination of polls in May 2015 and we will work constructively with all interested parties as we take forward our proposals for political reform. In relation to the referendum, we will work constructively with the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators to help them to deliver the polls on May 5.

2 September 2010

2  Data for the early 2000s suggested that the Commission's estimate for the completeness of the registers in England and Wales was broadly in line with reported estimates for Canada, New Zealand and France, and significantly above that for the USA. Notably, no country operating a comparable registration system achieves registration rates above 95%. Even Australia, which operates a system of compulsory voting reported a maximum registration level of 95% of eligible voters in 2002 and 92% in 2008. Electoral Commission "The completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain" March 2010

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