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
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
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
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
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
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
There are no current plans to introduce legislation
Q4. What consideration are you giving to
regulating lobbying in governmentamong Ministers and civil
servants in Whitehall, in other public bodies and in local governmentas
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
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
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 smalltwo 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 changethat is a matter for the independent Boundary
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
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,
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
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
1 Not printed. Back