The Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill seeks fundamentally to change the political establishment in the UK. We regret that it is being pushed through Parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact, and may consequently undermine the Government's intention to restore the public's faith in Parliament. Given constraints of the legislative timetable we have conducted this inquiry with the aim of producing a Report which we hope will assist the House at the Committee stage of the Bill.
For primarily political reasons, the Bill links two sets of provisions that could have been considered separately. The Bill does not include proposals on reforming the House of Lords which would have allowed the composition of Parliament to be developed in the round. While we welcome the decision to hold a referendum on the introduction of an alternative vote system rather than introducing such a fundamental change solely through legislation, we note that there is no clarity as to when this or future administrations will hold referendums on issues of constitutional importance.
The current timetable for the referendum is tight. If either House substantially amends the rules for holding the referendum the Government may have to reconsider the timing of the vote or run the risk of serious administrative difficulties which could undermine the outcome. This is a particular concern in the light of the facts that: the Bill will need amendment to allow the referendum and other elections to be held using the same facilities; the Bill is unclear whether funding restrictions apply to the media; and the Electoral Commission has expressed concern over both the wording of the referendum question and the design of the ballot papers.
While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the Government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the Government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.
Members of the Committee have tabled an amendment which would ensure all four Boundary Commissions can utilise the full 5% variation in electoral quota according to clear and consistent rules. There is no alternative to using the December 2010 electoral roll to determine constituencies; whether the flaws in the register undermine the equalisation requirement is a matter for the House.
The proposed exceptions to the electoral quota requirement make sense but the House may wish to consider further exceptions where there is evidence that voters are prepared to be under-represented to preserve strong local ties. Public consultation on the boundary changes will be vital to the perceived legitimacy of the Boundary Commissions' decisions and we have tabled amendments we believe will enhance that process. We also recommend the Secretary of State's power to alter the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions be limited to the correction of errors, and that the "payroll vote" in the House of Commons be reduced in line with any reduction in the overall number of MPs.