Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

1  Principle and process

1.  The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was presented to the House on Thursday 22 July 2010. Earlier that day the Leader of the House had announced that the Second Reading of the Bill would take place on Monday 6 September.[1] The intervening recess has meant that there have been only two full sitting days between presentation and Second Reading. The provisions in the Bill have not benefited from wider consultation in the form of a green or white paper or draft bill. Although the broad outlines of the Bill were signalled to the House by the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 July 2010,[2] we, the House and the general public did not see the detailed text of the proposals before 22 July. We produced a short Report at the end of July, in which we took issue with the process that the Government had chosen to adopt.[3] The Government has declared that the Parliamentary Systems and Constituencies Bill is intended as a "major step" towards restoring people's faith in Parliament.[4] The Government's failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risks undermining that laudable intention.

2.  The Bill is in two parts: the first would provide for a referendum on changing the voting system at general elections to the Alternative Vote (AV); the second would reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 Members to 600, and require every parliamentary constituency in the country (apart from a small number in northern Scotland) to contain the same number of registered voters within a margin of ten per cent - this project has become known as 'reduce and equalise'. Clause 6 of the Bill would ensure that the result of the referendum would be respected, but that the effect of a 'yes' vote would be implemented only at the same time as 'reduce and equalise' came into effect.

3.  The Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a change to the electoral system, but AV is by no means their first choice: their 2010 manifesto stated a preference for the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a system which would have been electorally advantageous to them.[5] The Conservative Party manifesto, in contrast, affirmed their support for the existing first-past-the-post system.[6] The only party to support a referendum on AV before the 2010 election was the Labour Party.[7] The Conservative Party alone of the three largest parties advocated "'fair vote' reforms to equalise the size of constituency electorates", and it has been suggested that they would be the main electoral beneficiaries of such reforms.[8] The Conservative Party promised to reduce the number of Members of Parliament by 10% (to 585); the Liberal Democrats to reduce the number of Members by 150 (to 500), but as a consequence of moving to STV.[9]

4.  The Bill is a political compromise born out of coalition government between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, and clause 6 exemplifies this most clearly. It would have been possible for the two parts of the Bill to have been proceeded with as separate pieces of legislation, but this would not have provided reassurance to each of the two coalition partners that 'their' part of the Bill would make progress. There is a genuine link between the two parts of the Bill: both would bring about changes to the nature of the House of Commons and to the link between Members and the electorate. There is also, however, a genuine link between the provisions in the Bill and proposals, yet to be seen, for reform of the House of Lords. It would have allowed for more rounded scrutiny of the composition of Parliament if these two sets of proposals had been considered together.

5.  The guiding principle behind the Bill is political. Nonetheless, the reforms it proposes are substantial and worthy of close consideration. It is true that, if enacted, they are likely to work to the benefit of particular political parties, but it has been argued with some evidence that this would be a case of righting bias within the existing system, although it has also been argued that it amounts to an attempt to legislate for "gerrymandering".[10]

6.  The Bill is subject to a programme motion allowing five days in Committee of the whole House and two days for Report and Third Reading. The Deputy Prime Minister rejected criticism of the use of a programme motion during Second Reading in the House of Commons:

The programme motion simply states that there will be five full days of debate on the Floor of the House of Commons-nothing more and nothing less. I do not think that that can be construed as a heavy-handed or intrusive approach.[11]

7.  The timetable adopted for this Bill has made it impossible for us to conduct a full programme of pre-legislative scrutiny of its contents. Instead, we have conducted a parallel process of scrutiny with the aim of producing a Report that will assist the House in its deliberations at Committee stage, which are scheduled to begin on the second sitting day after the conference recess, 12 October 2010.[12]

8.  We took oral evidence before publication of the Bill from:

i.  Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, the Deputy Prime Minister, on a wide range of constitutional issues,[13] and

ii.  Mr Peter Facey of Unlock Democracy, Dr Martin Steven of the Electoral Reform Society (both campaigners for electoral reform) and Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky (a proponent of the first-past-the-post system), primarily on the merits or otherwise of different voting systems.[14]

9.  Since publication of the Bill, we have heard further from:

i.  Professor Ron Johnston, an expert in constituency boundary reform from Bristol University and from Mr Robin Gray, a former Boundary Commissioner for England,[15]

ii.  Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics, mainly on the detailed workings of alternative vote systems and Professor Justin Fisher of Brunel University, partly on the financing of referendum campaigns,[16]

iii.  the Secretaries of the four Boundary Commissions, on the practical impact that the provisions in the Bill would have on their work,[17]

iv.  Dr Roger Mortimore of Ipsos-MORI and Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Democratic Audit, both of whom have studied extensively the completeness and accuracy of the electoral rolls, including reasons why people might choose not to register to vote despite being entitled to do so,[18]

v.  the Electoral Commission, on the wide range of issues covered by the Bill that fall within that body's remit,[19] and

vi.  Mr Mark Harper MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Political and Constitutional Reform in the Cabinet Office.[20]

10.  In addition, we have received written evidence from a wide range of people and bodies, including electoral administrators, academics, pressure groups, Members of Parliament and members of the general public. We are grateful to all of those who have found time to write to us, and we trust that the House will find our evidence valuable in its detailed consideration of the Bill.

11.  Despite the wealth of evidence we have received, however, the speed with which we have had to conduct our inquiry has meant that we have been unable to explore certain issues to the depth we would have liked. On this basis, we have come to conclusions and made recommendations only where we feel the evidence is sufficiently clear. We have not set out the legislative history of the proposals except where it is directly relevant to our conclusions and recommendations. Further details of earlier policy and legislative initiatives can be found in the House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill.[21]

12.  The Deputy Prime Minister has told the House that "these are common-sense changes that are long overdue, and they are the basics that we must now get right".[22] We agree with the Government that changes to the parliamentary voting system, to the number of Members of the House and to the process of setting constituency boundaries are issues that must be got right. But the speed with which the Government is intent that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill should make progress risks undermining that aim. It is always regrettable, and generally leads to poorer legislation, when such an approach to timetabling legislation becomes a characteristic of any Government's political reforms.

1   HC Deb 22 July 2010, c 559 Back

2   HC Deb 5 July 2010, c 23 Back

3   Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, First Report 2010-2011 Back

4   HC Deb 6 September 2010, c 34 Back

5   Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 p 88 Back

6   Invitation to join the Government of Britain, The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, p 67 Back

7   HC Deb 6 September 2010, c 45 Back

8   Invitation to join the Government of Britain, The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, p 67


9   Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 p 88 Back

10   For example, HC Deb 6 September 2010, c 44 Back

11   HC Deb 6 September 2010, c 43 Back

12   The Committee stage is scheduled for 12, 18, 19 and 20 October with a further day yet to be announced at the time of publication.  Back

13   HC 358-i (2010-11) Back

14   Ev 1 Back

15   Ev 17 Back

16   Ev 26 Back

17   Ev 35 Back

18   Ev 42 Back

19   Ev 49 Back

20   Ev 67 Back

21   House of Commons Library Research paper 10/55, Oonagh Gay and Isobel White Back

22   HC Deb 6 September 2010, c 35 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 20 October 2010