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


Conclusions and recommendations


Principle and process

1.  The Government has declared that the Parliamentary Systems and Constituencies Bill is intended as a "major step" towards restoring people's faith in Parliament. The Government's failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risks undermining that laudable intention. (Paragraph 1)

2.  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". (Paragraph 5)

3.  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. (Paragraph 12)

Voting system for parliamentary elections

4.  We welcome the Government's decision to hold a referendum on a change to the voting system rather than seeking to introduce a change directly through legislation. It seems to us entirely appropriate that the public should have the opportunity to make this choice, given the direct vested interest that politicians and the political parties have in the way in which Members are elected to the House. (Paragraph 15)

5.  We do not offer a specific view on whether referendums should be held on the other political and constitutional reforms proposed by the Government. There is, however, no clarity as to whether any particular change requires this form of popular assent or not. Indeed, under present arrangements, a future government could, if it chose, ask Parliament to bring about further alterations to the electoral system through legislation without any requirement to hold a referendum. (Paragraph 17)

6.  We have heard in evidence that "this kind of uncertainty...which is unsatisfactory from a democratic perspective - is a product of the lack of a codified constitution in the UK." Similarly, the House of Lords Constitution Committee has noted that "a written constitution could provide a more precise definition of a 'constitutional issue', and define which issues required a referendum before any change". We will return to this issue. (Paragraph 18)

7.  Different opinions have been expressed on whether a threshold should apply in the referendum, meaning that a reform would take place only if a given proportion of the registered electorate voted in favour. This is not an issue on which we intend to give a view in this Report. (Paragraph 19)

8.  The Electoral Commission's view is that the risks of holding the referendum together with other elections on 5 May 2011, clearly to a very tight timetable, can be managed if the rules for the referendum are sufficiently clear six months in advance. At the current rate of progress the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill will be before the House of Lords in November 2010, but will by no means have completed its passage through Parliament. If the Bill is significantly amended in either House, the Government should reconsider the timing of the referendum. (Paragraph 39)

9.  Provisions to allow the holding of combined polls are vital for the referendum to be administered successfully. We therefore welcome the fact that the Government will be bringing forward such provisions, but trust that it will get them right in order to avoid further significant change to the Bill at too late a stage for the referendum to be held safely on the date envisaged. (Paragraph 42)

10.  Our overriding concern when considering the referendum question is that voters know exactly what they are voting for. The Electoral Commission's duty to provide public information is vital to achieving clarity in the minds of the electorate. We accept the Commission's conclusions on the wording of the referendum question and recommend the Government amend the wording of the referendum question as suggested. If the Government fail to follow the Electoral Commission's conclusions we recommend the House scrutinise the reasons for that decision with particular care. (Paragraph 47)

11.  Hasty drafting and lack of consultation appear to be responsible for the problems raised by the Electoral Commission with the way in which the Bill provides for the design of the ballot papers. We trust that these issues will be sensibly resolved at Committee stage, but regret that they were not resolved earlier. (Paragraph 50)

12.  It is likely to be in the public interest for a free media to be able to comment openly and without restriction during the referendum campaign, and therefore to be exempt from the funding restrictions which apply to campaigning groups. Members of this Committee have tabled an amendment to this effect which we ask the House to consider. (Paragraph 56)

'Reduce and equalise'

13.  The Government proposes to reduce the number of Members of the House from 650 to 600 at a single stroke. This is a relatively modest reduction in numerical terms (although it represents more than a quarter of the seats in Wales), but it is unprecedented in recent British history: the last comparable fall in the number of Members followed the secession of the south of Ireland. The decision to make this reduction has not been prefigured by any public consultation on the role of a Member of Parliament, nor by any analysis of the impact of the reduction on constituency casework. It has not been accompanied by any compelling international comparisons, nor by any information on what the Government proposes should be the size and role of a reformed upper House. The reduction would, on current plans, be made entirely from the backbenches, with no proposals to reduce the number of Ministers or of others on the Government payroll sitting and voting in the House, thus increasing the extent of executive dominance of Parliament. The savings that the Government claims, but has not proved, the reduction would lead to, would make no discernible impact on the national deficit, amounting as they do to around one millionth of the annual budget of the National Health Service. There may be a case for reducing the number of Members of the House to 600, but the Government has not made it. (Paragraph 70)

14.  The principle that people's votes should carry an equal weight regardless of where they live is one with which it is hard to argue. It is worth remembering, however, that it is a principle that is most perfectly achieved through proportional representation. One of the advantages of a constituency-based system is that it allows local communities to be effectively represented in the national Parliament. It is essential that the Boundary Commissions should have sufficient freedom to design constituencies that have meaning for the people living in them and can be well represented by the Members elected to them. The House should ensure that the new rules as proposed by the Government would not draw the equalisation requirement so tightly that new constituency boundaries would take insufficient account of geographical considerations, local ties and local authority boundaries. (Paragraph 87)

15.  We have not as a Committee attempted to determine the precise level of variation from the electoral quota that would be appropriate to achieve this goal: this is a matter for further political argument. (Paragraph 88)

16.  Under the Government's current proposals, however, the Boundary Commission for Wales could find that it is significantly more limited in practice in its scope for variation from the electoral quota than the Boundary Commissions for England and Scotland. (Paragraph 89)

17.  We consider it important that the four Boundary Commissions should operate under the same constraints, and that each Commission should therefore have the same degree of flexibility in practice as regards constituency electorate size, to give them the same ability to take account of other relevant factors when drawing up constituency boundaries. Members of the Committee have therefore tabled an amendment to the Bill which would give each part of the United Kingdom a very slightly different electoral quota, to ensure that each of the four Boundary Commissions should retain the ability to vary the number of registered voters in a constituency by a full 5% in either direction. (Paragraph 90)

18.  The review the Government is proposing will mean that every prospective parliamentary candidate, current Members of the House included, will not know until eighteen months before a general election in 2015 what the boundaries will be of the constituency they intend to contest, or if indeed they will have a constituency to contest. It is also not clear whether political parties have the necessary resources and resilience at a local level to adapt successfully within this timeframe to contesting new constituencies across the whole of the country. (Paragraph 92)

19.  We recommend that the Government and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should consider the impact of the proposals on the ability of individual Members of Parliament to perform their duties effectively when deciding upon individual Member resource allocation. (Paragraph 93)

20.  We recommend that the Government should assess thoroughly the likely impact of the provisions on party-political organisation, particularly at a local level, and explain what steps it intends to take in migitation before the Bill is sent to the House of Lords. (Paragraph 94)

21.  One possible way in which the impact of the measures could be made less stark would be to provide for a more gradual approach to the reduction in the number of constituencies and to the equalisation of their size than the current proposals intend, over a series of boundary reviews rather than over a single review. (Paragraph 95)

22.  We acknowledge the grounds for making exceptions from the electoral quota requirement for the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar on the grounds of practicality. This will mean, however, that votes cast in these constituencies will have a proportionately much greater weight than votes elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (Paragraph 98)

23.  The House may wish to consider further exceptions for parts of the United Kingdom where it is the wish of voters (expressed, for instance, through petitions) to be under-represented in Parliament, for reasons of strong local ties. (Paragraph 99)

24.  If the first boundary review under the Bill is to be completed in good time for a general election in May 2015, as the Government wishes, there seems to be little option but to use data from this year's electoral roll, to be finalised in December 2010, as the basis for drawing up new constituency boundaries. This data is certain to be incomplete and inaccurate, and the extent to which this is the case will vary across the country, potentially with political repercussions. It is for individual Members to judge whether the flaws in this data are such as to undermine the principle of equalisation that the Government claims motivates its proposals. (Paragraph 113)

25.  It would be desirable to identify a system whereby those eligible to vote could be automatically registered, and only removed from the register at their request. (Paragraph 114)

26.  We ask the House to consider whether our proposal would increase the perceived legitimacy of the Boundary Commissions' decisions, and reduce the likelihood of local frustration and the possibility of legal challenge to the Commissions' recommendations. (Paragraph 119)

27.  Members of the Committee have therefore tabled an amendment, which is intended to improve the quality of the consultation. This amendment would allow people to make representations to the Boundary Commissions on proposed constituencies other than the one in which they live and to provide for information on the number of electors within sub-ward divisions of constituencies to be made available on a nationwide basis. We commend the amendment to the House. (Paragraph 130)

28.  We welcome the retention of the Boundary Commissions' power to appoint an independent Assistant Commissioner to consider written representations. The changes in the consultation process are likely to lead to written representations that are longer and more complex. Appointing an Assistant Commissioner will allow the Boundary Commissions to obtain independent, expert advice which will enhance the transparency and legitimacy of the process while giving them flexibility in their resourcing. (Paragraph 132)

29.  The House may wish to consider whether the Bill should be amended so that it makes clear that only written representations will be received by the Boundary Commissions, subject to the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The abolition of public inquiries is a hugely significant change in the process of boundary setting. Clarity in the changes to that process is vital if the consultation process is to be meaningful and so enhance the legitimacy of the Boundary Commissions' decisions. (Paragraph 134)

30.  Notwithstanding the Government's commitment to use the power to make modifications when implementing the reports of the Boundary Commissions only in response to mistakes that can be corrected in no other way, we believe that the power of the Executive to depart from the recommendations of an independent statutory body should have clear statutory limits to prevent abuse for partisan advantage. We recommend that the House should consider amending clause 8(6) to limit the Secretary of State's power to modify the implementation of a Boundary Commission's recommendations only to situations where this is with the agreement of the Boundary Commission in question. Members of the Committee have tabled an amendment to this effect, and we commend it to the House. (Paragraph 139)

31.  It is self-evident that a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will increase the dominance of the Executive over Parliament if the number of Ministers sitting and voting in the House is not correspondingly reduced. This is a matter of constitutional importance that goes to the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the House. That the Government claims that no progress can be made on this issue because no conclusion has yet been reached on the overall size and nature of government is ironic at best and hypocritical at worst, given the Government's readiness to reduce at haste the number of Members in one House without consideration of the number of Members there should be in the other. Members of the Committee have put their names to an amendment to link the size of the House with the number of Ministers allowed to sit and vote in it, and we commend this amendment strongly to the House. (Paragraph 145)

Conclusion

32.  In an ideal world, reforms such as those proposed in the Bill would be brought forward on a cross-party basis. This is what the Government is attempting in its reform of the House of Lords and of party political finance. Given the partisan impact of some of the measures in the Bill, albeit that there may be principled reasons for introducing them, party political consensus was perhaps never going to be achieved in this case. Nonetheless, by not attempting to reach a consensus on its boundary reform proposals, the Government has strengthened the argument of those who claim that it is bringing forward the Bill for partisan motives, and made it more likely that future Governments of different political complexions may feel emboldened to bring forward other measures to their own political advantage without the benefit of cross-party support. (Paragraph 146)

33.  Given that both of the parts of the Bill would significantly affect how voters are represented in Parliament, it is also worth asking why voters are being offered the opportunity to go to the polls in a referendum only on reform of the voting system, but not also on reform of constituency boundaries. If, as the Government claims, equalisation is to the benefit of voters, they would surely support the proposal if it was put to them directly. (Paragraph 147)


 
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