18 May 2007 : Column 399

House of Lords

Friday, 18 May 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill [HL]

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It is interesting that today, in both Houses of Parliament, there are debates on the internal matters of Parliament but which will have wide repercussive effects outside. The Bill after mine, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raises the question of one aspect of the composition of this House. My Bill would reduce the size of the House of Commons by 10 per cent. The Bill being debated in the other House today would exclude Members of Parliament and Peers from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, which I regard as a scandalous proposal. I am amazed that the Government are neutral on that. When the wider public get to know what the House of Commons is up to today, they may think that my proposed reduction of 10 per cent is a little modest.

The other thing happening this week is that representatives of the major political parties—the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal party—are meeting each other and Sir Hayden Phillips to discuss the question of funding of political parties.

As the House will probably recall, Sir Hayden Phillips produced a report earlier this year entitled Strengthening Democracy: Fair and Sustainable Funding of Political Parties. In his preface, he makes the point very strongly:

especially in the light of the cash-for-honours inquiry. In that paper, he asks the state to provide between £20 million and £25 million a year in state funding for political parties. He proposes two schemes: a scheme whereby each of the main parties would get £5 for each vote cast in the previous general election and, similarly, £5 for each vote for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. His second proposal is a scheme to encourage new membership of political parties whereby, if a new subscriber donates £5, the state will match it with £5. Sorry, the first sum was 50p per elector, not £5—50p for an elector; £5 for a donation. I see that the Liberals were hoping that it might be £5, but it is only 50p. There is a cap on that of £5 million.

That is a significant move. That would be the first substantial funding of political parties by the taxpayer. When that is proposed, it is not inappropriate that the political parties should be asked to find ways to meet that expenditure, as opposed to imposing another burden on the taxpayer. My Bill would reduce the size of the House of Commons. That is not a particularly new issue. It has come up several times in the history of the House of Commons at various stages when it has developed its membership. There was a debate in the previous Parliament in the House of Commons moved by a Liberal Member, advocating limiting the size of the House of Commons to 500. I do not know whether that is still the policy of the Liberal party.

Lord Rennard: It is, my Lords.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, that is a step forward, a little edge my way. Andrew Tyrie, a mainstream Conservative Member of Parliament—that means that he is not a right-wing zealot—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I am told that we have a few. He produced a document entitled Pruning the Politicians, in which he advocated a 20 per cent reduction in the size of the House of Commons. In essence, that means that its size would fall from 646 to 581. I will deal with the detail of that in a moment, but perhaps I may say first that I have had help in drafting the Bill from the Public Bill Office. Electoral legislation is a rather arcane matter and my Bill is based on existing legislation. I have had help from Thomas Elias and Nick Besly. I thank them very much for that. We are very lucky in this House to have such a good Public Bill Office. In my experience, it is as good as, or indeed better than, that in the House of Commons.

The history of membership of the House of Commons is that before the Act of Union of 1707, there were 513 Members of Parliament for England and Wales. Forty-five were added at the Act of Union. It was recognised at that stage that, in relation to the population of Scotland, that was an over-representation. That increased the number to 558. It remained at that until Pitt’s disastrous Act of Union, which abolished Grattan’s Parliament in 1800, when 100 Members were added for Ireland, a significant over-representation for Ireland. That increased the number to 658. It remained at about that level for quite some time. In 1885, 12 more were added. When southern Ireland became independent, Northern Ireland received 12 Members, but they did not take away 88; they took away only 55.

One reason why it was still a largely over-represented House was that, in 1917, there was a Speaker's Conference. There were no minutes, so no one actually knew what had happened until the final outcome, but it discussed the question of limiting the membership to 500 and created the situation we are now experiencing, because it said that there should be an average electorate of 70,000. That meant that as the population rose in each of the countries there would be an automatic ratch-up of the number. In 1968, when I first entered the House of Commons, it was smaller than it is now.

My proposal would also equalise the size of electorate constituencies throughout the United Kingdom, which is only fair, but very radical. The average electorate size of a constituency is 68,736, but there is a great variation between the constituent parts of the UK. The English average is 70,231; Scotland is next, largely as a result of the reduction of seats in the previous Parliament, at 65,444; the Northern Ireland average is 64,078; and the figure for Wales is 55,920, so Wales is significantly over-represented in the House of Commons.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Lord Baker of Dorking: It is, my Lords. There are 14,300 more electors in an English seat than in a Welsh seat. That is over-representation by any definition of the word. I am sorry—I was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, but I have to recognise that Wales is over-represented. An average size of constituent electorate for all the United Kingdom would be 76,000 per constituency, which would have the following effect: under a general reduction to 581 MPs, England would have 486, 43 fewer than now; Wales would have 29, 11 fewer; Scotland would have 51, 8 fewer; and Northern Ireland would have 15, three fewer. All countries would lose some seats, but they would be a standard electorate size, which is only just and fair. Votes are worth the same wherever they are throughout the United Kingdom. It has always been said that we should overcompensate for Wales and Scotland. I do not think that that is fair, and there is always the issue of very large constituencies. One MP in Western Australia represents a constituency which is the size of the whole of western Europe, although I am not suggesting anything quite so radical for Scotland.

I believe that this is a sensible suggestion. It was put forward in 1988 by Roy Jenkins in his report, which is still revered somewhere in the Liberal party, on electoral reform; namely, that there should be a single electoral quota, 76,000. The comparison with the size of other constituencies around the world is interesting. The United Kingdom, with a population of 60 million people, has 646 MPs; Germany, with a population of 82 million, has 600; Japan, with a population of 127 million—twice the size of ours—has only 470; Russia, with a population of 144 million, has 450; and America, with a population of 293 million, has 430 Congressmen. By any standard internationally we are massively over-represented.

I hope that this Bill will be a constructive contribution to the debate and the major national review that the Boundary Commission has asked for. A review is well overdue because the last one was in 1944 and it was based very much on the 1917 arrangements.

The average cost of a Member of Parliament is £489,000, which covers virtually everything. Multiplying the cost of 65 MPs would give £32 million in savings, but that is not a fair figure because, although some of the fixed overheads could be reduced, some could not. The savings would probably be about £20 million, which happens to match the state funding that the parties are talking about. The cost of our democratic process is interesting. The whole cost of our democratic process—everything—including the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, us and others, and all the business of elections, has doubled in the lifetime of this Government. I do not think that this figure will feature very highly in the legacy, but it is £1.3 billion, a huge sum of money.

I was very interested to see that the basic salary of an MP is now £60,675. In a recent survey in the HouseMagazine, 61 per cent indicated that they want more. MPs’ claims for expenses average at £134,000 a year. When I first joined the House of Commons in 1968, we were given 1,000 free sheets of paper a year. I see the noble Lord, Lord Richard, nodding—he might have joined when we were given only 500 sheets. One had to buy any sheets more than the 1,000. There was no free postage. Yet one MP last year spent £25,146 on postage: his constituents are very fed up getting letters from him. There was only one free telephone call, which was to your town clerk. You went to a little office with telephones where two old, retired soldiers in brown coats collected money from you for your telephone calls. Of course, we had no offices; we sat on benches. There is a huge difference. On top of that, the House of Commons this year has voted each Member of Parliament £10,000 extra in order to communicate with constituents. That is a payment to incumbents to protect their incumbency.

While the reform of the House of Lords is, as it were, at the top of the agenda and everyone has views of one sort or another on that, although we are expecting the Government’s proposals, it is quite appropriate for us to say that it is time that one should think of reforming the House of Commons as well. Its procedures should be reformed. The former Speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, made a speech on that only the other day. She said that the House of Commons we knew is about to disappear. We are getting Bills up here with 40 pages undebated; the guillotine has become routine. But that is the procedure of the House of Commons and it must sort it out. However, the size of the House of Commons is a matter on which we can legitimately have a view and I hope that this will be a helpful and constructive contribution to the debate.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, does my noble friend not feel that this is a rather modest proposal considering that so many powers of the House of Commons have been removed to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and so forth? I should think that 300 Members of the House of Commons would be a better idea.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I do not think that that is a view that the noble Lord shared when he was a Member of the House of Commons. I say only that I am open to offers and we can always improve on the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Baker of Dorking.)

11.20 am

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend’s Bill. He is to be congratulated on his initiative in bringing it forward. I wish to address the two principal changes it seeks to achieve. The first is a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies. As my noble friend has explained, we are unusual in this country in the number of seats that we have in the House of Commons. By international standards, the House is extremely large. Countries such as India and the United States, with far larger populations, have smaller first Chambers. As my noble friend has touched on, there was actually a much bigger House in the early part of the 20th century when Ireland was still part of the Union; the number of seats then stood at over 700. But even with 646 seats, the House of Commons remains an extremely large elected assembly, too large in the eyes of some, including my noble friend.

As my noble friend has mentioned, several bodies have looked at the issue of the size of the House of Commons. These have included the Conservative Party’s Commission to Strengthen Parliament, which reported in 2000. I chaired the commission. Other members included my noble friends Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Waldegrave. In taking evidence, we were struck by the number of witnesses who recommended a reduction in the size of the House of Commons. We concluded that the argument for reducing the size of the House was compelling. We accepted that the other place would be able to fulfil its functions more effectively if the emphasis moved from a large House to a smaller one with better resourced Members. We noted that the number of MPs put a strain on existing resources. The House of Commons is under great strain because of the demands increasingly placed on it. I have variously argued that the Members are both part of the solution and part of the problem. They are great absorbers of resources and utilise the opportunities available, such as to table Questions, to their full extent, making it difficult for the House to cope. The commission made various recommendations to strengthen MPs in the delivery of constituency services. With such changes we believed it would be possible for MPs to cope with a larger number of constituents.

We also contended that there may be a beneficial impact on relations between Members and their constituents. Though it may seem counterintuitive, large constituencies may facilitate a closer long-term relationship between Members and constituents, in that less radical changes would be required to constituency boundaries to take account of demographic changes. That, of course, relates to the other part of my noble friend’s Bill. We also argued that a reduction would make for a far more efficient House as well as having political and, as my noble friend has touched on, financial benefits. I quote from page 58 of the report:

We advanced a large number of proposals and this recommendation has to be seen, as my noble friend has alluded to, in the wider context of strengthening Parliament in calling government to account. It really should be seen as constituting part of a wider package. We therefore favoured a reduction in the size of the House.

However, we did not recommend an immediate reduction. We saw considerable merit in the proposal put forward by Viscount Cranborne, now the Marquess of Salisbury, in his Parliamentary Government Bill. Under his Bill, there would be a House of 525 Members for the first general election held after 1 January 2010 and one of 400 for the first election after 1 January 2020. I do not want to get bogged down in specific numbers. I am less concerned with whether it should be the 525 figure embodied in the Parliamentary Government Bill or the figure of 581 proposed in the Bill presently before us than I am with the principle. There is a powerful case for reducing the size of the House, and for reducing it on a staggered basis. My noble friend’s Bill does not provide for a staggered reduction—he goes for the “big bang” approach, but retaining a fairly large House. I would favour reducing the size over time to well under the figure embodied in the Bill. It has already been argued that my noble friend is being too modest in the figure that he sets.

Reducing the number over time may also facilitate the acceptance by the House of Commons of a reduction in the size of the House. Members may not rush to cut their constituencies from under them, but if it was over a longer term, a reduction may prove acceptable. I therefore put that thought before my noble friend.

There is one other necessary corollary to my noble friend’s proposal. If the size of the House of Commons is to be reduced, there also needs to be a reduction in the number of Ministers. If the number of MPs declines while the number of Ministers remains constant, then the grip of the Government on the House becomes proportionally greater. The payroll vote becomes more significant. The payroll vote, as we know, has already grown, largely by extension to people who are not paid and are not formally part of government, and we should not be doing anything that encourages that process. I appreciate that Ministers are extremely busy people, but, in evidence to the commission, Frank Field argued that the amount of work increased to occupy the time made available to Ministers. We recommended putting a cap of 20 on the size of the Cabinet and a cap of 50 on the number of junior Ministers, excluding Whips. The total number of Whips in the two Houses, we recommended, should be no more than 20. There is thus a case for going beyond the provisions of this Bill to limit the number of Ministers and to ensure that the Government do not benefit from a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies.

I turn briefly to the other part of my noble friend’s Bill. The existing rules for the distribution of seats, as provided for in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, embody two somewhat contrasting principles: to try to achieve equality in the number of constituents in each constituency and to ensure that, as far as possible, constituency boundaries respect existing local authority boundaries. The latter has created problems in achieving the former, with the result that there have been significant variations from the electoral quota, sometimes up to and beyond 20 per cent. Existing Rule 5 gives the Boundary Commissioners tremendous latitude, in that they are required to ensure that the size of each constituency is as near to the electoral quota “as is practical”, but leaving them to decide what is practical. The existing rules also allow for—indeed, if anything, encourage—creeping increases in the number of constituencies, a point alluded to by my noble friend.

My noble friend’s proposal restricts their scope and imposes a clear limit on how much deviation there may be from the electoral quota. I appreciate the arguments that may be deployed by the Minister in relation to this provision, but I think that my noble friend is making an extremely important point. As things stand, there is a marked imbalance in constituency sizes, and that imbalance works against county constituencies to the benefit of borough constituencies. That imbalance contributes, but I appreciate is not the sole contribution, to a political bias in the electoral system. Ensuring that constituencies are more equal in size than is the case under our existing arrangements will go some way, but only some way, to addressing that bias. An essential element of equity is involved and that has to be addressed.

The Bill also addresses other problems associated with the existing rules. However, I raise one problem with the current procedure which, as far as I can see, is not addressed by the Bill. At the moment, the enumeration date is the commencement of the Boundary Commission’s review. The differences between the size of constituency electorates at the beginning of a review may be very different from those at the end of the review period. As I read it, the Bill retains the existing enumeration date. There may be a case for stipulating that the commission utilise the most recent electoral register available, or at least enabling it to utilise more up-to-date data.

There is a relationship between the two parts of the Bill. Each is justifiable on its own merits, but each also complements the other. By bringing it forward, my noble friend has raised extremely important issues. As I have indicated, I am not necessarily wedded to the particular detail; that is something we can pursue in Committee. I am very happy to commend the principle of the Bill and I congratulate my noble friend on having brought it before us.

11.29 am

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly in the gap to give a traditional and perhaps rather more constitutional view than that of the radicals opposite. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has never actually been in the other place, although he is a great expert on it. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, was in the other place, but that was some time ago. I think that that is part of the problem. Both noble Lords are somewhat out of touch with how the other place lives, moves and has its being. Having come more recently from the other place, I am certain of one thing—that the immediate response there would be, “What impertinence! Who are they, who are not elected, to seek to interfere with our own House of Commons and tell us what to do?”. It is a great weakness and both noble Lords are vulnerable on this point. I am confident that the other place would have a strong view, not particularly on the merits of the issue but on the fact that it has been raised here.

I concede that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has a remarkable track record: some months ago he raised the issue of English questions being decided by English Members. I note that the Leader of the Opposition has apparently accepted that and it is about to become the Conservative Party’s official policy. Perhaps these proposals will follow in the same way. The noble Lord has clearly been reading that famous American book, “How to influence people without making friends”. I am quite sure that he will be unmaking very many friends along the Corridor.

There is an arithmetic logic in what the noble Lord is saying about a reduction and about constituencies of equal size—one person, one vote and one value. However, when making the point about our system being over-representative and not valid, he referred to Germany and the size of the Bundestag. He failed to note that Germany has a federal system and that, combining the number of people elected to the various Lander and to the Bundestag, there are more elected representatives in that system than in our own.

Our democracy has the real merit of easy access to Members. There is an impeccable logic to the fact that the fewer Members there are, the more difficult it is to have that sort of personal relationship. The noble Lord mentioned that the Welsh quota is now 56,000; in my old constituency, it was 59,000. It was a tightly-knit urban constituency. I could almost, with some effort, walk from one end of the constituency to the other, and I cycled it from time to time. I liked to think that whenever I walked, I could meet and greet many individuals. That would be wholly impossible in a much larger constituency. I concede that it is much more difficult to carry on the role of a Member in constituencies such as Caithness and Sutherland, for example, where there are more sheep than people.

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