Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

My first point is that the Bill is an inappropriate one for this House. Secondly, I believe that we would lose something of substance by adopting it. Finally, I note that much has been said about the current costs. However, these are the costs of democracy. The costs of this House and of the other place are a minuscule part of total public costs, and the two Houses do something of importance. The Bill offers a piecemeal approach. If we are to have reform, then it can be discussed in a kite-flying exercise such as this one. However, it should be considered in the round and not piece by piece as it is here.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has missed the point that small constituencies and shifting boundaries mean that MPs often do not have the same constituents over a period of time—and that impertinence can work both ways. This is a public general measure and, therefore, each House is entitled to discuss the matter.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, in principle, each House is entitled to discuss it. The key point is that it is for the other place to have the primary role in dealing with its own matters.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as my noble friend is speaking in the gap, he is restricted to four minutes. He has already had them. If he is to reply to interventions now, we will be breaking every convention of the House.

11.34 pm

Lord Rennard: My Lords, the Bill has a very worthy aim: reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons. That would certainly have popular appeal, a point which was easily and effectively made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I wonder whether it would be as easy to argue in this place for a reduction in the number of Peers of the Realm as it has been to say that there should be fewer Members of Parliament. The Bill’s greater significance lies in its proposal to equalise the size of electorates between constituencies. On the face of it, that seems a worthy and proper aim. There is clear unfairness in the present distribution of seats. However, it ignores other unfairness in our electoral system. Other issues and problems must be addressed if we are to change the way in which the Boundary Commission works.

It is clearly unfair that there are different numbers of voters in different constituencies. The Isle of Wight has 109,000 electors and one Member of Parliament, while the Western Isles has 22,000 voters and one Member of Parliament. That shows the problem. The Conservative Party has recently been concerned about unequal constituency sizes only because it wins far fewer seats as a result. The smaller seats tend to be Labour and the larger ones Conservative.

The Bill fundamentally fails to address a far bigger problem: although we are supposed to have a democratic system for electing the House of Commons, a party with just 35 per cent of the vote wins 55 per cent of the seats. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to the way in which Wales is over-represented in the House of Commons. Surely the democratic point is that a minority of little more than one-third of voters should not have such a majority in that House. That is the real unfairness.

On polling day in May 2005, during the last general election, 26,895 votes were required to elect a Labour Member of Parliament; 44,531 votes to elect a Conservative Member of Parliament; and 96,487 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. Surely that is the greater unfairness and should be addressed. If one accepts the basic premises that a voting system should deliver the representatives that people vote for and that votes should be of equal value, then the system outlined in the Bill clearly fails the fundamental tests of fairness and democracy.

I accept that there is a case for saying that Members of Parliament should represent equal numbers of constituents. However, surely it is much more important for Members of Parliament to be elected in approximate proportion to the votes cast than it is simply to tinker with a fundamentally flawed electoral system. In 1951, and again in February 1974, the governing party won the most votes in the country but won fewer seats than its major rival. It therefore lost an election that it had actually won by achieving more votes, and it therefore went into opposition. That cannot be fair or democratic. It is estimatedthat if an identical number of votes had been cast for the Labour and Conservative Parties in 2005, the outcome, because of our electoral system, would have been 336 seats for Labour and 222 for the Conservatives.

The recent Boundary Commission review may very marginally reduce this bias in the system. However, estimates suggest that the new boundaries may add about seven Conservative MPs, remove about six Labour MPs and increase the number of Liberal Democrat MPs by three. It is certainly possible mathematically that the Conservative Party could win more votes than Labour at the next general election but win fewer seats. The Bill does not address that democratic deficit. The answer to the problem is not to tinker with an unfair system, but to reform it entirely.

There are a number of technical problems in trying to reduce the size of the seats or to make them more equal in size of electorate. The population in some areas can change quite rapidly. The reviews required to equalise the numbers of electors as outlined in the Bill would have to be done more rapidly than those for general elections. Many constituencies would not exist for more than one election and there would be reviews between elections, leading to continuous uncertainty about what boundaries the forthcoming election would be fought on. There would be knock-on consequences of these population shifts; uncertainty over what boundaries existed may affect not just one area, where there may be a rapid increase or decrease of population, but all the neighbouring areas for a considerable distance.

While I am not a fan of the existing electoral system, part of the principle is that there is clear linkage with recognisable communities. If the seats are equalised in the way proposed, that linkage would be broken.

It helps elected representatives if ward and constituency boundaries are properly aligned. That would cease to be the case if we went in for equalisation in this way as wards and perhaps even polling districts would need to be split between different constituencies to get the same number of electors into each of them.

The current process with the Boundary Commission reviews is most unsatisfactory. Many of the claims made at public inquiries on the process are, to say the least, dubious. However, I believe that more frequent reviews of the boundaries will mean that the integrity of the system will degenerate even further. They tried in the United States to equalise the size of the constituencies. That leads to very frequent gerrymandering, as the requirement of making the size of the electorates equal is paramount.

It is more fundamental reform of the system that is required, not this Bill.

11.41 am

Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to respond to this debate on behalf of the Opposition, the more so as it has been introduced by my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, for which I thank him. He was a very distinguished member of successive Conservative Governments who has, since coming here, kept your Lordships constantly stimulated by his tough-minded and softly and seductively advanced proposals on a range of topics. He has established himself here as one of the most dignified parts of one of the most dignified parts of our constitution just at a time, sadly, when the other place has sunk further into supine dependency on an all-powerful Executive and veers daily between a talking shop and a shouting match. Surely if any part of Parliament is in urgent need of reform, it is the other place. Until recently, that was a truth that dared not be uttered, but it is now increasingly voiced, not least by distinguished Members of the other place on both sides.

It is right that my noble friend should bring his experience to this debate. Indeed, he recently led a fascinating discussion on his Bill to address the glaring constitutional imbalances resulting from the Scotland Act. To the West Lothian question, there came a Baker reply. Now, to part of the Westminster question, there comes a Baker reply, although I cannot agree with relating state assistance to political parties with the number of Members of Parliament. There is a serious point of principle in forcing the taxpayer to pay for political parties, which is a separate issue.

The fact that it is left to my noble friend to initiate this debate is indicative of the complacency—some might say political cynicism and opportunism—with which the Government have ignored these issues. The present arrangements suit them very nicely, thank you. We now have a new Prime Minister-designate, chosen unopposed by the governing party, with no reference to the British people.

We have come a long way since the days up to 1926, when many a new Minister used to have to resign and seek re-election on joining the Government. There is nothing constitutionally improper in these changes, but I know that all noble Lords will look with particular interest at the Minister’s reply, knowing that it will have been cleared by the Prime Minister-designate, a man who has spoken of working to increase the respect for Parliament. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that, in the context of that work, the ideas of my noble friend will be carefully considered.

I know my noble friend will agree with me when I say it is for Government, drawing on as wide a consensus as possible, to consider these sorts of reforms. It is not appropriate for a significant constitutional change to be effected by a Private Member’s Bill. For that reason, we will not be supporting the Bill if anyone seeks to divide the House. But I hope that no one will do so, for my noble friend touches on an area that is crying out for consideration and one which my right honourable friend Mr Kenneth Clarke is to examine in his Democracy Task Force.

My noble friend is of course right in the core contention of his Bill. There are too many politicians in this country; their numbers, rewards and overall cost have been greatly increased since 1997. Within that emerging continental-style political class—a detestable concept, if I may say so—is a larger House of Commons. In 1922, after the creation of the Irish Free State, there were just 615 Members of Parliament. In 2001, we had 659. Now, even following Scottish devolution, we have 646.

In 1901, when the Prime Minister spoke as a marquis from the Dispatch Box on the other side of this House, with the authority of 20 years in ministerial office and 14 as Prime Minister, and to the widest international and parliamentary respect, 591 Peers were eligible to take part in your Lordships’ House. In 1999, there were 1,211 of us. Our numbers were reduced to 666—a portentous number—by the purge of 1999, but the Prime Minister’s gay abandon in the exercise of patronage has increased our numbers to 738 today. Is the country better governed because Parliament is larger? I doubt it. Quantity and quality are never wisely confused.

There is certainly a case to reduce the size of the other place, and my party has indicated that it wishes to explore that course. In discussion, Mr Clarke’s Democracy Task Force has given an indicative figure of 10 per cent, which would reduce the numbers in the other place to the level suggested by the Bill. But there is no firm commitment to that figure—indeed, at the previous election, the Conservatives called for a House of Commons of 525 Members of Parliament.

There is a great deal of sympathy from these Benches for the arguments advanced by my noble friend in his Bill. However the findings of Mr Clarke’s task force and the many contributions to these discussions, not least those made in the course of this debate, should be awaited before settling on a definite figure or the right timescale for change.

My noble friend should be encouraged to keep pushing at the door—he will not discover the Conservative Party piling up chairs on the other side. Let me also make it clear that those on these Benches agree with the broad premise of the second major element of the Bill that the size of the constituency which elects an individual MP should be more nearly equalised. People of all parties, except for the one that most flagrantly profits from it—the Labour Party—comment regularly about this inherent unfairness in the electoral system. How frequently do we hear polling pundits, without batting an eyelid, pontificate on the number of percentage points of lead that the Conservative Party would need to secure a bare majority over Labour because of the tendency of urban constituencies to be smaller? One answer would be for the Conservative Party to step up the pace of its march back into our cities which, with Birmingham under Conservative control and Plymouth coming under it, we are now doing.

But changing party control does not redress imbalances in the system. Famously, in the 1997 election, it took nearly 60,000 voters to elect a Conservative MP and just over 32,000 to elect a Labour one. Only in the great Conservative victory of 1992, when our party won the largest popular vote ever recorded and were 2.5 million votes ahead of Labour, were the figures about equal on 42,000 votes per Member.

The Liberal Democrats, when banging on about proportional representation, should recall that, with proportional representation, they would have lost seats in 1997 rather than gaining 26 as they did.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, the noble Lord has the figures for 1997 completely the wrong way round. On the basis of our share of the vote in the 1997 general election, there would have been 100 Liberal Democrat MPs fairly representing the people who had voted throughout the country rather than the 46 who were actually elected.

Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, I beg to disagree with the noble Lord, but I will move on.

Proportional representation is an irrelevant canard in this debate, as in any other. Proportional representation stands for permanent representation in government for the least popular party and that is why the Liberal Democrats like it. If they wish to form a government, they need to make themselves a serious party of opposition, not just an ineffective party of opportunism, divided down the middle between warring philosophies. No Bill will solve the basic problem for the Liberal Democrats.

The size of constituencies is not the whole answer but it is part of it. Currently, the average Labour seat has 6,000 voters fewer than a Conservative one. Greater equality in the size of constituencies would certainly deliver greater fairness between the two main parties of government, between cities and the shires and between the public in every region of this land. It would enhance respect for the first-past-the-post system that serves this country so well in delivering stable governance.

My noble friend is quite right to bring this question before the House. If anything, his latitude of 10 per cent in the potential variation between constituencies may be too large. But the historic boundaries of counties, boroughs and local authorities must be respected and I am sure that my right honourable friend Mr Clarke will take these views into account in his task force.

With thanks to my noble friend for bringing this issue before us and highlighting these major questions, I will yield place to the Minister. The House will be a agog to hear evidence from her about the new attitude to Commons reform from a new listening, reforming, pro-Parliament Prime Minister designate and I am confident that she will not disappoint us.

11.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, my right honourable friend has all of the attributes that the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, has given him. He is an extraordinary character who will be a truly great Prime Minister. However, I will disappoint the noble Lord by saying that my right honourable friend has not the faintest idea what I am about to say because I write my speech as I listen to noble Lords in order to respond properly. I believe that my right honourable friend will be pleased with what I have to say. We shall see.

I agree that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is indeed seductive in many ways, and I am delighted to be able to respond to this debate. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, that a greater man than I would take on the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on any figures relating to the share of Liberal Democrat votes in any constituency or general election. I was impressed that he did so, but I do not intend to because I know far too well the reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in those matters. I agree about polling pundits. What can I say about their behaviour at all times?

I am the Minister responsible for freedom of information, so I am watching with great interest the range of votes taking place in another place. As a Government, we have taken a neutral stance on this matter. Noble Lords referred a couple of times in our debate to the Executive being overbearing in terms of the Commons. On matters that affect the Houses of Parliament, it is for the Houses of Parliament to decide. That is why the government stance is as it is. Noble Lords may disagree with that but that is as it is. However, I am proud to be the Minister responsible for freedom of information and proud that the Government have introduced the Act.

Noble Lords made a number of key points relating to the issues raised, to such great effect, by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I will begin with those to do with cost. We can play around with figures, but I agree with the noble Lord’s. My figures for the costs of moving to a different size are between £163 million and £146.5 million. I believe the noble Lord said about £20 million difference, bearing in mind overheads and costs. I came to the same conclusion having done the arithmetic—or rather having got other people to the sums for me, which I then looked at. We often disagree about figures in your Lordships' House, but his figures were about right.

The noble Lord also mentioned Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The electoral quota figures for England and Scotland are essentially now the same—at 69,935 and 69,934, they are almost identical. Indeed, that is larger than the equivalent figure for Wales at 55,640 and Northern Ireland at 60,969. But there are deep-seated reasons for that, to which the noble Lord referred. The current disparity reflects the particular nature of the devolution settlement in each part of the UK. There is parity with Scotland because it has primary legislation-making powers in many policy areas. The electoral quotas are smaller in Wales and Northern Ireland as they do not have the constitutional powers to make primary legislation for themselves. They have been deliberately provided for and protected by successive governments, so that the distinctive interests of Wales and Northern Ireland can be properly represented. We would have to take those issues into account before we even considered disturbing what has been a long-standing tradition that successive Governments have respected. We would need to think very carefully about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, asked questions that other noble Lords picked up about the disparity between electoral sizes and constituencies. My figure for the Isle of Wight is 103,000. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said 109,000. I am not going there; I am just saying that the figures are different. The smallest constituency is the Western Isles at 22,000. That is a huge disparity, but noble Lords know perfectly well why that disparity exists—because the Isle of Wight is an island and because of the particular nature of the Western Isles.

If we look more generally at constituencies in England, there is a much smaller differential. As a result of the fifth general review, every recommended constituency is within 20 per cent of the electoral quota figure, which is essentially the average electorate. I am looking to see whether the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is shaking his head in case I have got that wrong. Eighty-nine per cent of constituencies are within 10 per cent of that figure.

However, I have my own view which is to do with the issues of community. I speak from my experience working in the health service, when I tried to work out where communities naturally lay in order to provide appropriate secondary and acute services in hospitals. It is important to recognise the way in which our communities grow up and to take that into account when thinking about representation from local MPs. There is a real issue about making sure that local MPs stay in touch with their constituencies. I was interested when the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said that in the longer term, it may not be a problem. That is part of this debate and should to be fed into where this debate goes next. It is counterintuitive, as the noble Lord said. If we continue on the same basis with our parliamentary democracy and the role of the MP, we must not lose that, because it would be a great pity.

Certainly, talking to MPs as I frequently do, their case work is increasing because people find them more accessible. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, talked about a time when we did not have a Welsh Assembly, a Northern Ireland Assembly or Scottish Parliament, when MPs did not communicate as often. But the level of communication, particularly with email, has increased and it is important to accept and recognise that communication between MPs and their constituents is a fundamental part of the job that they undertake.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Noble Lords will know that in January the committee reported its review of the Electoral Commission; as part of its review, it looked at the operation of parliamentary and local government electoral boundary reviews. In the final report was a recommendation that there should be a fundamental independent review of the legislation on parliamentary boundaries, looking at the rules in Schedule 2—to which the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has particularly drawn attention in his Bill—the criteria that must be taken into account by the Boundary Commissions, and the statutory processes that must be followed in the course of a review. We are considering those recommendations and will formally respond to them, including those that relate to the boundary reviews, in due course.

In conclusion, a large number of issues have been raised. I was particularly interested in whether the proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, would become Conservative Party policy. Maybe it will be a bit like with grammar schools—it will be party policy one day and not the next.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sorry, I could not resist that—I was an Education Minister.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page